13 Hours and Anomalisa - two very different tales of humanity
By Jim Bray
One is a big and brash look at some American heroes left out to dry by their government and the other is an animated take on one man's bittersweet attempt to feel like he belongs. And though they don't have a lot in common, 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi and Anomalisa kind of bookend the movie business: a larger than life action movie and a smaller than life artsy fartsy "think piece."
Of the two, I preferred 13 Hours, not so much because it's a better movie or a better story, but because it's a more important film, a whistleblowing on a corrupt political regime for whom the military are pawns to be used and abused. I had hoped for more from Anomalisa, being a sucker for stop motion animation, but came away wondering why they bothered making it that way; about the only thing that made stop motion necessary was an explicit sex scene the filmmakers probably couldn't have gotten away with and maintained their 14A rating using real actors.
The Butchering in Benghazi
I've never been a huge fan of Michael Bay's films, which mostly provide great summer action with great special effects and poundingly loud soundtracks. Nothing necessarily wrong with that, of course, and judging from Bay's box office success I may be a voice in the wilderness. Still, I like my action leavened with a little substance - movies I can watch multiple times and get more out of each time. So Bay, of the Transformers franchise, seemed like an odd choice to helm a film about an incident that would have been a dark stain on the Obama/Clinton regime were most of the media not dedicated to ensuring the regime only receives fawning praise.
13 Hours plays more like Ridley Scott's Black Hawk Down than Bay's regular fare, though his penchant for filming mayhem and destruction is given a great chance to shine here, too. Both films show some of America's finest doing their best to survive when the government they serve leaves them hanging out to dry. Interesting that the name Clinton figures prominently in both cases: Black Hawk Down took place during the so-called Bill and Hillary Clinton co-presidency and 13 Hours occurred during the Obama years, while the currently-under-criminal-investigation Hillary Clinton acted (as opposed to serving, perhaps?) as Secretary of State.
Yet 13 Hours doesn't deal with the political aspects of this tragic event, in which Clinton, Obama and their cabal of little friends left people to die and then lied about the cause of the event. Instead, it tells the story of the folk on the ground in Benghazi, leaving the political stuff for the supplementary materials that are as compelling as the movie itself.
The film opens with the arrival in Benghazi of the latest of the special contractors hired by the CIA to protect their operatives. Nearly the first half hour of the 144 minute film is spent letting us get to know these contractors and learning the situation on the ground in Libya at the time. Then, they receive word that Ambassador Christopher Stevens was going to pay a visit to the city, and they're ordered to protect him during his stopover.
On September 11, 2012 - anniversary of the 9/11 Muslim attacks on the United States - all hell breaks loose. The compound is put under siege and the outgunned contractors are forced into action they had no reason to expect they'd face. Oh, they knew they were in a violent place - that's why they were there - but they weren't a military force equipped to handle such an invasion. So they spend the next 13 hours fighting, and in too many cases dying, to protect the civilians holed up in the compound. Sure, they call for reinforcements - air strikes, anything they can get - but there's either no one home in Obamaland or that regime had other priorities.
The movie unfolds much like a straightforward action film, and if you're into such films you'll probably enjoy 13 Hours; The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi. I wanted to see it because it purported to tell the true tale - though naturally it's Hollywoodized as such things must be to a certain extent - and I ended up being drawn into the film more than I expected to be. I grew to respect the contractors who found themselves in a situation in which they couldn't even tell who were the good guys and who weren't (though once the shooting started it became a tad easier, I daresay!), who did all they could and who appear to have done enough to save all but four lives - three contractors and Ambassador Stevens - before the attack ended.
The attack itself came in waves and just when the guys figured they'd seen all the action they would, another wave comes in. The movie shows clearly that this was obviously no spontaneous eruption of Muslim mania but a planned assault.
To help ensure accuracy, the producers enlisted some of the surviving contractors who not only were involved in the writing but were also on set during the shoot. Thanks undoubtedly in great part to them, and the attempts by the filmmakers to ensure they told the story truly, 13 Hours is a riveting film.
