Underseen Movie: ‘Cloak & Dagger’ – Only in the 1980’s …

I first watched “Cloak & Dagger” back when I was nine or 10 years old, having recorded it on VHS when it premiered on channel 13, which was then known as KCOP in Los Angeles. From there, it became one of the many movies like “Bullitt,” Airplane” and “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home” which I would watch a least a hundred times and never get tired of. Henry Thomas, in one of his post-“E.T.” movies, stars as Davey Osborne, an 11-year-old boy who escapes from reality into the world of Cloak & Dagger, a role-playing video game which features the exploits of the spy Jack Flack. Bored with life and yearning for a real adventure, Davey and his next-door neighbor Kim (a precocious Christina Nigra) embark to downtown San Antonio where he inadvertently witnesses a murder and gets hold of a video game cartridge of the Cloak & Dagger which is later revealed to contain top secret information. Davey’s wish of a real adventure comes true, but it soon becomes a reminder of what Augustus Hill once said drama “Oz:”

“Be careful what you wish for brother. Be very, very careful…”

Naturally, most people don’t believe Davey when he tries to explain what happened, and this includes his father, Hal, who loves him dearly but worries about him excessively as his son’s overactive imagination seems to constantly be getting the best of him. Once again, we have a movie which continues the theme of parents not listening to their kids until it is much too late. Then again, if parents did listen to their kids, a movie like this would not exist.

We also discover Davey is still grieving the loss of his mother who had recently passed away which quickly explains his constant escapes into a fantasy world. These elements combine together to make Hal believably dubious of his son’s claims, making it all the easier for the bad guys to try and capture him, and they are not about to show him mercy just because he is not yet a teenager.

I still vividly remember the “Cloak & Dagger” television ads just as it was coming out. Back then, this movie looked a little too scary for someone of my tender age to sit through, and my brother had already scared me off from seeing “Gremlins” although this was for reasons I would not discover until years later. Once the film made its television debut where all the “good stuff” was edited out, it seemed easier to take in.

Plus, seeing Henry Thomas with a gun excited me to no end. For once, the children were going to defend themselves without the help of adults! Now please keep in mind, I was a little boy playing with water guns back when this film was released (much to chagrin of my parents), so my mindset was, shall we say, somewhat different.

For a PG-rated movie, “Cloak & Dagger” is actually pretty brutal! You have adults shooting at kids, Davey ends up shooting a bad guy to death, another character looks like they got shot in the eye, and a kid almost gets run over by a van. You would not see anything like that in a PG rated movie these days (PG-13 movies are a different story), and this includes a cold-blooded villain telling Davey just how much he is going to enjoy blowing his kneecaps off. Looking at a movie like this today, my response to it would be, “only in the 1980’s…”

But for what it’s worth, “Cloak & Dagger” doesn’t glamorize real life violence and succeeds in making a distinction between the world of make believe and the finality of death in real life in a way which can only be rendered in a PG-rated motion picture. The movie is really more of a coming-of-age story in which Davey comes to discover how these imaginary adventures he constantly engages in are nothing compared to the violence waged in real life as certain actions render a solution which is permanent in inescapably brutal ways. Davey also comes to realize this even before reaching the age of puberty, so you know his teenage years are going to more torturous than what the average adolescent is forced to endure.

Thomas’ performance as Davey Osbourne was proof his excellent performance in “E.T.” (one of the best ever given by a child actor) was no fluke. You never catch him acting, and everything he does comes from a believable and natural place. Even as the movie heads into the inescapable territory of illogic which is typically inescapable in 80’s action movies, Thomas remains the emotional center of the story and keeps us watching to the very end. It’s hard enough to ask a pre-teen to carry any feature length movie on their shoulders, but Thomas had long since proven to be a true professional in doing so.

The other big actor here is Dabney Coleman who, back in the 1980’s seemed to be in every other movie. He plays Davey’s Air Force father, Hal Osborne, as well as his imaginary hero Jack Flack whom Davey sees as a more appealing version of his dad. Coleman is great in both roles, and you really have to appreciate his performance as Hal because it could have been your typically clichéd one-note daddy character. Throughout, he rides a good balance between being the disciplinarian and the sympathetic father who remembers what his life was like as a kid. Like his son, Hal wanted to be a hero too.

However, Coleman is clearly having more fun playing superspy Jack Flack who may not be as smooth or as dashing as James Bond, but is still very clever in his own mustached way. All that’s missing is a patch over one of his eyes, but Kurt Russell already beat him to this in “Escape From New York.” Seeing the actor reacting to his performance as Hal is good for a few laughs as Flack never stops deriding the man’s lack of belief and faith in his son.

When it comes to the bad guys, they are the typical one-dimensional types you usually find in 1980’s movies, but that’s just fine here. Eloy Casados plays Alvarez as your mainly stone-faced henchman; the kind of guy who smirks more than he smiles, and not just because he’s in a foul mood. In fact, a guy like him is typically never really happy about anything. I also love how he shoots at Davey from only a few feet away and STILL COMPLETELY MISSES HIM. He would have made a great stormtrooper.

Then you have Haverman who is played by former professional football player Tim Rossovich. With his strong body and build, he’s like the Incredible Hulk as a bad guy, except he doesn’t turn green and rip off his clothes whenever he gets pissed (his jeans do look a little tight on him though). The door is locked? This guy just smashes right through it as if it were no big thing, and it got to where I was just waiting for him to say:

“HAVERMAN SMASH!!!”

But the main baddie here is Rice, and he is played by Michael Murphy in a truly chilling performance. Murphy, still a few years away from playing the spineless mayor of Gotham in “Batman Returns,” gives you the perfect kind of bad guy you love to despise with every fiber of your being as he makes you believe Rice would think nothing of killing a kid who stood in the way of his ultimate goal; delivering government secrets to spies. Man, I remember wanting to see him get his just desserts as soon as he appeared onscreen.

When it comes to scene stealers, Christina Nigra wins the prize as Davey’s non-imaginary friend, Kim. Her sassy attitude makes for some great moments, especially when she informs her mother that Davey’s father is not her type. She does get annoyed with Davey when he takes things a little too far, but even she comes to admit he is never ever boring. Nigra also holds her own in front of the airport police chief as he smokes a cigarette in very close proximity to her. You don’t even see her complaining about the smoke. Maybe the anti-smoking campaigns hadn’t reached her school yet.

There are a couple of other familiar faces to be found here including the late Robert DoQui whose subdued performance as Lt. Fleming is the polar opposite of the hard-nosed and law enforcement chief we saw him portray in the “Robocop.”. William Forsythe also shows up as Davey’s other friend Morris and, seriously, he doesn’t look like he has aged a day since 1984. Even Louie Anderson appears for less than a minute as a hygienically challenged taxi cab driver who offers to give Davey a ride to the airport but only if he gives him $15 dollars in advance.

