Sunday, 24 April 2016

Eye In The Sky (2016) (Review)

From the opening title card to the final slow motion credit roll, Eye In The Sky is completely compelling, gripping and immersive viewing; a film the edge of your seat was made for. Refusing to shy away from relevancy, Gavin Hood expertly crafts the events that unfold, almost in realtime, which dissects the ethical, political and legal dilemmas posed by drone strikes against the terrorists using these methods and the civilians caught up in the crossfire. Demonstrating the different sides of these very real consequences and lessons, Eye In The Sky does so with a grit, power and resolution that should be admired.

Colonel Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren) leads the 'capture, not kill' mission on a group of suspected terrorists high up on the 'most wanted' list in Nairobi, Kenya. Joined through the powers of the internet by Lieutenant General Frank Benson (Alan Rickman) in London, 2nd Lieutenant Steve Watts  (Aaron Paul) in Nevada - who is tasked to fire the missile - and military in Hawaii, as well as field agents including Jama Farah (Barkhad Abdi). When the situation because all the more drastic and plans are reevaluated, a decision must be made that will live with them forever, with each individual all the more ready to pass the book to avoid getting the blood of innocent civilians off their hands.

The fear with a film like Eye in The Sky is for it to feel too sporadic and erratic, shoehorning unneeded characters and arguments in, but the director, Gavin Hood, has a tight grasp on the narrative, story and message he wants the film to tell, instead giving it a feeling of claustrophobia. In the wrong hands, this could go very wrong, but in this instance is it effective, reminding the audience of the inescapable dangers of extremism and the high cost war has on everybody - guilt or innocent. Each different setting has its own unique theme and side to argue from, with the characters complex enough to give them emotional ground and stability behind their views and opinions, without ever becoming too dangerous or forceful with it. The film walks an incredible thin and precarious line but gives the audience enough to proactively make their own decisions and have them question their own conscience and decisions, long after they leave the cinema. Thrillers rarely come as taut and tense as this; Eye In The Sky evokes tonal similarities to last year's Sicario by keeping the intensity at fever pitch from beginning until end.

All of this, however, would be worth nothing, if it wasn't supported by an incredible cast. Even with the rotating setting that could feel very off-putting, the strong cast - lead by Mirren - manage to connect and react well with each other, turning in star performances that are unlikely a (very) early talking point for next year's Oscars. Mirren's steely demeanour and commitment to her job role is expertly portrayed, with Rickman's posthumous performance reminding audiences of his phenomenal talent and ability to bring realism and truth to a scene. Paul's emotional complexity is excellently displayed throughout, with his role arguably the most difficult in the film, as his character is required to launch the missile himself, acting as a sensational platform by pouring his emotions into the situation we would all struggle with, along with Phoebe Fox who plays his colleague. Abdi being on the ground brings us in closer to the action, adding a new dimension to explore. Despite not being in the same location at all, the interactions between these characters keep the audience entirely engaged and compelled, something which can only be asked by the most skilful actor.

Having the audience question themselves long after the film credits roll is a testament to how successful the film is; it will certainly stay with me for a while. Whilst delivering its message loud and clear, the film is never forceful and biased in its approach, leaving the audience to decide for themselves right, wrong, good and bad, leaving the grey-area of warfare wide open for interpretation. It offers a genuinely moving climax and is tonally consistent, keeping the audience nothing short of gripped until the fade to black that signifies the end of the film, but certainly not the end of your thoughts and conscience ticking. This clock-ticking drama is timely and relevant, offering something beyond the predictable conventions of a wartime thriller; although stereotypes and prejudices are kept well out of sight.

Summary: Eye In The Sky is a sobering and nail-biting thriller that explores the morality and conscience of drone attacks, all of which is kept taut and tense by the director and bolstered by an incredible cast.

Highlight: I feared the ending would undo all the tension that had built before it, and without giving anything away, it is powerful, moving and emotional, offering a profound insight into the dangers of war, drones, political moves and personal fulfilment.


