‘The Great Gatsby’ – Even Baz Luhrmann Can’t Bring Fitzgerald’s Classic Novel to Life

I once had a teacher in college who told me filmmakers keep making the same movie over again and again without even realizing it, and Baz Luhrmann is a prime example of this. His “Romeo & Juliet” and “Moulin Rouge” dealt with characters looking back at a past they can never return to and of love affairs which ended tragically. His adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel “The Great Gatsby” is not any different from those two films, and it is filled with extravagant scenes that dazzle us with amazing choreography and beautiful images. But while it is a beautiful movie to look at, this film lacks the heart and soul I usually expect Luhrmann’s works to have in an infinite degree.

This “Gatsby” adaptation starts with Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire), a writer and bond broker, telling us about his time in New York during the 1920s (better known in the history books as the “Roaring 20s”). Right there I knew the movie was in trouble as Luhrmann started “Moulin Rouge” off with Ewan McGregor reflecting on an exhilarating past and a great love which has long since passed him by, and Maguire is a very similar character in that respect. From there, it is clear that this movie will not have a happy ending, and the characters we see enjoying themselves will soon experience a suffering which will be endless. We’re not even five minutes into this cinematic adaptation, and already I can tell this will be familiar territory for Luhrmann, way too familiar.

The 1920s were a time of great wealth and endless partying which came to a crashing halt the following decade when the stock market crashed and Americans found themselves out of a job (sound familiar?). Carraway finds himself caught up in all the hoopla which came with those times, and it’s at an especially over the top party where he meets Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), a man as rich as he is mysterious. From there they become inseparable friends as Gatsby shows Carraway around town and introduces him to the most influential people one could ever hope to meet. But it’s when Gatsby takes a strong interest in Carraway’s cousin, Daisy (Carey Mulligan), that things start changing and not for the better. It turns out Gatsby knew Daisy in the past, and now Gatsby will do everything in his power to win Daisy back from her suspicious husband, polo player Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton).

“The Great Gatsby” has the same problem Luhrmann’s “Romeo & Juliet” had during its first half; it thrust a lot of style and flash cuts at us at an alarming rate to where I was desperate for things to slow down so I could breathe and actually everything in on a deeper level. Now Luhrmann did slow things down in “Romeo & Juliet” to where we connected emotionally with the story and its characters, and he successfully reinvigorated one of William Shakespeare’s most overdone plays to where it felt fresh and exciting again. But this time he gets so caught up in the spectacle he is putting up for us all to see to where it became impossible for me to connect with anything or anybody here. The sensory overload I got in his previous films was exhilarating, but here everything feels so exhausting and artificial to where it doesn’t matter if you watch this film in 2D or 3D (I watched it in 2D because I refused to spend the extra money). The characters may be starving for emotion, but it’s the audience that needs it even more.

Whether or not you have read Fitzgerald’s classic novel, it’s easy to see the direction this movie was going to take. As a result, I found myself getting very bored and impatient as I knew Gatsby would eventually stumble over his own ambitions, and I just wanted see him get his ass kicked sooner rather than later. Heck, I even got up and went to the bathroom at one point, and that should you give you an idea of how frustrating this movie was for me. I was able to sit through “Star Trek V: The Final Frontier” despite needing to pee really bad, but this one I could not hold it in. Yes, that’s too much information for you readers, but anyway…

On the upside, the actors acquit themselves very nicely. You can’t really go wrong with DiCaprio, and he does make quite the dashing Gatsby, but there should be a drinking game based on how many times he calls people “old sport” throughout, and I seriously got sick of him saying that. His good friend Tobey Maguire has his back as Nick Carraway, and he does a lovely job of reading Fitzgerald’s words to where I’d like to hear him do a reading of the novel as he brings us a lot closer to the author’s dialogue than Luhrmann does.

Carey Mulligan, however, is seriously miscast as Daisy Buchanan. She still gets to do her whole woefully vulnerable lady act which she played to perfection in “An Education,” but Mulligan is not able to nail the other complexities this role has to offer. Yes, she is a lovely presence to watch in this or in any other movie, but this is not enough to save her performance here.

Clearly a tremendous amount of effort was put forth by the cast and crew on “The Great Gatsby,” but it doesn’t change the fact that the movie is a profound disappointment. Fitzgerald’s novel has been adapted several times with limited success, and many say it is an exceedingly hard book to translate to the silver screen. Luhrmann looked like he was the man who could do it justice, but he doesn’t come close. What a shame. We can always count on him to give us spectacle as well as substance, but this movie is all spectacle and not enough substance.

* ½ out of * * * *

‘The Lincoln Lawyer’ – The Beginning of the McConaughey Renaissance

WRITER’S NOTE: This review was written in 2011, back when the McConaughey renaissance was just beginning. This almost marks the 1,000th post on The Ultimate Rabbit website!

Okay, now how many dramas and thrillers featuring a lawyer as the main character have we had these past few years? Heck, how many novels featuring lawyers have been thrust at us? After everything written by John Grisham and Scott Turow, you’d think the world would have had enough of legal thrillers whether or not they made it to the silver screen. It all reminds me of that joke we’ve all heard:

“What do you call a thousand lawyers at the bottom of the ocean? A good start!”

As a result, I was in no immediate hurry to check out the latest legal thriller adapted into a movie, “The Lincoln Lawyer.” This particular one is about a defense lawyer who has no scruples about what he does, but he ends up getting involved in a case which haunts his conscience like no other. Looking this plot line over, it sounds like “Primal Fear” all over again. How many times have we been down this road? Yes, I agree, far too many.

