Movie Review: ‘13 Hours’ Is A Lot Of Blood And Guts, But Little Politics

Movie Review: ‘13 Hours’ Is A Lot Of Blood And Guts, But Little Politics

By Colin Covert, Star Tribune (Minneapolis) (TNS)

There’s no kill like overkill. If sheer film combat bloodshed were an antiwar commentary, 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi would win the Nobel Peace Prize. Watching Michael Bay’s 2½-hour exercise in machismo porn is like experiencing the death of 1,000 cuts, except that the hemorrhaging is inflicted by bullets and mortar fire. It turns the armed militant attack against the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, on Sept. 11, 2012, and the weaponized crossfire from its hired security team, into an endless loop of The Shining elevators’ blood flood.

The film’s limited focus is in some ways a good thing. All it looks at is the fog of war. No one in Washington is blamed for the deaths of Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, State Department communications specialist Sean Smith, or security operators Glen Doherty and Tyrone Woods. The film doesn’t dwell on complexities of U.S. foreign policy in the increasingly volatile Middle East. It doesn’t pander to those still stirring controversy about the events, beyond noting several lapses in security. There’s no reference to what the region might be like if the U.S. had not invaded Iraq. Bay sees the point of the story as intensely, aggressively violent chaos, and he delivers it almost nonstop.

Adapted from the nonfiction account 13 Hours by Boston University journalism professor Mitchell Zuckoff, the film is a pure Special Ops genre action thriller. Bay is largely apolitical here. His attention is laser-focused on swarthy menacing natives, Harvard and Yale dweebs collecting Mideast intelligence, and the half-dozen professional security men fighting the barbarians at the gates. This is a classic story of 21st-century tragedy told by a guy who loves to play Call of Duty on his Xbox.

Bay, whose fetish for big, buff dudes is boundless, is much more excited about the scrappy thick-necked defense team than the CIA squad inside the compound, and more interested in their brothers-in-arms camaraderie than character development. John Krasinski and James Badge Dale play a pair of the security contractors, a new arrival in Libya and a veteran, roughly sharing the low rank of the film’s protagonist. As in most action video games, the character’s identity is really in the eye of the player. The virile defense crew members speak tech almost exclusively, and their family connections get the sort of bored, faraway attention that a spy drone gives to a one-horse village.

A juicier, disagreeable role goes to David Costabile as the compound’s CIA chief, an overweight bureaucrat with the personality of a reptilian vampire. Matt Letscher, as the visiting Ambassador Stevens, offers a respectful presentation of a good diplomat trying to piece together the rapidly disintegrating map of the Middle East, but it’s little more than a walk-on part.

As Krasinski’s inexperienced Libyan bodyguard quickly learns, it’s a place where people unable to tell enemies from allies will not be viable long-term. Everyone there has loaded weapons, demands American cash and speaks gibberish. Quoting Joseph Campbell’s The Power of Myth, one of the security crew offers the insight that life is an endless learning experience: “All the gods, all the heavens, all the hells, are within you.” It’s a sentence others repeat twice between scenes where forearms are blown apart with visual snap, bodies are bisected and fallen bodies are run over by speeding cars in close-up.

In the right hands, a battle film can make seemingly accidental events like those into a sort of consistent order or cosmic plan. Here the carnage seems of so little moment — until matched scenes at the end showing locals weeping over their fallen militia and 100,000 of Libya’s 6 million citizens taking to the streets to condemn the attack — that the horror scarcely matters.

‘13 HOURS’

2 out of 4 stars

Rating: R for strong combat violence throughout, bloody images and language. In English and Arabic.

©2016 Star Tribune (Minneapolis). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: Theatrical release poster via Wikipedia

Movie Review: Terrific ‘Anomalisa’ Is The Middle-Aged Man’s ‘Inside Out’

By Colin Covert, Star Tribune (Minneapolis) (TNS)

Is it right to call a movie’s visual details sumptuous when they reflect the blase designs of bona fide daily life? If they precisely copy the bland pastel fabrics omnipresent in an ordinary hotel, and the wishy-washy gray that hot shower steam leaves on a bathroom mirror? What if they are handcrafted, near-perfect miniatures designed to draw us toward a protagonist exhausted by his pallid life and personality?

