Eye in the Sky (2015)

2017 #8
Gavin Hood | 102 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK & South Africa / English & Somali | 15 / R

Eye in the Sky

Drone warfare is a fairly hot and contentious issue of our times, though as it seems to have “just kinda happened” I’m not sure how much significant public debate there’s been around it. It’s certainly provided fodder for moviemakers, however, with multiple productions seeking to be “the one about drones”. I’ve heard the best of these is Good Kill (though IMDb ratings disagree), but that’ll have to wait for another day (I’ve been sitting on this review since frickin’ January because I’ve still not got round to Good Kill!) Even if Eye in the Sky is the inferior film, it’s no slouch.

After a multinational mission is launched to capture wanted terrorists in Kenya, surveillance observes them prepping suicide bombers. The mission objective is changed to “kill”, but commanders watching from afar via drone are forced to reconsider their options due to a civilian presence near the target. It’s a tense thriller driven by a compelling moral dilemma — in fact, the dilemma is an old one: would you sacrifice one innocent life to potentially save dozens more? It’s just that it’s now framed in the super-modern context of using drones to dispatch death from the other side of the world.

Someone's got to make the call

Getting ahead of myself a little now, but events build to a very tense climax. That’s how you want your thrillers to end, isn’t it? It also pays off the sometimes slow, borderline stagey “people talking in rooms” film that precedes it. Maybe that’s unfair — yes, it’s people talking in rooms, but there’s dynamism in what they’re debating and, er, the number of different rooms it takes place in… It also has a very plausible line in the passing of the decision-making buck, up the chain through the military, then through politicians. I guess for this to work the operation depicted had to be British-led because, as the film reveals, the American military machine would’ve had no such compunction about possibly killing a little girl.

Much of the film lets you make up your own mind about its ethical conundrums, which is a strong point; but then, after all the actual debating is done and decisions have been made, it uses its final scene to show an outcome it could’ve left open-ended. This makes it seem to come down quite heavily in one direction. There’s not necessarily anything wrong with having a position and advocating it in art, but for a film which seems designed to tackle a contentious issue and put it up for genuine debate, it ends up feeling a tad one-sided. That said, there’s a long and well-liked screed on Letterboxd about how “it’s a film with an agenda that pretends to have none”, that agenda being to “have you rooting for the bombing of a little girl” — which is funny because I felt that, if anything, it came down a little too heavily the other way.

Emote control

One thing that distracted me to an inordinate degree was the agents on the ground using cameras disguised as birds and bugs — not just models with cameras in them, but imitation creatures that have the ability to fly around, reposition, etc. Even if such tech is possible nowadays, would Kenyan forces have access to it? And even if it’d been provided to them by their US/UK allies, would the equipment produce results of such good quality, or be capable of sending the images across such distances? Surely real-life drones are the size and shape they are (i.e. pretty big) for a reason? I guess the applicable point about this is: if you’re trying to make a serious modern-day moral thriller, don’t throw James Bond tech in there.

Nonetheless, Eye in the Sky manages to put a very-present moral issue up for debate, framing it as a kind of case study so that it also serves as a tense thriller. Thought-provoking and nail-biting.

4 out of 5

Quigley Down Under (1990)

2016 #27
Simon Wincer | 120 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | Australia & USA / English | 15* / PG-13

Tom Selleck is Quigley, who has the ability to shoot things at implausibly long distances, and whose hair has the ability to stay implausibly coiffed even after days abandoned in the outback. He’s been employed by Alan Rickman, who we know is the villain because this was released in 1990. Alan Rickman has brought Quigley to Australia on the pretence that he’s to kill dingoes, but he actually wants Quigley to kill Aborigines. Quigley doesn’t take kindly to this, because he’s the hero, and so pretty much as soon as he turns up he’s left to die in the outback. The end.

No, not really! Quigley manages to acquire his gun and becomes some kind of mythical saviour of the Aborigines. (Let’s not get into the whole race politics of that, okay?)

