‘The Many Saints of Newark’ Movie and Blu-ray Review

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

As someone who considers “The Sopranos” the greatest television drama of all-time, I was supremely excited to check out “The Many Saints of Newark,” which is a prequel to the television series which captivated audiences from 1999-2007.  At the time, I did not have HBO, so I, unfortunately, didn’t catch the show on its original run. Upon working at Blockbuster, I was able to pick up the series on DVD.  I now own the entire series on Blu-ray, and it only gets better with multiple viewings as there is the family drama, the therapy scenes, the crime element, and even moments of comedy.  It’s a masterpiece.

With “The Many Saints of Newark,” we open up in the late sixties on a young Tony Soprano with his Uncle and mentor Dickie Moltisanti.  Dickie is played brilliantly by Alessandro Nivola in a performance that is perfect from start-to-finish. Dickie is part of the DiMeo crime family.  Other members of the family include Johnny Soprano, Junior, Silvio Dante, Paulie Walnuts, Pussy Bonpensiero, and Pussy’s father who is nicknamed Buddha. Some of the stand-out performers here include Jon Bernthal as Johnny Soprano, Tony’s father. Junior is played by the versatile Corey Stoll. Buddha is also played by the always entertaining comedian Joey Coco Diaz.

If you have never seen “The Sopranos” before, you will probably have a very difficult time understanding what is happening in the film.  This is a film which was made for those who have watched “The Sopranos” and are familiar with the characters and all of their personality traits and even lines of dialogue. It’s been a while since I’ve watched the show, and it took me a moment to piece it together.  Once I did, it was a nice trip down memory lane.  Prequels can be hit-or-miss, and “The Many Saints of Newark,” for the most part, is a hit.  It left me looking forward to hopefully future installments, which I’ve heard have been talked about by series creator David Chase.

During this time in Newark, there are riots breaking out after an African-American taxi driver is killed by a white policeman. One of Dickie’s runners, Harold McBrayer (Leslie Odom Jr.) is an African-American, and he’s getting sick and tired of being only a runner.  He’s also taking part in the riots as he wants there to be equal footing for African-Americans to be able to do business as well. Since Tony Soprano doesn’t have a great relationship with his father, he looks up to Dickie Moltisanti. Tony is getting in trouble by smoking, drinking and gambling at school.  It’s hard for him because his father is not exactly a model citizen, and his mother Livia (Vera Farmiga) is never satisfied and incapable of showing any affection.

I could go into more detail with numerous backstories, but I don’t want to give away too much for those who are going into the film blindly.  As you can tell by reading my review, which only touches on certain aspects of the story, there is a lot happening at once.  In some cases, this is a bad thing.  It is definitely a tale of two movies.  The first hour of this two-hour movie is the weak link. When the film introduces us to teenage Tony Soprano, played by Michael Gandolfini, the son of the late, great James Gandolfini, it really starts to soar and take off.  If the entire film was like the second half of the film, it would have been perfect.

One of the things I did not mention in my review is the dual-performance of Ray Liotta, as both “Hollywood Dick” Moltisanti and as Salvatore “Sally” Moltisanti.  The “Hollywood Dick” persona is loud, aggressive, and rude.  He marries a young Italian woman and treats her very poorly, which upsets his son Dickie as he saw the same behavior unleashed on his mother.  Salvatore, on the other hand, is in prison and full of Buddhist wisdom, which seems to be a great source of comfort for Dickie when he’s conflicted on what is the right thing to do in certain situations and scenarios.  Even though it’s the same actor, it’s two completely different performances.

In the end, “The Many Saints of Newark” is a film that almost reaches greatness, but the first half of the film is really hard to ignore.  However, the second half left me with goosebumps and reminded me of why I fell in love with the show in the first place.  The cast is also top-notch and incredible.  My personal favorite performance of the film comes from Vera Farmiga.  She really captures the essence of Livia and all of the drama and issues which came with her.  Of course, I would be remiss if I did not mention the performance by Michael Gandolfini.  He’s not mimicking his father as Tony Soprano.  It’s more about getting the little nuisances of the character and how he felt as a young teenager which led to his issues in the show as an adult mob boss.   Everyone is great here, so if I’m leaving anyone out, it’s not intentional.

