BLACK PANTHER (2018)

February 15, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Adaptations of Superheroes, Comic Books, and Graphic Novels have been driving the movie theatre box office for a few years now. Where the financial success of a film was once measured in tens of millions, it’s now hundreds of millions. Beyond that, these enormous productions are pressured to make political and social statements … providing the hope of which real life leaders seem to fail. This latest from Marvel and director Ryan Coogler (CREED, FRUITVALE STATION), carries all of that plus the expectations of an entire gender and race. It’s a heavy burden for a comic book character, however it seems, regardless of one’s perspective, it’s likely the film delivers, satisfies, and … oh yeah … entertains.

The bar has been set so high for action sequences and special effects, that we take the great for granted and only speak up on those that falter. What allows this film to take its place among the best of the genre is a combination of story depth and the payoff for showing us a world we haven’t previously seen. The cultural aspects of the (mythical) African country of Wakanda are not only interesting, but the setting itself is breath-taking. An explosion of color, texture and technology blended with intriguing and multi-dimensional characters bring the film to life and draw us into this wonderland of tradition, culture and humanity.

It seems ridiculous to speak of a comic book film in these terms, but the number of talking points raised during its runtime are too many and too varied to discuss in this format. What we can make clear is that it’s cool to watch an entire movie where people of color and women are strong, confident, and intelligent. Chadwick Boseman has played Thurgood Marshall (MARSHALL), James Brown (GET ON UP), and Jackie Robinson (42), and here he takes on a fictional icon in King T’Challa/Black Panther. He perfectly captures the pensive nature of a King balancing tradition with the needs of his people to evolve and transition. His chief adversary “Killmonger” is played terrifically by Michael B Jordan (CREED, FRUITVALE STATION) as a man out for revenge and power. For most movies this head to head battle would be enough … but not this time.

Lupita Nyong’o (Oscar winner for 12 YEARS A SLAVE), Danai Gurira (“The Walking Dead”), and relative newcomer Letitia Wright play Nakia, Okoye, and Shuri respectively; a triumvirate of three of the strongest women you’ve likely ever seen on screen. Nakia is the love interest, but also carrying out her own humanitarian missions, while also proving to be beyond adequate as a soldier. Okoye is the ultimate warrior and absolutely loyal to her country, while Nakia (T’Challa’s sister) is a contemporary version of James Bond’s Q – the ultimate technology whiz, and one with the zippiest zingers. Any of these characters could be the basis for a standalone movie, but together they elevate this to something much more than a couple of dudes in sleek suits fighting.

Martin Freeman (THE HOBBIT), Daniel Kaluuya (GET OUT), Sterling K Brown (“This is Us”), Angela Bassett, and Forest Whitaker are all contributors, and Andy Serkis is a frenzied standout in an all-too-brief turn as Klaue. The strong cast delivers even in the few moments when the script lags. In fact, the only piece of this puzzle that didn’t seem to fit was the traditional hand-to-hand combat to determine the next king. Why is it that a nation so advanced still relies on primitive courses of decision-making?  Perhaps this is merely commentary on our society, though providing a more intellectual solution would have been in line with the rest of the story.

The world of Wakanda is stunning. The costumes are sleek, colorful and fascinating. The characters are multi-dimensional. The action sequences are top notch (armored rhinos!). The cinematographer is Rachel Morrison, who recently made history by being the first woman to receive an Oscar nomination for cinematography (MUDBOUND). It’s these factors that allow Mr. Coogler’s film to achieve the level of importance that most comic book films wouldn’t dare to strive for. On top of everything, it accomplishes the one thing I demand from these type of movies … it’s quite fun to watch!

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12 STRONG (2018)

January 18, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. During the movie, Afghanistan is referred to as “the graveyard of many empires”. Traditionally, January is the graveyard of most new movie releases, so it’s a pleasant surprise when we see an entertaining, well-made and historically interesting film, and it’s still mid-January!  Doug Stanton’s book “Horse Soldiers” is the source material for director Nicolai Fuglsig’s first feature film, and it’s anything but a disappointment.