“Cloak & Dagger” marked the second collaboration between director Richard Franklin and screenwriter Tom Holland. Their previous film together was the eagerly awaited sequel “Psycho II,” and while this film offers them a change of pace, it still proves to be pretty intense. That they managed to find a balance between the real and imaginary worlds Davey Osbourne inhabits is fairly remarkable as it could not have been the least bit simple.

So much has changed in the world since “Cloak & Dagger” first came out, and it now seems astonishing just how dark it was compared to the movies that come out today with a PG rating. It was made back when you didn’t need a plane ticket to get through security screening, and you could hang out with your loved ones at the gate before their plane took off. You could smoke on airplanes back then as well. What hasn’t changed or weakened through the passing of time are the performances of Thomas and Coleman. Both are a reason why this film managed to find such a large audience on video after it failed to do so in movie theaters.

Of course, these days I have to wonder what a “Cloak & Dagger” sequel might look like. While certain questions were easy to answer back in the 1980’s, everything these days feels far more complex. There’s no doubt Davey Osbourne would be severely traumatized by his experiences here, and perhaps he and Kevin McCallister from “Home Alone” can join forces as they both defeated their antagonists in very painful ways.

Once again, only in the 1980’s could a movie like this have been made.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Four-Eyed Frog – A Most Fantastic Bookstore

Four Eyed Frog Books has always been a popular destination for me and my family whenever we are vacationing in Sea Ranch. This independent bookstore opened up for business in Gualala back in 2003, and it has long since become a go-to destination in this small city in Northern California. While it is much smaller than your average Barnes & Noble, its selection is still very impressive and you can count on new releases always being available. And what if they don’t have what you are looking for, you ask? They can order it for you with no problems whatsoever.

Even if I am not intending to buy a book, I am always enjoy visiting this unique bookstore whenever I am in town thanks to its very friendly atmosphere. Being in there is worth it just to watch my nieces run inside and decide what book their grandpa can buy for them next. I also love holding up those literary works by Sarah Palin or Glenn Beck in front of my parents just to see how they react. They don’t care for Palin’s or Beck’s books, but that’s okay because neither do I.

The owner of Four Eyed Frog Books, or “The Frog” as many like to call it, is Joel Crockett who, on the store’s website, admits he always dreamed about “owning a little store – in a small town – on the ocean.” This dream later became a reality when he and his late wife Linda came to the Redwood Coast, and they knew right then and there that this was the place for them to live. Following its opening, Joel’s brother, Jeremy Crockett moved into town to become a partner in the bookstore. These two even have their own band which is understandably titled The Crockett Brothers. Their specialty is folk music, and my dad has confirmed to me that they are hilarious.

In addition, Four Eyed Frog Books has also become a place for authors to drop by and give readings of what they have written. Guests who have dropped by include Bill Broder who wrote “Taking Care of Cleo,” Charles Furey who shared World War II stories from his memoir “Going Back,” and California’s High School Poet Laureate of 2005 Lindsey Smith who gave us a sampling of her work in “Hailing The Taxi Hopefully.” Also, during the summer, the bookstore has a weekly story time for kids of all ages to attend. This should show deeply ingrained this bookstore is in the local culture.

The Frog also has other items to peruse like a large number of greeting cards for any occasion. They also have a selection of gently used books which are worth a look, and there is a section dedicated to the works of local authors. This I think is especially thoughtful as books like these can be slightly easier to find online than in as store like this. Furthermore, they have some fun games to purchase such as Bananagrams. For those unfamiliar with it, the game is kind of like Scrabble except you have a whole game board to yourself to compose words as do all your opponents. This game has become a big favorite in my family, and it has given us great times as well as frustrating moments where we get the same letter seven times and end up throwing them across the room.

One of my other favorite features of The Frog is this display they have of customers who have displayed travel photos including the store’s bookmark. Those fans have shown off their bookmarks in such places as Australia, Rome, London, Mexico and Los Angeles, which for some probably is a far-off destination. As for myself, I found the perfect place to show off my Four-Eyed Frog bookmark:

Joel has said that the goal of Four Eyed Frog Books is to be “a responsive, involved, interested and interesting community bookstore.” It is safe to say he has long since succeeded in making the store just that. The selection they offer reflects what its customers often purchase, and they continue to serve the town of Gualala very well. They are also very happy to place special orders for you, and they can get that book you desperately want out delivered to you as ordering from Amazon can be severely overrated.

Taking this all into account, there is much more to this small independent bookstore than meets the eye. I will most definitely continue to support The Frog whenever I visit Gualala. Joel still knows my family and was quick to recognize me even though I only come to this town just once a year. I very much enjoy the friendly atmosphere the bookstore provides, and it is always a pleasure to walk through the doors. Even though I still have dozens of books waiting to be read, I always find myself buying something because leaving empty handed, especially in an independent bookstore, feels quite criminal.

If you are ever driving through Gualala on your way to Mendocino, I strongly recommend you check Four Eyed Frog Books out. Trust me, it is worth the time, and you will find a book you like. Small Business Saturday may be gone, but the memory lingers on.

Gualala Video – The Last Store of Its Kind

Photo courtesy of The Press Democrat.

Blockbuster Video never opened a store in the small town of Gualala, California. Hollywood Video never did either, and Redbox never bothered to put any kiosks up at either of the two supermarkets there. Now a lot of this may have to do with Gualala having a population of around 2,000, and it is never quick to let many corporate giants like Wal-Mart into town as they love their mom-and-pop shops. But seriously, the real reason none of them set up shop here was because of Gualala Video which is, quite frankly, my favorite video store on the face of the earth. This store had over 27,000 titles to choose from on DVD, Blu-ray and VHS, and looking at the many selections made me happy I still own a VCR after all these years. If they didn’t have what you were looking for, then it was never made into a movie or television show in the first place.

Photo by Wayne Moore
Photo by Wayne Moore

But sadly, Gualala Video is now closed. Despite having survived the streaming wars and Blockbuster Video, it fell victim to the COVID-19 pandemic which seems never ending. While David Bradbrook, who has owned the store since 2003, did what he could to keep business going like offering curbside rentals, the rent and the overhead became too much for anyone to deal with. One big fan of the store did create a GoFundMe page in an effort to raise $5,000 to help David out, and while they have since raised over $3,100, it was not enough to prevent the inevitable.

Photo by The Ultimate Rabbit

Now the store closed some time ago, but I was in Gualala recently for the Thanksgiving holiday and it marks the first time I have seen it completely empty. There are some remnants like the store’s name on one of the doors and some stickers no one was able to completely remove. But to look inside this store and see everything gone really haunted me. Seriously, it had everything and anything you were looking for and then some. What is David planning to do with all these titles? Hopefully he has enough room for them at home.

