No, I Haven’t Seen It Until Now: La La Land

La La Land movie poster

I cannot believe how ridiculously long it took me to watch this movie which won Best Picture for about three or four minutes at this year’s Oscars. “La La Land” is Damien Chazelle’s eagerly awaited follow-up to “Whiplash,” my favorite movie of 2014. Due to not being invited to any press screenings for it, working to pay my bills, buying Christmas presents for my family and working to pay them off as well, taking care of the rent and my overall sanity, I could never make the time to see it. They say life happens when you’re busy making plans, but I’m too busy to even make any kind of plan.

Well, I finally had the opportunity to check out “La La Land” and it is, in a word, superb. From its opening sequence all the way to the end titles, it is a wonderful homage to the movie musicals of the past, and it serves as a dedication to all the dreamers out there who dare to make their passions their livelihood and are willing to make fools of themselves in the process. Just like Akira Kurosawa once said, “In order to survive in an insane world, you have to be crazy.”

The movie starts off on a typical sunny Los Angeles day on the LA freeway of your choice with cars at a complete standstill. It could be the 110, the 105 or the 405 we are watching, but it doesn’t matter because they all turn into used car lots once rush hour hits. Next thing you know, everyone is bursting into the song “Another Day of Sun,” and it’s Chazelle’s way of showing you how exhilarating “La La Land” will be to watch. It starts off with an infectious energy, and it never loses it once the song is over.

We are introduced to Mia Dolan (Emma Stone), an aspiring actress who auditions constantly, shares an apartment with several female roommates, and works as a barista at a café located on a studio lot. She does the best she can at auditions, but some of them last only a few seconds before she is thanked for her time and escorted to the door. Soon afterward, we meet Sebastian Wilder (Ryan Gosling), an aspiring jazz musician who yearns to see this art form live on instead of being ruined by current forms which manipulate into something very artificial. Eventually, we know these two will hook up.

Like the most romantic of couples, Mia and Sebastian do not get off to the best start as she gives him the finger after he honks his car horn for an insidiously long time (I hate it when people do that) at her when she keeps him waiting on the freeway. Even after Mia walks into a jazz bar upon hearing Sebastian play an impassioned improvisational riff while being forced to play classic Christmas songs, he is quick to brush her off as he heads for the door. But the two eventually consummate their budding romance after a screening of “Rebel Without a Cause,” and from there we watch as their romance goes through exhilarating heights and emotionally draining lows.

Watching “La La Land” reminded me of how singing can be the most emotionally challenging art of all as it forces you to be open in a way we typically are not in everyday life. You can be a brilliant singer, but all the technique you bring to it won’t mean a thing if you don’t bring any real feeling to the song. When it comes to many movie musicals, they can feel emotionally manipulative or overly sentimental to where you find yourself cringing like you did when Darth Vader yelled out “nooooo” in “Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith.” But every single moment in “La La Land” feels earned as the cast makes it all feel truly genuine, and I never came out of this movie feeling like I was played like a piano. Everything in this movie felt earned, and I was enamored by everything I witnessed.

Also, Chazelle gets everything about Los Angeles down perfectly. Whether it’s the standstill traffic on the freeways, the street signs we never pay attention to until it’s too late, the incredible view of the city from the Hollywood Hills, the Griffith Observatory, the single screen movie theaters or even those auditions where an assistant just has to walk into the room while you are doing your thing for the casting directors, he gets at all the things a struggling artist is forced to endure while fighting against stiff odds. This is not the kind of musical which takes place in some fantastical world, but instead in a reality we all know and understand.

Of course, to many, Los Angeles is still a fantastical place, and it certainly shows here thanks to the beautiful cinematography of Linus Sandgren. “La La Land” almost looks like something from the 1950’s with Sandgren’s use of many beautiful colors, and we get caught up in the magic this crazy city has to offer after all these years. I have lived in Los Angeles for a number of years now, and I can tell you honestly that it is not as glamorous as it is often portrayed in the media. Still, it is a place for creative minds to come up with something extraordinary, and this movie reminded me of this.

Emma Stone is simply sublime as the aspiring Mia as she captures all the heartache, joy and persistence any actor has experienced in pursuit of a seemingly impossible dream. Her face is luminous and can say so much without her having to say single a word at times, and she makes you feel Mia’s every emotion as she suffers every triumph and career setback. But her biggest show-stopping moment comes when she sings the song “Audition (The Fools Who Dream)” in which the camera stays on her for several minutes. It’s an incredibly captivating moment and makes me see why she could have won an Oscar over Isabelle Huppert who was nominated for “Elle.”

As for Ryan Gosling, he still remains a sexy son of a bitch whom the ladies swoon over every single minute of every single day, and I guess I just have to live with that. But seriously, he perfectly embodies the dreamer who is forced to compromise his passion for the sake of survival, and he communicates the aching confusion Sebastian feels as he desperately tries to rationalize his choices as a means of convincing himself that he is not selling out. Whether you think Sebastian is selling out or not, Gosling makes you sympathize with him as we come to wonder what we have done to convince ourselves of the actions we take in life.

Yes, I think “La La Land” more than lived up to the hype, and it establishes Damien Chazelle as one of the most promising film directors working today. It could have easily been a silly trifle of a musical, but Chazelle’s heart and soul shine through every frame as he pays tributes to all those who dared to dream and constantly risked failure at every turn. Like the best movies, it stays with you long after it has ended, and it takes you on a wondrous journey I feel I haven’t been on in a very, very long time.

* * * * out of * * * *

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Hacksaw Ridge

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I want to start off first by applauding director Mel Gibson for using the term “A True Story” as opposed to “Based on a True Story” when he starts off “Hacksaw Ridge.” You all know how much I have come to despise the term “Based on a True Story” as it has long since lost its meaning, and I have to give credit to Gibson for altering this phrase here. As a director, you know he’s not about to take the easy way out or give us something which feels emotionally false. This continues to be the case with “Hacksaw Ridge,” his first directorial effort in ten years.

This movie tells the story of Desmond Doss, a Seventh-day Adventist Christian who joined the Army in World War II to serve as a medic. The only thing is, he joins as a conscientious objector and refuses to carry a weapon of any kind into the battlefield. At the Battle of Okinawa, he succeeded in rescuing 75 wounded soldiers without firing a single shot, and he was later awarded the Medal of Honor for his acts which went above and beyond the call of duty.

