Movie Review: “Eye in the Sky”

Starring
Helen Mirren, Aaron Paul, Alan Rickman, Barkhad Abdi, Iain Glen
Director
Gavin Hood

Director Gavin Hood treats war and violence very seriously in his work. Even in his adaptation of the young adult novel, “Ender’s Game,” the director stayed true to the source material’s sense of pain and loss. “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” will forever remain an oddity in Hood’s work, because that film’s violence is beyond cartoonish, while the rest of his films, including “Eye in the Sky,” take their stakes seriously.

The movie opens with Lieutenant General Frank Benson (Alan Rickman) shopping for a doll for his daughter. He becomes increasingly annoyed, unable to find the right one. After requesting an assistant to take care of it for him, the Lieutenant General couldn’t be more confident and in control when pushing for a drone strike that could possibly kill a child as part of collateral damage. It’s not an entirely subtle transition, but it is very effective, which is a good way of describing “Eye in the Sky.”

Initially planned as a “capture” mission between the U.K. and U.S., the operation is amended when an on-the-ground agent (Barkhad Abdi) sees one of the targets, Aisha Al Hady (Lex King), preparing for a suicide bombing. Colonel Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren) immediately calls for a strike, but when two drone pilots in Las Vegas, Steve Watts (Aaron Paul) and Carrie Gershon (Phoebe Fox), spot a child in the vicinity of the target, it changes everything.

While we’ve seen drone warfare covered plenty of times lately (like Andrew Niccol’s “Good Kill”), screenwriter Guy Hibbert and Hood present it in a new light. For a movie that’s fairly small in scale, and one that takes place over the course of only a few hours, it’s often sprawling in nature. Hood and Hibbert show the nuts and bolts involved in calling for a drone strike, and it’s suspenseful, inherently dramatic and sometimes terrifying to watch unfold. Every little thing matters in this story, both for the characters and audience.

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Movie Review: “London Has Fallen”

Starring
Gerard Butler, Aaron Eckhart, Morgan Freeman, Angela Bassett, Charlotte Riley, Colin Salmon, Robert Forster
Director
Babak Najafi

“Olympus Has Fallen” was a pretty blatant rip-off of John McTiernan’s “Die Hard,” so it should come as no surprise that “London Has Fallen” – which is more of a spiritual successor than a literal sequel to the 2013 film – takes a page from another installment in the John McClane series, “Die Hard with a Vengeance,” by staging it as a buddy movie between Gerard Butler‘s gruff, no-nonsense Secret Service agent and Aaron Eckhart‘s hostage-prone president. The premise itself isn’t all that different from its somewhat enjoyable predecessor, but while “London Has Fallen” has its charms, this lean, mean POTUS-in-peril action thriller is ultimately hindered by its reluctance to fully embrace its own stupidity.

When the British Prime Minister unexpectedly dies after a routine surgery, U.S. President Benjamin Asher (Eckhart) insists on traveling to London for the funeral to pay his respects, despite the logistical nightmare that it creates for Secret Service director Lynne Jacobs (Angela Bassett) and head of security Mike Banning (Butler). Many of the world’s most powerful leaders are scheduled to attend, which provides the perfect opportunity for Yemenian arms dealer Aamir Barkawi (Alon Aboutboul) to launch a synchronized terrorist attack that kills several heads of state and reduces London’s most famous landmarks to rubble. President Asher manages to survive the initial attack, but when his rescue chopper is shot down, he’s forced to go on the run from his pursuers, relying once again on the highly skilled Banning to keep him safe and neutralize the threat.

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Movie Review: “Zootopia”

Starring
Jason Bateman, Ginnifer Goodwin, Idris Elba, Jenny Slate, Bonnie Hunt, J.K. Simmons, Octavia Spencer
Director
Byron Howard & Rich Moore

“Zootopia” might be the cleverest bait-and-switch Disney has ever pulled. All of the teaser ads and promotional materials are pushing the adorable Judy Hopps and her very funny encounter with the sloths running the DMV. What they conveniently leave out is that the movie is an on-point commentary about prejudice and racism, their origins, how they’re used as a weapon for political gain, and how we’re all guilty of them in one form or another. In fact, it’s tempting to resent the film a little, because it explains these subjects to children better than most parents ever could.

The film opens with an expository children’s play that explains how predator and prey in the animal kingdom have found a way to co-exist without, you know, one eating the other (though what the predators eat instead is never mentioned, outside of doughnuts). One of the stars of that play is the idealistic bunny Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin), who announces on stage that she intends to be the world’s first bunny police officer, and many years later, against all odds and her parents’ wishes, she succeeds. She is transferred to the big city of Zootopia, where Sergeant Bogo (Idris Elba) assigns her to…parking duty. Ouch.

