Eye in the Sky

Directed by Gavin Hood.         Starring Helen Mirren, Alan Rickman, Barkhad Abdi, Aaron Paul, Phoebe Fox, and Aisha Takow.

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The principle of double effect, as proposed by St. Thomas Aquinas,  is frequently discussed both in freshman philosophy classes and in Catholic theology classes. The classic hypothetical which is used in these discussions is when the train is rushing down the tracks and about to go off the rails unless you pull the lever to redirect the train onto the intact tracks. The catch is that there is one guy standing on the intact tracks, and there is a high probability that redirecting the train, and thus saving the lives of all the people on it, will regrettably kill him.

The problem with hypotheticals is that they do not take into account practical, real life scenarios when one has to make the best decision possible within a short time frame under intense duress. While a fictitious film is still a hypothetical, Eye in the Sky plays out in an intensely realistic fashion which gives credence to both sides of the argument and constructs a scenario in which the difficulties of either course of action are vividly realized. Even more remarkably, after making a strong case for one course of action, the film turns around and makes an equally strong case for the opposite.

The hypothetical in question in Eye in the Sky was made clear in the trailer. British intelligence has numbers 2, 4, and 5 on the most wanted list in their sight; through a hidden camera they can see those terrorists assembling two vests for suicide bombings; they have the ability to launch a drone strike eliminating that threat; however, a young girl is in the street next to the house, well within the fatality zone of the missile.

For a scenario which sounds like it could become riddled with clichés and a moralizing sermon regarding the War on Terror and the US drone program, Eye in the Sky avoids both. It explicitly acknowledges the danger that terrorists pose to the world, and it makes what might be the most compelling argument in favor of the drone assassination program. At the same time, the cost of that program on families, nations, and individuals is powerfully realized, so much that even if the principle of double effect justified the proposed strike, one could still question its prudence or legitimacy.

It is rare to see a film that refuses to take sides in an argument and maneuvers through both sides of that argument as skillfully as Eye in the Sky does. In doing so director Gavin Hood tells his story and leaves the conclusion with the viewer. It is easy to understand the reasoning which says drones are the best way to minimize the violence of terrorists, yet the concept that violence begets violence is always juxtaposed with any arguments in favor of using military force.

Hood’s decision to cast himself as an American colonel who calmly weighs all the options, but has no qualms about following orders, however unpleasant those orders may be, carries that balanced storytelling approach to the cast as well. The other cast members are the typical characters one would expect in such a wartime story. There are two green American drone pilots (Aaron Paul and Phoebe Fox) who have never had to fire a missile before, one of whom is starting her first day as a soldier as the titular “eye in the sky.” An on the ground agent in Kenya (Barkhad Abdi – Captain Phillips) is trying to get as close to the target as possible to gather information without blowing the cover of the mission. There are various officials, all of whom wish to refer the decision up to their authorities so that they do not have to take responsibility. Finally, Helen Mirren and Alan Rickman portray a colonel and general respectively who wish to avoid as many casualties as they can, yet are both pragmatic enough to dread wasting this opportunity.

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The film’s ensemble of characters is admittedly large, but Megan Gill’s sharply focused editing makes it easy to keep track of all the characters and maintains a taut pacing which does not relent. One of the most effective moments is when the British intelligence loses one of their cameras; the cut to black symbolizes the dread and mounting tension perfectly. Similarly, the use of silence in place of music for some of the most harrowing moments makes the tragedy and tension all the more palpable. The commitment of both Mirren and Rickman turns their functionally written characters into complex conflicted human beings torn between two bad alternatives.

Finally, the portrayal of the young girl Alia (Aisha Takow) who will be endangered by a missile strike and her family is a beautiful portrait of the world as it should function and how war destroys that. The opening title card states that truth is the first thing lost in war, and while the film depicts rationalizations replacing the truth, nothing is as tragic as those rationalizations being applied to the potential loss of innocent lives.

The desire to minimize the casualties of war is a moral and necessary impulse. However, the way in which we achieve that is every bit as important. That importance is at the center of the moral conundrum in Eye in the Sky, and the film’s choice to eschew both easy answers and demonizing of different opinions makes the cost of war heavily felt as Eye in the Sky relentlessly accelerates toward the end of its mission.

 

Content Advisory: Gruesome shots of the aftermath of violence, a few utterances of harsh expletives under duress.                MPAA rating: R

Suggested audience: Teens and up with discernment

Personal Recommendation: A

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The Young Messiah

Directed by Cyrus Nowrasteh.            Starring Adam Greaves-Neal, Sara Lazzaro, Vincent Walsh, Finn Ireland, Christian McKay, Lois Ellington, Agni Scott, Sean Bean, Jonathan Bailey, and Rory Keenan.