Despite how the title sounds, it isn’t a sequel to a film called Quigley. It kinda feels like it is, though — you know, those sequels they used to do where you just send your hero off to a new place (often a different country) for essentially more of the same, but because it’s a churned-out cash-in it’s not as fine-tuned as the first film and so never quite as good? If I didn’t know better, I’d believe this was one of those.

It also has a very odd tone. Daft comedic bits rub up against brutal tragedies, like the mass slaughter of Aborigines, or the random death of innocent bystanders, or Crazy Cora’s backstory. It’s like someone wrote a very serious Western, then someone else came along and attempted to zhoosh it up so it could star Tom Selleck and The Funny Villain From Die Hard. And it has very cheesy, derivative, generic Western music, as if they felt it really needed ramming home that, yeah, it’s set in Australia, but actually it’s a Western.

I only heard about Quigley Down Under after Alan Rickman passed away, when a few blogs flagged it up as a great forgotten performance of his. He does bring some of his Die Hard / Prince of Thieves-era skills to the piece, but it’s a paler imitation of those roles. The rest of the film has things to commend it: Selleck is a decent, square-jawed, old-fashioned leading man; Laura San Giacomo finds surprising nuances in Cora, who could’ve just been crazy; leaving the dated politics aside, it’s a decent narrative. The end result is a solid, if ultimately unremarkable, Oz-set Western.

3 out of 5

* Rated 12 in cinemas in 1991, but rated 15 on video in 1991 and 2003. ^

Galaxy Quest (1999)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #33

The show was cancelled…
but the adventure has only begun.

Country: USA
Language: English
Runtime: 102 minutes
BBFC: PG
MPAA: PG

Original Release: 25th December 1999 (USA)
UK Release: 28th April 2000
First Seen: DVD, c.2001

Stars
Tim Allen (The Santa Clause, Christmas with the Kranks)
Sigourney Weaver (Alien, Avatar)
Alan Rickman (Dogma, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone)
Tony Shaloub (Men in Black, Pain & Gain)
Sam Rockwell (Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Moon)

Director
Dean Parisot (Fun with Dick and Jane, RED 2)

Screenwriters
David Howard
Robert Gordon (Addicted to Love, Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events)

Story by
David Howard

The Story
The cast of ’70s sci-fi series Galaxy Quest have been reduced to convention appearances and mall openings since their show was cancelled; but when a group of aliens, who believe the series was an historical document and have built the show’s spaceship for real, ask for the crew’s help to defeat a genocidal general, the actors must endeavour to become their characters for real.

Our Heroes
A ragtag gang of washed-up actors who used to star on a space opera TV series, now co-opted into being real heroes. They’re all based on the cast and characters of Star Trek, of course: Tim Allen’s Jason Nesmith, the ship’s captain, is obviously William Shatner/James T. Kirk; Sigourney Weaver’s Gwen Demarco, the token female, is Nichelle Nichols/Uhuru; Alan Rickman’s Alexander Dane, the classically-trained actor playing an alien science officer, is a combination of Leonard Nimoy/Spock and Patrick Stewart; Tony Shaloub’s Fred Kwan, a fake-foreign engineer, is a mixture of James Doohan/Scotty and Walter Koenig/Chekov; and Daryl Mitchell’s Tommy Webber, a young helmsman from an ethnic minority, is a mixture of George Takei/Sulu and Wil Wheaton/Wesley Crusher.

Our Villain
General Sarris, a reptilian warlord waging war against the kindly Thermians. No discredit to Robin “Ethan Rayne off Buffy” Sachs, but he’s kind of beside the point, really.

Best Supporting Character
Enrico Colantoni (Veronica Mars, Person of Interest) plays the leader of the friendly aliens, Mathesar, a naïve soul who speaks in a sing-song monotone.