But alas, while “The Lincoln Lawyer” breaks no new ground in the legal thriller genre, it does contain many clever twists up its sleeve which distinguishes it from others of its ilk. It is based on the novel of the same name by Michael Connelly who is best known for writing detective novels and crime fiction. One of his previous books, “Blood Work,” was turned into a movie by Clint Eastwood, and it is one of the very few Eastwood directed movies which really sucked. It turns out, however, that “The Lincoln Lawyer” was actually Connelly’s first legal novel, and it introduced the world to one of his most popular literary creations, Mickey Haller.

Mickey Haller is a criminal defense attorney who spends his time defending the kind of people we would all rather see behind bars. Instead of a regular office, he works out of his Lincoln Town Car which he gets driven around in by Earl (Laurence Mason), a former client of his who is working off legal fees he owes. He has an ex-wife, Margaret McPherson (Marisa Tomei), whom he is still on good terms with even though she works on the opposite side of the court as a prosecutor, and they have a daughter whom they both dote on, and you at times wonder why these two ever bothered to divorce. If James Carville and Mary Matlin can maintain a marriage, why can’t these two?

Anyway, Mickey ends up defending Louis Roulet (Ryan Phillippe), a Beverly Hills realtor who is accused of viciously assaulting a prostitute. The case, after some research, looks to be an open and shut deal for this ever so confident lawyer. However, more problems arise to where things are not what they appear to be.

That’s all I’m going to say about the plot. To say anymore would be to give away a good deal of what happens. What I will say is that it makes for a good story in how someone has to find a way to find justice without being forever disbarred from practicing law.

Much of the success of “The Lincoln Lawyer” belongs to the actor chosen to play Mickey, Matthew McConaughey. After seeing him in so many useless romantic comedies, he gets one of his best roles to date here. Believe me when I say he is perfectly cast in this role, and he nails Mickey’s sly confidence and cocky demeanor as he works his way through the courtroom to get what he wants and needs. Mickey is to an extent an amoral character, one who appears to care less about whether or not those he represents will commit crimes again after he gets them off. But McConaughey is so cool here that we find it impossible to hate Mickey, and we love his (if you’ll forgive the expression) “Rico Suave” ways which he utilizes around everyone he meets. Whether or not you agree with what he does, we all would love to have his coolness and persuasiveness when it comes to talking with and influencing others.

It also helps that McConaughey is surrounded by a great cast of actors who give him plenty to work with. Tomei remains as terrific and super sexy as ever in her portrayal of Margaret, and she shares strong chemistry with McConaughey throughout. We also get an entertaining turn from the always dependable William H. Macy as investigator Frank Levin, Haller’s right-hand man who succeeds in getting the facts whether he does it legally or illegally. We also get strong turns from John Leguizamo, Michael Peña, and Frances Fisher who all bring their best selves to this material.

But one performance I want to single out here is Ryan Phillippe’s. As a Beverly Hills playboy who has had everything handed to him on a silver platter throughout his life, Phillippe excels in convincing everyone around and the audience of Louis’ intentions. Still, there is that glimmer in Louis’ eyes which suggests not everything he says or implies is on the level. Phillippe has been better known these past few years as Mr. Reese Witherspoon, but however things went down in that relationship, he deserves to be noted for his acting here and in other movies he has been in. Watching him onscreen here is riveting because he always leaves you guessing as to what will happen next.

Directing “The Lincoln Lawyer” is Brad Furman, and the only movie he previously directed is “The Take.” I really liked how vividly he captured the urban environment of Los Angeles, and it never felt like he was filming on some ordinary Hollywood set. With a story like this, Furman could have easily gone in that direction, but he gives each scene a solid reality which doesn’t feel all that far from the one we inhabit. He also keeps the suspense up throughout and gives us some tension filled scenes which keep us at full attention as if someone is about to come from behind us and bash our brains in.

Like I said, “The Lincoln Lawyer” does not reinvent the legal thriller genre, but it reinvigorates the genre with a strong and enigmatic main character and a story with twists we haven’t seen in some time. In a way, this movie brings McConaughey around full circle as he made his big breakthrough in the film adaptation of John Grisham’s “A Time to Kill.” Soon or later, this man who keeps telling us to just “keep on livin’” had to play another lawyer. I hope for his sake he gets to do a follow up to this one as he has this character down flat. Maybe others could have done it better, but who comes to mind as quickly as McConaughey?

* * * out of * * * *

‘Deep Water’ – Neither Erotic Nor Mysterious Enough For Your Enjoyment

With “Deep Water,” I could not help but feel a certain level of excitement at its arrival. With erotic thrillers, it feels like we have been in a drought of them at our local cinema. Sure, there was the “Fifty Shades of Grey” trilogy, but those movies were far more laughable than they ever were truly entertaining. This one also marks the return of Adrian Lyne to the director’s chair for the first time in 20 years, and he is known for specializing in erotic films such as “9 ½ Weeks,” “Fatal Attraction” and “Unfaithful.” And yes, the trailer in which we get to gaze at Ana de Armas’ lovely body as Ben Affleck gazes at her from a distance proved to be ever so alluring. Oh, I almost forgot to mention, it is based on the novel of the same name by Patricia Highsmith, the same author who wrote “The Talented Mr. Ripley” and “Strangers from a Train?” This should have been the first I pointed out here.

