Review: Nocturnal Animals (2016)

Director: Tom Ford

****

What a strange beast Nocturnal Animals is.

Like so many creatures that emerge in the darkness, it’s at once alluring and repulsive, and thoroughly unpredictable. That’s entirely the point, of course; to follow his stylish and moving debut A Single Man, fashion designer-turned-writer/director Tom Ford has made a film of contradictions, where truth and artifice constantly switch roles. In adapting Austin Wright’s 1993 novel Tony and Susan, Ford has produced something lurid and provocative, but still with that pronounced style that defined his first film. The style’s a lure, though. This is a film that’s twisted in both content and form. There are narratives within narratives, whose brightly-lit worlds are deceptive and whose strangest sights bring their own kind of beauty.

The opening credits are a good example of Ford’s methodology here. The credits are backgrounded by a series of obese women dancing naked. The women are set against a velvety red wall that envelops the screen in warmth, thanks to the efforts of DoP Seamus McGarvey. Thanks to the oft-garish colours and another sumptuous string-led score from Abel Korzeniowski, beauty can be found even in so unorthodox a sight. The dancing women are part of an exhibit being put together by gallery owner Susan Morrow. The role of Morrow sees Amy Adams exchange her natural charm for excess make-up, horn-rimmed glasses and a cold demeanour, as Morrow’s dissatisfied with her pristine L.A. life.

Susan’s pretty house, prettier boyfriend (Armie Hammer) and obvious wealth cannot dispel her angsty fog. Indeed, this fog seems to cover the Los Angeles of Nocturnal Animals. An early aerial shot of the city at night shines a bright light on its skyscrapers, leaving the streets in the dark, like an eerie alien landscape. For all the colours McGarvey can bring to the city, it’s intentionally cold to the touch. All is artifice in Ford’s vision of L.A., from every overly made-up face to the jangling jewellery worn by a near-unrecognisable Andrea Riseborough. Indeed, the polish can feel excessive at first, lapsing into silliness, but as time goes on, this feeds into Ford’s point.

Instead of harsh realities, we get a delivery of very harsh fiction. Susan is sent a draft of a novel from her ex-husband Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal), a piece of hard-boiled crime drama entitled ‘Nocturnal Animals’, which he’s dedicated to her. Like Wright’s original novel, the film plunges into this book’s narrative, in which Tony (Gyllenhaal again) goes through a night of hell travelling through rural Texas, as he and his wife (Isla Fisher) and daughter (Ellie Bamber) are menaced and tortured by a band of rednecks, led by Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s Ray. Their initial encounter is a prolonged and masterful exercise in tension, as Ray’s gang drive the family car off the road and proceed to psychologically torture their quarry. Tony’s inability to do anything about it is matched only by the anxiety that never stops building behind him. Nocturnal Animals is a film about weakness and insecurity, male weakness especially. Nocturnal animals prey on the weak.

The novel’s narrative brings a change in look and feel, going from polished galleries to the parched Texas sands. The book’s story is foreboding and cruel, and the shift in style feels the same way at first. The intertwining of narrative strands between Susan’s life, the novel, and flashbacks to hers and Edward’s marriage initially jar. Shifts between L.A. and the novel are usually signalled by Susan dropping the manuscript in a horrified daze. Yet, as Tony and Sheriff Andes (Michael Shannon, charm and accent as thick as molasses) chase the wrongdoers, and the switches between Hollywood glam and Hell Or High Water-alike grit become more frequent, they also begin to gel. Edward has dedicated his book to Susan for a reason, and her memories of him grow increasingly melancholy. This is by Edward’s design, though. Nocturnal Animals is a testament to the liberating power of creativity, as Edward expresses his darkest feelings to Susan using this narrative, a method he never could have used before their divorce. The weakness is dispelled by his creative strength.

