Eye in the Sky

'Eye in the Sky' movie poster

Release: Friday, April 1, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Guy Hibbert

Directed by: Gavin Hood

Eye in the Sky presents an intriguing, if not familiar moral conundrum as a British Army Colonel weighs the pros and cons of pulling the trigger on a drone missile strike that could eliminate top terrorist targets sheltered in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi. In the end the results aren’t entirely surprising, so why such a rewarding experience when all is said and done?

Even though it’s Helen Mirren’s intense stare that threatens to burn a hole in the official release poster, Peter Travers is so right: this is one hell of a way for the late Alan Rickman to bow out. Not that Mirren isn’t worth mentioning (she definitely is), but Rickman’s last on-screen performance is so stoic it’s uncanny. It’s almost as if he was trying to make this one count. His Lt. General Frank Benson isn’t the focal point of Gavin Hood’s seventh feature film but the images I’ve taken home with me are those of his face, twisted into a look of total disgust as he awaits critical decisions to be made at higher levels — the whole bureaucratic chess game he finds himself caught in while precious time ticks away taking an obvious toll.

It’s like he’s waging his own private battle with his female co-star to see who can emote more intensely, evoking all of the anguish perhaps a real-life general or colonel might not necessarily publicize in the interest of keeping their underlings as calm, cool and collected as possible. Still, Eye in the Sky‘s script is incredibly stressful and part of the reason the film is so brilliant is we understand precisely why our leaders become so exasperated at times.

The mission in question is to take out three terrorist suspects who rank #3, #4 and #5 on the British government’s list of most valuable assets, and Colonel Katherine Powell (Mirren) hasn’t been this close to capturing them in six years. They have a vantage point from 20,000 feet, a drone plane piloted by relative veteran Steve Watts (Aaron Paul) and newbie Carrie Gershon (Phoebe Fox), both stationed at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada. They also have ground control in the form of Barkhad Abdi‘s Jama Farah, who is put into a particularly precarious position remote-controlling a camera built to resemble an insect. He is to infiltrate the house and verify the identities of those inside. The footage he is able to get is chilling: the suspects appear to be donning vests rigged with explosive devices and it also appears that they will attempt to detonate the bombs in a public setting.

Making matters worse is a child who appears on the scene hoping to sell bread for her family. It’s the same child we happen to be introduced to from the outset, a sweet girl named Alia (Aisha Takow) who is being privately educated by her parents and learning to hula-hoop in her backyard, out of sight of the patrolling ISIS guardsmen who have been imposing Sharia Law upon the land. In Colonel Powell’s eyes the mission status, which has changed from ‘capture’ to ‘kill’ since the new intel provided by the bug camera, cannot be aborted simply because of one potential collateral damage concern. While a high-ranking American government official agrees via Skype, others don’t see it the same way.

What makes Eye in the Sky such gripping viewing manifests as a truly collaborative effort between writer and director. Guy Hibbert’s script is provocative, emotional and convincing, but it would mean little without Hood’s ability to attract a diverse cast of international talent and to play to each of his actor’s strengths. There’s no one perspective that dominates; an impressive mix of strong roles and comparable screen time given to each lends the film a relatively comprehensive bird’s eye view rather than attempting to encourage controversy. How are governments able to justify civilian casualties as a byproduct of eliminating terrorist suspects, or, more broadly (and hence less novel an idea): is losing one life worth the price of many? When actions are taken the judgment is left up to us; this was never going to be a win-win situation, but ultimately was the right call made?

Dame Hellen Mirren is front-and-center when it comes to asking that question: is it worth it? As the commanding, intense Colonel Powell Mirren might never have been better. She exudes strength as a woman put into a hell of a position on this day. But support comes from unexpected places, such as Paul’s emotionally conflicted pilot who at one point feels it is in his best interest to challenge his superior when it comes to reevaluating the situation once the girl sets up on this street corner. Consider Steve Watts his finest hour as a performer as he frequently shoulders the emotional burden of having a finger on the trigger. It’s his vulnerability that’s just as frequently in the cross hairs.

Then, of course, is Rickman, seated in the situation room somewhere in London, far removed from the dangers themselves but visibly perturbed by the action — or lack thereof — taken in assuring the British armed forces are legally OK to pull that trigger. On his plate are the repercussions of British-American relations, given that one of the targets is an American who radicalized years ago. That’s to go along with the aforementioned unwanted publicity following a potential killing of an innocent youth. Things become messy alarmingly quickly; the grimace he bears suggesting much about the limits of his own considerable power.

