War is hell. No news there. But modern warfare, involving drones instead of trenches, commands especial attention to the law and to ethics, as well as to military objectives. Eye in the Sky hops from place to place, decision to in-decision, from reason to emotion, to create heart-smacking tension.

It takes close to 20 minutes to line up the dramatis personae and the several international settings for the plot, from Kenya to Sussex, England, to Nevada and Pearl Harbor, USA, and British officers in the field and boardroom to Americans in the control rooms, to spies and neophyte pilots, to the enemy, and to a family that includes a girl who's a whiz with a hula hoop but who is not allowed to play or to study her maths while the anti-woman enemy is watching.

Inside a house near hers is a group of people, including a British woman, who was radicalized and might be readying for a suicide mission. Once a drone in the shape of a beetle determines that the heavily hooded woman in that house is the target, the colonel has to get permission from all forces to terminate the target with as little collateral damage as possible.

Eye in the Sky includes deciders and in-deciders, including as prime ministers, who do not want to be judged by YouTube viewers. The cast is outstanding, starting with Helen Mirren, as stalwart here as her character Jane Tennison ever was. Aaron Paul plays a pilot who's never shot a "hellfire" from a drone before. Alan Rickman, in his last role, plays a Lt. General in full exasperation. Barkhad Abdi, the Somali actor from Captain Phillips, plays a determined spy. Director Gavin Hood, who directed Tsotsi 10 years ago, takes a role in his film. Haris Zambarloukos' cinematography and Johnny Breedt's production design make Eye in the Sky more than a movie shot through with tension, framed by coordinates.

 

The title is odd, but the film is odder. The film works so long as you're willing to allow that not all stories need a beginning, middle, and end, preferably in that order. The title works so long as you grant reason as well as fancy to the reading of Tarot cards.

The Knight of Cups card refers to an explorer, a nobleman looking for definition. The film opens with a voice telling a story over pictures of the universe, including some smashing shots of the Aurora Borealis from above the North Pole, the electromagnets set on stun. The story involves a prince whose father sent him to Egypt to find a pearl; there, the townspeople give him a drink that makes him forget the pearl and fall into a deep sleep.

He wanders, trying to find himself, but he looks in all the wrong places. We know that, as we watch him touch walls blindly seeking balance. Only in this case, the walls are six women, including his ex-wife. Each woman offers -- or he takes -- sex but there is nothing erotic about these encounters. They are as flat as Tarot cards, themselves.

The man named Rick, played by Christian Bale, so effective in The Big Short, is a wandering writer, who spars with his brother (Wes Bentley), and his overbearing father (Brian Dennehy). Among the willowy women are actors Cate Blanchett, Frieda Pinto, Natalie Portman, and Imogen Poots. Cherry Jones wafts through as well, along with Armin Mueller-Stahl and Antonio Banderas.

Knight of Cups was directed and written by Terrence Malick, who wasted little ink on the script or treatment. Much of the story deals with film-making itself, so the film can be seen as insider trading. Silence rings throughout, as definitive as the scenes of nature juxtaposed against portraits of stunning modern architecture. Knight of Cups is less pretentious than Malick's Tree of Life, but it requires viewers' elasticity.

 

Celebrating the diversity of Los Angeles' residents and neighborhoods through their food, Jonathan Gold is a reviewer who appreciates all kinds of culinary fare and champions it in his extraordinary ability to describe in tantalizing details food's look and taste. In director Laura Gabbert's documentary City of Gold, Jonathan makes a cultural tour of L.A. through its food.

That means Gold will stop in the San Gabriel Valley, along Pico Boulevard, in Hollywood, Boyle Heights and elsewhere at numerous small, hole-in-wall eateries as well as food trucks. As owners testify in on-camera interviews, their restaurants stayed in business because of Gold's influential LA Times reviews, so powerful is his opinion. Gold savors Korean, Ethiopian, Oaxacan, Thai, Sichuan, Mexican, and just about any other cuisine you can name, as long as it's authentic.

City of Gold begins with graphics on screen quoting from M.F.K. Fisher's The Art of Eating (1954): "First we eat. Then we do everything else." For us foodies, that gets it just right, and Gold lives his foodie life in unique ways. Calling himself a "culinary geographer," he learns about thriving communities through their restaurants. Gold began food reviewing in 1984 for the LA Weekly and now writes for the LA Times. He crafts superb essays on food's appeal and context, in 1997 winning the Pulitzer Prize for criticism, the first food critic to be so honored.

