Tuesday, 31 October 2017

Movie Review: Predator 2 (1990)

A science fiction gory action thriller, Predator 2 moves the setting from the jungle to Los Angeles and loses much of the original's identity in the process.

It's the near future of 1997. On the streets of Los Angeles, heavily armed Colombian and Jamaican drug gangs battle in the open, with the police force caught in the middle, outmanned and outgunned. Lieutenant Mike Harrigan (Danny Glover) and his small team consisting of Detective Danny Archuleta (Ruben Blades) and Detective Leona Cantrell (Maria Conchita Alonso) do their best, but are stunned when one gunbattle ends with the inexplicable ritual slaughter of many gang members.

A powerful alien predator is on the loose, targeting anyone with a weapon, and possessing advanced killing tools and the ability to bend light to appear invisible. With the situation on the street spiralling out of control, new recruit Detective Jerry Lambert (Bill Paxton) joins Harrigan's crew, while the federal government sends in Special Agent Peter Keyes (Gary Busey) and his team to assert control. Keyes and Harrigan immediately clash, but the slaughter continues.

With Arnold Schwarzenegger passing on the sequel, the franchise loses its biggest draw. Danny Glover is an adequate replacement, but does not come close to projecting the necessary charisma or sheer physical stature and stamina needed to confront the alien hunter. As a result, Predator 2 seeps credibility the closer it trundles towards the one-on-one climax.

In the run-up to the final showdown, the film is more urban action thriller with plenty of gore than a science fiction horror film. Director Stephen Hopkins stages several high octane battle scenes as an out of control drug war grips Los Angeles, with the Predator stealthily claiming victims according to his own honourable terms of combat. Plenty of noisy energy fills the screen as the body count mounts and buckets of blood ooze onto the floor and splatter the walls, but nothing distinguishes the film from most other bullet-rich movies willing to uncork bloodshed.

The subplot of federal forces arriving on the scene to take control of the streets cues plenty of reciprocal and sweaty hissing between Glover's Harrigan and Busey's Keyes, but the tension between the two men is largely wasted.

Predator 2 is not bad at anything it does; just comprehensively undistinguished.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Monday, 30 October 2017

Movie Review: European Vacation (1985)

An imbecilic comedy, European Vacation is a braindead exercise in crass antics.

In Chicago, Clark Griswald (Chevy Chase), his wife Ellen (Beverly D'Angelo) and children Audrey and Rusty (Dana Hill and Jason Lively) compete on the Pig in a Poke television game show and win the grand prize: a trip to Europe. Ellen dreams of romancing her husband, the overweight Audrey is horrified that she has to leave her first boyfriend behind, and Rusty daydreams of meeting attractive European girls. Clark just wants the family to enjoy their time together.

The trip starts in London and moves to Paris, Germany and then Rome. At every stop everything that can possibly go wrong does go wrong, ratcheting up the tension between the four family members. But Clark soldiers on, determined to have a good time no matter what.

Directed by Amy Heckerling, the first sequel to National Lampoon's Vacation is a wretched film. Utterly devoid of laughs and featuring an endless parade of stupid behaviour compounded by atrocious acting, European Vacation aims for bottom of the barrel jokes: Clark causes three crashes within one block of driving in London. Clark is unable to drive out of a roundabout, stuck circulating for hours. Clark's language skills are mocked by a French waiter. Instead of a romantic evening Clark insists on taking Ellen to a cheap cabaret show, where he behaves like a horny teenager. Clark transforms a Bavarian folk dance into a brawl.

In between the tiresome episodes of Clark being a doofus are churlish jokes involving Audrey either endlessly pining for her boyfriend or surrendering to food impulses, while Rusty allows lust to guide his vacation.

By the time the family gets involved with some cartoonish villains in Rome, the end of the vacation cannot come soon enough. This may all be a commentary about American tourists living down to all expectations while abroad; but it's also a painful 94 minutes of bad slapstick, the search for a singular genuine funny moment anywhere on this European Vacation concluding in abject failure.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Movie Review: Wait Until Dark (1967)

A suspense thriller, Wait Until Dark places a blind woman in peril but is otherwise too contrived to be effective.