Seriously, all these elements were in place for a great motion picture for us to take in, but despite an interesting start, “Deep Water” ends up faltering long before it ends as secrets are revealed far too soon to where the suspense is completely destroyed for no good reason. Also, the film is nowhere as erotic as you may hope it will be. Moreover, Disney, which bought 20th Century Fox and since renamed it 20th Century Studios, decided to dump it on Hulu as even Mickey Mouse was saying, “Even Minnie wouldn’t show me that much skin!” Well, some only get so lucky,

Ben Affleck and Ana de Armas star as Vic and Melinda Van Allen, a married couple living in the small town of Little Wesley, Louisiana who appear to have it all: an affluent lifestyle, a gorgeous home where they host many parties for their equally affluent friends, a beautiful daughter named Trixie (Grace Jenkins) who keeps telling Alexa to play “Old McDonald Had a Farm” to her mother’s infinite annoyance, and anyone outside of their lifestyle must be looking at them with either envy or tremendous resentment. Their marriage, however, appears to be a loveless one as Melinda seems far more interested in flirting with the many incredibly handsome men around her as Vic looks on, wondering what she is up to. On one hand, Vic seems content with her being with other men as he is willing to accept her for who she is, but the more you look into his eyes, the more you see how frustrated he is with this situation to where he might actually become emotional. This frustration becomes even more pronounced once some of the men Melinda is seen with are found dead. Were they murdered? What’s really going on with this couple?

Lyne tantalizes us with these questions in the first half of “Deep Water” as, while he used to show us a lot of wild sex in his previous films, only hints at what is going on here. Vic may be convinced Melinda is sleeping with other men, but he only sees so much of what she is up to. In the meantime, he tells her potential suitors that he murdered a man who was once her boyfriend. Is he being serious? It’s hard to say as Affleck is quick to remind us what a gifted poker player he can be, and that’s even if he has been banned for life from a casino or two.

Indeed, this film works best when the screenplay does not reveal all its cards to the audience. Affleck seems to revel in getting under the skin of others to where you wonder just how much his character enjoys in doing so. The same goes with de Armas who appears to revel in her husband’s inability to obtain her in the ways a husband can. As Vic and Melinda circle around one another like bloodthirsty sharks, I began to wonder if their continued relationship was strengthened by their endless strife with one another. While divorce might make more sense for these two, the conflicts between them seem to invigorate them to where a normal life is completely out of the question for them. It even reminded of a season six episode of “Homicide: Life on the Street” entitled “Strangled, Not Stirred” in which we see a couple achieve supreme intimacy through murder. I figured things here would go in this direction with these characters, but no such luck.

When “Deep Water” reaches its midway point, it completely implodes as it reveals its cards to where the suspense is killed. In fact, things become increasingly laughable as the story barrels towards a conclusion that is unforgivably abrupt and unsatisfying. Like I said, this one comes from the director of “Fatal Attraction” which had one of the most divisive endings in cinematic history, but at least its ending had a catharsis which it demanded despite what others thought. This one, however, leaves far too many story threads to where I have to wonder if there’s a director’s cut just waiting for us to check out.

In retrospect, “Deep Water” might have been far more interesting if Lyne had focused more on the characters played by Affleck and Tracy Letts who plays Don Wilson. Don is immediately suspicious of Vic, especially after he playfully admits to murder, and seeing these two together in one scene to the next is especially fulfilling as we are watching actors who enjoy not just facing against one another, but are also eager to turn their characters into anything but mere cliches this genre often employs to a detrimental extent.

Considering the talent involved, I could not help but have high expectations for “Deep Water” as it arrives at a time when superhero/comic book movies continue to dominate our local multiplexes to where we wonder if variety is still a thing. Moreover, movies for adults are a thing I have been deprived of for far too long. Even with it going straight to streaming, I figured there was much more in store for the audience. That it falls short of greatness is frustrating as it may be a long time before we get another motion picture of its ilk.

In my research, I did learn this particular Highsmith novel is a favorite of Gillian Flynn’s who deeply admired how it showed the in-your-face warfare between a husband and wife. I believed this novel inspired her to write “Gone Girl” which became a bestseller and was later adapted into the twisted cinematic masterpiece directed by David Fincher. Whether or not “Deep Water” aspired to be on the same level as “Gone Girl,” it came up far too short.

When all is said and done, Lyne’s movie makes me want to pick up a copy of Highsmith’s novel even though I have so many books on my shelf to where it looks like a Jenga piece on the verge of collapsing. I am convinced a great movie can be made out of this novel, but we have yet to see it.

* * out of * * * *

‘The Green Mile’ Movie and 4K/Blu-ray Review

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

The Green Mile” is a special film that can be watched over and over again, and its impact is still felt.  In today’s trying times where people are still divided, it’s a healthy reminder of the power of being kind to one another. Frank Darabont had previously tackled the world of prison with “The Shawshank Redemption,” which many people consider one of the greatest films of all time.  It has battled for the top spot with “The Godfather” for quite some time on IMDB. While “The Green Mile” is not in the category of “The Shawshank Redemption,” it’s still an incredible film.  It has a running time of over three hours, but with a cast and screenplay as good as the one featured in this film, one does not pay attention to the running time.