Desmond is played as a young adult by Andrew Garfield, and he is very deserving of the Oscar nomination he received for his performance. From start to finish, the British-American actor imbues Desmond with an unshakable faith in a higher power, and I never saw this faith waiver for a single second. Seeing him square off with a fellow soldier who assumes he is a coward for not picking up a rifle is fascinating as Garfield’s eyes emit a hard-won bravery the others around him only think they possess. This even comes across as he pursues Nurse Dorothy Schutte (the luminous Teresa Palmer) as obsessively as Dustin Hoffman chased Katherine Ross around town in “The Graduate” to where you wonder if anything could stand in Desmond’s way at all.

We all know Gibson is a devoutly religious person, and not just because he made “The Passion of the Christ.” Indeed, “Hacksaw Ridge” could have easily looked silly if it took its subject far too seriously or tried to indoctrinate us or push some agenda, but Gibson doesn’t make those mistakes. The director treats Desmond with the respect he deserves, and he was clearly determined not to make him look like a joke. Desmond was the real deal, and he found the perfect actor to portray him in Garfield.

Gibson also wades through a wealth of war movie clichés which do take away from the final cut, but the scenes are elevated by a number of strong performances from a well-chosen cast. Hugo Weaving of “The Matrix” and “Lord of the Rings” fame (“Welcome to Rivendale, Mr. Anderson”) is a big standout as Desmond’s father, Tom. Being a war veteran himself, Tom has seen the vicious damage it has done to the soul and the psyche. Weaving makes Tom more than the average abusive drunk you see in cinema as he shows his character’s pain over the memories he can’t drink away, and of the terror he wishes to keep his sons from experiencing themselves.

Rachel Griffiths provides the yin to Weaving’s yang in her performance as Desmond’s mom, Bertha, who enforces in her son the importance of God’s commandments, especially the one which states “thou shalt not kill.” She also gives Bertha a strong gravitas which Garfield benefits richly from as the movie goes on, and you can see how her presence remained a strong one in Desmond’s life.

Then there’s Vince Vaughn who gives his best performance in quite some time as Army Drill Sergeant Howell. While his work may pale in comparison to R. Lee Ermey’s brutal performance in “Full Metal Jacket,” at least Vaughn invests Howell with a strong dose of human you wouldn’t often expect characters like these to have in war movies.

But the real meat of “Hacksaw Ridge” comes in the last section during the battle sequences. Now Gibson might not be able to match Steven Spielberg’s powerful realism when it came to those unforgettable opening minutes of “Saving Private Ryan,” but he tops him when it comes to bloody carnage. Bullets fly everywhere, limbs are blown off and guts are laid out for rats to chew on. This should be no surprise as this movie comes from the director of “Braveheart,” “The Passion of the Christ,” and “Apocalypto,” and like those movies, it features a protagonist who has to wade through body parts and blood in order to receive any kind of salvation.

Along with director of photography Simon Duggan, Gibson gives us some of the most visceral and best war movies I have seen in a long time as he shows you the damage war leave in its wake as well as what it does to the souls of those in the front line. It also gives a real-life superhero who selflessly risked his life to help those who could no longer help themselves. While certain sections are undone a bit by an innate corniness which comes with unavoidable clichés, Gibson gives us a war movie for the ages which, in the wrong hands, could have become silly and heavy-handed, but in his, it becomes a celebration of a man who saved so many without even firing a bullet.

“Hacksaw Ridge” had been in development hell for 14 years, and the rights to it were at one point in the hands of Walden Media which wanted to turn Desmond’s story into a PG-13 movie. Something tells me this would have been a mistake as sanitizing the struggles of war would have been an insult to those who fought for our freedoms. Yes, this is an ultra-violent motion picture, but for good reason. Could we have appreciated what Desmond without having a clear view of the chaos he and other soldiers put themselves into? I think not.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

 

The Ten Worst Movies of 2016

2016 was a huge clusterfuck of a year, and I was beyond thrilled when the clock struck midnight on December 31st. For me, it started off with a carjacking, left me with a totaled vehicle, far too many people were met by the Grim Reaper, and it all ended with the wrong person being elected President of the United States. Even when I tried to find solace and relief at the movie theater, I was let down way too many times. Granted, the year did make a comeback towards the very end with cinematic masterpieces like “Manchester by the Sea,” “La La Land” and “Silence,” but it did little to cover up just how much Hollywood let us down.

I did manage to skip seeing some of the bigger bombs of the year like “Warcraft” and “Alice Through the Looking Glass,” and others like “Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice” look to have found some salvation through longer cuts on DVD and Blu-ray. Still, 2016 left some awful movies in its wake, and the stench of them gnaw at me months after I sat through them. So, let’s take another swing at these 10 films which had me staring at the screen in sheer disbelief.

  1. Now You See Me 2

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“Now You See Me” was both fun and clever, but its sequel tries to outdo the original to such a ridiculous effect to where I came out of it with a massive headache. While it helps to suspend disbelief during movies like these, it quickly became impossible to do so as the magic tricks constantly defied all reasonable logic. By the end, I had long since given up trying to make sense of everything and anything, and not even a talented cast which includes Jesse Eisenberg, Mark Ruffalo, Woody Harrelson and Daniel Radcliffe among others could use their charisma to make “Now You See Me 2” seem cleverer than it could ever hope to be.

  1. Blair Witch

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Here’s another sequel, but this was one I really looked forward to seeing. With it being directed by Adam Wingard and written by Simon Barrett, the same two who gave us “You’re Next” and “The Guest,” I figured they would bring a freshness to this franchise which quickly took a nosedive after the abysmal “Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2.” Alas, despite some strong reviews which were plastered all over the movie’s poster before its release, “Blair Witch” proved to be the same old thing and terribly unsatisfying. The characters were not the least bit memorable, and after a while it felt more like a bad “Paranormal Activity” sequel than anything else. By the time we reached the movie’s conclusion, I wondered why anyone bothered to make another sequel to “The Blair Witch Project” in the first place.

  1. The 5th Wave

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I am now officially burned out on young adult movies which yearn to be profitable franchises as they all look the same. “The 5th Wave” wants to be a “Hunger Games” for the next generation, but instead it feels like recycled material designed to appeal to a demographic which is now on the lookout for something more adult. Despite some strong turns from Chloe Grace Moretz and Maika Monroe, this young adult adventure feels very uninspired as it borrows elements from other movies far superior to it.

  1. Marauders

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Here’s another movie which tried to stay one step ahead of the audience, and it ended up losing me long before the halfway point. Steven C. Miller’s action thriller has some clever robbery sequences, but the story became so convoluted to where I was surprised I didn’t walk out of it when I had the chance. The plot involves a murder conspiracy which is ridiculously impossible to decipher, and it strands actors like Christopher Meloni, Dave Bautista and Adam Grenier in an infinitely grim motion picture which tried my patience all the way up to the last frame. But worst of all is Bruce Willis who looks like he doesn’t want to be there. While he gets top billing, he’s barely in “Marauders” to where I couldn’t help but think they paid him an obscene amount of money just to show up for a few days’ work. Is this really the kind of crap he has resigned himself to being in on a regular basis?

