“I had a mountain of student loan debt, and this job guarantees me four years of income.” Eye in the Sky

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Eye in the Sky, starring Helen Mirren, Aaron Paul, Barkhad Abdi and Alan Rickman (in one of his final performances) is about as perfect a film as I’ve seen in a long time and hands down is my favorite film of 2016 so far (though admittedly that bar is pretty low right now).

The film is a sophisticated but unpretentious examination of drone warfare in our 21st century civilization – our big blue marble, which is getting frighteningly smaller by the minute, so technologically advanced yet still so stone age barbaric.

The film, directed with economy and precision by Gavin Hood (Hood, I now can forgive you for X-Men Origins: Wolverine), is a narrative throwback to political potboilers like Three Days of the Condor, Black Sunday, or even 12 Angry Men and Judgment and Nuremberg with a healthy dose of vintage Playhouse 90 and BBC teleplays in its DNA. That’s a compliment, by the way.

Taking place in a single day, across three continents (Africa, North America, and Europe) the film’s action is constrained essentially to a board room, two “mission control”-type chambers, and one dusty town in Nairobi. It’s a rare film these days that relies on its actors to bring the slow-burn pyrotechnics, nary a green screen or lightsaber or cape in sight.

Not unlike recent true-life thriller Captain Phillips (which also featured Barkhad Abdi, in an Oscar-nominated performance), Eye in the Sky weaves cinematic tension around the tricky juxtaposition of the comfortably mundane and the horrifyingly extraordinary. Like Tom Hanks’ Phillips, the characters in Eye in the Sky have jobs to do, mortgages to pay, birthday gifts to pick up, dogs to feed, snoring spouses to ignore, food poisoning to overcome, bread to sell … all while making small and large philosophical gestures toward righting the perceived wrongs in a vast geopolitical landscape.

A ball of ethereal, blue-eyed twitch, Breaking Bad‘s Aaron Paul, who plays the Las Vegas-based drone pilot assigned to Eye in the Sky‘s particular mission, is asked by a colleague why he signed on to a military career. In a lesser film, he might have replied (with flag waving in the foreground and a vaguely patriotic theme swelling in the soundtrack), “For love of country … and freedom … and our way of life.” In Eye in the Sky, his answer? “I had a mountain of student loan debt, and this job guarantees me four years of income.” Yup.

It’s a little throwaway moment, but, coupled with similar moments (Rickman wrestling with the choice of inanely named dolls in a toy shop; Mirren padding out of bed at 4 am to feed her dog and check her email; Abdi bringing some dubious looking lunch containers to his surveillance monitoring colleague), the film offers incisive, sobering, ever-so-lightly-satiric commentary on human survival.

In the context of the film, Mirren is an intelligence operative, Rickman is British military, Paul is American military, and Abdi Kenyan intelligence/military. They are collaborating to bring down a terrorist cell on the move in Nairobi. The film opens with a pastoral depiction of a Kenyan family – father, mother, daughter – eking out a living, repairing bicycles and baking bread. The young daughter – newcomer Aisha Takow in a hauntingly subtle, heart-tuggingly luminous performance – is dutiful and bright, enjoying her hula hoop and books behind the walls of the family home, but hiding her light out of necessity when “fanatical” (her father’s words) customers come to their door. As the military (and comically inept bureaucratic) forces converge to strike down the terrorist cell next door, the easy, kind-hearted daily rituals of this little family end up in the cross-hairs (literally). I don’t want to spoil the film, but I could cry right now just typing this.

You must see this film. It is humanist. It is feminist. It is fair. There isn’t an ounce of jingoism, but it is patriotic- that is, if you see patriotism, not with the skewed xenophobic nationalist lens that has ruined the word, but as something that certain leaders must carry in their hearts and minds and actions to preserve a larger peace for us all. And the film never shies from the idea that said peace for one group has a yin/yang consequence on another group down the line. Every action has an equal and opposite reaction. Our political and military decisions carry racist, sexist, classist implications. They all come at a cost – to life on this planet and to our souls.

At the film’s conclusion, Rickman (who is a beautiful tempest of persistence and exasperation in the film) dresses down a well-intentioned bureaucrat to never doubt a military man’s (woman’s) deep awareness of the bloody price of war. That’s the genius of this film. No one is a villain; no one is a hero. Choices are made pragmatically, and it is that crushing pragmatism that tortures every character in the film. Ultimately, like us all, the characters in Eye in the Sky just hope to make it through their 9-5 days relatively unscathed, go home, take off their shoes, pet the dog, love their kids, and sleep.

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When the director of the movie you’ve just reviewed tweets out your post … #Cloud9 


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A young fan exhibiting her fabulous taste in books!

A young fan exhibiting her fabulous taste in books!

Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital). In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan.  My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

Countdown: Lee Daniels’ The Butler

From my wonderful publisher Open Books

11 days left until the official release of ReelRoyReviews, a book of film, music, and theatre reviews, by Roy Sexton!

…Holy mackerel! For one brief shining moment (probably passed already by the time you read this), Reel Roy Reviews is #1 (!) in sales on Amazon’s list of best-selling movie guides and reviews. Don’t know how long this will last, so check out the photographic proof here!

Here is a snippet from Roy’s review of The Butler: “In a summer movie season populated by superheroes, robots, anthropomorphic planes, and Jennifer Aniston, Lee Daniels’s The Butler is a welcome respite. The film is an actors’ showcase with a powerful message that we are not as far removed from systemic, institutionalized brutality and bullying as we might like to believe.”

Learn more about REEL ROY REVIEWS, VOL 1: KEEPIN’ IT REAL by Roy Sexton at http://www.open-bks.com/library/moderns/reel-roy-reviews/about-book.html. Book can also be ordered at Amazon here.

“We turn a blind eye” – Lee Daniels’ The Butler

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

“In America, we turn a blind eye to how badly we treat our own, while pointing the finger at other countries’ abuse of their people.”

I paraphrase one of the more thematically powerful statements made by Forest Whitaker as the titular character “Cecil Gaines” in Lee Daniels’ latest The Butler.

The film fictionalizes the true story of a butler in the White House who served (literally) every president from Eisenhower to Reagan.

The movie is good … quite good actually.  While not as much of an emotional gut punch as Daniels’ superior Precious, the movie embraces its melodramatic DNA and paints a compelling portrait of an African-American family unraveling at the seams against the backdrop of America’s ongoing civil rights struggles. Like Precious, however, The Butler suffers from an overly episodic structure and crazy-Love-Boat-guess-who-is-playing-the-next-cameo-role stunt casting.

(I must say, though, that Mariah Carey owes Daniels a whole lotta love for whatever magic trick he has pulled to make her seem like an accomplished actress. No lie. Glitter? A foggy, foggy memory now. A true public service to us all.)

So back to that quote. With that statement (made, unfortunately, while Whitaker and his cinematic wife Oprah Winfrey are both attired in satiny track suits – the 80s! – and saddled with some pretty dodgy old age makeup), Cecil sums up the movie’s big idea … and it’s a doozy. We are a nation of hypocrites, spreading the gospel of freedom, human rights, and dignity across the globe while depriving those self-same ideals from our own tax-paying citizenry.

The film’s structure, contrived as can be, offers point/counterpoint as Cecil interacts with a rogues’ gallery of Commanders-in-Chief, all of whom turn to Cecil at some point, asking his opinion on key moments in civil rights history (usually while he is handing them a cup of tea or something – seriously).

Simultaneously, in a feat of the kind of logic that only appears in Oscar-bait movies like this (or Forrest Gump), Cecil’s oldest son Louis is an active participant in each and every one of those key moments: he’s at the lunch counter sit-in; he’s on the Freedom Bus; he’s with Martin Luther King, Jr.; he’s a Black Panther. And, by the way, Cecil’s other son ends up enlisting for Vietnam for some inexplicable reason, mostly so the audience has a touch point for that bit of our history as well.

The fact that the film is so compelling (and doesn’t buckle under the weight of this tv-movie-esque structure) is a testament to Daniels’ exceptional cast. And what a cast! Each president (and one First Lady) get the Hollywood treatment, with the weaker links being Robin Williams as Ike and Alan Rickman as Ronnie and the best being Liev Schreiber as LBJ (I would actually watch that spin-off movie, and I don’t like LBJ) and John Cusack as Tricky Dick.

I got a big kick from Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan – there is a spiky sweetness she brings to the brief minutes she is onscreen. Because of Daniels, I’ve become a fan of Lenny Kravitz as an actor (never much cared for him as a musician). Kravitz, as one of Cecil’s fellow White House butlers, is by no means a master thespian but he has presence – warm, welcoming, and good with a quip. Cuba Gooding, Jr., on the other hand, as another colleague of Cecil’s is grating, which is as much a function of his unnecessarily vulgar lines as of his performance.

Whitaker and Winfrey are the film’s heart. The best moments of the film are those depicting them as husband and wife, consumed by the caustic sadness and bitter anger generated living in a world that marginalizes their humanity while draining their souls.

I’m not necessarily a fan of either performer; I often find them hammy and self-absorbed, but in this film they are both grounded and compelling, with their more indulgent tendencies a welcome flourish on an, at times, overripe script.

In a summer movie season populated by superheroes, robots, anthropomorphic planes, and … Jennifer Aniston, Lee Daniels’ The Butler is a welcome respite. The film is an actors’ showcase with a powerful message that we are not as far removed from systemic, institutionalized brutality and bullying as we might like to believe.