The film is set in 1935 and follows Paul Edgecomb (Tom Hanks), a prison guard who overlooks death row inmates.  He’s firm but compassionate. His sidekick is Brutus “Brutal” Howell, played by David Morse. They see eye-to-eye on most things, especially when it comes to the evil and heinous Percy Wetmore (Doug Hutchison), another prison guard with an evil and aggressive side to him because of the fact his aunt is married to the governor.  Even though these inmates are on “The Green Mile,” which is where they walk before they are to be executed, Paul has humanity and kindness in a job that is not easy to navigate.  Even though they are inmates with varying degrees of crimes committed, he sees them as human beings.  This is the strength of Darabont’s film: the heart attached to it.  There is also a good deal of humor in the story as well when the scene calls for it.

Everything changes at the Cold Mountain Penitentiary when they meet a large inmate with an even larger heart in John Coffey, played by Michael Clarke Duncan. He has been convicted of raping and killing two white girls.  Paul and Brutus, however, have a hard time believing he could be capable of such a crime when they see such a gentle and kind soul inside of him.  They also notice he has magical healing powers as well.  In the hands of a lesser filmmaker and lesser source material (the film is based on the novel by Stephen King), this could have been very cheesy and hokey.  Here, the emotion and the heart, as mentioned earlier, are felt very powerfully.  This is a film that makes the audience believe in the goodness of John Coffey and in humanity.

However, it doesn’t shy away from the dark side of the inmates.  Not all of them are great human beings.  Some of them are downright evil and cruel, such as William “Wild Bill” Wharton who is played by Sam Rockwell.   He’s racist, violent, and completely out of control. The film is told in flashback style from the perspective of an older Paul Edgecomb.  It’s a sensitive film that really allows the audience to spend time with all of the characters and get to know them.  The attention to detail shown here is truly remarkable.  Even though the film is filled with happy and sad moments, I tend to think of it more as an uplifting film about life and how fragile it is and how there can be beautiful moments we don’t always believe in at first, but we believe in them when we allow ourselves to really look at what’s happening right in front of us.

“The Green Mile” is now 23 years old, having been released in 1999. The film was nominated for four Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Sound. It did not win any Oscars, but it was another great film released in 1999, a groundbreaking year for cinema.  It’s a feel-good movie, yes, but it’s done in a realistic way that doesn’t insult the audience.  There have been a lot of prison films in Hollywood, but this is one of the better ones because of the acting, writing, and direction.  It’s an emotional film that leaves you with a lot to think about after the credits are done rolling. Now that it’s on 4K, I imagine a lot of people are going to enjoy revisiting this classic.

* * * * out of * * * *

4K/Blu-ray Info: “The Green Mile” is released on a two-disc 4K/Blu-ray combo pack from Warner Brothers Home Entertainment.  It has a running time of 188 minutes.  It is rated R for violence, language, and some sex-related material.  The film also comes with a digital code.

Video Info: The 4K is released on 2160p Ultra High Definition, and it is a massive upgrade over the Blu-ray.  In 4K, the film really stands out with its vibrant colors and imagery. The Blu-ray is released in 1080p High Definition. While the Blu-ray looks good, the 4K simply looks fantastic. I’m really glad Warner Brothers and other studios are looking into their vaults to re-release classic films in 4K.

Audio Info: The 4K comes in the following audio formats: Dolby Atmos-TrueHD: English, Spanish, and French. The Blu-ray has the following audio formats: Dolby TrueHD: English 5.1, Dolby Digital 5.1, and Dolby Digital: English, French, and Spanish.  With 4K releases, I tend to notice the difference in the video more than the audio.  The high dynamic range is where it’s at with 4K.

Special Features:

Commentary by Frank Darabont

Additional Scenes

Walking the Mile: The Making of “The Green Mile” Documentary

Miracle and Mystery: Creating “The Green Mile” Featurette Gallery

Tom Hanks Makeup Tests

Michael Clarke Duncan Screen Test

The Teaser Trailer: A Case Study

Theatrical Trailers

Should You Buy It?

I loved this film even more on 4K.  It’s an amazing upgrade that is worth every penny.  The only downside, which I’ve noticed with a lot of these upgrades, is the fact they are re-releasing the same special features from the Blu-ray.  I really wish if they were going to re-release these, they would add some new special features, even if it’s Zoom interviews with various cast and crew members.  As a film, it’s absolutely perfect to me.  A lot of people see it as a downer, but I see it as a very, very moving and inspirational flick despite some of the subject matter. The performances are great across the board, but the heart and soul of the film is with Michael Clarke Duncan.  There are also solid performances from Harry Dean Stanton, Barry Pepper, James Cromwell, Bonnie Hunt, and Patricia Clarkson.  It’s an all-star cast for an all-star movie.  This is a film which should be a day-one purchase for film lovers.

**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: ‘The Rum Diary’ – A Ralph Report Video Vault Selection

WRITER’S NOTE: This review was written back in 2011, long before a certain Hollywood couple’s relationship became toxic and imploded in front of the whole world. Also, Ralph Garman recently featured this film as a Video Vault selection on “The Ralph Report,” and I applaud him for doing so.

Based on the book written by the late Hunter S. Thompson, “The Rum Diary” captures the Gonzo journalist at perhaps his earliest point in life which came to define his style of writing. Johnny Depp plays Jack Kemp, but as he did with his character of Raoul Duke in Terry Gilliam’s “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” he is essentially channeling Thompson here whom he had befriended years ago. It also marks Bruce Robinson’s first directorial effort in 19 years (the last being “Jennifer 8”), and he clearly has not lost his touch.

