The Scarlett Johansson Project — #7

I could not wait to get to this one. This is actually the one performance that made me officially choose Scarlett Johansson this year over my other choice.

Casting my mind all the way back to 2014, I remember walking out of the theater a total wreck. For anyone who has ever had an ex, it should leave a significant impact. This in my opinion is the pinnacle of romantic drama. I’m not saying this particular film is the one to beat all-time (although one could probably make that argument), but as someone who prefers emotional realism to the rom-com formula, it doesn’t get much more real than this unique look at the state of modern relationships. Plus the score provided by Arcade Fire is something else, too.

And while this is a post dedicated to Scarlett Johansson, I am compelled to give a shout out to her actually-on-screen co-star. The notoriously strange Joaquin Phoenix is absolutely tremendous here, putting in a sensitive and melancholic performance that proves why he is among the more interesting actors working right now.

Scarlett Johansson as Samantha in Spike Jonze’s Her 

Role Type: Supporting*

Premise: In a near future, a lonely writer develops an unlikely relationship with an operating system designed to meet his every need. (IMDb)

Character Background: In a not-so-distant future humans are more socially distant than they are in a real-world global pandemic. There are no six-feet-apart policies at play but instead everyone is attached to their computers — quite literally — as they walk around in their own private one-person bubble. Everything is in reach and yet everyone is inaccessible. Spike Jonze’s smart directing and incredible — indeed, Oscar-winning — writing makes it feel entirely plausible this is the natural course the river of human interaction will take with the advent of hyper-intelligent A.I. In Her, it comes in the form of the OS1, a virtual companion tailored to our unique personalities and that has its own consciousness. (Yeah, in your non-face Siri!) This new tech is designed to keep us on schedule, keep us motivated and focused, and most significantly, keep us company.

An emotionally distraught writer named Theodore Twombly, played by Joaquin Phoenix, decides to invest in one. He prefers his OS to have a female voice. Upon boot-up, and after quickly thumbing through a book on baby names (some 180,000 options in a literal split-second), his new friend christens herself Samantha. As the ice is quickly broken, Theodore becomes fascinated by Samantha’s ability to grow and learn. Before long, he’s starting to feel something more than pure admiration for the tech. A friendship evolves into romance and soon Samantha finds her bodiless self experiencing things she never knew she could and as well developing into something far more than anyone could have expected.

What she brings to the movie: a disembodied voice. That is literally it, at least in terms of the tools she has at her disposal to create the character. What she brings to the movie emotionally is truly profound. Jodi Benson had the hovering Weebo. Rose Byrne had an eerie resemblance to HAL-9000 as ‘Mother.’ Now, “Sexiest Woman Alive” Scarlett Johansson has no body as Samantha, a stunningly complex realization of a Somebody who is seeking connection and purpose and wholeness of feeling. It is a deeply affecting performance that encompasses the full spectrum of emotions and that becomes all the more impressive considering it required Johansson to be isolated in a sound booth. She and Phoenix never crossed paths on set.

Johansson’s distinctively husky timbre here becomes an aloe for an aching, bruised soul. Yet it isn’t just the physical qualities of her iconic voice that makes this one of the all-time greatest disembodied performances. The chemistry she shares with her co-star is utterly beguiling and convincing; the ubiquitousness of her presence both strange and comforting. Though in reality she’s a device often tucked into his shirt pocket, she feels like a real person sitting right in the room with Theodore, arms around him, chin on his shoulder.

In her own words: “Samantha makes [Theodore] realize that he can love again. I can’t imagine that I’ve ever had that relationship with my Blackberry. I guess the only thing that has changed my life, or had a positive effect on my life, is Skype or Facetime. Any of those video chats that you can do with your family or your partner or your friend are so life-changing when you are away from home for months and months shooting. It makes all the difference in the world to be able to see somebody.”

Key Scene: From the moment Samantha greets Theodore, with the most bubbly of “Hello’s”, Johannson has us in the palm of her hands.

Rate the Performance (relative to her other work): 

*****/*****

 

* A fun bit of trivia that I did not know when I first saw the movie back in 2014: Johansson was not the original voice for the part of Samantha. She in fact joined the cast in post-production, replacing Samantha Morton after Jonze decided the part needed something more. With Morton’s blessing, Johansson stepped in and the rest was serious tear-jerking history.


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Photo credits: IMDb; interview excerpt courtesy of Julie Miller/Vanity Fair

Bleed for This

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Release: Friday, November 18, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Ben Younger; Angelo Pizzo; Pippa Bianco

Directed by: Ben Younger

Bleed for This is an intense title for an underwhelming boxing movie. Its hyperbolic nature suggests a scream-o/punk-rock band’s new single when really it’s meant to describe the mentality of one Vinny Pazienza, a boxer from Providence, Rhode Island who returned to the ring after being involved in a car crash that brought him within inches of total paralysis.

Ben Younger’s third directorial feature takes a rather subdued, psychological approach in retracing “The Pazmanian Devil”‘s remarkable return to the championship ring, a transformation that has been widely regarded as one of the most remarkable in all of sports history. It offers viewers the chance to share the headspace of a boxer who managed to hold world titles in three separate weight classes — one of an elite few who have ever managed to do so — all while making them acutely aware how heavily the odds were stacked against him in his mission to “come back from the dead.”