  1. The Whole Truth

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It is very depressing to realize this is Courtney Hunt’s first directorial effort since her excellent movie “Frozen River” as she gives us nothing more than a routine and banal courtroom drama which wastes the time and talent of Keanu Reeves, Renee Zellweger, Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Jim Belushi. As soon as we see the snake slithering across the highway at the movie’s start, we know exactly what to expect to where there nothing can surprise us in the slightest, and the case at hand takes turns which baffle even those audience members who never went to law school. Daniel Craig was originally set to play Reeves’ role but dropped out before filming began. Smart move.

  1. I Saw the Light

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After a year which saw fantastic biopics like “Straight Outta Compton” and “Love & Mercy,” 2016 gave us this giant lump of coal which attempted to dramatize the life of country music legend Hank Williams. In all fairness, Tom Hiddleston does an impressive job of singing Williams’ songs which are not at all easy to pull off, and he got strong support from Elizabeth Olsen who portrayed his first wife, Audrey Williams. But writer and director Marc Abraham does such a poor job here as the movie goes in directions which leave us wondering as to what point we are at in Hank’s life, and he does little to nothing in terms of digging into the singer’s life to see what made his work so unforgettable. I came out of “I Saw the Light” feeling like I learned nothing about Hank Williams. He may have been a great singer, but the movie portrays him as nothing more than a jerk you wouldn’t want to spend time with.

  1. Cell

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Far and away one of the worst adaptations ever of a Stephen King novel, and that’s saying a lot. What could have been a gleefully twisted satire on our obsession with cell phones turned out to be nothing more than a typical zombie movie, and the fact the studio dumped it in a few theaters upon its release should give you an idea of the confidence they had in it. Director Tod Williams gives us nothing more than a glum motion picture which reminds us of so many others like it which were so much better, and the cast which includes John Cusack and Samuel L. Jackson look so bored to where you wonder why they bothered to show up on set. It all culminates in a very badly lit finale which makes you wonder why no one bothered to reshoot it in the hopes it might save such a lifeless motion picture.

  1. Suicide Squad

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For me, this was the single most disappointing movie of 2016. This should have salvaged a summer movie season where even the best offerings only left so much of an impression, but instead it proved to be the final nail in its beat-up coffin. This should have been a motion picture which exhilarated us with the exploits of villains and bad guys, but even with the talented David Ayer at the helm, “Suicide Squad” proved to be a real waste as the characters were largely defanged to where you want to yell at all those Warner Brothers executives, “THESE ARE BAD GUYS! LET THEM BE BAD GUYS!” This movie played it way too safe, suffers from bad cinematography, and Jared Leto’s Joker was a major letdown. Only Viola Davis seems alive onscreen as her character, who is one of the movie’s good guys, proves to be the most threatening one of all. Such a disappointment, I was expecting it to be one of the most entertaining movies of the year.

  1. Mother’s Day

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Watching this movie made me feel physically ill. My body hurt all over as I endured the shameless manipulation and offensiveness of what sadly turned out to be Garry Marshall’s last film before his death. Yes, the man gave us a wealth of great entertainment which included the show “Happy Days” and the movie “Pretty Woman” which made a star out of Julia Roberts, but “Mother’s Day” shows him at his worst as he puts together a terribly contrived story involving a group of unconnected people who somehow come together on yet another holiday (remember, this is from the man who gave us “Valentine’s Day” and “New Year’s Eve”). Did Marshall even realize how insulting to the intelligence this motion picture would be? Everything about it felt so artificial to where I could never stop cringing from start to finish. Marshall may have been old-fashioned in his approach, but it doesn’t excuse the fact this movie was so incredibly awful.

And now for the worst of the worst, and this is a movie I just love to hate with a passion:

  1. Hillary’s America: The Secret History of the Democratic Party

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Look, Dinesh D’Souza can hate on Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party all he wants; that’s his right. If I have to sit through one of his movies, I will. But his latest political screed proved to be one of the worst documentaries ever made, and that’s considering if you want to call this a documentary. D’Souza doesn’t even deal with Hillary until the movie’s last half hour, and he instead goes over the racist past of the Democratic Party in an attempt to link it to the Democratic Party of today. In the process, he gives an unintentionally hilarious film which treats all democrats as if they were one-dimensional villains from an 80’s slasher flick, and I eagerly await him to make one of his own called “Democrat the 13th.” Like many filmmakers, D’Souza cherry picks facts and presents them in a way which speaks more to his infinite paranoia and burning desire to rewrite history to his heart’s content. “Hillary’s America” presents us with an endless number of re-enactments, each one worse than the next, a look at D’Souza’s time spent in a halfway house which I’m convinced was co-directed by Tommy Wiseau, and acting which redefines the terms “flat” and “one-dimensional.” When D’Souza does finally get around to dealing with Hillary, my jaw just dropped as his portrayal of her as shrew needing to be tamed spoke more of his anti-feminist views than anything else. D’Souza still wants to prove to the world he was a political martyr, but instead he shows us how cut off from reality he is, and the realization of this is far more frightening than anything he shows us here.

So, those are my picks for the worst movies of 2016. Here’s hoping 2017 is a better year for us all on a personal and professional level.

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Manchester By The Sea

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There are five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. It’s never easy recovering from grief whether it involves loss of a loved one or dealing with the now inescapable fact that Donald Trump will be the next President of the United States. Watching Casey Affleck’s character in “Manchester by the Sea,” I wonder if he will ever get past the first stage. If he’s lucky, he just might make it to the second. While some are able to get past their grief, others are doomed to be stuck in it for an eternity.

Many movies about grief have been made over the years, but few feel as bitingly honest as “Manchester by the Sea” does. It is the latest work from writer and director Kenneth Lonergan who previously gave us “You Can Count on Me” and “Margaret,” and he really tops himself with this one. While this may, on the surface, seem like a depressing movie, it is one filled a surprising amount of laughter and a wealth of interesting characters whom we watch struggle with the steep hurdles life has thrown at them as well as the snowy weather which chills all those who live in Massachusetts during the winter months.

Affleck plays Lee Chandler who, as the movie starts, works as a janitor and lives in the tiniest of apartments in Quincy, Massachusetts. He is a quiet man and one who is not quick to make friends, especially with those who stare at him for a couple of seconds too long. His face seems as frozen as the snow he constantly shovels off his front porch, so we know the movie will be a journey into discovering how Lee ended up looking so bereft of life.

