Film

13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi, Mustang, Lamb, The Benefactor, Moonwalkers

13 HOURS: THE SECRET SOLDIERS OF BENGHAZI

To say that the events leading up to and during the Battle of Benghazi were confusing and complex doesn’t even begin to cover it. Since the actual U.S military didn’t have a presence at the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, they were effectively not allowed to be a part of it, even as reinforcements. Since one of the two compounds that was attacked by Libyan Islamic militants on September 11, 2012, was a “secret” CIA operation, the U.S. government had its hands tied as well in responding to outside force attempting to get in. Intervening would have meant acknowledging that certain clandestine activities were afoot. In many ways, Benghazi was the perfect storm of national interests trumping personal protection of U.S. citizens.

Michael Bay’s gripping, tense and disturbingly authentic 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi captures the reality of modern warfare, without glorifying it or throwing blame at any one target for letting it get as bad as it did, since it becomes clear early on that a series of terrible decisions made everything go to hell in a matter of hours. Working from a screenplay by Chuck Hogan (adapting the book by Mitchell Zuckoff), Bay zeroes in on a handful of independent (but all former military) CIA contractors working private security for the CIA installation, acting primarily as bodyguards and protection details for CIA agents negotiating in Benghazi. As the film opens, Jack Silva (John Krasinski) is arriving for yet another tour after attempting to jump-start a civilian career as a real estate agent to support his wife and children. But with the market still struggling, he is forced (at least that’s what he tells himself) to return to what he knows best and its guaranteed pay.

One of the most interesting and telling moments of 13 Hours involves Silva deep in the Benghazi battle telling a fellow security officer that he doesn’t want anyone to have to tell his wife that he died in a place he didn’t care about for a cause he didn’t understand. That’s a powerful statement in a film like this that many will assume is some jingoistic, pro-military action movie. These men are not military, so they aren’t obliged to tow the line about national security; they are there to do a job and get paid, even if they are hobbled at almost every step by a weaselly CIA section chief known as Bob (David Costabile). Even when a separate compound housing the U.S. Ambassador to Libya, Chris Stevens (Matt Letscher), is under attack, Bob refuses to let his security team go rescue them because it would expose the CIA’s presence in the city.

Bay is careful not to portray these men (played by James Badge Dale, Max Martini, Pablo Schreiber, David Denman, and Dominic Fumusa) as some sort of superheroes; they are defying gravity and physics or hitting every target with pinpoint accuracy. This point is never more clear than when Silva is almost sidelined right as the battle is getting heated because his contact lens falls out. Certainly, these highly trained men are far better at shooting and avoiding getting shot than the loosely organized militia outside the walls, but as far as the actual fighting goes, the emphasis in 13 Hours appears to be believability. There’s an injury to one man’s arm that is so gruesome, I’m still having nightmares about it, but I absolutely believe that’s how he was wounded.

The film’s most glaring problems have to do with not just the Islamic enemies—none of whom are named or given subtitles—but with the entire population of Benghazi, who are treated like faceless, nameless beings with about as much significance as the furniture. I get that if you’re telling this story from the point of view of the American security team, then not speaking the language or being able to tell one bearded man or covered woman from another is one of the building blocks for the tension. The one exception to this is a local translator named Amahl (played by the great Iranian actor Peyman Moaadi, from A Separation), who is the only link between the Americans and Libyans (most of whom seem glad to have the Americans on hand) and becomes an invaluable asset during the course of this story.

Say what you want about Michael Bay, but the man knows how to stage an action sequence and, most importantly, he knows how to stage a battle. In 13 Hours, he makes the geography of every gunfight surprisingly clear. We know what direction the threat is coming from, and what new variety of weapons the attackers are using during each wave of assault. There are certainly times when things are boiled down to flashes of gun muzzles, smoke and explosions (all Bay specialties), but when the fighting stops, we’re given a quick assessment of the damages and what needs to be fortified for the next attack. For as much ammunition as is spent in this movie, the resulting sequences feel like an exercise in efficient use of weapons and patience, as the enemy gets close enough where you effectively can’t miss.

People (critics chief among them) love to take shots at Michael Bay, and admittedly he sometimes makes it easy. But it’s lazy to dismiss his body of work wholesale, and it’s certainly ill-advised to assume that the director’s often glossy, slick style and quick-paced editing are simply applied to 13 Hours. They most certainly are not the norm here. If anything, he’s toned down his usual bag of visual tricks in favor of down-and-dirty filmmaking.

