EYE IN THE SKY (2016) Contrived But Effective

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eye in the sky poster

If you could save the lives of hundreds of people who will perish in a terrorist attack, but by doing so, take the life of an innocent little girl, would you do it?

That’s basically the question asked in EYE IN THE SKY (2016) a taut thriller in which the powers that be wrestle with this exact dilemma.

Colonel Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren) is coordinating a mission via drone cameras to locate members of an elusive terrorist cell in Kenya.  Piloting the drones in the air are two American pilots, Steve Watts (Aaron Paul) and Carrie Gershon (Phoebe Fox).  Powell also has a man on the ground Jama Farah (Barkhad Abdi) who controls a smaller drone which is able to take interior pictures of the compound.  It’s this drone that not only locates the terrorists but reveals that they are about to conduct a suicide mission.  Suddenly, the “capture” mission becomes a “kill” mission.

To complicate matters, a nine year-old girl sits out front of the compound selling bread for her family. As a result, pilot Steve Watts requests that Colonel Powell verify with her superiors that they have the clearance to conduct a mission that will cause lethal collateral damage.

What follows is an oftentimes terse study in diplomacy, politics, and military positioning as the various powers-that-be wrestle with the decision of just who will be the one to give the official green light to a mission that will no doubt kill an innocent little girl.  And it’s all decided upon from the relative comfort and safety of situation rooms across the globe, miles upon miles away from the action.

This would all be terribly disturbing if it wasn’t so contrived.  I had difficulty wrapping my head around the notion that a government worth its salt would even consider letting a terrorist group armed with suicide bombs walk away, if the collateral damage was simply one life.  It’s a great essay question for a philosophy class, but as a plot in a movie, it wasn’t convincing.

Still, the story put forth in EYE IN THE SKY is timely and relevant.  It’s just not always believable.  It asks important questions in this day and age where warfare can be conducted by drones.  And the screenplay by Guy Hibbert does create three-dimensional characters who struggle with the dilemma they face.

Of course, the high caliber of actors in this one also helps.

Helen Mirren is superb as Colonel Katherine Powell.  Her take on the situation is simple:  the terrorists must be taken out.  The innocent girl’s inevitable death must be accepted.  If not, they will have the blood of many more innocent victims on their hands if they let the terrorists escape.

Both Aaron Paul and Phoebe Fox are equally effective as the pilots who want no part of killing an innocent girl.  Paul, who was phenomenal on TV’s BREAKING BAD as Jesse Pinkman, has been excellent in every film I’ve seen him in since.  I hope he continues to land film roles and that they grow in prominence.  Here, his Steve Watts just wants to do the right thing, and Paul is excellent showing Watts’ anguish when it becomes clear he’s going to have to do something he doesn’t want to do.

Phoebe Fox, who I enjoyed a lot in the horror sequel THE WOMAN IN BLACK 2:  ANGEL OF DEATH (2014) is equally as good as fellow pilot Carrie Gershon, as she shares Watts’ frustrations.

Alan Rickman, in his last live action film role [he lends his voice to the upcoming ALICE THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS (2016)] plays Lieutenant General Frank Benson, a military officer who tries to see both sides of the coin but ultimately sides with Mirren’s Colonel Powell.  Rickman also enjoys one of the best bits in the movie, a brief speech near the end where he scolds a diplomat for questioning a soldier’s understanding of the price of warfare.  It’s a great moment.

Rickman, who passed away in January,  looks pale and tired here. Perhaps he was supposed to look this way for the role, but I couldn’t help but think while watching him on screen that he didn’t look healthy.

The movie is dedicated to Rickman’s memory.

Barkhad Abdi, who was memorable as the head pirate in CAPTAIN PHILIPS (2013), is nearly as good here as Jama Farah, the agent on the ground flying the miniature drone, who later risks his life in a futile attempt to buy the little girl’s bread so she can get clear of the area, in one of the film’s more suspenseful sequences.

