Eye in the Sky ***|****

Helen Mirren in Eye in the Sky
Helen Mirren in Eye in the Sky

Sharp and timely, the international military thriller Eye in the Sky is a thoughtful and tactful examination of the ethical grey areas that plague the potential efficiency of modern drone warfare. It focuses narrowly on one event –one decision, really– that could have been an ancillary plot point in another war movie but instead is given the attention that it deserves to explore the decision-making behind it. This is exceptionally patient and clear-headed storytelling from director Gavin Hood, who has graduated from the humdrum Hollywood fare of X-Men Origins: Wolverine and Ender’s Game to create a purpose-driven work that’s actually worthy of his talent.

The story centers around a capture mission of high-level terrorists in Kenya that is headed up by British Colonel Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren) in London and by Lieutenant Frank Benson (Alan Rickman) in a nearby briefing room with England’s top cabinet members. The global operation is also aided in real time by the aerial surveillance of drone pilot Steve Watts (Aaron Paul) from Nevada and image analyst Carrie Gershon (Phoebe Fox) from Hawaii. When the situation proves to be more volatile than previously expected and a new potential causality enters the picture, the decision to potentially utilize a drone missile is debated both by those participating in the mission and by other seemingly unaffiliated parties as well.

Hood does an incredible job of taking these individual scenes of people communicating and working together from around the world and building it into one cohesive story that builds logically upon the small actions of each character. From watching the film, you would probably never guess that the four lead actors never actually met one another face to face during production but it speaks to the kind of narrative fluidity that’s on display as the tension builds. Even as more and more bureaucratic figures are brought into the picture, we never lose focus on what’s at stake and why this scenario proves to be so difficult to resolve.

With some exceptions, the script by Guy Hibbert is deft in dealing with these complex moral and political issues at hand without making the characters come across as shallow billboards for the beliefs that they represent. The concepts of collateral damage and greater good are routinely invoked but both sides of the arguments are presented fairly without the film giving us easy solutions to side with. One such moment occurs when Powell presses one of her subordinates to manipulate the calculations of a hypothetical attack; the moral conflict between the characters in that moment is palpable and representative of the challenging decisions that are made every day by military personnel.

Not only is the film thought-provoking but it’s also breathlessly paced and entertaining even at the surface level as a nail-biting thrill ride with plenty of small incidents that build towards larger consequences. Because the covert mission is in such a fragile state, even minor events like a veil covering the face of one of the targets or a cell phone running out of battery can affect all of the players involved in unexpected ways. Eye in the Sky is a breathtaking look at military intelligence in action and the technical evolution behind the battles yet to come.

Midnight Special ****|****

Jaeden Lieberher and Michael Shannon in Midnight Special
Jaeden Lieberher and Michael Shannon in Midnight Special

Jeff Nichols’ masterful Midnight Run achieves a perfect equilibrium of head and heart by combining uncommonly confident and intelligent storytelling with emotionally transcendent performances that linger long after the film is over. It’s a classic science-fiction parable that effortlessly incorporates universal themes of parental comittment and our endless curiosity towards the spectacular in a way that feels both wholly original and spiritually satisfying. Similar to the brilliant beams of light that spontaneously shoot out from the eyes of one of the main characters, this movie locked my gaze from its transfixing opening scene and held it there unwavering throughout its run time.

Nichols favorite Michael Shannon stars as Roy Tomlin, whose 8-year old son Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) exhibits supernatural abilities that inspire a religious cult dedicated to understanding the source and limits of his power. In doing so, they also draw the acute interest of the FBI and NSA, as the Alton-inspired “sermons” spoken by their leader Calvin Meyer (Sam Shepard) contain high-level government classified information. After recovering Alton from the cult’s compound with the help of his loyal friend Lucas (Joel Edgerton), Roy reunites with his estranged ex-wife Sarah (Kirsten Dunst) as the four plot to stay one step ahead of the authorities and discover Alton’s true calling.