Like another long-lost video store, Rocket Video in Los Angeles, California, Gualala Video had its movies arranged in categories such as by actor, director, and genres like science-fiction. My dad really loved the foreign section which contains films like “A Prophet,” and it had just about every Lars Von Trier movie you would ever want to bring a box of Kleenex to.

Here are some other categories movies were listed under (thanks to John Beck for the following photos):

Sometimes I didn’t even go in there to rent anything; I just went inside to look around and see what was available. Other times, I went in there to see what they didn’t have so I could ask David why this was the case. Like I said they had everything. David has said a lot of people did the same thing to where he wishes he had charged admission just to enter. Hey, Blockbuster would have done the same if it could, especially after their late fee charges were done away with.

If it wasn’t for Gualala Video, I am convinced I would not have seen certain movies for many more years. One of John Carpenter’s earliest works was his 1976 action thriller “Assault on Precinct 13” which he made before “Halloween,” and I could not find it anywhere. Not even another video chain which has long since been put out of business, Take One Video, had a single copy of it which stunned me. Gualala Video, however, did have a copy, and I did not hesitate in renting it right away. If not for this, I would have had to wait for the DVD release which would not happen for at least another five more years. Oh, by the way, “Precinct 13” was awesome and still holds up.

Then there was when my brother and I rented “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.” Neither of us had ever watched it before, and the manager looked at the VHS box and said:

“Man! We’ve made over $1,000 dollars off of this one video!”

“We’ve never actually seen it,” my brother said.

A blond teenage girl standing next to us was quick to reply:

“YOU’VE NEVER SEEN IT??!! WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN???!!!!”

Having now watched “Willy Wonka,” I can clearly see why this particular VHS tape was so popular as there are few family movies quite like this one, and I still wonder how it managed to get away with a G rating despite the scary boat tunnel scene which featured an image of a chicken getting its head cut off.

The last time I was there, I rented not one but two films: “John Wick Chapter Two” and “Everybody Wants Some.” Now these were two flicks I should have watched when they arrived at my local multiplex, but work at the time prevented me from doing so. But seeing them on the shelf in Gualala made me realize I had put off seeing them long enough. “John Wick Chapter Two” showed how Keanu Reeves can handle knives and guns better than any other actor in Hollywood, and “Everybody Wants Some,” Richard Linklater’s spiritual sequel to “Dazed and Confused,” made me wish I experienced my high school and college years in the same way he did.

And now Gualala Video is gone forever, and I cannot help but feel sad. It was one of the last of its kind, and there are probably none of them left (not in the East Bay anyway). Independent stores like these are wonderfully unique to where we don’t know what we will do without them. Personally, I can live without Blockbuster Video as its extinction was not a loss. While they had many copies of the newest releases, finding older films was ridiculously difficult. As for its dedication to providing a family friendly environment devoid of any movies rated NC-17, this did not stop them from putting exploitation flicks like “Stripped to Kill” on a shelf right near the children’s section.

This store was a film buff’s dream. You could discover those out-of-print videos and discs which were so hard to find, and no film had to be edited down to an R rating just to qualify as a rental. It is places like Gualala Video which made me remember how much I love movies, how wondrous they can be, of all the ones I still need to catch up on. Now, I can only hope and pray they are available to stream, and not everything is available to stream.

Nick Nolte once said there will always be change and there will always be resistance to change. While change is inevitable, there has got to be a way to preserve certain independent stores like this one. If Barnes & Noble’s annual 50% off Criterion Collection discs sale proves anything, it is that we are far from done with physical media.

And with that, I leave you all with a comment Stacy G. left on the store’s Yelp page:

“If I could burn down my local Blockbuster and replace it with Gualala Video, it would be a dream come true.”

Granted, Blockbuster Video is long gone but, all the same, amen!

Photo by The Ultimate Rabbit

‘Ghostbusters: Afterlife’ – A Worthy Installment

The “Ghostbusters” franchise is a lot like the “Predator” franchise in that filmmakers take them in all sorts of directions in the hopes of reintroducing classic characters to a new generation. When it came to “Ghostbusters II” and “Predator II,” neither could match the power or cultural zeitgeist of the original, and we were reminded of how you cannot catch lightning in a bottle twice. A third “Ghostbusters” has been lingering in development hell for decades now, and the 2016 reboot looked like the best we could hope for. Then again, despite a terrific cast, the reboot was a financial failure. After that, I had to wonder, now who we gonna call?

Well, after many years and the COVID-19 pandemic which delayed its release, we now have “Ghostbusters: Afterlife” which was directed and co-written by Jason Reitman, the son of “Ghostbusters” (1984) director Ivan Reitman. What results threatens to be a mixed bag as this sequel relies a bit too much on fan service and treads through familiar territory, but if you can get past that, it still proves to be wonderfully entertaining and has a lot to say about the importance of family.

Thirty years after the events of “Ghostbusters II,” we are introduced to Callie (Carrie Coon), a single mother of two kids, the extremely bright but socially awkward Phoebe (Mckenna Grace) and the restless and cellphone-addicted Trevor (Finn Wolfhard). This family is struggling financially and emotionally, and only their infinite sarcasm can help them get through the day. And just when they find themselves evicted from their meager apartment, Callie comes to discover her father, whom she has been estranged from for years, has recently died, and she has now inherited his dilapidated farmhouse where he appeared to be farming nothing other than dirt.

The farmhouse is located in Summerville, Oklahoma, a town which looks to be located out in the middle of nowhere. While the land stretches as far as the eye can see, there apparently is very little going on, and it reminds me of what David Ratray, who played Buzz McCallister in “Home Alone,” once said:

“We live on the most boring street in the whole United States of America, where nothing even remotely dangerous will ever happen. Period.”

But soon after this family arrives in Summerville, strange things begin happening which cannot be seen as anything other than terrifyingly supernatural.

I have to say I really admired how “Ghostbusters: Afterlife” reminds you of how things can be forgotten after so many years. Those who watched the original “Ghostbusters” back when it came out in 1984 have watched it many times since as it was that good and so hilarious. But as time goes on, you have to be reminded of how easy it is for people to forget about the past, or that some have not seen nor remember certain events because, well, they weren’t born yet. Phoebe has to remind others of this, and it brings back memories me of when I ask certain individuals, “You’ve never seen a ‘Star Wars’ movie?!”