Eye in the Sky works as a taut political thriller as well as a compelling ethics debate. Again, and generally speaking, this isn’t a debate we’re having for the first time but it suits the times we live in, particularly as technology plays a larger role in the armed forces and how nations perceive the character of others as they decide to fire (or not fire, in some cases) on their targets. I may never have been taken by surprise by how things played out, but that doesn’t mean the film failed to earn my empathy. This is a smart, engaging and intense drama whose incisive commentary on the matter is provided by a cast and crew that remind us why they’re getting paid to do what they do.

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Recommendation: A strong cast and a strong(er) script make Eye in the Sky a worthwhile drama seeing unfold on the big screen. I recommend most strongly to fans of Dame Helen Mirren, or those wanting to see Alan Rickman in his final performance — either or works. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 102 mins.

Quoted: “Never tell a soldier that he does not know the cost of war.”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Triple 9

'Triple 9' movie poster

Release: Friday, February 26 ,2016

[Theater]

Written by: Matt Cook

Directed by: John Hillcoat

Triple 9 could be a really great film. I’m not saying that to be facetious or hypothetical, like, “I have all these suggestions to make it better and here’s how you do it,” or “I’m seeing this tonight and I hope it’s going to be great.” I mean I’m genuinely not sure if it was any good or not. It’s such a bland, flavorless take on the crime genre that it’s difficult to remember anything about it, even days later. But the film is well-produced, so that counts for something. Right?

John Hillcoat, who has distinguished himself with gritty, typically criminal-infested features that tend to smother audiences with the hopelessness of the situation, isn’t exactly out of his element here, turning Atlanta into a bubbling cauldron of deception, corruption and a whole lot of violence. The rather convoluted plot revolves around a group of corrupt cops and legit criminals who are blackmailed by the nasty Irina Vlaslov of the Russian mafia (and of course when you mention them you naturally think of Kate Winslet) into taking on “one more job.”

Of course the mission won’t be simple; not even close. Michael Atwood (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is in it deep as he has had a child with Irina’s sister (Gal Gadot), and Irina won’t let him see the money or his kid until he and his cronies have recovered crucial government documents regarding the status of Irina’s mafioso hubby.  (Really, there’s nothing cute or overly affectionate about any of these relationships, I just think that ridiculous word seems to fit given we’re talking about ridiculous things like Winslet as a Russian mob boss). Michael employs his thug friend Russell (Norman Reedus) and Russell’s younger brother Gabe (a much more comfortable looking Aaron Paul) to help carry out the job but they’re unsure of how to do it.

‘Triple nine’ is code for “officer down,” a call that results in any and all units in a given area to respond to the scene. Michael and his crew, which includes crooked Atlanta cops Marcus (Anthony Mackie) and Franco (Clifton Collins, Jr.), realize they can use a triple nine call as a distraction to carry out the heist elsewhere. Marcus has just gotten a new partner, Casey Affleck’s genuine good-guy Chris Allen and Marcus nominates him as the officer who should act as the distraction (i.e. he wants to kill him). To confuse readers more (or just to make sure I have included all major names involved here), Allen has an uncle on the force, Jeffrey Allen (Woody Harrelson) who is determined to get to the bottom of a bank heist case perpetrated by Michael and company as part of an earlier favor to the Russians.

Essentially what Triple 9 boils down to is a matter of trust. A grimy, ominous milieu established from the opening shot of the city leaves little to the imagination. This isn’t a place where we’re going to like many of the characters we come up against (the sheer quality of the ensemble cast ensures this isn’t a deal-breaker). Nor are they the people we can count on to do the right thing. In this Atlanta, you can’t trust a soul. All of that is well and good; the simmering tension underlying Ejiofor and Winslet’s interactions — I stop short of saying relationship because there’s simply not enough time in this movie for relationships to truly be established — make for some of the film’s more interesting moments. But no one has much of an identity. Everyone either starts off miserable or ends up that way, or they end up dead.

In the vein of David Ayers’ infinitely more brutal Sabotage, which saw a team of DEA agents being picked off one-by-one after their unit was compromised, Triple 9 is a no-win situation in which the characters we are introduced to drift further and further away from us. It’s next to impossible to care about these trigger-happy thugs. The mood is perpetually dour, and most of the actions our (many) characters take rarely surprise, and because they don’t, several significant double-crosses don’t register with the power they ought to.

