Helen Mirren in Eye in the SkyEYE IN THE SKY

Eye in the Sky concerns an impending act of drone warfare on a seemingly peaceful village in Kenya, and it’s one of the few films of its type released since 1964’s Fail-Safe: a pulse-pounding, nerve-racking inaction thriller. One scene after another finds individuals or cloistered rooms of military officials doing little more than staring at screens – in governmental war rooms, in flight simulators, on iPhones – and awaiting orders from higher-ups before they themselves can make any decisive moves. Yet the experience of director Gavin Hood’s thoughtful nail-biter is nonetheless spellbinding. The seconds feel as though they last many minutes (in the best way), and the cumulative 100 minutes feel like they’re over in a flash.

What little traditional action there is in Eye in the Sky is confined to a small residential neighborhood in Nairobi, where a houseful of terrorists – including numbers two, three, and five on the international “kill list” – are outfitting two of their cadre in explosive-lined vests for a suicide attack. We, and the film’s main characters, are aware of this via a beetle-sized flying drone operated by Somali undercover agent Jama Farah (Barkhad Abdi) that has been positioned on a ceiling beam in the terrorists’ domicile. Images of the attack prep are first sent to a military base in Sussex, England, under the command of Colonel Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren), and then to Powell’s London-based superior Lieutenant General Frank Benson (Alan Rickman), and then to an outpost in Las Vegas, where drone pilots Steve Watts (Aaron Paul) and Carrie Gershon (Phoebe Fox) prepare to launch an air-to-surface missile. That’s roughly the film’s first 20 minutes. The next hour-plus is the waiting for the official launch order to be given – a wait that is easily, to date, the most queasily exciting hour-plus of the movie year.

Mere seconds before all systems are go, an unanticipated wrinkle pops up in the form of a Nairobi pre-teen (the sweet-faced Aisha Takow) who sets up a vending stand to sell bread directly outside the terrorists’ compound. It’s instantly clear to everyone that unless she vacates the area, this child will be a casualty of the air strike. But how can they get her to leave? More to the point: Should they even try? Powell and Benson argue no: Young girl or not, it’s one innocent life versus a projected 80 innocent lives lost in the suicide bombers’ attack. Watts, Gershon, and several high-ranking British officials argue yes: If they execute their assignment knowing she’ll be killed and only presuming the deaths of 80 others, they’ll be no better than the terrorists. So the chief decision-makers do just what they likely would do in such a scenario: They ask their bosses to make the decision for them. And that’s where the already tense goings-on in screenwriter Guy Hibbert’s script begin to be sprinkled with startling bits of bone-chilling black comedy. Everyone passes the buck, no one (not even the British foreign secretary or American secretary of state) wants to make a firm choice, no one can make a move unless someone makes a firm choice, and the only ones appearing to do so are those suiting up for a suicide mission.

Alan Rickman in Eye in the SkyGiven the gravitas of the situation, laughter should, theoretically, be the absolute wrong response to Eye in the Sky’s governmental and militaristic hand-wringing. Yet in scenes of the secretary of state (Michael O’Keefe) annoyed that his help is required during a diplomatic visit to China – specifically, a Chinese ping-pong tournament – and the British prime minister (Iain Glen) forced to make life-and-death decisions on the toilet, the movie’s absurdist bent is obvious, and unexpectedly welcome. The rules of modern warfare and risk assessment, Hood and Hibbert suggest, have become so impenetrably knotty that they border on the ridiculous – a fact not lost on this particular struggle’s participants. (Mirren, giving a wholly unsentimental and frighteningly tenacious performance, earns a sizable cackle when her superiors’ dithering leaves her nothing to say but “Christ!”) Yet the filmmakers are also smart enough to know when the laughter should die in our throats. For all of the Dr. Strangelove-ian satire, the stakes here feel unerringly real, and the God’s-eye view of the Nairobi village that is Hood’s most frequently repeated image becomes a gradually horrific visual motif: a real-life chess match whose sacrificed pawns will surely bleed.

Beyond the rare pleasure in watching a movie whose climax you actually can’t easily predict, Hood’s latest offers numerous others: the beat-the-clock panic as customers slowly, too slowly, purchase loaves of the girl’s bread; the wrenching ruefulness in Paul’s and Fox’s eyes as their drone pilots prepare to do the inevitable and unthinkable; the wittily choreographed foot chase that finds Abdi leaping over fences and hiding under parked cars. (Speaking of pleasures, just seeing Captain Phillips’ Oscar nominee Abdi in a role that isn’t a 10-second cameo in The Brothers Grimsby counts as a major one.) But for the actor’s fans, and I’m not sure there’s a soul alive who isn’t one, we may especially treasure this marvelously entertaining film for our last movie minutes spent with Alan Rickman, who’s final screen portrayal is everything you want it to be: dryly funny, melancholic, soulful, and, in the end, deeply moving. True, we’ll be hearing the recently deceased Rickman later this summer in Alice through the Looking Glass. But while there are many reasons to secure tickets for Eye in the Sky, I can’t think of a better reason to see it than to see him.

 

Sally Field and Max Greenfield in Hello, My Name Is DorisHELLO, MY NAME IS DORIS

 

Nothing, and I mean nothing, about director/co-writer Michael Showalter’s Hello, My Name Is Doris should work; even the film’s poster, with a wide-eyed Sally Field sipping coffee while sporting the world’s tackiest lovable-kook hair bow, all but screams, “Abandon hope, ye who enter here!” This indie comedy finds Field’s terminally shy office drone falling hopelessly in love with her company’s new 30-something employee (Max Greenfield), a one-sided affair that leads to awkward encounters, Facebook stalking, and Doris Learning to Live Again through electronica concerts and increasingly unwise wardrobe selections. Yet after about a half hour of stock sitcom figures and narrative contrivances and Field’s mugging facial contortions, I realized that my face was stuck in a contortion of its own: a smile that had appeared at some unspecified point prior, and that, for the rest of the movie, I was physically incapable of removing.

A sunny entertainment about debilitating loneliness, Hello, My Name Is Doris too often errs on the side of slapstick mortification; even when its star is at her hammiest, there’s precious little fun in watching Doris make an open-mouthed ass of herself. Yet the film is surprisingly not mawkish even when taking its expected sentimental detours, with the unabashedly charming Greenfield leading a deliriously enjoyable supporting cast of stereotype-transcenders including Beth Behrs, Stephen Root, Wendi McLendon-Covey, Elizabeth Reaser, Natasha Lyonne, Kumail Nanjiani, Peter Gallagher, and the scene-stealing Kyle Mooney. (Tyne Daly and Caroline Aaron, meanwhile, are so delightful as Doris’ devoted friends that a satisfying feature-length comedy could’ve transpired merely through their characters playing cards and drinking wine for 90 minutes.) As for Field, who can be a lot to take for such a petite person, she gradually finds the human being located beneath Doris’ many layers of tics and eccentricities, and eventually comes through with a fearless and emotionally raw portrayal of a senior citizen terrified that her best years are behind her, yet refusing to go gently into that good night. A Dylan Thomas reference may seem a bit lofty for the frequent low comedy of Hello, My Name Is Doris, but Field, in the end, proves deserving of sky-high praise. I liked her. I really, really liked her.

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