It's also a great example of the Blu-ray species. Paramount sent the three disc (two BD's and a DVD, with download instructions for a digital copy) set and the picture quality of the 1080p disc is nothing short of superb, with great black levels and detail - you can pretty well count the hairs on folks' beards - and the dirt, debris and other stuff stirred up by the explosions may have you ducking for cover. The audio is loud and in your face - which really makes the incoming ordnance sound like it's coming for you - and makes use of all the channels well. The sound track is in Dolby Atmos, for the handful of people so far who have such equipment, but it "dumbs itself down" to Dolby TrueHD beautifully, and it gave my home theatre a great workout.
The extras, which occupy the second Blu-ray disc, are superb and, unlike so many supplements on so many discs, cry out to be watched. For the Record: Finding the Truth Amid the Noise looks at the writing and adapting of the book upon which the film is based. And this is where the political comments start - and they continue throughout the featurettes.
Uncovering Benghazi's Secret Soldiers looks at how the real life heroes were involved in the production, as well as looking at the profession of such contractors overall. Preparing for Battle: Behind the Scenes of '13 Hours' is a fascinating "making of" feature, and the supplements end with a short look at the film's premier in Dallas, in front of thousands, as a real tribute to the military and the civilian contracts who back them up. Finally, there's an In Memoriam feature in which "Amazing Grace" plays behind images of the names and pictures of the men who died that night.
Anomalisa no Mona Lisa
Anomalisa, from the folks who brought you Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Being John Malkovich, is a masterpiece. It says so right on the box, and they wouldn't lie to us would they? Well, they quote some guy from Rolling Stone magazine, the paragon of journalistic excellence that ran with a fake gang rape story a while back, who said the film is a masterpiece.
The movie uses stop motion animation to tell the story of Michael Stone (voiced by David Thewlis), an American-based Brit who finds himself bored in a Cincinnati hotel room the night before he's to give a speech. His life is such that everyone he meets or knows appears the same and sounds the same (actor Tom Noonan voices all of them), until he meets Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who has her own look and voice and personality. Lisa's very down on herself, but Stone falls for her right away and this leads to the explicit animated sex scene that's an animation tour de force but is closer to porn than romance.
I didn't really care for the story, though I've seen other reviews that agreed more with Rolling Stone than me (how can so many people be so wrong?). I was there for the stop motion and, fortunately, it's really first rate. You can almost forget at times that the characters are puppets animated a frame at a time, though as soon as you start forgetting you'll notice again the junction lines on faces and their not-quite-human demeanour. But it's done so well you might take it for granted - in which case I invite you to check out the supplements to see just how hard it was to pull off bringing what was really a stage play with no action to the big screen.
The film is such that it made me wonder why they didn't just use live actors instead of going to all the trouble of animating it. After all, there are no larger than life characters or monsters or situations, nothing that really cried out for such animation.
The Blu-ray is excellent, though. The picture's a tad soft, but that actually works toward making the image seem more realistic, more "real world" since frame by frame animation can tend to look a tad sterile. Audio is DTS-HD MA 5.1 and is surprisingly lively for a film that had to create everything except the actors' voices from scratch - or at least forced the filmmakers to go out and record stuff to add to the soundtrack later, instead of just recording it "live" on set or location. The sound track won't give your audio system a workout like 13 Hours will, but it's not that kind of film.
I found the extras more interesting than the movie itself. None of Them are You: Crafting Anomalisa is an interesting behind-the-scenes look in which cast and/or crew talk about the story's theatrical origins, the recording sessions for the film, and the stop-motion animation process itself.
Intimacy in Miniature is a look at the sex scene and how they pulled it off, which was pretty interesting I must admit. Here, you'll learn that the filmmakers used porn - er, adult film - actors to shoot reference footing for that sex scene, which helps to explain just how realistic it was. Finally, the Sound of Unease looks at how the movie used sound to make it come off more realistically.
Neither of these films will become "desert island disc" for me, but they do offer wildly different home theatre experiences and at least one of them is an important glimpse into a dark night in U.S. history.
Copyright 2016 Jim Bray
Jim Bray's columns are available from the TechnoFile Syndicate.