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How does one go about creating a story centered on the untold life of the child Jesus? There is no evidence in the Gospels about what happened between the flight into Egypt and His Baptism almost thirty years later, other than the finding in the temple when He was twelve. And furthermore how does one believably and compellingly portray a child who is fully God (and thus perfect and omniscient) and yet also fully human with a human mind (and thus has limited knowledge and must learn like any other child)?

It’s a balance which The Young Messiah pulls off brilliantly. The imagination initially sparked by Anne Rice in her novel Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt is preserved and developed by director Cyrus Nowrasteh along with his wife Betsy, who co-writes this adaptation with her husband. From the diligent work of Rice and the Nowrastehs, The Young Messiah emerges as a thoughtful, original, and theologically sound story which provides reflection on an often un-thought about period of Jesus’ life.

The very first scene of The Young Messiah demonstrates that the film is the hands of skillful and sensitive storytellers. The seven year old Jesus (Adam Greaves-Neal) is playing with his cousin Salome (Lois Ellington) in the streets of Alexandria, only to be bullied by two older boys. Jesus does not fight back, but only defends himself from the blows. As one of the boys prepares to chase after Salome, Jesus orders him to leave her alone. As the boy ignores him, a sinister cloaked figure tosses an apple on the ground which the boy trips over, hitting his head on a rock and dying.

That sinister figure then convinces the other boy to accuse Jesus of murdering the child. At this point, the film cuts to the perspective of the bystanders, revealing that Jesus is the only one who can see this demon or the apple.

When Jesus’ family arrive, the portrayal of Mary and Joseph (Sara Lazzaro and Vincent Walsh) is wonderful. Neither one doubts the innocence of their son, both being fully aware of his divine nature as told to them by the angel. However, they have not told him, being afraid of how the world would receive him and unsure how to “explain God to His own Son.”

At the same time, as a curious and alert seven year old, Jesus knows he is different, and at Salome’s request he does that “special thing he did with the dead bird” for the bully, namely, brings him back to life.

From this sequence alone we see a child who refuses to sin, is conflicted regarding his identity, has a supportive family who helps him grow in holiness and whom he obeys, who extends compassion to his enemies, and who is haunted by a demonic figure. In other words, the filmmakers have created compelling characters and a theologically fascinating conflict to drive the narrative. Additionally, there are clever references to later events in the life of Jesus from the Gospels. All of these elements will feature throughout the remainder of the film, and it is to the credit of the Nowrastehs how seamlessly the story blends these defining aspects of the young Jesus’ life.

The overall story is very episodic, flowing from one segment to another as the Holy Family (both immediate and extended) returns to Nazareth from Egypt. The episodes all contribute to the overarching narrative of Jesus’ human nature gradually coming to understand his divine nature, and all the episodes are intriguing in their own right as well. Indeed, the one conflict which overshadows the film at times feels a little forced. Sean Bean (whom I’m always happy to see in a movie) plays a centurion ordered by Herod (a wonderfully creepy and immature Jonathan Bailey) to find the rumored seven year old miracle worker and repeat what his father Herod the Great did in Bethlehem. The conflict gives the film an added sense of urgency, and on paper its resolution makes perfect sense, but in execution it felt slightly forced, even if it did give the film two great performances.MV5BMTUyODgwOTY5M15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNzE5ODYyODE@._V1__SX1303_SY576_

The other performances are all equally fantastic. As the seven year old Jesus, Adam Greaves-Neal perfectly captures a sense of reverence, curiosity, playfulness, and kindness without becoming supercilious or obsequious. As Jesus’ cousin James, Finn Ireland conveys the resentment of an older child who knows why Jesus is special, but deep down still loves his cousin and wishes to help him. As Cleopas and Miriam, James and Salome’s parents, Christian McKay and Agni Scott successfully round out the ensemble with variants on the enthusiastic uncle and supportive aunt. Finally, Rory Keenan maintains a sinister air as the devil who knows the child Jesus is destined for greatness, but is unsure why.

One of my favorite aspects of The Young Messiah is the portrayal of the Holy Family. Mary and Joseph trust God so thoroughly, and they love their son so completely that it is easy to see why the Holy Family should be a model for all families. Even when threatened, they always maintain their virtue and their trust in God. I honestly cannot think of a single movie about Jesus which has a better portrayal of the Holy Family than The Young Messiah.

The movie soars with its inspired dramatic and theological reflections on the childhood of Christ. References to incidents in the Gospels like the Baptism in the Jordan and the Wedding at Cana strengthen the storytelling prowess, and they add a profundity to the depiction of Jesus’ human nature becoming more aware of his divine nature. For more information about the growth of Jesus’ human knowledge, make sure to read this excellent piece by Steven Greydanus, and check out his fantastic review as well.

