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.






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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.






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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.






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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.






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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.






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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.






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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.






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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.






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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.






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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.






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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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Sunday, 15 October 2017

Movie Review: The Finest Hours (2016)


A rescue-at-sea drama, The Finest Hours is serviceable but never rousing.

The year is 1952, the location coastal Massachusetts and the Chatham Coast Guard Station. Boatswain's Mate First Class Bernie Miller (Chris Pine) meets and falls in love with local girl Miriam (Holliday Grainger). When he dawdles to commit, she proposes marriage, but Bernie insists on following the tradition of requesting permission to get married from his stiff Chief Warrant Officer Daniel Cluff (Eric Bana).

But Cluff is preoccupied with a massive incoming storm, and two oil tankers break apart in rough seas on the same night. One of them is the SS Pendleton, where the reticent engineer Ray Sybert (Casey Affleck) has to rally the surviving crew to keep half the massive ship afloat. Using a small boat, Bernie is dispatched to the Pendleton's last known location on a dangerous rescue mission, joined by Coast Guard Seaman Richard Livesey (Ben Foster), Engineman Andrew Fitzgerald (Kyle Gallner) and Navy Seaman Ervin Maske (John Magaro). Back on shore, Miriam frets about the fate of her husband-to-be.

The story of one of the Coast Guard's most famous rescues, The Finest Hours gets most of the technical details wrong, and is infused with a heavy dose of Disney's saccharine wholesomeness. The music crescendos to epic levels every five minutes, the dangers faced by Bernie and his crew are exaggerated to Greek mythology levels, the faces of Bernie and his love Miriam always glow in the incandescent light of love, and any hints of darkness, death, and guilt are pushed far to the edges, and often fully off-screen.

But after an ill-considered and really slow start that stumbles to connect Bernie with Miriam, director Craig Gillespie settles down to a respectable retelling of a harrowing rescue at sea, with Bernie's against-the-odds small-boat-in-a-big-storm journey intercut with Sybert rallying the Pendleton crew to improvise a pathway to survival. For once the CGI is extensive but also good; the images of a monstrous sea are impressive, whether threatening to swallow up Bernie's tiny motor lifeboat or mercilessly tossing half an oil tanker.

Less effective is Miriam's subplot back on shore. She runs around rather aimlessly and tangles with other locals who are suspicious about Bernie's competence due to a previous non-rescue that is only ever hinted at but never properly discussed, the script dangling a backstory and then timidly backing away from it.

Out on the seas Chris Pine and Casey Affleck are stoic without ever stretching, the enormity of events surrounding them enough to sustain the drama without the need for stellar performances.

The Finest Hours is a rescue adventure painted by numbers, produced with slick efficiency but tightly confined between dependable and predictable.






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Saturday, 14 October 2017

Movie Review: The Mountain Between Us (2017)


A survival adventure, The Mountain Between Us is a two-person character study that intermittently connects but also drags on for too long.

Photojournalist Alex Martin (Kate Winslet), traveling to her wedding, is stranded at an airport when her flight is cancelled due to an incoming storm. She spots fellow traveler Dr. Ben Bass (Idris Elba) on his way to perform a surgery and equally frustrated by the delays. Alex and Ben team up to charter a small plane from grizzled and dishevelled Vietnam War veteran Walter (Beau Bridges) and his dog.

Walter does not file a flight plan, and during the flight suffers a stroke. The plane crashes in the remote snow-covered mountains in a Utah wilderness area. Ben, Alex and the dog survive, although Alex suffers a broken leg. They shelter for days in the half-destroyed plane cabin against the bitter cold, but help does not arrive. With food running out, and against Ben's wishes, Alex insists that they need to leave the crash site and start descending the mountain to reach help.

Directed by Hany Abu-Assad as an adaptation of the Charles Martin novel, The Mountain Between Us is a chilling drama about surviving the elements and unanticipated closeness with a stranger. The hip-deep snow, unimaginable cold, blinding storms, injuries, wild animals and isolated mountains provide plenty of physical challenges for Ben and Alex to overcome. And Abu-Assad doesn't hide from some awkward details: how does a woman with a broken leg urinate in a cramped cabin with a strange man for company?

