Tuesday, 31 May 2016

Movie Review: The Professionals (1966)

A sturdy western with a stellar cast, The Professionals features an arduous cross-border rescue mission across an unforgiving desert, with plenty of time for shifting allegiances, character surprises and well-executed action.

Early in the 1900s with a Mexican revolution still raging, American businessman Joe Grant (Ralph Bellamy) hires a group of four mercenaries to rescue his kidnapped wife Maria (Claudia Cardinale) from the clutches of Mexican revolutionary leader Raza (Jack Palance). The hired men are gunnery expert Rico (Lee Marvin), explosives master Bill Dolworth (Burt Lancaster), scout and archery ace Jake Sharp (Woody Strode) and respected horse trainer Hans Ehrengard (Robert Ryan). Rico and Dolworth used to be part of the revolutionary forces, fighting alongside Raza.

Rico leads the group across arid terrain towards the guerrilla leader's headquarters. Along the way they have to navigate through treacherous canyons, fend off bandits, and survive extreme heat and exhaustion. Once they arrive near Raza's compound Rico has to devise a plan to infiltrate the camp and rescue Maria from under the nose of the ragtag revolutionary army, but many surprises await.

Directed, written and produced by Richard Brooks, The Professionals carries a Magnificent Four type premise, with slightly less charisma but more plot twists. Brooks keeps the action moving and regularly inserts skirmishes with assorted bandits to keep the gunplay quotient up and establish the credentials of the professionals ahead of the showdown with Raza. Good production values and magnificent Coachella Valley scenery captured by cinematographer Conrad L. Hall elevate the film to a visual treat.

The character interaction scenes are not as effective. The four men do not have sufficient definition to convey sufficient depth. Dolworth is a free-wheeling womanizer, Hans is older, more feeble and generally out of place. Sharp says little and Rico is the stoic leader. Other than Dolworth being more money-driven and lascivious than the others, Brooks is unable to generate much in the way of personality.

Both the action and the moral dilemmas improve once the group arrives at Raza's compound. The attempt to extract Maria generates the central plot twist, and the subsequent plot elements unfold with renewed urgency. The professionals get to question their purpose, their quest and their motives, and Dolworth, the most mercenary among them, will have the biggest questions to answer.

The impressive cast members share the screen time, with Marvin and Lancaster most prominent. Marvin's Rico fits straight into the actor's screen persona as the unflappable team leader, while Lancaster struggles to convince as a more jovial dynamite specialist with a carefree attitude. Ryan, Strode, Palance, Cardinale and Bellamy are thoroughly competent but don't get much to work with in terms of texture and intensity modulation.

The Professionals are a lively bunch, well worth accompanying on their difficult mission. They may lack some wit and wisdom, but they make up for it in loud and efficient execution.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Monday, 30 May 2016

Movie Review: Commando (1985)

An action film with no pretensions and some wit, Commando is exactly what is says on the can: Arnold Schwarzenegger killing a lot of bad guys as only he can.

Colonel John Matrix (Schwarzenegger) used to lead an elite army commando unit. Now retired, he is trying to forge a quiet life for himself with his daughter Jenny (Alyssa Milano). But the peace is disrupted when assailants first kill former members of Matrix's unit and then storm his mountaintop house and abduct Jenny. The attackers are working for Arius (Dan Hedaya), the former brutal dictator of the fictitious South American country Val Verde. Arius' main henchman is Bennett (Vernon Wells) a former commando in Matrix' team.

Arius holds Jenny as leverage and demands that Matrix travel to Val Verde and assassinate the current President, opening the door for Arius to return to power. Matrix pretends to play along and boards the plane for the eleven hour flight, but he reverses course and tangles with Henrique, Sully and Cook, the goons tasked with keeping him under control. Matrix then sets out to uncover Arius' hideout on a small island off the California coast and storms the compound to rescue his daughter. He will get help along the way from feisty flight attendant Cindy (Rae Dawn Chong).

Matrix. Remember, Sully, when I promised to kill you last?
Sully: That's right Matrix, you did!
Matrix: I lied.

Directed by Mark L. Lester, Commando is noisy and lethal action at its most basic. And what it does, it does really well. The film goes about the business of creating a straightforward revenge and rescue plot, and releases Schwarzenegger in to clean up the bad guys with the biggest weapons one very strong man can conceivably carry.