I must also talk about the look of the film.  It’s shot perfectly with a great sense of time and place. Alan Taylor really gets the little things right.  It’s a gorgeous film to look at with its use of blue tones.  He left no stone unturned in making this film.  The outfits worn by the characters are even spot-on, which shows how much thought went into this production.  It was co-written by series creator David Chase.   Since he spent so much time with these characters, it’s obviously a very personal project for him. While “The Many Saints of Newark” is not perfect, the scenes and performances that work really stand out and will leave hardcore fans of the show quite pleased.  I think it will also leave them wanting more.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Blu-Ray Info: “The Many Saints of Newark” is released on a single-disc Blu-ray from Warner Brothers Home Entertainment. It also comes with a digital copy of the film.  It is rated R for strong violence, pervasive language, sexual content and some nudity.  It has a running time of 120 minutes.

Video/Audio Info: “The Many Saints of Newark” comes on a crystal clear 1080p High-Definition transfer, which is simply stunning and incredibly vibrant.  The audio comes in a few different formats: Dolby Atmos-TrueHD: English, Dolby Digital: English Descriptive Audio, English, French, and Spanish. Subtitles are in English, French, and Spanish.

Special Features:

The Making of Newark

The Sopranos Family Honor

Deleted Scenes

Should You Buy It?

I really wrestled with whether I wanted to give this film three stars or three and a half stars.  I’ll put it this way: the first hour of the film is a two-star movie, and the second hour is a four-star movie.  I know four plus two equals six, so if you divide those two, you should get three stars.  However, the second hour is so impactful and mesmerizing, I broke the rules of math and gave it three and a half stars.  It left me with such hope and promise.  Once I heard that music play at the end of the film and saw the look in the eyes of Michael Gandolfini, I said to myself, “I want to see more of THIS.”  I imagine, as with anything which is popular and a prequel, the film is going to be polarizing to fans of the franchise. I completely respect that, as “The Sopranos” is a show which is very personal to a lot of people, myself included. As far as if you should buy the film, I would buy it if you are a hardcore fan of the show.  If you watched the show, liked it, and never thought about it again, you can probably hold off on buying it for a little while.  There are some decent special features here, but it seems like studios are really lacking with physical media special features these days.  I can’t remember the last time I listened to a commentary track on a physical release.

**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.

‘Cry Macho’ Movie and Blu-ray Review

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

Cry Macho” shows a more sensitive and vulnerable Clint Eastwood looking back on his film career and life. After all, this is the 50th anniversary of his working relationship with Warner Brothers.  He has always been a patient filmmaker known for gorgeous scenery and knowing how to get the most out of each and every scene. Roger Ebert once said Eastwood’s films are a prime example of old-fashioned Hollywood craftsmanship.  The fact Eastwood is 91 and still directing and acting in films is truly astounding and surreal. This is a quiet, peaceful and contemplative film.  As an actor, he has always known how less is more. He’s never been an overly loud or showy actor, and he knows the best way to get an emotional reaction out of the audience is through his face. 

This film is set in 1979 as Eastwood plays Mike Milo, a retired rodeo star who has turned to booze and pills due to a broken back. His ex-boss Howard Polk (Dwight Yoakam) calls in a favor with Mike after all he’s done to support him throughout the years.  He wants Mike to go from Texas to Mexico and bring back his thirteen-year-old son Rafo (Eduardo Minett).  Howard claims he can’t go there for legal reasons and because of trouble with the son’s mother.  Mike will do this job as a one-time favor for Howard, but he has his reservations about the situation.  He wonders if Howard’s son will come with him and how he’s going to pull this off.

Upon entering Mexico, he runs into Howard’s ex, Leta (Fernanda Urrejola), who claims he can take her son if he’s able to find him.  In her eyes, he’s getting into trouble all of the time and spending too much time at cock fights with his rooster named Macho. Rafo doesn’t trust anyone, especially Mike, but he’s interested in reconnecting with his father and getting away from his mother and her many male suitors.  Many of these men have beaten Rafo in the past, and he wants to get as far away from that as possible.

Along the way, Mike, Rafo and Macho have to escape from police officers as well as Leta’s goons.  They have car issues and also have trouble connecting with each other at times.  On the other hand, Mike sees a chance at redemption with Rafo in that he can make up for the mistakes of his past. He sees something special in Rafo, especially with how the kid has been forced to grow up very quickly because of his upbringing. They do get some help along the way from a widow named Marta (Natalia Traven) and her grandchildren.  There might even be a little bit of a love story between Marta and Mike as well.

First and foremost, let’s talk about the good things in “Cry Macho.” The film is beautifully paced. Eastwood is known as a director who usually shoots scenes in one-take. There is something very authentic and real about his films. There is a sense of time and place throughout the film. He’s the major star here, and he’s still got it at age 91.  At times, he does appear a little frail, but I’m going to chalk that up to the character he’s playing having broken his back.  His comedic timing, line deliveries and charisma are still on full-display.  He’s a minimalist actor, as mentioned earlier, which I’ve always appreciated.

