Review: “13 Hours”

Written by Burl on January 22nd, 2016

“13 Hours”
Three Stars

By Burl Burlingame

When a movie states at the outset “This is a true story,” as “13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi” does, that doesn’t mean it’s an accurate story. It can’t be. The simple physics of time and space mitigate against a true moment-by-moment replay. In this case, 13 hours are shoehorned into a couple of hours, and characters are combined and events blended.

Here’s the kicker — movies aren’t reality. They’re, at best, impressions of reality, strained through a filter. Well, duh.

“13 Hours” actually spans about a week, during a critical, dangerous time in Benghazi. It’s just after the revolution, and just before the 9/11 anniversary in 2012. American ambassador Chris Stevens is trying to woo the disaffected Libyans, but there are dangerous anti-American elements out there, and it’s hard to tell who’s who. He’s holed up, not in well-guarded embassy, but in the seized compound of a former Libyan millionaire.

Only about a mile away, in a similar set-up, the CIA has an office. The difference between them is that the ambassador’s security is thin and new at the job, and the CIA’s security has a half-dozen tough, ex-military contract soldiers.

At the same time riots break out all of the Middle East over an anti-Allah YouTube video, militant forces of indeterminate origin assault Stevens’ compound, overrunning it, and then hit the CIA base. During the attack on Stevens, the CIA security team mounts an ad-hoc rescue mission and manages to retrieve some of the Americans at Stevens’ place, but not Stevens, who has already died in the smoke and fire.

They return to the CIA compound and fight off wave after wave on insurgents. It’s all very Alamo.

Needless to say, this is all soup and nuts for director Michael Bay, who never met a script he couldn’t blow up. Bay has peculiar talent for grand, crashing chaos — the sturmiest of drangs — and it’s all on display here. As a plus, Bay has discovered cameras mounted on drones, and so the eye of the screen flies merrily through the whizzing bullets and smoking rockets and shrieking bad guys and gut-crunching explosions. Yeah, baby.

This is probably Bay’s best film to date. It also has the baggage of political expectations. Hillary-haters will be disappointed, as the movie is focused on the firefight, not on political fireworks. But Hillary-haters already have their minds made up, so it doesn’t matter.

What “13 Hours” does do, and does so brilliantly, is recreate the absolute chaos and stifling options of urban warfare in the third world. It is the best film to do so since “Black Hawk Down.” Warfare in this region of the world is done door-to-door, with individual weapons, and the narrow streets lined with buildings of no more than two stories are shot traps and sniper fields. Add to that the near-impossibility of telling friend from foe, and you have essentially a no-win scenario.

Americans have always been quick to blame ourselves rather than credit the enemy. Chris Stevens was killed by a rabble of thugs, not by protocol glitches. It’s too bad that our tough contract soldiers were not able to rescue the ambassador, but the ambassador, by his own choice, was way out there in the badlands. There was no way to get aerial help to him in time — planes only fly so fast.

But should the air assets have been mobilized anyway? That’s one of the few questions raised by the film. My impression — and I thank “13 Hours” for the impetus to think upon it — is that modern warfare and modern communications work at cross purposes. The ease of communication leads to battles being commanded at long-distance, by multiple levels of command, instead of relying on the initiative of those few on the scene. Tragedies like Benghazi occur when there’s too many people in command and no one in charge.

 

“In the Heart of the Sea” — That She Blows!

Written by Burl on December 11th, 2015

“In the Heart of the Sea”
1 star

By Burl Burlingame / Special to the Star-Advertiser

Call me unimpressed.

True confession time: As a wee lad, I lived in a remote place where the local library was so small there was no division between children’s and adult books. In fifth grade, I pulled “Moby Dick” from the shelf and read it. It was tough going at first, but you get used to the rhythm of Herman Melville’s rich language. I became fascinated with the man-against-the-sea challenge of harpooning whales.