Cindy: What did you do with Sully?
Matrix: I let him go...

The film never pauses to ponder its own ludicrous elements, and hurtles full speed ahead from one well-executed set piece to another. It all ends with the final 30 minute sequence, one man assaulting an entire army in what proves to be a military mismatch of epic proportions: no army stands a chance against one angry Arnold wielding weapons liberated from a military surplus superstore. Only in America.

Cook: Scared, motherfucker? Well you should be, 'cos this Green Beret's going to kick your big ass!
Matrix: I eat Green Berets for breakfast and right now I am very hungry!
Cindy: I can't believe this macho bullshit!

To its credit the film does not take itself seriously, and despite the high body count and hissing villains plotting nefarious bad deeds, a stream of humour runs close to the surface. Many of the best laughs come to life in the exchanges between Matrix and Cindy, Rae Dawn Chong's flight attendant and wannabe pilot proving more than handy weather flying a plane or firing a rocket launcher.

Matrix: Excuse me, how long is the flight?
Stewardess: We land in Val Verde in exactly eleven hours.
Matrix: Thanks. And please do me a favor: don't disturb my friend, he is dead tired.

The supporting cast is not bad for this type of action film, and in addition to Hedaya, Wells and Milano also includes James Olson in the Richard Crenna role as Matrix' former superior, David Patrick Kelly as the slimy Sully, Bill Duke, and a small role for Bill Paxton.

But this is a film all about Arnold Schwarzenegger, an oversized star in the making. Commando celebrates all of its hero's attribute, the script conspiring to strip Schwarzenegger down to his swimming trunks to display his fearsome physique. John Matrix may be retired, but he clearly has not lost the motivation to work out, nor the desire to kill first and not bother with asking any questions.

Diaz (one of the men who abducted Jenny), trying to reason with Matrix: Mellow out man. We can't talk business with you waving guns in people's faces... Your daughter is safe, Colonel. Now whether she stays that way is up to you. My people got some business with you. And if you want your kid back, then you gotta co-operate, right?
Matrix: WRONG! [shoots him between the eyes].

All Ace Black Movie Reviews are here.

Movie Review: Miss Congeniality (2000)

An engaging comedy about an undercover investigation at a beauty pageant, Miss Congeniality offers a reasonably fresh premise and a committed Sandra Bullock performance.

A tough tomboy as a child, Gracie Hart (Bullock) is now a dedicated FBI agent with no life outside her career and no social skills. After disobeying orders and botching a bust of Russian gangsters, Gracie gets into trouble with her supervisor Harry McDonald (Ernie Hudson). Meanwhile her colleague Agent Eric Matthews (Benjamin Bratt) is assigned to head a task force trying to prevent a domestic terrorist known only as The Citizen from carrying out a new attack.

Intelligence points to an upcoming Miss United States pageant in San Antonio as the likely target of the Citizen's next attack. Eric recruits Gracie to go undercover as Miss New Jersey to try and disrupt the plot and unmask the perpetrator. Pageant director Kathy Morningside (Candice Bergen) and her show host Stan Fields (William Shatner) are none-too-pleased that the plain-looking Gracie is being forced upon their competition. Kathy appoints Victor Melling (Michael Caine), a consultant to pageant aspirants, to scrub Gracie into some sort of competitive shape. Gracie struggles to adopt a new glamorous persona while trying to piece together clues to uncover and stop the threat.

Directed by Donald Petrie and produced by Bullock, Miss Congeniality is a compact comedy that mostly works thanks to better-than-usual array of characters and some wry social commentary. The stream of laughs is steady, and a lot of the humour is self-deprecatingly delivered at the expense of Bullock's fish-out-of-water character. And with the likes of Caine, Bergen, and Shatner in key supporting roles, there is plenty of talent to carry the weight of the film.

The Pygmalion-like relationship between mentor Victor Melling and pupil Gracie Hart allows the film to explore a substantive side-quest with many laugh opportunities. Gracie never cared to be anything other than a cop, and Victor faces the challenge of his life unearthing an alluring woman out of the red-meat-eating, beer-swilling, gun-toting FBI agent.

The film also nudges Gracie towards better understanding a world that she never cared for, and through friendships she develops with the other contestants, she starts to gain a modicum of appreciation if not respect for women who care about their appearance and their personality, and are not just single-mindedly focused on careers.