A doll stuffed with heroin is smuggled across the border on a flight from Montreal to New York and inadvertently ends up in the apartment of housewife Susy Hendrix (Audrey Hepburn) and her photographer husband Sam (Efrem Zimbalist Jr.). Susy is blind, having recently lost her eyesight in a car crash, but Sam pushes her to be independent. Drug smuggler Roat (Alan Arkin) searches the apartment but is unable to find the doll. He recruits con artists Mike Talman (Richard Crenna) and Carlino (Jack Weston) to trick Susy into revealing its location.

With Sam away at work, Mike pretends to be a visiting army buddy, Carlino pretends to be a crude cop, and Roat pretends to be Roat Sr., a crazy old man, as well as his son Roat Jr. They come in and out of Susy's apartment to try and get her to talk about the doll. At first trusting Mike, Susy starts to grow suspicious of all the visitors, and her only ally is the bratty young teenaged girl Gloria (Julie Herrod), who lives upstairs.

An adaptation of a play by Frederick Knott, Wait Until Dark suffers from an over elaborate plot that strains all credibility. To create the sustained drama in Susy's house, the script has the ruthless Roat concocting a most obtuse plan involving intricate playacting by three criminals, several disguises, a revolving door of comings and goings, a careful schedule of pre-planned telephone calls, signals transmitted by flashing light through kitchen blinds, and a surveillance van.

For the purpose of getting a defenceless blind woman to reveal the location of a doll, none of this makes the least bit of sense, especially after Roat's quick willingness to inflict severe bodily harm to get what he needs is revealed early on.

Director Terence Young hopes that no one notices the massive plot holes, and almost gets away with it thanks to a delicate Audrey Hepburn performance. She generates maximum sympathy as a blind but supremely attentive and smart woman, alone, being preyed on by three goons, and with no one to turn to except her young neighbour.

Alan Arkin is the other big bonus as the fierce Roat, but he disappears for long stretches, leaving Crenna and Weston to carry the bad guy load, and they are merely average.

The stage-bound theatrics rumble on with only moderate moments of suspense, mostly courtesy of Hepburn's acting, until a rightfully famous climax featuring a showdown between Susy and one criminal. The film finally jettisons the amateur playacting and ineffective psychological pressure to focus on attacker and victim, the audience sucked into Susy's dark world of mounting terror with clever use of light.

Wait Until Dark is better when the darkness finally arrives, but all the waiting is problematic.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Sunday, 29 October 2017

Movie Review: Carny (1980)

A drama set in the world of a small-time touring carnivals, Carny lacks plot but is rich in characters and mood.

Frankie (Gary Busey) and Patch (Robbie Robertson) are members of The Great American Carnival. Frankie plays The Mighty Bozo, a dunk-tank antagonist, while Patch collects the money and helps run the business. The carnival includes the typical assortment of rides, rigged pay-per-play games, a strip show and several sideshows exploiting various physical conditions, with scams aplenty to maximize profit. One evening bored teenager Donna (Jodie Foster) attends with her boyfriend Mickey (Craig Wasson). She quickly establishes a connection with Frankie, runs away from home and joins the carnival.

As the ramshackle tour moves from town to town, Donna comes between Frankie and Patch. She tries to make herself useful by joining the strip show, a trial that goes awry. At every small town Patch has to bribe the right officials to ignore the carnival's more sordid corners. When he tangles with an exceptionally oily businessman demanding more than the usual payout, the consequences are severe.

Directed by Robert Kaylor, better known as a documentarian, Carny is co-written and co-produced by Robertson, much better known as The Band's lead guitarist and main songwriter. And this non-traditional partnership is largely responsible for a unique look and feel. Carny defies any easy categorizations, and is a movie to be experienced rather than analyzed.

