Tricia Youlden

Eye in the Sky ★★★★ M

For six years, Colonel Catherine Powell (Helen Mirren) has has been tracking down Susan Danford (Lex King), a British citizen turned terrorist. Finally, with the help of American drone technology, the quarry has been located in Kenya, where a special forces team is poised to capture her.

When a cute insect-like drone enters the target house the various personnel watching in Kenya, America and England, see that two men inside the house are being kitted up as suicide bombers.

The command changes from “capture” to “kill”. Drone pilot Steve Watts (Aaron Paul) is about to launch a Hellfire missile when a young girl sets up her bread stall right outside the target compound. He and his assistant have earlier watched little Alia in her parents’ yard, playing with a hula hoop. We, the audience, also know that Alia’s parents are covertly educating her despite the dominant fundamentalist regime.

With technology the nature of warfare may have changed but it is still the pilot who must press the button no matter who in the “kill chain” gives the command. Much to Colonel Powell’s frustration, Watts delays the launch.

The moral dilemma thus posed constitutes the crux of the film. Should the mission be aborted to protect the life of this one child, the two suicide bombers would kill many civilians, including children. Furthermore, Danford would remain free to organise more al-Shabab terrorist attacks.

As a tense intercontinental debate ensues, Jama Farah (Barkhad Abdi) is on the ground in Nairobi, outside the target compound, controlling the insect drone and trying valiantly to clear the scene without arousing suspicion. Time is running out.

Writer Guy Hibbert and director Gavin Hood deftly manipulate the steadily mounting tension as Colonel Powell feels that she is losing control of the operation. Cinematographer Haris Zambarloukas’ close-ups of the principal characters’ faces capture their emotions showing through, no matter how controlled and professional they endeavour to appear. The performances are uniformly excellent in all locations.

Eye in the Sky is no flag-waving celebration of war. It is, rather, a stark reminder of the cruelly absurd, destructive nature of war. As Lieutenant-General Benson (the late Alan Rickman, in his final role) remarks, “Never tell a soldier that he does not know the cost of war.”

Confronting but utterly compelling viewing.

Hail Caesar! ★★★★ PG

Joel and Ethan Coens’ latest film, Hail Caesar! is a satirical homage to the Hollywood studio system of the 1950s, with its stars and big budget films.

Capitol Pictures troubleshooter Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) is a busy man, deftly dealing with a cavalcade of crises involving the studio’s contract stars.

Swimming sensation DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johannson) is single and pregnant. Tap-dancing heart-throb Burt Gurney (Channing Tatum) is behaving suspiciously. Effete director Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes) is vainly attempting to elicit a performance, let alone a “mirthless chuckle”, from Western star Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich). Capitol’s hottest property, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), is not only having difficulty remembering key lines in the biblical epic Hail Caesar!, but rumours of his scandalous misbehaviour on a previous film shoot are becoming harder to quash. Indeed, squabbling sibling gossip columnists, Thora and Thessaly Thacker (Tilda Swinton), are hot on the trail.

Then, just when it seems that Mannix might be getting everything and everybody under control, Whitlock is kidnapped and held for ransom. Aided by unlikely hero Hobie Doyle and his home-spun logic, Mannix sets out to rescue the star, who is actually finding his captors’ socio-economic theories quite enlightening.

As the investigation takes Mannix from one sound stage to another, we are presented with a smorgasbord of classic cinematic genres: a wide-screen western, a spectacular water ballet, a fabulous song and dance number, an ever-so-mannered drawing-room scene and, of course, the biblical epic of the title. This latter film occasions a particularly amusing scene in which Mannix seeks counsel from four clergymen of different religions and differing opinions on how Christ should be portrayed on screen.

Great performances by an impeccably costumed cast on elaborate sets that faithfully recreate the look of the ’50s make this clever film visually stunning throughout thanks to production designer Jess Gonchor, costume designer Mary Zophres and cinematographer Roger Deakins. Frances McDormand’s cameo performance as editor C.C. Calhoun is a highlight of the film.

Not to be missed!

Lady in the Van ★★★ M

In the late 1960s, when writer Alan Bennett (Alex Jennings) moves into 23 Gloucester Crescent, North London, he becomes aware of a dilapidated van that is permanently parked in the street.

It is inhabited by an eccentric elderly woman, Miss Shepherd (Maggie Smith), who has as little regard for personal hygiene as she has for the rate-paying residents of Gloucester Crescent. Indeed, Miss Shepherd’s sense of divine entitlement is one of her most striking characteristics. So, when the local council threaten to tow her van away, she considers it only right that she should park it in the empty driveway of number 23.

Under the misapprehension that this is to be a temporary arrangement, Bennett agrees. It is only after her death, 15 years later, that he is able to reclaim said driveway.

The course of their curious relationship is wryly depicted in Lady in the Van, which has evolved from memoir to stage play to film.

Because Bennett considers that writing is talking to oneself, Alex Jennings plays two Alan Bennetts – “the self that lives the life, the self that writes about it”. Their relationship is just as entertaining as Bennett’s interactions with Mary Shepherd and his neighbours up and down Gloucester Crescent.

Over the 15 years, everyone ages, their clothes and hairstyles changing with the fashions. While his neighbours’ tolerance for Miss Shepherd waxes and wanes Bennett finds that everyone has come to regard him as the demanding old lady’s carer, deny it though he might.

Meanwhile Miss Shepherd continues to berate her unintentional landlord, telling people that he’s a communist and provoking thoughts of strangulation in the mild-mannered author.

Over the years, Bennett gradually pieces together her history. An acclaimed concert pianist, Mary Shepherd was forced to renounce music upon entering the convent. Her mental equilibrium, already damaged by this cruel deprivation, was shattered by her belief that she was responsible for the death of a motorcyclist.

The film was actually filmed at 23 Gloucester Crescent, with Bennett’s own furniture. This and Jennings’ remarkable resemblance to the author reinforces the veracity of this “mostly true” story. Director Nicholas Hytner, production director John Beard, costume designer Naomi Donne, cinematographer Andrew Dunn, composer George Fenton and editor Tariq Anwar have done a splendid job recreating the little world that Bennett inadvertently shared with Mary Shepherd. Utterly believable performances from Smith and Jennings are ably supported by Jim Broadbent, Frances de la Tour, Roger Allam and the rest of the company.

While Lady in the Van is a must-see for Bennett aficionados I would recommend it to everyone for its sheer humanity and whimsy.

A Bigger Splash

Tilda Swanton and Ralph Fiennes in the steamy thriller, A Bigger Splash

Having caught A Bigger Splash post-deadline, I can only briefly say that it really appeals to me. Directed by Luca Guadagnino, it stars Tilda Swinton and Ralph Fiennes as former partners, Marianne and Harry, a former rock’n’roll singer and producer respectively. She is recuperating from a throat operation with her new partner (Matthias Schoenaerts) on the World Heritage listed island of Pantellaria when Harry turns up with his recently-discovered daughter (Dakota Johnson).

It is an enthralling psychological drama, set in a stunning location and beautifully realised by everyone concerned.

PS: I reviewed The Daughter last year, but its release was postponed. It has finally opened.

Similarly, the release of Sherpa, which I reviewed in the last edition of Education, was postponed until March 31. Meanwhile, it has been voted best documentary of 2015 by the Australian Film Critics Circle, of which I am a member.

Tricia Youlden teaches Drama at Willoughby Girls High School.