The film includes shallow romance elements, with Eric gradually finding the courage to express some feelings towards Gracie, and he is helped along by her stunning physical evolution from grungy one-of-the-guys to pageant beauty.

Miss Congeniality may not be a stellar performer but she does earn a solid place on the podium.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Sunday, 29 May 2016

Saturday, 28 May 2016

Movie Review: Tender Mercies (1983)

The story of a has-been country singer who hits rock bottom and has the opportunity to start climbing back up, Tender Mercies is an affecting film with its heart firmly in honest territory.

Deep in rural Texas, washed-up and divorced former country music singer and songwriter Mac Sledge (Robert Duvall) lands at the ramshackle motel owned by single mom Rosa Lee (Tess Harper) and her young son Sonny (Allan Hubbard). Mac is broke and drinking heavily, but Rosa Lee offers him a few dollars in return for helping her with odd jobs and staying sober. He sticks around, they grow attached to each other, and get married.

Mac settles uneasily into a life of sober domesticity, but the passion to write music never quite leaves him. When his ex-wife and country music star Dixie Scott (Betty Buckley) arrives on a tour stop nearby, Mac tries to reconnect with her and their teenage daughter Sue Anne (Ellen Barkin). Dixie's manager and Mac's old friend Harry (Wilford Brimley) is sympathetic, but Dixie wants nothing to do with Mac. As word of Mac's new life starts to spread to his former fans, he is drawn back to the world of music.

Directed by Bruce Beresford and written by Horton Foote, Tender Mercies is a small film with a compact story told with simple elegance. Beresford dives deep into the characters of Mac Sledge and Rosa Lee, and creates two textured characters at the crossroads of life. The film enjoys plenty of quiet moments filled with the authentic desire of life-hardened adults to get better and benefit from well-earned scars.

Making excellent use of wide open Texas scenery, Tender Mercies is beautiful to look at, and Beresford often contrasts the immense landscapes with his vulnerable characters. In this terrain there is no option not to struggle; characters like Mac and Rosa Lee will succeed or fail according to their willingness to invest in the hard work of fighting for happiness.

The film weaves in themes of religion, redemption, missing bonds between fathers and children, and the turmoil of early marriages gone wrong. None of the messages are heavy handed. Rather, Beresford allows his characters to accept the luggage on their back while looking ahead, and the film generates momentum from finding decision points where the past is either repeated or built upon. However, not all the elements quite work, and most of the scenes with young Sonny and his school friends are quite creaky.

The prevailing calm tone is best exemplified in one pivotal scene. Upset by his inability to get past Dixie's hostility, Mac goes AWOL on Rosa Lee and Sonny. They anxiously wait for him to return as he manically drives around the backroads, debating whether to drink, flee or find his way back. Should he dare go back to Rosa Lee, her reaction could determine both their futures. He does return, and the welcome he receives says everything about two adults applying life's lessons towards the potential for a better tomorrow.

Robert Duvall finally earned his Best Actor Academy Award for his understated performance as Mac Sledge. Avoiding any excess of emotions, Duvall expresses a life full of regret and a future filled with dilemmas with quiet authority, Mac emerging as a believable man not running away from neither his flaws nor his dreams. In her feature film debut, Tess Harper is a revelation, matching Duvall and portraying the resourceful and independent woman who catches a plummeting soul and tries to reset him onto an even path.

Poignant and fully respectful of its culture, Tender Mercies is as melancholy as a heartfelt country music song.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Friday, 27 May 2016

Movie Review: Born Yesterday (1950)

A romantic comedy bundled into an anti-corruption civics lesson, Born Yesterday boasts a stellar Judy Holliday performance but is otherwise loud, stage-bound and simplistically trite.

Harry Brock (Broderick Crawford) is an unsophisticated and loudmouthed New Jersey-based scrap metal tycoon. He arrives in Washington DC with his lawyer Jim Devery (Howard St. John) to arm-twist corruptible congressmen into bending upcoming legislation in his favour. Accompanying Harry is his long-time girlfriend Billie (Holliday), who is attractive but uneducated enough to allow herself to be used by Harry and Jim to hide questionable business transactions under her name.

