Good Kill: The war from home

Good Kill, the third collaboration between filmmaker Andrew Niccol and leading man Ethan Hawke (following Gattaca and Lord of War), is a timely and topical dramatization of the US military’s use of aerial drones in contemporary warfare, and is purported as being based on actual events.

Hawke potrays Tom Egan, a veteran flier with six tours of duty served, a wife (January Jones), two kids, and an almost pathological obsession to get back into the air. Instead, he’s stationed near Las Vegas, operating Air Force drones that track the Taliban in Afghanistan, thousands of miles away.

Tom’s team includes Zoe Kravitz as an idealistic new recruit, Jake Abel as a gung-ho hard-liner, and reliable Bruce Greenwood as a tough (but not inhuman) commanding officer whose profane lectures essentially boil down to “we follow orders.”

It’s when those orders start being dictated by the CIA – yep, them again – that the trouble starts. In quick succession, the CIA orders preemptive strikes in heavily populated civilian areas and even in countries outside established parameters, with no thought to collateral damage or faulty intelligence. If the unseen voice of the CIA operative sounds familiar, it should – it belongs to Peter Coyote, and he brings a fair measure of menace to it.

It’s in this moral quandary that Niccol (who wrote, produced and directed) mines the most persuasive and powerful attributes of Good Kill. Even in the shadow of last year’s superior American Sniper, there’s much here to provoke thought and discussion.

The use of drones has both its supporters and detractors. With drones doing the dirty work, American servicemen are not placed in danger. However, these strikes also serve to goad the enemy into further retaliation. It’s a vicious circle, one with no easy answers in a world that, unfortunately, can’t seem to avoid conflict.

The domestic discord between Tom and wife Molly doesn’t come off nearly as persuasively, decompressing the film into sincere-intentioned but melodramatic fashion. It’s clear from the outset that Tom’s head is (literally) in the clouds, that his drinking would instantly preclude his return to flight duty, and that communication between he and his wife has evaporated.

Besides, it’s also clear that Kravitz’s Vera Suarez is waiting in the (proverbial) wings. When she’s not tearing up over orders she finds objectionable, she’s batting her eyes at Tom, who despite his visible brooding despondency (a Hawke trademark), can’t help but notice. !

Designing woman

Iris, an affectionate look at fashion designer Iris Apfel, marks the penultimate work of master documentary filmmaker Albert Maysles, who died in March at age 88.

Although inherently less dynamic – or disturbing – as his previous classics as Gimme Shelter (1970) and Grey Gardens (1976), Maysles’ film offers a lively look at its equally lively subject, as well as one of the last opportunities to savor his gifts as a filmmaker.

At 93, boasting a glittering career that includes the design or restoration of the White House for nine presidents, Apfel is still designing, still creating, and still feisty. Yet she’s also unpretentious, friendly and down to earth, even making appearances on Home Shopping Network (!).

Maysles’ cameras also take us to her Palm Beach home, a deliriously imaginative abode that defines the term “eclectic” to its zenith. With the ease for which he’ll always be revered, Maysles conveys the spirit of Iris Apfel, as much in her public appearances as in private moments, whether recounting memories or simply spending quiet time with husband Carl.

The aches and pains of old age are here – and so’s the wisdom that comes with it. There’s a lovely final image after the end credits where Iris invites Maysles to sit at her kitchen table – a pair of creative souls taking a quick breather between the next setup. !

Bird is the word!

Like its title character and the man who plays him, I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story is an irresistible tribute to the legendary puppeteer, one of the founding residents (as it were) of TV’s “Sesame Street,” and the man who has brought the immortal character Big Bird to life for nearly 50 years.

Now in his 80s, with countless awards and accolades to his (and Big Bird’s) credit, Spinney has no intention of retiring – despite having handpicked his successor, Matt Vogel, 20 years ago.

Documentary filmmaking duo Dave LaMattina and Chad Walker make wonderful use of archival footage, vintage photographs and rare home movies to explore Spinney’s life and that of his yellow-feathered alter-ego. Rest assured, Spinney’s other monumental Muppet creation, Oscar the Grouch, gets his time too. (There are those, ahem, who prefer the green Grouch over the yellow Bird, but it’s hardly a contentious comparison.)

Joshua Johnson’s score occasionally comes on a bit strong, but there’s much to smile about, and maybe a few tears, too. Spinney’s troubled relationship with his father, a failed first marriage (his wife thought his vocation “childish”), and the untimely death of Muppet master Jim Henson in 1990 at only 53 are bittersweet memories, and lend the film emotional heft.

Of course, Spinney and Big Bird endured, and continue to entertain. His second marriage, to Debra, was a match made – where else? – on “Sesame Street” (where she worked as a receptionist). The energetic octogenarian retains an air of child-like enthusiasm and wonder, attributes he shares with Big Bird, and which he has thankfully shared with us these many years.

Now, thanks to I Am Big Bird, everyone can share in it too, and gain welcome insight into the man beneath the feathers and behind the Grouch.

I Am Big Bird opens Friday at Geeksboro Coffeehouse Cinema, Greensboro !

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