Jason Reitman has stated this film is about family above all else, and it definitely shows. The family of Callie, Phoebe and Trevor have been through more than the average family should ever have to experience, but then again, maybe this is common for what’s left of the middle class. While the Spenglers may be stuck in a realm of bitterness and a desperation to understand why they are at where they are. “Ghostbusters: Afterlife” implies while some families might be better off with certain members, others deserve an explanation. When it comes to explanations, the one this family gets helps to absolve a lot of bad feelings as living in a place of bitterness is a very unattractive quality in a human being.

When it comes to the screenplay, Reitman and his co-writer Gil Kenan have provided the cast with a lot of inspired dialogue as these two do not want them to be saddled with any of the clunky kind which ends up in every other motion picture. Seriously, the characters more often than not talk like real people here, and for me this is such a relief.

The cast all around is perfectly chosen. Carrie Coon, who may be best remembered for playing Ben Affleck’s sister in “Gone Girl,” is sublime as Callie. Right from the start, she makes this single mother a force to be reckoned with even as she matches her children’s sarcasm word for word.

Perhaps my favorite piece of casting here is Mckenna Grace who plays Phoebe as she takes this Wesley Crusher-like character and makes her ever so appealing. When I was a kid, characters like Phoebe were presented in movies as the kind I should avoid being like, but watching Grace here reminds me of how being incredibly intelligent but socially awkward can really pay off later in life. She really invites you to follow Phoebe as she becomes the big hero of the show here.

When it comes to Finn Wolfhard, I imagine many will look at his performance as a regurgitation of his work from “Stranger Things,” but such an accusation is not altogether fair. As Trevor, he portrays the normal teenager who is quick to become enamored of the opposite sex once he arrives in Summerville. What results is something which may feel similar to the infinitely popular Netflix series, but this young actor clearly knows how to distinguish Trevor Spengler from Mike Wheeler just as he did with Richie Tozier from the latter in the recent cinematic adaptation of Stephen King’s “It.”

And then there is Rudd, Paul Rudd. The actor, recently named as People Magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive (someday it will be me), is a blast as science teacher Gary Grooberson. Whether he is slobbering over all the Ghostbusters equipment or showing R-rated movies to a group of disaffected kids (kudos to him for selecting “Cujo” by the way), we are quickly reminded of how we can never go wrong with this guy. As much as I want to say “damn you,” the man never ceases to be an entertaining presence.

Now when it comes to the nostalgia featured here, it does come on fairly heavy, but it doesn’t capsize the film. Unlike sequels such as “Blues Brothers 2000” which was so jam-packed with so many familiar characters and scenes to where the déjà vu made me want to turn it off and watch the original instead, this one treads the line carefully to give us something a bit different even as it pays homage to the 1984 original.

Having said that, part of me wishes “Ghostbusters: Afterlife” was bit more original and did not simply re-employ old villains. If this franchise is to continue beyond this installment, and several post-credit scenes indicate it will, the filmmakers should be willing to take new chances in the future. Even Rob Simonsen’s music score sounds more like a simple adaptation of Elmer Bernstein’s to where it is hard to spot any new themes. It is a bit like when J.J. Abrams brought back Emperor Palpatine for “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker;” he’s a great villain and the kind you love to sneer at, but he failed once before and we know he will again, you know?

Still, I very much enjoyed this sequel as it provides audiences with terrific characters who are inhabited by a very talented cast, and the effects are excellent throughout. And yes, there are great surprises to be found here, and I am not about to spoil them for you even if others have already.

But most importantly, this is a film with a lot of heart, and this should be completely clear during its last act. The final scene shows how the deeply embittered can be healed through love and understanding, and that’s whether or not you have a proton pack or ghost trap available. As the end credits came up, it was real treat to hear Ray Parker Jr.’s theme song once again. Where it once was annoying as hell, now it has been found again as “Ghostbusters: Afterlife” finally gives this franchise a truly worthy installment.

* * * out of * * * *

‘Rocky IV: Rocky vs. Drago’ – A Vast Improvement

I have always had mixed feelings about “Rocky IV.” On one hand, it is a well-oiled machine which is entertaining, never drags, and you easily find yourself caught up in the action to where you join in with the audience chanting, “ROCKY! ROCKY! ROCKY!” On the other hand, it turned Sylvester Stallone’s iconic character of Rocky Balboa into a superhuman comic book character who has clearly spent far too many hours at the gym to develop his well-chiseled body. This character was a relatable human being who wanted to go the distance, and now he was being rendered as some untouchable force of nature who undergoes the most brutal training regime which no mere mortal can easily endure. Basically, I found this installment of the seemingly endless franchise lacking in humanity, and it would take 2006’s “Rocky Balboa” to bring the character back down to earth.

Well, it turns out Stallone felt the same way about “Rocky IV,” and thanks to this time of the COVID-19 pandemic which saw one of his projects get shut down, he decided to revisit this particular “Rocky” sequel which is still this franchise’s most financially successful as even he found it to be flawed. What resulted is his director’s cut entitled “Rocky IV: Rocky vs Drago,” and it has the humanity which was once missing, but now has been found.

The story of “Rocky IV” remains the same. Apollo faces off against Russian boxer Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren) and pays with his life, and Rocky travels to the Soviet Union to face off against Drago on Christmas Day. Does Rocky win the fight? Bitch, please, you know the answer to that.

Unlike Francis Ford Coppola’s recent director’s cuts of “The Cotton Club,” “Apocalypse Now” and “The Godfather Part III,” not much about “Rocky IV” has changed here. But again, the characters are fleshed out more here than they were previously, and this made for a more fulfilling cinematic experience for me, and that’s even if the pace drags at times. And yes, Paulie’s robot has been rendered obsolete in this cut. Suffice to say, that robot was no C-3PO and will not be missed.

After a look back at “Rocky III,” this cut starts off with Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) in his luxurious swimming pool playing with his dogs when Drago and his entourage appear on his television set. This helps change the narrative a bit as we quickly see how this cut is more about Apollo as it shows the character as being restless in his retirement, and it becomes clearer to us how he wants to still matter in a world which may prefer to see him remain retired.

Indeed, Rocky thinks it is time, not just for Apollo, but for him to think about what else they can do with their lives as both have seemingly hit their athletic peak. But in Weathers’ eyes, you can see how desperate he is to remain relevant in the minds of many. It is not just Apollo’s ego crying out for acknowledgement, but also for a need to remain relevant and not easily forgotten. Watching Weathers’ performance here, I can see why Stallone regretted killing Apollo off. Of course, this did lead to the brilliant “Creed.”

Another actor who stands out here is Talia Shire who again takes on one of her most famous roles, Adrian Balboa. When you take the inevitable flashbacks into account, it is fascinating to watch Shire take Adrian from being a shy girl to becoming Rocky’s much-needed conscience as she exerts a confidence which has long since been earned. Indeed, this cut reminds us what a strong anchor she is to Rocky. She is the voice he needs to hear, and that’s even when she yells at him, “You can’t win!” Whereas she appeared quite meek in “Rocky,” she is a force to be reckoned with this time out.