So, here we are a few years later, and killing whales is just about the uncoolest thing anyone can do. And here we have “In the Heart of the Sea,” Ron Howard’s visually ambitious retelling of the true story of the Moby Dick yarn, studded occasionally with pop-up segues of plot exposition with an actor playing Melville. The bookending — plus, essentially, chapter headings — by the Melville actor (Ben Whishaw) makes the whole thing seem, well, a little book-reportly, rather than seamlessly organic storytelling.

At a time when whale-oil was all the rage for lighting cities, the dauntless whalers of Nantucket roamed the seas looking for whales to kill. Once slaughtered, the creatures were diced up and the chunks fed into pots for rendering. It was a very dangerous, filthy, grotesque way to make a living, and naturally, New Englanders proudly excelled at it.

“Sea” tells the tale of whaler Essex, her snooty, neophyte skipper (Benjamin Walker) and surly first mate (Chris Hemsworth) on the hunt for whales, and how one whale got fed up and bashed the ship to pieces, and how the surviving sailors drifted across the Pacific for 90 days. They even had to feed on each other as they died, but the movie studiously looks away when that happens.

This really happened. The angry whale, which had white patches on its blubber, became the role model for the “great white whale” Moby Dick. “Moby Dick,” however, is a work of fiction, and “In the Heart of the Sea” is a work of fiction memorializing a true story that became a work of fiction.

Movies aren’t reality, they’re impressions. And so “Sea” does its best to drop you into that particular time and space, but because it’s a movie, the whale is given motive and personality, and because the movie is supposedly a true story, the universal themes are sucked out of the main characters and they seem pale and dull next to the whale.

It’s all very sea-going and wet. At least no one says “Yo-ho-ho!” Howard is reliable at building an action scene, gets good work out of his actors, and the art direction is first-class. The editing is a bit turgid, and the movie is longer than it needs to be, but that’s not the primary problem with “Sea.”

The movie is fatally compromised by a marketing decision. Not just hurt by this decision, but killed dead, as if there were a quivering harpoon in its heart.

The problem is that it was made to be projected in 3D, which affects all visual aspects and compositions.

Let’s get real. 3D only works in intimate settings. “Sea” is a story about the grandness of nature, the boundless horizon of the ocean, and the smallness of man. It requires visual storytelling of the highest order. But to make this production work in 3D, everything is shot in extreme closeup. There are virtually no establishing visual compositions, which completely scuttles the storytelling choreography. This, in turn, leads to jittery editing. To hammer home the 3D aspects, the movie regularly resorts to extreme close-ups of inanimate objects, as long as one end of the object is closer to the screen. The water scenes even leave fake drops of water on the “camera lens,” because it looks more 3D that way.

This tale, which should be expansive and grand, is hijacked by the demands of the 3D process, making it small and crowded, myopically claustrophobic and deeply murky. The movie begins and ends with a character who makes crude, tiny ships inside dirty bottles, which is actually the best visual metaphor that “In the Heart of the Sea” can say about itself.

 

Review: ‘Black Mass’

Written by Burl on September 23rd, 2015

“Black Mass”
Three stars

By Burl Burlingame / SPECIAL TO THE STAR-ADVERTISER

Johnny Depp has certainly played a number of odd characters over the year, but this is the first time in memory he’s played a monster. And what a monster. “Black Mass” is the bizarre, perfectly true tale of psychopathic hood “Whitey” Bulger, and Depp has, as usual, zipped the character up over his head and disappeared into it.

There’s just enough of Depp’s wry humanity evident to make Bulger disarmingly — and disturbingly — real. After all, Bulger loved his mother. He loved his son. After both of them died, Bulger loved killing others.

It’s to “Black Mass” credit that the film does not dwell on murder, while at the same time it makes murder both terrifying and banal. There are monsters among us.

These monsters lived in Boston, circa the 1970s. Bulger was a neighborhood tough, and his brother Billy was an up-and-coming politician. Childhood friend John Connolly has gone straight and joined the FBI. Reassigned to Boston to “clean up the gangs,” Connolly has what he thinks is a bright idea. He recruits Bulger as an informant, but Bulger only snitches on the rival gangs.

The Italian gang is taken down. The Irish gang, Bulger’s, thrives. It’s your basic deal made with the devil.