Despite the 1980 release date Carny owes more to the 1970s in being character driven, soaking up atmosphere and proceeding with blissful disregard for conventional narrative structures. Kaylor allows his cameras to roam, always finding the more interesting perspectives and capturing the pathetic nighttime energy of a touring event scrapping for survival. There is nothing glamorous about this neon-drenched life on the road, except that it is a life on the road, where what happened yesterday can be disregarded because something else will happen somewhere else today.

At the core of the non-events is a ten year mostly unspoken friendship between Frankie and Patch, the barely-in-control-brawn and the calm-and-collected brains, Frankie in the cage generating fury and Patch outside exploiting the anger. The one theme of the film is the struggle to maintain a functional connection between two men when a woman arrives on the scene, with the added tension of Donna being - maybe - just on the right side of 18, and a runaway.

Gary Busey has rarely been better - or more fearsome. The opening sequence of Frankie applying face makeup to transform into The Mighty Bozo is hypnotizing, and Busey's manic energy in the cage jumps off the screen. Robbie Robertson is an ideal counterbalance, tall, lanky, almost too laid back as he thinks through every situation. Jodie Foster's Donna is a perfect disruptive presence as she tries to find her place into the carnival's routine, the young woman's burgeoning sexuality so much fuel on an already unstable fire.

In addition to Wasson, the supporting cast includes Elisha Cook Jr. as the resident grizzled veteran, Meg Foster as the game maiden who unleashes Donna's inner tiger, Kenneth McMillan, and Fred Ward.

Carny glides towards a climax where the carnival also bares its teeth as a house of horrors. It's all fun and games until someone gets hurt, and then a different set of rules apply.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Movie Review: The Bounty Hunter (2010)

A romantic action comedy, The Bounty Hunter is a flighty exercise in star power dimmed by lack of inspiration.

Milo (Gerard Butler) is an ex-cop, now scraping a living as a bounty hunter. His latest assignment is too delicious to turn own: he is asked to track down his ex-wife Nicole (Jennifer Aniston), a driven reporter who missed a court date to chase down a story. Nicole is trying to uncover the truth behind the suspicious suicide of a police evidence room attendant. Meanwhile, fellow reporter Stewart (Jason Sudeikis) is lusting after Nicole to try and get her into a relationship, but she is not interested.

With Stewart not far behind, Milo connects with his flamboyant ex-mother-in-law Kitty (Christine Baranski) and quickly tracks down Nicole in Atlantic City, but she proves to be a handful to control. Soon the bickering couple attract the attention of corrupt cop Earl (Peter Greene), as well as a group of thugs who work for loan shark Irene (Cathy Moriarty). Milo is determined to bring Nicole to justice and collect his bounty, and she is just as insistent on exposing a conspiracy that appears to involve Milo's old cop buddy Bobby (Dorian Missick).

Directed by Andy Tennant, The Bounty Hunter features a mix of harmless action, cartoonish villains, and a barely-there plot all set against a backdrop of a continuously quarrelsome couple. That it will all end with Milo and Nicole reaching some sort of reconciliation is never in doubt; that every possible detour will be deployed to prolong the inevitable is also a certainty.

The film drags on for 106 minutes, much of it registering as an Atlantic City infomercial, as somehow an utterly unnecessary casino gambling interlude is shoehorned into the script. A sojourn onto a swanky golf course is another set-piece, although at least some smiles are raised in a madcap race across the fairways.

The film has nothing if not some star charisma, and Jennifer Aniston and Gerard Butler do their best to drag proceedings towards a basic level of entertainment. Aniston is more comfortable with the lightweight material and the better moments tend to involve Nicole conniving to rescue bad situations to her advantage. Butler is more monotonal and less effective, his portrayal of the sloppy and boorish Milo presenting a compelling case as to why Nicole should keep her distance.