And then there is the late Tony Burton who returns as boxing trainer Tony “Duke” Evans. His character really gets fleshed out a lot here as Tony gives a moving tribute to Apollo, and Burton later shares a thoughtful and moving scene with Stallone where he makes clear with his eyes that Rocky will be the last one standing. Stallone was right; Burton’s eyes were full of soul.

With the Sico the Robot gone, and the chance for Robert Doornick to earn residuals, what else is different about this “Rocky IV” cut? Well, Brigette Nielsen’s role Ludmilla Drago is pared down quite a bit to where her husband gets to talk for himself a bit more. In fact, the late great character actor Michael Pataki gets to speak more for the Russians as Nicolai Koloff this time around, and his wounded face at the movie’s end speaks volumes.

And because of the robot elimination, we see less of Burt Young’s Paulie here to where he is almost forgotten about in the first half. But Paulie does eventually make his cantankerous presence known as he flails around in the snow once in Russia, and his moving tribute to Rocky before he enters the ring is still quite touching. Of course, once Drago pushes Rocky’s gloves down, Paulie takes back what he said. It is very understandable why Stallone did not cut this scene out.

If there is anything I was hoping for in this “Rocky IV” director’s cut, it was to see Ivan Drago humanized a bit more. Part of this is because, during an interview Stallone did with TCM’s Ben Mankiewicz, he talked about Drago’s harsh origins and how he grew up in the gulag which he eventually escaped. This was very interesting to hear, but we do not see any of this onscreen. While presented as slightly more human, Drago is still portrayed as an invulnerable beast of a man. There isn’t much more to this character than that.

Other than that, it’s nice to see a lot of the cheesiness of the theatrical cut gone. Then again, the line of dialogue when Rocky tells Adrian to never ask him “to stop being a man” does land with as loud a thud as when Luke Skywalker begged his Uncle Owen to let him go into town to get some power converters in “Star Wars.” And no, I still don’t believe all the Russians would have began cheering for Rocky after booing him so viciously as he entered the ring. Sure, some would have started cheering him, but not all.

“Rocky IV: Rocky vs Drago” is not a perfect movie, but I consider it a vast improvement over the original version. Around the time this sequel was released 35 years ago (I know, that freaks me out too), Rocky and the franchise was turning into a joke as we had been down this path one too many times it felt. Weird Al Yankovic spoofed Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger” and called it “The Theme from Rocky XIII” in which Rocky bought the neighborhood deli, “Airplane II: The Sequel” featured a poster of a fictious “Rocky” sequel which showed the Italian Stallion fighting way past his prime, and who can forget this classic line of dialogue from “Spaceballs?”

“Coming up, Pongo’s review of Rocky Five… thousand.”

But to hear Sylvester Stallone talk about his director’s cut and having watched it myself, it is clear he did not simply want to just repeat the formula we had come accustomed to. Rocky Balboa rescued this actor, writer and director from a life of poverty where his dog ate more than he did, and it should be no surprise at how much he cares for this iconic character and the others surrounding him. Had this version of “Rocky IV” been released back in 1985, perhaps many of us would not have been so quick to start joking about the Italian Stallion.

After all these years, we are still clapping along to those songs by Survivor, and we still cheer on Rocky even though the conclusion is never in doubt. While I used to roll my eyes whenever Stallone wanted to revisit this franchise, I say let him do whatever the hell he wants. Except for another “Rambo,” movie, we don’t need it. The last one was awful.

Theatrical Cut: * * ½ out of * * * *

Director’s Cut: * * * ½ out of * * * *

The Turner Classic Movies Holiday Gift Guide

The following article was written by Ultimate Rabbit correspondent, Tony Farinella.

If you are like me and love classic movies, there is one channel and company which stands out: Turner Classic Movies.  In our house, this channel is on a lot!  There is always an older film that has slipped under my radar and deserves my time and attention.

With the holidays fast approaching, now is the time to take advantage of some of the great products that are provided by Turner Classic Movies for the movie lover in your life.  They will thank you time and time again for these thoughtful and exciting gifts.

The first place you need to start is by visiting shop.tcm.com/gift. While there, you will find a variety of gifts which are suited for just about anyone in your family that loves all things classic movies. Choose from a variety of movies under $10 or pick up one of the many great books filled with tons of trivia. If you are looking for the perfect holiday movie, TCM has them in stock as well. There are also TCM exclusives such as shirts, hats and even a mug. With so many amazing options, I wanted to highlight a few of them TCM sent me to share with you all.

TCM Coffee Mugs

Do you love coffee, or are you more of a tea or hot chocolate fan? If so, this TCM Coffee Mug is perfect for you! This is the same mug you see your favorite hosts use in the TCM Studio. This 11oz. drinkware comes in either a black or white design and features the Turner Classic Movies logo on it. Drinking from this ceramic mug will remind you of all the great classic movies you can get lost in after a long day of work.

Black Mug ($25.95): https://shop.tcm.com/tcm-studio-mug-black/762184841106

White Mug ($18.95): https://shop.tcm.com/tcm-studio-mug-white/762184841205

“Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir” (Revised and Expanded Edition) by Eddie Muller

One of my favorite genres of film is film noir, especially in beautiful black and white.  There are so many great film noirs out there to look through and read about in this fantastic book.  One of the films you can learn more about is “Rear Window,” the classic Hitchcock film.  Other films discussed by this talented author include “Naked Alibi,” “Laura” and “Sudden Fear” to name a few. This is a 264-page book filled with phenomenal images and tremendous writing. I couldn’t put it down once I started reading it. This is just one of many great books they have to offer on their website. Also included is a great book on the cinematic classic, “West Side Story.”

Grab your copy of Dark City here: https://shop.tcm.com/dark-city/9780762498970 ($22.95)

Sip and Watch with TCM’s Wine Club

Now, even though I’m straight edge and don’t drink, I’ve heard wonderful things about the wines produced by TCM. They pair nicely with a classic film!  You can also drink your TCM Wine while enjoying one of their many amazing books. The TCM Wine Club ships out limited-production wines from around the world. You will receive your shipment quarterly. The bottles feature artwork and images from some of your favorite films and actors.  As a special introductory offer, you can save up to $160 on your very first collection. Choose between red or white wines or even a combination of both. As a special welcome, you will also receive 3 bonus classic movie wines. This is a wine lover’s dream!

TCM provided me with the Elvis wine, which my dad is absolutely going to love, as he’s a huge fan of the King!