Ford plays fast and loose with expectations throughout Nocturnal Animals. While he admirably keeps the interloping structure of narratives from the source novel, he also makes changes to accentuate the tonal shifts. In the novel, Morrow was a teacher and mother of three; in Ford’s world, she has only a floundering relationship and failing gallery to her name. These changes, these exaggerations, add an extra punch when emotion and violence do come to the fore. This and Andrew Dominik’s documentary on Nick Cave, One More Time With Feeling, would make an excellent double-bill treatise on how great creativity can be triggered by intense trauma. (All this begs the question: is Ford working out a weakness of his own in this adaptation? It hardly matters. This is a film that will offer wildly different ideas and meanings to different viewers)

It’s a tribute to Gyllenhaal and Adams that they keep the audience invested, even as tones and timelines pinball wildly. Both impress in roles that see them put aside natural charisma for broken people, whose pain is etched in every grimace. The eccentricities of the film’s look and tone extend to the supporting cast. What Michael Sheen or Laura Linney (A vision in pearls and a Southern-fried accent as Susan’s mother) are doing here is anyone’s guess, but they add undeniable flavours. Best of the bunch is Taylor-Johnson, delivering levels of ever-present menace many would have thought beyond him (Remember him as the leading man in Godzilla? Nope, us neither.)

What Ford has done here, as both writer and director, is remarkable. On the surface, Nocturnal Animals is over-stylized and potentially devoid of empathy. Yet, as it goes on, it forges its own path, keeping the style while making its angst more relatable and palpable. It’s a sleight of hand that’s both blatant in its machinations, yet surprising in its emotional power. The vividness of its colours and the horrors of its violence ensure a place in the memory, but there are levels at work here that mean Nocturnal Animals’ deeper meanings could sneak up on you when you least expect it.

Review: Louder Than Bombs (2015)

Director: Joachim Trier

*****

This review was originally published on Scannain.com

Louder Than Bombs is a ghost story. Throughout director Joachim Trier’s English-language debut, the presence of war photographer Isabelle Reed (Isabelle Huppert) is only ever felt from a distance. Three years after her death, she speaks from the afterlife in flashbacks, remembrances and voiceovers. Louder Than Bombs is a beautifully constructed collage of these elements; it’s a determinedly impressionistic work, using fragments from the people broken by Isabelle’s death to put together a mosaic of a woman they may never have fully known. This arrangement of memories plays out without recourse to big drama or hysterics; this is less a emotional display than an emotional dissection.

Like all ghosts, Isabelle is overseeing the completion of unfinished business. She left behind a lot more collateral damage than just the car she was driving when it ploughed head-on into a truck. Three men are still reeling from her passing. Her husband Gene (Gabriel Byrne) is struggling to forge a connection with their son Conrad (Devin Druid), whilst older son Jonah (Jesse Eisenberg) has just become a father for the first time. Their grief after Isabelle’s death, restrained as it is, means their lives feel fragmented, occurring in individual moments. Sometimes, in the middle of an action, they just leave to zone out of the moment. Failing that,  memories of their wife and mother intrude on the narrative. The film opens with Jonah holding his newborn child; the infant clutches its father’s finger in a poignant Malick-ian close-up. The moment only lasts so long, however, and Jonah leaves his wife’s (Megan Ketch) bedside in search of coffee as an excuse for an escape. It sounds harsh, but Louder Than Bombs is rarely less than truthful in its portrait of sublimated grief.

The themes and narratives of Louder Than Bombs are explored with such a level of detail and restraint that it feels like a film only Trier could have made. Even though this is his first English-language feature, Trier brings a confidence and professionalism to the film straight out of his previous works, Reprise and Oslo, August 31st. Teaming up once more with regular collaborators like cinematographer Jakob Ihre and composer OIa Fløttum does help, but even without them, or the decidedly European tones of Huppert and Byrne, the film benefits from an introspectiveness more closely associated with French or German cinema. There are few moments of explosive anger or revelation. Instead, truth comes home in the tenderness of the smallest familial moments. The precious memories that Trier and co-writer Eskil Vogt weave in and out of the narrative say more about why these men grieve than any outburst. Conrad falls asleep on Isabelle’s shoulder on a car journey. Gene shares a laugh with her about a colleague’s smoking habits. Jonah recalls a visit she made to him at his college dorm. There is humanity both in these moments and in their insistent interjection. When we want to escape the present, we remember the best of the past. Trier and Vogt find a poetry in the script that sees moments and lines get repeated in completely separate contexts. Over the course of the film, all three leading men find their love lives being complicated by professionalism (Gene starts dating Conrad’s teacher Hannah, played by Amy Ryan), old passions (Jonah reconnects with an ex (Rachel Brosnahan) and social strata (Conrad’s crush on classmate Melanie (Ruby Jerins) goes unrequited out of shyness). Throughout these travails, echoes of dialogue and direction remind us that these men have similar approaches to the women in their lives. By nature, nurture and the gift of a layered screenplay, they are inescapably each other’s kin.

