Movie Review ~ Eye in the Sky

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Col. Katherine Powell, a military officer in command of an operation to capture terrorists in Kenya, sees her mission escalate when a girl enters the kill zone triggering an international dispute over the implications of modern warfare.

Stars: Helen Mirren, Aaron Paul, Alan Rickman, Barkhad Abdi, Jeremy Northam, Iain Glen, Phoebe Fox, Aisha Takow

Director: Gavin Hood

Rated: R

Running Length: 102 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: The woman sitting in front of me at the screening for Eye in the Sky was having a devil of a time sitting still.  Normally, I’d look upon such fidgety fumbling with eye-rolling exhaustion but in this case I’m giving her a pass…because I was having the same problem.  Don’t mistake my squirming as a sign of boredom, though, because this is a nicely riveting bit of entertainment, a good option for discerning adults that don’t need their political dramas balanced with comedy (Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, also worth a watch) or excessive violence (London Has Fallen, which isn’t worth anything).

The script from Guy Hibbert brings together several stakeholders in the current war on terror during a mission centered in Kenya.  Using cutting-edge, advanced technology, several high-priority targets have been identified holed up in a compound in the African republic, generating a firestorm of controversy as members of the military and government clash over important moral questions about acceptable collateral damage and how to come out unscathed in the public eye while still accomplishing their mission.

It all sounds denser than it actually is but understand that I’m only giving you a very general plot overview.  To say more would give away some of the key turns the film makes and would rob the film of its genuine suspense.

Plot details aside, I can tell you the film works so well thanks to nigh-perfect casting.  Helen Mirren (Trumbo) is a Colonel in the British military energized by finally locating a British ex-pat turned radical terrorist she’s been tracking for some time.  Leading an international team sent in to capture the terrorist and her compatriots, Powell soon sees her mission changed that raises some strong moral questions her lesser ranking colleagues seem more willing to ask than she is.  Operating out of a one-room central command, Mirren carries the bulk of the film on her shoulders and is more than up for the task…though I had to chuckle seeing her tromping around in combat boots, army fatigues, and a snappy beret.

Interacting with Mirren are two drone pilots in Nevada (Aaron Paul, Need for Speed and Phoebe Fox), a British Lieutenant acting as a political liaison (the late, great Alan Rickman, Lee Daniels’ The Butler, in a mighty fine performance), and an operative on the ground in Kenya (Barkhad Abdi, Captain Phillips).

The elvish Paul wears his heart a bit too on his sleeve as the pilot unwilling to pull the trigger on dropping a bomb until he knows for sure what the overall damage will be.  While the performance tends to be a bit on the teary side, Paul’s a fine enough actor to sell it and he’s aided nicely by Fox.  Rickman does a lot of the heavy lifting in the political arena, turning what could be strenuous speechifying into compelling arguments.  For a film that’s highly politicized, it never seems to take a side which turns out to be a benefit as the film progresses toward an ending that’s inevitable but honest.

Director Gavin Hood (who appears in the film as Paul’s commanding officer) keeps the film taut right up until its conclusion, never cheating the audience with a tidy wrap-up.  Which brings me back to the aforementioned woman wringing her hands and covering her eyes during several key high-tension scenes that pepper the final half of the movie.  I was right with her on the edge of my seat, pained at the perceived delays in action and stressing out over the indecisions of the decision makers…and you will be too.

 

Movie Review ~ Lee Daniels’ The Butler

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The Facts:

Synopsis: As Cecil Gaines serves eight presidents during his tenure as a butler at the White House, the civil rights movement, Vietnam, and other major events affect this man’s life, family, and American society.

Stars: Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, Mariah Carey, John Cusack, Jane Fonda, Cuba Gooding, Jr., Terrence Howard, Minka Kelly, Lenny Kravitz, James Marsden, David Oyelowo, Alex Pettyfer, Vanessa Redgrave, Alan Rickman, Liev Schreiber, Robin Williams

Director: Lee Daniels

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 132 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:  Let’s get something out of the way right off the bat.  Here’s what a lot of the reviews for this work of historical fiction aren’t telling you – it’s not a very good movie.  I’m not quite sure why so many are reluctant to admit that but after seeing the movie maybe you will have your own opinion as to why.  While Lee Daniels’ The Butler is filled with an impressive array of award-winning talent, the film itself is a Forrest Gump-ish mish-mash of coincidence that winds up squandering opportunities for real watercooler discussion material in favor of shoe-horning in more brushes with historical figures.

Inspired by a real life White House butler who served eight presidents, screenwriter Danny Strong and director Lee Daniels go their own way and fashion Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker, The Last Stand), his wife Gloria (Winfrey), and their two sons Louis (David Oyelowo , Jack Reacher) and Charlie (Elijah Kelley) into figures they can move through history into situations that suit the overall scope of the film in retelling key moments in the Civil Rights Movement.