Now, let’s focus on some of the issues.  Dwight Yoakam has acted before in films, but he reads his lines here in such a bland and flat manner.  Also, some of the lesser-known actors here are a little green when it comes to their acting chops.  In some cases, it lends itself perfectly to the film.  In other cases, it can be a little cringy and hard to watch.  When you have a seasoned pro like Eastwood, you are hoping to see him act alongside some really good actors.  It’s always good for up-and-comers to get an opportunity in a major motion picture, but even at age 91, Eastwood is miles ahead of them.  In some scenes, it was difficult to watch their inexperience, and in other scenes, it’s charming and exactly what the scene needs. Overall, this is not one of Eastwood’s greatest films, but it’s watchable, sweet and entertaining. It is good enough.

* * * out of * * * *

Blu-Ray Info: “Cry Macho” is released on a single-disc Blu-ray from Warner Brothers Home Entertainment. It has a running time of 104 minutes and is rated PG-13 for language and thematic elements. It also comes with a digital copy of the film.

Video/Audio Info: The film is presented in 1080p High Definition.  For the audio, it comes in the following formats: DTS-HD MA: English 5.1, Dolby Digital: English Descriptive Audio, French, and Spanish. Subtitles are included in English, French, and Spanish.

Special Features:

Back in the Saddle: The Making of Cry Macho and the Mustangs

Should You Buy It?

As with anything on HBO Max, I always enjoy a second viewing on Blu-ray.  I find I’m the type of viewer who likes to watch certain films multiple times to really grasp the vision of the director.  With “Cry Macho,” once again, I enjoyed it more on a second viewing.  It’s heartfelt, touching, and reflective on the part of Clint Eastwood.  He gives a great speech about being “macho” and what it really means. It feels like Eastwood has evolved as a human being, and he’s commenting on some of his past work. As far as the film itself, it was an enjoyable viewing experience.  It is nothing which is going to blow you away as a viewer or stay with you after it’s over.  The Blu-ray is pretty bare bones in terms of having only one special feature. I can’t recommend it as a purchase right away at its current price.  If you can get it in a few months for $10 or less and you are a big Eastwood fan, I’d pick it up then.  There is no need to rush out to buy it right away.

**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.

‘Malignant’ Movie and Blu-ray Review

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

Malignant” was not only one of the most polarizing horror films of 2021, it was one of the most polarizing 2021 films in general.  There were critics and fans who called it a horror classic and one of the best horror films they’ve seen in quite a while.  You also had an audience which absolutely hated the film and thought it was laughably silly.  I thought it was one of the most entertaining, graphic, and in-your-face films of this past year.  It reminded me a lot of a David Cronenberg film with its use of imagery, especially during some of the later scenes, which I don’t want to go into great detail about because I don’t want to spoil it for anyone.

Our film opens with a pregnant woman named Madison Mitchell (Annabelle Wallis) coming home from a long day of work to an abusive husband watching UFC on TV. He ends up banging her head against the wall in a fit of rage when he finds out she is not feeling too well.  They have had a couple of miscarriages in the past, and he is abusing her as though it is her fault.  Things, however, take an even more dramatic turn for the couple when her husband, Derek (Jake Abel), ends up dead in brutal fashion.  The two detectives on the case, played by George Young and Michole Briana White, first look at it as a home invasion where the husband died and the woman suffered some major injuries.  However, Madison doesn’t remember anything about a home invasion or what happened that night.

She turns to her sister, Sydney (Maddie Hasson), to help her figure out exactly what is going on. Things are taken up another notch when more and more people end up dead, and Madison is able to see and experience them as if she is there for the murder, even though she’s at home.  Detective Kekoa Shaw (George Young) is very curious about the case and believes the sisters when they say something is amuck.  He’s not afraid to look into it and investigate it while his partner, Regina Moss (Michole Briana White), thinks the two sisters are not making a lot of sense. However, before long, it’s not hard to see a connection between Madison and all of the murders.

“Malignant” is a film which relies on a big twist in the third act.  A lot of people said they saw the twist coming.  When I’m engrossed in a film, I tend not to spend a lot of time trying to figure out the result.  I’m more focused on what is happening and letting it unfold for me before my eyes. I’ve seen this film twice now: once on HBO Max and now on Blu-ray.  The first time I watched it, I found it a little slow-moving, tedious and, at times, quite dull.  The third act, however, saved the film for me.  I remember looking at my wife after the amazing third act and saying, “I need to watch this movie again. That ending blew me away!”