It all goes sour. You knew it would. The amazing thing — and again, this is a true story — is that it went on for nearly two decades.

Depp’s general dark appearance is transformed into a ghostly thug so pale that his friends nicknamed him Whitey. It’s a startling and spooky transformation, revved up by Depp’s quiet, cobra-like malevolence. OK, it’s likely an Oscar nom.

The central character, though, and the dramatic throughput of the story arc, is FBI agent Connolly, played with Boston brio by Aussie actor Joel Edgerton. After all, the last time we saw Edgerton, he was shaved head to toe, playing Ramses in “Exodus,” and here he’s all ’70s trash and flash, complete with a Breck Girl pompadour. His self-delusion and hero-worship of Bulger is nearly as scary as Bulger himself.

The Boston Southie locations seem real and set in the proper time frame. The film is not an action movie, and has long periods of creepy quiet. It might seem long and dull to a generation raised on “Grand Theft Auto,” but it is immersive in a grim world that seems both broad and claustrophobic.

It’s what you might call a character study. In Bulger’s case, it’s a study of a lack of character.

The title comes from the true-crime book by a couple of Boston Globe reporters. I’m sure the title means something in the book, but there’s no context for it here. “Black Mass” just seems like code words thrown together at random. When an associate of Bulger’s is interrogated and asked what his relationship was, he replies, “Strictly criminal.” There, folks, is your movie title.

 

Godzilla attack!

Written by Burl on May 22nd, 2014

Andy ain't scared of no Godzilla!

Actually, this Godzilla was firstborn Amelia’s favorite toy as a child. No dolls for her, she dragged around Godzilla. Considering that it’s been in the closet for 25 years, Godzilla looks pretty good.

 

Godzilla’s Big Foot

Written by Burl on May 15th, 2014

“Godzilla”
2 stars

It’s always interesting to see places you know well on the silver screen, and it’s even better if these places get destroyed by gigantic monsters. So when, in “Godzilla,” a military functionary announces there’s an “anomaly northeast of Diamond Head,” we barely have time to think “Kaimuki?” when the scene shifts to a trackless jungle dozens — maybe hundreds — of miles away from civilization, and the automatic reaction is, “That ain’t right …”

Spoiler alert: Movies aren’t reality. Movies are a fever-dream impression of reality. That’s why McGarrett and Danno can make a left turn on Waialae Avenue and immediately be on the North Shore. And why Godzilla can wade ashore on lovely evening in Waikiki, tear the joint apart, get attacked by fighter jets, and then hightail it across the Koolaus without waking up folks over in Waianae.

It’s interesting. The early Hawaii scenes are clearly filmed in Waikiki, but the mountains appear a little too close, or maybe they’re quite a bit too tall. They are towering over Waikiki. And uninhabited, because there’s no suburban streetlights visible. But we barely have time to focus on Waikiki before we discover that Oahu’s rail-transit system is already up and running, and the international airport has expanded mightily, with enclosed glass-window concourses. (And, alas, neither proves to be monster-proof.)

There’s just enough reality to lend reasonable suspension-of-disbelief to the rest of the proceedings. And the reason gigantic monsters destroy recognizable landmarks is because the landmarks are recognizable. D’uh, bro. The Golden Gate Bridge has been destroyed so many times in movies that I’ve lost count. The bridge eats it here too, naturally, when the monsters destroy San Francisco. Only the Transamerica Pyramid is unscathed, likely because its image is copyrighted and the Golden Gate Bridge is in public domain.

Oops, did I say monsters, plural? The “Godzilla” trailers have been most excellent in playing up the awesomeness without getting very specific on details. There are three, count ‘em, three monsters for the price of one in “Godzilla.”

How has it come to this? There’s no size limit where it comes to metaphors. The bigger the better. And when you’re dealing with a filmic metaphor that encapsulates both the harsh resiliency of nature and the bumbling hubris of mankind … well, the sky’s the limit.

