Dabney Coleman vs. Video Games

When praising our current Movie of the Month, the hyperviolent children’s adventure pic Cloak & Dagger, there’s plenty of flashy details that distract from the novelty of the casting. The film’s cultural relic function as a desperate attempt to rescue Atari from the video game crash of 1983, its incongruous clash of boys’ adventurism spirit & cruel depictions of 80s action-violence, and its whimsical flights of escapist fantasy all overwhelm minor concerns with the details of its casting. The cast is such an afterthought, in fact, that no one thought twice about featuring Henry Thomas in the lead role, despite his face being on every cartridge of the E.T. video game that helped nearly bankrupt the company the year before. Thomas’s association with “the worst video game of all time” isn’t even the strangest novelty in the film’s casting. That honor belongs to That Guy! character actor Dabney Coleman, who’s cast in dual roles (!!) as the boy’s father & imaginary friend. As Henry Thomas’s dad, Coleman is a straight-laced family man widower doing his best to keep his home in order. As his imaginary friend Jack Flack, he’s a James Bond-type world adventurer, prepared at a moment’s notice to take out an entire warring country using only his American fists. Both roles are used in the film to teach Thomas a lesson about the dangers of escapist fantasy – the dad in stern talks about what true heroism looks like in the real world and Jack Flack in placing the boy in danger through his reality-detached fearlessness. As if this dual-role lesson about the fantasy-life dangers of video games & RPGs weren’t enough of a novelty alone, Coleman’s casting feels like a bizarre choice because of its echoing of a role he played exactly one year earlier, in what’s likely the most beloved alarmist anti-video game screed of all time.

Dabney Coleman’s role in the 1983 Cold War thriller WarGames feels like a perfect synthesis of his two roles in Cloak & Dagger. With his hair dyed unnaturally black like Jack Flack’s, Coleman plays a no-nonsense military man who both has no time for the fantasies of teenage gaming culture and lives the unreal international espionage lifestyle that’s exaggerated for comic effect in Flack. Coleman’s performance in WarGames is such a perfect midpoint between his two characters in Cloak & Dagger that the film feels more like an audition reel than it does like inspirational source material. He’s even called on to give Matthew Broderick’s teen protagonist a stern fatherly talking to about the dangers of video game fantasy, despite not being the boy’s father. In Cloak & Dagger, he’s right to warn his son about losing touch with reality in his roleplay gaming fantasies, but misses the larger point of how RPG’s & video games could be useful as a bonding tool with the lonely, grieving boy. In WarGames he’s right to update military procedure with computer programming automation, but misses the larger point of how video gameplay & gamesmanship logic are useful in war strategy – particularly in stalemate conflicts like The Cold War. As often happens with character actors, all three roles between these two films feel like different variations on the same archetype, and it’s funny that both of these Beware the Video Game movies thought to cast Coleman as their browbeating fuddy-duddies. As Cloak & Dagger is the more eccentric, over-the-top work, it plays almost like a parody of his grounded (even if archetypal) performance in WarGames. Both films’ paralleled arrival (along with their accompanying Atari game tie-ins) at the exact time the video game industry crashed only make comparing the two films all the more appealing; Colema’s casting in both projects is the perfect excuse to oblige.

Objectively speaking, WarGames is likely a superior film to Cloak & Dagger, but I’m not sure that quality craftsmanship is what I’m looking for in an 80s relic about how video game fantasy can put real lives at risk. A pre-fame Matthew Broderick & Ally Sheedy star as teen brats who hope to hack into a video game company’s unreleased titles, but instead mistakingly access a military supercomputer that nearly instigates WWIII. It’s the same video game fantasy leading to life-threatening danger premise of Cloak & Dagger, except in this case the danger is global instead of purely personal. As the teens play with real-life nuclear weapons as if they were toys, the tension between harmless bedroom fun & dead-serious war room retaliation says a lot about the automation, abstraction, and depersonalization of war (which has only gotten more intense in the last 35 years). At the same time, that abstraction & depersonalization makes its actual stakes feel almost too distanced to fully hit home, as opposed to the more hands-on dangers of video game fantasy in Cloak & Dagger. The conflict of a hacked, haywire computer nearly triggering nuclear war is truer to life than a boy’s imaginary friend landing him in a deadly game of international espionage, but there’s still something more affecting about watching a grown man pull a knife on an E.T.-era Henry Thomas or threaten to shoot out the child’s kneecaps “just to watch him bleed.” WarGames’s video game alarmism is also cleverer than Cloak & Dagger’s in the way it makes the video game itself a deranged character threatening death & destruction; in Cloak & Dagger the cartridge everyone is after is more or less a MacGuffin. Clever or not, I still find myself more drawn to the over-the-top, cartoonish antics of Cloak & Dagger (especially when they clash with brutal child-threatening violence), and the difference between the two films’ aesthetics is perfectly summarized by Coleman’s cartoonish performance of Jack Flack therein.

