(Video on Demand, July 2016) As a fan of the under-appreciated Good Kill, I feared that the similarly themed Eye in the Sky would feel stale and dull. How many movies about military drones and their ethical consequences do we need? But, as it turns out, Eye in the Sky runs almost entirely parallel to Good Kill (to the point where the two operators in the first film could become the protagonists of the other with very few modifications) and feels more successful at putting together a suspense thriller rather than a character drama. Helen Mirren stars as a British general at the centre of an operation that ends up reaching more and more people around the world. As western agents get closer to wanted terrorists in Kenya, efforts to confirm the target’s identity and minimize collateral damage become thornier and thornier, spanning the simultaneous actions of specialists scattered all over the planet. (At the film’s widest moment, I counted seven different groups of characters from Kenya to London—twice—to Hawaii to Las Vegas to China to Singapore) As a portrait of modern warfare, Eye in the Sky can become dizzying, and its suspense is real—especially when Barkhad Abdi’s on-the-ground agent tries to influence events near to proposed strike site. Meanwhile, Alan Rickman turns in a dignified last performance as a general who leaves humanity at the door of his briefing room. As suggested by the emphasis on drone warfare and global decision-making, Eye in the Sky is an unusual thriller, and director Gavin Hood manages to strike a good balance between drama, suspense, ethics and straight-up entertainment. Some of the technology is a few years away, but much of the film’s cerebral considerations are real and the result is a modern war movie that feels quite unlike any other—including Good Kill. Both are worth seeing, perhaps even in a single evening.
(On TV, June 2016) Watching Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves twenty-five years after release (almost to the day) is a reminder about the evolution of the Hollywood blockbuster between the eighties and nineties. You can see in Robin Hood the elements that would make up the blockbuster tropes of the nineties, but you can also see the remnants of eighties-style filmmaking stiffness: The slightly-too-slow pacing, the quirks that don’t necessarily reinforce the film’s strengths, the unconscious irritation (such as the attempted-rape elements of the conclusion) the stiff studio staging, and so on. Director Kevin Reynolds doesn’t do a bad job with what he’s given, but it’s a film of its time. It’s good, but it’s not necessarily polished to a shine like latter blockbusters would be. It doesn’t help that Kevin Costner is off as Robin Hood: his stoic persona can’t accommodate the more light-hearted requirements of the role. On the other hand, Alan Rickman is fantastic as the all-out villainous antagonist, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio looks great at Maid Marian, and Morgan Freeman gets a pretty good role as an Islamic Moor stuck in the madness. Watching this film today, after the pop-culture clichés and most notably the 1993 full-length Mel Brooks parody Robin Hood: Men in Tights, is strangeness multiplied. But then again I was in high school when Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves came out—much of the pop culture of the time has stuck in my head to a degree that may not be as extreme for other viewers.
(On DVD, October 2009) There may not be anything complicated or new about Bottle Shock, but it’s hard to dislike a gentle comedy that meets most of its objectives and ends on an entirely pleasant note. The heavily dramatized story of a wine tasting that “shook the world” in recognizing that American wines could compete with French ones, Bottle Shock is perhaps most pleasant when it delves a little bit into the minutiae and passion of oenophiles, whether on the wine-making or wine-tasting side. I’m not a drinker, but I always appreciate representations of people who love their work and hobbies –and Bottle Shock treats both with a lot of respect. Otherwise, the film features an impressive number of B-list names: Alan Rickman is a hoot as an Englishmen twice-removed, while Chris Pine turns in a performance that makes his take on Kirk in 2009’s Star Trek seem inevitable. It helps that the surroundings are as charming as the characters or the comedic arc: The film opens on a number of terrific flyover shots of the Napa Valley that would seem computer-generated if they weren’t in a low-budget feature. Not all films have to push the envelope if they happen to strike viewers at the right angle, and Bottle Rocket handles a conventional narrative with a bit of competence. The few notes that sounds repeatedly false are the film’s nationalistic insistence (along with a bit of French-bashing) and an odd scene near the end where characters have an uncanny ability to peer into the future of a world where oenophiles can enjoys wines from all over the world. (This isn’t that kind of meta-comedy, so let’s leave the fourth wall intact, shall we?) There’s also a bizarre romantic interlude that’s good for a bit of jealousy and… not much else. (Although there’s a payoff of sorts in the deleted scenes.) As an underdog comedy promoting hard work and determination over inherited privilege, it’s about as predictable as you may think… but that’s a limited criticism when it’s not the kind of film meant to be dissected. Just watch the thing, don’t expect much and enjoy. The DVD features an audio commentary track that is as enjoyable as the film itself, plus a bland documentary on the making of the film and a promotional piece on Chateau Montelena that acts as an epilogue to the film.