Kemp is a rootless journalist who has come to Puerto Rico to write for The San Juan Star. Having had his fill of New York and the Eisenhower administration, he longs to escape to a paradise that will not make him feel his age. But as beautiful as Puerto Rico is, there is an ugliness that cuts away at the façade which the other newspaper employees escape from through their use of drugs and alcohol, especially rum. Kemp also comes across American businessman Hal Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart) who wants Kemp to write a favorable report on his latest greedy scheme, and that is to turn Puerto Rico into a paradise for the wealthy. Soon Kemp will have to decide if he wants to use his words to help Sanderson or expose him for the “bastard” he truly is.

No other actor can successfully emulate the brilliant craziness of Thompson like Depp can. Unlike in “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” his Hunter-esque character of Kemp is a little more down to earth. Of course, this is only saying so much. Having been freed, albeit temporarily, from those “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies, he gives one of his best performances in a while as he takes Kemp from the highs of his chemical dependency to showing his more vulnerable side as he falls for Sanderson’s fiancée, Chenault (the ever so beautiful Amber Heard).

“The Rum Diary” also features terrific performances from a perfectly chosen supporting cast. Michael Rispoli is great fun as photojournalist Bob Salas who is the first real friend Kemp makes in Puerto Rico. Richard Jenkins never lets that wig he’s wearing upstage him as newspaper editor Edward J. Lotterman. Aaron Eckhart finds just the right balance in playing Sanderson as he charms everyone around him and yet hints subtlety at the vicious businessman hiding beneath the surface. But it is Giovanni Ribisi who almost steals the show as Moberg, a hygienically challenged religion reporter always under the influence of some sort of narcotic.

Robinson also wrote the screenplay and revels in each of the character’s bizarre eccentricities. These are some of the more unusual characters I have seen in any 2011 movie, and they are the kind which has been missing from movies in general. Things do drag a bit towards the end, and I wish he would have brought more of the same manic energy Gilliam brought to “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.” Still, he has managed to make a movie most Hollywood studios rarely, if ever, dare to greenlight these days.

“The Rum Diary” may be a story from the past, but it is a story of rich people displacing native citizens for their own wealthy benefit, something not lost on American audiences these days. The paranoia-filled philosophies of certain characters make the advancement of the Tea Party seem not as big a surprise in hindsight. But as pummeled as Kemp gets, you believe he will get the “bastards” with words, and that his words will bruise his most unforgiving enemies. We all yearn for someone to stick it to the man, and Depp gives us a character who can do just that. Seeing him back in Hunter S. Thompson’s realm is a real treat.

* * * out of * * * *

‘Fantastic Mr. Fox’ is One of Wes Anderson’s Most Inspired Works

WRITER’S NOTE: This review was written in 2009.

After watching “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” I am convinced Wes Anderson should make as many stop-motion animated movies as he possibly can. Nothing against his live action work, but this form of animation seems really suited to Anderson’s unique blend of comedy and dysfunction. While his last film, “The Darjeeling Limited,” was very good, it started to seem like he had been dealing with the same themes once too often. But with the brilliantly made “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” his material is given a freshness which, for a moment, seemed to have escaped him. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but this turned out to be one of the most enjoyable movies I saw in 2009. As a result, any frustration I had over not being able to see “Avatar” (it was a family outing, and it didn’t seem right for my 5-year-old niece) was completely forgiven.

“Fantastic Mr. Fox” is based on a children’s novel written by Roald Dahl whom Anderson considers one of his personal heroes. Dahl is the same man who wrote “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” and “James and the Giant Peach” among other stories, and his work is characterized by a lack of sentimentality and a lot of dark humor. Judging from “Rushmore” and “The Royal Tenenbaums” with their strong black humor, it’s no wonder Anderson digs Dahl!

The Mr. Fox of the title is a cool and exceedingly clever animal, and we first see him with his wife sneaking into a farm to steal food. They are, however, caught in a trap which has his wife pointing out they should choose a safer form of work. Oh yeah, she also tells him she’s pregnant, and this changes the dynamics of their relationship in a heartbeat. We catch up with these two a couple of years later after they have found a home within a hole in the ground. Mr. Fox is now a newspaper columnist, and he and his wife are parents to a son, the sullen Ash, who constantly feels unappreciated in all he does. Still, Mr. Fox does not like where his family lives and promises to do better by them. Despite the warnings of his lawyer, Badger, he ends up buying a new home in the base of a tree. These new lodgings are also coincidently right near the gigantic farms owned by three ugly looking farmers: Walter Boggis, Nathan Bunce, and Franklin Bean. So, of course, this gets Mr. Fox all excited and back to his usual tricks of stealing food and drink while the rest of the family remains unaware. To quote another fox from a vastly different 2009 movie, “chaos reigns!”

The first thing people will notice about this movie is its “star studded” (what does that term mean anyway?) cast of actors. Voicing Mr. Fox is the most debonair of movie stars right now, George Clooney. With this, “The Men Who Stare at Goats” and “Up in The Air,” I can’t help but wonder when Clooney gets the time to sleep. At this moment, he’s everywhere, and his constant presence would be ever so annoying if he weren’t such a terrific actor. Clooney perfectly captures Mr. Fox’s confidence without ever becoming overly smug, and he exudes the cleverness this character has in getting back at the three farmers.