One day, Lee gets word his brother, Joe (Kyle Chandler), has passed away after suffering a heart attack. This forces Lee to drive to his hometown of Manchester-by-the-Sea to meet up with family members and relatives he has long since become estranged from, and his reaction to seeing them all seems strangely serene as if he has been preparing for this moment in a way no one else would bother to. But as the movie goes on, we come to see why Lee can never again be comfortable in his hometown as it is filled with memories and ghosts he may never ever put behind him.

Now in many ways this movie sounds like a typical one about someone reflecting on the memory of a friend who is no longer living, but Lonergan never tries to take the easy way out here. He presents us with characters who are ever so real, and their reactions to the tragedies thrown in their faces feels honest as one never responds to something so painful in the way you might expect. Everyone is far from perfect and no one here is easily likable, but the characters grow on you as they attempt to navigate past the wreckage of their lives.

Lonergan’s talent as a writer has never been in doubt, but what astounded me most about “Manchester by the Sea” is how confident his direction is. His cast ends up giving such naturalistic performances to where they inhabit their characters more than play them. I never felt like I was watching a movie, but instead it seemed like I was eavesdropping on people whose lives and problems feel more real than we ever could expect. Pulling something like this off requires major talent, and Lonergan has it in massive supply.

All eyes are on Affleck who gives what is far and away one of the best performances of 2016. His character of Lee Chandler reminded me of William Hurt in “The Accidental Tourist” and Nick Nolte in “Affliction” in that those actors played characters so damaged by horrific tragedies in life to where they could no longer process a wide range of emotions. Affleck has a tricky role here as Lee looks to be experiencing intense grief from start to finish, but at the same time he is constantly running away from circumstances which will cause those emotions to overwhelm him in a way he feels he can never handle. This must have been an exhausting role to play, but it’s no surprise to see Affleck rise to the challenge.

There is not a single weak link to be found in the cast here as each actor, no matter how small their role is, creates a multi-dimensional character worth following. Michelle Williams in particular has a show stopping moment as Lee’s ex-wife, Randi, as she tries to make peace with him after all they have been through. Williams has always been fearless in exploring emotions many of us have tried to numb ourselves to whether we realize it or not and, just like she did in “Blue Valentine,” she digs deep into the tragic nature of her character as Randi appears far more ready to deal with past than Lee is.

I also have to single out Lucas Hedges who gives an honest portrayal of a teenager as Lee’s nephew, Patrick. So many teenagers in movies these days seem designed to appeal to a popular demographic regardless of whether the target audience can relate to them or not. But Hedges gives us one who quickly reminds us of how we juggled a number of girlfriends (if we were lucky to, that is) while dealing with a tragedy no one that young should ever have to deal with. Hedges is a real find as he makes Patrick a far more mature character than his emotionally wounded uncle, and he is as unforgettable as Affleck is in this movie.

In a year which proved to be a mediocre one for motion pictures, “Manchester by the Sea” is easily one of the best for many reasons. If it has any flaws, they are hard to see on the first viewing. But even if you do spot any flaws, they are not enough to take away from how great a movie this is. Lonergan has given us a cinematic masterpiece which demands your attention as it deals with a subject that is never easy to grapple with. While the movie’s ending proves to be understandably ambiguous, he never leaves these characters without a sense of hope for the future.

Watching this movie reminded me of an episode of “Homicide: Life on the Street” entitled “Pit Bull Sessions” in which Frank Pembleton and Paul Falsone interrogate a man whose pit bulls have been trained for dogfighting have killed his grandfather. This man, who was played by Paul Giamatti by the way, cares for his dogs far more than he does for any member of his family to where he shows little, if any, remorse for what has happened to his grandfather. Falsone is incensed over how the son seems indifferent to what has happened to a member of his family, and it leads to a classic exchange between him and Pembleton.

“That bastard can feel,” Falsone says.

“He can’t, that’s the horror,” Pembleton replies.

Sad but very true.

* * * * out of * * * *

The 5th Wave

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The 5th Wave” comes to us not long after the conclusion of “The Hungers Games,” and it is the latest in a seemingly endless line of young adult book to film adaptations. As a result, I came into this movie feeling worn out even before it started. While the novel it is based on, written by Rick Yancey, might be an interesting read, what unfolds onscreen feels like the same old thing. Only the names and places have been changed to protect the filmmakers from potential lawsuits.

Chloe Grace Moretz stars as Cassie Sullivan, a young teenager (is there any other kind?) who lives a normal life with her family, attends high school where she’s a cheerleader and constantly deals with unrequited love like any other child held prisoner by adolescence. But suddenly an alien ship, which looks like something out of “District 9,” appears in the sky, and the Earth goes through four waves which leave it decimated and on the verge of extinction. All Cassie has left is her brother whom she ends up getting separated from, and from there she is determined to save him from a fate many others have suffered.

This movie does not get off to a good start as the visual effects used to convey the various waves are shoddy CGI, and some scenes end up looking like outtakes from “Independence Day” or any other Roland Emmerich production. When the plot finally gains momentum, Cassie finds herself on the run and forced to defend herself in ways she never planned. She’s also looking for her brother whom she is very close to. Doesn’t this sound like something we just saw?

It’s a shame because the movie does have Moretz who makes this mess more bearable than it should be. Her breakthrough performance in “Kick-Ass” was no fluke and she continues to do strong work in each film she appears in, regardless of whether they are good or bad. She makes Cassie a strong heroine and one whom kids around the same age will easily relate to as she fends for herself in the dangerous world everyone has been thrust into, and Moretz makes you root for her throughout. But even she can’t save this routine young adult movie which has come out way too late.

Actually, what’s especially interesting about “The 5th Wave” is how the female characters are far more interesting than the male ones. It also helps they have such terrific actresses inhabiting those characters, and each of them clearly relishes the opportunity to bring them to life. Maria Bello, sporting a very funky hairdo, makes Sergeant Reznik a slyly manipulative soldier as she forces the children to see the alien threat her way to where getting them to fight for the human race is easy as cake. Maika Monroe, so good in “The Guest” and “It Follows,” makes her character of Ringer a wonderfully tough warrior, and she also skillfully unveils the other layers of Ringer to show us a person who is deeply broken. Along with Moretz, they keep “The 5th Wave” from becoming a complete bore.

The male actors, however, don’t have much to work with and their performances suffer as a result. Nick Robinson plays Ben Parish, the high school football hero who, when he is forced to enlist in the military, is nicknamed Zombie. Zombie proves to be an appropriate name as Robinson has little choice but to give a one-note performance as much of the emotion Ben has experienced in life has long since been drained from his psyche. Then there’s Alex Roe who plays Evan Walker, a man who may not be all that he appears to be. It seems like the screenwriters had some trouble in trying to figure out what to do with this character, and that leaves Roe with little choice but to make Evan far more enigmatic than the character has any right to be.