Not too funny, not too exciting and not too romantic, The Bounty Hunter is not much of anything.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Friday, 27 October 2017

The Movies Of Myrna Loy

All movies starring Myrna Loy and reviewed on the Ace Black Blog are linked below:

The Thin Man (1934)

Test Pilot (1938)

The Rains Came (1939)

The Best Years Of Our Lives (1946)

Midnight Lace (1960)

Airport 1975 (1974)

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.
The Index of Movie Stars is here.

Thursday, 26 October 2017

Movie Review: London Has Fallen (2016)

A mindless action thriller, London Has Fallen is a disappointing sequel, going far beyond suspension of disbelief and into ridiculous territory.

American intelligence services destroy the desert hideout of international arms dealer Aamir Barkawi (Alon Moni Aboutboul) with a drone strike. Two years later the British Prime Minister dies suddenly. All the world's leader make plans to attend the funeral in London, including US President Ben Asher (Aaron Eckhart). His Secret Service Director Lynne Jacobs (Angela Bassett) is nervous about the lack of security planning time, and agent Mike Banning (Gerard Butler) is entrusted with keeping the President safe. With his wife Leah (Radha Mitchell) pregnant, Banning is contemplating resigning from active duty but accepts the London assignment.

Just before the funeral is set to start at St. Paul's Cathedral, a large number of heavily armed terrorists  disguised as police officers launch coordinated attacks throughout London, causing mass casualties. Banning is barely able to extract Asher from the main attack zone, and the two go on the run. The attack is funded by Barkawi, seeking revenge for the death of his family members. With London swarming with terrorists, Banning has to keep the President alive long enough for friendly backup forces to arrive.

While 2013's Olympus Has Fallen was a laudable riff on Die Hard, London Has Fallen chucks out all that was good about the original, and leaves only brain dead action behind. After just 15 minutes of rudimentary set-up, director Babak Najafi unleashes the noise and fury of a London overrun by terrorists, and the film does not take a breath for the remainder of its 99 minutes.

There is a fine line between a far-fetched premise and just a lazy idea. Olympus was a far-fetched premise very well executed. London lands with a thud on the wrong side of that boundary. The script requires a massive number of police officers -- even Buckingham Palace guards! -- to be secretly replaced with an army of bad guys armed to the teeth with machine guns and grenades in the run up to London's biggest ever security operation, without anyone noticing.

And after the initial attack things get worse, with hordes of terrorists on motorcycles, in cars and with stinger missiles having free run of the city, and no genuine enforcement types of any stripe even attempting any sort of intervention. Of course the same terrorist leaders who carefully planned this secret but massive operation consisting of thousands of undetected attackers will now be stupid enough to be defeated by a single secret service agent.

Despite all its faults and some cheap special effects, London Has Fallen occasionally captures the freewheeling spirit of a third-person shooter console game, Najafi at least staging his numerous action scenes with some panache. And in Gerard Butler he has an actor willing to grit his teeth and get on with all the killing necessary to save his President, while almost giving the impression that he is taking it all seriously.

In addition to Eckhart and Basset, the supporting cast also includes Morgan Freeman in another throwaway performance as the Vice President, while Melissa Leo and Robert Forster are utterly wasted in tiny roles.

London may have fallen, but the quality of this franchise fell faster and deeper.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Wednesday, 25 October 2017

Movie Review: The Ugly Truth (2009)

An undistinctive romantic comedy, The Ugly Truth offers decent star power but can't wriggle out of the genre's straightjacket.

Abby (Katherine Heigl) is an unattached television producer, a believer in romance and still looking for the perfect Mr. Right. With ratings in a slump, her station brings on outspoken shock jock Mike (Gerard Butler) to juice up the show. Mike believes only in lust and that women who are seeking an ideal romance are deluded.

Abby and Mike immediately clash, but he nevertheless helps her to develop a budding relationship with her new next door neighbour Colin (Eric Winter), an orthopedic surgeon who seems too good to be true. Mike tutors Abby in the art of seduction and Colin falls for her charms. But Mike and Abby also start to develop feelings for each other, despite having little in common.