The narrative drive in Louder Than Bombs comes from a proposal by Isabelle’s colleague Richard (David Strathairn) to write a column about her for the New York Times ahead of a retrospective exhibition of her work. This forces Gene and Jonah into a quandary about whether or not to come clean to Conrad about her death. The film flits between the equal possibilities of Isabelle’s death being either an accident or suicide. It’s a question that derails what fragile momentum these men have maintained in the three years since, but all three actors sell the pain quite admirably. Eisenberg gives his most compellingly confident turn yet, maintaining a high-wire act between likeable and all-out jerk without nervous tics or bumbling limbs. Relative newcomer Druid boasts an impressive degree of necessary restraint to sell Conrad’s hidden turmoil, and Byrne’s burdened melancholia is a pleasant reminder of his top-notch work on In Treatment. Huppert helps Trier maintain a distance between Isabelle and everyone else with a turn of inscrutability and silent despair. She’s unknowable, almost to the point that she seems clichéd. Yet this is exactly Trier’s point; the image we get of Isabelle is always through a lens of grief and memory. We only ever see her husband and sons’ recollection; they knew so much about her, and yet it’s never the whole story. A shot of Huppert in close-up looking at the camera is given a violet tint, suggesting she’s behind a pane of glass. Her character’s choice of profession is not random; Louder Than Bombs is all about the images we capture of those closest to us, whether in photographs, memories or on film. We can see every freckle on Isabelle’s face, but she’s only a ghost. Our memories introduce a nebulous filter to obscure the full picture.

Decisions like that pane of glass contribute to a deliciously detailed film. Trier fills the film with camera moves, positions and framing devices of such potential that a second viewing will be required to unpack it all. Scenes will unfold twice over, but from different angles, in order to bring clarity to these fragmented moments. They unfold with style in isolation, but they gain new power in the bigger picture. Louder Than Bombs does a remarkable thing; it observes its characters with a focused and unobtrusive eye. Trier allows the characters to make their own decisions and mistakes, and to be their own judges. This in turn allows you, the grown-ups in the audience, to draw your own conclusions. Trier’s got too much respect for his characters and audience to talk down to them.

Review: Everybody Wants Some!! (2016)

Director: Richard Linklater

****

This review was originally published on Scannain.com

The title Everybody Wants Some!!, borrowed from the Van Halen song that features on the soundtrack, sums up the freewheeling positivity that rests at the film’s core, as underlined by both exclamation points (Get some! And then get some more!). Following the dramatic heights writer/director Richard Linklater explored in Before Midnight and Boyhood, we get a down-to-earth romp that largely eschews conflict in favour of a breezy pace and genuine characters. As proved in Dazed and Confused (to which this has been rightly deemed a ‘spiritual sequel’), few directors can make a lack of narrative drive work as well as Linklater. There may not be tension, but camaraderie and laughs more than fill the gap.

The film pins its setting down in the opening shot, as freshman baseball player Jake (Blake Jenner) drives his ‘72 Oldsmobile to his new college dorm house. Though set in 1980, the design (Bruce Curtis’ production, Kari Perkins’ costumes) is full of ‘70s touches, as the preceding decade has yet to give way to the next. LPs are still the way to listen to music, the t-shirts are tight and the jeans are still bell-bottomed. There is an investment in all concerned to get the details right, especially on Linklater’s part. The film is based on his own experiences in college as a baseball player, so he knows this milieu and this time. By staying true to his experience, and the characters he’s created, he ensures the film feels fresh, never forced or over the top. We’re watching a bunch of guys hang out, get drunk and chat up girls, with nothing like prejudice or irony getting in their way.