EYE IN THE SKY was directed by Gavin Hood, who also appears in the film as Aaron Paul’s superior officer Lt. Colonel Ed Walsh, and he’s actually very good in these few scenes.  He’s not bad as the director either.  Hood directed the superhero film X-MEN ORIGINS:  WOLVERINE (2009), a film that most X-Men fans hated, but I really liked.

That being said, EYE IN THE SKY is not a phenomenal movie, nor does Hood hit a homerun with it.  The pacing is somewhat slow, and it takes a while to get going.  More importantly, its main moral dilemma, whether or not to spare the girl’s life, comes off as a fake hypothetical situation.  Had we been talking about hundreds of lives potentially lost due to collateral damage, then that might have been more believable.

Still, the actors here do such a good job bringing this situation to life, that I found myself looking past this flaw and going along with the story.

The more relevant topic this film examines is warfare conducted from the comfort and safety of war rooms miles away from the action, but even this theme is not handled crisply.  The movie seems to be implying that this kind of warfare— using drones— is too easy and will lead to generals making ill-fated decisions because they don’t have to worry about the lives of their soldiers on the ground.  However, in this movie, the folks giving the orders are more cautious than if they had soldiers on the ground.

All this being said, EYE IN THE SKY does have some fine moments.  The scene where Barkhad Abdi’s agent on the ground attempts to buy the little girl’s bread to get her away from the missile strike is extremely suspenseful and one of the more exciting scenes in the film.

And every time Alan Rickman is on screen the film seems to become that much more compelling.

EYE IN THE SKY is an inconsistent movie, but it builds as it goes along and finishes strong, ending with an emphatic exclamation point.  And with its talented cast, it overcomes its contrivances to the point where it’s ultimately worth your while.

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Savor Every Moment of THE HUNDRED-FOOT JOURNEY (2014)

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The-Hundred-Foot-JourneyMovie Review:  THE HUNDRED-FOOT JOURNEY (2014)

By

Michael Arruda

 

Watching a movie that gets everything right- acting, writing, directing- can be as satisfying as eating a gourmet meal.

Such is the case with THE HUNDRED-FOOT JOURNEY (2014) a new comedy-drama about an Indian family opening a restaurant in France across the street— one hundred feet to be exact— from a renowned French restaurant, and what happens when the family crosses paths with the established restaurant’s owner, played with delectable precision by Helen Mirren.

THE HUNDRED-FOOT JOURNEY begins in Mumbai where the Kadam family runs their restaurant, but when election night riots destroy their eatery and take the life of their mother, Papa (Om Puri) moves his family to Europe in the hope of starting again.  They settle in France, and Papa, a rather eccentric fellow, spies an abandoned restaurant and decides on the spot that this is where they shall open their new eatery, even though it’s situated directly across the street from one of the area’s most prominent restaurants.

The family tries to talk him out of it, but Papa is undeterred, and he quickly goes about setting things in motion, buying the property, and promoting his son Hassan (Manish Dayal) as the best Indian chef in the land, all to the chagrin of Madame Mallory (Helen Mirren) who owns the French restaurant across the street and cringes at the idea of competition.

And so she sets out to quash the Kadam family, but Papa is just as determined as she is, and the two go back and forth trying to one-up the other.  Meanwhile, Hassan befriends Marguerite (Charlotte Le Bon) one of Madame Mallory’s up and coming chefs, and the two begin a relationship which is playfully competitive until Hassan approaches Madame Mallory and prepares a dish for her, proving to her that he is indeed a chef for the ages, who with the proper training, can help her achieve her goal of the restaurant earning the coveted second Michelin star, a critic rating that lifts restaurants to elite status.  When Madame Mallory hires Hassan to work in her restaurant, it sets off a firestorm of events, as it changes the relationship between Hassan and Marguerite, and makes Papa accuse Madame Mallory of trying to brainwash his son, but Mallory is quick to point out that this is an opportunity for Hassan which will change his life forever.