Journalist Paul Verrall (William Holden) interviews Harry, and then at Jim's suggestion Paul is hired to improve Billie's level of sophistication and her conversational skills to help her better integrate into higher social circles. Billie starts to read the newspaper and absorb all that Washington DC has to offer, while getting crash lessons from Paul on democracy, the law and the ethics of the founding fathers. With her awakening she begins to dislike her role in Harry's questionable deals, and at the same time an attraction evolves between her and Paul, threatening Harry's entire business empire.

Broderick Crawford barks his lines with the uncouth manner of a junkyard dog, Judy Holliday deploys the high-pitched, heavily accented tone of designated trashy airheads, and William Holden sleepwalks through the film with the air of straight arrow righteousness. As directed by George Cukor, this play adaptation is loud, shouty and stage-bound, with a few good chuckles that hit the mark. Billie's education and growth holds some interest, but once it starts her transformation is a singularly linear and predictable journey.

Recreating her on-stage success, Holliday's performance saves the film. She demonstrates a deft comedic touch and impeccable timing, with tiny gestures and pauses to convey Billie's limited brain whirring away at maximum speed to catch up with her surroundings. She nabbed the Best Actress Academy Award ahead of Bette Davis and Anne Baxter (both for All About Eve) and Gloria Swanson (for Sunset Boulevard). Her costars suffer in comparison. Crawford's schtick gets tiresome quickly and Holden almost disappears into the wallpaper.

Stylistically Born Yesterday generally settles for being a well-filmed play. Most of the events take place in the spacious multi-suite hotel wing occupied by Harry Brock. Cukor attempts to break the monotony by inserting some outdoor scenes of Billie exploring the capital, but these never rise beyond the perfunctory and come across as a tourism campaign.

Eleven years after Mr. Smith Goes To Washington exposed movie audiences to what the world of politics is really like, Born Yesterday somehow tries to hang on to a quaint idealism. The film's key message is that government is mostly good, and while there may be a few loose elected officials who can be corrupted, the real problem lies with scoundrels like Harry Brock. It's a fanciful stance that both hampers the film and dates it into a bygone era.

Born Yesterday offers decent enjoyment thanks to a terrific central performance, but it is also shallow in content and confined in location.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Thursday, 26 May 2016

Movie Review: The Nice Guys (2016)

A combination of film noir and buddy comedy, The Nice Guys has nice touches of humour and an excellent dynamic between stars Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling. Despite a high fun quotient, the film eventually veers towards a manic overload of flying bullets at the expense of more cerebral pursuits.

In Los Angeles of 1977, Jackson Healy (Crowe) is an unlicensed bruiser who intimidates aggressors away from their intended victim. Working on behalf of the elusive Amelia (Margaret Qualley), Healy tangles with incompetent private detective Holland March (Ryan Gosling), who has been asking questions about Amelia. March's client is Mrs. Glenn, the dotty aunt of the recently deceased porn star Misty Mountains (Murielle Telio), and he has been wondering why Amelia showed up at Misty's home shortly after her death.

Healy is confronted by hit men known only as Older Guy (Keith David) and Blue Face (Beau Knapp) who are also looking for Amelia, prompting him to team up with March to try and find her. As the two men bumble through the investigation, Healy boorish and March clueless, March's 13 year old daughter Holly (Angourie Rice) proves to be the most astute detective. It soon becomes apparent that everyone associated with Misty's last porn film project is in mortal danger. Amelia's mother Judith (Kim Basinger), an influential state bureaucrat, hires March and Healy to find her missing daughter before the wild assassin John Boy (Matt Bomer) gets to her.

Directed and co-written by Shane Black, The Nice Guys rides a cool 1970s vibe with a story inspired by the era: the smog choking Los Angeles, collusion among Detroit automakers, pool-side parties filled with debauchery, and the scandalous emergence of porn films into mainstream consciousness all make their way into the script. But the most powerful current running through the film is the crackling spark between Jackson Healy and Holland March, an abrasive partnership that thankfully maintains an edge and never quite descends into friendship.

The insertion of March's young daughter Holly into the middle of a mystery is a brave move. Black does not hesitate to place Holly in harm's way, whether in the company of porn stars or in the path of assassins and a hail of bullets. Thanks to a pitch-perfect performance from Angourie Rice, Holly also gives her dad and his new associate a key link to their humanity in a world gone mad. Holly wants her father to be a better detective and knows which buttons to push to try and get him there. She also wants to believe that Healy can be a better man than he is, and prods him down that path in the disarming manner that only 13 year olds can muster.

