14 January 2016

Review: 13 Hours - The Secret Soldiers of Beghazi


After the box-office success of Lone Survivor and American Sniper, the cottage industry of military themed January releases continues to go strong. Whereas those films came from Peter Berg and Clint Eastwood, directors known for taking a backseat to the material when it was called for, 2016's entry, 13 Hours: Secret Soldiers of Benghazi, comes from a director with the least tact ever observed over a career. Early speculation around the film had it that 13 Hours would be Michael Bay's most grown-up film, but those rumors were incorrect.

As the screen opens with the text "This is a true story," Michael Bay wants viewers to know right away that 13 Hours is the truest account of the story we have all heard so much about since 2012. Pointed blame isn't passed around openly, but Bay still wants audiences to know who he thinks is at the center of what went wrong. For the purposes of this film, the person to be blamed is C.I.A. station chief, Bob (David Costabile). Costabile really mugs it up as the distrustful supervisor, who makes it clear that any advice the security contractors have to offer will be met only with scorn. Inadequate safety measures at the diplomatic compound are questioned, but never addressed, and the difficulty in identifying which Libyans are friendlies or adversaries also doesn't concern the higher-ups.

Just after landing in Benghazi, Jack Silva (John Krasinski) and Tyrone Woods (James Badge Dale) engage a hostile gang on an ordinarily unremarkable trip back to the C.I.A. annex. Guns are pointed, threats are exchanged, but no shots are fired. The scene is justifiably tense, yet it also serves as a taste of the chaos to come later during the U.S. Ambassador's arrival. Ambassador Steven's visit to Benghazi was an effort to win over the Libyan people, but a few hundred armed militants saw it as an opportunity to strike. When the gunfire finally erupts, Jack, Tyrone and the rest of the contractors are left to watch the events helplessly from the roof of their base.

When Michael Bay is clicking on all cylinders, he can usually be forgiven for his errors in judgment, but he delivers a misfire in regards to the final act. During the long wait for permission to rescue the diplomat, Bay was eager to display his righteous indignation at the lack of value of human life, and that is never more clear than in one particular cut. During the assault on the compound, when all hell is breaking loose, Tyrone desperately calls for air assistance. The madness in Libya is contrasted with the dead quiet of fighter jets sitting on a runway in Italy. The requested air support never makes it to Benghazi. Bay isn't known for making statements in his films, so that cut is an excruciating indictment, but then curiously he undercuts his own message by turning an account of tragic loss into a slick actioner.

The film went to lengths to show that the contractors were a band of brothers with families at home that cared about their well-being. Later, in the middle of gunfire Jack is showed trying to call his wife (a clear tug to the heartstrings). Then, in a move that makes one question whether Bay even cares, he goes to a camera angle attached to an incoming projectile that kills one of the lead characters. A moment that should be treated with the gravity of a protagonist dying is replaced with "a cool shot." Making matters worse, the shot that followed a bomb down from the sky was a misguided reference to his own work from Pearl Harbor. The director is also not above portraying Ambassador Stevens, who died in the attacks, as a naive figurehead.

If 13 Hours is redeemed at all after the antics of its director, it comes purely as a result of the charm of the cast, headlined by John Krasinski and James Badge Dale. Krasinski proves that he is more than the affable guy everyone loved on The Office, and Dale continues to steal the show as a character actor is wont to due. It's a mystery why Dale isn't a star. He takes a total clunker of a line like “Payback’s a bitch, and her stripper name is karma.” Yes, that's a real line of dialogue from the film. So when I say that 13 Hours is Michael Bay at his Bay-est, you'll know it's no lie. And that it's not a compliment.

07 January 2016

Review: Anomalisa


Weird is rarely used as a good quality in film criticism, but few words so completely describe Charlie Kaufman’s work as weird does. All of his films are a window into his very particular worldview, and that p.o.v. is certainly unlike anything seen in pop culture. For that reason, Anomalisa became an entry on many most anticipated lists for 2015. That Kaufman chose stop-motion to tell this story made the picture an event. So it came as a disappointment when the film was one of the year’s more mundane efforts.

Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind have an energy and heart at the center that is not present here. Previous collaborators like Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry were able to temper the overwhelming negativity Charlie Kaufman occasionally falls prey to, but, this time, the writer doesn’t have a director to rein things in. In all of his efforts to create an experience that is both familiar and alienating, Kaufman may have accidentally created something hostile.

The story centers around author Michael Stone (David Thewlis) and his overnight stay in Cincinnati on a business trip. He is due to speak at a conference and read from his best-selling book, “How Can I Help You Help Them?” and should be happy with his success, but Michael is deep in exploring all of the regrets in his life. How Michael became an expert in customer service is anyone’s guess, but roll with it. Michael has never been able to connect with anyone on a deep, personal level and when he reaches out to an ex-girlfriend, the results are typically disastrous, but his stay at The Fregoli Hotel turns fortuitous when he meets customer service representative, Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh).

Lisa is star-struck by meeting the famous author, yet it’s her voice that intrigues Michael. All of the other people present (all voiced by Tom Noonan) are literally the same, but ironically only Lisa believes herself to be an indistinguishable face in the crowd. A beautiful moment in a world full of ugliness deserves to be cherished, but the encounter doesn’t last long after the love scene (is there a prerequisite for any movie featuring puppets to include a sex scene?). From here, Anomalisa appears to gain a little philanthropic hope for Michael, yet those hopes are dashed in the harsh light of the morning after. Just one more instance of a middle-aged man using a younger woman to feel important again. Abandoning Leigh’s Lisa with time to spare was a mistake.

Everything that was beautiful about watching Michael and Lisa connect is ripped to shreds as Michael’s feelings for Lisa are quickly turned into dissatisfaction. Whatever he found special about Lisa the night before simply doesn’t exist at the end of their breakfast, and they part ways. Self-destructive protagonists aren’t new, but few are as eager to dive into the abyss as Michael Stone. David Thewlis’ turn in Naked, while also abhorrent, offered more than just misery. The narcissism on display left this viewer weary.

Kaufman has tackled alienation to greater effect in his other scripts, and a majority of the film feels like he’s repeated himself. If there were more scenes like Michael’s encounter with the hotel receptionist, some of the other stagnant transitions would have been alleviated. Dialogue for its own sake has a place in cinema, but it has to move the story forward or be pleasurable. Too often the words shared in Kaufman’s screenplay do neither. Perhaps keeping Anomalisa to the originally conceived running time of 40 minutes would have been best.

However, the choice to animate the film with puppets was still a fantastic idea. A live-action version of the film could be ignored for being a chore to sit through, but these dolls invite viewers to look closer. Short of the lines across the puppets’ faces, one could be forgiven for thinking that actors were delivering those lines. Great care was taken into designing the look and feel of Anomalisa, it’s just a shame that a more energetic Kaufman couldn’t have delivered something new to say. One wouldn’t go as far to call this picture a misfire, but Charlie Kaufman’s latest is only for a very small audience of moviegoers. And, for that reason, it’s likely that nothing like Anomalisa will be seen again.