Saturday, 16 April 2016

Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) (Review)


Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is the follow up to Man of Steel (2013) and is the second entry into the DC Extended Universe that is attempting to catch superhero lightning in a bottle ala Marvel's Cinematic Universe. To say that Man of Steel (the revived Superman's first outing) had a lukewarm reception is, frankly, putting it nicely. DC panicked over the mixed reviews and decent-but-not-good-enough box office intake and decided to throw Batman into the mix for the sequel. Thus, we arrive at Batman v Superman and the dawn of a new franchise.

Following the destruction and carnage seen at the end of Man of Steel, Superman's status is questioned; to many, he continues to be a symbol of hope, and to others he is shaping up as a dangerous threat to humanity, To put it simply, Superman (Henry Cavill) is the most controversial figure to society. Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) questions why such a danger is left ungoverned, and it into his own hands to right Superman's wrongs, becoming a metaphorical antidote to Superman's destruct and donning his black cape and mask. As a rivalry fuels between them, the war between two of the most famous/infamous superheroes in set in motion, but is it a greater scheme designed by an even more treacherous entity?

I'm a little late to the party with this one, mainly because the reviews put me off so much. I rarely let critical reception cloud my judgment of a film and prefer to decide for myself - but the whole thing seemed to be a mess from the moment it was announced and an unsavoury 28% Rotten Tomatoes approval failed to convince me otherwise. Positive reviews could have swayed me to see it sooner but that, alas, did not happen. Sadly, after watching the film, I wish I had stayed away completely.

I wholeheartedly agree with the one complaint I continually see for this film; the narrative is paper thin. I mean, what actually happens? It's an interesting premise absolutely wasted because the content has not been crafted and there simply is not enough for Batman and Superman to fight over, resulting in an uphill battle from the start that it never really recovers from. The onerous attempt to build a film of substance just two films into the arc and universe is the biggest downfall. A valiant attempt to do too much, too soon sees them absolutely crumble under the pressure to succeed that I worry no one will survive from.

Reportedly carrying a $250 million production budget price tag, boring is not a word you want attached to your project, but unfortunately, Batman v Superman is just that. Tedious, monotone and arduous, it fails to excite even as we reach the supposedly climatic fight sequence that feels dead on arrival. Drenched in doom and gloom, we are offered no light to the overwhelming shade that the film feels like a chore, rather than the exhilarating, engaging and enthralling picture it needed to be, as it very obviously tries to set up the interconnecting DCEU. It's desperation to do something different and interesting ultimately succumbs to the self-importance and top-heavy approach and structure the film accidentally employs. Even the effect feel overwhelming in the negative sense of the world which is not something you want for this high-cost, high-risk venture.

I don't want to kick the film while it is very much down (although, not too down in terms of box office, as it has just crossed $800 million worldwide, with little fanfare, note or celebration) but very few members of the cast can salvage the mess. Amy Adams comes closest, seemingly one of the only examples of a fleshed-out character, bringing something of life to the murky tale. Ben Affleck is promising but always feels like an added element, rather than a co-headliner, while Henry Cavil never really embodies what is it to be Superman. He's not totally redundant but nor is he utterly convincing.  Jesse Eisenberg as Lex Luthor is pretty damn irksome and irritating, with the poetic language used by  the character portraying him as entirely of conceit and arrogant. This very well may have been exactly the approach he created, but I am not at all sold, as it strips away any sinister lurking of the supposed criminal mastermind into something quite laughable.

Batman and Superman fight but no one wins. No one. Not Batman, Superman, the audience, or the future prospects for Warner Bros' attempt at Disney's superior Marvel Cinematic Universe, whose tightly plotted and woven universe projects a large shadow over this attempt of an Extended Universe. It is redundant in fulfilling anything for this franchise than turning people away.  Essentially, the compression with Marvel's Avengers will always be there and whilst they took the intellectual root of crafting individual stories and setting up bigger stakes, DCEU decay under that notion by trying to count their chickens before they hatch.

Summary: In Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, everybody loses.

Highlight: Amy Adams and Hans Zimmer's soundtrack (if only it was toned down so it wasn't so deafening).