The film noir elements are more prominent in the front half of the film, as the early unexplained murder and quick descent into the sordid world of porn productions, second-rate detectives, third-rate hoodlums and a convoluted missing woman mystery evoke the best aspects of the noir style. Black unfortunately moves away from the more clever shadings and tilts towards overkill as the film progresses, and the final third features plenty of wild shoot-outs and mindless action, machine guns and mayhem replacing subtlety and refinement.

Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe establish a personality-based rapport early on, and stick close to the realities of their character. Gosling allows March's occasional spark to come through but otherwise plays to perfection the disinterested, somewhat depressed and not-very-good detective happiest at the bottom of the bottle. Crowe, with his increasing heft beginning to resemble John Goodman proportions, is more animated as Healy and leads with his fists, but he also allows a latent humanity to emerge at key moments. Black hints at downbeat personal histories for both men, allowing Gosling and Crowe to build their characters on the vague wreckage of broken dreams.

The Nice Guys know how to have a good time. They may need to learn to stand each other, but they will also have plenty of groovy adventures along the way.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Wednesday, 25 May 2016

Tuesday, 24 May 2016

Movie Review: Midnight Cowboy (1969)

A quintessential 1970s character drama, Midnight Cowboy is the story of two down-and-almost-out characters who forge an unlikely friendship.

Handsome, sturdy and dim dishwasher Joe Buck (Jon Voight) leaves his life in rural Texas behind and heads to New York City. In flashback, snippets of Joe's troubled childhood are revealed, including a disturbing relationship with his grandmother and a passionate affair with a girlfriend that ends badly. Now Joe's intention is to sell his services as a male prostitute with a cowboy persona to the wealthy women of New York. But his early and clumsy attempts to make a career as a stud are a miserable failure, including an early session with socialite Cass (Sylvia Miles) that ends with him paying her.

Joe stumbles across Rico Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman), known to all as Ratso, a suitable nickname but one that he hates. Ratso is a penniless gutter rat and petty thief with a bum leg and a persistent cough. He promptly swindles Joe out of $20 by sending his to see a religious zealot on the pretext of arranging to find him a manager. Eventually, with Joe quickly running out of money and getting ever more desperate, Ratso takes him into his derelict apartment in a condemned building. The two men establish a spiky friendship as they attempt to find ways to make enough money to eat, stay warm and take care of Ratso's worsening health.

Directed by John Schlesinger and written by Waldo Salt adapting the James Leo Herlihy novel, Midnight Cowboy is a slice of societal anthropology set in corners often ignored. The story of the pathetic gigolo and the pitiful tramp finds the human spirit fighting for survival and small moments of joy against the forces of poverty, rejection, hunger, cold and despair. The film is absorbing in its depiction of the struggle for survival and dignity, the pace surprisingly brisk and the misadventures of Joe and Ratso always offering ever newer levels of desperation.

Midnight Cowboy is paradoxically filled with elegance, beauty and the essence of companionship. Schlesinger constructs an affecting, deeply involving narrative filled with poignant moments, made all the more enduring by the certainty that Buck and Ratso do not have the capacity to actually succeed at anything. Their life and hopes will forever be a series of disappointments, and they will nevertheless not give up. Even from the bottom of the sewer, hope persists that tomorrow will be a better day.

The affecting soundtrack by John Barry perfectly complements the film, and includes Fred Neil's song Everybody's Talkin' and the soulful, legendary main harmonica theme by Toots Thielemans. The cinematography by Adam Holender captures life from the perspective of two men at the bottom looking up, the tonier districts of New York City offering a cold, unwelcoming shoulder while the seedier districts tantalize with nighttime lights, blurry neon colours and the promise of cash earned the dirty way.

In a career-making role, Jon Voight embodies Joe Buck and creates an enduring image of a strong but slow man buffeted by life yet determined to make something of himself using his limited skill set. In his first role after The Graduate, Dustin Hoffman announces his outstanding range and reinvents himself from clean-cut college kid to street scoundrel persevering on society's left-overs. Rico Rizzo persists only in the dumps and condemned margins of the city, yet when he roars I'm walkin' here! at an errant taxi, he owns the street, ever so briefly.

Midnight Cowboy starts with a long bus ride and ends with another. In a testament to both the human spirit and the film's unique viewpoint, both are journeys incredibly propelled by unbridled optimism.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Monday, 23 May 2016

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