But of more interest is the connection that needs to be forged between two travelers with nothing in common, and indeed plenty of rub points. Alex is talkative, inquisitive and a risk-taker. With her chase-the-story instincts, she is unable to sit still and await rescue, despite a broken leg. Ben is quiet, reserved, cerebral and slow to share anything intimate about himself. Applying the methodical logic of a surgeon, he finds Alex's impulsiveness grating.

The fact that Alex instigated the ill-fated charter adds to the strain between them. The journey from frigid distance to the warmth of dependency underpins the film, and of course their contrasting character traits will need to merge in the name of survival.

Abu-Assad gets the most out of the story, but at 112 minutes, there is more film than plot. There are only so many arguments and encounters with near death that two people can carry, and by the time a bear trap snaps, an inevitable tired sense of "what else" creeps into the film. The denouement back in civilization also drags out longer than needed.

Kate Winslet and Idris Elba easily maintain watchability, the two stars enjoying several emotional highlights. Winslet gives Alex a stubborn vivaciousness, while Elba allows the cover of calm silence to regularly lift and reveal hidden pain and frustrations within. Beau Bridges as the pilot and Dermot Mulroney as Alex's husband-in-waiting get a few scenes, but the real co-star is the dog, who provides essential companionship without undue cutesiness.

The Mountain Between Us is worth traversing, but it is a bit of a trudge.






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Movie Review: Lone Survivor (2013)


A war endurance story, Lone Survivor is a harrowing recreation of a mission-gone-wrong in the mountains of Afghanistan.

The setting is June, 2005, in Afghanistan. Four Navy SEALs are deployed on a remote mountaintop near an isolated village on a reconnaissance mission to identify and track a Taliban leader. The team consists of sniper Marcus Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg), Lieutenant Michael Murphy (Taylor Kitsch), Communications Specialist Danny Dietz (Emile Hirsch) and sniper Matthew Axelson (Ben Foster). Lieutenant Commander Erik S. Kristensen (Eric Bana) tracks their progress from a forward operations base, but communications are patchy due to the difficult terrain.

The mission is compromised when three local goat herders stumble onto the SEAL's observation point. Murphy and his men decide to retreat from the area, but local anti-American militias are alerted to their presence and the four men are caught in a vicious firefight, vastly outnumbered and cut off from any support.

Directed by Peter Berg and based on the book of the same name by Luttrell, Lone Survivor stays close to the facts and pays respectful attention to the events of the ill-fated Operation Red Wings. Similar in tone to Black Hawk Down, Lone Survivor looks for the acts of valour and unshakeable brotherhood emerging in the midst of a ruinous military misadventure.

Berg steers clear of any politicizing or examination of why the US troops are in Afghanistan in the first place. This is a story zoomed-in on four highly-trained warriors attempting to execute a mission, and forced to innovate their way out of trouble while under fire. The ordeal is agonizing, the casualties are high, and Berg's cameras do not flinch in the face of bullet strikes, physical and mental suffering, and death.

Berg's script relied on actual mission reports and autopsies to capture the details of individual wounds, and Lone Survivor is a testimony to the eternal horrors of war, up-close and personal. More than once the SEALs tumbled down steep rocky embankments to try and escape their pursuers, and the images of human bodies hurtling out of control and bouncing repeatedly off hard objects are painful to watch.

Once the combat starts at around the 45 minute mark, Lone Survivor unleashes and sustains unrelenting intensity, the bonding between the men rising as their casualties mount and the inevitable arrives. Berg achieves a memorable combat and heroism climax when Murphy, under intense fire, insists on reaching a rocky but exposed high point to try and establish communications and call for help.

Given the film's focus on just the four men, Lone Survivor could have invested more time in their backstories. Berg provides a few perfunctory and abstract references to wives and girlfriends, and leaves it at that. The film also unfortunately falls into the tired Hollywood trap of over-juicing the final drama, placing Luttrell in perils that he never actually faced, when his actual ordeal should have been sufficient.

But these are relatively minor quibbles. Lone Survivor is a superior and forceful war film, capturing soldiers at their best under the worst possible conditions.






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Thursday, 12 October 2017

Movie Review: Diamond Cartel (2017)


An action crime thriller and Peter O'Toole's final film, Diamond Cartel is notable for somehow collecting some famous actors who should know better and throwing them into a Grade Z Kazakh production.

