Playing Catch-Up With The Films of 2016: Eye In The Sky (dir by Gavin Hood)


Eye in the Sky is many things.  It’s a tense and involving drama.  At times, it’s a satire of the bland and often cowardly bureaucracy that controls so much of the world.  Occasionally, it’s an angry polemic and a sad-eyed look at the state of the world today.  It’s a film about drone warfare, one that is remarkably honest about both the costs and the benefits of being able to randomly blow people up on the other side of the world.  It’s a film that will make you think and it will make you cry and it will even make you laugh in a resigned sort of way.

But, at heart, it’s ultimately the story of two houses in Nairobi, Kenya.

In the first house, terrorists are plotting their next attack.  The film leaves little doubt as to what they are planning.  Thanks to a miniature drone controlled by Jama Farah (played by Barkhad Abdi and it’s good to see him giving as good a performance here as he did in Captain Phillips), both American and British intelligence are aware of what’s happening in that house.  A British jihadist is planning her next attack.  Guns are being loaded.  Suicide vests are being prepared.  If nothings done to stop their plans, hundreds of people are going to die.

Sitting nearby is the other house.  And, in this other house, an apolitical Kenyan family is going about their day with zero knowledge of what’s happening just a few doors down.  11 year-old Alia Mo’Allim (Aisha Takow) twirls a hula hoop while her father watches.  Later, in the day, she’ll go out in her village and, while the local militia harasses anyone who doesn’t look right to them, Alia will attempt to sell bread.  She’ll set up her table directly outside of the first house.

And what no one in that village realizes is that an armed drone is hovering above them.  As they go about their day, they have no idea that there are men and women in America and Britain who are debating whether or not to blow them up.

Colonel Katherine Powell (a steely and totally convincing Helen Mirren) is determined to blow up that house and the terrorists within, even if it means blowing up Alia in the process.  However, before Powell can give the order, she has to get permission from Lt. Gen. Frank Benson (Alan Rickman, at his weary best) and Benson has to get permission from the government.  And the government is full of people who are eager to take credit for killing terrorists but who don’t want to be blamed for any of the inevitable collateral damage.  Everyone passes responsibility to someone else.

Powell may be the most determined of everyone to blow up that house but she is not the one who will actually be firing the missiles.  That responsibility falls on two Americans, Lt. Steve Watts (Aaron Paul) and Carrie Gershon (Phoebe Fox).  As the teorrists prepare and Alia tries to sell bread and the bureaucrats debate, Watts and Gershon are the only ones who seem to truly understand what’s about to happen.  If they fire the missiles, Alia will probably die.  If they don’t, hundreds of other definitely will.

It all makes for incredibly tense and thought-provoking film, one that is all the more effective because it actually allows both sides to make their case.  In Eye in the Sky, no one is presented as being perfect.  On the one hand, Powell may be willing to manipulate the data to get permission to fire that missile.  But, on the other, the film doesn’t deny that Powell is right when she says that if they don’t blow up the terrorists when they have a chance, hundreds of innocent people are going to die.  Towards the end of the film, Alan Rickman says, “Never tell a soldier that he doesn’t understand the cost of war,” and Eye in the Sky appears to understand that cost as well.  Nobody escapes this film untouched.

Well-acted and intelligently written and directed, Eye in the Sky was one of the most thought-provoking films of the previous year.  See it if you haven’t.

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Back to School Part II #42: Keith (dir by Todd Kessler)


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Oh, fuck this movie.

Keith tells the story of Natalie Anderson (Elisabeth Harnois), who is seventeen and has her entire life ahead of her.  She’s smart.  She’s popular.  She’s talented.  She’s going to be her school’s valedictorian and she’s going to go to a great college on a tennis scholarship!  She even has a wonderful boyfriend, a South American exchange student named Rafael (Ignacio Serricchio).  It’s all great, right?  Except Natalie doesn’t ever have any fun!

But she’s got a new lab partner!  His name is Keith (Jesse McCartney).  Keith is sarcastic.  Keith is rebellious.  Keith doesn’t care if he’s popular.  He doesn’t worry about the future.  He lives in the moment!  And he’s determined to make sure that Natalie lives in the moment too!  Keith is also totally obnoxious but I think we’re supposed to find him charming.

