REVIEW: Eye in the Sky

20 04 2016

Eye in the SkyMore than a mere morality play, Gavin Hood’s “Eye in the Sky” displays an impeccable representation of how we fight now, particularly in the later years of the Obama administration. The film goes farther than the largely character-based drama of Andrew Niccol’s 2015 drone-related flick “Good Kill,” demonstrating both the individual and the collective effects of conducting warfare on a screen in a remote room.

“Eye in the Sky” mostly depicts a single mission conducted as a collaboration between the United States, United Kingdom and Kenya. Together, their militaries scope out Al-Shabaab terrorists from an unmanned aircraft flying high above the ground. From this vantage point, they scope out a large quantity of explosives getting ready to leave a safe house – attached to the chest of a suicide bomber.

The decision to strike seems like a no-brainer to British Colonel Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren). Even though they started tracking a citizen-turned-extremists for the purpose of capture, the clearly observed threat raises the stakes. Her position far from the battlefield would seem to make her, as well as her superiors, more likely to make the informed and rational decision. Yet with all the details they can observe, they also see their potential collateral damage up close and personal: a young girl, unrelated to the terrorists, sent out to sell bread in the streets.

Rather than take swift action, everyone now tries to kick the can up the road to their supervisor or boss. No one wants to be the last voice or the final finger on the trigger with a child likely to die as a result. In scenes of rapid succession that resemble a one-act play more than a film, Guy Hibbert’s script depicts a kind of bureaucratic nightmare unfolding in real time. Eventually, “Eye in the Sky” takes on the tenor of “Dr. Strangelove“-esque farce.

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REVIEW: Triple 9

7 03 2016

John Hillcoat’s “Triple 9” makes for quintessential tough cinema – and in more ways than one. It’s hard-edged in content as a brutal crime plot breaks out in the Atlanta underworld but also somewhat tough in form; Matt Cook’s screenplay proves challenging to follow as more than broad strokes on many occasions. The sprawling tale of interwoven cops, criminals and robbers weaves a complicated web of characters.

Yet while the lack of numerous balls juggled during “Triple 9” are somewhat of a liability, they also become a strength when events take a brutally ironic turn in the second half. The film becomes almost like a classic piece of Russian literature with its cruel reversals of fate, though Cook somewhat overloads the dramatic irony by having characters mull over the impossible “coincidence” time and again. With lightly sketched characters, they become less like people and more akin to pieces to form an allegory about humanity as a whole.

Even without much in the way of characterization, the actors still shine through, namely Casey Affleck as the film’s de facto moral center, officer Chris Allen. (Others, like Aaron Paul and Kate Winslet, play up glorified caricatures.) Meanwhile, editor Dylan Tichenor, the man who cut masterpieces as varied as “Boogie Nights” and “Zero Dark Thirty,” provides excellent tension as Allen falls into the crosshairs of cops who serve the local Russian mafia bosses. The two of them almost manage to turn the film into a Coen-esque spin on a tale like “The Departed.” But even a watered-down version of that idyllic fantasy film would be worth watching – as “Triple 9” is, too. B2halfstars





REVIEW: Exodus: Gods and Kings

20 12 2014

Usually, when writers proclaim a story has biblical connotations, implications, or overtones, they suggest a certain primordial grandiosity of themes and conflicts.  Ridley Scott’s “Exodus: Gods and Kings” is quite literally biblical, however, and does not even come close to achieving that standard.  It takes far more cues from an interminable “Hobbit” film than it does from its source material that inspires billions.

The action on screen plays out like a final walk-through for a real movie.  The blocking of actors looks clumsy and without purpose.  Lines come across as recited rather than deeply felt.  And when the whole film plays out against a CGI-heavy background that can never overcome an overwhelming sensation of artificiality, “Exodus” feels like it could be capable of inspiring its own exodus of audiences fleeing the film itself.

The job of writing a compelling movie about the conflict between Moses (Christian Bale) and Ramses (Joel Edgerton) seems simple enough.  The clash of a pharaoh with a legitimate threat to his empire from a powerful deity is gripping in concept alone.  Then add in that the revolution is being spearheaded by his estranged stepbrother, and it becomes the kind of drama that ought to have writers drooling over their keyboards.

Yet most of the film’s problems seem to originate at the level of the script, which likely underwent quite a few drafts given that four writers are given credit.  The film certainly does not deserve to bear the name of great scripter Steven Zaillian (screenwriter of stellar work from “Schindler’s List” to “Moneyball“).  “Exodus” feels skeletal, the sketch of what a true screenplay should resemble.  The general progression of events is in place, but no one has affixed any supplemental scenes to give it depth of character or emotion.