The barely comprehensible plot involves two lovers caught up in a feud between numerous gangsters somewhere between Siberia and Kazakhstan. Gang boss Mussa (Armand Assante) attempts to negotiate a $30 million deal to purchase a massive diamond from a Mr. Liu. But the exchange, which includes a brief appearance by an undefined Mr. Mike (Michael Madsen), is violently disrupted by the crew of Mussa's disgruntled henchman (played by Nurlan Altaev).

The bloodbath triggers an unexpected reunion between Aliya (Karlygash Mukhamedzhanova) and her childhood friend and former lover (actor Aleksey Frandetti), a soft-spoken non-violent man. Aliya was forced into becoming an assassin by Mussa. Now in possession of both the diamond and the $30 million, Aliya and Frandetti traverse Kazakhstan from end to end, hotly pursued by a large group of heavily armed bad guys. At the end of the journey is none other than Peter O'Toole as a crusty boathouse keeper, waiting to deliver his final two minutes of screen time.

O'Toole passed away in 2013. His last role was in this film, initially called The Whole World At Our Feet and released in the local Kazakh market in 2015. Two years later the film was redubbed, re-edited and renamed as Diamond Cartel, and released more widely.

Directed by Salamat Mukhammed-Ali, Diamond Cartel is a throwback to low budget mindless 1980s action movies. Horrifically dubbed (even the English-speaking actors appear victimized) with stupefyingly plastic dialogue, and featuring acting talent that oscillates between non-existent to over-the-top, this is an impenetrable chase film, serving intermittently as a Kazakh tourist video and otherwise aiming for ultra violent set-pieces delivered with no wit and less context.

To be fair, as a viewing experience it's not a total loss. The production values are decent, director Mukhammed-Ali does demonstrate regular doses of in-your-face panache, and leading lady Mukhamedzhanova shows flashes of promise. The film is delivered with a vivid, almost over-exposed colour palette, and the combination of a stark aesthetic bolted onto a bizarrely disjointed plot manages to hold interest, if not always for the right reasons.

And then there is Armand Assante, the one recognizable import with substantive screen time. He spends the film establishing a new fashion trend of slick jackets with no shirt underneath, and bites into the Kazakh scenery with unrestrained venom.

A so-bad-it's-bad curiosity, Diamond Cartel has shiny star names but the glitter is all fake.






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Wednesday, 11 October 2017

Movie Review: Dead Man Down (2013)


A revenge crime thriller, Dead Man Down benefits from a focus on characters and a suitably grim mood.

In New York City, Victor (Colin Farrell) and his partner Darcy (Dominic Cooper) are violent gang members, part of the crew run by crime boss Alphonse (Terrence Howard). However, while pretending to be a loyal foot soldier, Victor is also on a secret and personal revenge mission, seeking retribution against Alphonse for the murder of his wife and child two years earlier.

Victor meets his neighbour Beatrice (Noomi Rapace), who lives with her mother (Isabelle Huppert). Beatrice was the victim of an accident caused by a drunk driver that left her with permanent facial scars. Having witnessed Victor commit a murder in his apartment, she demands that he kill the drunk driver, who got away with a light sentence. With Darcy investigating who is behind the threats against Alphonse, Victor has to quickly advance his complex retribution and satisfy Beatrice before his cover is blown.

Directed by Niels Arden Oplev, Dead Man Down is better than it needed to be. Oplev restricts the action set pieces to just a few punchy moments at the start, middle and end, and keeps them short if a bit muddled in execution. Plenty of room is therefore created for a complex double revenge plot to unfurl from the middle outwards, and the characters of Victor and Beatrice occupy centre stage.

The story of Victor plotting an elaborate payback contains a compelling backstory and a patient build-up, while Beatrice is an intriguing woman, scarred physically but more deeply damaged emotionally. The two combine to create an unusually provocative duo with overlapping objectives. When the inevitable relationship evolves between them, their rage is also cast in a new light.

None of which is to say that Dead Man Down doesn't contain glaring faults. Gangster stereotypes and narrative shortcuts litter the screen, plot holes waltz through the film, and New York City is somehow suddenly devoid of law enforcement. Early in the story a gangland massacre takes place, with an exchange of gunfire worthy of a war zone, and yet none of the perpetrators are ever remotely bothered by any sort of investigation.

