“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.

A prurient taste for Penthouse Magazine and red-headed nursemaids? The Theory of Everything

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Stephen Hawking is a bit of a pig (with apologies to our swine brethren). At least that is one takeaway from The Theory of Everything, James Marsh’s biopic of A Brief History of Time‘s famed physicist author.

Despite (or perhaps because of) the profound physical limitations that ALS (“Lou Gehrig’s Disease”) imposed on his keen, unearthly scientific intellect, Hawking apparently always remained a bit of a 1960s Cambridge “lad” with a prurient taste for Penthouse Magazine and red-headed nursemaids.

This aspect of Hawking’s personality isn’t as prominent in the film as that lead-in might suggest, but it still stands in stark relief to the thirty-year devotion his first wife Jane offers him, from his early days struggling with the disease through the publication of his seminal work. Jane doesn’t suffer silently, though, as she herself is depicted as toying with an extra-marital dalliance with her church choir director (sweetly underplayed by Stardust‘s Charlie Cox), whom she later marries. (Someday, someone has to make a movie about how many trysts start off in the church choir.) Marsh, working from a screenplay by Anthony McCarten based on Jane’s own Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen, does not shy from showing Hawking as a flawed but brilliant man.

The best weapon in Marsh’s cinematic arsenal is Eddie Redmayne (Les Miserables) in a jaw-droppingly transformational performance as Hawking. Redmayne, never showy in that “I’m not an animal!” Elephant Man way, immerses himself … no, subsumes himself … in Hawking’s evolutionary physicality, from the occasional stutter step and cramped hand of his early 20s to the fetal crab-like nature of his present life. It is astonishing. Yet, the impish light never leaves Redmayne’s eyes, conveying Hawking’s exceptional genius, when the script fails to give us much scientific substance behind his discoveries.

In general, the Hollywood biopic is a flawed genre, cursed from its inception to cram a lifetime into two-plus hours. People become ciphers, reduced to a CliffsNotes existences, as hairstyles and fashion choices and home furnishings magically change around them, decade by decade.

Like such recent examples as Helen Mirren in The Queen or Michelle Williams in My Life with Marilyn (or even Judi Dench in Philomenablech), Redmayne rises above a predictable “based on true events” script that tends to telegraph its punches. Look! Young Stephen drops a piece of chalk. Look! Hunky choir director is making goo-goo eyes at his new mezzo soprano Jane Hawking. Look! Marital tension boils over at a garden party Christening where Stephen’s parents confront both son and daughter-in-law separately about their life choices, foreshadowing their ultimate implosion. Redmayne so fully inhabits Hawking’s inner/outer life that we (mostly) look past the workmanlike narrative.

Every bit Redmayne’s acting match is Felicity Jones (Northanger Abbey) as Stephen’s long-suffering wife. It is to Jones’ credit that she never descends into self-pity or martyrdom, but rather reveals a multi-layered person whose path has brought a mixed bag of reward, betrayal, fulfillment, and disappointment. The script saddles Redmayne and Jones throughout with a half-baked debate over science versus spirituality, unfortunately never resolved in any particularly meaningful way.

Rounding out the cast are David Thewlis as Stephen’s long-term faculty mentor and a criminally under-used Emily Watson (oh, I love her) as Jane’s patient mother.

The film is beautifully shot in gauzy light, like a box of old photographs. The approach suits the woozy material well, which spans thirty-or-so years, from the early 1960s to the mid-1980s. The filmmakers generally get the feel and look of each decade right – Cambridge in the Hawkings’ early days serves as a kind of shabby Camelot fairy tale setting, replaced later by garish, clunky 80s environs as their marriage crumbles.

I wish that I loved The Theory of Everything. It is supremely well-acted, but ultimately the conventionality of the narrative hurts the film’s overall impact. I found myself deeply moved by Redmayne and Jones but left a bit cold where Mr. Hawking himself is concerned. Perhaps that is the film’s point after all (though not a groundbreaking revelation) … all genius comes at a price, and the act of discovery is often much more interesting than the final summation.

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Reel Roy Reviews is now a book! Thanks to BroadwayWorld for this coverage – click here to view. In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the book currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common 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.

Easter weekend of lost souls: Hitchcock, Phil Spector, and The Girl

Description: Film poster; Source: blog.zap2it.com [linked]; Portion used: Film poster only; Low resolution? Sufficient resolution for illustration, but considerably lower resolution than original. Other information: Intellectual property by film studio. Non-free media use rationales: Non-free media use rationale - Article/review; Purpose of use: Used for purposes of critical commentary and illustration in an educational article about the film. The poster is used as the primary means of visual identification of this article topic. Replaceable? Protected by copyright, therefore a free use alternative won't exist.