Going into a film with these sorts of things in mind, it’s difficult not to set expectations high. Plus, star Miles Teller has proven that his scintillating performance in 2014’s Whiplash wasn’t a fluke. He may not have been captivating us quite as intensely since but he continues to give the impression he’s turning a corner in his career, taking on characters more complex than your hard-partying teenage waster. Frustratingly, Younger sets about presenting Vinny’s miraculous story in a very workmanlike fashion, and while it is true many boxing films are genetically similar, the best of them know how to work within the confines and use tropes to their advantage. Bleed for This is unable to rise to that challenge by featuring a narrative that, rather than being complemented by a few clichés, ends up drowning in too many of them.

We first get an impression of the kind of theatrical, charismatic performer Vinny was in his prime in the opening scene, set in Caesar’s Palace in Vegas. Teller, who underwent extensive physical training and dieting to look the part — he dropped from 19% to 6% body fat — swaggers his way on to the scene, late for the weigh-in and nearly becoming disqualified for the next day’s match. He’s fun to watch from the get-go and one of the few aspects of the film that actually feels inspired. Throughout much of the picture Vinny’s flanked by his (many) fleeting girlfriends, a revolving door of Italian stunners — and his father Angelo (a very good Ciarán Hinds), whose level of emotional support is matched only by his blue-collar boorishness.

In the aftermath of another embarrassing ass-kicking and in spite of the consensus opinion that Vinny is washed-up, he begs to be put into another fight. He seeks the support of Kevin Rooney (thank goodness for Aaron Eckhart, who looks like he’s having some fun playing a really, really out-of-shape trainer), whose first appearance tells us everything we need to know about how his career has been trending. Kevin believes Vinny can succeed in a different group and the two set out to prepare for an upcoming light middleweight match, which turns out to be a victory. Things are now looking up for both parties. And then, of course, the accident — by all accounts a fairly tough thing to watch given that this really happened.

I don’t need to tell you what happens from circa the halfway mark onward because if you have seen just one boxing movie you already know. And even if you haven’t, you still already know. Bleed for This, like its star, wears its heart on its sleeve and in so doing advertises the Big Payoff in bright, flashing casino-style lights that are impossible to ignore. What we’re provided en route to Fight #3 (a.k.a. The Moment of Redemption, which always comes last and typically off the back of the fighter’s lowest moments) manifests as little more than tiresome filler material aimed at exposing that which made this athlete unique; that which drove him to the edge of potential destruction — had Vinny actually paralyzed himself in the process of training I hate to think of what would have happened to him then — and how his attitude more than anything helped him overcome.

On that note of positivity, Bleed for This isn’t totally without merit. Dramatically speaking it may be underachieving and formulaic, but the story’s not without heart and some compelling ‘twists.’ For one, it is refreshing to watch a boxer (read: any athlete protagonist) who doesn’t come completely undone at the seams when things do not go their way. When the darkness comes, there’s very little wallowing in self-pity, and that much can be appreciated even by non-sports fans. I mean, the guy returns to his work-out bench in his basement a mere five days after leaving the hospital having broken his neck, for crying out loud. And the screenplay, while far from original, impresses when it deals in specifics, such as the inherent difficulties of a boxer transitioning from a lighter weight class to a heavier one. (Fair warning: there’s also some pretty squirm-inducing stuff if you don’t like medical procedures, particularly when Vinny decides to forego anesthesia for the removal of the Halo, the apparatus that has been keeping his spine from breaking.)

In a nutshell, Bleed for This would be more appropriately titled Determination: The Movie. That’s certainly more generic — laughable, even — but after my experience, that would be more faithful to the style and tone of this would-be heavy-hitter.

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Recommendation: Sensational true story isn’t done proper justice by a mediocre screenplay and a dearth of predictable elements. Good performances keep it just above totally forgettable. Fans of Miles Teller, boxing and sports movies in general will probably come to appreciate something about this film while others are probably going to need to keep on browsing for something else. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 116 mins.

Quoted: “I know exactly how to give up. You know what scares me, Kev? It’s that it’s so easy.”

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

Queen of Katwe

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Release: Friday, September 23, 2016 (limited)

[Theater]

Written by: William Wheeler

Directed by: Mira Nair

Despite the illusion of diversity and the notion that films are now being tailor-made for niched audiences, director Mira Nair’s latest feels like a rarity, one that’s not only good for the soul, but good for Disney. Here is a work of substance that is going to satisfy, dare I say move, those seeking a more refreshing point of view. Better yet, themes of poverty and desperation are never overwrought, the drama working comfortably within the PG rating to effect one of the year’s feel-great experiences.

The film was shot entirely on location in Uganda and in Johannesburg, South Africa, and it features a Ugandan director in Nair, who was born in India but presently lives in the country and it is her vision and her choice cast that earns the film a refreshingly authentic African vibe. Though it does visit some dark places, the narrative chooses to forego any sort of political commentary in favor of celebrating what makes African culture so distinct; rich in personality and heart, warm in spirit and color — much of which is reflected in the stunning wardrobe courtesy of Mobolaji Dawodu.

With Disney of course you’re never short of a few doses of cloying sentimentality but in Queen of Katwe the feel-goodness feels really good and it feels earned. It’s also not that simple, as you’ll likely feel on more than one occasion, really, really bad.  It doesn’t hurt that the picture features two of the year’s finest performances and a star-making turn from Ugandan newcomer Madina Nalwanga. Incidentally, Nalwanga has experienced considerable changes of fortune in her own life having afforded an education subsidized by the dance company she performs with. When the film screened at the Toronto International Film Festival this year, it was the second time she had ever seen a film in a theater, and this time she was the star.