It would help, of course, if Keith was actually an interesting iconoclast.  Instead, he’s a movie iconoclast.  He talks, acts, and looks like every single teenage iconoclast that we’ve ever seen in every teen film ever made.  As a result, he comes across as being totally inauthentic.  Jack Kerouac would have kicked him out of a moving car.

Now, it turns out that there’s a reason why Keith is so sarcastic.  He has a tragic secret.  But you know what?  It doesn’t mater.  Considering how serious his secret is, I hate to put it like that.  But if Keith proves anything, it’s that tragic things occasionally happen to total assholes.

In the end, we’re supposed to believe that Keith has taught Natalie how to enjoy life but, really, it just seems like Natalie is just imitating Keith.  And since Keith just came across like an imitation of every imitation of James Dean ever filmed, Natalie is a now an imitation of an imitation of an imitation.

Thanks a lot, Keith!

Anyway, Keith is on Netflix right now.  Look for it listed under films about brainwashing.

 

Back to School Part II #39: The Glass House (dir by Daniel Sackheim)


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Originally, I was planning on using the 2001 thriller The Glass House as one of my guilty pleasure reviews.  Because, seriously, this film truly is one of the guiltiest of all guilty pleasures.  I mean, there’s so much that you can criticize about the movie but it’s so much fun that I always feel rather bad for doing so.  However, after giving it some thought, I decided to use The Glass House as one of my Back to School reviews.  Seeing as how I just totally trashed a Leelee Sobieski film called Here On Earth, it only seems fair to now recommend one of her films.

In The Glass House, Leelee plays Ruby Baker, a 16 year-old whose parents are killed in a car accident.  Though their uncle (Chris Noth) wants to adopt them, the will states that Ruby and her nine year-old brother (Trevor Morgan) will instead be looked after by their parents’ best friends, Erin (Diane Lane) and Terry (Stellan Skarsgard).

Now, here’s the thing.  This is going to blow your mind.  Guess where Erin and Terry live?  They live in a big mansion in Malibu and the entire house is made out of … GLASS!  We have a title, right!?  But wait, there’s more!  Guess what Terry and Erin’s last name is?  That’s right — GLASS!  So, the house is not only literally a glass house but it’s also the Glass house as well!  And beyond that, there’s that old saying that people who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones and … well, that really doesn’t apply to this film.

Anyway, I’m making such a big deal about the title because it pretty much tells you everything that you need to know about The Glass House.  There is not a single subtle moment to be found in this entire film. And really, this is not a film that requires or rewards subtlety.  We know that Terry Glass is up to no good from the minute we meet him, largely because he’s played by Stellan Skarsgard and when was the last time Stellan Skarsgard played a trustworthy character?  Skarsgard pretty much gives the same performance here that he’s given in almost every thriller that he’s ever appeared in (including David Fincher’s rehash of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo — which I’m still ticked off about, by the way) but it works wonderfully because there’s not a hint of pretension to The Glass House.  It just wants to entertain and it does just that.  There’s little that can match the entertainment value of watching Stellan Skarsgard go totally over the top.

Sure, the film has all sorts of flaws.  Ruby’s intelligence changes from scene to scene, depending on what the film’s story needs her to do.  (For that matter, the same thing can be said about every character in the film.)  But the film’s a lot of fun and Leelee Sobieski gives one of the best and most sympathetic performances of her career.  Ruby may be an inconsistent character but she’s so well-played that you like her anyway.  In a film that often threatens to go just a little bit too crazy, Leelee gives a performance of both believable grief and believable inner strength.  She keeps the film grounded just enough that you’ll continue to watch even when the narrative hits a rough patch.  As well, Bruce Dern is hilariously sleazy as a possibly duplicitous attorney.  The only thing more entertaining than watching Stellan Skarsgard go over the top is watching Bruce Dern do the same thing in the same film.

The Glass House is one of those films that seems to show up on cable constantly.  And, 9 times out of 10, I’ll at least watch at least a little bit of it.  It’s just a fun movie.

Insomnia File No. 4: Nina Takes A Lover (dir by Alan Jacobs)


What’s an Insomnia File? You know how some times you just can’t get any sleep and, at about three in the morning, you’ll find yourself watching whatever you can find on cable? This feature is all about those insomnia-inspired discoveries!

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Last night, if you were having trouble getting to sleep at 2 in the morning, you could have turned over to Starz and watched Nina Takes A Lover, a movie from 1994.