Memorable Quote
“By Grabthar’s hammer, by the suns of Worvan, you shall be avenged.” — Sir Alexander Dane

Memorable Scene
Our heroes arrive in the bowels of their screen-faithful ship to find “a bunch of chompy, crushy things” impeding their path — for absolutely no reason. “We shouldn’t have to do this, it makes no logical sense, why is it here?… This episode was badly written!”

Making of
In cinemas, the film began with a 4:3 aspect ratio for clips from the old TV series, then widened to 1.85:1 for the Earth-based scenes, before widening again to a highly cinematic 2.35:1 once Tim Allen’s character realises he’s on a real spaceship. It was decided to ditch the middle stage for the home video releases, which I suppose makes sense, but is a lot less fun.

Previously on…
Galaxy Quest is an original creation, but it’s heavily inspired by the Star Trek franchise and its fans.

Next time…
A reboot TV series was supposedly in the works at Amazon, though comments made by co-star Sam Rockwell just last month suggest the project had developed into a direct sequel, which was then sadly scuppered by the untimely death of Alan Rickman.

Awards
1 Saturn Award (Actor (Tim Allen))
9 Saturn nominations (Science Fiction Film, Actress (Sigourney Weaver), Supporting Actor (Alan Rickman), Performance by a Younger Actor/Actress (Justin Long), Director, Music, Costumes, Make-Up, Special Effects)
Won the Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation

What the Critics Said
“Whether you love Star Trek or laugh at it, your starship is about to come in, docking in the form of Galaxy Quest, an amiable comedy that simultaneously manages to spoof these popular futuristic space adventures and replicate the very elements that have made them so durable. […] If Galaxy Quest never attains consistently giddy heights as it plays out its combination of knowing satire and heroic adventure, it nevertheless keeps its tongue firmly in its cheek, offers a few genuine laughs, moves swiftly, if not at warp speed, and is led by a talented cast.” — Lawrence Van Gelder, The New York Times

Score: 90%

What the Public Say
“As a fan of the various science fiction classic series, like Star Trek and Star Wars, I’ve met most of the people parodied in Galaxy Quest – from the overzealous fans to the has-been and bitter celebrities making a living off a series’ memories. A movie like Galaxy Quest manages to poke fun at a wide range of people but still be loveable and sympathetic at the same time.” — Kevin Carr, 7M Pictures

What the Trekkies Say
In 2013, just after Star Trek Into Darkness came out, a massive convention of Trekkies decided to vote on the best Trek movies. Galaxy Quest muscled its way in to 7th place, besting six real Trek flicks. (Infamously, Into Darkness came dead last.)

Verdict

Managing to satirise both classic sci-fi TV shows and their (shall we say) enthusiastic fanbase, while remaining relatively respectful to both, is quite a feat, and is surely one reason Galaxy Quest has proven so popular. Another is its accessibility: you don’t need to be a Trekkie to get all the gags. Combine those two and you have a film for fans and non-fans alike. To really cement the issue, it’s a solid adventure movie as well as a funny comedy.

#34 will be… what you get for the man who has everything.

Dogma (1999)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #24

It can be Hell getting into Heaven.

Country: USA
Language: English
Runtime: 128 minutes
BBFC: 15
MPAA: R

Original Release: 12th November 1999 (USA)
UK Release: 26th December 1999
First Seen: DVD, c.2004

Stars
Ben Affleck (Armageddon, Daredevil)
Matt Damon (The Rainmaker, The Bourne Identity)
Linda Fiorentino (The Last Seduction, Men in Black)
Salma Hayek (Desperado, Frida)
Alan Rickman (Die Hard, Galaxy Quest)

Director
Kevin Smith (Clerks, Red State)

Screenwriter
Kevin Smith (Chasing Amy, Zack and Miri Make a Porno)

The Story
When two fallen angels discover a loophole that might allow them back into Heaven, a normal woman is charged with stopping them before they bring about the apocalypse. Hilarity ensues.