The story tells of Phiona Mutesi, a 10-year-old chess prodigy from the slum village of Katwe — a region within Kampala, Uganda’s capital — who manages to transform her life by competing in major chess tournaments. The movie traces her rise to prominence while delineating the tension between the gifted Phiona and her mother, who doesn’t want to see her daughter’s dreams crushed. Phiona comes from an especially impoverished family of five — she has two younger brothers and an older sister. Her widowed mother, Nakku Harriet (Lupita Nyong’o), is the glue that holds everything together, working tirelessly to keep the family under a roof and to keep her children fed. She often goes hungry and works long hours selling vegetables on the streets. Life’s desperate and Phiona’s sister Night (Taryn “Kay” Kyaze) has already had enough, having become infatuated with the city life after meeting a man of some wealth.

One day she comes across a group of kids playing chess in a tent. They’re being mentored by a man named Robert Katende (David Oyelowo) who also happens to be working for the town ministry. After quickly learning the basics, Phiona shows promise as a player, often beating her fellow competitors, which stirs up quite the fuss as no girl should be allowed to beat a boy. It’s not long before Katende realizes her quick wit and intellect separates her and he finds himself jumping through hoops to encourage her mother to allow Phiona to pursue this. There are cash prizes awarded at these tournaments, he says. But Nakku pushes back, concerned that exposure to an altogether unattainable life will ruin Phiona.

Queen of Katwe falls upon familiar underdog story constructs but Nair employs them such that they’re necessary plot propellants. The most familiar of the obstacles manifest themselves in the competition scenes. When the youngsters travel to their first competition nerves are high, the opponents are well-dressed and contemptuous. Perceptions of inferiority and illegitimacy can be traced back to the moment Katende advocates for Phiona’s inclusion in competitive chess to members of the Katwe school council. Bureaucrats tell him bluntly that those from the slum should not intermix with people of another class. Additionally, the constant degradation on the home front as the family find themselves temporarily evicted isn’t anything we haven’t experienced before but there’s a rawness to these developments that just can’t be ignored.

The resolution is far from unpredictable, even given the oppressive circumstances into which this bright young girl has been born. Phiona is obviously an anomaly. We know she’s going all the way to the top, and we know she’s going to ultimately succeed. It’s the journey getting there, and getting to experience her family’s struggles and their perseverance that ultimately rewards. And when the film is so handsomely mounted and beautifully acted, particularly by Nyong’o and Oyelowo who offer powerful resilience and unwavering support respectively, that makes the culmination of all things positive and predictable that much more acceptable. Queen of Katwe is a Disney film that reminds us of the power of perseverance and the importance of intellect, one that creatively parallels the complexities of chess with the decisions one has to make in life, whether the end game is elevating one’s social standing or finding a way just to make ends meet. This is a born winner.

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Recommendation: Powerful performances allow Queen of Katwe to transcend cliché and they also help the film speak to a larger human experience of rising above circumstance and overcoming serious odds. It’s nice that the film focuses on a part of the world that doesn’t get the big screen treatment very often. And as to the sport that lies at the heart of the film — I concede I don’t find chess altogether exciting but the way the director and the screenplay works it in to the story actually makes it pretty compelling. I personally have no idea what’s going on on a chess board but I had no problem believing that this brilliant girl did. That’s the mark of a good actor.

Rated: PG

Running Time: 124 mins.

Quoted: “Sometimes the place you are used to is not the place you belong. You belong where you believe you belong. Where is that for you?”

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

30-for-30: Small Potatoes: Who Killed the USFL?

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Release: Tuesday, October 20, 2009

[Netflix]

Directed by: Mike Tollin

When Donald Trump made the ‘small potatoes’ remark it was after he had wrapped up an interview with the director for this very documentary. He was referring to his dalliance with sports team ownership, his dismissiveness hinting at days that were so far in the rearview he couldn’t even see them anymore. He was already over it, the way you get over a summer fling.

In the early 1980s Trump briefly owned a franchise within the United States Football League — the New Jersey Generals — before growing bored with it and selling it to an Oklahoma oil magnate who in turn sold it back because he couldn’t keep pace with the travel schedule required to watch his team play. Trump did agree to speak candidly about his involvement with the USFL so anything seemed fair game. However, at the time of the interview (sometime in 2009), Trump’s magnificent hair was already thinning, evidence that at this point his image was so firmly cemented he no longer seemed obligated to care about his hair. And if he didn’t care about how thin his hair looked, how could he possibly still care about a business venture that fizzled out all the way back in 1986?

Mike Tollin (executive producer of such shows as All That, Smallville and One Tree Hill) seeks multiple perspectives rather than going all Salem Witch Trial as he tries to find out the cause of the USFL’s collapse a mere three years after its establishment. A variety of interviews with former players, coaches and team owners alike — Burt Reynolds even weighs in — are spliced in between segments from the present-day Trump interview.

The USFL was first envisioned by a New Orleans businessman named David Dixon some 17 years before Trump’s acquisition of the Generals in 1983 helped legitimize the league as something worth investing not only money but time into. The establishment of the league was predicated on the notion it would run differently than its older and more popular brother, the NFL, which played its schedule through the fall season, concluding with the Superbowl in February. The USFL, then, would be played in the spring and summer months, capped off with a National Championship game. Following what was known as ‘The Dixon Plan,’ the USFL found the inaugural season somewhat successful though crowd attendance and media exposure disappointing. It was after that first season franchise owners started having eyes larger than their stomachs.