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REVIEW: A Long Way Down

3 12 2014

A Long Way DownThe chief problem with the film adaptation of Nick Hornby’s novel “A Long Way Down” is that the screenplay does not come from Hornby himself.  He is one of few writesrs capable of making telling a grounded, compassionate story out of a scenario involving an accidental New Year’s Eve convening of four suicidal individuals on a London rooftop.

The gathering is eclectic, to say the least.  Among the bunch is a disgraced news anchor Martin (Pierce Brosnan), down-and-out American ex-patriot rocker-cum-pizza boy JJ (Aaron Paul), rebellious wild child Jess (Imogen Poots), and Maureen (Toni Collette), a single mother whose life consist solely of caring for her disabled child.  Nothing would ever bring them together but death, and nothing could keep them together but life. Contradictions and reversals underlie almost all of their story, all of which Hornby navigates gracefully.

Moreover, each character got a chance to narrate their own take on events and plumb the depths of their deep despair on the page.  That wealth of information is lost in the changeover to cinema, and nothing really replaces its intimate gaze into their troubles.  Jack Thorne’s adaptation is not terrible, but it clearly lacks the spark and panache of the source material.  He just captures the general essence of each character, only skimming the surface in the roughly 90 minutes available in “A Long Way Down.”

Director Pascal Chaumeil delivers a film that is definitely fun and entertaining in parts, yet it pales in comparisons to the dizzying highs and devastating lows of reading the novel.  He knows not to attempt the tricky tonal high-wire act of Hornby’s prose, though Chaumeil might have been better off emphasizing either the drama or the comedy of the story rather than taking his nondescript, wishy-washy approach.  His “A Long Way Down” feels short on personality, a real shame given how much Hornby’s book had to spare.  B-2stars





REVIEW: Hellion

14 06 2014

HellionRecently, the South has seen a bit of a revival at the cinema.  An emerging generation of filmmakers, headlined by Jeff Nichols and David Gordon Green, have found the region’s rich heritage to be fertile grounds for stories largely passed over by the coast-focused Hollywood.

With “Hellion,” the latest film in this resurgence, it’s time to start including writer/director Kat Candler in the discussion of prominent figures produced by the movement.  Her latest film far outshines both “Mud” and “Joe,” two similar Southern coming-of-age stories, with the raw authenticity of its landscape and the affecting emotional vulnerability of its characters.  The only complaint I can muster about the film is a selfish one: I just wish the film had been made when I was still a teenager.

Candler sets “Hellion” just outside of my native Houston, and her portrayal of the area and its residents is absolutely pitch-perfect.  I felt as if I knew the foul-mouthed troublemaking adolescents at the center of the film from my own childhood.  These are not just character sketches, either; they rang so uncannily familiar that the teens seemed like real people pulled from dusty corners of my memory.

Though I never knew a family with the particular struggles faced by the Wilsons in “Hellion,” Candler’s impeccable script quickly made me feel deeply and passionately about their well-being.  It’s the rare film these days that jolts me out of being merely a complicit spectator and makes me feel like a stakeholder in the events playing out before my eyes.  Watching the drama as Aaron Paul’s Hollis attempts to get his act together, or as Josh Wiggins’ Jacob lashes out to keep his family intact unleashed reactions in me that were not only physiological but also physical.

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REVIEW: Smashed

11 08 2013

Finding comedy in alcoholism and recovery, two notoriously heavy subjects that hit close to home for many audiences, is no easy task.  “Smashed” is hardly a gut-buster or a laugh riot, although a little humor does help some of its rougher and rawer moments.  It’s no “Rachel Getting Married” (nor the lesser-known “Sherrybaby“), that’s for sure, but that’s not to say the film doesn’t have its smaller triumphs.

Director James Ponsoldt, newly heralded as an emerging director (and being entrusted to helm an upcoming Hillary Clinton biopic and an adaptation of the musical “Pippin”), steers the film rather uneasily.  As a result, the film has some abrupt and rather jarring tonal swings.  I’m not quite sure if he intended “Smashed” to leave a comedic or a dramatic impression, but it really winds up leaving very little impression at all.  Similarly, Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s performance is good, yet it never goes the full mile like Anne Hathaway or Maggie Gyllenhaal in the aforementioned dramas.

If it sounds like I’m being vague on details, that’s because I remember very few of them.  “Smashed” is a film I didn’t dislike, but it failed to win me over or secure a spot in my memory.  Regardless, it’s an interesting and, at 81 minutes, brief bauble of a film that isn’t entirely a waste of your time.  At the very least, you’ll enjoy seeing a union of some of TV’s best talents: Aaron Paul of “Breaking Bad,” Nick Offerman of “Parks & Recreation,” and Megan Mullally of “Will and Grace.”

Oh, and there’s Octavia Spencer (Oscar-winner for “The Help“) as an AA sponsor.  She never disappoints.  2halfstars