Jake arrives at the dorm to be greeted by nominal alphas Roper (Ryan Guzman) and McReynolds (Tyler Hoechlin, with a ‘tache that makes him resemble the impossible offspring of Matthew McConaughey and Freddie Mercury). These batsmen’s initial standoffishness against this new pitcher threatens to sour proceedings, but they gradually warm to the new freshman in their crew as they prepare to party the weekend away before the new school year starts. Their thawing and acceptance is ultimately what Everybody Wants Some!! is all about: accepting new circumstances and going with it. Jake arrives in the house to find a waterbed filling up, the acrid smell of weed in the air and everyone just being themselves. The battinage between the housemates is sometimes merciless (The naivete of farmboy Beuter (Will Brittain) lends him to being mocked early on), but mostly jovial. Drinks are poured (“Cheers for the beers!”), jokes are told and songs are sung together. It’s a testament to the cast’s chemistry and the cracking soundtrack that you’ll find yourself singing along as the boys put their own spin on ‘Rapper’s Delight’.

Compared other campus comedies, that may trade in basic stereotypes, Everybody Wants Some!! is surprisingly generous in its characterisations and viewpoints. Our central baseball team are not generic athletic jocks; they come with the (allegedly rare) ability to string more than two syllables together and chat with all and sundry that come their way. The boys may be driven by twinned desires for booze and sex, but it never mutates them into sexists or (*shudder*) bros. Instead, Linklater plays with expectations in two clever ways. Firstly, the film spends as much time idealising and ogling its male cast as much as it does the females. The short and tight fashions of the day ensure that eye candy is available for all tastes. The film acts as a celebration of halcyon days, when the sun shines brightly, everyone is attractive and no-one is left out (J. Quinton Johnson’s status as the only African-American in the group is refreshingly unremarked upon). As long as you’re up for some fun, you’re welcome here. Secondly, Linklater mocks the fratty atmos by constantly pitching our cast against each other. Having been thrown together, these athletes feel the need to compete in any way possible, be it table tennis, foosball or drinking. This allows Linklater to undermine the effects of the testosterone-drenched atmosphere with commonsense moments of fun and friendship. As the weekend goes on, the boys drop pretense to partake in the fun to be found in line-dancing and a makeshift mosh pit. Why fight, when you can share a beer? Why berate, when you can advise? It might be idealistic, but you’ll probably be grinning too hard to care.

This vision of college life would have been too hard to swallow were it not for the efforts of the cast. Much as Dazed and Confused put the likes of Ben Affleck and Parker Posey on the map, Everybody Wants Some!! is bound to boost the careers of most of its line-up. Johnson and Wyatt Russell (son of Kurt, playing resident stoner Willoughby) prove immensely amiable foils to the alpha-male stylings of Hoechlin or Guzman. Glen Powell is a frontrunner for MVP, excelling as smooth pack leader Finn, whose confidence never becomes cockiness. By comparison, nominal lead Jenner can seem a little bland at first, but that might be by design. Jake only begins to come into his own when he begins to date theatre major Beverly (Zoey Deutch, another star in the making). True, Beverly is the only major female character in the film, but she’s as full of life and character as any of Jake’s new pals. Their scenes centre on discussions rather than flirtations, with Jenner and Deutch delightfully introducing moments of doubt and tenderness. Everybody Wants Some!! may be a story from one young man’s POV, but it’s a story in which no ill will is borne, and in which all, boys and girls alike, just wanna have fun.

Review: Miles Ahead (2016)

Director: Don Cheadle

**

This review was originally published on Scannain.com

“Don’t call it jazz, man. That’s some made-up word.” This is the advice given by Miles Davis (Don Cheadle) when journalist Dave Brill (Ewan McGregor) attempts to label his music as such (Davis’ suggestion? “It’s social music.”). Similarly, whatever you say about Miles Ahead, don’t call it a biopic. Clearly born of a deep passion for Davis’ music, Miles Ahead takes inspiration from its subject by refusing to cleave to a template. (How anyone can want to stick to standard portrayals of musical lives onscreen after Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story skewered the whole genre is baffling). Yet for all its style and clear admiration, Miles Ahead is stuck in some kind of rut; it sticks to the tune for as long as it can tolerate, and then begins making up completely new notes. It’s daring, but the tune ends up sounding awkward and choppy.