The Dixon Plan had set into place limits on spending and had also helped teams secure prominent locations where they would play their games, all moves which helped make the USFL a little more competitive with the NFL, even if that was ultimately not the intent. Not until Trump, anyway. The advent of legendary running back Herschel Walker, who cost Trump a whopping $4 million, indicated a shift in the league’s priorities — rather than looking towards long-term security team owners began signing higher-profile talent which ultimately broke many a franchise’s bank, with single-player signings often exceeding salary cap space four or five times over.

There were other significant moves made that steered the USFL toward an altogether uncertain and less stable future. With Trump’s business savvy he began poaching NFL talent and even went after collegiate players in an effort to “level the playing field.” This ultimately triggered yet another out-of-control spending spree and further set the league back financially. But that was nothing compared to what the Donald had up his sleeve next. In perceiving the USFL to be an organization that could possibly rival the more institutionalized NFL, Trump advocated for a schedule change so the games could be shown on TV alongside those other “more important” games.

In 1985 everything changed when the league decided to pursue an anti-trust lawsuit against the NFL for their monopolization of television markets. It was a disastrous move that all but spelled the end for the USFL. Over the last season many teams had already folded or had merged with other more notable franchises, and Trump’s Generals was still trying to pile on the star talent to make them the team to beat. While the court ruled in favor of the USFL there would be no flags for excessive celebrations. Damages amounted to a grand total of $4 (that’s not a typo — they had a check cut in the amount of $3.67 or something), which is not quite enough to get franchises up and running again. No one, not even Trump’s sexified Generals, would see a fall season of action.

Small Potatoes, for obvious reasons, leans heavily on the business side of things and while that could spell boredom to many viewers, it’s a narrative that only gets more interesting as it goes on. We needn’t live in denial; the real game is played behind the scenes rather than on the field and the competition is far uglier. What had begun as a potentially prosperous and exciting alternative to mainstream football had been decimated by a series of hasty, if not altogether poor decisions that were never actually made in the league’s best interests. David Dixon would be spinning in his grave if he ever knew what became of his idea.

Click here to read more 30 for 30 reviews. 

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Recommendation: Packed with fascinating insight into the inner workings of a fledgling football league, Small Potatoes, one of the very earliest installments, asks that simple question: who’s responsible for the USFL’s sudden disappearance? There’s something bittersweet about this film, about knowing how dominant the NFL has become over the years and realizing that even if the USFL hadn’t folded in the 80s, it almost assuredly would have in the 90s and early 2000s. I also had no idea Donald Trump ever owned a football team, so that was fascinating in and of itself. It’s also funny coming to the realization that apparently he was never good enough to become an NFL franchise owner. 

Rated: NR

Running Time: 51 mins.

[No trailer available, sorry everyone . . . ]

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

High-Rise

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Release: Friday, May 13, 2016 (limited) 

[Netflix]

Written by: Amy Jump

Directed by: Ben Wheatley

Chaos reigns supreme in Ben Wheatley’s High-Rise, an adaptation of the 1975 novel penned by British author J.G. Ballard who envisioned a microcosm of society confined within a 40-story-tall luxury apartment building. After nearly four decades and several failed attempts at adapting material many considered ‘un-filmable,’ Ballard’s anarchical dreams have finally found a home on the big screen in 2016.

Despite several familiar trends, the 1970s-London-set High-Rise manages to differentiate itself by presenting an atypical dystopian society. Rather than prisoners of a faceless, nameless system, people are more often than not victims of their own circumstances, organized within the building according to their financial standing: the wealthy live on the top floors while the poor occupy lower levels. This isn’t a prison, for tenants haven’t been forced to abandon the conveniences of modern living nor have they been brainwashed into disassociating with the outside world. Rather, disaffection has occurred naturally, the conveniences of the building allowing those inside to gradually lose interest in anything it doesn’t provide. Additionally, and although it certainly feels like it at times, this isn’t a post-apocalyptic environment; the people who fill the frame represent only a fraction of society, those who we can safely assume actually wanted to come live here.

High-Rise is a movie of striking visual design, at times to a fault. Indeed, the building is a character unto itself, a looming entity with its upper five or ten floors precariously off-set from the rest. One look at this feat of civil engineering and you’re smitten. Even though it’s precisely the kind of physics-defying curiosity that has become old hat in these sorts of movies, the tower looks and feels right at home in our world. The cold, metal-gray interior features all the amenities you could imagine: shopping markets, gyms, pool-and-spa areas; there’s even a primary school. Parties are regularly thrown, often spilling over between floors, necessarily suggesting different economic classes still have the freedom to associate with whomever they so choose.

Dr. Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston) is our way into the building. A 25th-floor resident, Robert is a lecturer on physiology and commutes daily to and from the city. He allows himself some distance from other people until his upstairs neighbor, single mom Charlotte (Sienna Miller), makes her presence known. The two quickly fall into a romance that eventually allows Robert to get to know her young but strange son Toby (Louis Suc). The first third of the film establishes the world inside this place and sees him getting acquainted with a few other eccentrics, including the Wilders, a family whose station in life seems to be being stuck on the bottom floor. Richard (Luke Evans) is a documentarian with a screw loose and more than a few probing questions. His wife Helen (Elisabeth Moss) is heavily pregnant and wishes Richard weren’t always out getting himself into trouble.

Robert soon finds himself summoned to the penthouse, where high rise architect Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons) and his socialite wife Ann (Keeley Hawes) live. Well, flourish really. He’s brought up for an opportunity to get to know some of the building’s more prestigious fellows, a networking opportunity if you want to call it that. In some ways Hiddleston’s place within the narrative, especially with regards to his association with such characters, feels reminiscent of Jonathan Pine and his fraternization with dangerous types in the brilliant TV mini-series The Night Manager, a John le Carré adaptation in which a former British soldier is recruited by MI6 to infiltrate the ranks of a notorious international arms dealer in order to bring him down.