Bay is probably at his weakest when he introduces emotion into his films (usually in the form of awkward love stories in the middle of action), but here, there is enough downtime (and running time: somewhere just shy of 2.5 hours) to allow his strong cast to talk about their fear, their families, their inability to make it in the real world, and what keeps pulling them back to these blazing desert locations. It’s wonderfully honest and leads to some fairly raw moments. 13 Hours is an exercise in Bay defying expectations, but it goes far beyond that. It’s brutal storytelling, laced with a tinge of emotional honesty that you rarely get from a film about war. But the Battle of Benghazi was a war like few others of late; it was off the books; it wasn’t part of an ongoing campaign; it sprung up and was done in half a day. Weeding out the politics, 13 Hours is eye opening and pays tribute to a small group of fighters being brave because that’s all they knew how to do. The film opens today in Chicago and suburbs.

MUSTANG

Perfectly embodying the struggle to keep old-world values and practices alive when young people are continuously being exposed to “instruments of corruption,” like cell phones, clothes that reveal too much skin, television and makeup, the French production Mustang is a deeply moving work from first-time director Deniz Gamze Ergüven and was just nominated for the 2016 Best Foreign Language Film Oscar.

Set in a small village in Northern Turkey just as school has let out for the summer, Mustang tells the story of five teenaged sisters, orphaned and living under the supervision of their grandmother (Nihal Koldas) and Uncle Erol (Ayberk Pekcan). After the girls take a harmless swim with some local boys on their way home, they are reported by a busybody neighbor woman and severely scolded and punished physically for being so brazen and sexual in public (neither of which is true). The girls are all quite beautiful and a couple of the older ones are secretly already having certain types of sex, so the film becomes a struggle to regain one’s sexuality in a culture that is terrified of female empowerment.

The uncle cracks down, bars the windows and removes anything that might expose these girls to the evils of the outside world. But these are smart young women, who always have a plan and a way to sneak out to meet a boyfriend or attend a soccer game. They don’t want to be around the parade of local women who have been asked to come to the house and teach them how to be good, attentive, polite housewives. Before long, Grandma and Uncle Erol start arranging marriages for the girls (humiliating virginity checks are done on all of them first), starting with the oldest, Sonay (Ilayda Akdogan), who won’t marry anyone but her boyfriend, making her the only one of the five who gets to select her husband. Others resign to someone chosen for them with the enthusiasm usually reserved for invasive surgery.

Mustang is told from the vantage point of (and narration by) the youngest sister Lale (Gunes Nezihe Sensoy), who doesn’t quite see the shades of gray in any situation, making her the least interesting possible narrator. But perhaps because of her right/wrong point of view, she sees things the clearest, likening the parade of potential husbands turning their house into a “wife factory.” Each sister reacts differently to the prospect of being married off, and one reacts quite tragically, leaving the remaining girls to take a stand against this practice.

Borrowing a bit from Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides, director and co-writer (with Alice Winocour) Ergüven’s work is about personal liberation, and on that level, Mustang is quite uplifting. But to get there, she takes us through a beautifully shot gauntlet of outrage and moral trepidation that might shake your spirit on the way to enlightenment. Make sure to catch this one. The film opens today at the Music Box Theatre.

LAMB

If you see only one film this year about a 40-something man befriending an 11-year-old girl and taking her to his family cabin in the middle of nowhere in a totally non-sexual way, then Lamb is your best bet. The truth is, there’s no way to tell this story and not find it creepy in some way. It would seem that filmmaker and star Ross Partridge (who also adapted the book by Bonnie Nadzam) is well aware of that and uses our unease to deepen the drama and tension in this tale of David Lamb, an executive whose marriage and life is falling apart, who turns to this troubled girl for a glimmer of hope in the world.

It would be one thing if Lamb were about David and Tommie (played by the startlingly good Oona Laurence, seen last year in Southpaw) just sitting around talking to each other within walking distance of her home, where she lives with her neglectful parents (Scoot McNairy and Lindsay Pulsipher), who barely notice or care when she’s gone from their sight for an entire day. But Lamb goes into far more delicate territory that some audience members will feel discomfort venturing into.

The two meet when Tommie and her friends spot David sitting alone in a parking lot smoking. The friends dare Tommie to go ask him for a cigarette, and when she does, he recognizes that her uncaring pals don’t give a toss about her safety. On the spot, the pair concoct a plan to make it look like he’s kidnapping her, just to see what the friends do (they do nothing), and while Tommie is a bit freaked out that maybe she’s in real danger, David immediately lets her go, and they make a plan to meet again. After commiserating about their lives (although he’s a little less honest about portions of his, including his real name), they make a plan to drive to his recently deceased father’s farm and hide out for a while.