Toho Studios’ surprise 1954 hit, “Gojira,” which was redubbed into English and some additional American scenes added, was released in the U.S. as “Godzilla, KIng of the Monsters” in 1956, and a classic movie monster was born. There have been dozens of versions since, and a not-so-subtle recasting of Godzilla from a Tokyo-stomper into a Japanese folk hero, but basically, all the films since boil down to a guy in a rubber suit kicking over balsa-wood model skyscrapers. You gotta love the schadenfreude involved, and the movies are the perfect arena to experience destructo-porn.

The original film, however, was a fairly dark — and not-so-subtle — metaphor for the horrors of nuclear war. This notion has pretty much evaporated, paralleling Japan’s increasing dependence on nuclear power.

The American nightmare that provides context and weight is the 9/11 attack, and the long shadow of that horror has permeated American films since. Add to that the crushing natural disaster of the 2011 tsunami in Iwate Prefecture that swamped the Fukushima nuclear plant, and you have a modern-day recipe for a Godzilla movie.

This grim background gives the new film some karmic weight. It all starts out promisingly a bit more than a decade ago as a nuclear plant in Japan has a meltdown, perhaps due to a concurrent and mysteriously regular seismic disturbance. The guy in charge (Bryan Cranston, looking bug-eyed crazy) and his wife (Juliette Binoche, looking fab) are harshly effected by the disaster, and when “Godzilla” zips up to the present day, their Seal-team son (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) finds himself dragged back into the mystery as the seismic drumbeats start up again. Also on board are a freaked-out Japanese scientist (Ken Watanabe, with odd English diction) and his Sancho Panza, a sidekick (Sally Hawkins) who doesn’t seem to have a name and exists mainly to provide expository dialogue.

Director Gareth Edwards, whose only previous series credit was the independent thriller “Monsters,” does a fine job here with Spielbergian camera moves and composite shots, plus that hard-to-capture sense of overwhelming awesomeness,

Predictably, on a human level, “Godzilla” is meh. The human “star” actors don’t last long, and the second-string actors who carry the rest of the film are, as you might expect, fall under Godzilla’s shadow. They’re mostly reduced to staring upward in horror or dusting themselves off after being buried by rubble.

The real stars are the monsters. Big, big, sprawling monsters. There’s the Big G himself (The film notes state that Godzilla is 350 feet tall, but who’s measuring?) plus some awkward-looking insectoid / pterodactylish / bullfroggy creatures they call “Mutos.” Godzilla spends much of the film getting from here to there so he can thrash them. Godzilla is so focused on this that he doesn’t notice the convoy of US Navy ships keeping him close company, or that he’s stomped Waikiki into brightly-painted rubble. Big G doesn’t even stop to eat.

Come to think of it, there’s been a curious switch in Godzilla’s diet since 1954. Instead of being a poster child for the horrors of nuclear radiation, Godzilla and the Mutos “eat” radiation for breakfast. Godzilla has retained his morning-after radiation breath, however.

Eating radiation? So much for science.

Hey, Mr. Science, can there really be giant monsters like Godzilla?

Actually, no. The problem is the tensile strength of the average cell. There is an upper limit to how much strain can be placed upon the cells in bones and muscles, and the enormous mass of such a creature would rend the cells apart. Even though some of the dinosaur sauropods were dozens of feet long, they were long and narrow in their physical structure. Cetaceans such as whales have large body mass, but they are supported by water, which is 800 times denser than air. Not to mention the caloric intake required by a Godzilla-sized creature to supply nutrients throughout its gigantic frame. A monster the size of Godzilla would collapse under its own mass, the pressure actually liquifying the body cells into a kind of protein ooze.

Gee, Mr. Science, you’re kind of a bummer. Think I’ll escape reality by going to the movies.

 

Let’s get back posting!

Written by Burl on October 8th, 2013

This is a snapshot taken of the Ops Building tower. Click on it to get a full-size image.

 

Sunday Matinee … OK, I’ve been away

Written by Burl on April 29th, 2013

 

Sunday Matinee: Conspiracy Theory

Written by Burl on January 6th, 2013

 

Who You Hear What I Hear?

Written by Burl on December 24th, 2012

 

Heavy Meddle, Tesla Style

Written by Burl on December 20th, 2012