Meryl Streep, who has also had a busy year with this, “Julie & Julia” and “It’s Complicated,” voices Mrs. Fox. I actually wonder how much sleep she gets as well as Streep always seems to be learning a new accent she has not taken on yet. Streep is the perfect contrast to Clooney’s charmingly reckless nature, and she serves as the conscience Mr. Fox needs to hear out more often. Streep doesn’t do anything incredibly different with her voice like she did for Julia Childs, but its warmth is quite seductive at times.

Anderson has also employed many of his regulars for “Fantastic Mr. Fox” as well. Jason Schwartzman who was featured quite prominently in “Rushmore” and “The Darjeeling Limited” voices Mr. Fox’s son, Ash. Schwartzman perfectly captures the angst Ash feels at never fully winning his dad’s approval, and you feel Ash’s desperation as he goes to dangerous lengths to get any approval. Owen Wilson, who co-wrote “The Royal Tenenbaums” with Anderson, has a cameo voicing Ash’s athletic coach, Skip. You can tell its Wilson right away, and he gives Skip a wonderfully dry voice which gets a good number of laughs whenever he appears. Even Bill Murray, who has had a role in just about all of Anderson’s movies, voices Mr. Fox’s lawyer, Clive Badger, and he always seems to fit in perfectly in Anderson’s cinematic universe. And let us not forget Wallace Wolodarsky who voices the confidence challenged Kylie Sven Opossum who somehow gets sucked into Mr. Fox’s schemes against his better judgment.

Others to be found here are Michael Gambon, the current Dumbledore of the “Harry Potter” movies, who voices one of the farmers hellbent on eliminating the thieving Mr. Fox, Franklin Bean. Eric Chase Anderson, who is responsible for those illustrations of Anderson’s movies when they are given Criterion Collection releases, voices Mrs. Fox’s nephew Kristofferson who is perfect in every way Ash is not. But the most surprising voice here is from the actor who voices Rat, Bean’s security guard. Rat was a French character, so I assumed the actor voicing him was French. Turns out that it was actually Willem Dafoe! That’s right, the same guy who was in that other delightful 2009 movie with a fox, “Antichrist.”

With just about all of animated movies being done with computers and digital effects, it’s refreshing to see other filmmakers go a little retro with the stop-motion animation. The work here is brilliantly done, and I was surprised at how lifelike everything looked. Movies like these must require an exceeding amount of patience to make because they clearly take years to produce. It also fits right in with Anderson’s quirky sense of humor which remains intact a good ten years or so after “Rushmore.”

I also really dug the soundtrack Anderson chose for “Fantastic Mr. Fox.” Each of his movies contain a great selection of music which veers from classic British rock songs to American rock among other genres. With this film, Anderson includes songs from the Beach Boys and Burt Ives which fuel the proceedingas with an undeniable sense of innocence and adventure. It also made me an instant fan of The Bobby Fuller Four whose song “Let Her Dance” plays during one of the most joyful moments this film has. Composing the score is Alexandre Desplat who has composed music for movies like “Firewall” and “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” among others. I love how Desplat captures the infectious spirit of everything which takes place.

Is this a kid appropriate movie? I think so. It did get a PG rating which seems appropriate. Sure, there are many bottles of alcoholic apple cider and some smoked chickens which might give you the wrong impression of the goings on being displayed, but I really think this movie is harmless. Compare this to the recently released sequel to “Alvin and the Chipmunks” which has not so subtle references to classic movies like “Taxi Driver” and “Silence of the Lambs” among others. This film is not just aimed at kids, but for the whole family as well.

While many will be more likely to view this movie on DVD or Blu-ray (or VHS if it’s still available), ” Fantastic Mr. Fox” really is a fantastic piece of work which deserves a big audience. Anderson, along with co-writer Noah Baumbach (“The Squid & The Whale” and “Margot at the Wedding“), has managed to take his fascination with families that are less than perfect and put them in a context which will not scar your kids for life. It was also cool to see Clooney play a character who, unlike the one he portrayed in “The Men Who Stare at Goats,” was not afraid to dance.

Was it worth not going to see “Avatar” this day and watching this instead? I hate to say it, but yeah.

* * * * out of * * * *

The Coen Brothers’ ‘True Grit’ is a Far More Faithful Cinematic Adaptation Than What Came Before

Watching Joel and Ethan Coen’s version of “True Grit,” it suddenly occurred to me I had read the book it was based on back in my sophomore year of high school. I can’t believe I forgot that as I usually remember every book me and my fellow classmates were made, or forced, to read such as “The Diary of Anne Frank,” “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “Of Mice and Men” or “A Day No Pigs Would Die.” This book, which was written by Charles Portis, however, seemed to have escaped my memory of having read it. When I think of the book now, I am reminded of how Mattie Ross, when she saw the body of her murdered father in his coffin, simply told the undertakers, “Put a lid on it.”

Damn! Mattie seemed cold as ice; hell bent on pursuing her father’s killer no matter what and without ever shedding a single tear. But she is also a human being endowed with an undying sense of purpose, determined to find fairness in a world which often seems devoid of it. Now everyone remembers Rooster Cogburn more than any other character in “True Grit” because John “The Duke” Wayne portrayed him in the 1969 movie as it won him his only Oscar. But those who have read this novel know full well it is really about Mattie Ross, not the easiest person to get along with, but hard not to admire. It’s her story more than it ever was Cogburn’s, and the Coen brothers understand this completely in their cinematic adaptation which proves to be very faithful to its source material.

Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, and Josh Brolin may have top billing, but the weight of “True Grit” rested on the soft shoulders of then 14-year-old newcomer Hailee Steinfeld. Her astonishing performance brings Mattie Ross right off the written pages of Portis’ book and to vivid life. This was not necessarily the case when Kim Darby portrayed her opposite Wayne in 1969. Our sophomore English class watched some, but not all of, the original film, and once we saw Mattie cry in a way she never would have in the novel, we all knew one liberty too many had been taken with the source material. I guess having a character appear stronger willed than one played by The Duke must have seemed unthinkable at the time.

But seriously, Steinfeld is a revelation as Mattie, and the movie would have completely failed were she not as fantastic as she was here. Seeing her stroll into the town with her no-nonsense attitude and wise beyond her years, the actress sells the character perfectly and has us eager to follow her every step as she pursues Tom Chaney before he escapes the hand of justice. Her eyes show a willful determination which I never doubted, and any sadness she shows is somehow restrained. Steinfeld takes a character who is not altogether likable and makes her one of the most compelling characters I saw in any 2010 movie. She doesn’t so much play the character as much as she inhabits the role. Now how many other 14-year-old actors do you know who can pull this feat off?

As the story goes, Mattie tries to procure the services of Rooster Cogburn because she believes he possesses “true grit;” someone who has courage, fearlessness, and guts. As played by Jeff “The Dude” Bridges, who owned the 2010 holiday season with this and “Tron: Legacy,” Rooster is a drunken lout who never appears to be fit for his line of work, but his sense of duty does manage to keep him sane in an increasingly violent world. The relationship he has with Mattie is not one based on kindness, and he would as soon as leave her in the dust than bring her along. But something about Mattie’s dogged determination, illustrated by her riding her horse across a river while keeping her head above water, wins the whiskey loving Marshall over.

I’m not going to bother comparing The Dude and The Duke because frankly I don’t have the energy. Wayne made his mark in one film after another, and Bridges’ performance works so well because he never tries to outdo what Wayne did. Like any smart actor, he makes the character his own, and his Rooster Cogburn threatens to be every bit as inebriated as Val Kilmer was when he played Jim Morrison in Oliver Stone’s “The Doors.” From the start, I was almost afraid Bridges might turn the character into a parody of sorts, and perhaps rely too much on his “Big Lebowski” persona to get him through the day. But this never was the case as Bridges makes his Rooster Cogburn into a wonderfully complex character who, despite his grungy appearance, still knows the Indian territory like the back of his hand.

Also along for the ride is Matt Damon who portrays Texas Ranger LaBeouf. I thought he would stick out like a sore thumb here, but he makes his character a wonderfully engaging one even as he keeps coming and going throughout. Seeing LaBeouf get his ass handed to him by Mattie Ross is a major highlight, only if to see the shocked expression on his face when he realizes he truly got suckered by a 14-year-old.

Josh Brolin, who previously worked with the Coens on “No Country for Old Men,” makes Tom Chaney not just a simple one-dimensional villain as his crime was motivated more out of jealousy and fear than anything else. Even he can’t intimidate Mattie as she has the strong resolve and moral fortitude he seriously lacks, and his life has lost its sense of purpose. Brolin manages to convey all this in the limited time he has onscreen.

Another guy I was happy to see here is Barry Pepper. As “Lucky” Ned Pepper (no relation I’m sure), he gives us a nasty outlaw and a vicious guy who will not allow anyone to undo his authority any more than he appears willing to brush his teeth; man, his teeth look hideous!

The main difference between the 2010 and 1969 movies is in how the wild, wild west is portrayed. The 1969 movie was more about watching Wayne blow away the bad guys just as he had in every other movie he starred in. But the 2010 version portrays the world it inhabits much more realistically, treating violence as a brutal and very vicious thing. This one is more akin to “Unforgiven” than “Rio Bravo.” Violence is a way of life for all these characters, and it defines the way they see the world around them. We also see how it affects their souls as the specter of death hangs over their every move. There’s no attempt to sweeten up the narrative or make it the kind of western many of us grew up watching.

Still, the Coen brothers have succeeded in making one of their most accessible movies to date for the mainstream audiences with “True Grit.” They also managed to do it without compromising themselves as this film sees them getting the widest audience they ever had before. They continue to employ their regular collaborators who never fail them such as cinematographer Roger Deakins, editor Roderick Jaynes, and their longtime composer Carter Burwell who contributes another in a long line of great movie scores.

If there was any problem I had with this “True Grit,” it was in the way it ended. We see one character many years later, and the effect is disorienting. It was the same thing that happened at the start and the end of Frank Darabont’s “The Green Mile,” and it just took me out of the moment. The effect wasn’t too bad in this one, but I was hoping to see the actor who played said character get more of a proper send off.

Remaking a movie like “True Grit” seems like the last thing the Coen brothers would ever do, but I believe them when they say this was never intended to be a remake. They stayed very true to the source material and even made the language Portis scribbled down seem very much alive and sharp witted. Whether or not you value Wayne’s take on Rooster more than Bridges’, you have to give the Coens credit for staying true to a book written back in 1968.