If you’re interested in joining the TCM Wine Club or want to purchase this for a friend, check out the wine club here: http://tcmwineclub.com/holiday ($79.99 plus $19.99 shipping & tax)

I hope this TCM Holiday Gift Guide has made your holiday shopping a little bit easier!  Act fast as the holidays are quickly approaching, and you want to make sure to get your order shipped and delivered in time.  This is a great way to show the movie fan in your life how much you care about them in a variety of ways. Happy Holidays and keep watching a lot of classic movies on TCM!

‘Reminiscence’ Movie and Blu-ray Review

The following review was written by Ultimate Rabbit correspondent, Tony Farinella.

Reminiscence” is one of the most underrated and overlooked films of 2021.  From start to finish, I was riveted by the acting, the action, and the many twists and turns throughout.  It is a film which keeps its audience on its toes and keeps them guessing.  There is a lot to like here.  It’s a bit baffling to me to read how the film did poorly at the box office and with critics.  I do have a strong feeling this is the type of film which is going to gain a cult audience with time and now that it’s out on Blu-Ray.  I really think people underestimated it.  That is the beauty of home video: A film can live on and grow with time.

Hugh Jackman stars as Nick Bannister, a lonely and troubled man after the war. He runs a business which allows people to relive some of their favorite memories and moments from their lives.  If they were happier in the past, they can go in this water tank and relive that memory.  It is very comforting for a lot of people, especially if they have lost someone close to them. His partner in business is named Watts, and she’s played by the talented actress Thandiwe Newton. She was with Nick in the war, and they have remained close friends. She has a drinking problem that has ruined her relationship with her daughter and her ex-husband. She is still very loyal to Nick and credits him with giving her a purpose.

One day, a young woman by the name of Mae (Rebecca Ferguson) comes to relive a memory of how she lost her keys.  Watts thinks something is fishy about this, but Nick is quite taken with her.  As a matter of fact, they strike up a relationship which turns out to be quite passionate.  It makes it that much harder for Nick when she disappears out of his life for seemingly no rhyme or reason.  He really thought she was the one, and he had strong feelings for her.  With his memory tank and resources, he goes on a mission to find out what happened to Mae and where she might be in an attempt to save her.

“Reminiscence” has been described as part science fiction and part film noir. Film noir has always been one of my favorite genres in Hollywood.  It’s not used as often these days, but it was quite popular back in the golden days of Hollywood with actors such as Humphrey Bogart, Orson Welles and Burt Lancaster.  The fact writer and director Lisa Joy blended this genre with science fiction is a really bold move. Off the top of my head, I can’t remember too many times this has been done recently in Hollywood.  It works perfectly here, especially with Jackman’s narration. It really adds to the film’s mysterious underbelly. As far as the science fiction, they did it just enough to make it believable without going too over-the-top with the concept.

To quote the legendary wrestler Roddy Piper, “Just when you think you know the answers, I change the questions.” That is exactly what is happening with “Reminiscence.”  I thought I had this film figured out two or three times, and the filmmakers kept surprising me with where they went with the story. Jackman is great in everything he does, but his friendship in the film with Newton is what really gives the film its heart and soul.  Ferguson is also pitch-perfect as the femme fatale, as you really don’t know what’s going on with her and if you should trust her.  Is she the woman she claims to be? Is she a seedy film noir character with bad intentions? I thought the casting in this film was spot-on in all avenues.

I really loved “Reminiscence.” It’s creative, fun, heartfelt, surprising, and different.  Hollywood is known for doing a lot of the same movies over and over again.  I haven’t seen a film even close to this one in quite some time.  It really captivated me, and most of all, I cared about the characters and their individual fates. This is a film I’m proud to champion and encourage people to see now that it’s out on Blu-Ray and DVD.  I have a strong feeling you will be surprised by it.  I know I was, and I’m a tough critic because I see so many movies.  This is a special film. I also really enjoyed the atmospheric world created by the director as well. All of the pieces were lining up with this flick.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Blu-Ray Info: “Reminiscence” is rated PG-13 for strong violence, drug material throughout, sexual content and some strong language.  It comes on a single-disc Blu-ray from Warner Brothers Home Entertainment.  It also has a digital copy of the film as well.

Video/Audio Info: The film is released on 1080p high definition with audio in Dolby Atmos-True HD: English, Dolby Digital: English Descriptive Audio, and English, Spanish and French. Subtitles are included in English, French and Spanish as well.

Special Features:

You’re Going on a Journey

The Sunken Coast

Crafting a Memory

Reminiscence: A Family Reunion

“Save My Love” Music Video

Should You Buy It?

One of my favorite filmmakers is Richard Linklater, and while I’m not comparing Lisa Joy to him, I did enjoy the way she used time and memory as such a pivotal part of the story.  Much like in Linklater’s films, time and memory plays such a big part in what is happening here. It’s a character in the film.  As someone who often thinks about the past and is big on nostalgia, this film really struck a chord with me.  How much is thinking about the past a good thing? When does it become a bad thing? Are we stuck in the past? Did we learn from the past? There is a lot to chew on with this film. The performances are committed and powerful, especially Jackman’s.  He always brings such an intensity to all of his roles. If you are still a hardcore physical media collector like myself, you will be very pleased to add “Reminiscence” to your collection.  As I mentioned earlier, it’s one of the great surprises of 2021.

**Disclaimer** I received a Blu-ray copy of this film from Warner Brothers to review for free.  The opinions and statements in the review are mine and mine alone.

Michael Clarke Duncan on Acting in ‘The Green Mile’

WRITER’S NOTE: This article was written in 2012.

The news of Michael Clarke Duncan’s untimely passing has us all feeling very sad, and I could not agree more with his “Green Mile” director Frank Darabont when he said “Michael has left us far, far too soon. We lost a great man and a great spirit.” That big, warm smile of Duncan’s always seemed to exude a kindness that was genuine, and he is a man who achieved his dream of becoming a movie star and earned the right to be one. This makes his death all the more painful to accept.

Duncan left us with a number of unforgettable performances, but many agree his greatest role was as the gentle giant John Coffey in “The Green Mile,” and it earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. Special thanks need to be given to Bruce Willis, who he co-starred with in “Armageddon,” who recommended Duncan for the role to Darabont.

The toughest scene for Duncan, however, in “The Green Mile” came when Coffey tries to save the two young girls he is later convicted of murdering.

“I had a lot of crying to do, a lot of howling to do, and it took a long time to do it and it really drained me,” Duncan said. “I’ll remember that day more so than anything else because as we were filming that, everybody was rushing toward me.”

What made the scene work for Duncan is how everything around him felt “so real,” and he remembered getting incredibly scared every time Darabont said “roll.”