Putting the lives of musicians on film comes with a great degree of prestigious and structural baggage, often seen as a quick way towards awards glory and acclaim. The formula (Early days, success, excess and redemption are covered, in that order) works to a point, but the most memorable films of this ilk are the ones that break the mould. From Amadeus to I’m Not There., musical genius requires filmmaking genius to match. Thus, Cheadle has saddled himself with a particular challenge for his debut behind the camera. We’re introduced to Davis in the film in his retirement of the mid-1970s. More specifically, we’re watching him and Brill being chased down a New York street by an oncoming car with a handgun poking out the window. The concept behind Miles Ahead is a portrayal of Davis as a gangster-like figure, with this particular ‘70s-set foray portraying him as a particularly mean and vicious down-and-out. In the title role, Cheadle immerses himself in the part from the first frame, unafraid to grapple with the abrasiveness and drug-fuelled paranoia that defined Davis in the late 1970s. Of course, this is just half the story. Try as Cheadle might, he is ultimately forced to recourse to flashbacks to the various stages of Davis’ life and career from the early 1940s to the early 1960s.

As reticent as Cheadle might be towards their conventionality, the scenes of Davis’ early career are when Miles Ahead works best. Scenes of Davis in the studio offer glimpses of an artist at once improvisational and in control. All the best art makes that which seems freeform seem effortless, despite the hard work that has gone into making it. Cheadle absolutely nails Davis’ passion whilst playing music, his ease when on stage, and his abrasiveness in most other aspects of his life. Miles Ahead takes care not to smooth its subject’s rough edges. The film boasts plenty of colour and energy, but never at the expense of Davis’ imposing character. Taking the brunt of his tumultuous behaviour is his first wife, Frances Taylor. In the role of Taylor, Emayatzy Corinealdi delivers a breakout performance. This woman gave up a lot out of love, but there is a refusal to paint her as a victim here. Corinealdi’s scenes with Cheadle are the film’s highlights; on this evidence, one can only wish this material might be revisited to present a George-and-Martha-alike standoff. Their moments are when Miles Ahead feels most engaging, not least because these scenes are its most honest.

In the ‘70s segment, Davis finds Brill on his doorstep one morning looking for an interview. A punch to the face, some bumbling and a misunderstanding later, and Davis has Brill in tow to Columbia Records’ offices, pulling a gun on executives for not paying up a previously-agreed retainer. These events are a combination of fact (the retainer), hearsay (Davis’ temper) and all-out fantasy. Brill is a creation of Cheadle and co-writer Steven Baigelman, as is the vast majority of the ‘70s-set events. The eventual theft of a master recording of new material from Davis’ apartment sees Davis and Brill off on a Starsky and Hutch-aping cross-city jaunt to find the culprit (A weasley music producer, played by a miscast Michael Stuhlbarg). This combination of fact and fiction only serves to leave the viewer wishing for these two films and plotlines to be separated. One might have been conventional, and the other just plain odd, but at least they wouldn’t have ended up strangling each other. Miles Ahead’s structure is a manifestation of Cheadle’s commitment to Davis’ improvisational style. This isn’t a jazz biopic; it’s jazz fusion. It’s just a pity that the fusion of genres and plots doesn’t translate into anything approaching harmony.

 

Review: High-Rise (2016)

Director: Ben Wheatley

**

This review was originally published on Scannain.com

The story of a high-tech apartment block slowly falling apart under the weight of shoddy workmanship and crumbling expectations? Critics won’t find a more apt metaphor for reviewing High-Rise than the one supplied by the film itself.

Going through Ben Wheatley’s High-Rise is like a journey though a 40-storey tower block, only in reverse, starting at the top. The plush penthouse is furnished and decorated sumptuously, but it’s only as we work our way down through the structure that the cracks begin to appear. The solid foundation on which all this is built is J.G. Ballard’s 1975 novel, a typically sharp satire on the manipulative effect of modern lifestyles. The various classes and cliques of an ultra-modern apartment block turn on one another in an orgiastic venting of primal urges. Based on that pitch alone, it’s clear that an adaptation was going to be difficult. It needed to be lurid yet sharp, a balance of which few directors would seem capable. When the project was announced, the fact that it was coming from the director of such violently esoteric works as Kill List and A Field In England was comforting. Perhaps this would do justice to the Ballard’s vision, a vision that producer Jeremy Thomas had tried to bring to cinematic life since the novel was first published. This structure is burdened with high hopes.