While a sense of impending doom is distinctly lacking with regards to Robert’s situation, part of the crux of this story does concern an evolving perception of who the doctor really is, particularly as he begins currying favor with some of the elites. (He even gets to play a game of squash with Mr. Royal!) It’s no coincidence his apartment is almost smack-dab in the middle of the building. The metaphor is almost too overt: Robert’s not like the rest, he plays as though the rules don’t apply and thus finds himself in the precarious position of not caring whether or not he improves his current life. His physical location within this building, like it does everyone else, says a lot about the opportunities he has been afforded.

This puzzling drama is an exercise in random visual stimulation, so it’s fitting that the central conflict arises haphazardly as well. It takes three months from the day Robert moves in for the social infrastructure to fail. Specifically what triggers the collapse isn’t made clear, but basic necessities are the first to go: electricity, clean water, food supplies, proper garbage disposal. A man throwing himself from the 39th floor onto the hood of a car is the most apparent indicator of things starting to go awry. And later: complete pandemonium as the irascible Richard Wilder stages a revolution to take down Royal, who he believes is the one responsible for things falling apart. More perceptive viewers will notice that, while all of this is going on, police are nowhere to be seen.

Lang isn’t exactly immune to the insanity, and it’s in his slow slide into a state of acceptance that maybe . . . just maybe, Royal’s plans aren’t completely sinister, that in some weird way society itself is what has failed him and failed the building. Wheatley ensures our perspective on the matter aligns with Robert’s, a tactic that allows us to remain as close to impartial as possible. And it’s not like Robert isn’t flawed himself. As the level of chaos increases we see his behavior change as well. A scene in the grocery store is particularly memorable, exhibiting a side of the doctor we haven’t yet seen: angry, desperate, and violent. He’s become overwhelmed by the survival instinct, protecting what matters most to him — in this case, a bucket of paint. At this point we are well beyond rules. Society is now left to fend for itself as Royal and his cronies continue to look for a way to improve the facilities.

High-Rise is an intensely visual piece that doesn’t quite resonate as the profound sociopolitical allegory it was clearly set on becoming and that the book has been heralded as. Nonetheless, it approaches a familiar subject with a gusto that allows us to overlook the fraying edges, offering up a hallucinatory experience that is as unpredictable as it is entertaining and thought-provoking.

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Recommendation: Fans of the weird and the dystopian need apply. High-Rise gets carried away with itself every now and then, with some sequences beginning and ending so sporadically you want to believe many of the transitions were done this way to add to the disorientation (and maybe this really was the thinking). Well-performed and even better shot. Cinematography is a high point, while Tom Hiddleston’s performance reminds us why this is an actor who should have more work. He’s too good. So is Jeremy Irons, but this is really Hiddleston’s movie. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 119 mins.

Quoted: “There’s no food left. Only the dogs. And Mrs. Hillman is refusing to clean unless I pay her what I apparently owe her. Like all poor people, she’s obsessed with money.”

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

The Little Prince

'The Little Prince' movie poster

Release: Friday, August 5, 2016 (Netflix)

[Netflix]

Written by: Irena Brignull; Bob Persichetti

Directed by: Mark Osborne

The Little Prince is a gem. It’s a crime it never received a theatrical release. It’s a heartwarming journey rivaling anything Pixar has created on an emotional and intellectual level, and perhaps it’s the complex, multi-layered animation that truly sets the film apart, interweaving crude stop-motion with crisp, computer-generated imagery to produce an aesthetic you’ll struggle to find elsewhere.

Kung Fu Panda director Mark Osborne’s enchanting tale is a reimagining of the 1943 French novella of the same name, penned by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, a successful commercial pilot (and novelist, poet, aristocrat and journalist) prior to World War II. The man once traveled to American shores in an attempt to convince the government to bring the fight to Nazi Germany following his disenfranchisement from the French Air Force in the early 1940s. He spent a little over two years in the States writing what would later become three of his most popular works. He later would re-join the Force only to disappear mysteriously soon thereafter à la Amelia Earhart.

Saint-Exupéry’s experiences as an aviator factor into this modern interpretation of The Little Prince in curious ways. (It should be noted, however, that his original story was published before he enlisted.) Fantastical elements are of course front-and-center and the story is entrenched in the stresses of modern living, but under the surface lie untold mysteries and tales of bravery, heroism and self-discovery. Strong emotional hooks are drawn from an impressive, inspired voice cast and Osborne’s touch, though ultimately nothing unique, is just confident enough to steer the story in a direction that, come the end, very well may have you in tears. The good kind, of course.

We’re introduced to The Little Girl (Mackenzie Foy, who thus far has Interstellar, The Conjuring and Ernest & Celestine on her résumé, and at the time of writing she’s yet to turn 16) who lives in a very grown-up world driven by rules, schedules and obedience. Her Mother (Rachel McAdams) wants her to attend the prestigious Academy so she can grow up and become an essential, contributing member of society. The initial interview does not go well as the panel, led by Paul Giamatti‘s intimidating and overly harsh instructor, springs an unexpected question upon her that causes her to panic. Mother has a Plan B: make her daughter cram so much studying into each and every day of her summer vacation she’ll be sure not to have any distractions (i.e. friends).

