Gavin Hood’s Eye in the Sky (A-) is a spectacular meditation on the costs of wars waged with drone spies and unmanned planes that can drop missiles with perfect precision and why the human element is still so powerful in waging a fair battle. There is a lot of waiting game and bureaucratic bickering that weighs down some of the film’s most cinematic possibilities, but the moral dilemma at the movie’s heart as an international coalition determines how to capture or destroy suicide bombers in Kenya without significant collateral damage will prompt some fascinating discussion. Helen Mirren is magnificent as a war room commander, and Aaron Paul is solid as the U.S. soldier with his hand on the trigger. While underused in much of the film as a British commander and negotiator, the late Alan Rickman gets some brilliant parting words. Barkhad Abdi is also effective a heroic accomplice on the ground, deeply humanizing the depths of the danger to friends and neighbors when terrorism strikes cities. The sheer voyeurism of the drone plots makes for some suspenseful sequences, but it’s the human cat and mouse game at the movie’s center that makes the narrative gripping. It’s an intellectual thriller that condenses one of the great debates of our time into a satisfying story.
One of the most acclaimed Hungarian films in recent years tells the tale of a father endeavoring to bury his son, but there’s so much more to the story. László Nemes’s chilling you-are-there style Holocaust drama Son of Saul (A-) takes viewers deep into horror and chaos where a heroic dad’s singleminded mission to provide a proper burial for his offspring is complicated by his role as a Jewish prisoner inside a WWII Auschwitz Concentration Camp where he serves as part of the “Sonderkommando” unit that disposes of the dead. Told within stifling quarters over the course of less than two days in 1944, the story is focused on Saul’s leviathan task while he fends off SS-guards and smugglers in his midst as the burial and even overall escape becomes either elusive or imminent. Much falls on the shoulder of lead actor Géza Röhrig, and he is magnificent in a muscular role requiring few words. Nemes’ direction often relies on tight close-ups and sound effects that prompt viewers to fill in an even more terrifying complete picture. Told with the propulsion of near-constant motion, it is an extraordinarily effective glimpse into history. Due to some of the labyrinthine plot details that undergird the narrative, the emotional core occasionally gets short shrift. It is essential viewing in this historical sub-genre and a harrowing, insightful experience.
A Felliniesque fantasia on life, love and art, Paolo Sorrentino’s Youth (A-) is an answer to cinephile prayer. There will be many who dismiss this Swiss Alps resort set comedy-drama as pretentious drivel or avoid the film altogether for fear of glacial pace; but those seeking an appropriately contemplative requiem on the choices made in the sunset of life will treasure the movie’s nontraditional narrative structure, formalist art direction and unconventional approach to character development. Giving late career-best performances as an aging composer, filmmaker and actress, respectively, Michael Caine, Harvey Keitel and Jane Fonda (in a potent extended cameo) are a master class trio bearing wisdom and fortitude. They’re also really funny in their wry honesty. Rachel Weisz and Paul Dano are both strong as generational counterpoints. David Lang’s music, especially the work he created for Caine’s fictional composer, is sheer bliss. Sorrentino captures a grotesquerie of fascinating people against gorgeous backdrops in conversations that comprise a protracted art house aria. Like the film’s spas, green pastures and alpine wilderness, the film leaves room for characters to breathe and discover one another in harmony. Some may argue there’s very little plot, and they’d be pretty much right. But the film is impeccably perceptive in peeling back the layers of humanity and stripping its characters bare of the familiar. The wit and wordplay devised by an Italian writer/director is stunningly universal; and despite its older stars, this autumnal film beats with a youthful heart.
Related article: Fellow friend and critic Aaron West writes about Paolo Sorrentino’s Oscar-winning 2013 film The Great Beauty in this review on Criterion Blues.
Among many of the film’s great qualities is its exquisite music including this original work:
It’s always a thrill to watch a starmaking performance, to witness an actor inhabit a role with singular ferocity. All the more astonishing is when this revelation happens to be an actor who has been in the spotlight for two decades and hasn’t really given a flicker of this genius before. And so it is with the formerly fey Jude Law who becomes the husky, hulky, wily and menacing ex-con safecracker central character of writer/director Richard Shepard’s Dom Hemingway (B). This rowdy British import has more bark than bite as Law’s character spews his witty cock-of-the-walk braggadocio and occasionally reveals he has a tender side too. The strongest plot line transports Law and sidekick (Richard E. Grant) to France where a debonair Demián Bichir and mysterious Mădălina Diana Ghenea treat them to 007-style intrigue. Later subplots fare a little less successfully, and there could be better character development in a couple of critical story points, but it wraps up well. The bawdy and imaginative script – including funny title cards – keeps things brisk and surprising. And you simply won’t be able to watch Law the same way again after watching him portray this corker of a criminal in reform.