The first scene suggests success. The film opens, as does the novel, with Dr. Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston) tucking into the hind leg of a dog. His apartment bears the marks of a long descent from stress-free living into anarchy. Laing, a resident of the 25th floor, is our guide through the morass of a building that was to be a beacon of civilization, as per the designs of architect/penthouse resident Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons). Irons’ presence (Cast Irons? There’s a gag there somewhere…) and Ballard’s text can’t but evoke allusions to David Cronenberg. Alas, the comparisons do High-Rise few favours. Cronenberg made his own high-rise horror, Shivers, the same year that Ballard’s novel was released. Its vision of a tower block tearing itself apart in a frenzy is barmy fun, but not a lot has changed in the stakes of localized anarchy. Its polished surfaces and gleaming swimming pools can be seen in High-Rise, albeit as much a result of coincidence as influence, but it goes to show that the thematic richness of the novel may have been milked long before now. As if to hammer home the point, Amy Jump’s script locates the action in the late 1970s. This decision allows DoP Laurie Rose and production designer Mark Tildesley to show off their skills. The garish world of shag carpets and yellow kitchen panelling is illuminated by narrow windows and round-funneled lamps. It’s pitch-perfect design for the period, but the 1970s stylings insist on themselves to such an extent that any possibility of modern relevance is smothered in furs.

The greater, and more damaging, Cronenberg-Ballard connection is Crash. The Canadian auteur’s symphorophilic thriller is definitively jet-black, even darker than Ballard’s 1973 tome on which it’s based. The fact the film was made was impressive enough, but then there’s little that compares to Crash in its narrative or its transgressions. Ballard’s eerie architectural detachment can be seen in the works of many artists, from Bret Easton Ellis to David Fincher. The aggressiveness of Wheatley’s earlier works, Down Terrace and Kill List, suggest he could at least grapple with the savagery of High-Rise’s source novel. There’s no lack of bloodshed, but it all happens within an over-designed setting that has little purpose other than to call attention to itself. The affectations of High-Rise, whether the period setting, choppy acting or wandering narrative, deny the film the muscularity it needs to carry home any convincing themes. An early scene sees Dr. Laing giving his medical students a lecture on dissection. As he digs into a cranium, he cartoonishly peels off the face to reveal the skull’s structure. Tonally, this feels far closer to Wheatley’s comic sojourn Sightseers than it ever does to Kill List. The metaphors are there, but High-Rise feels too comic when it should deliver a killer blow.

As Laing, Hiddleston is our way into this complex full of complexes, but he’s perhaps a little too polished and chipper, lacking the menace to sell Laing as just another mind about to succumb to the ego. More watchable are Irons’ hammy omnipotence and Sienna Miller’s unchecked vampishness as Laing’s neighbour/lover Charlotte. The tower block is full of actors with potential, but the potential is only realised on occassion; for every solid Elisabeth Moss, there’s a hammy James Purefoy lurking nearby. The cast’s MVP is Luke Evans, delivering a star turn as Wilder, a lower-dwelling resident and documentarian determined to investigate why the tower’s residents are turning on each other. It’s apt that Evans’ performance is the strongest here; his character is the one in search of the truth, but his eventual failure in that regard is also the failure of High-Rise. There’s never any sense that there’s any good reason architecturally, psychologically or financially for Royal’s sky-high experiment to fail. The second act of the film feels less like a narrative and more like a long montage of power failures, fighting and looting. It all goes on so long that the third act rolls in like an inert piece of fast food, undigested and blatantly artificial. Ballard’s novel brought smarts and shocks; Wheatley barely manages the latter. By the time the voice of Margaret Thatcher crackles on the soundtrack before the credits roll, it’s become clear that High-Rise is stuck in a time warp. That might be a great cue for Portishead to deliver an oddly moving take on ABBA’s ‘S.O.S.’, but it’s not enough of a hook on which to hang a Ballard adaptation. The lights are on, but this block’s been long since vacated.

Review: Eye In The Sky (2015)

Director: Gavin Hood

****

This review was originally published on Scannain.com

Drone warfare sounds like a simple practice. Isolate your target, focus on it, and then attack. The benefit is one of distance; we can witness collateral damage without getting our hands dirty. Gavin Hood’s Eye In The Sky takes a similar approach in its examination of drone attacks; it’s effectively simple, but its focus on its target is unwavering. Last year, Andrew Niccol’s Good Kill tried (and failed) to grapple with the moral dilemmas facing those engaged in drone warfare. This time around, Gavin Hood’s film cuts out most superfluousness, and is more keen to raise questions than force trite answers on an audience it’s keen to make complicit.