These events often play out with a level of ambiguity and narrative restraint that may frustrate those expecting a more streamlined and commercial movie that falls more in line with the traditional Hollywood mold. Nichols could have easily included loads of expository dialogue or even intrusive voiceover narration for the sake of clarity but I have such respect for the understated approach that he takes instead. He’s so careful in what he chooses for his characters to reveal –and more importantly, not reveal– in their dialogue to provide enough substance to move the story forward but also enough subtext to allow for deeper inference.

It’s a brilliant script, full of poignant character moments and thrilling sequences of spectacle and grandeur, but it doesn’t work without the conviction of this all-star lineup of a cast. Shannon has proven himself as a fine actor in role after role (he’s starred in all four of Jeff Nichols’ features so far) but his work here as a father struggling to come to terms with his son’s miraculous condition may just be his best yet. Edgerton and Dunst are also excellent at feeding off the hopes and the anxieties of Shannon’s character, adding their own notes of emotional complexity to underscore their motivations.

Collaborating again with cinematographer Adam Stone, Nichols again demonstrates his gift for the kind of brilliant visual storytelling that draws apt comparisons to masters like Cameron and Spielberg. His use of shadow and light is not only remarkable in terms of its composition but he also uses the two to serve as a visual motif for a world engulfed in darkness that slowly gives way to more luminosity as the narrative moves forward. He’s a rare talent in an industry that’s desperate for one now more than ever and there’s no doubt that he’s created something truly special this time around.

Knight of Cups **|****

Cate Blanchett and Christian Bale in Knight of Cups
Cate Blanchett and Christian Bale in Knight of Cups

Christian Bale teams back up with The New World director Terrence Malick for Knight of Cups, a meditative and meandering work that ultimately squanders the abundance of talent behind and in front of the camera. Malick has never been one to put forth a concise premise or to craft crisp, linear storytelling but the structure here is detrimentally loose and unnecessarily arduous, especially given the enticing subject material. I’m all for a well-told existential crisis movie but when context and setup are intentionally kept to a bare minimum, it goes a long way to stymie any sort of initial enthusiasm.

We follow forlorn Hollywood executive Rick (Bale) through various stages in his adult life, the majority of which involve his most crucial female relationships and almost all of which take place throughout the Los Angeles area. Like the film’s title, each of its eight chapters takes its name from a tarot card that ostensibly describes a corresponding character or concept in Rick’s life. The most notable of the tableaux include The Hermit, in which playboy Tonio (Antonio Banderas) serves as Rick’s spiritual guide through a swanky celebrity gathering, and Judgement, which documents the fallout of his failed marriage from ex-wife Nancy (Cate Blanchett).

These stories are intermittently interesting on their own but there’s very little connective tissue between them that allows for momentum to build up to something meaningful. They could practically be told out of order and I don’t imagine it would have a great effect on the final product, which doesn’t bode well for any sort of poignancy that’s supposed to come from the narrative. The agile camerawork of the masterful Emmanuel Lubezki is always seeking out transfixing shots of beauty and wonder and it’s no coincidence that his unique sense of vision is often the most engrossing aspect of the film.

Anything to distract from the odiously overwrought sentiments recited by the multitude of talented actors in the style of hushed voiceover for which Malick has come to overuse in his more recent work. With its moody settings and pretentious tagline narration, the overall effect is not unlike watching 120 one-minute fragrance ads in a row with all of the closing pitches removed. The problem is that this movie doesn’t even know what it’s selling in the first place. If I’m supposed to feel bad for Rick as he bounces around the most affluent parts of LA and mopes about his luxurious circumstances, I’m not buying.

Bale’s largely vapid and charmless performance doesn’t explain why his character would garner the attention of these gorgeous women who can’t wait to throw themselves at him but more importantly, it also doesn’t root the narrative with much emotional honesty. His apathy bleeds into the disposition of the surrounding characters to the degree that everyone is just a little too cool and removed to be remotely relatable. Malick is an undeniably great filmmaker and he’ll find his way again, so I choose to consider Knight of Cups a spiritual hiccup rather than a career-halting dead end.