Oplev skips past the shortcomings with an appealing dark aesthetic, many of the scenes taking place at dusk or later, with dark blues and artificial lighting complementing the underworld milieu. And the quality of the cast also helps to ride out the weaker moments. Colin Farrell's generally expressionless persona is well suited to the secretive and scheming Victor, while Noomi Rapace matches Farrell with her sense of determined despondency. Isabelle Huppert as Beatrice's mostly deaf mother adds depth to Beatrice's domesticity. Veterans Armand Assante and F. Murray Abraham have small supporting roles.

A reasonably potent mix of action and layered plot, Dead Man Down enjoys more ups than downs.






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Tuesday, 10 October 2017

Movie Review: A Star Is Born (1976)


A romantic drama musical, A Star Is Born is primarily a Barbra Streisand concert with a bit of plot thrown in around the sides.

Rock star John Norman Howard (Kris Kristofferson) is rapidly burning out, late to his own concerts, addicted to booze and too jaded to care any more. One night he stumbles into a bar where lounge singer Esther Hoffman (Streisand) is performing, and an attraction develops. He subsequently pushes her onto the stage during a show, where her unrehearsed performance draws raves.

John and Esther get married, her career takes off while his fades away. Their marriage suffers from ups and downs, but his impetuous behaviour isn't conducive to a long-term happy union.

The third screen treatment of the story after the 1937 and 1954 versions, the 1976 film is by far the weakest. Although the decision to relocate the story from the world of film studios to the anarchic rock arena is a good one, the pacing, character development, and relationship dynamics are all poorly handled.

Directed by Frank Pierson and co-produced by Streisand, A Star Is Born gets bogged down early and often in prolonged scenes featuring Streisand belting out a succession of songs, and neither the drama nor the romance are provided an opportunity to gain traction. The cinematography and editing lack dynamism, and the film is surprisingly energy deprived. The love theme Evergreen became an international hit, and the film's soundtrack album was a massive seller, but none of that makes for a good movie.

Despite the bloated 140 minutes of running time, the narrative is delivered in plot-challenged shorthand. The few exchanges of intelligible dialogue contain contrived and painfully bad lines that fuel often ridiculous emotional vacillations. The supporting cast is non-existent (Gary Busey and Paul Mazursky fade in and mostly out of the background), and Streisand the actress never comes close to convincing as an undiscovered talent.

A montage sequence features artistic scenes of passionate romance, and Kristofferson is often the best thing on view, delivering a sinewy performance propelled by copious amounts of booze and filled with implied self-hate. But his character doesn't get the opportunity to complete even one song. Instead the screen is filled with Streisand for long periods in a display of unchecked egotism. At the climax, she gets about 10 minutes of uninterrupted close-up time encompassing her final performance and the end credits.

A Star Is Born unabashedly celebrates Streisand as a star chanteuse, but as a movie experience, it offers big hair and precious little else.






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Monday, 9 October 2017

Movie Review: What's Up, Doc? (1972)


A modernized screwball comedy and romance, What's Up, Doc? features no plot to speak off but an excellent cast and plenty of loony situations.

Four similar plaid handbags converge at a San Francisco hotel. Dr. Howard Bannister (Ryan O'Neal) is an unassuming professor of musicology and his bag is filled with rocks. Bannister is attending a conference where he is nominated for a research prize, and is traveling with his domineering fiancée Eunice Burns (Madeline Kahn). Mr. Smith's bag hides top secret documents, and he is pursued by Mr. Jones. The third bag contains the jewelry of a hotel guest, and she is the target of theft. The fourth bag holds the personal items of Judy Maxwell (Barbra Streisand).

Highly educated but completely kooky, Judy sets her sights on Howard as a romantic conquest and elbows her way into his conference program, sidelining Eunice. Howard is befuddled by Judy's behaviour as he tries to make a good impression on award sponsor Frederick Larrabee (Austin Pendleton) and fend off the boorish other nominee Hugh Simon (Kenneth Mars). Meanwhile a series of hotel room break-ins result in all four bags falling into the wrong hands, and a madcap chase.

Co-written, directed and produced by Peter Bogdanovich, What's Up, Doc? does not even try to pretend that it is anything more than an adult playground for nutty comedy of the cartoonish kind. An homage of sorts to the screwball classics of the 1940s, Bogdanovich includes even less story and less romance than expected. What's Up, Doc? has the same depth as a Bugs Bunny short, but does feature an all-in cast and one terrific highlight.