The opening title card is followed by a quote from Aeschylus, “In war, truth is the first casualty.” Besides being a common misattribution, it’s disingenuous towards the characters in the film; despite the ripe geopolitical setting and narrative, this isn’t mired in lies and corruption. Quite the opposite; it’s about people doing their best to swallow horrible truths. One has to wonder how often it happens (if at all) that a drone team comes face-to-face with decisions like the ones encountered in Eye In The Sky. When drone pilots Watts (Aaron Paul) and Gershon (Phoebe Fox) are confronted with all too human a face in their line of fire, politics, public protection and basic human decency clash in an admirably-calibrated race against time.

The drone pilots are based in the Nevada desert, about to execute a joint U.S.-U.K. operation in far-flung Nairobi under the London-based command of Colonel Powell. Powell is played by Helen Mirren, easily justifying stepping into a role originally written for a man, and not for the first time either. She lends an authoritarian grace to any role, and Colonel Powell demands it. As soon as you see her onscreen in her uniform, you buy the Colonel’s no-nonsense tack completely. The mere presence of a given actor does so much for a character, and Eye In The Sky is full of actors who sell their roles with little more than a look or a syllable. A notable example here is Alan Rickman, to whose memory the film is dedicated. As government liaison Lt. Gen. Benson, Rickman bears his uniform with the sighful disdain that became one of his trademarks. The sighs come readily, as Benson joins the defence secretary (Jeremy Northam), the Attorney General (Richard McCabe) and a legal counsel (Monica Dolan) to oversee the Nairobi raid. A meeting of high level al-Shabab leaders offers a prime opportunity to capture a British-born terrorist alive. As Western Europe recovers from another extremist attack, Eye In The Sky is well aware of its prescience, and it certainly can’t be accused of being flippant.

The film starts slowly, almost unremarkably. Character introductions paint a banal routine. Powell gets out of bed for work, as does Watts. Benson shops awkwardly for a gift for his daughter (Rickman’s trademark droll pronunciations offer much-needed levity throughout). Before all of those, however, we are introduced to little Alia (Aisha Takow). This photogenically adorable young girl puts a too-human face on the mission. The Al-Shabab meeting relocates to a house beside hers in a fundamentalist-controlled suburb, and when it becomes clear that the attendees are ready-to-go suicide bombers, an arrest is no longer an option. With the exception of Barkhad Abdi’s ground agent tailing the would-be bombers, everyone is watching with the perceived shield of distance. That shield can no longer save them from an unforeseen moral dilemma. Thus, the audience is cleverly placed into the character’s shoes; observation does not exclude you from participation.

Over the course of the film, Hood’s direction veers between unremarkable (The first act) and manipulative (The last five minutes, featuring overuse of dramatic slo-mo), but the tight, tense midsection brings out his best. Screenwriter Guy Hibbert can craft political drama (His credits include the Northern Ireland-set Five Minutes of Heaven and Omagh), but it’s not at the expense of classic Hitchcockian suspense. As direction is sought from the Prime Minister and Foreign Minister, time ticks on, the bombers continue their preparations, and we’re never allowed to forget the little girl sat outside her house trying to sell bread. Eye In The Sky is a good old-fashioned race against time, and a fascinating military critique to boot. Ultimately, this sees the U.S. and British armies held up by one little girl. At one point, Benson says “Never tell a soldier that he does not know the cost of war.” The line is delivered with Rickman’s unmistakable gravity; besides showing how much we will miss him, it’s also Eye In The Sky in a nutshell. There’s a cost to these exploits, and most of us will be lucky enough not to have to pay for it ourselves.