The film opens on September 11, 2001 and subjects us, yet again, to those horrific images seared into the minds of anyone alive on that day. What most of us didn’t know, was that about a month later, a team of U.S. Army Special Forces (the Green Berets) were being dropped into the rough and mostly unfriendly terrain of Afghanistan. This ridiculously courageous team of 12 men had one mission: secure Mazar-i-Sharif to prevent a takeover by the Taliban.

An early scene tells us this won’t be the usual blind patriotism we often see on screen. One of the soldiers, Hal Spencer (Michael Shannon), is told (with a bit of anger) by his wife, “I’ll love you when you get back.” This contrasts to the usual loyal and stiff-upper-lip military wife we see in most war movies. Another wife scrubs the oven rather than snuggle with her man, while yet another coerces a taboo pledge to come home to her.

Chris Hemsworth (THOR) plays Captain Mitch Nelson, the intelligent but not-yet-battle-tested leader of a special ops team. The plan is for Nelson and his team to connect with General Dostum, an Afghan War Lord in charge of the Northern Alliance, and fight together to gain control of Mazar. After arriving at a local outpost nicknamed “The Alamo” (34 miles from town), the team gets their first surprise … they must split up and cover the ground on horseback. Filmed in New Mexico, the journey is miserable and filled with danger – an ambush could occur at any moment, or perhaps they are being set-up by those they have been ordered to trust.

Horseback riding, caves, the weather, and the elements of the terrain are all challenges, but none of it compares to facing the Taliban forces which number in the thousands, and feature tanks, rocket launchers and an endless supply of weaponry. Director Fuglsig utilizes a “Days in Country” counter so that we can get some semblance of time and ongoing misery being fought through by the Americans. But no day is normal when the soldiers are on horseback while being attacked by tanks. The odds seem unsurmountable.

One of the more fascinating aspects of the story and welcome approaches of the film is back-and-forth between Captain Nelson and General Dostum. Initially, Dostum shows little respect by telling the young officer that he lacks “the eyes of a killer” and isn’t yet a warrior, and he spends a great deal of time lecturing and philosophizing on Nelson’s behalf. Of course, the lessons may be frustrating in the moment, but aren’t lost on Nelson as there is a huge payoff at the peak of the key battle.

The battle scenes come in all sizes – small skirmishes and massive, large scale assaults. Each is intense and dramatic and well-staged, though there are some moments where we shake our head in disbelief. At least we do until we remember that this is a true story, and despite that, it is truly unbelievable.

The supporting cast includes Michael Pena and his snappy punchlines, Trevante Rhodes (MOONLIGHT), William Fichtner with a shaved head, Elsa Pataky – Hemsworth’s real life wife as his screen wife, Taylor Sheridan, Geoff Stults and Jack Kesy. Rob Riggle plays Colonel Max Bowers, who was Riggle’s commanding officer when he served in the Marines. The previously mentioned Michael Shannon is a bit underutilized, but the film’s best moments are those with Hemsworth and Navid Negahban (as General Dostum). You likely recognize Negahban as Abu Nazir from “Homeland”. It’s their exchanges that show how the line between allies and enemies is not always crystal clear – even if they are fighting for the same thing.

Writers Peter Craig (THE TOWN) and Ted Tally (Oscar winner for THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS) do a nice job of character development, and the camaraderie of the 12 men of ODA 595 seems authentic – despite some schmaltzy moments over their 23 days of Task Force Dagger. Early on, we are informed that the most important thing to take to war is “a reason why”, and then towards the end, Dostum explains that the United States is in a no-win situation: we are cowards if we go, and enemies if we stay. It’s chilling commentary on a war that has dragged on much too long … despite the heroic efforts of the 12 horse soldiers.

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THOR: RAGNAROK (2017)

October 30, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. The ultimate cinematic dilemma … how to make the next comic book movie stand out from the (many, many) others? The brilliant answer comes from director Taika Waititi and co-writers Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle and Christopher Yost – a screwball superhero action film that delivers not only the required alien war scenes, but also a campy villain for the ages in a movie that may be the funniest of the year.