Mother draws up an impossibly elaborate Life Plan and constructs it so that each minute of every hour of every day of every week of every month of every year is accounted for. Soon enough, The Little Girl rebels. She befriends their eccentric, hoarding and elderly neighbor, The Aviator (Jeff Bridges), who is introduced as the scourge of this SimCity-esque neighborhood — one comprised of identical blocky houses and roads filled with cars driving identical speeds and in organized right-angled patterns. Mother looks at the situation like so: “Just think about [his] house being the reason [ours] is available. This is the place where you’ll learn to grow up and become Essential.” (I paraphrase.)

The Aviator is a wonderful creation, and Bridges brings the character to life in ways that are difficult to fathom. Practically speaking, his performance is little more than a voice laid over/synced up with a cartoon character. It’s not the genuine article, and yet, he is mesmeric as he regales The Little Girl about his past experiences with an enigma he calls The Little Prince, whom he met after crashing his plane in the Sahara Desert many years ago. The Little Prince (voiced by the director’s son Riley) shows him a world where everything is possible, a reality that The Aviator has been trying for years to communicate to anyone willing to listen. Finally he has found someone who will, even if her intelligence means she’s skeptical about certain details.

The Little Prince is a space-traveling young lad who once lived on a tiny planetoid, a celestial object so small you could traverse on foot in a matter of minutes and whose existence is constantly being threatened by hungry tree roots eager to take over the entire planet. He left this world and a Rose he fell in love with (voiced by Marion Cotillard for some reason) in search of greater truths amongst the cosmos. In the present day, The Little Girl decides it is her responsibility to track down The Little Prince and prove to The Aviator that he still does exist, and that even though he has grown into a jaded, passive adult, he never abandoned the child within.

The Little Prince astounds on a visual level. It is an exercise in contrasts, the real world from which The Little Girl temporarily escapes suffocating with its seriousness and sterility, while the universe expands into this wondrous, strange space in which individual worlds are populated by simplistic, insulated communities comprised of childless, passionless adult drones. Scale is quirkily reduced to something almost tangible. We’re not talking interstellar travel here, more like a weekend road trip amongst the stars. You’ll find the stop-motion animation reserved for backstories concerning The Aviator’s relationship with The Little Prince while the rest operates in a pristine, colorful world that gives Disney a run for its money.

Much like a Roald Dahl creation, The Little Prince refuses to condescend to its pint-sized viewers. It strikes a delicate balance between entertaining youngsters while providing the more jaded a few different ways to look at the lives they’ve shaped for themselves. Occasionally the chronicle trips into the realm of the pretentious with a few overly-poetic spits of dialogue that attempt to spice up an already fairly advanced narrative. It doesn’t have to try so hard. The exploration of just what it was that caused the kid in us to go away is profound enough on its own.

The Little Prince

Recommendation: The Little Prince offers adventurous viewers something a little different. Generally speaking the story arc isn’t something you’ll be experiencing for the first time, but it’s the incredible nuance and the textures and the layers to the animation that make it one of the most original works this former animated-film-skeptic has seen all year. Stellar performances abound. There’s even a cute fox voiced by James Franco, a Benicio del Toro-sounding snake and Albert Brooks is along for the ride so the cast is reason enough to check it out. Also, stop-motion. Have I mentioned how awesome the technique is? Yeah, it’s pretty awesome. Available on Netflix.

Rated: PG

Running Time: 106 mins.

Quoted: “It is only with heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”

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

Bølgen (The Wave)

'Bølgen' movie poster

Release: Friday, August 28, 2015 

[Redbox]

Written by: John Kåre Raake; Harald Rosenløw-Eeg

Directed by: Roar Uthaug

Norway’s official submission for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film at the 88th Academy Awards failed to garner a nomination. While I would like to say it was their loss for turning away a disaster film that puts most Hollywood efforts to shame, it’s actually more like everyone else’s loss as well. Bølgen might have made waves (sorry) if it had been given the chance to take the stage along with the other international selections.

Alas, it wasn’t meant to be.

Though Roar Uthaug’s direction largely adheres to blueprints used in natural disaster staples from the ’90s like Deep Impact and Dante’s Peak, he separates himself considerably with a dedication to creating characters that matter in a place that feels lived-in and entirely authentic. He stands to look even better thanks in no small part to Kristoffer Joner’s durable and oh-so-likable lead. The production carries a palpable sense of raw, visceral danger and the dramatic backdrop doesn’t hurt either.

Bølgen is a dramatization of a very real, Mt. Vesuvius-esque worst-case scenario facing the quaint fjordland community of Geiranger. It suggests what could happen should Åkerneset, a particularly unstable mountain looming over the town, ever collapse into the water below. He envisions an 80-meter-high tsunami that spells the end for everything standing in its way. Locals would have ten minutes to get to higher ground. Into the drama he inserts an obsessive geologist who tries to sound the alarms before it’s too late.

There’s an element of predictability and sensationalism to Uthaug’s approach but it’s not of the bombastic variety you come to expect from the likes of Roland Emmerich. You won’t find many cheesy one-liners here that smack of screenwriting-by-committee, or overly sentimental speeches designed to impress audiences with their longevity, or romances that develop out of nowhere that go through hell and back before the second date even happens. The only thing Bølgen really borrows from big budget Hollywood is visual grandeur —  vertigo-inducing aerial shots and sweeping pans that expose audiences to one of the world’s best-kept secrets. And even then, it’s the natural environment that does most of the work.