And let’s not leave out the great Liev Schreiber, wonderfully understated in “Spotlight,” as the movie’s main antagonist Colonel Vosch. It’s no surprise Schreiber can give us such a menacing villain, but there really isn’t much of a character for him to play here. Vosch is merely here as an obstacle for Cassie to overcome, and as a result the actor is wasted in a role which is too unworthy of his talents.

Then there is the love triangle between Moretz, Robinson, and Roe, and after having been subjected to a very similar one between Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson and Liam Hemsworth in “The Hunger Games,” I could have cared less about it. I imagine it will give audiences much to swoon over, but it’s a romance that is bland as the male characters in this movie.

“The 5th Wave” was directed by J Blakeson who previously gave us “The Disappearance of Alice Creed,” a neo-noir thriller about the kidnapping of a woman by two ex-convicts. His direction on that film was much lauded by the press, and it makes me wonder just how much control he had over this project. Clearly, the studio is setting this up to be another franchise of movies for young adults to become obsessed over as a sequel to “The 5th Wave” has already been published and a third book is on the way. But it all depends of course on how this one does at the box office and considering how we are all still getting over the end of “The Hunger Games” movies, I’m not sure everybody is in a rush for yet another franchise like it.

Perhaps the target audience for “The 5th Wave” will enjoy it the most, but even they have to be outgrowing these kinds of movies at this point. Sooner or later we have to realize kids grow up and become adults, and even adults can save the world and their little brothers too.

* ½ out of * * * *

 

The Meddler

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When reading the plot synopsis of “The Meddler,” I walked into it expecting a formulaic comedy dealing in stereotypes like “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” did. Not that working with stereotypes is always a bad thing, but it can get old very quickly and leave audiences with not much that is worth remembering when they leave the theater. Plus, the movie’s story deals with a parent interfering in the life of their offspring at the most inconvenient time in their life, and how many times have we seen that before? We all know it will build up to that moment where the offspring will say, “Mom, I love you but will you PLEASE GET THE HELL OUT OF MY LIFE??!!” But despite this inescapable confrontation, we know everything will work out in the end.

Well, “The Meddler” turned out to be a pleasant surprise as it is a movie made from the heart more than anything else. A lot of it has to do with the fact writer and director Lorene Scafaria (“Seeking a Friend for the End of the World”) based the story on her own mother and the relationship she had with her. But while this might sound like a buddy comedy, it’s really more about the mother and it gives Susan Sarandon one of the best roles she has had in recent years.

Sarandon plays Marnie Minervini who, as “The Meddler” begins, is staring listlessly at the ceiling fan in her bedroom. We learn Marnie was recently widowed and has since moved from the east coast to Los Angeles to be closer to her daughter Lori (Rose Byrne). As the title suggests, she endlessly interferes in Lori’s life and then goes on to help others whom she feels need her assistance. But deep down she is still struggling with the loss of her husband, someone she was with for decades and who has now vanished from her life. While she looks very pleasant on the outside, Marnie is still struggling to come to terms with her husband’s death and is trying to find new meaning in her life.

What I loved about Sarandon’s performance is how she avoids the easy trap of turning Minnie into a simple caricature and instead turns this character into this wonderful human who is infinitely generous to a fault. Even as Minnie gets a little too involved in her daughter’s life, Sarandon never makes her seem the slightest bit aggravating. It’s also great fun to see her roam around The Grove as if it were Disneyland because it shows just how new to Los Angeles Minnie really is.

Sarandon also has a great foil to work with in Rose Byrne who plays Minnie’s daughter Lori. Byrne also could have made Lori, a writer for television, into a caricature, but she makes her into someone with work problems we can all relate to regardless of whatever industry we work in. Lori is enduring a lot of problems in her life other than her mother such as being dumped by her celebrity boyfriend Jacob (Jason Ritter) which still weighs heavily on her, and she is not sure how she can move on past her heartbreak. Ever since the scene in “Neighbors” where she succeeded in getting two college students to seduce one another, she has remained a terrific actress and one with very sharp comedic skills.

During “The Meddler,” Minnie is met by a couple of men who are eager to get to know her better. One is Michael McKean’s overly earnest Mark whose idea of a date is to take Minnie to the Holocaust Museum, but it’s hard to imagine anyone getting romantic over there. McKean is always fun to watch no matter what movie he’s in, and he makes the most of his limited screen time as a guy who can’t quite take a hint.

The other suitor is a retired cop turned movie set security guard who goes by the name of Zipper, and he is played in a scene-stealing performance by J.K. Simmons. While being upstaged somewhat by an awesome looking mustache, Simmons makes Zipper into a uniquely lovable guy, and he is wonderful to watch as he introduces Sarandon to his nest of chickens. We’ve seen this Oscar-winning actor go from playing a warm-hearted father in “Juno” to an insanely brutal music instructor in “Whiplash,” and this is not to mention his terrific work in the first three “Spider-Man.” But in “The Meddler” Simmons gets to play a role many of us haven’t seen him play before, a romantic leading man, and he pulls it off beautifully.

What makes “The Meddler” an especially strong movie is how genuine it is in its emotions. Not once did its story feel the least bit manipulative, and its portrait of people trying to move past the loss of a loved one feels authentic in its portrayal. Nothing ever feels cloying or artificial, and it also helps that Sarandon, Byrne, and Simmons are surrounded by a wonderful cast which includes “SNL’s” Cecily Strong, Lucy Punch (the moment where she tosses a baby shower gift aside is priceless), Jason Ritter, Casey Wilson and Jerrod Carmichael. Each actor succeeds in creating unique characters who are fun to hang out with, and watching them is a reminder of how there is never a role too small for an actor to play.

Although it deals with the heavy subjects of grief, heartbreak and losing a loved one, “The Meddler” proves to be a very positive movie which is optimistic in its view of life. In a time where many movies feature infinitely cynical characters, here’s one with a woman of a certain age (and lord knows there’s not enough of those) who is very giving and generous. Even when she appears to be more generous than anyone should be, we keep watching the movie with the hope her spirit will stay strong during even the toughest of times.

“The Meddler” was made on a low budget and on a very shooting schedule, and everyone involved succeeded in giving us something much better than we could have expected. Please don’t let the fact it is not a superhero movie keep you from checking it out.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

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Risen

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The story of Jesus Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection has been told countless times, but “Risen” looks to tell it from a different perspective. This movie follows powerful the Roman Centurion Clavius (Joseph Fiennes) as he is ordered by Pontius Pilate (Peter Firth) to investigate the disappearance of Yeshua’s (a.k.a. Jesus of Nazareth) body which has vanished from its resting place. What results is a motion picture which proves to be anti-climactic more than anything else, and this is regardless of the fact it is better produced than other faith-based films out there today.