On a second viewing, the first half made a lot more sense to me, perhaps because I knew what was going to happen and how it was going to end.  This is a film which is only going to get better with multiple viewings.  I truly believe it is going to be a cult-classic for decades to come because of how balls-to-wall and brutally bloody and gory it is.  With that being said, this is a smart, well-made and well-acted horror movie.  It’s also a smart look at PTSD, trauma, how we handle it, and how our thoughts can control us.  There is a lot underneath the surface of “Malignant” and a whole lot to like.

James Wan, director of “Saw,” “The Conjuring”, “Insidious,” and “Furious 7” to name a few, has shown he has a great eye behind the camera.  This might be his most ambitious film to date which is saying something considering he directed “Aquaman.”  He goes for broke and does not disappoint.  As I mentioned earlier, I had a whole new appreciation for this film on a second viewing.  The emotional aspects are incredibly powerful and work in the world of a horror film.  Wan has always known how to create drama and real characters in a horror movie that you care about and root for from start to finish. I can’t wait to watch it again and again.  It’s a true work of art.

* * * * out of * * * *

Blu-Ray Info: “Malignant” is released on a single-disc Blu-ray from Warner Brothers Home Entertainment. It also comes with a digital code of the film. The film has a running time of 111 minutes and is rated R for strong horror violence, gruesome images, and language.

Video/Audio Info:  This comes on a 1080p High-Definition transfer.  The audio formats are DTS-HD MA: English 5.1, Dolby Digital: English Descriptive Audio, French, and Spanish. Subtitles are included in English, French, and Spanish.

Special Features:

Malignant: James Wan’s Visions

Should You Buy It?

YES, YES, and YES!!! The major bummer is the fact there is only one fourteen-minute special feature on this Blu-ray.  I would have loved an audio commentary with director James Wan. I’ve listened to his commentaries on some of his previous films, and he never fails to entertain and inform the audience.  This is the only blemish on this release: one tiny special feature.  However, if you are looking at the stand-alone film, this is a great one to pick up for the horror fan in your life.  They will not be disappointed by the final product.  I understand the polarizing nature of the film based on reviews from both critics and audiences alike.  However, I think “Malignant” is a horror masterpiece. The jail scene took my breath away.  The way it’s shot with wall-to-wall action is simply outstanding.  The way he takes his time in building up to the finish is exceptional. This film is only going to get better the more you watch it.  You should take a chance on it. You won’t regret it.

**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.

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 on the HBO drama series “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 * * * *

‘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 * * * *

‘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.

‘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 * * * *

‘Skyfall’ – One of the Best James Bond Films Ever Made

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

“American Beauty” director Sam Mendes has just accomplished the impossible; he made a better James Bond movie than “Casino Royale.” That one set the bar for so high to where it should not have been a surprise “Quantum of Solace” was not as good, but “Skyfall” gets my vote for being one of the very best in the 007 franchise. This installment continues in giving us a darker and edgier Bond as portrayed by the excellent Daniel Craig, and it also brings back some of the things many felt were missing from the last two films like the gadgets, the one-liners and, of all people, Q.

“Skyfall” starts off with a bang as we catch up with Bond in Turkey where he is on the trail of a man who has stolen the hard drive containing the identities of undercover agents. While trying to retrieve the drive, Bond is accidentally shot by fellow British agent Eve (Naomie Harris) and presumed dead. But being this all happens at the movie’s beginning, we know he will not stay dead for very long. While we watch him use his presumed death to go into retirement where he gets drunk off his ass while remaining deeply resentful of M’s (Dame Judi Dench) order for Eve to “take the bloody shot,” MI6 is suddenly destroyed and his love of England forces him to return to active duty. Upon his return, he soon discovers M’s nemesis has a very personal connection to her which makes him all the more dangerous.

This film does take its time to get going, but in retrospect it was worth it. Craig’s Bond has never been a superhero, but instead a vulnerable agent with weaknesses he cannot hide from others. As we watch him retrain, Craig shows us his Bond is deeply troubled and almost bent on self-destruction. It’s his duty to the country of England which manages to keep him relatively sane. This is Craig’s third outing as 007, and I still think he’s the best thing to happen to this franchise in a long time, and he looks to be having more fun this time around as he cracks a joke or two.

Thankfully, Craig never lets 007 descend into camp or tries to turn him into a standup comedian with a gun. While his take on this iconic role feels like it been deadly serious, seeing him loosen is a real gift as he has long since come to own this character. In a perfect world, Craig would get an Oscar nomination for his performance, but since the other actors who inhabited Bond never did, it is unlikely he will break tradition in this circumstance.