THE HUNDRED FOOT JOURNEY is a highly entertaining and very satisfying movie.  It’s got terrific acting, a topnotch directorial effort, and my favorite, an excellent script.

Top-billed Helen Mirren is sufficiently proper as Madame Mallory, the woman who at first wants nothing more but to shut down the Kadam family restaurant.  But Madame Mallory is more than just a cold-hearted businesswoman, and Mirren does a terrific job making her a three-dimensional character.  When her own chef takes things too far by setting fire to the Indian restaurant, Mallory doesn’t applaud or approve but quickly fires the young man.

Om Puri makes Papa a feisty yet easy to like character whose best scenes are those where he plays off Helen Mirren.  When he wants to make an offer to buy the restaurant, Madame Mallory tells him it’s more than he can afford, and she says this because she heard he bartered for a discount at the local inn, to which Papa replies that his asking for a discount doesn’t mean he’s poor but that he’s thrifty.  The two actors, Mirrin and Puri, share a great chemistry in this movie, for the most part as energetic adversaries, and they become even more likeable when they realize that they actually like each other.

But the best performance in the movie belongs to young Manish Dayal as Hassan.  He is completely believable as the young man blessed with amazing cooking talent.  He comes off as genuine and sincere.  When he tells Marguerite that he has been hired to work at Madam Mallory’s restaurant, he expects her to be happy by the news, but when she’s not, he’s surprised, and you can see his innocence and the hurt he feels when she insinuates that he used their relationship to gain access to Madam Mallory, when that wasn’t what he had intended at all.

Charlotte Le Bon is also very good as Marguerite.  She makes Marguerite attractive, talented, and smart, and she and Hassan make for a very likeable young couple.

Director Lasse Hallstrom captures the beautiful scenery of the French countryside, making this movie a picturesque treat from start to finish.  The camera also captures the remarkable elegant dishes prepared in this film— don’t see this on an empty stomach!—- which will make your mouth water.  You can almost taste the food.  Likewise, Hallstrom captures the flavor of the small village, of the two restaurants across the street from each other, and of the people who inhabit both of them.  It’s an intimate portrayal of these folks, and you’ll enjoy getting to know them and spending time with them for the two hours you sit in the theater.

The screenplay by Steven Knight, based upon the book by Richard C. Morais, tells a heartwarming story that is as moving as it is humorous.  I laughed more during this movie than during some of the recent so-called mainstream comedies of late.  The humor in THE HUNDRED-FOOT JOURNEY is smart and nuanced and stems from true situations.

The characters are all well-developed.  I understood young Hassan’s passion for food and for cooking, and Papa’s need to take care of his family and his drive to make his new restaurant a success in spite of the odds against him, which means doing whatever it takes to get it done; and I understood Madame Mallory’s reasons for stomping out her competition, for wanting her restaurant— the passion of her life— to become the best it can be.

In some ways, THE HUNDRED-FOOT JOURNEY is predictable, but it still works.  It’s a feel-good movie, and so you expect things to work out in the end for these characters, but when it does, it doesn’t feel fake or forced.  These characters make their own destiny, and when you see them working as hard as they do, acting in ways that show they are real people, not cardboard caricatures who mindlessly step on others to get ahead, but simply work hard and respect those around them, you have no difficulty buying into the notion that they succeed in what they set out to do.

The dialogue is all first-rate, and like I said, I laughed more here than during some of the traditional Hollywood comedies which for some reason too often equate “stupid” with “funny.”

I wouldn’t be at all surprised if come Oscar time THE HUNDRED-FOOT JOURNEY receives nominations for Best Director, Screenplay, and acting by Manish Dayal, Om Puri, and Helen Mirren.

I thoroughly enjoyed THE HUNDRED-FOOT JOURNEY.  It’s one of my favorite movies of 2014.

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