Things start out with Clavius leading his troops out into battle in a fight scene which looks like something out of “300.” Then we see him as he helps to close off Yeshua’s final resting place which is sealed off with an enormous stone wall. Somehow this wall is breached and Clavius is left with his aide Lucius (Tom Felton) to figure out who absconded with Yeshua’s body, and the answer will forever change what he has been led to believe.

“Risen” was directed by Kevin Reynolds who may be best known for directing “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves” and the infamous “Waterworld” with his friend and, at times, worst enemy Kevin Costner. He approaches this movie as a detective story as we watch Clavius interrogate many people about who might have made off with Yeshua’s body when the guards were not looking. This is where things are at their most interesting as it seems like Reynolds is testing us in regards to what we have been taught to believe about Jesus Christ among other things. Witnesses say one thing, but we are skeptical as to what we should accept as truth.

But then Clavius discovers Yeshua has somehow come back to the land of the living, and this is where the movie fell apart. Perhaps I should mention “Risen” starts with Clavius roaming the barren landscape, having been deeply affected by an experience we have yet to see him discover for himself. As a result, any tension or suspense this movie hoped to offer its audience is thrown out the window because we already have a pretty good idea of what’s going to happen.

Dramas of any kind suffer tremendously when conflict is absent, and “Risen” quickly renders any potential conflict as null even when the movie could have benefited from more of it. Clavius’ association with the Roman Army quickly becomes non-existent when he sees with his own eyes how Yeshua has somehow come back from the dead. His loyal aide Lucius (Tom “Draco Malfoy” Felton) sees him as a betrayer of the Romans, but any confrontation that could come between the two of them is rendered moot in no time at all. By the time the movie reaches its conclusion, I couldn’t help but wonder what Reynolds was trying to get across. Was it belief helps you overcome being a Roman Centurion who helped pin Christ to the crucifix and then leave all those years of training behind upon discovering Christ has been resurrected? Look, I’m a big believer of anything being possible, but Clavius’ sudden conversion feels very far-fetched.

Fiennes is a fine actor (no pun intended) and he does give Clavius a stoicism which would make the common criminal buckle under an especially intense interrogation. At the same time, he makes Clavius a little too stoic to where his face seems far more frozen than it has any right to be. Clavius is supposed to be a very serious dude, but some moments of levity could have helped to at least remind audiences that Fiennes’ range as an actor is much broader than is presented here.

I do, however, have to give credit to Cliff Curtis for giving us a powerfully mesmerizing interpretation of Yeshua/Jesus of Nazareth. Whenever he appears on screen, the actor exudes a sereneness and calm which is not as easy to pull off as he makes it look. This is the same actor who played FBI Deputy Director Miguel Bowman in “Live Free or Die Hard,” and here he digs into this role internally to where you are desperate to follow him no matter where he goes. His performance makes this movie more watchable than it would have been otherwise.

Aside from that, “Risen” is beautiful to look at thanks to director of photography Lorenzo Senatore, but there’s not much about the movie to recommend. The story of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ has been told in more compelling ways than what is presented here. But being this is a Kevin Reynolds movie, it won’t matter what audiences think of it because Kevin Costner will watch it and say he could have made it better.

* * out of * * * *

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Nocturnal Animals

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Nocturnal Animals” is a movie which will stay with me long after I have seen it. Based on Austin Wright’s novel “Tony and Susan,” it follows a non-linear path and combines stories which deal with the real world and a fictional one to where, after a while, it’s almost hard to tell the two apart. Either that or you will leave wondering which story is the most emotionally exhausting. Judging from the movie’s first images of an art exhibit created to challenge our perceptions of what is beautiful or acceptable, director Tom Ford is quick to take us on a cinematic ride, and the kind we are not often accustomed to taking.

We meet Los Angeles art gallery owner Susan Morrow (Amy Adams) who appears to have it all: a handsome husband, a fabulous house and an income we would all envy. But we can tell from the start she is a lonely soul wandering through the superficial world she inhabits, and it doesn’t help that her husband Hutton (Armie Hammer) has been distant and may very well be cheating on her. Clearly, we are about to see why she is the damaged individual she is, and it will not be a pleasant trip whether it’s through reality or fiction.

One day, Susan receives a manuscript of a novel written by her ex-husband Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal) named “Nocturnal Animals,” a nickname he gave her upon realizing she stays up late at night because she has trouble sleeping. Edward has dedicated his novel to her, and it tells a very bleak tale of love and tragedy as we watch Tony Hastings (also Gyllenhaal) suffer the utter humiliation of seeing his wife and daughter kidnapped by three troublemakers who later kill them. From there, Tony teams up with Texas Detective Bobby Andes (Michael Shannon) to bring the three men to justice, but the justice these two seek may not be one which is altogether legal.

Ford has the movie weaving in and out of its real world and fictional storylines to where you can’t quite tell where things are heading, and he does it in a way which is quite inspired. A story like this can be tricky to pull off as you can jump from one storyline to another at the worst possible moment to where we are desperate to see the movie get back to where it once was. But Ford has managed to weave all these storylines seamlessly to where everything feels in balance and not out of place.

At its heart, I think “Nocturnal Animals” is about the transformative power of art more than anything else. Whether it’s Susan’s art gallery or Edward’s novel, both of these characters use their individual artistry to channel emotions they couldn’t quite get to the surface in their relationship. The fact it takes Edwards years to reach this artistic jump in his writing abilities through his tragic novel shows how artists are not so much born as they are molded through years of life experiences.

Amy Adams gives her second great performance in 2016, her other being in Denis Villeneuve’s “Arrival.” She makes Susan a sympathetically tragic character as we watch her go from youthful promise to insomniac surrender as her life has become defined by isolation from everyone and anyone around her. Even when she has too much eyeliner makeup on, and her makeup is a distraction at times, Adams delves deep into her character’s complexity to deliver a performance of piercing sensitivity.

Gyllenhaal is riveting as both Edward and Tony, characters who suffer the indignities of life and love to where all that’s left is revenge. While the actor still seems a bit young to play the father of a teenage daughter, he is fearless in exploring a character who suffers a fate worse than death. Kudos also goes out to Isla Fisher who plays Tony’s wife, Laura, as she has to reach an emotional fever pitch and keep it high whenever she appears onscreen.