Snowden **|****

Joseph Gordon-Levitt in Snowden
Joseph Gordon-Levitt in Snowden

Even the efforts of the eminently talented Joseph Gordon-Levitt aren’t enough to lift this leaden biopic, which strains hard to be about Edward Snowden The Human as opposed to Edward Snowden The Headline. In his effort to humanize the now infamous NSA whistleblower, director Oliver Stone spends far too much of Snowden‘s 140 minute runtime cataloging personal details of its subject’s life in a manner that’s shoddy and predictable from the first scene. Stone’s never been known to be a particularly eloquent dramatist to begin with and his commercially friendly approach to this potentially provocative subject matter adds very little to the international conversation on mass surveillance and privacy in the digital age.

The film, which is told largely in a series of drawn out flashbacks, centers around Snowden’s pivotal meeting in Hong Kong as he discloses the classified documents to journalists Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson). As Snowden begins to open up to filmmaker Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo) in their hotel room, we learn about his early training days in the army, his various positions within the intelligence community and the romantic relationship with his photographer girlfriend Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley). After the data is eventually leaked to the press, we follow Snowden as he finds temporary asylum in Russia amid staggering criminal charges brought on by the US government.

Perhaps I’m a cold hearted person but the fact is that I just don’t care about Snowden’s personal dilemmas and hangups nearly as much as I care about his role as a catalyst for the important public debate that he brought about with his actions. I’m not interested in pointless subplots like one involving Timothy Olyphant as a shady CIA operative and I’m even less interested in the 10 total minutes of screen time that Nicolas Cage has as a squirrelly NSA mentor. As an obsessive filmmaker, Stone is wont to get wrapped up in these kinds of trivial details that obscure the message he’s trying to convey.

He clearly wants Snowden’s relationship with Mills to be the heart of the story but Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Shailene Woodley don’t have the kind of chemistry that makes their love believable or worth rooting for. Both have done terrific work in other projects but their interactions here feel so forced and rarely does it seem like they’re emotionally on the same page with one another at any given moment. In particular, their hollow conversations about politics come across as the characters acting as a mouthpiece for the respective political parties they represent rather than resembling any kind of realistic talk that couples might actually have with one another.

The only scenes that have any sort of dramatic thrust are those with Snowden, Poitras and the two journalists in the Hong Kong hotel and it’s a shame that there isn’t a movie that focuses solely on these four individuals as they race against news deadlines and a relentless press force that seeks to expose them. Except there is; it’s called Citizenfour and it won Best Documentary Feature at the Oscars last year (it’s even streaming online for free here). If you’re truly interested in this material, you’re much better off watching the vastly superior documentary and leaving Snowden out in the cold.

Sully ***|****

Tom Hanks and Aaron Eckhart in Sully
Tom Hanks and Aaron Eckhart in Sully

In January 2009, captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger and his co-pilot Jeff Skiles were faced with an unprecedented situation. During their takeoff from LaGuardia Airport, a flock of geese spontaneously flew through both of the aircraft’s engines and rendered them powerless to continue through the flight. Forced to react quickly on behalf of his terrified passengers, Sully surmised that the best option was to land their crippled airplane on top of the nearby Hudson River, a decision that saved the lives of all 155 people on-board US Airways Flight 1549 and captured the attention of news outlets around the world.

Clint Eastwood’s dramatization of this heroic event and the impact it has on those involved is the focus of his new film Sully, which stars Tom Hanks as Captain Sully and Aaron Eckhart as First Officer Skiles. While the media adequately covered the result of the landing itself, it didn’t spend as much time focusing on the NTSB’s investigation to the crash, which alleged that Sully could have flown back to runways at one of two alternate airports in both New York in New Jersey despite his limited circumstances. Mike O’Malley and Anna Gunn, who you may recognize as Skyler from Breaking Bad, play the investigators tasked by the NTSB to suss out the situation.

