Here's a look at the new movies I saw this week.
Starring: John Krasinski, James Badge Dale, Pablo Schreiber, and Max Martini
Synopsis: When you see a movie is directed by Michael Bay, it usually conjures a certain kind of movie. He is the director of “Armageddon,” “Pearl Harbor” and “Transformers.” He makes loud, brash, and CGI-heavy action comedies. And that’s not the kind of film that appeals to everyone. I have always kind of liked Bay’s films for what they are. You know what you’re going to get — some funny lines, a couple likeable characters, an easy to follow plot, explosions and plenty of slow motion shots. You can almost take that formula to the bank. Which is what made Bay a curious choice for “13 Hours,” a film about what went wrong when a United States outpost was attacked in Benghazi, Libya. The attack made the news for months, and continues to be a black spot on the record of then-Secretary of State Hilary Clinton. And with Clinton running for President in the elections 11 months from now, the film figured to be a political hot button. But that’s what makes “13 Hours” so surprising. It’s not overly political. And it’s not what you’d expect from a Bay film. In stead it’s a gritty, unflinching portrait of Americans trying to survive a harrowing situation. It’s a story of heroes that has been lost among the political fighting and blame game that followed the real life events. Bay, as I said, is known for a certain type of film. This is very different from that type of film. It’s a tense, gritty war movie. It doesn’t pull any punches. There are light-hearted moments between the characters, but a bulk of this film is a serious exploration of the life-and-death circumstances that surrounded a tense 13-hour period in Benghazi, and what it took for so many to survive. Chuck Hogan — who wrote the novel “The Town” was based upon and is a co-writer/producer for “The Strain” on FX — does a nice job with the screenplay here. It’s based on the book from Mitchell Zuckoff and chronicles the work done by the six-man protection team, seeing the events mostly from their point-of-view. Everyone is aware of the fate of Ambassador Stevens, and while that’s a tragedy I didn’t realize how brutal the attack was and how long it lasted. The film does a nice job of chronicling the attack on the residence were Stevens was staying, as well as the covert CIA base, and how much it took for the small group of contractors and State Department security officers to repel the attackers. It’s a story that’s been lost in all the Senate hearings and news coverage, and one that is well served by the film. That being said, this isn’t an overly political film. It does reference the fact that the United States military never responded, but doesn’t go into details about why. It isn’t looking to make some kind of grand accusation, but rather celebrate the heroism of the men who fought to protect U.S. lives on the ground. It’s a chance to tell their story; a story lost amidst the political reality of these tragic events. Many have hailed “13 Hours” as the best film Bay has ever made, which is true. It’s also a remarkably different kind of film for him and a great way of stretching as a director. It’s not an easy story to watch, but it’s well told.
Rating: R for R for strong combat violence throughout, bloody images, and language. Enter with caution.
Verdict: Three stars out of four.
Starring: Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, Sarah Paulson, and Kyle Chandler
Synopsis: It's awards season, and that means a lot of meaty films with rich, challenging, smaller stories are in the main view. "Carol" is one such film. Though it didn't get nominated for Best Picture, as many had thought and some had hoped, it did garner six Oscar nominations and is getting seen a bit more widely now. It's not your typical or easy story. Based on the novel by Patricia Highsmith, "Carol" tells the story of a wife and mother, Carol (Blanchett), who doesn't fit one of those roles well and is desperate to hang on to the other. Carol and her husband (Chandler) are on the brink of a divorce, and she's on the bring of losing custody of her daughter. Because, in 1951 in New York and New Jersey, Carol's lifestyle isn't normal or acceptable. She has fallen in love with a store clerk (Mara), and that threatens to cost her everything. This isn't a racy film or one that seeks to draw audiences with that kind of story. It's about two unhappy women who are looking for somethings, find some sort of meaning and fulfillment in each other, and how the world reacts. We all probably have religious or moral convictions we bring to a story such as this — I know I do — so I won't belabor that point here. In terms of evaluating this as a piece of art and storytelling, I think it was beautifully shot, had some beautiful performances, and was a little too dry. Many have been outraged that the film didn't get a Best Picture nomination because they perceive it as prejudice among Academy voters. My first thought was the film was a little slow and boring in the way it's told, which keeps it from rising to the level of Best Picture in my opinion, regardless of how you feel about the narrative. I did love the way director Todd Haynes shot the film. He is great at capturing difficult stories of that era, having done so in the better film "Far From Heaven" in 2002. This doesn't rise to that level, but I did like the costumes and period setting, which have been honored by the Academy. In addition, I thought Blanchett and Mara were great in their performances. It was difficult parts to play, with each actress bringing a lot of layers of meaning and struggle to each scene. But they captured it beautifully. Blanchett is in the Best Actress category, while Mara is in the Best Supporting Actress category. Honestly, it's hard for me to distinguish between the roles. Both could/should be considered lead roles. But that's a minor quibble. While I found this movie strikingly beautiful to watch at times, and I loved the performances, it was sort of a miss for me. It took a long time to get where it was going and, almost as quickly, it ended.
Rating: R for a scene of sexuality/nudity and brief language. Enter with caution.
Verdict: Two stars out of four.
Friday, January 22 - "The 5th Wave," "Dirty Grandpa," "The Boy"
Friday, January 29 - "Finest Hours," "Kung Fu Panda 3," "Fifty Shades of Black," "Jane's Got A Gun."