This movie is also proof of how there are no small roles, only small actors, and no actor here should be mistaken as small. Andrea Riseborough, completely unrecognizable here, steals some scenes as Alessia Holt, a person who has found happiness in a space filled with obliviousness and fake promises. Michael Sheen also shows up as Alessia’s husband, Carlos, who is actually gay, and she gives Susan some advice worth following. Ellie Bamber gives us a convincingly down to earth teenager in India Hastings who ends up coming face to face with her worse fears. Laura Linney has some strong moments as Susan’s mother, Anne, whose words hang over Susan throughout the rest of the movie. Karl Glusman and Robert Aramayo portray two gang members whose intimidation knows no bounds, and even the audience has yet to see how far they will go. And it’s always great to see Jena Malone, and she gives a wonderfully quirky performance as art gallery worker and new mother Sage Ross.

But there are two performances in “Nocturnal Animals” which stood out to me in particular. The first is Michael Shannon’s as Bobby Andes, a man of the law who looks to play it by the book, but who is slowly losing his moral bearings along with his body to the cancer eating away at it. Shannon doesn’t act but instead inhabits his character to where we don’t see him performing but becoming this sheriff, and he becomes increasingly frightening to where the anticipation of him letting go of a bullet is almost too much to bear. Seeing him bear down on a suspect with his piercing eyes and gruff voice makes him even scarier, and you have to admire the person who doesn’t need to do much to instill dread into another with such relative ease.

Then there’s Aaron Taylor-Johnson, a long way from his “Kick-Ass” days, as Ray Marcus, a lethal and disgusting bully of a character who revels in emasculating and humiliating Tony in front of his wife and daughter. Johnson’s performance reminds of you of those people in life who robbed you of your worth and self-respect and didn’t show the least bit of remorse about it. You want to smack Johnson in the face after watching him in “Nocturnal Animals,” and that is a compliment.

This is only Ford’s second movie as a director, his first being “A Single Man” with Colin Firth, a movie my parents are still begging me to watch. He is primarily known as a fashion designer whose clothes have made some of the most beautiful celebrities look even more beautiful. With “Nocturnal Animals,” he proves to be as gifted behind the camera as he is with clothes, and he gives this movie a striking look with the help of cinematographer Seamus McGarvey. This could have been a movie dominated by style more than anything else, but Ford gets terrific performances out of his infinitely talented cast, showing his attention is on the story and characters more than anything else.

It should also be noted how Ford has not put anything from his own clothing line on display here, so this movie should in no way be mistaken as a commercial for his fashions. He wisely removed this conflict of interest from “Nocturnal Animals,” so those hoping for a glimpse at his latest fashion line will have to look elsewhere.

“Nocturnal Animals” ends on an ambiguous note regarding Susan and Edward. This will probably annoy some viewers who demand concrete answers to their relationship or the state of their lives and where they will go from here. But Ford is wise to know this is a question he cannot answer himself as the fate of these characters has to be open up to interpretation. Some relationships are meant to be repaired, others are better left broken. When it comes to Susan and Edward, we can only wonder if they can or even should rediscover what made their love spark so passionately.

“Nocturnal Animals” is a movie meant to stay with you for a long time after the end credits have finished, and boy does it ever.

* * * * out of * * * *

Knight of Cups

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Ever since he ended his decades-long hiatus with “The Thin Red Line,” Terrence Malick has been very prolific as he keeps putting out one beautifully poetic film after another. He also remains a filmmaker people either love or hate as his work leaves audiences deeply polarized. His seventh film, “Knight of Cups,” is unlikely to change the perceptions people have of him, but those who admire him will find much to take in. It’s also a film which has what many of Malick’s films lack: a straightforward narrative.

“Knight of Cups” takes its name from the tarot card which, when held upright, represents change and new excitements especially of a romantic nature, and it can mean opportunities and offers. When the card is reversed, however, it represents unreliability and recklessness and indicates false promises. But moreover, the Knight of Cups is a person who is a bringer of ideas, opportunities, and offers, and who is constantly bored and in need of stimulation. This person is intelligent and full of high principles, but he is also a dreamer who can be easily persuaded or discouraged.

The knight of Malick’s film is Rick, a Hollywood screenwriter played by Christian Bale. When we first meet Rick, he looks to be living the high life as he attends parties in Los Angeles which look as decadent as they come, but while he looks to be enjoying himself, those famous Malick voiceovers reveal him to be a lost soul who finds he is not living the life he was meant to. From there he goes on a journey to find an escape from the emptiness he feels and discover more about himself.

The film is divided into chapters named after tarot cards as Rick engages in relationships with different women as he searches for love and a sense of self. We also get to see the troubled relationships he has with his father Joseph (Brian Dennehy) who looks to have been driven insane by the hardships of life, and his brother Barry (Wes Bentley) whose life had been derailed by a drug addiction he has since gotten clean from. Throughout we get the usual Malick-isms of voiceovers, characters staring out into space and wanting to speak truthfully to those closest to them, and it’s all captured with a poetic beauty which continues to make Malick one of the more unique filmmakers working today.

Malick has the good fortune of working with the brilliant cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki who just won his third Oscar in a row for “The Revenant,” and Lubezki captures the decadent landscapes of Los Angeles and Las Vegas with an inescapable beauty they don’t always have in reality. But he and Malick also capture the banality of them which quickly infects Rick’s soul, and the scenes where Bale is swimming in the violent ocean and wandering through a barren wilderness illustrates how inescapable his loneliness is.

It is said Malick shoots his films without a screenplay and instead gives the actors a storyline to improvise off of. This puts actors on an emotional tightrope which challenges them in ways they don’t often get challenged on, and the cast of “Knight of Cups” more than rises to the occasion. Bale is one of those actors who never backs down from any acting challenge given to him, and he gives yet another compelling performance in a career full of them. It’s also great to see Brian Dennehy here as this is the kind of film role we don’t always see him in, and it serves to remind us of how powerful an actor he can be when given the right role.

The movie also features a number of remarkable actresses playing the various lovers of Rick, and they all stand out in their own individual ways. Cate Blanchett, Australia’s answer to Meryl Streep, plays Rick’s physician ex-wife who still feels a connection to him even though she can’t quite get through to him. Imogen Poots rivets as the rebellious Della, Teresa Palmer makes Karen a most spirited and playful stripper who can seduce anyone with what seems like little trouble, and Frieda Pinto is the definition of serenity as Helen.

But one performance I was especially impressed with was Natalie Portman’s as Elizabeth, the woman Rick had wronged. After all these years, Portman remains a wonderfully vulnerable actress who is incapable of faking an emotion. She makes you feel the pain Elizabeth goes through, and you can’t take your eyes off of her for one second.

