Eye in the Sky

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War has featured on film since the dawn of cinema, and both have been hugely influenced by the development of technology. Gavin Hood’s Eye in the Sky is a hugely relevant film that demonstrates much of modern warfare is to do with seeing and visualising. Colonel Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren) is in command of a mission over Nairobi, where an airborne drone tracks several known extremists to a house where they can be eliminated with a missile. Within the blast radius, however, is a young girl selling bread, Alia Mo’Allim (Aisha Takow). Powell must persuade her superiors, including Lieutenant General Frank Benson (Alan Rickman, in his final onscreen role) and assembled politicians, that she fire on the terrorists’ despite the risk of civilian casualties. Thus begins a nerve-shredding debate between multiple locations, including Powell in Eastbury, Benson and the politicians in London, USAF pilots Steve Watts (Aaron Paul) and Carrie Gershon (Phoebe Fox) piloting the drone from Nevada, Kenyan undercover agents in Nairobi including Jama Farah (Barkhad Abdi), and US image analysts in Hawaii, as well as additional contributions from the British Foreign Secretary James Willett (Iain Glen) in Singapore and the US Secretary of State in Beijing. The constant crosscutting between these different locations emphasises the global nature of military operations, and the sheer number of referrals and deferrals at times becomes almost absurd. Yet the film remains deadly serious in its engagement with the issues of combat. Debates about risk assessments, propaganda, political fallout and humanitarian concerns fly back and forth across tables and the world, while personal consciences are writ large across the faces of the characters. Hood, who also appears as Lt. Colonel Ed Walsh in Nevada, has repeatedly engaged with military ethics, from Rendition to X-Men Origins: Wolverine to Ender’s Game. Eye in the Sky is one of his most accomplished films, as it foregrounds the various debates but never feels staid or overly dependent on expository dialogue. The stakes are emphasised from every position, including the drone, other surveillance devices, Farah on the ground near the house and the operatives viewing on their various screens. The viewer is therefore placed into an uncomfortable proximity to the events, the film asking what we might do when faced with such decisions. Eye in the Sky offers no simplistic judgement of those involved in the decision-making, merely presents their dilemmas in gripping dramatic form. It is a tense and compelling portrayal of modern warfare, which uses its meta-cinematic conceit to engage with these discourses to great effect.

The Huntsman: Winter’s War

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Recent film adaptations of fairytales are a mixed bag. For every Frozen there is a Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters. Snow White and the Huntsman was a decent expansion of the Snow White story, turning the ‘fairest of them all’ into a Joan of Arc-esque warrior. The Huntsman: Winter’s War is both a prequel and sequel, explaining how Eric the Huntsman (Chris Hemsworth) came to where we first see him in the earlier film. The backstory also raises points that are then developed following the events of Snow White and the Hunstman. And that’s about it. While the fantasy world is prettily designed and there are some interesting formulations of the magic of sister sorceresses Ravenna (Charlize Theron) and Freya (Emily Blunt), director Cedric Nicolas-Troyan fails to give the film an epic sweep or battle scenes that are more than functional. On the smaller scale, Eric and Sara (Jessica Chastain) are passably engaging as romantic swashbuckling heroes (despite distracting faux-Scottish accents), but their story similarly lacks heft and impetus. The film swings unevenly between romance, action and comedy, the last of which is largely provided by dwarves Nion (Nick Frost), Gryff (Rob Brydon), Mrs Bronwen (Sheridan Smith) and Doreena (Alexandra Roach). This unevenness is the main problem – the film never seems sure of its agenda and, as a result, the handsome production design and sometimes stirring music has little dramatic meat to add to. The Huntsman: Winter’s War is passably pretty, but ultimately (and not in a good way) leaves the viewer just a little cold.

Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice

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There is a widely held misconception that BVS: DOJ is about an epic physical showdown. It isn’t. What the title refers to, and what the film portrays over its sometimes ponderous running time, is an ideological debate between saviour and vigilante. Perhaps surprisingly for a filmmaker best known for bombastic action set pieces, Zack Snyder grapples valiantly with this political debate, resulting in a film where the most interesting sequences are those that feature actual debates. A brooding, melancholic and traumatised Batman/Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) debates with reluctant but loyal Alfred (Jeremy Irons); an idealistic yet doubtful Superman/Clark Kent debates with Lois Lane (Amy Adams), Martha Kent (Diane Lane) and Perry White (Laurence Fishburne); senator Finch (Holly Hunter) debates with fellow politicians as well as twitchy billionaire Alexander Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg). Meanwhile, the mysterious Diana Price (Gal Gadot) seems to have more answers than everyone else, yet raises questions herself. In-between the debates are immense set pieces, many shot in Snyder’s trademark slo-mo that recalls 300 and Sucker Punch (other references to Snyder’s back catalogue also appear). DOP Larry Fong lenses the film in gloomy shades, especially the ruin of Wayne Manor and the urban wastelands in which our ‘heroes’ battle. At times, the grand portentousness does overwhelm the drama, the wit of Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer’s script hamstrung by Snyder’s lumpen pacing. Yet while the film lacks the lean muscularity of Christopher Nolan‘s Dark Knight trilogy or even the more focused bombast of Man of Steel, it does make a strong contribution to the fundamental questions of superhero cinema – what does it mean to be a hero and what does it mean to be super? Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice may not be the zippiest superhero film, but it is one of the more thoughtful.

The Divergent Series: Allegiant

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Allegiance to what we see or what sees us? Vision is a recurring conceit throughout Allegiant, third in The Divergent Series. After the lacklustre Insurgent, Allegiant is a welcome return to the political uprising/growing pains drama of Divergent. Across the first two films, there was a constant sense of there being more out there, literally as Chicago is surrounded by a wall, but also narratively as to how the series’ faction system came about and what it truly means to be divergent or otherwise. Allegiant expands this dystopic world, with various explorations of vision intertwined with the trials and tribulations of heroine Tris (Shailene Woodley), her lover Four (Theo James), brother Caleb (Ansel Elgort) and loyalty shifter Peter (Miles Teller). Illusions (literally) shatter, fields of vision are expanded by technology, and revelations abound. As questions are answered fresh ones are raised, while new characters including David (Jeff Daniels), Matthew (Bill Skarsgård) and Nita (Nadia Hilker) add to the mix of followers and rebels. The film’s most striking moments are its explorations of vision, casting watchers and the watched in new lights and suggesting aspects of our relationship with what we see. Director Robert Schwentke, DOP Florian Ballhaus and production designer Alec Hammond render these explorations in a richly detailed future world, showing that there’s yet more to find in the young adult dystopia. Roll on Ascendant!

Brooklyn

From the opening moments of Eilis Lacey (Saiorse Ronan) stepping into the street of a quiet Irish village, Brooklyn establishes its conceit of subtlety and restraint. Despite being a story of great upheaval and massive change, director John Crowley never strays into melodrama or histrionics. Screenwriter Nick Hornby’s adaptation of Colm Tóibín’s novel about immigration to New York in the 1950s is told with a steady hand, allowing the viewer to witness the trials and tribulations of this every person journey. And the easiest part of the journey is the sea crossing, despite food poisoning and restricted toilet access, in a film that is not afraid of broad humour any more than it is of taking its time. Eilis’ experience is one likely to chime with anyone who has spent extended periods away from home, and for those who have changed where they call home. Weaving its delicate yet compelling route through issues of family, community, friendship, career and love, Brooklyn is a beautifully crafted and moving portrayal of personal change.