There’s never really any doubt that David is part obsessed with this girl, part delusional about his own life, and one of the more intriguing element to Lamb is watching him expertly weave half-truths and lies into a convincing argument about any number of topics. Whenever Tommie expresses the urge to leave, he convinces her that he’s the only one who cares about her well being, which is true to a point. When David’s office mistress Linny (Jess Weixler) unexpectedly shows up at the cabin, he manages to keep Tommie hidden for a couple days by telling both of them lies about the other.

We never get a sense that David is a threat to Tommie’s life, but his attention to her and the way he tosses around the word “love” on occasion to describe their relationship certainly keeps open the possibility that he sees her as something more than a surrogate daughter. I think this is a deliberate choice by Partridge (primarily known as an actor, whose first directing effort was Interstate 84) to keep viewers near the edges of our seats. He walks a fine line with this relationship, but he’s so committed to the purity of the story that he powers through whatever lingering issues we might have with the relationship in general. He’s also keenly aware that the more he might attempt to make his character seem harmless, the more concerned we might get about his intentions.

Using the Wyoming and Colorado settings to further the movie’s isolated atmosphere, Lamb feels like a risk because it is one. There are times when it’s difficult to figure out which of these two characters is more lonely and in need of attention, which ultimately is why the abduction aspect of this film isn’t as worrisome as it probably should be. These two are feeding off each other’s melancholy, and it somehow fortifies them both in the long run. This is a remarkably bold and confident work that takes chances few other films would dare, with most of them paying off handsomely. It’s not always an easy ride, but it’s one worth seeing through to the end.

The film opens today for a weeklong run at the Gene Siskel Film Center. After the 7:45pm screening of the film on Saturday, Bonnie Nadzam, author of the book Lamb is based on, will be present for audience discussion.

The Benefactor

Richard Gere apparently has reinvented himself as an indie film actor, which has given him access to a whole host of interesting roles that simply weren’t there in his last few years of mainstream movie acting. But with last year’s exceptional Time Out of Mind, he took risks that he hasn’t taken is quite some time, and he’s followed that up with The Benefactor, a far less interesting film overall, but one that continues to provide Gere with a lively and layered character, courtesy of first-time feature writer-director Andrew Renzi.

The Benefactor opens with a tragedy set five years ago, with Gere’s philanthropist Franny on the verge of opening a new children’s hospital in Philadelphia and hanging out with his two best friends, a married couple played by Cheryl Hines and Dylan Baker, both of whom are doctors set to work there. Their daughter Olivia (Dakota Fanning) is packing up for college, and it’s clear that all four of these folks are a tight-knit group and that Olivia’s leaving is hard on everyone. But when all but Olivia take off for some reason in a car, there is a horrific accident, killing the couple and leaving Franny in the hospital for quite some time.

The film jumps ahead five years. Franny is now a reclusive rich guy living alone and isolated, addicted to morphine and overwhelmed with guilt about the accident, thinking it was his fault. His only real human contact is with his small staff of servants and sick kids in his hospital, which he pops into unannounced to visit on rare occasions. One day, he gets a call from Olivia (with the nickname “Poodles,” which only Franny calls her), whom he hasn’t heard from since the accident. She’s moved away but in the five years since they last saw each other, she’s gotten married (to a doctor, of course, named Luke, played by Theo James) and is very pregnant. She’s looking for a job for Luke, and Franny is all too willing to help out his little Poodles in any way he can.

Her return to Philadelphia and Franny’s life is both good and bad. It brings Franny out of his shell and back into public, but it also exposes him to people who recognize that he’s clearly on some medication that is making him a bit loopy. Franny needlessly injects himself deep into the young couple’s life, buying them her old family home and clearing Luke’s massive student loan debt. I realize most of us wouldn’t consider these life-shattering problems, but before long Franny begins leaning on Luke to write him prescriptions for morphine when his regular doctor bows out of fueling his addiction. When Luke refuses, Franny relies on alternate means of getting pain meds that involve a lot of self-destructive behavior.