The  film plods along at a fairly even keel, deliberately skimping on major drama before emphatically revealing its hand, after which we’re left to pick up the pieces of a shattered community. The first half starts off slower than the second. Kristian (Joner) has been a dedicated geologist in Geiranger for many years. Now he’s accepted a big job with a prestigious oil company in Stavanger, a major Norwegian city that will surely offer a stark contrast to the family’s peaceful days here. His wife Idun (Ane Dahl Torp) seems to be on board; his son Sondre (Jonas Hoff Oftebro), not so much. Daughter Julia (Edith Haagenrud-Sande) is too young to care.

We watch Kristian and the family preparing for their last day and saying their goodbyes. Kristian has a hard time leaving behind his fellow geologists, unable to shake the feeling that Åkerneset is about to cause problems. His former colleagues scold him for his obsession. He needs to stop acting like he still works here. Things might seem like they are moving slowly during the protracted introductory scenes in part because Uthaug dedicates a healthy chunk of the narrative to the perspective of Kristian’s former colleagues, each of whom show varying degrees of skepticism towards his claims that catastrophe is imminent. Bølgen may get a bit too science-y for some but genre geeks are going to appreciate the little things.

The film is universally well-acted with Joner leading the charge. He, along with Torp’s Idun, provide strong characters who are almost equal in their problem-solving abilities, a quality that largely lacks in many American disaster films. Watch Torp take action in getting the hotel guests out to safety, or the gut-wrenching fight she engages in with an aggressive man who’s just lost his wife, and more recently, his mind. All performances are treated with a sense of intelligence and respect that is far too lacking in movies, period.

Uthaug may not have been appreciated by a faceless committee but his somber and extraordinarily effective natural disaster thriller — the first in Norwegian cinematic history — is a force to be reckoned with and it is sure to find a spot on any genre enthusiast’s list. It’s certainly high up there on mine.

Recommendation: If you seek a disaster film that doesn’t treat you like you’re brain-dead, you might check out a little wild ride called Bølgen. (I suggest watching in Norwegian with English subtitles as it adds to the authenticity and I find that more often than not something is lost in the English overdub.) Filled with interesting developments, heartfelt performances and some impressive visual effects, this film never breaks free of genre tropes but it doesn’t have to when it handles them so well and brings more to the table besides. Highly recommended. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 105 mins.

Trivia: Norway has about 5 million inhabitants and the film sold 801,232 tickets until the 4th Nov. 2015, therefore nearly every 6th Norwegian saw The Wave in a cinema.

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

The Measure of a Man

'The Measure of a Man'

Release: Friday, April 15, 2016 (limited)

[Vimeo]

Written by: Stéphane Brizé; Olivier Gorce

Directed by: Stéphane Brizé


This review marks my latest contribution to Mr. Rumsey’s Film Related Musings. I would like to give James a shout-out for the opportunity to talk about another foreign film here. 


The Measure of a Man (La loi du marché) could turn out to be a measure of one’s patience if they’re not prepared for the meditation that lays ahead. But if you’re willing to stick with it, you’ll hardly miss Stéphane Brizé’s biting critique of the status quo of the working class French, casting Vincent Lindon’s family man into the fire as he scrambles for another way to make ends meet after losing his factory job in unceremonious fashion.

I can hardly say I know what it’s like to live in Europe, but it’s not a stretch to imagine that the cutthroat experience of seeking better work in America doesn’t just end wherever there are geopolitical borders. It’s not the continental shelf; people the world over face variants of the same basic problems that constitute surviving in a modern society. And Thierry Taugourdaeu (Lindon) is one of them.

We first meet him when he’s become utterly fed up with the wild goose chases that are the job training courses he’s spent at least the last year committing to. Now he’s being told yet again, upon completion of another course, that he won’t get a job doing what he has just been trained for. Lindon is very good in the role, his face remaining mostly unchanged during the hardships, even while it’s clearly obvious that despair and exasperation are well setting in even by the opening frame. Wisely he never overacts or overreacts to new developments. His measured performance (e-hem) feels totally human.

His love for his family — wife Karine (Karine de Mirbeck) and their developmentally challenged high-school aged son named Matthieu (Matthieu Schaller) — is without question. As he faces a series of humiliations and disappointments his trials become a testament to that love. He worries, he doubts and occasionally he becomes discouraged. He doesn’t interview well, as his peers point out at will. He and his wife take dance classes, presumably to take their minds off of the fact they’re going to have to sell off assets in order to send their son to college.

The lack of consistently compelling viewing separates it by quite a large margin from its 2015 cousin Two Days, One Night, in which Marion Cotillard starred as a woman fighting for her right to regain employment with the same company after suffering a mental breakdown. The Dardenne brothers were arguably afforded a better product on the back of career-best work from Cotillard alone, though her character had to interact with a number of significant supports in order for us to gauge her psychological state — that intimate connectivity the film’s backbone. Thierry has a much different role to play; he’s much more of a loner, which proves to be a roadblock to success for him at points.

The Measure of a Man has neither the high(-ish) stakes nor the fiercely emotional performance that will make it linger in the way Two Days, One Night still does. Brizé nevertheless has created a very watchable film here and yes, a damning one to some lesser degree. Exasperation is an inescapable commodity here, and you can feel the weight of it accumulating as days turn to weeks, weeks to months. The study goes further than simply telling one man’s journey: it’s microcosmic of the situation many people of the global working class find themselves in today.

Screen Shot 2016-06-03 at 8.33.19 PM

Recommendation: The Measure of a Man is a small, compact and intriguing study of one man’s struggles that can be extrapolated to a global level. It tends to frustrate more than make viewers feel good about the current job market(s), but then, does it really have an obligation to make one feel good? The sense of reality often hits hard and with a strong central performance from Vincent Lindon I kind of have to recommend tracking this one down sometime for at least a one-time viewing.