That’s the quality of attention that Anomalisa focuses on its story. It’s the latest from Charlie Kaufman, who has given us remarkable worldviews in Being John Malkovich, Adaptation and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. With the help of co-director Duke Johnson, it creates an amazing work with crossover appeal as adult drama, melancholy comedy and unexpected stop-motion animation.

At its center is Michael Stone (voiced by David Thewlis), a fifty-something consumer service guru visiting a Cincinnati convention to deliver a speech. He is depressed and socially awkward, despite his intelligence. He keeps people at arm’s length, whether it’s the fellow passenger who gives his hand a nervous squeeze as their plane roughly lands, or the talkative cabdriver who takes him downtown, endlessly recommending the city’s perfectly sized zoo and perfectly prepared chili.

The population of this monotonous Midwestern purgatory sounds uniform to him, because that is how he perceives everyone. Whether it’s a singer delivering an aria on his iPod, a phone call to his wife and son, or dull small talk with every Tom, Dick and Sally, they sound precisely the same through the admirably shaded vocal performance of Tom Noonan. Whatever their height or shape, they all have look-alike faces.

Michael passes between them like a man afraid of smothering from ennui, protecting himself by communicating hardly at all. Then his pessimism is overturned by Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh, in a tender turn rivaling her bloody fireworks show in The Hateful Eight). She doesn’t sound or look like the rest. She isn’t sophisticated. She doesn’t understand parts of Michael’s book, even with a dictionary. But she doesn’t communicate in the insincere, upbeat monotone of everyone else. She’s different.

Following a few drinks at the hotel bar, he invites her to his room, where she sings “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” in a cappella English and Italian. Suddenly drunken Michael falls in love, leading to a clumsy but honest and moving bedroom scene, with the lifelike puppets’ anatomically correct genitals in full view. The film, rated R, might be NC-17 if it was in live action, but it is not pandering for a moment.

The intimate scene hints that Michael might be moving out of his midlife breakdown.

Then again, a weird phone call summoning Michael to the hotel manager’s office and an attack of sexual panic that follows it could negate everything before as a meaningless extramarital fling. In the fresh light of the next morning, he seems to modify French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, silently implying that hell is other people at breakfast.

When the confused Michael delivers his productivity-boosting address to hundreds of fans, he veers helplessly off course. “What is it to be human?” he asks. “What is it to ache? What is it to be alive?” Though he has written a popular book on the idea of commitment to the service of others, it seems like a concept foreign to him.

Anomalisa not only renders its warts-and-all human portraits in a remarkable craft that is almost photorealist, it shows personalities with extraordinary precision, too. In its morose sort of genius, it is the well-off, self-absorbed, middle-aged man’s Inside Out.


3.5 out of 4 stars

Rating: R for strong sexual content, graphic nudity and language. In English and Italian.

©2016 Star Tribune (Minneapolis). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: A scene from Anomalisa. (Photo courtesy Paramount Pictures/TNS)


Director Todd Haynes On Reshaping The Classic Cinematic Love Story With ‘Carol’

Director Todd Haynes On Reshaping The Classic Cinematic Love Story With ‘Carol’

By Colin Covert, Star Tribune (Minneapolis) (TNS)

Formal experimentation and challenging social commentary are the creative signatures of director Todd Haynes. He opted, after all, for six different actors to portray the public personas of Bob Dylan in his 2007 film I’m Not There.

An openly gay filmmaker, Haynes’ central concern is oppressive moral authoritarianism on the lives of those who don’t conform to gendered or sexual expectations.