[Image Source: blog.zap2it.com]

As I have noted previously, holidays with my parents tend to be spent in a darkened movie theatre between marathon rounds of canasta, computer maintenance, and the finest dining small-town Indiana can muster.

This weekend was no exception…well, sort of an exception. The movies were present, but in a darkened living room, after an emergency late night trip to the local Wal-Mart to replace a malfunctioning VCR/DVD combo player. (And a futile argument with the salesman as to whether or not I needed something called an RF tuner. He said no. I said yes. Two subsequent trips later, I was right.)

So how did we spend this unusual holiday when Easter/Passover/April Fool’s converged (not to mention my dad’s birthday)? How else but with three films about two haunted auteurs and the women who loved/loathed/enabled them.

The usually redoubtable HBO Films stumbles a bit with their take on Phil Spector and his infamous murder trial. That is not to say that stars Al Pacino in the title role and Helen Mirren as his legal counsel  are bad. In fact, both, saddled as they are in the movie with a rather unfortunate series of wigs, are excellent.

The TV biopic is at its strongest, in fact, when just the two leads are onscreen with the looney tunes Spector/Pacino winning over Mirren’s character with his charming misunderstood/misanthropic pop artist routines. Both actors exude warmth, with Mirren offering a flinty empathy illuminating nicely the genius of the David Mamet-penned monologues Pacino brilliantly delivers.

What’s wrong with the movie? A script that stretches about 35 minutes of sparkling dialogue/interplay between the two stars into about 90 minutes of procedural dullness. However, Mirren and Pacino both make this one worth watching, shining sympathetic light into the dark mind of a man whose musical genius emanated from the very outsider-stance that finished him off.

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Speaking of intellectual misfits, our Friday-night double feature concluded with one of two 2012 cinematic takes on the life of Alfred Hitchcock – Hitchcock starring Anthony Hopkins in the title role and Helen Mirren (again) as his wife Alma Reville. Again, this is not a great film but does benefit from a couple of remarkable performances by two accomplished thespians.

Hopkins should have abandoned the poor make-up job that makes him look more like Danny DeVito’s “Penguin” from Batman Returns than the Master of Suspense as, otherwise, his performance is exceptional with voice, walk, and spirit all spot-on.

But this is Mirren’s show as the long-suffering but equally talented wife, without whom Hitchcock’s many masterpieces might have been half-baked pot boilers and cheap thrillers. Alma endures countless indignities as Hitch obsesses over his famed adaptation of Psycho and fawns over and/or tortures his young starlets. The starlets in question are thinly-written takes on Janet Leigh and Vera Miles, performed adequately by Scarlett Johansson and Jessical Biel, respectively … who don’t look a darn thing like Leigh or Miles, respectfully.

Description: Film poster; Source: Wikipedia [linked]; Portion used: Film poster only; Low resolution? Sufficient resolution for illustration, but considerably lower resolution than original. Other information: Intellectual property by film studio. Non-free media use rationales: Non-free media use rationale - Article/review; Purpose of use: Used for purposes of critical commentary and illustration in an educational article about the film. The poster is used as the primary means of visual identification of this article topic. Replaceable? Protected by copyright, therefore a free use alternative won't exist.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Saturday night, we completed our run through the lives of tortured artists with another HBO film The Girl, also about Hitchcock and his creepy preoccupation with icy blonde actresses. This movie was the best of the lot.

Toby Jones, who also found himself a few years back at the short end (no pun intended) of two competing biopics (Truman Capote), is incredible as Hitchcock. His Hitch is deeply haunted by a point of view and a physical appearance that puts him at odds perpetually with Hollywood glamor. And Sienna Miller achieves the impossible by making actress Tippi Hedren … well … interesting.

The Girl paints a compelling portrait of a man – Hitchcock – who attempts to make sense of his aversion to humanity and his self-loathing by playing puppet master over the beautiful people surrounding him. Also, this one does the best job of depicting the technical and artistic challenges of the creative process, offering great behind-the-scenes info on the making of both The Birds and Marnie.

All three films – Phil Spector, Hitchcock, and The Girl taken collectively – leave the viewer with revulsion for yet admiration of the creative genius. These men are “outsiders-forever-looking-in” whose contempt for humanity’s follies and foibles provide them immense gifts to enrich the lives and culture of that self-same humanity, yet leaving the artists themselves forever unfulfilled and broken.