Performances are universally good; they’re nothing special but they’re functional. (And for what it’s worth, Winslet makes that accent work!) Instead it’s more problematic with how forgettable substantial chunks of their collective effort become. The film boasts a few impressive shoot-outs, particularly one in an abandoned warehouse — why do the good ones always take place in The Warehouse? — but for whatever reason, the bulk of the film, all of the talky stuff and detective work going on in the background just never quite connects. Conventionality isn’t a crime but I think I’ve finally made up my mind on this: Triple 9 is neither a great film nor a terrible one. It’s just something that’s there.

Recommendation: Violent, dark, confronting but still somehow boring and uninspired, Triple 9 undoubtedly prefers the art of storytelling over character presentation. Despite such a strong cast it’s kind of ironic that those characters get so forgotten by the end. But hey, at least this film has Woody Harrelson in it. If you are a completionist then see it for him, but everything else there’s either MasterCard or much better movies. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 115 mins.

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

Exodus: Gods and Kings

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Release: Friday, December 12, 2014

[Theater]

Written by: Adam Cooper; Bill Collage; Jeffrey Caine; Steven Zaillian 

Directed by: Ridley Scott

Often I feel that I am needlessly ambiguous with what I’m trying to say in past reviews, but here I have this concern I am going to be too overt. The great Ridley Scott — yes, the one of Gladiator fame — has clearly relied too much on star talent to help carry his Biblical ‘epic’ (and sorry to those who think the word is inextricably linked to prepubescent Bieber fandom) to the Promised Land. Top billed are terrible in their roles while a boring and unevenly paced script contributes to a disastrous outing for all involved.

GODS VS. KINGS 

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Somewhere in the dust and ruin of his attempt at resurrecting temples he once had so majestically created, there’s a lesson to be learned for Sir Ridley Scott. If there were one commandment I would issue immediately, as someone who has been eagerly anticipating this supposed return to form, it would be for him to refrain from treating his selected actors as gods and kings. Forget Christian Bale’s mixed South African and Welsch ancestry. Forget Joel Edgerton’s emo eye-liner — he at least looks better in it than Bale sounds like with whatever accent he’s trying to pull off here. And you can forget all about Cecil B. De Mille’s commitment to Charlton Heston (oh, swoon!) in the 1956 classic The Ten Commandments. Indeed, the only thing that shall be remembered over the course of a whopping two-and-a-half hours, is the pain of watching one of the premier filmmakers of our time climbing out of a dank, oppressive cave with a single message inscribed on a rock tablet:

“(I’ve) let my standards go!”

In the Gladiator director’s newest venture out into the sands of Egypt Bale takes on the role of Moses, a former Egyptian General banished by his legal, but not blood, brother Prince Ramses (Edgerton) into exile after it becomes evident what Moses’ true blood lineage is. Raised in a climate of political convenience rather than one of familial love, Moses conflicts with Ramses ideologically, emotionally and eventually physically. All signs point to Ramses’ deep-seated envy of his sort-of-brother. This is a relationship dynamic we’ve known for as long as we’ve been out of grade school as well as it being a classic example of the friend-turned-foe story. It’s also the strongest bargaining chip Mr. Scott has at keeping an audience on board here. And we agree; we are too curious as to how thing will play out between these versions.

While he appreciates the relationship between Moses and Ramses, he is much less appreciative of his peripheral vision. Rather than going the Jim Caviezel route by casting someone who at least looked the part, and through coating much of his cast in a thick smathering of tanning lotion (this is actually the story of how Moses goes to the beach and gets badly sunburned), Scott surprisingly approved of everything here without what one would naturally assume to be a pressing need to fire a casting director, or even someone in make-up and wardrobe. Not that these actors aren’t talented. And we can’t pretend that it’s an alien concept for a big studio and a big director to skirt past native actors in search of bigger box-office draws. But why does everyone have to look like the Beach Boys? The likes of Edgerton, Bale, Ben Mendelsohn (who plays the creepy Viceroy Hegep with gleeful abandon) and Sigourney Weaver are caked in comical cosmetics that distract more than they contribute, but this isn’t the major issue. Visually, at least these pretty peeps eventually blend in with the dulcet environs.