The film demands the suspension of any attempt to follow an actual narrative. Bogdanovich burns many minutes with scene after scene of characters skulking in and out of hotel rooms, as the ubiquitous plaid handbags repeatedly change locations, hiding places and hands. None of the characters are defined beyond their presence at the hotel to engage in the prevailing shenanigans, with people like Mr. Smith, Mr. Jones and the jewel thieves receiving plenty of screen time but hardly any dialogue.

But the actors fully invest in the prevailing anarchy, turning the exercise into an amusing romp. Barbra Streisand is the engine that powers events well past normal, and she nails the combination of revved-up cool, Judy laser-focused on winning Howard's heart and seemingly unaware of the commotion in her wake. As the clueless midwest professor of obscure music theories, Ryan O'Neal finds a role that suits his rather blank persona, and he provides the empty canvas for Judy to paint on. And in her full-length big screen debut, Madeline Kahn is suitably irritating as Howard's too-desperate wannabe wife.

The film's climax is a prolonged chase through the streets of San Francisco that reaches hysterical levels of madness. Bogdanovich constructs a finely crafted sequence involving a delivery bike, multiple vehicles and a Chinese dragon racing up and down the city's ridiculously steep streets, with a highlight featuring one tall ladder, two workmen and a large pane of glass.

What's Up, Doc? may lack substance, but it doubles down on pandemonium.






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Sunday, 8 October 2017

Movie Review: Victor/Victoria (1982)


A gender-bending comedy romance with some music, Victor/Victoria finds laughs by poking sharp fun at traditional masculine and feminine roles.

Paris, 1934. Victoria Grant (Julie Andrews) is an unemployed and starving classically trained soprano singer in a city looking for edgier and more decadent entertainment. An accidental meeting with recently-fired and openly gay nightclub host Carroll "Toddy" Todd (Robert Preston) results in a brainstorm: Victoria will pretend to be the exotic Polish Count Victor Grazinski, an expert female impersonator and cross-dresser performing as the sultry Victoria. The ruse works and soon Victoria is the toast of the town.

American nightclub owner and businessman King Marchand (James Garner) is visiting Paris with his girlfriend Norma (Lesley Ann Warren). King has gangland contacts and so travels with bodyguard "Squash" Bernstein (Alex Karras). King catches the glitzy show featuring Victoria and is hopelessly infatuated, and just as stunned when she is revealed to be Count Victor. King refuses to fully believe that Victoria is a man, and sets out to find out the truth, unleashing a knock-on series of sexually confused events.

Written and directed by Blake Edwards and featuring one of his wife Julie Andrews' finest roles, Victor/Victoria celebrates love across gender divides. With a lovingly recreated Gay Paree between the two wars providing the perfect backdrop, the film dives headfirst into murky waters where inner souls attract and traditional gender roles are hopelessly muddled.

The premise of a woman pretending to be a man who impersonates women in order to launch a successful cabaret act tests the limits of what a movie can explain. Edwards just about gets away with it, although Andrews passing herself off as a man rarely carries conviction. But beyond the labels, this is a story of connections and friendships, and Edwards' message is one of love. The heterosexual Victoria and homosexual Toddy form a strong bond based on a business partnership, the very hetero King jettisons the over-sexed Norma and is hopelessly attracted to Victor whether or not she is Victoria. Before all emotions are sorted, even the bodyguard Squash will get in on the act.

Surrounding the central theme is some cheap Clouseauesque comedy, and Edwards is unable to exercise the necessary restraint to trim the fat, especially in the second half as the film extends to a flabby 132 minutes. The few musical routines are serviceable but also repetitive and far from memorable.

Julie Andrews helps the movie through the rough patches and is laser focussed on keeping Victoria a rational character through the comic sexual mayhem. Robert Preston gets the showiest role, and revels in the freedom of portraying a man who could care less about what others think. Lesley Ann Warren is also humorously flamboyant, but disappears from the film for a long stretch.

Victor/Victoria is a fun frolic through the weird world of human magnetism. Whether you come as you are or as you want to pretend to be, Cupid's arrow is pointy.






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