The Young Messiah‘s reverence for the Scriptures which inspired its story is on full display through the entire film, and the wonderfully imaginative narrative makes this one of the best films about Christ that I’ve seen in years.

 

Content Advisory: Several non-graphic shots of crucifixions, an out of frame stabbing, violence between Roman soldiers and Jewish rebels, and a potentially creepy satanic figure.    MPAA rating: PG-13

Suggested audience: Kids and up with discernment

Personal Recommendation: A-

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The Witch

Directed by Robert Eggers.    Starring Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie, and Harvey Scrimshaw.

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Everyone should see The Witch.

Okay. That’s a hyperbolic opening sentence which neither takes into account differences of tastes and sensibilities nor describes what makes The Witch a compelling, thought provoking viewing experience vastly different from most other films. Of course not everyone should see The Witch, but anyone who appreciates thoughtful, challenging works of art which wrestle with faith based questions should give this film a chance.

The Witch is a powerful work of art about faith gone badly wrong and the horrific consequences thereof. While those consequences unquestionably make The Witch a horror film, it’s hardly one I would call scary. Rather, the creepy and unnerving atmosphere, achieved through a perfect blend of fantasy and tragedy, gives the themes of religion, fundamentalism, and destruction of the family a fresh vitality. In other words, both horror aficionados and those who rigidly eschew horror films should throw out any expectations and allow The Witch to unfold in its unusual and spectacular manner.

The story itself is fairly simple: a Puritan family is exiled from their colonial village because the father has been challenging the ways of the towns’ elders, whom he claims are heretics. After they set up their farm on the outskirts of the woods, the infant disappears one day while the oldest is playing peek-a-boo with him. Not long after that, increasingly unusual events begin to plague the family, creating rifts between all the relationships: siblings, spouses, and parents and children.

With its masterful recreation of superstitious, seventeenth century, colonial New England, The Witch transports its audience to an era long since passed where characters behave in ways that make little sense by modern standards. Regrettably, several screenings have had a few audience members’ laughing in shock because they are unable to accept the perspective of characters whose mentality is completely foreign to twenty-first century America. However, the unapologetic immersion in seventeenth century Puritan New England by writer/director Robert Eggers is what makes The Witch so thoroughly engrossing.

Eggers’ script is full of archaic language which would be right at home in a Shakespeare play, and his dialogue frequently focuses on sin and the fear that one might die in sin and thus go to hell. That fear naturally applies to children and infants, and it is a pressing concern for the family, especially young Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), who cannot comprehend what his baby brother did to deserve to go to hell. While his father (Ralph Ineson) acknowledges God’s mercy as a possibility, the strict sect of Puritanism to which the family adheres places an extreme focus on sin and damnation, almost to the point that sin is greater than God’s mercy, a warped perspective which will feature prominently later in the film.

At the center of the story is Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), on the verge of becoming a woman, suffering from guilt for losing her infant brother while she was playing peek-a-boo, her mother’s scapegoat for anything that goes wrong on the farm, and increasingly uncertain about the rigid fundamentalism of her faith. The opening shot of her silently staring wide-eyed into the camera portrays a young girl who sees her family’s future jeopardized as her father is banished from the village community. That young girl gradually becomes more assertive through the course of the film, but since her family and religion both devalue her, her journey to adulthood hardly follows a normal trajectory. The two other scenes when she stares directly into the camera frame her mental and spiritual journey. If the eyes are the windows to the soul, then the film unnervingly captures a very troubled and lonely soul.

Overshadowing Thomasin’s coming of age and the family grief is the omnipresent threat of a witch in the woods that border the farm. It goes without saying that Thomasin and her family believe in witchcraft, and a very early scene shows the audience the witch. However, the overarching question is whether or not the witch is really a threat or if there is another demonic presence haunting this family. The answers are skillfully suggested throughout, particularly in an early tracking shot which distorts its subject in a brilliant fashion. The final answer will seem perfectly natural to viewers who have bought into the characters and world on display. For those who haven’t, the denouement will probably be the biggest head scratcher in the film. Either way, it pays off in spades.

As a director, Eggers brilliantly chooses what to show and what not to show. He times the cuts to leave just enough room for doubt so that the tragic, fantastic atmosphere is greatly heightened. He places Mark Korven’s visceral, textural score against Jarin Blaschke’s bleak cinematography so that the world of the film is immersive. Finally, his Bergmanesque wrestling with faith, doubt, and isolation suggests a cross between Winter Light and Hour of the Wolf.

It’s very rare to see a film that demands to be seen multiple times to fully digest it. With The Witch, first time feature film director Robert Eggers has crafted such a film.

 

Content Advisory: Fleeting depictions of disturbing satanic rituals, some gruesome violence, shadowy nudity, and horrific unusual deaths.   MPAA rating: R

Suggested audience: Adults with discernment

Personal Recommendation: A

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Hail, Caesar!