There is nothing in The Ugly Truth that isn't totally predictable. Director Robert Luketic is unable to do anything unique or original with the feeble material, and indeed the television studio news show setting reeks of rom-com ideas about 20 years behind the times. In the late 1980s films like Broadcast News and Switching Channels played in this space for better or worse, and here Abby's workspace is a flashing sign warning of no new ideas.

It is left to stars Katherine Heigl and Gerard Butler to wring some laughs out of the dross, and they do on occasion deliver. Both Heigl and Butler are better than the movie, and thanks to a foul-mouthed script oriented at adults and full of say-what's-really-on-your-mind obscenities, The Ugly Truth at least allows Abby and Mike to fully have a go at each other with some spirited verbal sparring. It may be often juvenile and always low-brow, but there are laughs to be had in the clash between the idealistic romantic and the boorish chauvinist.

Along the way the film pokes some fun at both simplistic men and overcomplicated women, as the two protagonists inevitably push towards the middle. When Abby and Mike do finally emotionally connect on the dance floor and then in a hotel elevator, Luketic delivers a decent sequence where adults are rocked by the rush of unexpected feelings. And the latest attempt to mimic the fake orgasm scene from When Harry Met Sally is actually pretty funny.

Otherwise the pacing is clunky, the opposites attract theme too tired to even pretend to be convincing, and the supporting characters are straight out of cheap television sit-com territory. The truth is that despite two attractive stars, this film experience is mostly just ugly.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Tuesday, 24 October 2017

The Movies Of Brie Larson

All movies starring Brie Larson and reviewed on the Ace Black Blog are linked below:

13 Going On 30 (2004)

Greenberg (2010)

Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (2010)

Rampart (2011)

The Spectacular Now (2013)

Trainwreck (2015)

Room (2015)

Kong: Skull Island (2017)

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.
The Index of Movie Stars is here.

Monday, 23 October 2017

The Movies Of Jeremy Irons

All movies starring Jeremy Irons and reviewed on the Ace Black Blog are linked below:

Kingdom Of Heaven (2005)

Appaloosa (2008)

The Pink Panther 2 (2009)

The Words (2012)

Night Train To Lisbon (2013)

The Man Who Knew Infinity (2015)

Red Sparrow (2018)

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.
The Index of Movie Stars is here.

Sunday, 22 October 2017

Movie Review: The Fifth Estate (2013)

A biographical technology drama, The Fifth Estate delves into the chaotic formative years of WikiLeaks and the profound questions caused by the sudden public availability of state secrets.

The film briefly starts in 2010, with The Guardian, The New York Times and Der Spiegel about to co-publish The Afghan War Logs, derived from thousands of United States secret government cables leaked to WikiLeaks by Bradley Manning. The story then shifts back to 2008, when German tech whiz Daniel Domscheit-Berg (Daniel Brühl) meets and agrees to help WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch). Assange is passionate about providing an unfiltered anonymous platform for whistleblowers to reveal hidden corporate and government information.

The popularity of WikiLeaks grows with revelations about tax evasion on a grand scale at a Swiss Bank. Daniel is captivated by Julian, who is enigmatic but also obsessed with his own version of the truth and not beyond twisting facts for his benefit. The worldwide scoops multiply, and WikiLeaks becomes a thorn in the US government's side. Daniel's relationship with girlfriend Anke (Alicia Vikander) suffers, and more tension lies ahead as Assange seems oblivious to the individual harm that could be caused by the release of unredacted data.

Directed by Bill Condon, The Fifth Estate is only a few years removed from the events depicted. Both a biography of Assange and a commentary on the rapidly shifting world of no secrets, the film is always dynamic, sometimes frantic, and often resembles the chaotic no-one-is-in-control reality of information in the citizen journalist world.