For those who prefer their superheroes dark and brooding, this one will be a shock. Prepare for Jeff Goldblum as the Grandmaster – the most polite villain we’ve seen in awhile, and one who looks to be straight out of the 1960’s “Batman” series. Chris Hemsworth as Thor is one of many returning actors/characters, only this time he really gets to flash his comic timing on top of his Thunder God biceps. His love-hate, trust-no trust, see-saw relationship with brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) is in full force, as is the Bruce Banner banter with The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo). It’s certainly more in line with GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY than the previous movies for Avengers.

As much fun as Goldblum brings to the party, this is really Cate Blanchett’s show. She is the frightening (with a dash of camp) Goddess of Death, and long-lost sister of Thor and Loki, and daughter of Odin (Anthony Hopkins). With a headdress that puts everyone at the Kentucky Derby to shame, Hela’s enormous powers are such that she crumbles Thor’s mighty hammer with little effort – just to remind everyone that big sisters are renowned for messing up younger brother’s toys.

Of course, with that title, we know that the story revolves around what could be the end of Asgard. Joining in the fun are: Idris Elba who is back as Heimdall, Tessa Thompson as a master of one-liners Valkyrie, Karl Urban as Skurge – rewarded with a wonderful exit scene, Ray Stevenson returns as Volstagg, and rocky alien Korg who is voiced by director Waititi. Fans of the series will be happy to know other familiar faces pop up periodically – one especially magical sequence teaches Loki a quick lesson.

In addition to the main rescue story line, the powerful villains, and crazy aliens, there are numerous nods and tributes to previous versions (notably Planet Hulk, and Fantastic Four), and a hilarious early stage play with three cameos that make it clear, big time laughter is here to stay. It’s fun to catch the reunions from such previous projects as Star Trek, JURASSIC PARK and Westworld.

Special acknowledgment goes to director Taika Waititi for hilariously taking the comic book film world down a different path. He’s known for his comedic projects like HUNT FOR THE WILDERPEOPLE (one of my favs from 2016), WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS, and his work on the brilliant but short-lived “Flight of the Conchords”. It’s still very much a Marvel movie, with visible fingerprints of Stan Lee, Larry Lieber, and Jack Kirby. It’s also a fantastic adventure film that sets the stage for next year’s AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR, while also featuring the best use ever of Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song”. So get ready to rock, roll and rollick in a film that is just about as much fun as you can have in a theatre.

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BLADE RUNNER 2049 (2017)

October 4, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Ridley Scott’s original film was released in 1982 and based in 2019. The highly anticipated sequel from Denis Villenueve is being released in 2017 and based in 2049. So we have 35 years between films, and 30 years between story settings. Expect that to be the most complicated part of this review since we were mandated by the studio to follow many rules – write this, don’t write that. Such rules would normally be frowned upon (and even ignored by many), but in fact, this film does such a masterful job of paying homage to the first, while enhancing the characters and story, that we are eager for every viewer to experience it with fresh eyes and clear mind … no matter how tempting it is to talk about!

Obviously, the massive fan base that has grown over the years (the original was not an initial box office hit) will be filling the theatres the first weekend – even those who are ambivalent towards, or adamantly against, the idea of a sequel. The big question was whether screenwriters Hampton Fancher (maybe every writer should begin as a flamenco dancer) and Michael Green would be able to create a script that would attract new viewers while honoring the original film and source Philip K Dick novel, “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” The answer is not only a resounding yes, but it’s likely even those who usually shy away from science-fiction may find themselves thoroughly enjoying the nearly 2 hours and 43 minute run time (it doesn’t seem too long).

The cast is deep and perfectly matched, and there are even a few surprises (no spoilers here). Ryan Gosling is fun to watch as the reserved K, an expert Blade Runner who tracks and “retires” old model replicants – the Nexus 8’s have been replaced by the more-controllable Nexus 9’s. An early sequence has K in combat mode against a protein farmer named Morton (played by the massive Dave Bautista). With all that is going on in these few scenes, director Villenueve is training us to lock in and pay attention, lest we miss the key to the rest of the movie and K’s motivation for most everything he does from this point on. Robin Wright plays K’s icy Lieutenant Joshi, who administers “baseline” tests to him after every successful mission – just to make certain he is still under her control.