Our Heroes
Abortion clinic worker Bethany has greatness heaped upon her when the voice of God gives her a mission (“I don’t want this, it’s too big.” “That’s what Jesus said.”). She ends up collecting a motley crew of followers and helpers, including 13th apostle Rufus, Serendipity herself, and idiot-prophets Jay and Silent Bob.

Our Villains
Banished angels Loki and Bartleby are fed up with living on Earth, but that’s okay because they’ve found a loophole that will get them back into Heaven. It might destroy the world or something, but, y’know, collateral damage ‘n’ all that.

Best Supporting Character
Alan Rickman again (see also: last time), this time as Metatron — not an anime hero or Power Rangers villain, but the dry-witted, genital-less Voice of God.

Memorable Quote
“Any moron with a pack of matches can set a fire. Raining down sulphur is like an endurance trial, man. Mass genocide is the most exhausting activity one can engage in, next to soccer.” — Loki

Memorable Scene
Whiling away time until they can execute their plan, Bartleby and Loki invade a company’s board meeting and expose the members’ secrets. (Any scene that features Bartleby + Loki + dialogue is among the film’s best bits.)

Truly Special Effect
I suppose it’s a relatively simple one really, but I’ve always thought the various characters’ wings look magnificently ‘real’. That’s the beauty of practical effects for you.

Letting the Side Down
This isn’t about the film itself, but they made a behind-the-scenes documentary, called Judge Not: In Defense of Dogma, which wasn’t actually ready for the film’s DVD release. Instead, it was included on the later DVD of Vulgar (not heard of it? Me either.) Eight years later, when Dogma made its way to Blu-ray, the making-of… still wasn’t included. I mean, how hard is it to pay attention when creating a new release and do more than just “copy and paste” the DVD’s contents?!

Making of
Even before the film opened it was picketed by Christian protestors. Unbeknownst to that mob, the film’s writer-director Kevin Smith joined them… and, unrecognised, got interviewed on TV. Sounds kinda implausible, but it happened.

Awards
1 Razzie nomination (Worst Supporting Actress (Salma Hayek, also for Wild Wild West))

What the Critics Said
“those who would call it sacrilegious (and there will be many) should look beyond the foul language and crude humor, to see more deeply into Smith’s intentions to give the dusty doctrines of the ancient faith a fresh new perspective. Foul language aside, the film has some interesting things to say about human nature, and about the nature of those non-humans we have come to know and love, and hate, and pray to, and obsess about, over the last few millennia.” — John R. McEwen, Film Quips

Score: 67%

What the Public Say
“The beginning of the movie has a few disclaimers pleading with a sensitive audience to not hate this movie because of its seemingly antireligious rhetoric. To be honest, I thought the message of ultimate religious tolerance was fairly clear. […] I don’t think Dogma will make you examine your faith any more than before you watched it. Instead it will let you turn a more satirical eye to the absurdities of the modern church bureaucracy and hopefully make you laugh a little bit about how ridiculous some of this shit is. It’s okay to have faith in a higher power, but getting too extreme with your ideals can make you an asshole.” — ThomFiles

Verdict

Not nearly as disrespectful to Christianity as the Bible-bashing protestors would like you to think, Kevin Smith’s religious comedy can be a bit of a mixed bag — the story is occasionally a tad baggy and the toilet humour sometimes goes too far for my taste, but there are plenty of amusing scenes, lines and performances. Irreverent and crude, to be sure, but sometimes surprisingly clever, and consistently funny.

#25 will be… setless.

Die Hard (1988)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #23

Twelve terrorists. One cop.
The odds are against John McClane…
That’s just the way he likes it.