You don’t have to squint too hard to see the similarities between WarGames and Cloak & Dagger: two alarmist thrillers about the dangers of video games that arrived just when their subject’s industry was crashing, but were developed as Atari games anyway. Dabney Coleman’s casting as three characters across these two movies only helps further illustrate both the already apparent parallels between them and the difference in their respective tones. WarGames, as the more tonally sober war thriller, won out in the long run in both respect & notoriety, but the much sillier Cloak & Dagger deserves even more respect for its willingness to go for the jugular in ways you might not expect – especially considering how silly Coleman is in the Jack Flack persona.

For more on December’s Movie of the Month, the hyperviolent children’s action-adventure Cloak & Dagger (1984), check out our Swampchat discussion of the film, our comparison to another alarmist 80s roleplay gaming thriller Mazes & Monsters, and last week’s look at the death of Atari.

-Brandon Ledet

Little Sister (2016)

EPSON MFP image

threehalfstar

The Sundance-style indie drama has formed into a concrete genre all of its own, especially in the years since titles like Little Miss Sunshine & Lars and the Real Girl broke out of the festival to find mass audience success. Mixing melodrama melancholy with cathartic moments of black humor can feel a little formulaic & small in those dirt cheap indie dramedies, but every now and then one will break through to reveal something genuine & carefully considered in its approach to capturing & exploring human behavior. There’s nothing especially mind-blowing or unique about the small scale familial drama Little Sister once you look past the visual details of its ex-goth-turned-Catholic-nun protagonist; in fact, the basic structure of the film reminded me a lot of the similarly minded indie dramedy The Skeleton Twins. Instead of setting itself apart with any immediately apparent stylistic details, Little Sister excels by searching for moments of humanism & genuine empathy in its narrative beats. Every theme & story arc proves to be far kinder & less sensationalist than where I consistently feared the film might be going and Little Sister‘s warmth & familiarity ultimately proved to be its greatest storytelling, not a fault of its adherence to genre.

A young woman studying to be a nun makes a pilgrimage alone to her home town to confront unresolved issues from her past. Her pristinely preserved bedroom reveals her past life as an angsty goth teen, with all of the upside down crosses, drawers of black clothing, and leftover containers of Manic Panic hair dye that past life implies. The people she left behind are in shambles. Her mother is a suicide attempt survivor who gets by through self-medicating with massive doses of marijuana; her brother has returned from the War in Iraq with a disfigured face, resembling a low-rent version of Deadpool; her future sister in law is desperately lonely in the wake of her fiancee’s wounded ego; her only high school friend is a spoiled rich brat with the delusions of a wannabe political activist. She feels deep sympathy for every one of these broken loved ones, but as a vegetarian, straight edge virgin who’s never even tried a beer, she also stands as a constant target for peer pressure, an insistent urging to indulge in drugs, sin, and a breaking of her vows to God. This tense family reunion devolves into a sort of late-in-life coming of age story as the future nun reverts back to her goth teen ways and struggles both with her own inherent innocence in a not-so-innocent world & her family’s cyclical run-ins with hereditary chemical imbalance.

Little Sister‘s themes are heavy and its stakes can be high for individual characters but overall its conflicts are played as a delicate melancholy and any potential for dramatic shock value is sidestepped for deeply empathetic kindness & humanism. For instance, Ally Sheedy’s role as a drunken, unhinged mother who purposefully says hurtful things like, “I am a disappointment to you and you are a disappointment to me,” could easily be played as a tyrannical monster, but the film instead searches for what’s worthwhile & wounded within her and that’s what for the most part makes it special. That’s not to say that Little Sister doesn’t distinguish itself with a highly stylized aesthetic. Besides it’s basic hook as a coming of age story featuring a young goth nun, the film also gets a lot of mileage out of its 2008 temporal setting. This allows for Brooklyn hipster performance art that cruelly satirizes 9/11 and some historical positioning of the Iraqi War as a Second Vietnam, where wounded soldiers’ hero status is complicated by the futility & illegitimacy of the cause they served. I also really admired the way old camcorder footage of children playing Universal Monsters, VHS copies of movies like Carnival of Souls & The Wizard of Gore, and dinky homemade Halloween parties boosted the film’s themes of familial nostalgia & stuck-in-a-rut goth angst. Best yet, the disfigured brother’s continuous, frustrated practice on an impossibly loud drum kit provided a great tension building score that played beautifully into the way his presence & depression left his family on edge.

Mixing these specific stylistic choices with their overall sense of unexpected empathy makes Little Sister work as a series of memorable, but minor successes instead if floundering as formulaic, Sundance runoff. There’s so many ways this film could have slipped into cruelty or tedium at every turn, but it maintains its tonal balance nimbly & confidently, never settling for easy dramatic beats or quirk-for-quirk’s-sake character work. Successes like this often go unappreciated because they seem so easily manageable from the surface, but Little Sister could have very easily been a total tonal disaster. It’s honestly kind of a minor miracle that it isn’t.

-Brandon Ledet