Jared Leto delivers an understated and mesmerizing performance as the God-like Wallace who not only managed to solve global hunger, but also is a genetic engineer creating new beings. Somehow, this is one of Leto’s most normal roles (which makes quite a statement about his career) and yet his character is so intriguing, it could warrant a spin-off standalone film. Wallace’s trusted assistant is the ruthless bulldog mis-named Luv, played by Sylvia Hoeks. Her scene with Robin Wright is one of the best onscreen female duels we’ve seen in awhile. One of the more unusual characters (and that’s saying a lot) is Joi (Ana de Armas), the Artificial Intelligence/hologram companion to K, whose presence is cued by Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf notes. Other support work to notice comes in brief but crucial roles by Hiam Abbas, Mackenzie Davis, Carla Juri, Barkhad Abdi and Lennie James.

Who is not listed above? Of course it’s Harrison Ford (as seen in the trailer), who reprises his Deckard role from the original. All these years later, he’s a grizzled recluse who doesn’t take kindly to home visitations. Mr. Ford offers up proof that he still possesses the acting ability that made him a movie star (even if his best piloting days have passed him by). It’s such a thrill to see him flash the screen presence that’s been missing for many years. And yes, fans of the first film will mourn the absence of the great Rutger Hauer, yet there is no need to dwell on one of the few negatives.

The story leans heavily on philosophical and metaphysical questions … just like every great sci-fi film. What makes us human, or better yet, is there a difference between humans and machines that can think and feel? Can memories be trusted, or can they be implanted or influenced over time? These are some of the post-movie discussion points, which are surely to also include the cutting edge cinematography and use of lighting from the always-great Roger Deakins, and the production design from Dennis Gassner that somehow fits the tone, mood and texture of both the first film and this sequel. The set pieces are stunning and sometimes indistinguishable from the visual effects – a rarity these days. My theatre did feature the “shaky seats” that work in conjunction with the sound design … a gimmick I found distracting and more in line with what kids might find appealing.

There was some unwelcome drama a couple of months ago as noted composer Johann Johannsson dropped out and was replaced with Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch. The resulting score complements the film without mimicking the original. Ridley Scott, who directed the original BLADE RUNNER (and its numerous versions over the years), was involved as Executive Producer, and to put things in perspective, the first film was released the same year as TOOTSIE and TRON. Denis Villenueve was Oscar nominated for directing ARRIVAL, and he has proven himself to be a superb and dependable filmmaker with SICARIO, PRISONERS, and INCENDIES. He deserves recognition and respect for his nods to the original (Pan Am, Atari) and ability to mold a sequel that stands on its own … and in my opinion, is better than the first. Hopefully stating that is not against the Warner Bros rules.

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ATOMIC BLONDE (2017)

July 30, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. David Leitch has taken the rare Hollywood career path of stuntman-to-director. His expertise in fight scenes is beyond reproach as evidenced by his limited work on JOHN WICK (2014), and in his helming this heavily promoted, style over substance summer action film masquerading as a spy thriller. Kurt Johnstad (300) adapted Antony Johnston and Sam Hart’s graphic novel “The Coldest City”, and in collaboration with director Leitch and the ultra-talented Charlize Theron, has created some of the most brutal, bone-crunching and violent fight scenes ever seen on screen.

Ms. Theron stars as Lorraine, an MI6 agent whose life-sustaining nourishment is apparently derived from Stoli on the rocks and an endless supply of cigarettes. The opening scene features a naked Lorraine submerged in an ice cube bath seeking relief for her bruised and battered body. She then heads to an official debriefing by her supervisor (Toby Jones) and a CIA officer (John Goodman); they want details on what went wrong with her most recent mission. Those details come through flashbacks of Lorraine’s trip to Berlin to investigate the murder of a fellow agent and the stolen list of all agents. It’s 1989, and the Cold War concern is that the list falls into the hands of the KGB, immediately placing all agents and missions in peril.