Room

“Through the eyes of a child” tends to evoke a sense of innocence. Lenny Abrahamson’s adaptation of Emma Donoghue’s novel Room, with a screenplay by Donoghue herself, makes use of this premise in the most extraordinary way: presenting deeply horrific events from the perspective of a child so that the viewer understands both the innocence and the experience. Abrahamson’s subtly intense direction creates a vibrant cinematic world, where Ethan Tobman’s production design of walls, appliances and furniture become a landscape as encompassing and immersive as any city or forest. Director of photography Danny Cohen lenses the film with an intimacy that is both hopeful and harrowing, the viewer never losing sight either of the appalling situation or the indomitable love that sustains Ma (Brie Larson) and Jack (Jacob Tremblay). Larson’s various awards for Best Actress are richly deserved, as she delivers a performance of strength, resolve, confusion and fragility, always captivating and never less than convincing, while Tremblay is equally impressive. Room succeeds in drawing the viewer into its unique world, ensuring that we constantly share the experience of Ma and Jack, an experience that reduced me to tears several times. The resulting experience is moving and enthralling, traumatic yet life-affirming, from this intricately designed, sublimely presented, exquisitely painful story of love.

Oscar Reflections – Part Two

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While the 88th Academy Awards had some surprises, the acting awards were not among them and I correctly predicted all four winners. I am yet to see The Danish Girl but hope that Alicia Vikander will avoid the curse of the Best Supporting Actress award and build on her great success of last year. Her Oscar for The Danish Girl culminates her achievements in Testament of Youth, Ex Machina and The Man From U.N.C.L.E., fulfilling the potential of earlier work such as A Royal Affair. Roll on The Light Between Oceans!

Mark Rylance received his award for Best Supporting Actor in Bridge of Spies graciously and generously, especially when he described himself as a spokesman for the nominated actors rather than a victor over them. Brie Larson surprised no one with her Best Actress win, that I consider richly deserved as her performance in Room was utterly captivating. Oh yes, and we can FINALLY say Academy Award Winner Leonardo DiCaprio! While DiCaprio doubtless has many roles ahead of him, it will be interesting to see if he takes easier roles in the future or if he continues to explore strange and interesting parts like that that in The Revenant. I suspect and hope the latter.

In his acceptance speech, DiCaprio spoke eloquently about the destructive attitudes that The Revenant highlights, and emphasised the need to work together against climate change and the politics of greed. He was far from the only political speaker at the ceremony, as various presenters and winners took advantage of the grand stage to urge for political action. Best Director Alejando G. Iñárritu urged for greater respect and recognition for people of all races and ethnicities, while various presenters took shots at the policies of Donald Trump.

After the controversy around diversity in the acting categories, Chris Rock made a serendipitous host. As a black comedian who frequently comments upon race, Rock took full advantage of the opportunity afforded him. His opening monologue exploited his own persona beautifully, and Rock’s jokes about diversity continued throughout the show, possibly to the extent of tedium, but overall he was funny and critical without being mean-spirited or facetious. Rock’s focus upon diversity, which other presenters and winners picked up on as well, hopefully demonstrates a desire to address this problem. But as Rock pointed out, the problem is far wider than the Oscars or the Academy, and Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs’ speech about AMPAS’ programme to improve diversity and support filmmakers of all races and ethnicities suggests genuine action to effect change. But don’t expect multiple people of colour to be nominated next year – change tends to be gradual.

Two other moments were particularly affecting. The first was the winner of the Documentary Short, Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy for A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness. Obaid-Chinoy’s speech about what the need and potential to battle inequality was both a sober reminder of this social problem and an inspiring message about the power of film. And in the most startlingly political moment of the night, US Vice-President Joe Biden spoke about sexual assault on university campuses across America, urging Academy members and viewers alike to join the movement against this problem. Biden then introduced Lady Gaga who sang the nominated song ‘Til It Happens To You’ from the documentary The Hunting Ground. Gaga’s performance, combined with the appearance of multiple survivors of sexual assault, was the most moving moment of the night for me. ‘Til It Happens To You’ would have made a fine winner of Original Song, but regardless, it was a magnificent performance.

Back when the nominations were announced, I commented that several of the Best Picture nominees were inward looking and critical, including The Big Short and the eventual winner, Spotlight. For the Academy to reward Spotlight in this way, as well as other films like A Girl in the River, and to have allowed multiple political statements which were not cut off by music (such as DiCaprio and Iñárritu), suggests the Academy’s awareness of film’s potential impact. AMPAS’ response to the diversity controversy, the rewarding of politically charged films and the sensitivity shown towards calls for progressive change was, for me at least, a hopeful and positive sign.

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