Nina Takes A Lover is such a typical 90s Sundance film that it could have just as easily been called Independent Movie From 1994.  Everything that we tend to associate with American independent cinema is present in this film.  It’s a relationship drama with moments of quirky comedy.  It’s set in the city and no, it doesn’t matter which city.  It could be New York or it could be Seattle or it could be Los Angeles or San Francisco.  The important thing is that it’s a city on one of the coasts, the type of city where people engage in witty banter while sharing an apple in the park or over cups of coffee at a cozy cafe that was probably replaced by a Starbucks after this film was released.  This is the type of film where the characters tell their stories in flashback while being interviewed by a bespectacled journalist.  Characters alternate between artificial small talk and sudden statements of portentous wisdom.  Of course, all of quirky drama leads up to a sudden twist.  I figured out the twist after watching about 10 minutes of the film.  Maybe audiences in 1994 were a bit more surprised.

About the only thing that keeps Nina Takes A Lover from being the most stereotypical indie film ever made is the fact that there’s no quirky criminals and nobody spends any time talking about their favorite childhood TV shows.  If Nina had only shot someone while taking a lover, this would have been the most indie film ever.

I imagine that I’ve probably made the film sound totally unbearable but I actually enjoyed Nina Takes A Lover.  Once I realized and accepted that Nina Takes A Lover wasn’t exactly going to reinvent cinema, I discovered that it was actually a very likable film.

Nina is played by Laura San Giacomo, who owns a shoe store.  Nina meets a man in the park.  The man (Paul Rhys) has no name and is merely identified as being “Photographer.” (And, of course, he’s British because this is an independent film and, in the world of indie cinema, all ideal lovers are British.)  Soon, Nina and Photographer are having a passionate and very physical affair.  However, Nina explains that she’s married and her husband will be home in three weeks.  Photographer says that he has a wife as well.  As Nina and the Photographer talk about love, marriage, and sex, they also try to figure out what they should do when the three weeks are up.

And, of course, it all leads to a twist that you’ve probably already figured out but you know what?  It doesn’t matter if the film is predictable because it’s just so likable.  Laura San Giacomo and Paul Rhys both give likable performances, they have a lot of chemistry, and the sex scenes are well-done and genuinely erotic.  The film may tell a familiar story but it tells it well.

Nina Takes A Lover is a good film to watch when you’ve got insomnia.  It won’t put you to sleep but it will definitely make the hours of darkness a little more pleasant.

Previous Insomnia Files:

  1. Story of Mankind
  2. Stag
  3. Love Is A Gun

Embracing the Melodrama Part II #67: Split Image (dir by Ted Kotcheff)


Split_Image_VHS_coverUnlike Desperate Lives, the 1982 melodrama Split Image is available to be viewed on YouTube.  In fact, you can watch it below and I suggest that you do so.  It’s a pretty good film and, apparently, it’s never been released on DVD or Blu-ray and it’ll probably never be available on Netflix either. So, if you’ve ever wanted to see Peter Fonda play a cult leader, your best bet is to watch the video below.

But before you watch the video, here’s a little information on Split Image, one of the best films that you’ve never heard of.

Essentially, the film follows the same plot as the Canadian film Ticket To Heaven.  A college athlete (played by Michael O’Keefe) starts dating a girl (Karen Allen) who is a member of a sinister religious cult.  Soon, O’Keefe is a brainwashed member of the cult and only answering to the name of Joshua.  (The head of the cult is played, in an appropriately spaced-out manner, by Peter Fonda.)  His parents (Brian Dennehy and Elizabeth Ashley) hire a cult deprogrammer (James Woods) to kidnap their son and break Fonda’s hold on him.  However, it turns out that Woods’ methods are almost as psychologically destructive as Fonda’s manipulation.

Even if it’s not quite as memorably creepy as Ticket To Heaven, Split Image is still a well-made film, featuring excellent performances from Dennehy, Woods, O’Keefe, and Fonda.  However, for me, the most interesting thing about Split Image is that it was largely filmed and set down here in Dallas.  Just watch the scene where Woods and his men attempt to kidnap Michael O’Keefe.  It was shot on the campus of Richland Community College, which is one of the places where I regularly go to run.

(Interestingly enough, 33 years after the release of Split Image, Richland still looks exactly the same!)

You can watch Split Image below!