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.

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Review: Triple 9 (2016)

Director: John Hillcoat

**

This review was originally published on Scannain.com

Triple 9 opens on a meeting in a car in an underground location. The participants are a mix of shady cops and ex-marines, shrouded in darkness, the occasional facial feature barely illuminated by a red light outside. The three men in the car, Terrell (Chiwitel Ejiofor), Gabe (Aaron Paul) and Marcus (Anthony Mackie) are going over their planned bank heist. Their four man crew (the fourth being Norman Reedus’ getaway driver Russel) will enter the bank in central Atlanta, sweep through the place, get what they want and leave before the police can arrive. There’s just one problem: no-one’s told these guys there in a second-rate double-cross thriller with pretensions. Haven’t these guys watched Scorsese or Mann? If they did, they’d know this just can’t end well.

The oeuvres of Martin Scorsese and Michael Mann are just two figures in whose shadow Triple 9 skulks. The heists and police procedural aspects are steeped in a moral turpitude that’s nothing new to director John Hillcoat. Granted, Triple 9 doesn’t share or need the same level of bloody-minded decay and destruction as The Proposition or The Road, but it can walk the walk as well as talk the talk. The opening credits establish the cops and robbers in this narrative web; at one point we see mob boss Irina Vlaslov inspect a couple of bound soon-to-be corpses in a car boot. Irina is played by Kate Winslet, chewing the accent and clearly having a lot of fun. Her performance is one of two sources of relatively levity in Triple 9, the other being Woody Harrelson in a typically focused-yet-relaxed drawl as Detective Allen. He’s investigating how Terrell and his crew committed their broad-daylight heist, and for whom they committed it. Allen can’t see how they’re linked to Irina yet, but the film will go to great lengths to resolve itself, even if it takes all too quick a route to get there.

Triple 9 has ambition, but we’ve visited this territory before; there are Training Day-esque crooked cops (no-one plays these kinds of guys quite like Clifton Collins Jr.), a Russian mob straight out of Eastern Promises, and a surfeit of character arcs and plots to try to juggle. Writer Matt Cook is aiming for the grandeur of Heat, but Triple 9 has been compromised somewhere along the way. It clocks in at just under two hours, but there’s an inescapable feeling of lacking. When Irina sends Terrell and co. on another job, more personal stakes get involved. Irina blackmails Terrell into doing her bidding with their familial bond (Gal Gadot gets little to do as Terrell’s ex/Irina’s sister). Moreover, the team decide that they need to pull a ‘Triple 9’ in another part of town (shooting a cop in the line of duty) to distract from their heist elsewhere, and Marcus nominates his new partner Chris (Casey Affleck) as the target. It’s difficult to place whether the script or an overly-tightened edit is to blame, but as enemies turn on allies and vice versa, it’s difficult to muster much enthusiasm. Too many characters are scrambling for oxygen, and while there are solid performances aplenty, there’s nothing in the screenplay to make most of them stand out. Hillcoat at least delivers crunchy action, with a midsection raid on a drug-dealer’s hideout making for riveting viewing. Still, something with this much talent and determination to punch above its weight should be more memorable. By ticking a few too many procedural boxes, Triple 9 sells itself too short.

Review: Exodus – Gods and Kings (2014)

Director: Ridley Scott

*

Exodus: Gods and Kings wants to be all things to all people. It’s a Biblical epic, but to make sure all those hip atheistic youngsters are on board, Ridley Scott has attempted to remove God from proceedings. Whether you’re a Bible reader or a Bible-basher, this clearly can’t end well. The feats achieved by Moses (Christian Bale) in his quest to lead the enslaved Hebrews out of Egypt are of such immensity and scale that attempts to remove divine intervention actually serve to make the story more unbelievable. The wonder has been drained from the Exodus story, leaving behind what must surely be the most boring cinematic adaptation of Moses’ life thus far.