The Fifth Estate is based on two 2011 books: Inside WikiLeaks: My Time with Julian Assange at the World's Most Dangerous Website by Domscheit-Berg, and WikiLeaks: Inside Julian Assange's War on Secrecy by David Leigh and Luke Harding. And this is not a hero-worship story: the film presents Assange as a deeply flawed man living in his own world, charismatic enough to dominate a room and attract ardent followers but also blinkered in pursuing a self-defined mission. It's an attractive proposition for a biography to pursue, and allows screenwriter Josh Singer to chase the various shades of grey morality in the WikiLeaks story.

Aware that the film is treating history too close to the source, Condon expands the breadth and triangulates numerous issues, rather than diving too deeply into any one aspect. The Fifth Estate takes pains to cover the people, the technology, the profession of journalism, the actual historical events, and the implications both intended and not, and never dwells for too long in one place. There is something here from every angle, and while none of it is perfect or fully satisfying, it is all rich fodder for thoughtful discussion.

Through the sub-story of a trio of State Department and White House officials (played by Laura Linney, Stanley Tucci and Anthony Mackie) struggling to cope with the sensitive state secrets suddenly detonating on WikiLeaks, Condon takes a stab at reflecting the information age's unexpected consequences. He also throws in a sub-sub-story of an American informant in the Libyan government, whose identity is potentially exposed in the leaks.

Elsewhere traditional journalists at The Guardian, already struggling with the digital revolution, now have to contend with defending their professional standards as a tsunami of astounding information is about to be unleashed on an unsuspecting world in unfiltered format. Are the rules being rewritten, or is this the reason the tried and tested rules exist in the first place?

Benedict Cumberbatch delivers a chilling performance as Assange, self-assured, emotionally domineering and steely-eyed, his shock of white hair working to his advantage. Daniel Brühl gets plenty of screen time, and the film is as much the Domscheit-Berg story as it is about Assange, and this is not necessarily always a good thing. Alicia Vikander cannot do much with the role of the token girlfriend.

The Fifth Estate doesn't contain any great revelations, yet it's a stylish point-in-time marker, a chronicle of an inflection point in privacy's death march. Governments are also losing the right to keep any secrets, and all it took was one determined man and one website to make it happen.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Movie Review: The Dogs Of War (1980)

A war drama and thriller, Dogs Of War explores the murky world of mercenaries but despite some good moments lacks suspense, depth and action.

After barely escaping from a chaotic Central American war zone, mercenary James Shannon (Christopher Walken) is hired by go-between Roy Endean (Hugh Millais) to conduct a reconnaissance mission in Zangaro, an African country rich in natural resources. The business interests behind Endean want to know if Zangaro's dictator General Kimba can be overthrown. Pretending to be a bird photographer, Shannon travels to the capital city of Clarence to gather intelligence, and there he meets documentarian Alan North (Colin Blakely).

But Shannon soon falls foul of Kimba's security men and is captured and brutally tortured. In prison he meets Dr. Okoye (Winston Ntshona), a principled leader and ex-Presidential candidate. After being thrown out of the country Shannon recuperates and tries to reconcile with his wife Jessie (JoBeth Williams). Endean reappears, this time offering a lot of money for the overthrow of Kimba. Shannon turns to his long-time colleague Drew (Tom Berenger) and together they start assembling the men and equipment needed for the mission.

After the international success of The Day Of The Jackal (1973), author Frederick Forsyth's other conspiracy-laced thrillers trickled into movie adaptations. The Odessa File arrived in 1974, The Dogs Of War in 1980 and The Fourth Protocol in 1987. None of the films were able to replicate the success of The Day Of The Jackal, as Forsyth's style of quick-frying character depth in favour of meticulous mission planning details proved difficult to translate to the screen.

Forsyth allegedly participated in real-life coup planning targeting Equatorial Guinea (here translated to the fictional Zangaro), either as book research or as a genuine enterprise, so he more than knows what goes into covert private military adventurism. Dogs Of War contains a few highlights, but generally suffers in a void of drama and tension.