In Carol, Haynes’ sixth feature, he puts forth a striking and distinctive vision. It is based on a 1952 chronicle of a lesbian affair, a shocker of the era published under a pseudonym by crime novelist Patricia Highsmith, whose nearly 30 published volumes of fiction have produced such unnerving films as Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train and Anthony Minghella’s The Talented Mr. Ripley.

The new film stars Oscar winner Cate Blanchett and Oscar nominee Rooney Mara as married, upper-class Carol and shop girl Therese — closeted lesbians in love. The look of the pitch-perfect period film could be mistaken for an Eisenhower-era romantic women’s picture. Haynes, renowned for his homages to the history of cinema, began work on the film with a rich research process. In this case, there were references to key films like Brief Encounter, David Lean’s 1945 about English suburban life.

“I was looking for what they told me about the love story as a genre,” Haynes said.

“And it was really informative and useful to Cate and Rooney to watch these things,” Haynes said. Women of the time exhibited “a kind of codified femininity that’s contained with a decorum to it. They didn’t behave like any woman you would know today except maybe your grandmother.”

Highsmith’s novel contains notes unspoken by the characters but charged with meaning, observations like “Happiness was like a green vine spreading through her, stretching fine tendrils, bearing flowers through her flesh.”

Haynes said he intended to create the film in parallel form. He aimed for performances light on dialogue but expressive by “hiring magicians” for the roles.

“A lot of what we did in rehearsal was removing lines,” he said. “We wanted not to clutter it up. Rooney would be saying ‘Does she need to say that?’ and I would say, ‘You’re so right.’ That’s not always the case with actors, some of who love to talk and add things.”

His performers were thrilled by the challenge of working in a different way “to distill down the information,” Haynes said.

Though it is set more than half a century in the past, Haynes feels the film is still worth telling today.

“Love stories require an obstacle between the lovers, something that keeps them from one another. You have to yearn for the love that can’t be fulfilled. And it gets harder to conceive of viable cultural or racial or sexual obstacles between people as we move forward progressively.

“I felt Brokeback Mountain re-imbued the love story with an authentic and unquestionable series of obstacles that these men faced. I think that’s certainly true for Carol, as well.”

(c)2015 Star Tribune (Minneapolis). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Movie Review: ‘Grandma’ Is Terrific Showcase For Tomlin

Movie Review: ‘Grandma’ Is Terrific Showcase For Tomlin

By Colin Covert, Star Tribune (Minneapolis) (TNS)

Don’t let that comforting title fool you. Grandma is no sugary-sweet smoothie for viewers of a certain AARP age. It would hit that target audience like a hurled brick. Instead, it hands Lily Tomlin the first leading role she has played since the ’80s, reveling in every drop of the sharp-tongued sarcasm this consummate comedic actor conveys like no one else.

Bland it is not. The word Grandma has barely faded from the opening visual when Tomlin’s irascible Elle Reid shows she’s no fountain of senior citizen wisdom and warm hugs. A retired Los Angeles college professor who embodies the activist feminism of the ’60s, she likes her privacy, even when she gets a surprise visit from her 18-year-old granddaughter Sage (Julia Garner).

Sage and her dope-head boyfriend have been bumbling in the sack. The high school girl’s pregnancy tester has revealed she’s with child. She knows that her mom, Elle’s all-controlling Type A daughter Judy (Marcia Gay Harden), a product of the career-women mindset of the ’80s, won’t give Sage the $600 she needs that very afternoon to end her condition. When Elle learns of Sage’s situation, does she soothe her with cuddles? No, she growls condescendingly that it’s “nothing to dance a jig about.”

On the other hand, it’s not the sort of thing a self-confident specialist in feminist poetry sees as the taboo end of the world. If Elle’s daughter won’t help her own kid, she will. Sure, she doesn’t have a dollar to spare out of her miniature pension, but where there’s a will, there are five or 10 ways. Maybe the women’s bookstore nearby would give her a premium price for her first edition of Betty Freidan’s “The Feminine Mystique,” which is, she must inform Sage, a pioneering feminist bestseller, not a character from Marvel’s X-Men.