Gabbert's documentary, running just over one and a half hours, goes slack in the last third, meandering through details of Gold's early life as a cellist, dropping in on a couple radio sessions, eavesdropping on a lunch with John Powers and his environmentalist brother Mark who notes, ironically, that Jonathan eats all he's trying to save. Mark is grateful that Jonathan spoke out against shark fin soup, but these scattergun scenes feel tacked on rather than integral to a fine appreciation of Gold's genius.

Do not go hungry to City of Gold, the tantalizing food will challenge you. It will also elicit an increased appreciation of good ethnic offerings, especially those that don't require a rich person's budget. At a Landmark Theatre. Showing through Thursday, April 7 at the Plaza Frontenac Cinema.

 

The title's code words represent initials for an exclamation of dismay. Those words accompany every step of this revealing and often riveting film about a journalist in Afghanistan in the first years of this century. The film stays strong as does the protagonist, flung into the field from a boring desk job.

Kim Baker was childless and unmarried in 2003 and, therefore, ripe for a field assignment. She arrives in Afghanistan with a screaming-orange backpack and enough moxie to stay the course. She just doesn't know what the course is going to be. As a newbie newswoman, sprung from the copy desk, she has to navigate a foreign country where women are burka-ed and belittled. At the same time, she has to negotiate the competition of the news industry, at home -- now Afghanistan -- and back home.

She meets other journalists and shooters, their tongues a polyglot of accents. She meets guards, guides, generals, the enemy. She meets her courage, soon revved up as that of the adrenalined character played by Jeremy Renner in The Hurt Locker.

This film has been sold as a bosom-buddy movie, with the stars Tina Fey and Margo Robbie as snipers. It is much more than that, much more than one-liners, spruced up by writer Robert Carlock from Baker's bio. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot presents Fey in the role of a woman coming to terms with herself, both as the character and as an actor amid a stellar cast. Alfred Molina plays politician; Cherry Jones, a network exec; Martin Freeman, a swain; Josh Charles, a cad; and Billy Bob Thornton, a Marine. But this film is Tina Fey's, and she doesn't waste time or space in telling Kim Baker's story of a stranger in a strange land of war.

 

In the Chet Baker biographical film Born to Be Blue, writer/director Robert Budreau honors his famous subject's improvisational music by riffing on events from Baker's life. In other words, Born to Be Blue doesn't present a straight chronology of Baker's rise and fall. Instead, Baker first appears in the late 1960s in an Italian prison cell.

A Hollywood producer offers Baker the starring role in a movie about him (a film never completed), before we move to intermittent flashbacks to Baker's brilliant trumpet playing at Birdland, 1954, with Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie on hand. Alternating color with black and white footage to signal different time periods, and playing fast and loose with actual details, the story follows Baker's fortunes, including the brutal beating that left him without front teeth, his love life (Jane as a composite of many lovers), his heroin addiction and his uneasy battle against it.

The loosely linked episodes work because of Ethan Hawke as Baker, Carmen Ejogo as Jane, and Callum Keith Rennie as Dick Bock, Baker's producer. With Jazzman Kevin Turcotte contributing the trumpet work, Hawke's performance is extraordinary. He shifts fluidly through Baker's moods from defiance and assertive confidence to needy vulnerability and emotional dependence. Hawke's body posture, his eyes and facial muscles relax or tighten depending on Baker's physical and psychological register. As Jane, Ejogo offers an effective counterpoint with her solid support and unwavering moral compass.

In an exquisite scene Baker visits his Oklahoma home. One short exchange with his father, a noted guitarist in his own right, illustrates how this parent drives an arrow through Baker's heart with words that boldly wound and unnerve Chet. The intention to harm is clear, and the chill lingers through subsequent scenes with his father's naked cruelty. This informs Chet's desire and need to please Dizzy and Miles at his Birdland comeback.

The pacing by editor David Freeman complements the jazz rhythms, with creative touches along the way. Steve Cosens' cinematography captures the time periods and moods with atmospheric lighting. I hope Born to Be Blue sends audiences back to that Baker song and his other great jazz. At Tivoli Theatre through Thursday, April 7.

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