A directed by John Irvin, the film arrives at the nuts and bolts of planning the coup in bad shape: Shannon is a robotic, annoyed presence, unable to hold the film's centre. His colleagues and cohorts are faceless and totally undefined, a bunch of men transacting deals for weapons and ammunition across Europe with other shady businessmen involved in the underworld of the armament trade. The film is a mechanical, uninvolving experience, mildly curious but too emotionally cold.

The better moments include the opening sequence, an impressive disorganized escape from a raucous Central American battlefield. The climax, about 90 tired minutes later, is a noisy battle as Shannon and his men assault Kimba's compound. Although the final spike in action is generally well handled, all the firing is in one direction, sapping away the tension of the attack, and the battle tactics are never explained.

Cinematographer Jack Cardiff does his best to elevate the visuals: both firefights jump off the screen with kinetic energy and some artistic zing, but even more impressive is the ramshackle appearance of the capital city Clarence (actually Belize City), Irvin and Cardiff capturing the chaos and menace of a sweaty third world city convulsing under the untrained guns of a dictator's amateur army and his security agents.

Christopher Walken is not well served, neither by the script nor by the directing. His line delivery is strained, overly clipped and aggressive. For a man who is supposed to live in the shadows, his combative behaviour is perfect for attracting the wrong attention. Colin Blakely adds support as a filmmaker growing tired of hellhole assignments, but the rest of the cast is too ill-defined to matter.

Dogs Of War only rarely wags its tails, and lacks both bark and bite.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Movie Review: American Made (2017)

A ridiculously fun yet incredible biographical adventure inspired by real events, American Made is a mad dash across a warped corner of the Cold War.

It's the late 1970s, and Barry Seal (Tom Cruise) is a restless TWA pilot based in Baton Rouge and married to Lucy (Sarah Wright Olsen). Always on the lookout for adventure, Barry is recruited by the CIA's Schafer (Domhnall Gleeson) and agrees to start flying covert missions over Central America to photograph communist rebel bases. He establishes a daredevil reputation, connects with a Colombian drug gang (including the soon-to-be notorious Pablo Escobar) and starts to smuggle cocaine onboard the CIA plane, with stopovers in Panama where a young Manuel Noriega gets a cut.

When Barry gets into trouble with the Colombian authorities, Schafer intervenes and offers a new mission: flying guns to the Nicaraguan Contras, a ragtag militia supposedly waging a counterrevolution against the Sandinista government. The CIA relocates Barry and his family to the tiny community of Mena, Arkansas, where he is soon running his own airline, fulfilling the CIA's wacky anti-communist missions but getting insanely wealthy with his expanding drug smuggling enterprise.

Inspired by real people and events, American Made is an it-should-be-too-wild-to-be-true romp through the world of covert CIA missions as the Cold War disintegrated into batty dirty wars. The film is also a fictionalized profile of the actual Barry Seal, a thrill-seeking pilot who found a home in the CIA's anything-goes approach to espionage, and could never resist a little something extra on the side for personal gain.

Director Doug Liman has a personal interest in this slice of history. He is the son of lawyer Arthur Liman, chief counsel for the Senate Iran-Contra hearings. As a result American Made is more patient with historical facts than is typical for Hollywood; the film pauses at the right times and for the right durations for Seal to explain the raging geopolitics and mission logistics, and it's all done in a humorous yet effective tone.

The pace is furious and rich with content. While painting a vivid contextual picture of the times through real footage of Presidents Carter and (especially) Reagan on television selling a sterilized version of the real story, the film gallops from one incident to the next with confidence. Seal hops furiously between hidden Colombian airstrips in the jungle, airdrops over the Louisiana swamps, stopovers in Panama, ramshackle rebel bases in Nicaragua, his rapidly unraveling home life with a wife, kids and troublesome brother-in-law JB (Caleb Landry Jones), and still finds time to build a multi-plane contraband business while evading a host of law enforcement departments.