Frustratingly Exodus: Gods and Kings — I’ve never been one to read into film titles too deeply, but this particular subtitle does seem superfluous — is intent on featuring caricatures rather than characters. Bale is ridiculously over-the-top as he forces vigilante machismo into a character that has decidedly much less of that built into his DNA. Edgerton acts like the spoiled brat Pharaoh Ramses apparently was. After succeeding the Pharaoh Seti (John Turturro, also ridiculous-looking when bald), Ramses becomes something of a harbinger of doom, driving the Hebrew slaves to the brink of collapse through extremely hard labor and miserable working conditions. As if life wasn’t tough enough before. During Moses’ exile, he learns of these changing conditions back home in Memphis and despite having formed a family with the beautiful Zipporah (María Valverde) he vows to return and free over 600,000 Hebrews from his brother’s oppressive, bloodthirsty rule.

WE ARE NOT ENTERTAINED!

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It’s not the big picture Mr. Scott misses. Though Exodus hardly inspires with its languid pacing — that’s actually a compliment, as it drags for a good 75 minutes out of a grand total of 150 — there is definitive movement in the saga and the enthusiasm for Moses’ finest hour begins to build in earnest when the plagues set in. But even then, it’s a dash of visual splendor that sits a little too long in waiting and appears somewhat randomly in gradually darkening skies. Rest assured, if those in attendance are awaiting spectacle, they will still get it. But it’s too little too late.

His placement of the plagues and the parting of the Red Sea — each element elegant in their CGI rendering — ought to be considered the equivalent of audiences sitting in for Gladiator and having minimum expectations of seeing Russell Crowe in leather jockeys. Yes he dons such a garment, but this doesn’t exactly complete the character. And it says nothing about the way Mr. Scott’s masterpiece captures ancient history in all its grim and bloody frankness; says little about the defiance of a single gladiator who goes up against the Roman empire — except that maybe our fearless leader has an eye for men in skivvies.

But this sadly is no laughing matter. It’s difficult trying to rectify the substantial decrease in quality between the film that came out at the turn of the millennium and the one we’ve just been handed on a not-so-silver platter. If you factor in how much Exodus seems to mime the story arc of Gladiator the coalition for reason becomes even weaker. Formulaically speaking, this is no different from the adventures of Maximus Decimus Meridius. A man has his pride and political status stripped from him following a particularly bitter (and yes, unfair) betrayal, then must strike out on his own into the great unknown before deciding to return balance to the universe. Crowe had at it first, and Crowe comes out on top on almost all counts. But if we were judging this based on who rides a gigantic tidal wave of water better, then the odds are more in Moses’ favor.

As an undertaking, Exodus is a mightily ambitious undertaking. It’s easy to dismiss the film as a redundant journey back in time to a place where religious conflict brimmed more heatedly than any of those scenes between Bruce and Rachel. (Or Miranda Tate — that part was actually better.) Maybe we really didn’t need it. Maybe I was just foolish in expecting great things here. Though it’s hard to not get excited when the likes of Christian Bale and Joel Edgerton (and throw in Sigourney Weaver for the hell of it) are involved, when there’s a director of Mr. Scott’s stature leading the charge.

Casting controversy aside, Exodus is simply a film with few excuses for becoming as flaccid a drama as it truly becomes. It’s mired in surprisingly subpar performances, drifting narrative pacing and an unenthusiastic, although granted, educational, tone. No one on screen ever feels inspired. And to say that about this particular cast is a move that ought to make one feel the need to exile themselves to. . . . well, somewhere else. For right now anyway, it looks like the opposite case is going to hold true.

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2-0Recommendation: If you were holding out hope that Exodus could survive the plague of criticism that has washed over it in the past week, let me drown that hope right now. It’s not a good movie. If the odd casting decisions don’t strike you (the argument being staged for racist casting is just plain nonsense by the way; the move to hire Bale and Edgerton in particular was one of financial matters, and this is clear) then the slow, awkward pacing and the sloppy dialogue surely will. I’m done talking about this movie. Two thousand words later. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 150 mins.

Quoted: “You sleep well because you are loved. I’ve never slept that well.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Need for Speed

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Release: Friday, March 14, 2014

[Theater]

At the very least, Need for Speed has a need for tighter editing. One lap around this fast track will take you a little over two hours, a gratuitous length of time for a movie that centers around a videogame about street racing. The other obvious question is what, if any, need is there for this film to exist?