When it came to preparing to play such emotionally charged scenes, Duncan credited the training he received from noted acting coach Larry Moss who taught him “how to dig within myself.”

“I’m an emotional person, a very emotional person,” Duncan said. “All those tears you see in the movie were mine.”

Darabont still vividly remembers how “immersive and incredible” the experience of making “The Green Mile” with Duncan was:

“What sticks most in my mind was his (Duncan’s) devotion to his craft and the strides he made as an artist during that time, which was beyond inspiring to those of us who took the journey with him,” Darabont said. “Never has an actor more richly deserved the recognition of an Academy Award nomination than Michael did for his performance as John Coffey.”

Rest in peace Michael, you will be missed.

SOURCES:

Kimberly Nordyke, “‘Green Mile’ Director Frank Darabont Remembers Michael Clarke Duncan,” The Hollywood Reporter, September 3, 2012.

Meriah Doty, “Bruce Willis helped Michael Clarke Duncan get his Oscar caliber role,” Movie Talk, Yahoo! Movies, September 3, 2012.

Dennis McLellan, “Michael Clarke Duncan dies; Oscar-nominated ‘Green Mile’ star was 54,” Los Angeles Times, September 3, 2012.

‘Halloween Kills’ is Brutal in More Ways Than One

It’s been a long time coming, but “Halloween Kills” has finally arrived in theaters everywhere. Personally, I think it is the result of Michael Myers keeping his mask on. Heck, he has been keeping it on for the most part since 1978. In this franchise, it is said that evil never dies and you can’t kill the boogeyman. Maybe this is because he is not an anti-vaxxer and has gotten his shots (whether it was Moderna or Johnson & Johnson, I have no idea). Besides, his victims this time around aren’t wearing masks. Doesn’t this tell you something?

Okay, let’s get something out of the way here, is “Halloween Kills” as effective as David Gordon Green’s previous “Halloween” from 2018? Not quite, and it does at times seem more concerned with upping the blood and gore this time around to where no one dies an easy death. Still, this follow-up has some very suspenseful moments as we know Michael, or The Shape as he is often called, is just around the corner. The question is, which corner?

Picking up at the moment where the previous installment ended, three generations of Strode women are being driven away from the fiery inferno which has engulfed Laurie’s home, but the fire department in Haddonfield is more reliable than they could have expected as they race over to her address even as she yells out, “let it burn!” And as the trailer shows us, Michael is quite handy with tools and hardware as he easily lays waste to trained professionals.

With 2018’s “Halloween,” Green retconned the franchise to excellent effect. In “Halloween Kills,” Green and screenwriters Scott Teems and Danny McBride retcon it even further as we see Michael getting captured by the police, and we learn of Deputy Frank Hawkins’ first run in with Michael when he was a fresh newbie on the police force. More importantly, it allows Will Patton to appear in yet another “Halloween” film as his seriously wounded character manages to survive. We also get to understand why Frank now has a renewed interest in killing Michael.

One of the things I really enjoyed about “Halloween Kills” is its attention to the characters. This is not your average slasher film filled with people you cannot wait to see get bludgeoned to death, and you never hear the audience breaking into a chant of “kill the bitch” as I witnessed at a screening of “Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood” years ago. They are all flesh and blood, some simply minding their own business while others still vividly remember what happened to their beloved hometown 40 years ago. Heck, even Lonnie Elam (Robert Longstreet) and Tommy Doyle (Anthony Michael Hall) get along here as Lonnie’s days of bullying Tommy have long since been put behind them. Deaths here are not ones to be celebrated, but are instead meant to be tragic.

Another fascinating thing is how this sequel touches on current events without ever exploiting them. When word gets out that Michael is back in Haddonfield doing his slicing and dicing act, Tommy is quick to get everyone he can together so they can form a mob to take down the Shape once and for all. The police encourage him and others not to go down this path, but considering how well they did the last time Michael came to town, and they refused to be swayed.

Granted, this franchise has dealt with angry mobs before, particularly in “Halloween 4,” but the mob in that one was incredibly tiny compared to one presented in “Halloween Kills.” Just about everyone in Haddonfield is seen shouting out “evil dies tonight” endlessly to where even its former sheriff, Leigh Brackett (Charles Cyphers, back for the first time since 1981’s “Halloween II”), wants to see justice done for his slain daughter. Of course, we all know angry mobs can lead to needless violence and death, and this makes the events which unfold here all the more tragic.

Of course, it is the Strode women who take center stage in this latest confrontation with the Shape. Surprisingly, Laurie Strode is largely left on the sidelines this time around as she recovers from a knife wound to the stomach. Still, this gives Jamie Lee Curtis a chance to shine in scenes opposite Patton as both talk about what could have been. Judy Greer proves to be more badass than ever as Karen, Laurie’s daughter who struggles to move past the death of her husband to keep her daughter safe. But as “Halloween Kills” reaches its bloody conclusion, even she realizes how evil must die.

Andi Matichak also returns as Laurie’s granddaughter, Allyson, who has since come to see that the boogeyman is real. Matichak makes Allyson into a tough character, but the actress is never hesitant to show the fear on her face as she gets closer and closer to Michael. As Allyson enters his childhood home armed with a shotgun, even Matichak knows it would be foolish for this character not to be the least bit scared.

There are some actors who are new to the franchise here, and they are very welcome additions. I figured Robert Longstreet would make Lonnie into an adult who still loves to bully kids like Tommy, but he instead makes this character into a wounded adult who looks out for his son and will never forget “the night he came home.” It is also great to see Anthony Michael Hall, long since removed from his Brat Pack days, here as Tommy Doyle. With Tommy’s introductory monologue, Hall puts the audience under a spell as he reminds us of Haddonfield’s tragedy while paying respect to the lives lost and how we should “never forget.” Hall is really good here. I also got a kick out of Scott MacArthur and Michael McDonald who play an eclectic couple that own the old Myers’ house. Furthermore, they know what happened there and have no buyer’s remorse (or will they?).

And yes, John Carpenter, along with son Cody Carpenter and Daniel Davies, have provided “Halloween Kills” with a terrific film score. The themes are familiar ones, but they are given a mournful sound as we are reminded of ghosts which have yet to be laid to rest. There are also some nice propulsive themes as well to keep the adrenaline going. Those who are a fan of Carpenter’s music will not be disappointed.

In some ways, “Halloween Kills” is at a disadvantage as it is the middle chapter in a trilogy, and we still have “Halloween Ends” to look forward to. Whether or not evil can die, I think it’s safe to say it can take one hell of a beating and keep on ticking. I mean, it has to knowing a third chapter is one the way. Regardless, this sequel gave me much to admire about it as it deals with how the bullied often become the bully, how the past can haunt us to no end, that small suburban towns are more often know for tragedies than anything else, and that some people have no business holding a gun.