Monday, 4 April 2016

The Huntsman: Winter's War (3D) (2016) (Review)

The Huntsman: Winter’s War is an intriguing case study, and the way this film plays out over the next few weeks will be wholly fascinating to spectate. The Huntsman: Winter's War is a prequel-come-sequel to the mildly average and middling Snow White and the Huntsman (2012), which upon release was neither a massive box office success or loved by one and all; in fact, the notion that it got another bite of the apple is in itself surprising. With the original film’s director and main actress exiting, following their scandalous affair, Chris Hemsworth steps up to axe to give it one more go as the titular Huntsman.

Set either side of Snow White & The Huntsman, The Huntsman: Winter's War rejoins Ravenna's (Charlize Theron) determined struggle for power and control that eclipses that of her sister Freya (Emily Blunt), who very happily lives in her sisters shadow until a devastating event causes her deathly magic to rise and her new empire to emanate. Elsewhere, Eric the Huntsman's (Hemsworth) forbidden love with Sara (Jessica Chasten) tears his world apart and he begins a journey of retrieval and redemption under an empire where to love is to sin. Nick Frost, Rob Brydon, Sheridan Smith and Alexandra Roach film the supporting cast as Dwarves who accompany the titular warrior on his quest to end the Evil and Ice once and for all.

Whilst initially sceptical, getting rid of Snow White is the best thing this hopeful franchise could have done. While the film never quite overcomes the constant reminder that she has been simply brushed under the rug because of the scandal surrounding it (the director, too, was evicted from the franchises' continuation) with very half-hearted excuses ("she doesn't feel very well" - seriously?). However, Kristen Stewart's disappearance allows for three of the strongest actresses to come to the forefront, with Theron returning for the sequel and Blunt and Chastin's introduction. They all prove to be excellent in their roles, with Theron's surly demeanour and if-looks-could-kill poise and Chastin's strength and vigour making more complex and dimensional characters than the previous instalment offered. Emily Blunt is Winter's War best asset though, with her Ice Queen captivating and engrossing, provoking a genuine sense of emotion beneath her cold-blooded and detached nature by the time we reach full-circle. Hemsworth, whilst constantly good, is overshadowed by his female counterparts, but is a notably increased - both in the size and quality of the role - on his often one-tone performance in the original back in 2012.

Another gem in this film's crown is the luscious visuals. Director Cedric Nicolas-Trojan crafts beautiful landscapes and rich effects together for a more striking backdrop. It gives the film some uniqueness in a genre that is otherwise derivative of other pieces within it; almost an amalgamation of previous fantasy offerings - Disney's Frozen and Game of Thrones is a combination I never thought I would see, but the extra helping of the Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe- it somehow balances out with its exuberance energy and approach. One thing this film has that the previous had little of, is humour, making for a wholly more pleasant experience as even with the dark and moody themes, some light is found to the shade. Brydon and Smith, in particular, create a humorous dialogue and chemistry throughout, utilising their comedic timing and inclinations for a swift-moving piece that avoids feeling one-tone or repetitive, despite the formulaic fairytale approach. Furthermore, while usually against 3D, this film works very well and is incredibly immersive - I'd recommend paying those extra few pounds/dollars/other currency for a better experience. I also must commend the incredible costumes featured throughout, all of which encompass character traits of the Ice Queen and Evil Queen especially. The production designs are incredible all round and a major win for the film.

The Huntsman: Winter's War may have its flaws but is an undeniable improvement over the first which appears even more average due to the new life found in the second. Some dodgy and ropy accents aside, the main four and the supporting four all compliment each other and offer strong and more complex performances (especially for those returning) - if only the underrated Sam Clafflin got more of a look in. Beautiful scenery, landscapes and effects all help in building this fantasy world and the before-and-after structure helps with the flow of the story once you overcome the inceptive confusion. I went into this film expecting to come out disappointed but instead did so feeling pleasantly surprised at the increased quality and final product. I'll just be interested now to see whether other critics agree and how the film performs after the moderate success of the original, four years prior (quite the wait in a cinematic timeframe).

(REVISED - 7.5/10)

Summary: The Huntsman: Winter's War, whilst with its flaws, is an undeniable improvement over the first instalment, with rich scenery and landscapes bolstered further by solid performances all round.

Highlight: Emily Blunt is simply magnificent, as she always with, but shouldn't take away from the strong lead performances from Theron, Chasten and Hemsworth, as well as the comedic supporters.