Country: USA
Language: English
Runtime: 132 minutes
BBFC: 18 (1988) | 15 (2007)
MPAA: R

Original Release: 15th July 1988
UK Release: 3rd February 1989
First Seen: DVD, 2003

Stars
Bruce Willis (Twelve Monkeys, The Sixth Sense)
Alan Rickman (Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, Sense and Sensibility)
Reginald VelJohnson (Turner & Hooch, Die Hard 2)
Bonnie Bedelia (Die Hard 2, Presumed Innocent)

Director
John McTiernan (Predator, The Hunt for Red October)

Screenwriters
Jeb Stuart (Another 48 Hrs., The Fugitive)
Steven E. de Souza (The Running Man, Beverly Hills Cop III)

Based on
Nothing Lasts Forever, a novel by Roderick Thorp.

The Story
While off-duty cop John McClane is visiting his estranged wife at her office Christmas party, a gang of terrorists enter the building and take the guests hostage. McClane avoids capture, making him their only hope of rescue…

Our Hero
One of New York’s finest unfortunately caught in the wrong place at the wrong time… or, as it turns out, the right place at the right time. They’re currently working on an “origin story” movie for cop John McClane, which is daft because Die Hard is his origin story — he may’ve become an action hero in later movies (I wouldn’t know, I still haven’t got beyond the second), but here McClane is just an ordinary cop. Well, a very committed ordinary cop, anyway.

Our Villain
Smart, witty, and thoroughly ruthless, Alan Rickman’s big-screen debut is a flawless turn that defined thriller villains (British-accented terrorists with a secret plan) for at least the next half-decade. No one does it better, though.

Best Supporting Character
McClane’s only real friend, Sgt. Al Powell is a beat cop on the outside who just happens to pick up his signal. Fortunately, he’s much smarter and more helpful than a team of FBI agents. Well, aren’t we all?

Memorable Quote
Hans Gruber: “Do you really think you have a chance against us, Mr. Cowboy?”
John McClane: “Yippee-ki-yay, motherfucker.”

Quote Most Likely To Be Used in Everyday Conversation
See above.

Memorable Scene
As Gruber lectures the collected hostages on how the terrorists have planned for every eventuality, a nearby elevator door pings open. One of the hostages screams, Gruber and co rush over, to find one of their compatriots dead with a message scrawled on his sweatshirt: “Now I have a machine gun, ho-ho-ho.”

Truly Special Effect
When the bomb in the elevator shaft blows out the side of the building, the effect was accomplished by collecting virtually every camera flashbulb of a particularly powerful type and wiring them to the outside of the actual building to simulate the flash, then superimposing a shot of an actual explosive blowing a hole in an all-black miniature of the building.

Making of
The filmmakers struggled to find a way for McClane and Gruber to meet prior to the movie’s climax. The scene in which they do, where Gruber pretends to be one of the hostages, was dreamt up after it was discovered Alan Rickman could do a good American accent.

Previously on…
Die Hard is adapted from a novel, which is a sequel to one called The Detective, which was filmed in 1968 starring Frank Sinatra as the lead cop (called Joe Leland rather than John McClane). When production began on Die Hard, Fox were obligated to offer the lead to Sinatra. Fortunately for them, he turned it down.

Next time…
Lightning struck twice for unlucky John McClane when he got embroiled in another Christmastime terrorist incident in Die Hard 2, aka Die Harder; then Gruber’s brother sought revenge in trilogy-forming Die Hard with a Vengeance. Years later, someone realised there was money to be made, leading to poorly-received cash-in sequels Live Free or Die Hard, aka Die Hard 4.0, and A Good Day to Die Hard. A sixth is in development.