Just keep in mind one thing: While this looks like a John Carpenter “Halloween” movie, it is a David Gordon Green “Halloween” movie. It is important to note this as many horror fans may be expecting a certain kind of film here, and you really should remember who is behind the camera on this one as it may not be the one you think.

It will be interesting to see Laurie Strode have one last showdown with Michael Myers, and I believe David Gordon Green has long since been prepared to save the best for last. Michael is not just pure evil; he is like the Energizer bunny, except with a bloody knife instead of a drum. He just keeps stabbing and stabbing and stabbing…

* * * out of * * * *

‘Spectre’ – The Global Criminal Organization Returns to Haunt James Bond in the New Millennium

WRITER’S NOTE: The following review was written in 2015.

James Bond fans will be thrilled to know that the gun barrel sequence has been returned to the opening of this latest 007 adventure. For the past few Bond films, it has been relegated to the end to make clear just how rebooted this long running franchise became when Daniel Craig came on board to fill that tuxedo and enjoy the shaken, not stirred martinis. But now it precedes the action-packed prologue, and it’s just as well because “Spectre” aims to be more along the lines of the classic 007 adventures where the suave spy does battle with a secret organization which is bent on world domination and ends up seeing so much more than the NSA does on a daily basis. Still, it does have a strong focus on character as the past continues to haunt Bond to where the dead are not really dead.

First, let us get this out of the way: Is “Spectre” better than or as good as “Skyfall?” No, but this was kind of a given since the previous installment reached such extraordinary heights which the average Bond film usually never reaches, and this includes grossing over a billion dollars at the box office. In the end this did not matter much to me because, on its own, “Spectre” is a compelling and thrilling movie which reunites Craig with the brilliant Sam Mendes whose work on the last installment was impeccable. With this latest Bond film, they both are determined to dig even deeper into 007’s fractured and turbulent history, and it reintroduces us to certain character types and criminal organizations which defined many of the early Bond adventures.

After a thrilling action-packed opening sequence in Mexico, one of this franchise’s very best by the way, Bond is informed by M (Ralph Fiennes) he is being suspended from duty as his mission there was not authorized by him or the British government. However, we later learn he received a cryptic message from a previous mentor informed him to kill a man in Mexico and attend his funeral in Rome, and this is just the beginning to his uncovering the criminal organization whose name is an acronym for Special Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion. Suffice to say, they got everything covered.

Mendes hasn’t lost a step here, and he is also served well by cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema (“Interstellar”) who gives even the dirtiest scenes an inescapable beauty. This movie also has a great opening and unbroken shot which lasts several minutes as we watch Bond attend a Day of the Dead parade, head upstairs with a lovely lady presumably to bed, and then he suddenly goes out the window in pursuit of his latest nemesis who has seriously pissed off her majesty’s secret service.

The main villain is Franz Oberhauser, and he is portrayed by the brilliant and endlessly entertaining Christoph Waltz. This is the same actor who gave us one of the most fiendish villains in cinematic history in Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds,” but he’s not out to replay Hans Landa here. When we first see Franz, he doesn’t even have to speak up or raise his voice to show how powerful he is. Everyone simply stands at attention, and no one questions his decision making at any point. This makes Waltz’s job even easier as his character clearly exerts a power very few bother to question. Some claim he is too quiet in his first scene, but for him to yell at everyone or shout to keep everyone in place would strike me as being desperate to keep everything under control. Franz doesn’t need to do this because everything has long since come under his control.

As for the Bond women (calling them Bond girls does not feel the least bit appropriate anymore), they are played by Monica Bellucci and Lea Seydoux. Bellucci plays Lucia Sciarra, the widow of an assassin killed by Bond, and she mesmerizes us in the far too few minutes she appears onscreen. Bellucci is said to be the oldest Bond woman ever, but does this really need to be pointed out? I don’t care how old she is because she still sizzles and holds her own against Craig even as he seduces her to the audience’s delight.

Seydoux is best remembered from her role as the beautiful but cold-hearted assassin in “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol,” and here she plays Dr. Madeleine Swann, a psychologist who has a link to a person Bond dealt with in the past. She proves to be a strong Bond woman here as she brings up her tragic upbringing which has informed her defensiveness around those she doesn’t know very well, and she makes clear of how she has a strong dislike of guns. She’s a wonderful presence here, and she and Craig make quite the couple.

Dave Bautista co-stars as Mr. Hinx, a character designed to spark our nostalgic memories of Oddjob. Mr. Hinx is a henchman of few words, but his actions speak a lot louder than his words and leave a lot of damage in his path. This is not a henchman content with throwing a hat around as his hands do all the work and leave quite the impression.

Ralph Fiennes confidently fills the shoes of Dame Judi Dench’s M as Mallory, and like the previous head of MI6, Mallory finds he can control Bond as well as she could, which is to say only so much. Naomie Harris returns as Eve Moneypenny who has since settled in to becoming M’s assistant, Rory Kinnear remains reliable as always as Chief of Staff Bill Tanner, Jesper Christensen reprises his role as Mr. White from previous installments, and Ben Whishaw steals every single scene he’s in as Q. Seriously, watching Whishaw is such a delight this time out as he infuses the role with a wonderfully dry sense of humor as he reminds Bond of how he has a mortgage and two cats to feed.

And, of course, Mendes brings back composer Thomas Newman to give “Spectre” an emotional and propulsive film score which will has me eagerly awaiting its release on compact disc. I especially enjoyed his collaboration with the Mexican contemporary classical percussion group Tambuco on the music they composed for the Day of the Dead scenes. As for the theme song “The Writing’s on The Wall” which is performed by Sam Smith, it’s good but nowhere as priceless as Adele’s “Skyfall.”

But let’s not leave out the man of the hour, Daniel Craig. Ever since he made his debut as 007 in “Casino Royale” he has not only made this iconic role his own, but has also given Ian Fleming’s classic character a humanity and a depth his predecessors hoped to give as much of. His respect for Bond is never in doubt as he brings 007 around full circle to where we learn even more about his past than we did previously, and how it has come to define his present state in life. It’s still up in the air as to whether this will be Craig’s last time playing the famous British secret agent who likes his martinis shaken, not stirred, but I have to believe he has at least one more Bond film left in him.

How you come to view “Spectre” may depend on the kind of expectations you bring to it, and it’s hard not to have high expectations after the brilliant “Skyfall.” Do yourself a favor and leave them at the door and just enjoy it for what it is; a gorgeous and extravagant Bond film which, while a bit too long (editor Stuart Baird is missed here), has us wondering where 007, a man who another character describes as being a “kite dancing in a hurricane,” will go from here.

* * * ½ out of * * * *