It’s no surprise that the landing itself makes for the most exciting material in the story but Eastwood is smart about the way that he depicts fractions of the event from different perspectives before giving us an unbroken and definitive account towards the middle of the movie. When it did arrive, my heart was pounding as the plane taxied to the runway and began to take off. The amount of tension that’s built during the scene, from the quiet stillness of the engines right after the bird strike to the concurrent cries of “heads down, stay down!” from the flight attendants right before the crash, only subsides the moment after the plane hits the water.

With its white-knuckle crash sequence and subsequent probing from government officials looking to find flaws in the pilot’s performance, Sully has parallels to the recent Robert Zemeckis film Flight, in which Denzel Washington’s pilot character is initially hailed as a hero. While that film has different goals as a character study and redemption story, I can’t help but feel that Eastwood could have dug deeper into his protagonist the way Zemeckis did so well in his feature. Other than the fact that Sully is a hero who used a lifetime of training and preparation to divert a catastrophe, he doesn’t have much else to say about the central figure of his story.

Perhaps some of that also falls on Hanks, who portrays Sully as the calm and collected professional that he came across as in his numerous appearances in the press but jettisons some of his natural charm in the process. Eckhart fares a bit better in his role as Skiles, sporting a brilliantly authentic pilot’s mustache and a cunning wit that provides some much needed bits of humor to some of the film’s more drab stretches. Sully is an honorable and workman-like effort from Eastwood that reminds us that pure heroism is still powerful enough to inspire in increasingly cynical times.

Hell or High Water ****|****

Ben Foster and Chris Pine in Hell or High Water
Ben Foster and Chris Pine in Hell or High Water

On the tail end of a massively disappointing summer comes this excellent modern Western that richly explores the themes of poverty and family legacy in a way that balances art and entertainment in an immensely satisfying way. Hell or High Water also features some of the best screenwriting that I’ve seen this year, with dialogue that’s clever and loaded with plenty of dry humor but also doesn’t come across as manufactured or unnatural. Throw in a few deeply memorable performances and confident, poetic storytelling from Scottish director David Mackenzie and you have one of the film year’s biggest, most unexpected surprises.

The story takes place in a desolate region of west Texas hit hard by the economic crash, where highway billboards make empty promises of “fast cash now” and freedom from debt but the feeling of hopelessness is settled deeply in the eyes of its residents. Looking to escape their circumstances are the Howard brothers Tanner (Ben Foster) and Toby (Chris Pine), who begin committing small-time bank robberies in order to help avoid foreclosure on the ranch home of their recently deceased mother. Along with this, Toby also plans to use the funds to repay child support to his ex-wife and hopefully reconnect with his estranged sons.

After knocking off two banks in a morning, the Howard boys soon draw heat from the nearly-retired Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) and his stoic and patient partner Alberto (Gil Birmingham). The two playfully exchange barbs about Hamilton’s curmudgeonly tendencies or Alberto’s ethnicity at a rate that’s almost hard to keep up with but it demonstrates the kind of oddly caring relationship that the lawmen have with one another. Their investigation eventually lead them to the Howards’ final robbery, in which the two brothers get in over their heads and their amateurish execution threatens to get the better of them.

Taylor Sheridan has penned an outstanding script that’s loaded both with poignant dramatic moments and witty bits of levity for comedic effect that can even pop up unexpectedly in seemingly serious interactions. Even Tanner isn’t above a “that’s what she said” crack when Toby comments on the size of a branch bank as the duo drive up to it. But when it’s time to get down to business, Sheridan knows just how to dial these characters in and remind us that these are down and out criminals who aren’t above violence and intimidation to achieve their goals.

Foster and Bridges do terrific work in roles that rely somewhat on mannerisms and reactions from performances that the actors have given in the past but it’s Pine that shines brightest here. He modulates the kind of charisma that he brings to a role like Kirk in the Star Trek films and focuses that energy inwards to play a calm and collected foil to the Foster’s loose cannon. Their unbreakable brotherly bond is just one aspect of Hell or High Water that makes it undeniably great entertainment and worthy of any Oscar consideration (especially Best Original Screenplay) it may receive next February.