Awards
4 Oscar nominations (Editing, Sound, Sound Effects Editing, Visual Effects — or, to put it another way: Sound, Effects, Editing, Sound Effects Editing)

What the Critics Said
“From its trailer, Die Hard looks like a typical action movie of the ’80s: a sweaty, bare-chested, all-American hero battles swarthy, heavily accented terrorist villains, accompanied by lots of high-tech explosions, vast sheets of breaking glass and enough sophisticated weaponry to account for the Pentagon’s budget overrun. As directed by John McTiernan, it turns out to be something more — the archetypical action movie of the ’80s, the perfection of the form. Sleekly engineered, impeccably staged and shrewdly dosed with humor and sentiment, Die Hard has everything but a personality.” — Dave Kehr, Chicago Tribune

Score: 92%

What the Public Say
“Vulnerable but witty, McClane is a very well realised action hero who has set precedence as far as similar roles are concerned. […] Unlike Schwarzenegger and Stallone, Willis’ McClane is not the archetypal heroic figure that is invincible and untouchable. He gets his butt handed to him regularly and often finds himself panicking with frequent looks of nervousness and even fear.” — Billy’s Film Reviews

Verdict

The action movie to end all action movies… or, y’know, spawn endless sequels and rip-offs. But Die Hard really did perfect the mix: a capable but not superhuman hero, a genuinely threatening but enjoyable-to-watch villain, plenty of thrills and tension, but also humour and eminently quotable dialogue. And it’s set at Christmas (though originally released in July — what?!), which makes it ideal for seasonal counter-programming. What more could you ask for?

Prepare thyself… for #24.

Alan Rickman, 1946—2016

I rarely break from reviewing on this blog, but I think I can afford such a courtesy to Alan Rickman.

In part this is because, after I heard the news, I realised he’s been a constant presence throughout my film-loving life. I adored Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves as a kid, when the American accents didn’t matter and it was a glossy big-budget extravaganza. I watched it a few years ago, and it no longer looks glossy, big budget, or particularly extravaganza-y, but Alan Rickman shines as arguably the best Sheriff of Nottingham ever to grace the screen.

Then there’s the role that has obviously defined him for a generation: Professor Severus Snape in the Harry Potter series. I’m sure casting the Potter films must’ve been a tricky business, but Rickman as Snape was one of those choices where you just think, “well, obviously.” A pretty one-dimensional character to begin with (The Mean Teacher), Snape has a significant and complicated role as the series goes on, and is probably the most nuanced character in it by the end. Having an actor of Rickman’s ability involved was obviously beneficial.

And as I got older still, there was Die Hard. His film debut at age 42, and the film that will always define him for many, but (again) it’s a magnificent performance, a definitive villain. Pretty much every action-thriller villain for the next, what, decade? more? is really a rip-off of Hans Gruber, however all portrayed by whichever British actor was currently available.

Those are just three keystones in a sea (mixed metaphor much) of fantastic movies and excellent performances that have been scattered throughout my viewing life: the Spock-ish thespian in Galaxy Quest; the punk-y angel in Dogma; the voice of Marvin the Paranoid Android in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy film (another spot of perfect casting); the adulterous(?) husband in one of Love Actually’s strongest yet most divisive stories. Several of these films are to come on my 100 Favourites; several more were in contention; and, in every case, a significant reason for their presence was Alan Rickman’s performance.

And if you ever forget that life isn’t fair, remember this:

So we've lost 69-year-olds Bowie, Lemmy (ok 70-year-old) and now Alan Rickman – but Donald Trump is still with us.

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer (2006)

2007 #88
Tom Tykwer | 141 mins | DVD | 15 / R

Perfume: The Story of a MurdererRecent adaptation of Patrick Süskind’s popular novel, often considered unfilmable because of its focus on the sense of smell. Tykwer covers for that with strong cinematography, with sumptuously rich visuals and a judicious use of close-ups to evoke beauty or disgust as appropriate (the early birth scene in a fish market is particularly rancid — do not watch this right after eating!)

Dustin Hoffman and Alan Rickman give typically brilliant supporting performances, and Ben Whishaw is fairly notable in the virtually mute lead role. John Hurt’s narration is also excellent; he may well have the best narrative voice known to film. The ending is pretty bizarre, yet possibly very appropriate; certainly, it raises the whole story up to the level of legend.

4 out of 5

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer is on BBC Two tonight, 2nd May 2015, at 11:50pm.