Year of release: 2016          Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen.       Starring Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Alden Ehrenreich, Tilda Swinton, Ralph Fiennes, Channing Tatum, Scarlett Johansson, and Michael Gambon.

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If there is one thing that the Coen brothers have proven throughout their entire career it is that they are masters of assembling oddball ensembles and intertwining their lives in ways that are both funny and/or tragic. Hail, Caesar! lands firmly on the funny side, and it is an intelligent and enjoyable tribute to the Golden Age of Hollywood, impressively balancing one of the largest ensembles the Coen brothers have created.

At the center of Hail, Caesar’s! eccentric ensemble is Josh Brolin’s everyman producer Eddie Mannix whose job is to clean up messes which the stars get themselves into and make sure all productions for Capitol Pictures roll along smoothly. After seeing Brolin as the idiotic Llewelyn Moss in No Country for Old Men and the dimwitted but menacing Tom Chaney in True Grit, he turns in an equally impressive performance as the quick-thinking straight man who must balance all the flailing comic acts which surround him.

Those acts include: George Clooney’s bender-prone megastar Baird Whitlock who gets kidnapped; Alden Ehrenreich’s stuntman cowboy Hobie Doyle whom the studio is determined to turn into a serious actor; Ralph Fiennes’ self-serious drama director Laurence Laurentz who can’t abide the lousy acting of Doyle; Tilda Swinton’s bMV5BMjM4Njg1Nzg4MF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMDI3MTA2NzE@._V1__SX1303_SY579_usybody reporter; Channing Tatum’s tap-dancing and singing Burt Gurney, the studio’s other megastar; Scarlett Johansson’s DeeAnna Moran, the scandal-prone megastar who must maintain a pure, innocent public persona; and Frances McDormand’s hilariously crusty film editor.

That’s not even all the characters, and as much fun as it is to watch the Coens juggle all the acts successfully, some of the stretches in between are not nearly as inspired. However, the series of extended cameos are delightful, and they alone make the film worth watching at least twice. Ralph Fiennes proves once again that he is brilliant comedic actor, continuing the success he had in The Grand Budapest Hotel. Channing Tatum and Tilda Swinton both steal every scene they are in. Aldren Ehrenreich’s southern drawl fits the Coen’s dialogue perfectly, and Michael Gambon’s narration sets the mood for a tribute to an era of storytelling now past.

At the center of all the shenanigans is the filming of Capitol Pictures’ prestige Biblical epic Hail, Caesar! – a tale of the Christ (a tagline originally from Ben-Hur). And Christ features into this movie in several ways. From the opening shot of a crucifix looking down on the audience, to Mannix’s frequenting the sacrament of Confession, to a dispute about the nature of God among a Catholic priest, an Orthodox patriarch, a Protestant minister, and a Jewish rabbi, and to the filming of the titular tale of the Christ, the Son of God and faith are what tie the film together.

Even more remarkably, this is one of the most straightforward, sympathetic, non-cynical portrayals of faith that the Coens have ever done. There are some lighthearted jabs at the difference of opinions among various denominations, but those are in a spirit of laughing with the characters not at them. The overall attitude is one of respect for faith, which is integral to Mannix’s work in maintaining the movie business which the Coens so obviously love. A scene toward the end drives home the idea of vocation in a way that is both dramatically satisfying and spiritually rewarding.

In addition to the good natured jokes about religious differences, Hail, Caesar! also intelligently plays upon and subverts classic film stereotypes from the ’50’s. The foolishness of egotistical actors is the main concern of Mannix’s job and a frequent source of humor. A subplot involving a MacGuffin is handled with a brilliant dose of the Coens’ trademark dark humor, showing the characters involved that they are not in control like they think.

Mannix also believes he is in control of his life and all the studio’s productions. However, the film is framed by shots which remind the audience that no one is in complete control of his or her own life, a theme which has shown up in nearly every Coen film from Blood Simple to Inside Llewyn Davis. However, unlike the unrepentant, self-centered league of morons from Burn After Reading, some of these characters take notice of the grace which surrounds them, and the religious imagery that overshadows the film can affect anyone who chooses to allow it to. With a large cast of eccentric characters, skillful tributes to the filmmaking industry, and the idea that grace is available for any fool who seeks it, one thing that is quite simple is that Hail, Caesar! is a Coen brothers’ movie through and through.

 

Content Advisory: A fleeting, mildly suggestive dance move; mild comic violence.   MPAA rating: PG-13

Suggested audience: Teens and up

Personal Recommendation: B+

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Choice for Best Picture (2016)

Over at 1More Film Blog, Ken Morefield asked for essays on what the regular contributors would vote for for Best Picture.

My answer – Mad Max: Fury Road

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