Now when it comes to my favorite Bond films, they usually are the ones where things get very personal for 007 and those around him. When this happens, they become more emotionally involving and exciting for me to watch as there is more at stake than just defeating a villain bent on world domination. This is especially the case with “Skyfall” as it delves into the past of its main characters in a way I don’t think any Bond movie has done before. The script by Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and John Logan (“Hugo,” “Coriolanus” and “Gladiator”) places most of its emphasis on relationships, especially on the one between Bond and M. It is that emphasis that makes this film all the more riveting to watch.

Dame Judi Dench, who has played M since Pierce Brosnan first played 007 in “Goldeneye,” benefits here especially as her character is given a more severe complexity than what we have seen previously. Dench has always been superb as M, but ever since Craig came into the series she has been a fireball as she starts out with a powerfully brazen attitude which never ever lets up. But here we see the seams in her controlled nature as the past catches up with her in an especially nasty way. Dench nails every moment she has in “Skyfall” perfectly, and she makes M an especially fascinating character to watch this time around.

“Skyfall” also has the advantage of having not just one, but two terrific Bond girls: Naomie Harris and Bérénice Marlohe. Harris, best known for her roles in “28 Days Later” and the “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies, shares a sizzling chemistry and playfulness with Craig, especially in the scene where she gives him a very close shave. As for Marlohe, she’s a knockout as she makes her character of Sévérine as enigmatic as she is beautiful. When Bond asks for the name of her employer, the look of utter fear which crosses her face is an unforgettable moment as it sets up the grand introduction of this film’s Bond villain.

The Bond villain of this piece is Raoul Silva, and he is played by Javier Bardem in a deliciously evil performance. It should be no surprise how brilliantly unnerving he is here as this is the same actor who won an Oscar for playing Anton Chigurh in “No Country for Old Men.” But when it comes to Silva, he is an especially twisted soul to witness in action. This isn’t a villain bent on world domination, but instead on avenging a betrayal which made him what he is today. Bardem actually doesn’t make his first appearance until well into the film, but he has an unforgettable entrance where he tells a story involving rats. The Bond villains always have great stories to tell, and Silva’s proves to be one of this franchise’s most memorable.

And yes, we do get to see the return of Q, and he is played here by Ben Whishaw (“Cloud Atlas”). Whishaw is splendid in the role as he skillfully underplays this classic character to where he makes it his own. Unlike the late, and still missed, Desmond Llewellyn, this Q is not quite in a position to admonish Bond on a regular basis. Whishaw, however, is able to match wits with Craig and hold his own in a way Q has not always been able to do previously, and he is a lot of fun to watch as a result.

Mendes remains a masterful filmmaker as he manages to balance out the action and the story in “Skyfall” to great effect. I also applaud him for not letting this Bond adventure turn into a clone of a Jason Bourne movie. This proved to be a big problem with “Quantum of Solace” as the shaky cam got to be a bit too much, but Mendes is perfectly aware that while Jason Bourne is Jason Bourne, Bond has been around long enough to where he doesn’t need to copy anyone. The opening sequence gets things off to a thrilling start, and it shows how Mendes has a talent for filming adrenaline pumping action scenes as he does in directing actors to great performances.

“Skyfall” also features a terrific music score by Thomas Newman and one of the best Bond theme songs in a long time performed by Adele. The title song brings back the classic Bond song sound which singers like Shirley Bassey made famous with “Goldfinger,” and it fits the movie’s story perfectly. While I miss David Arnold who has composed the scores for the Bond movies since “Tomorrow Never Dies,” Newman’s work here is exceptional as it sounds unlike any score he has done previously. It’s always a thrill to see a composer step outside of their comfort zone to do something a little different.

But another star of this film I have to single out among others is its cinematographer, Roger Deakins. While I was previously familiar with his work in “The Shawshank Redemption,” “Fargo” and “Revolutionary Road,” the lighting in “Skyfall” is infinitely beautiful to where I am certain few other cinematographers could never accomplish like he did here. Whether it is Bond’s memorable entrance in Istanbul, his time in Shanghai or the climax in Scotland, he gives us visuals no other director of photography could ever give us.

I don’t think I have ever seen a 007 movie I didn’t like, and even the worst of them prove to be very entertaining to watch. Having said that, it is such a thrill to see a Bond movie where all the elements come together in such a truly fulfilling way. “Skyfall” is not only one of the best Bond movies ever, but also one of best films of 2012. It took four years to get one to the big screen, but it was well worth the wait.

* * * * out of * * * *