If this were more solidly a film about addiction, it might have been somewhat interesting, but trying to make me feel bad for a disgustingly rich man’s problem is a tough, but not impossible, sell. The Benefactor takes a few honorable stabs at convincing us that Franny’s problems and guilt are worthy of our time and attention, but it never quite gets there. Gere is fine here, but so much of his performance feels like he’s trying to convince us that’s he’s a free spirit, always laughing, often with a drink in hand, always with a dumb rich-guy scarf around his neck. I guess what I’m saying is you can spot Gere acting.

Fanning is far more convincing as a maudlin young woman, unsure if coming back was the best idea and not convinced that allowing Franny to be so generous with her new family is a great idea. Faring best is James (best known for his role in the Divergent film series) who is torn between the prospect of having the world handed to him, and finding out that having a friendship with Franny comes at a price. In the end, The Benefactor is an easy, but far from fulfilling, watch. I’m still very excited for Gere’s prospects as the indie film elder statesman and that he’s willing to take chances in selecting work, even if some of those chance don’t always pay off. The film opens today for a weeklong run at the Gene Siskel Film Center.

MOONWALKERS

Here’s a classic case of a film having a fantastic premise but not really being able to follow through on the execution despite a talented cast and a certain amount of production value. For decades, film geeks, conspiracy theorists and fans of space travel have heard the rumors that NASA faked the moon landing, and that instead, the astronauts who took those first steps did so in a soundstage somewhere. On top of that, the mythology states that Stanley Kubrick directed said footage and left clues in his subsequent films, quietly underscoring his involvement (check out the doc Room 237, about the hidden meaning in The Shining, for further “evidence” of this).

Moonwalkers’ basic premise is that this is all partially true. According to the Dean Craig screenplay, directed by first-time filmmaker Antoine Bardou-Jacquet, the U.S. government wanted Kubrick’s footage only as a backup, in case the real Apollo 11 moonwalk somehow went bust or wasn’t visible for some reason. To organize the recruiting of Kubrick and the shoot, the CIA sends Agent Tom Kidman (Ron Perlman; considering the number of Kubrick references in this film, that name can’t be a coincidence) to London to find the elusive director through his agent and pay him a substantial amount of money. Having recently returned from the Vietnam War and clearly suffering PTSD, Kidman seems like the perfect choice for this mission.

But when he goes to the agent’s office, Kidman finds a guy named Jonny (Harry Potter’s Rupert Grint), who just happens to be visiting the agent on another matter and intercepts Kidman. This being a film with the comedic settings of a “Three’s Company” episode, Moonwalkers turns into a mistaken identity caper, with Kidman arranging with Jonny (whom he thinks is the agent) to meet Kubrick and hand off the cash and plans for the film. In turn, Jonny brings in his druggie buddy Leon (Robert Sheehan) to pose as Kubrick, and soon they have the money with no intention of making a movie.

I should back up and mention that Jonny is a struggling manager of a rock band, featuring lead singer Glen (Eric Lampaert), so this brings him into contact with a whole lot of colorful characters, circa 1960s London. Jonny has poured a great deal of his own money into the band, including cash he borrowed from a violent loan shark (Stephen Campbell Moore). For most of the film, we never get much of a sense that our heroes are in any real danger for taking money that isn’t there, even though Kidman has been cleared to liquidate any security threats to this top secret project. Jonny just trips through his life, flustered, stammering, never quite saying what he means, and lying when telling the truth might work more to his benefit. It wears thin at about the halfway point.

With time running out for the Kubrick footage, Kidman eventually tracks down Jonny and the money and decides that they’re going to have to make the movie on their own, never letting on to his superiors that Kubrick isn’t Kubrick. Instead they hire trippy, experimental filmmaker Renatus (Tom Audenaert), who hates being rushed. The film doesn’t quite approach the slapstick levels of Benny Hill, but one gets the feeling the aspiration is there. There are naked bodies, orgies, drugs galore, and even a priceless Ron Perlman acid-trip sequence, but nothing quite prepared me for the shocking turn the film makes near the end, into a stone-cold violence opera when warring factions of gangsters, CIA agents and other interested parties clash just as the fake space footage is being shot.

Most of Moonwalkers exhausted me. Stoner hippies aren’t inherently funny, so that’s a problem. And Grint just isn’t given anything substantive to do in this loopy comedy. Director Bardou-Jacquet is toying with some fun ideas, but something fell apart in the production, and what we’re left with are tired jokes, actors in search of a punchline, and a caper feeling that doesn’t actually result in anything. Kubrick devotees might find some fun hidden in the corners of the screen, but beyond that, there’s not much to recommend here. The film opens today for a weeklong run at Facets Cinémathèque.

Categories: Film, Screens

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