Climbing into a rattletrap Dodge she inherited from her late lesbian partner, combative Elle takes her offspring’s offspring on a day-long pilgrimage around Los Angeles. Their trip is part adventure, part women’s history lesson and part treasure hunt, each segment stuffed with sharp character insights and barbed humor. In a trim 82 minutes, writer-director Paul Weitz (“About A Boy”) has created an edgy, sophisticated comedy that fits his star like a designer gown.

And he has brought in a marvelous supporting cast. There are superb contributions by Judy Geer (as an ex-girlfriend glum because Elle dropped her after just four months), Sam Elliot (as Elle’s only male lover, still regretting their identical split-up after she misled him decades ago to give her the gestation she wanted) and Nat Wolff (as Sage’s baby daddy, who Elle lambastes with a hockey stick). In each new turn of the plot, Elle reveals herself as an equal opportunity misanthrope, as ready to attack women or men, strangers or relations.

And yet it’s hard to direct the character’s sneers back at her. Tomlin’s wisecracking firebrand has an admirable streak of self-criticism. Elle begins every argument with a faint smile that says “this is going to be fun.” She sums up her own bridge-burning history by declaring, “Yeah, well, I’m a horrible person” in the same tough as nails tone as she uses against everyone else.

An awful person played by a terrific actress with pure pizazz, in a film worthy of her gifts.

3.5 out of 4stars

(c)2015 Star Tribune (Minneapolis). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Down The Thrihnukagigur Volcano, A Deeper Look At Iceland

Down The Thrihnukagigur Volcano, A Deeper Look At Iceland

By Colin Covert, Star Tribune (Minneapolis) (TNS)

It was a small five-passenger elevator, the sort of open-scaffold, spool-cabled rig that lowers professional window washers down skyscrapers. There’s nowhere else on Earth where they lower volcano sightseers.

After a few jolts and near-scrapes against the steep surface opening, we descended in the lift’s alternate speeds, slow and very slow. At 100 feet down the crater’s ever-widening dome, I was thankful we wore helmets and safety harnesses inside the metal cage. We were still a dizzying height above the dormant lava chamber’s floor, 300 feet over our destination. Falling to the rocks below would equal diving off the torch of the Statue of Liberty.

As we edged down the hollow, spotlights from the bottom revealed immense geological murals on the walls. Every direction showed an extravaganza of crystalline frescos. Each wall held plumes of ginger yellow, vibrant amethyst, emerald, coral orange and magenta. Dangling at breath-sucking altitude in the colossal space was like a spider hanging from a spectacular cathedral roof. If I trembled a bit, it was common Icelandic hypothermia as chill rain came showering down the overhead opening. So I said, anyway. In Iceland, you don’t act wimpy.

The tiny North Atlantic island draws adventurous visitors like an electromagnet. It’s an exotic Arctic remnant of the world’s last ice age: gargantuan fjords, massive glaciers, geothermal geysers, azure lagoons, gritty black-sand beaches, moss-covered lava fields and thundering multilevel waterfalls. The appeal isn’t all prehistoric. For the past 20 years, uber-hip Reykjavik has been acclaimed as the coolest bar-crawling city in the known cosmos.

But of all the haunting vistas I have encountered across Iceland, the interior of Thrihnukagigur is the most astonishing. Nowhere else can you take an elevator to the base of a volcano’s magma chamber or see an Icelandic panorama underground more bizarre than the landscapes above.

The 15-million-year-old cavern is also one of Iceland’s most exclusive attractions, only beginning to experience its potential as a tourist attraction. Depending how you tally the active mountains and fissures, Iceland has around 30 volcanoes. Some are temperamental leviathans famous for bang and boom fireworks displays and misty clouds of hydrochloric acid.