Review: Midnight Special (2016)

Director: Jeff Nichols

***

This review was originally published on Scannain.com

Look at a trailer or poster for Midnight Special, and the name of one director will spring to mind. It’s unlikely to be that of its own director (and writer) Jeff Nichols, and that’s the way he wants it. When a new generation of directors raised on the movie brats get their hands on sufficient talent and budget, their original influences can dominate the landscape. In the case of Midnight Special, Nichols not only demonstrates a love and knowledge of the work of Steven Spielberg, but reminds us that his work is more than the PG-13-baiting list of favourites that immediately springs to mind. Spielberg’s legacy is determined largely by his capacity to entertain the masses, but this inclination tends to overlook his capacity for dark, adult thrillers. You don’t even have to look to Munich or Bridge of Spies for proof; the Indiana Jones series and Jurassic Park owe some of their reputations to the subversive dark streak that runs through the Bearded One’s CV. Midnight Special borrows its plot from some Spielbergs, and its tone from others, blending them into an effective reclamation of his oeuvre for all audiences.

We open in Sugarland Express territory, with Roy (Michael Shannon) and his friend Lucas (Joel Edgerton) hiding out in a motel, away from the law. With them is Alton (Jaeden Liberher), who Lucas and Roy have just kidnapped from the religious sect led by Calvin Meyer (Sam Shepherd). Like his namesake, Calvin is convinced the future is predetermined, specifically in the multilingual ramblings that periodically emerge from Alton, who has become an oracle to the cult. Alton may or may not be Roy’s son, but that’s as much certainty as we get in the early scenes. The boy is privy to some variety of paranormal abilities, but at first the film is less concerned with his powers than with Roy and Lucas’ efforts to keep him from the cult. As Roy, Lucas and Alton race to get further away, glimpses come and go of Alton’s abilities but, until the climax, Midnight Special plays out for the most part like a chase thriller in the early Spielberg mould (Think Duel or the aforementioned Sugarland Express). Roy and Lucas know of Alton’s abilities, as does Roy’s wife Sarah (Kirsten Dunst). On their trail is FBI investigator Paul Sevier (Adam Driver); much like Sevier, the audience learns of Alton’s abilities and influence second-hand (Ideas of secondhand witness run throughout; even nominal kidnappers Roy and Lucas watch reports of Alton’s abduction on the news). Nichols is too talented a writer and director to show his hand too early, and so builds anticipation by revealing the truth bit by bit. The interviews Sevier conducts with members of the cult hint at a possible armageddon, but even they can only speculate. The thrill comes from the unknown; the growing desire to find out Alton’s identity, be it alien, fallen angel or something else entirely, is Midnight Special’s lifeblood.

Roy helps Alton elude the authorities like Elliot helped E.T., but the narrative isn’t the only thing Midnight Special has in common with Spielberg’s film. The most identifiable trait it shares with his work is the care the characters have for one another. With the sect, the FBI and the military all bearing down on them, the familial bonds at the heart of the film are its most endearing and memorable aspect. Roy, Sarah and Lucas’ concern for Alton is uncynical, unquestioning, and certainly not naive. All are risking their lives for this little boy who may not even be a boy, but their connection to him is all that counts. There are hints that Roy and Sarah’s relationship is recovering from a Spielbergian absent-parent trauma, but it’s never over-elaborate or overplayed. It helps to have fine actors like Dunst and Shannon (The latter impressing in a relatively straight-and-narrow role) playing against Liberher, delivering a likeable turn shorn of any precociousness. Interestingly, Edgerton may be the best of the lot. Between his performance in his directorial debut The Gift and his unpolished everyman turn here, Edgerton is proving to be a subtle chameleon. This cast carry the film along, the gradual build echoing a similar approach to the final reveal in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Midnight Special is pacy, though the final edit is a bit of a mixed bag. Individual moments of tension see Nichols wrangle tension out of proceedings by extending them by a precious few frames before a sudden cut. Yet, individual precision can’t overcome the fact that some supporting characters and plot details are left wanting. Audiences might be left wanting by the eventual reveal; even coming from the director of Take Shelter and Mud, two films that revelled in their final ambiguities, this one will prove divisive.

It’s tricky to argue that Midnight Special does much new with the Spielberg mythos. There are interesting age-reversals at work in some of the roles (Compare Driver’s fresh-faced authority figure with Shannon’s craggy protagonist), but the basic narrative points are a little too indebted to what came before. Still, there’s a simple unabashed magic at work here, recalling a time when ambition and talent worked over predictability. A familiar taste, perhaps, but it’s made from wholesome ingredients.