Many of us have played the game(s) over the years and hopefully those who spent time with it/them enjoyed doing so. The playing experience, though hardly revolutionary, was unique enough to be remembered fondly. While it did share traits with the superior (and more challenging) ‘Gran Turismo,’ ‘Need for Speed’ identified itself by offering up more cars as eye candy than any other game. Visual effects were pretty impressive (at the time) and the combination of dream cars with glistening sunset-dappled race courses while being pursued by the police was a pure delight.

Then in 2013 it was announced that a full-length feature film adaptation of this E.A. Sports creation was going to hit theaters in the spring of 2014. Reaction to this news came in the form of simple, one-word responses: “What?” “Huh?” “How?” “Why?”. . . .among other, more choice words. It was a move not designed to increase the game’s popularity. This was a complete gimmick designed to destroy what little was left of Hollywood’s credibility when it comes to talking about what they choose to adapt and not adapt.

Besides driving multi-million-dollar vehicles in the tropics, the greatest appeal of the gaming atmosphere was having this anonymity about you when driving. Your car was the main character; you as the driver remained unseen, unnamed and unexplained. You could have been a convict, you could have been Mother Teresa. It didn’t matter, and that was what made the generic feel of the game effective. Anyone could feel empowered.

By slapping a face on the franchise in the form of the quite likable Aaron Paul from a T.V. show you’d have to be crawling out from under a rock in order to be unaware of, its clear the studio and director Scott Waugh didn’t want to go the Mother Teresa route. Instead, it was decided that Need for Speed should be a sleek and shiny, adrenaline-fueled adventure that capitalizes on including as many top-tier automakers as possible while also providing the thrill of the chase element that was established by its source material. Thankfully, these are things that the film does not lack. However, what is lacking is a good reason why this wasn’t made to be a direct-to-DVD release.

At its heart is a story of vengeance. When a New York street racer, Tobey Marshall (Paul) loses one of his friends in a terrible accident during a romp through the streets he is framed for murder by his rival, the perfidious Dino Brewster (Dominic Cooper), and sentenced to a two-year stretch in prison. Upon his release Tobey is not only a little ticked off that his friend is dead (and that he was set-up), he has also painted a target on the back of Dino’s head because he knows the truth about the way things went down that fateful day. He’ll settle his anxieties by way of an extremely unlikely road trip across the country in a vehicle he was requested to build by none other than the snake himself, Mr. Brewster.

A silver-and-blue striped custom Shelby Mustang puts in the film’s best performance as Tobey and his roadtrip buddy, a British car enthusiast by the name of Julia (Imogen Poots), hurtle through changing scenery in Hollywood’s awful attempt to capture the experience of driving in the videogame. Wandering direction, along with problematic (possibly nonexistent) editing stages, create one long, loud, and laborious experience that could stand to be at least forty-five minutes shorter. Or upgrade the rating so at least the conversations might be more realistic.

In defense of the cast, they shouldn’t bear the brunt of the criticisms. Characters that inhabit this world aren’t well-defined — at all — but by the same token they are neither unlikable nor played with indifference by actors who seem committed to such a generic affair. In fact, Scott “Kid Cudi” Mescudi as Benny serves as welcomed comic relief when the script stalls. It wouldn’t be a stretch to imagine him improvising most of his lines. He’s easily the most watchable. . . . .apart from this film’s token girl. And despite Paul’s character being the Chevy Impala of this adventure, Tobey is worth rooting for. Sort of.

Where fingers should be pointed to the most is none other than Hollywood’s (probably) least-hired screenwriter, George Gatins. His involvement with a short film titled My Wife is Retarded and what sounds like a reliable full-length feature, You Stupid Man, is how I’d like to bow out of this review. I’ll leave you with that tidbit of information as you make up your mind over whether or not to see an unnecessary film.

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1-5Recommendation: Need for Speed misfires on virtually all cylinders. Despite me refusing to believe it would be anything more than crappy, I still came away disappointed. And irritated. The product has several other problems I didn’t even touch on, but in the spirit of not completely overstuffing one review, I called out only the major ones. If you were ever a fan of the game may I suggest you leave your memories of those years in tact by avoiding seeing this at almost all costs. (However, if you have a projector malfunction like the one I experienced before this one got underway, and you find yourself with a free ticket, this movie might be a good way to use that guy.)

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 130 mins.

Quoted: “They took everything from me. I do not fear, for you are with me. All those who defied me shall be ashamed and disgraced. Those who wage war against me shall perish. I will find strength, find guidance, and I will triumph!”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com