Thrihnukagigur was under-the-radar until the 1970s, a small 12-by-12 foot opening on a hilly landscape, no classic volcanic giant. It was first investigated by spelunkers lowered on ropes. The suspended lift was built to lower National Geographic Channel camera crews filming Icelandic volcanoes after a huge 2010 eruption made Eyjafjallajokull the world’s most famous. Thrihnukagigur has been open to public tours only since the summer of 2012, the hidden gem of a big tourism boom. Every year, more than 100 million people visit volcanic sites globally. Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, home of the Kilauea volcano, draws about 2 million every year.

Thrihnukagigur is located just a half-hour’s drive southeast of the capital. After you park, it’s a 50-minute trek from the road through a path across a ragged, rising lava field, the kind of bedrock NASA’s Curiosity rover enjoys on Mars. From mid-May through late September, base camp guides in the welcoming cabin serve tired arrivals local lamb stew at the steep summit of the two-mile hike. They say more people have reached the top of Mount Everest than the bottom of their subterranean site.

Reaching the end of the elevator descent, the shepherd unbuckled his four passengers’ harnesses, encouraging us to go ahead, scramble around and explore. We stepped out on the ground floor, a vast uneven pile of granite, big enough to hold three NBA basketball courts. Other than his general advice and some trivial rope barriers you might put in your garden, the danger guidelines were the general local attitude that visitors will make their own strategies and won’t do anything risky. In countries like Iceland that have no tort culture, tourists are largely responsible for their own safety.

The symmetrical cone-shaped interior is an enthralling museum of creation and destruction. Its rippling beauty is utterly undisturbed. Nothing interrupts the timeless and powerful visual spectacle of elemental art at the foot of the near-bottomless pit. It has no rise in temperature, no whiff of sulfur, none of the animal life you might meet in other caves. The only signs of life are the few humans hiking around the uneven walking paths, watching the barren interior’s shifting rainbow field of scalded and charred rock face with the hushed focus of spectators at a tennis match.

Unlike many Icelandic volcanoes, Thrihnukagigur is silent, fast asleep since its last eruption 4,000 years ago. While most volcanoes spew superheated magma as they break through the soil, creating major slopes, this was a lava hiccup. Thrihnukagigur was undiscovered when Jules Verne sent an exploring team down an Icelandic abyss to underground shoals of sea monsters in “Journey to the Center of the Earth,” but it feels like that strange subterranean world. It is lonely and beautiful, haunting and melancholic. With the sky only visible as a distant crack of light, the cave floor could be a passage to the core of the planet.

After almost an hour in a different world, it was time to move on. The five-hour tour is not for the faint of heart in terms of heights or expenses. It’s one of the priciest day trips from Reykjavik, around $300 — about half the price of round-trip airfare from Minneapolis — depending on the value of the Icelandic krona when you book. But it’s an only-in-Iceland adventure unlike anything I’ve experienced before. The volcano earned every penny.

“Inside the Volcano” tours are at

(c)2015 Star Tribune (Minneapolis) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: A small elevator lowers visitors into Icleland’s Thrihnukagigur volcano. (

David Oyelowo Tackles King Role In ‘Selma’

David Oyelowo Tackles King Role In ‘Selma’

By Colin Covert, Star Tribune (Minneapolis) (TNS)

In the emotionally potent historical drama Selma, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. leads a dangerous crusade to secure equal voting rights for black Americans. Oscar watchers expect the film to have as much impact as last year’s best picture winner, 12 Years a Slave.

David Oyelowo, a newcomer to leading roles, plays King as he faces endless challenges, from violent institutional opposition to painful domestic debates with his wife, Coretta.

Already nominated for a Golden Globe and seemingly certain of an Oscar nod as well, the British actor has waited a long time for this moment.

“This film has been in my life for seven years now,” he said in his plummy English accent.

“It’s very, very gratifying not only that it has finally been made, but it is coming out at a time where I think the film feels more relevant than I think it ever would have been.”