Opening on wide sweeping shots of ancient cities on the Nile, we encounter our first problem. Exodus is drowning in CG vistas, with little sense of a grounding in reality or historical context. Moses is a general in the army of aging pharaoh Seti, played by John Turturro delivering pronouncements in his unabashed Brooklyn drawl while seeking counsel from Indira Varma’s priestess and her chicken entrails. The favour Moses curries with Seti begins to get up the nose of Seti’s son, crown prince Rameses (Joel Edgerton). In the Bible story, Moses was adopted by the royal family as an escapee of Seti’s purge of Hebrew infants, but Exodus loses a lot of emotional setup and contextualisation in excess dialogue. Most every film version of this story to date knows that the fraternal bond between Moses and Rameses is a vital lynchpin amongst all the plagues and burning bushes, but Exodus fails to make us care. An early battle against the Hittites attempts to frame their relationship, but it’s used more as an opportunity to show that Scott can still direct ancient action nearly a decade and a half after Gladiator.

Indeed, Exodus owes a big debt to Gladiator, not least in its attempts to frame a personal story within a political context. Gladiator’s script mixed real historical figures into a story that was largely gubbins, but it had sufficient dramatic and action heft to make the story work. Exodus’ story is so well known that any attempt to recontextualize the story requires steady writing and a clear directorial vision. Scott still maintains a keen eye, and retains the sterling services of cinematographer Dariusz Wolski, but his apparent weakness for half-baked scripts (Prometheus, The Counsellor) is slowly dragging the overall quality of his CV down. It’ s genuinely disappointing to see such names as Jeffrey Caine (The Constant Gardener) and Steven Zaillian (Schindler’s List) attached to this. Exodus

After being outed as an Israelite, and years of banishment in Midian, Moses is compelled to go back to lead the Hebrews out of Egypt. He gets his orders from God, here represented by a small child with an English accent and a petulant attitude. Scott and the script attempt to introduce some ambiguity to this scenario by having Moses be the only one able to see the God-child, but if that is the case then the ten plagues are just a series of tragic coincidences that beset Egypt around the same time. Anyway, the plagues are CG-laden and rather forgettable as set-pieces go. It’s hard to care about CG beasties attaching a CG landscape. God may be missing from Exodus, but the exclusion of any recognisable or interesting characters is a greater loss.

Amongst the cast forced to wade through the ponderously drab script, Bale escapes with his dignity largely intact. He rarely gets histrionic, but even when he does it doesn’t match his shenanigans on the set of Terminator: Salvation. Some very respectable names come and go with very little to do, most notably Ben Kingsley as Hebrew elder Nun, and Signourney Weaver as Seti’s wife. A reunion between the star and director of Alien should offer something exciting, but Weaver gets about three lines of dialogue before scarpering to cash her paycheque. Between an unflattering head shave, some cheesy dialogue and little character development, Edgerton is left with little choice but to be awful. One scene finds him shouting out at Moses “I am the God!” As a grown man, having to bellow a line like that must hurt. At least Ben Mendelsohn has the cajones to look embarrassed as a viceroy; he camps up his performance in an effort to stand out from the depressed pile of a film around him.

A production like Exodus involves a large cast playing dress-up in awkward costumes making unlikely pronouncements; it’s unlikely to be taken seriously, so a director would be as well to go for broke and make it fun. Alas, Exodus plays it straight. The production is dour, and a particularly dark 3D conversion does not help. There’s no sense of lightness or enjoyability to the film, so audience enthusiasm is long drained by the time the climactic Red Sea sequence rolls along. (Though the 2.5 hour runtime doesn’t help either) The last major adaptation of Exodus, The Prince of Egypt, made the story both accessible and dramatically satisfying. Even at its most insane, this year’s Noah kept the audience on board. With Exodus: Gods and Kings, Ridley Scott appears to have completely forgotten the first rule of filmmaking: thou shalt not bore.