With the recurring backdrop of President Reagan exhorting Mr. Gorbachev to “tear down that wall”, the film in no way employs the clever clandestine strategies of the TV series “The Americans”, or even slightly resembles international espionage classics like TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY or THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR. Instead, whatever plot lines or MacGuffins exist have one sole purpose: generate another fight scene for Lorraine.

Stairwells, kitchen utensils, a skateboard, water hoses, car keys and a corkscrew all have their moments (no, it’s not a Jackie Chan movie), as do a couple of car chase sequences. Ms. Theron is a physical marvel (she performed most of her own stunts) as she takes on numerous adversaries in various locations all while sporting more fashionable black & white outfits (with coordinated stilettos) than we can count. She has proven many times (MAD MAX: FURY ROAD, NORTH COUNTRY, MONSTER) that she is much more than a pretty face, and this is her most grueling role to date.

This is undoubtedly Charlize’s show, and supporting work is provided by an underutilized James McAvoy (fresh off of SPLIT) as the rebellious Berlin station agent, Eddie Marsan as a German Stasi known as Spyglass, James Faulkner as MI6 Chief, Roland Moller as the Soviet Bremovych, the always-cool Til Schweiger as the watchmaker, and Bill Skarsgard (Pennywise in the upcoming IT remake). Sofia Boutella plays the wonderfully named Delphine LaSalle, a French agent who, like most of the human race, is attracted to Ms. Theron/Lorraine.

Though it’s understandable we don’t get to see much of Berlin, the soundtrack continually reminds us that we are in 1989 thanks to music from such varied artists as David Bowie, Public Enemy, Nena, The Clash, Depeche Mode and A Flock of Seagulls. There is even a throwback clip from MTV making a crack about the ethics of sampling, and Cinematographer Jonathan Sela’s background in music videos works perfectly for the flash cut action segments.

A more intricate and full-bodied story tied to the international espionage of the Cold War could have elevated the film to a more elite status; however, it immediately becomes one of the top female-led action films and features some of the most impressive and fun to watch cinematic fight scenes ever. Next up for director Leitch is Deadpool 2, so we will soon find out if he can inject humor into his expert action.

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WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES (2017)

July 12, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Counting the original in 1968, this is the ninth Planet of the Apes film (sourced from the Pierre Boulle novel), and the third in the most recent reimagining – including Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014). That’s almost 50 years of talking apes questioning the role, purpose and intent of humans. Director Matt Reeves (Let Me In, Cloverfield) is back after ‘Dawn’ and clearly has an affinity for the characters and the continuing saga. This one is by far the most personal … if that’s the right term when applied to a species other than persons!

Opening with the film’s best battle scene (and perhaps the most superb and vivid of the franchise); the film stuns us with the realism of apes on horseback and searing violence that rivals any war film. We are immediately drawn in by the thrilling and intimate battle scenes, and the accompanying adrenaline rush. It’s a beautiful and heart-pounding opening that will surely satisfy even the most demanding action-oriented fans. This is also when we notice that Michael Giacchino’s score as a complementary thing of beauty and not just more over-the-top action film music bravado.

The great Andy Serkis returns as Caesar, the leader of the apes, and dare I say, one of the most exciting and dynamic recurring characters in the movie universe. This third film belongs to Caesar and we see his intelligence, personality and skills have evolved in each. His human nemesis this time is Woody Harrelson in Colonel Kurtz psycho-war lord mode. In the years since Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, a simian virus has wiped out much of the human race and now the last two human factions (one led by Harrelson) are preparing for a final epic war, while at the same time, all remaining humans are united against apes.

Apes simply want to be left alone in the forest, but humans focused on their destruction are forcing the apes to fight. One particular attack causes Caesar to erupt in anger and strive for revenge, providing the foundation for a movie with less action than the previous two, and a more concerted focus on story and character. Some may be disappointed in this. Others (like me) will find it fascinating.