Tom Cruise is at his charismatic best, the role of Barry Seal fitting his screen persona like a glove: fearless, mischievous and able to talk his way out of most hellholes. Domhnall Gleeson ghosts in and out of the film as only a spy can, while Sarah Wright Olsen gives the long suffering Lucy just a bit of a memorable edge.

American Made features plenty of harrowing flights, but the film is an exquisitely smooth trips.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Saturday, 21 October 2017

Movie Review: My Fair Lady (1964)

A musical drama and romance, My Fair Lady is a lavish, joyful story filled with social satire and wondrous songs.

London, in the early 1900s. Phonetics Professor Henry Higgins (Rex Harrison), a conceited confirmed bachelor, stumbles upon young Cockney flower seller Eliza Doolittle (Audrey Hepburn). A strong believer that language skills determine status, Higgins accepts a challenge from his colleague Colonel Pickering (Wilfrid Hyde-White) that he can transform Eliza into a classy society woman within six months by improving her oration. Not quite knowing what she is getting herself into, Eliza accepts and moves into Higgins' home, and he initiates round-the-clock training.

Eliza's good-for-nothing perpetually unemployed father Alfred (Stanley Holloway) senses an opportunity to make some money off Higgins. Meanwhile, Eliza finally makes a breakthrough in her pronunciation skills and Higgins starts to test her in social circles, including interactions with his mother Mrs. Higgins (Gladys Cooper) and a young potential beau Freddy (Jeremy Brett). Eliza starts to develop feelings for Higgins despite all his faults, but his supreme arrogance gets in the way.

An adaptation of the Pygmalion-inspired stage musical conceived by lyricist Alan Jay Lerner and composer Frederick Loewe, the film version of My Fair Lady succeeds in translating the show onto film with a rich aura of grandeur. Extravagantly directed by George Cukor, the film features magnanimous sets and splendid costumes to go along with George Bernard Shaw's acerbic commentary on England's classism.

The highlights are many, built around some of the best and most famous songs to make it into a film musical. As is commonly the case in musicals the first part is by far the stronger, and Cukor hits a stunning purple patch including Eliza dreaming about a better life in Wouldn't It Be Loverly, Alfred espousing the skills of doing nothing in With A Little Bit Of Luck, and then reaching a climax with the stunning double back-to back peaks of The Rain In Spain and I Could Have Danced All Night.

The most biting sequence in terms of sharp wit occurs during Eliza's first planned sojourn into the world of the wealthy at the Ascot races. Cukor stages the Ascot Gavotte with delightful discipline, laying bare the habits of the affluent yet ridiculous class, where every movement is measured and critiqued but nevertheless absurd. Eliza will never fit in with these people, and nor would she want to.

After the intermission, the songs take a break and visual splendor takes over, as Cukor unspools an effusive embassy ball scene, a standard-setting affair with sparkling costumes and matching behaviour in ballrooms and hallways filled with highbrow diplomats, royalty, military types, intelligentsia and glitterati.

With a mammoth running time of 170 minutes, the film of course has its faults. Higgins gets too many similar songs. Why Can't The English Learn To Speak, An Ordinary Man, You Did It, and Why Can't A Woman Be More Like A Man are all fine but also all too similar, hammering away at overlapping narcissism themes and pushing Higgins' characters towards an almost unsalvageable corner. The second half does inevitably sag, although it would have been miraculous had the momentum of the sterling opening 100 minutes been sustained.

Despite having her singing dubbed by Marni Nixon, Audrey Hepburn sparkles with wit and honesty, and carries the Cecil Beaton designed costumes with remarkable grace. Whether as a Covent Garden flower girl or as a tentative debutant on the elite social scene, the role of Eliza is a prominent jewel in Hepburn's extraordinary career crown. Rex Harrison matches her with a performance full of self-satisfied bombast.

My Fair Lady is traditional Hollywood at its finest, putting on a no-expenses-spared show with the stars shining bright.

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