Playing a Christian icon

Selma dramatizes a precarious three-month period in King’s life. On March 7, 1965, a Sunday night, 600 people marching from the small city of Selma, Ala., to Montgomery, the state capital, were attacked in a cloud of tear gas by state troopers with billy clubs and mounted deputies in full riot gear.

Eight days after “Bloody Sunday,” President Lyndon Johnson, who initially declined to move quickly on the issue, made a powerful speech to a joint session of Congress to launch a voting rights bill.

A devout Christian, Oyelowo (pronounced “oh-yellow-oh”) was motivated by more than his admiration for King’s commitment to social justice.

“In 2007, after I read the script, God told me I was going to play the part in this film. I wrote it down because it was a shocking notion to me. Who on Earth do I think I am to be playing Dr. King? But this deep spiritual knowing lodged in my spirit.” The appeal of playing a Christian icon was “a hundred percent,” he said.

“It’s emotionally exhausting” to spend months in a film about violence and hatred, he said. “But I always remember that I’m an actor, a storyteller, and what I’m going through in terms of exhaustion is nothing compared to what these people endured day in, day out, for years.

“Jesus gave his life for the cause he was here to live out, and Dr. King did the same. He’s an example of using sacrificial love to overcome hate. He didn’t want adulation for himself. At no point did he want to be accused of using the movement for his own financial gain. In fact, he gave away all the money that was given to him for the Nobel Peace Prize. I deeply admire the fact that his faith led to freedom for so many people.”

From Shakespeare to Spielberg

Oyelowo, 38, was born in the English university town of Oxford, the son of Nigerian immigrants. He began his career with immense classical success on the London stage, earning the title “the black Olivier” for his performances with the Royal Shakespeare Company in the bard’s trilogy about King Henry VI.

Like his idols Daniel Day-Lewis and Sidney Poitier, he set out to combine theater and cinema. Moving to Los Angeles in 2007, he won small but significant roles in prestigious films including Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln — he plays a soldier who asks Lincoln when blacks will get the vote — and The Butler.

He was a mere newcomer when he was approached to play King, the kind of role he would be unlikely to get at home.

“In the U.K. we have a minuscule industry, and it gets even smaller when you’re a black actor,” Oyelowo said in a recent phone conversation.

It took patience on his part. The original script, which featured President Johnson as the protagonist and King as a supporting character, evolved dramatically through input from producers including Brad Pitt and Oprah Winfrey.

As his value to the project grew, Oyelowo reached out to Ava DuVernay, who won the 2012 best director prize at Sundance for their small film Middle of Nowhere. Her Alabama family remembered vivid stories of the era and place that could never be found in a book, Oyelowo said. Through her direction and rewritten screenplay, Selma vividly humanizes King, showing a fair-minded balance of courage, personal missteps, and conflict with newer, younger black activists.

Showing King’s weaknesses as well as his heroism was crucial to Oyelowo. “I don’t know how to play an icon,” he said. “But I do know how to play a human being. And he was that.

“We are all flawed. We are all filled with contradictions of strength and weakness. That’s what defines us as human, and one of the pleasures of the role for me was demythologizing him. In doing so, you further admire him because you recognize these things in him that are in you, and yet he went on to do great things.”

Acting is secondary

Oyelowo has completed five films coming in the next year, including the soon-to-be-released A Most Violent Year, a crime drama starring Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain that is covered in critical accolades. Yet Oyelowo said acting is not the center of his life.

“God is the center of my life. Being a Christian is central to who I am as a human being. Being a husband to a wonderful wife I’ve been married to for 16 years, and a father to four wonderful children — those are my rocks, those are my foundations.

“I’m very glad that acting isn’t the center of my life, because it’s very precarious. We’re talking about a film that people are reacting very positively to right now, but inevitably I’m going to do work that won’t succeed as well. If that’s where your self-esteem and sense of self lie, when the inevitable moment comes along that people don’t like what you’re doing, you crumble.

“But God never changes, my wife loves me, as well as do my kids, and that’s my life.”

Photo: Atsushi Nishijima/Paramount Pictures