The urge to fight crime is strong, though, and Judy zones in on a seemingly untrustworthy fox named Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman, whose character bears an uncanny resemblance), only to become a victim to one of his many cons. Judy is desperate to prove herself to Bogo, and agrees to take on the missing case of an otter against Bogo’s wishes. Bogo initially fires her for insubordination, but instead gives her 48 hours to find the otter, after which Judy must resign if she fails. Judy leans on Nick – whom she has under her thumb because she has enough evidence to have him locked up – to guide her through the big city, even though Nick tends to cause more problems than he solves.

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Movie Review: “Gods of Egypt”

Starring
Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Gerard Butler, Brenton Thwaites, Courtney Eaton, Chadwick Boseman, Elodie Yung, Geoffrey Rush, Rufus Sewell
Director
Alex Proyas

You have to respect any studio daring enough to give director Alex Proyas – who hasn’t made a movie in over seven years – $140 million dollars to produce an adventure/fantasy film that isn’t based on a preexisting property. Unfortunately, that respect means very little when the money is wasted on a movie as hopelessly dumb as “Gods of Egypt,” though you could hardly say that the warning signs weren’t there, especially with a screenplay by the same hacks responsible for recent flops like “Dracula Untold” and “The Last Witch Hunter.” Credit to Proyas for attempting something this ambitious, but it doesn’t make the effects-heavy fantasy flick any less of a turkey.

The film takes place in ancient Egypt, where gods and mortals coexist under the leadership of King Osiris (Bryan Brown), the favored offspring of the sun god Ra (a strangely miscast Geoffrey Rush). But when it comes time to crown his son Horus (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) as Egypt’s newest ruler, his jealous brother Set (Gerard Butler) stages a royal coup, killing Osiris and defeating Horus in battle. Set ultimately shows mercy to Horus by letting him live, but not before plucking out his magic eyes, which are the source of his god-like abilities. As Egypt is thrust into a slave-driven dictatorship, a young thief named Bek (Brenton Thwaites) decides to take action by stealing back one of Horus’ eyes and striking a deal with the self-exiled god. In exchange for its return, Bek demands that Horus resurrects his recently slain love (Courtney Eaton) before she reaches the afterlife, a seemingly impossible feat that Horus nevertheless agrees to in order to exact revenge on his murderous uncle.

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Movie Review: “Triple 9″

Starring
Casey Affleck, Woody Harrelson, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Anthony Mackie, Kate Winslet, Aaron Paul, Norman Reedus, Gal Gadot, Teresa Palmer
Director
John Hillcoat

Director John Hillcoat makes unpleasant movies. His films (“The Road,” “The Proposition”) tend to focus on violent worlds, and how characters embrace, accept or run from their environment. Hillcoat is an unflinching filmmaker, even when he’s making more commercial movies. “Triple 9” is a more conventional picture from the director, but as proven with “Lawless,” he knows how to spin a familiar tale well.

The Russian mob, led by a ferocious and dazzling Kate Winslet, has a well-trained team of robbers firmly under its thumb, including two corrupt cops (Anthony Mackie and Clifton Collins Jr.). Michael Atwood (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is the leader of the gang and wants out, but due to personal reasons – he has a kid with the mob boss’ sister (Gal Gadot) – starting a new life isn’t going to be easy. To begin again, Michael will have to pull off a near-impossible heist. However, an opportunity presents itself when one of his crew members, Marcus Belmont (Mackie), is assigned a new partner in rookie cop Chris Allen (Casey Affleck), who he may have to betray in order to earn his last big score.

This crime thriller, written by Matt Cook, is very much rooted in genre. The setup, some of the archetypes, and the payoffs are often what you expect, but when Cook and Hillcoat dig a little deeper, the results are generally rewarding, especially when it comes to the more dynamic performances.

Woody Harrelson as Chris’ brother, Sergeant Detective Jeffrey Allen, is just a big ball of unstoppable, unhinged and enigmatic energy. Whenever he enters a room, “Triple 9” just lights up. It’s not because Harrelson is playing a scene-stealing kind of character, but it’s the duality of his performance and Cook’s writing that makes the detective such a fascinating figure. He’s a mess, always looking like he just got out of bed. He’s a goof and breaks the rules, but he’s also a kind-hearted guy and a cop dedicated to his job and his brother. The character goes to some funny places, and when Hillcoat and Harrelson go there, it’s very entertaining.

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