Writer/director Richard Curtis, famous for Love Actually, is a master of capturing great emotional details but getting lost in the big picture, so it’s no surprise that his romantic time travel dramedy About Time (B-) is a lovable mess. Despite massive tonal shifts and meandering to subplots that distract from the central plot, it is cute and thoughtful nonetheless. Domhnall Gleeson smartly plays the reluctant hero who finds out as a young man from his father (a tender and restrained Bill Nighy) that the men in their family can travel in time and alter their fates. Enter Rachel McAdams, the woman with whom Gleeson wants to get everything right; and enter entanglements and plot holes aplenty as this British Groundhog Day weaves its magic spell. The premise is far-fetched and occasionally a little creepy; and yet still the charming performers keep pace with crackling dialogue and poignant moments. The wish fulfillment angle doesn’t jive completely since there’s really no reason the protagonist needs sci-fi tricks to get the girl. But ultimately the witty banter and generally winning ensemble make it a quite watchable affair.
A single father/boxer and an aquatic animal trainer reveal physical and emotional wounds and forge an unlikely bond in Jacques Audiard’s French language film Rust & Bone (A-). Matthias Schoenaerts and Marion Cotillard hit all the right notes in an unsentimental drama that could have veered to all sorts of conventional places. Cotillard in particular is riveting as a woman so complex that losing her legs in a killer whale attack is only a small element defining her character. It’s a rewarding and romantic film discovery.
Michael Haneke’s sometimes pretentious, deliberately paced directing can’t eclipse the poignant acting in the very depressing film Amour (B). Jean-Louis Trintignant is the underdog actor here, superb as a devoted elderly husband nursing his slowly degenerating spouse, played gracefully by Emmanuelle Riva. Haneke lingers on the couple’s routines with near-scientific observation, but it’s the moments the central duo gets to play against type that help them truly shine in the film’s effective final act. It’s bleak material, no doubt, but often affecting.
There’s not much “hip” aside from Maggie Smith’s replacement surgery in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (B+), but this senior citizen passage to India contains considerable joys and sentiment. Director John Madden and his muse Dame Judi Dench draw viewers in to the emotional far pavilions of friends and family. More than Cocoon with curry, it’s quite a sleeper hit.
Incredible comedy is on full display in Peter Cattaneo’s The Full Monty (A-) as the filmmaker explores the male mystique and physique in the wake of unemployment and inability to take care of one’s family. A bunch of out-of-work and out-of-shape British blokes led by Robert Carlyle and Mark Addy resort to starting a an all-male strip show revue when they find themselves strapped for cash. The result is uproarious, and the script if full of gems that will endear audiences to this motley crew of show-offs. Through their singular charm and humor, they realize their free spirit goes a lot farther in life than a free willy.
Mike Leigh’s Secrets and Lies (B+) pairs Brenda Blethyn and Marianne Jean-Baptiste as long-lost mother and daughter reuniting. Because Leigh uses an impromptu screenwriting technique with his actors, the focus is on the character revelations, especially since mom is white and daughter is black, but the story suffers a bit with not too much to do once we’ve established this central conceit. Still, the actresses are so charming that their story washes over you, and you feel like you’re visiting with folks you’ve known all your life.
Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting (B) is a veritable steam engine of a film showcasing the life of junkies from the other side of the tracks. Ewan McGregor charges onto the scene in a star-making performance, and Boyle’s grim, swirling visual odyssey gives viewers a one-way ticket to the human abyss. There’s a whole lot of surreal locomotion as the film alternates from comedy to surreal drama, all in an original, efficient tale.
Michael Radford’s Italian import Il Postino: The Postman (B+) is a celebration of love and the human language, buoyed by poetry and romantic awakening. Chronicling a friendship between a simpleton delivery man and his mentor, the exiled poet Pablo Neruda, the film is a touching display of self-discovery as the postman learns to express the words in his head to the woman in his dreams.