Joining Serkis/Caesar for a third round are Terry Notary as Rocket and Karin Konoval as Maurice (orangutan). Also returning is Toby Kebbel as Koba – this time in a manner that really messes with Caesar’s mind. Steve Zahn steals his scenes as the comedy relief chimp known only as “bad ape”, with Judy Greer as Cornelia, and young Amiah Miller as Nova (same name as Linda Harrison in the original). Nova is a human girl who seems to fit much more with the apes than the warmongering humans. Fans of the original will also note Caesar’s son is named Cornelius (the same as Roddy McDowell’s ape in the original). Director Reeves delivers what would be a fitting end to a trilogy, but there is likely to be yet another if fans can appreciate that the series has evolved every bit as much as the apes.

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BABY DRIVER (2017)

June 29, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. If his movies are any indication, writer/director Edgar Wright would be fun to hang out with. He thrives on action and humor, and seems committed to making movies that are entertaining, rather than philosophical life statements. Many know his work from Three Flavours Cornetto trilogy (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, The World’s End), while others are fans of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. High concept, high energy and a creative use of music are identifiable traits within Mr. Wright’s films, all of which are crucial to the success of his latest.

Ansel Elgort (excellent in The Fault in Our Stars) stars as Baby, a freakishly talented getaway driver paying off a debt to a no-nonsense crime boss Doc played by Kevin Spacey. Baby has an unusual movie affliction – a childhood accident killed his parents and left him with tinnitus. He compensates for the constant ringing in his ear by listening to music through ear buds attached to one of his many iPods (depending on his mood). In fact, his insistence on finding just the right song for the moment adds a colorful element to each escape route.

The film opens with what may be its best car chase scene and the hyper-kinetic approach sets the stage for something a bit different than what we usually see. There are no car drops from airplanes or train-jumping (I’m looking at you Fast and Furious franchise). Instead these are old school chases in the mode of Bullitt, or more precisely, Walter Hill’s 1978 The Driver (Mr. Hill appears briefly here as a courtroom reporter). A heist-romance-chase film with a diverse and truly remarkable selection of songs, high energy, more than a few comedic moments (the Mike Myers mask sequence is brilliant) and a recurring Monsters, Inc quote requires a strong lead, and young Mr. Elgort aces the test. Baby is the DJ to his own life, and possesses a moral compass that others on his jobs can’t comprehend. It’s a heart of gold in a bad spot.

Spacey plays Doc with his chilling dead-eyed stare, and even has his own moment of action sporting an automatic weapon during a violent shootout. Spacey’s various crime teams (he varies the pairings) include psycho-lovebirds Buddy (Jon Hamm in his continuing effort to distance from Don Draper) and Darling (Eiza Gonzalez), Jon Bernthal, Flea, and an aptly named Bats (Jamie Foxx), who is not the clearest thinker of the bunch. Other supporting work comes courtesy of the rarely seen songwriter/actor Paul Williams, musician Sky Ferreira (as Baby’s beloved mother), young Brogan Hall as Doc’s talented nephew, and CJ Jones as Baby’s foster father. Mr. Jones is one of the few deaf movie actors and he adds much to Baby’s life outside of crime.

The crucial role of Baby’s love interest goes to the very talented and likable Lily James (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies) as singing waitress Debora, who introduces him to Carla Thomas’ “B-A-B-Y” song, while he plays “Debora” from T.Rex for her. She and Baby share the not overly ambitious life plan: “to head west in a car I can’t afford and a plan I don’t have”. They are good together and that helps make up for the always cringe-inducing red flag of “one last job” prior to the lovers running away together.

Buried in the Miscellaneous Crew is Choreographer Ryan Heffington, who deserves at least some of the credit for the most unique and creative aspect of the presentation. This appears to be a movie fit to the music, rather than music fit to the movie. There are some astounding sequences where the drum/bass beats are right on cue with the action – gunfire, driving, and character movements. “Harlem Shuffle” plays as Baby playfully dances past graffiti and sidewalk obstacles that perfectly match the beat and lyrics. We see what is likely the best ever movie use of “Bellbottoms”, and without question, the most creatively brilliant use of “Hocus Pocus” by Focus. At times exhilarating to the senses, the infusion of comedy shots and new love help offset the tension of crime jobs and the thrill of the chase.

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