The reason to see the film is Whitaker and, for the incredibly curious, Oprah Winfrey.  Whitaker takes Strong’s history 101 kitchen sink script and runs with it, creating a man of impressive worth with a powerful story to tell.  It’s too bad that his story and the story of his family are merely a device for the movie to manipulate as the years go by.  As written by Strong, Louis is present at every major pivotal moment in Civil Rights history and each president has a moment of solidarity with Cecil.  Where Forrest Gump could play off these coincidences as accidental and therefore instilled a sliver of believability, here it just seems like the poorly constructed maneuver it actually is.

Absent from the silver screen since 1998’s misfire Beloved, Winfrey makes the most out of a bad situation (and at least two abysmal costumes) and seizes each moment that allows her to emote.  With a laid-back, casual acting style, Winfrey may not win any awards for the role (and really, she shouldn’t) but it’s respectable work that you can tell she fought for.  I just wish she was in a better film because as her debut performance in 1986’s The Color Purple showed us, she’s a more than capable actress.

Rounding out the trio of leads, Oyelowo has the trickiest of the roles because his plot line is the most far-fetched and least fleshed out.  Starting off as a peaceful protester in his Southern college town during the beginning of the race riots, he soon joins the Freedom Riders only to be swept up into the violence of the early days of the Black Panther movement.  Oyelowo and his girlfriend (gorgeous Yaya Alafia) take on not only Ruth E. Carter’s impressive array of period costumes but handle their historical movements with skilled dedication.

Playing presidents and others to largely successful results is a starry line-up that runs the gamut from spot on (Alan Rickman and Jane Fonda as The Reagans, Liev Schreiber as LBJ) to the “Okay, if you say so” (John Cusack as Richard Nixon).  Broadway vets Coleman Domingo and Adriane Lenox also turn in well-rounded supporting performances.

Cinematographer Andrew Dunn favors a gauzy look which gives the film a humid fuzz that didn’t work for me.  It creates a swampy feel whenever we aren’t at the White House and as the years go by and some questionable old age make-up is applied to our actors, the movie feels deliberately out of focus.  The score by newcomer Rodrigo Leão sounds like a re-working of The West Wing theme and is neither memorable or telling of the talents of the composer.

The movie unspools like clockwork with pretty much every event foreshadowed in an earlier scene.  It’s so workmanlike and designed for mass consumption that I’m actually surprised director Daniels wanted to be a part of it.  Directing the hard-hitting Precious and the lurid The Paperboy, Daniels seems to like to take his audiences on a journey but here he’s merely a passenger like the rest of us.  Originally intended as a project for Spike Lee, the movie feels more convenient than timely…the kind of film viewers can see and pat themselves on the back afterward.

Aimed squarely at gaining Oscar nominations, the film made headlines before it was even released when Warner Brothers sued distributor The Weinstein Company over the title.  It seems like Warner Brothers had a short film in its vaults from 1916 also called The Butler that they didn’t want the public to confuse with this work from 2013.  The comprise was to include the director’s name in front of the title…something I’m sure Lee Daniels had no trouble with.  That anyone would confuse the two movies is a mystery to me because I’m sure the earlier film didn’t have a scene with LBJ on the toilet barking out orders.

That the film winds up with some small measure of success is thanks to the performances of Whitaker, Winfrey, and Oyelowo with work that rises above Strong’s less than profound script.  It’s not a great film but it’s not boring or a total write-off.  If anything, I left the screening wanting to know more about the real characters and situations the movie touches on.  In the end, any film that brings up the discussion on the evolution of Civil Rights (however ham-fisted the discussion is scripted) in our country earns a qualified recommendation.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Butler

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Synopsis: A look at the life of Eugene Allen, who served eight presidents as the White House’s head butler from 1952 to 1986, and had a unique front-row seat as political and racial history was made.

Release Date:  October 18, 20113

Thoughts: I find myself at a crossroads with Oscar nominated director Lee Daniels.  Though I felt his work on Precious was deserving of his Oscar nomination his other work has produced a strong reaction in me – a negative reaction.  His first feature, Shadowboxer was a rumpled mess even with star Helen Mirren and his Precious follw-up The Paperboy was an loony exercise that tested the mettle of even the most forgiving audience member.  So I’m approaching The Butler with some angst that it will be another Daniels pic with a strong cast that ultimately fails to deliver.  On the other hand, this first trailer hints at a movie without its own agenda that could conceivably call upon the strengths of many of the talented cast involved.  Releasing in October, I’m hoping this works because I think there’s a good story to tell here.

The Silver Bullet ~ Gambit

Synopsis: An art curator decides to seek revenge on his abusive boss by conning him into buying a fake Monet, but his plan requires the help of an eccentric and unpredictable Texas rodeo queen.

Release Date:  TBA

Thoughts: With a script from the Cohen Brothers that’s adapted from a late 60’s British caper film (starring Michael Caine and Shirley MacLaine) and a game cast, this looks like a slyly fun movie that might just end up to be a harmless blip on the radar for all involved.  Early word on the film is that it’s a marzipan treat that will be pleasing to view but nothing much more than that.  Sometimes, that’s OK…as long as everyone is on the same page.  Cameron Diaz will never be a real leading lady in my book but Colin Firth seems to be on his game here.  Never count out Alan Rickman as he likes to keep things fresh and fun.