“Knight of Cups” proves to have a more straightforward narrative than Malick’s other films, and that’s saying something. His last film, “To the Wonder,” was good, but it meandered all over the place as he couldn’t decide which story was the more important one to tell. This time, however, he manages to stay with Rick and his romantic adventures for the majority of the film’s running time. It does veer off slightly when we get introduced to Antonio Banderas who plays the ironically named Tonio, a playboy who loves the company of more than just one woman. Considering Banderas’ recent stormy divorce from Melanie Griffith, his part in this film feels a bit voyeuristic as it seems like he is simply playing himself and explaining why his marriage to her fell apart.

“Knight of Cups” doesn’t reach the cinematic heights of “The Tree of Life” or “Days of Heaven,” but it is still a must for Malick’s fans as few other filmmakers can make a movie the way he can. Some will call it self-indulgent and complain it focuses on individuals who have it a lot better than the working class of America, but for those who relate to the journey Rick takes here, it is an immersive experience which leaves you guessing as to the possibilities open to him at the film’s conclusion.

It’s also worth watching to see characters drive their cars on the empty roads of Los Angeles at night. Anyone who lives in Los Angeles knows the roads are never that empty during the day, so it’s nice to know they are not always a traffic nightmare.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Eye In The Sky

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When it comes to drone warfare, it seems like such an easier way to fight an enemy without having to put “boots on the ground.” But like Snake Plissken said over and over in “Escape from L.A.,” the more things change, the more they stay the same. Just as in previous wars, there will always be much destruction and an inevitable number of civilian casualties. The question comes to this: is war worth it? Is it worth having all these civilian casualties while trying to take out the enemy? Now some might think these are easy questions to answer, but this is not the case at all, especially to those at the front line.

This is made clear in Gavin Hood’s intense thriller “Eye in the Sky.” It stars Helen Mirren as Colonel Katherine Powell who has been tracking a British citizen-turned-terrorist for six years and finally has her tracked down in Kenya. Thanks to local operative Jama Farah (“Captain Phillips’” Barkhad Abdi) and his nifty high-tech surveillance, she discovers this spy is quickly preparing along with others to carry out suicide attacks. As a result, what started as a mission of capture becomes a mission to kill terrorists, and Colonel Powell has drone pilot Steve Watts (Aaron Paul of “Breaking Bad”) target the safe house the terrorists are in and is prepared to take them out, but then a 9-year-old girl enters the kill zone to sell some loaves of bread, and she won’t leave until she sells them all. This quickly triggers an international dispute as the United States and British governments debate over whether or not to take action.

While most war movies enthrall viewers with bullets and bombs exploding constantly, “Eye in the Sky” leaves us in sweat-inducing suspense as we wonder if and when an explosion will go off at all. What’s great about Guy Hibbert’s screenplay is it never condescends to its characters or give us annoying ones who are out to make bone-headed decisions for their own benefit. Every reason each character gives for firing or not firing at the target makes perfect sense, and it adds to how difficult the question of attacking these terrorists with this little girl nearby is to answer. On one hand, stopping these terrorists will prevent the loss of many lives, but if the little girl is killed it will come back to aid the propaganda wars being fought against governments. Everyone is looking for a way to keep the blood off their hands, but no one gets off easy.

Watching this situation play out reminded me of a scene from “Blue Thunder.” This classic 1980’s movie is about a high-tech helicopter, and the characters see it do a demonstration of a strafing run where red dummies are terrorists and the white ones are civilians. In the course of shooting at the targets, all the red dummies are blown away as well as a few white ones. This leads the government official Fletcher to tell helicopter pilot Frank Murphy, “There’s one civilian dead for every ten terrorists. That’s an acceptable ratio.” To this Murphy replies, “Unless you’re one of the civilians.”

You almost want to laugh at the government officials who keep trying to contact their higher ups to get permission to obliterate the terrorists as it comes across as passing the buck. But whether or not there is an advantage to attacking or not attacking, there’s also how the rest of the population will interpret how their governments act. This is something governments can never fully control, and they are fully aware of the consequences of doing something and of doing nothing.

Gavin Hood has had a tough time in Hollywood ever since he won the Best Foreign Film Oscar for “Tsotsi.” His abduction thriller “Rendition” received a mixed reception, “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” proved to be a mess as it was undone by too much studio interference, and “Ender’s Game’s” chances of becoming a franchise of movies crashed as soon as it opened. But with “Eye in the Sky,” Hood is really in his element as he was once a soldier and has a clear understanding of the military’s responsibilities and the conflicts they endure. He’s also smart to not answer any of the questions the movie poses as he is not about to offer easy answers. Aside from the terrorists, there are no good or bad guys here, but instead, professionals trying to win a war against terrorism as well as the minds of the people.

Hood also shows how the drone pilots actually have it even harder than troops who see the action up close. They may be many miles away from their targets, but they can still see their targets up close and still have their finger on the trigger. At the movie’s press conference, Hood told reporters drone pilots have a higher rate of post-traumatic disorder than those troops who experienced armed combat up close. Having an actor like Aaron Paul playing the drone pilot gets this point across very well as we watch him suffer just as much as he did as Jesse Pinkman on “Breaking Bad.”

Mirren remains an impeccable actress, and she follows up her nasty turn as columnist Hedda Hopper in “Trumbo” with a much different character. Eager to stop another terrorist attack from happening, she undergoes tremendous stress while waiting for an answer from her commander. Mirren makes you feel her stress two-fold, and yet she never seems to break a sweat.

It’s also great to see Abdi here as he proves his Oscar-nominated performance in “Captain Phillips” was no fluke. His character is closest to the line of fire, and we watch as he does his best to do his work while under the prying eyes of fearsome soldiers. Abdi perfectly captures Jama’s desperation as he does what he can to save the little girl from a tragic fate, and he is riveting throughout.

The movie also contains the last onscreen performance from the late Alan Rickman who portrays Colonel Powell’s commanding officer, Lieutenant General Frank Benson. Rickman is as impeccable here as he has been in any other role he has played, and he will be deeply missed. He also has one of the movie’s most definitive lines which comes up towards the end, and he delivers it in a truly unforgettable way.

“Eye in the Sky” is one of those rare thrillers which thrills you just as much as it makes you think. The reality of drone warfare is hard to escape, and this is especially the case after watching this movie. As much as many of us want to leave life and death decisions up to others, Hood forces you to question what you would do in the same situation. You may not like the answers you come up with, but you can’t turn a blind eye to it forever.

By the way, in the case you were wondering, the Alan Parsons Project song of the same name is not featured in this movie. Bummer.

* * * ½ out of * * * *