Danny Strong’s (Empire, Game Change, Recount) latest series, the 8 part drama Dopesick, about America’s contemporary opioid crisis and its origins in big pharma, was inspired by the bestseller of the same name by Beth Macy.
Debra Messing and our own Cate Blanchett were in the running to play Lucy, but the role finally went to Australia's own famous red head, Nicole Kidman, with Javier Bardem as Desi in Aaron Sorkin's film focused on a tumultuous period in the famed couple's lives, both personal and professional. Will we love Lucy? Hard to knock this sort of pedigree as part of our Prime subscription. Free postage to boot!
There is a profound metaphor in the first half of Unseen Skies that solidifies many of the film’s quasi-conspiratorial themes into a stark clarity with real human repercussions. To paraphrase the metaphor, more eloquently explored by the documentary’s prime subject, renowned artist, creative and photographer Trevor Paglen, he asks us to consider the train; a romanticised form of transport that opened up much of the world, but corrupted and utilised in the greatest act of human brutality in our troubled history, delivering millions to the death camps of Nazi Germany.
It’s not a comfortable realisation, but Paglen sees a direct correlation with the camera, a rather innocuous tool of creativity, now utilised as a sweeping agent of surveillance, not just for the industrial military complex who uses the tech for everything from drones to mass surveillance of the public, but by A.I. driven consumer enterprises hiding under the guise of social media and gaming apps.
Written, directed and produced by celebrated Australian journalist Yaara Bou Melhem, Unseen Skies delivers a thoughtful thesis on the annexation of technology by a select group of private enterprises, by following the efforts of Trevor Paglen as he attempts to launch a work of art – a 30-foot inflatable balloon contained inside a box satellite, into orbit. No easy feat, as the realm of orbital satellites to date, has been the sole domain of military, government and corporate bodies.
While the project offers an insightful look into the artist’s process, it’s Bou Melhem’s gentle exploration of Paglen’s motivations that crafts the heart of the film. For the most part, Paglen is a seemingly gentle subject, whose openness is both engaging and affecting. However, once we begin to understand that his work in itself is a personal exploration of technology and humanity, not a blunt statement, we begin to realise the underlaying darkness and existential threats of how these technologies are being utilised with little oversight.
One of the film’s more revealing sequences explores a musical performance by The Kronos Quartet, where an A.I., the software of which was created especially for the project, reads the emotional state of an orchestra, categorising their emotions before beginning to label them into preconceived ethnicities, age groups and even social classes. It’s a revealing, and quietly disturbing moment that, even though initially amusing, exposes the gap between data and emotion like a raw nerve.
Although a little meandering in parts, Unseen Skies is an easily digestible film, thanks to both Paglen and Bou Melhem’s thoughtful narrative approach, and should leave you with a bittersweet aftertaste as well.
Every now and then, a video goes viral online that superimposes an iconic actor’s face onto another iconic role to largely humorous effect. Think Sylvester Stallone in Terminator 2 or Nicolas Cage cast as Maria Von Trapp. These Deepfakes come to mind when you watch The Marksman, starring Liam Neeson, which feels like someone has been playing around with a Clint Eastwood film.
That’s no surprise when you consider that the film’s director, Robert Lorenz has produced a number of Clint’s films including American Sniper and Gran Torino. He’s even directed the grizzled actor in 2012’s Trouble with the Curve. The influence is heavy, and The Marksman shares enough DNA that it’s hard not to think of this is an actual Eastwood joint.
Eastwood, Sorry Neeson, plays Jim Hanson, a former US Marine sniper and two-time Vietnam vet now turned rancher. Living on the Arizona-Mexico border, Hanson lives out his days tending to his cattle, shooting coyotes and, when necessary, reporting people jumping the border into America. Lorenz is quick to show that although he does so, he does it with a heavy heart of gold.
This routine is broken when Hanson literally runs into Miguel (Jacob Perez) and his mother, Rosa (Teresa Ruiz) being chased by the Mexican cartel. One shootout later and Hanson finds himself reluctantly taking the young Miguel to on a trip to Chicago, where Rosa’s family will take him in. All the while, gangster Mauricio (Juan Pablo Raba) and his cronies follow in hot pursuit. As he and Miguel make their way cross country, Hanson learns what it means to be human again, while teaching his young ward how to look after himself. (Spoiler alert: it involves guns.)
The Marksman is very much by the numbers, offering little in the way of surprises and leaning in a little too hard on the ol’ Mexican stereotypes. However, as our protagonist, Neeson is the solvent that keeps everything together. Having announced earlier this year that he would be retiring from action films, The Marksman shows the actor in a more sombre role when compared to the Taken series. Having lost his wife to cancer, and drowning in medical bills, Hanson is the archetypal loner, begrudgingly helping others not just because it is the right thing to do, but because it’s the American way.
In The Marksman, Neeson is not the bullet spitting superman of yesterday; he’s a man in his late sixties. As such, there is a vulnerability to Hanson that makes him realistically human, even if everything else around him is somewhat cartoonish. By no means the worst film in Neeson’s action portfolio, The Marksman is possibly his most reflective and, dare we say it, emotional.