The Academy Awards showered a number of nominations for this film including Best Actor for Bridges and Best Picture. While I was happy to see Steinfeld nominated for Best Supporting Actress, I still think it was a travesty she was not nominated for Best Actress instead. Once again, this movie rested on her shoulders, and she was cast in a role which 15,000 other actors auditioned for. Seriously, Best Actress, not Best Supporting Actress. Her male co-stars were supporting her instead of the other way around.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘Cloud Atlas’ Has Cult Classic Written All Over It

With a movie like “Cloud Atlas,” I go into it expecting to be overwhelmed by the visual spectacle and unable to understand all of what is going on in the story. On this level, the movie does not disappoint as you kind of need a road map to tell you who’s who and what’s what. Then again, what matters most when watching something like this for the first time (and watching it once is never enough) is you get the gist of what’s going on. The gist of this story here is that everything and everyone is connected in one way or another, and once you understand this. then the film becomes a fascinating movie going experience.

Some will say “Cloud Atlas” is too damn ambitious, and we need to stop saying it like it’s a bad thing. What’s wrong with being too ambitious in this day and age? It may cause filmmakers to take a wrong step from time to time, but it also guarantees we will get a cinematic experience unlike many others we often watch. This project brings together the Wachowski siblings who gave us “The Matrix” trilogy and Tom Tykwer who directed the brilliantly kinetic “Run Lola Run,” and “Cloud Atlas” represents some of the best work they have ever done.

The film is based on the book of the same name by David Mitchell, and it interweaves six stories which take place in different time periods: the Pacific Ocean circa 1850, Zedelgem, Belgium 1931, San Francisco, California 1975, the United Kingdom in 2012, Neo Seoul (Korea) in the 22nd century, and the last story takes place on a beautiful ocean island in a time which could be our past but might actually be our future. Guessing which time period the island story takes place in is one of the film’s great mysteries right up to the end.

The characters range from 65-year-old publisher Timothy Cavendish who flees from the associates of a jailed gangster to Sonmi-451, a genetically-engineered clone who is freed from her servitude as a fast-food restaurant server to explore a world which she discovers lives to exploit her kind. “Cloud Atlas” travels back and forth through these stories, and once everything is set up the film becomes an exploration of how the actions of individual lives impact one another in the past, present and future. One person ends up going from being a killer in one life to being a hero in another, and one act of kindness ripples across centuries to inspire a revolution.

Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Susan Sarandon, Jim Broadbent, Hugh Grant and many other actors here end up playing many different roles. They will be recognizable in some, and others will only become clear when you stay through the end credits. I can’t help but wonder how they kept track of all the different characters they played, some which are of a gender opposite their own.

Hanks’ performance in “Cloud Atlas” goes all over the map as he plays characters as varied as a tribesman trying to rebuild his life in a post-apocalyptic world to a doctor who looks to steal from a patient more than help him. I especially liked his role as Isaac Sachs, a worker at a nuclear power plant in the San Francisco story. Hanks is always so good when he underplays a role, and Isaac was the one character of his I wish was expanded on a bit more. At the same time, I think he is miscast as Scottish gangster Dermot Hoggins which has him doing a lot of bombastic acting for no really good reason. Where’s Jason Statham when you need him?

Berry’s career since her Oscar win for “Monster’s Ball” has seen a lot of peaks and valleys, but she also does strong work here as a variety of characters. Like Hanks, she is especially good in the San Francisco story as reporter Luisa Rey. She also has some strong moments as Meronym, a member of a technologically advanced civilization who may not be all she appears to be.

Jim Broadbent, as always, is a blast to watch in each role as he is so delightfully animated whether he’s playing a publisher in hiding or a composer as famous as he is vindictive. Ben Whishaw, who played Q in “Skyfall,” “Spectre” and “No Time to Die,” is heartbreaking as Robert Frobisher whose artistic ambitions are unforgivably shattered. And Hugo Weaving channels his Agent Smith energy from “The Matrix” to portray a number of nasty antagonists, one of which threatens to give Nurse Ratched from “One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest” a run for her money.

But the best performance comes from Doona Bae who portrays the engineered clone Sonmi-451. Although she is not really a human being, Bae infuses this character with such a strong humanity to where she makes you feel the emotions she soon experiences herself. Just a look into those piercing eyes of hers is enough to melt one’s heart as Sonmi-451 finds a power no mere mortal can easily obtain, and one of her last moments onscreen speaks to a truth which no one person or a government can ever simply wipe away.

For the Wachowskis, “Cloud Atlas” represents a big comeback after the boring fiasco which was “Speed Racer.” I’m also thankful it doesn’t have the same kind of ending “The Matrix Revolutions” had because that would have driven me nuts. For Tykwer, the film represents a chance for us to re-evaluate him as a filmmaker. Ever since his incredible success with “Run Lola Run,” people have taken him to task (perhaps more so than they should have) for not making a film as good as that one was. But together, these three have created a visual feast which has you glued to your seat and at attention for almost three hours (yes, it’s long, but you won’t really notice).

“Cloud Atlas” was an independently made film, and an expensive one at that with a budget of over $100 million. It’s easy to see why no major movie studio would take the whole thing on themselves; it has a dense narrative which goes all over the place, and it forces the audience to pay close attention in a way most movies never demand them to. The fact it was not a big hit at the box office is sad because you want audiences to embrace films like this more as they try to do something different from the norm.

Regardless of its flaws, “Cloud Atlas” looks to be one of those films which will have a long shelf life. It invites repeated viewings so you can take in new meaning s you didn’t see the first time around, and you will come out of it wondering how the filmmakers put the whole thing together. This one definitely has cult classic written all over it.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘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.

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 * * * *