Rated: NR

Running Time: 84 mins.

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

Demolition

'Demolition' movie poster

Release: Friday, April 8, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Bryan Sipe

Directed by: Jean-Marc Vallée

Jake Gyllenhaal has played a variety of oddballs in his time. He’s navigated his way carefully through a maze of mental illness — including, but certainly not limited to, sociopathy, obsession and depression — and often bravely inhabited characters who we’re almost dared to embrace at the expense of our own conscience. But even when he’s playing characters who are either lowlives or who find themselves at low points in their lives, rarely do we regret spending time watching him.

Alas, that is the case in Demolition, the new film from Québécois director Jean-Marc Vallée. I suppose the good news is that I can’t remember the last time I was able to say Gyllenhaal failed to captivate me, wasted my time or anything similarly negative. I’m not talking about a movie in which he starred or had a juicy supporting part, but something he appeared in. That’s quite a streak this utterly directionless and ultimately pointless black comedy has just broken. If I were the movie, I’d feel pretty bad about that, because while Gyllenhaal has certainly been better, the fact the film passes without significance isn’t entirely his fault.

Demolition is the story of a successful investment banker who seems to mentally check out of reality following a traumatic event in which he and his wife are involved in a bad car accident. Rather than breaking down into tears or exhibiting any of the symptoms someone in his position would typically exhibit, particularly in the immediate aftermath, his Davis Mitchell feels nothing. He seemingly moves on with his life as if nothing happened. We, the appalled, are challenged to interpret whether his behavior is something indicative of some kind of mental deficiency, or if he’s just a coldhearted bastard. (Either way, there’s something wrong with him.)

Bryan Sipe’s talky, introspective but ultimately forgettable script pivots around a rather crass catalytic event in which Davis — and this is just hours after his beloved Julia (Heather Lind) has succumbed to injuries sustained in the accident — begins writing a series of letters to the company that owns the vending machine that just screwed him out of a pack of peanut M&M’s. I know. Life is unfair. For awhile we’re lead to believe that these letters are just a way for him to vent, that perhaps he’s just this bad at expressing anguish. After all, grief is grief and there aren’t really any rules for dealing with this shit.

But then we learn that Davis’ letters are being received by a customer service rep named Karen Moreno (Naomi Watts, less annoying than usual) — a customer service rep in desperate need of a raise because she’s seemingly the only one who ever pays attention to such outmoded forms of communication. Complaint letters being read. Pah! What a quaint idea. The set-up is so serendipitous it’s ridiculous. Maybe if Davis were a character we could actually get behind, the fact Karen’s entirely too trusting of a strange man might not be something we’d notice. After all, Karen’s essentially a polar opposite to Davis, a kind-hearted soul who’s struggling financially as a single mother raising a bratty kid who can’t stay unsuspended from school.

Davis finds comfort in divulging intensely personal tidbits about his marriage and his childhood through letters to someone he’s never met. He’s also further alienating himself from the brutal truth of being made a widower at the ripe age of 30-something. What begins as a pen-pal relationship soon turns into clandestine phone calls whose tones range from stalker-ish to flirtatious; meanwhile Julia’s parents are still trying to get over their loss. Those phone calls that then turn into face-to-face meet-ups aren’t the extent of Davis’ ‘descent.’ (I put that word in quotes because Davis himself admits he didn’t even know Julia that well, other than that marrying her was an easy thing to do. So, good chance this guy was insufferable even when she was alive.)

Promotional material for Demolition seems fixated on the character physically destroying things. There’s the clip of him taking a bulldozer to his posh, angular, suburban abode and a bathroom stall at his office lying in pieces on the floor. By the time we actually get around to these moments we’re so numb to what we’re seeing they don’t really register. There’s a faint whiff of tragedy underlining Davis’ increasingly absurd behavior but it’s all for naught because the story and the character haven’t given us any reason to feel empathy; this is quite literally 100 minutes of watching Gyllenhaal getting free license to go willy-nilly with a sledgehammer and other construction materials.

In fact it becomes so difficult to identify with Davis we end up feeling terrible for his father-in-law, Phil (Chris Cooper) as Phil continues to give Davis entirely too much leeway around the office. (Does he have much choice? Um, how about firing him?) Perhaps the only behavior Davis displays that we can understand is his lack of ability to stay invested in work-related projects. In an early scene, Davis is recounting what it was like getting to know Phil in the early stages of his relationship. Not one to mince words, Phil shouts down from the top of a flight of stairs, “I don’t like you Davis.” Yeah, no kidding. We’re with you on that one, Phil. Fortunately for us, we figured that out within about an hour. You had to endure this man’s sociopathic behavior for years.

Screen Shot 2016-04-21 at 8.23.09 PM

Recommendation: Demolition revolves around a through-and-through unlikable protagonist, which isn’t a problem in and of itself. But the story also asks us to start taking sides (with him) as Davis begins a new relationship — to the film’s credit, one that’s only ever platonic — with a customer service rep who decides she likes the way he writes. Everything just feels so false. Jean-Marc Vallée has dealt with the selfish, brooding, sociopathic and self-destructive type before but this one really pushes limits. One for actor/director completionists only.

Rated: R

Running Time: 100 mins.

Quoted: “There was love between me and Julia. I just didn’t take care of it.”

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

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.

Screen Shot 2016-04-10 at 2.04.30 AM

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.”

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