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13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi

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Nominated for Best Sound Mixing at the 89th Annual Academy Awards

My instincts were strong that I shouldn’t even bother with this one. You know, I really don’t mind being wrong every now and then. But I wasn’t wrong here. Overlong, incoherent, and often amateurish in its approach, Michael Bay’s “13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi” has almost nothing to recommend as far as understanding this complex and controversial event. Michael Bay. That’s your first clue that this is terrible filmmaking. Can the creator behind the lucrative, testosterone fueled “Transformers” franchise, make this “based on true story” work? The answer is no. If you enter this knowing very little about the 2012 Benghazi, Libya tragedy, you’ll exit with many more questions than answers. Those who are familiar with the details, will be almost as confused. So, I certainly have to blame first-time feature film screenwriter, Chuck Hogan, for a good deal of that. Want a plot synopsis and description? Google it. I don’t have the patience to work through this morass.

Positives? Yes…there are a few. Dion Beebe is an Oscar-winning cinematographer, and he captures the right look for this chaotic happenstance. Performers like James Badge Dale, John Krasinski, Max Martini, and Dominic Fumusa, certainly attempt to make this material sing. Unfortunately, renowned editor Pietro Scalia couldn’t transform this jumble of scenes into anything worth your time. “War is hell” simply isn’t enough to carry this bloated 144 minutes, although someone is bound to tell me that that’s the point. There’s always one. The movie is based on the book “13 Hours” by Mitchell Zuckoff, but the film has been challenged for its historical accuracy. The book has to be better, right? And have I mentioned that this motion picture was directed by Michael Bay? It’s his lowest grosser ever.

Grade:  C-

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Florence Foster Jenkins

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Nominated for Best Actress (Meryl Streep) at the 89th Annual Academy Awards

Nominated for Best Costume Design at the 89th Annual Academy Awards

To borrow from a piece I once did on Tom Cruise: I love Meryl Streep. I hate Meryl Streep. Oh, this has absolutely nothing to do with national politics, or awards show speeches. I support Ms. Streep being able to use her acceptance time any way she deems fit. But it does have something to do with Hollywood politics, and the feeling that at this stage of her storied career, Meryl gets nominations just for showing up. “Sophie’s Choice” Streep? “Silkwood” Streep? “Ironweed” Streep? Those days are long gone. Now it’s all dowdy, eccentric spinsters, and sickly, prickly grandmas. I’ll happily make a case for her not deserving any of her last five Oscar nominations. And I adore her.

Florence Foster Jenkins (Streep fine…but on auto-pilot) is a rich Manhattan socialite with a passion for the arts. It’s 1944, and she’s married to a handsome, younger, failed Shakespearean actor named St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant, actually quite fine). Bayfield also acts as her manager, and keeps a separate residence. And despite having a mistress named Kathleen (Rebecca Ferguson…okay), Bayfield also exhibits a deep commitment to his wife. Suffering from long-term syphilis, which she contracted from her first husband, Florence is on multiple medications and in failing health. Also…Florence loves to sing opera. But she’s horrible at it. However, after years of lessons and consistent placating, arrangements are made for Ms. Jenkins to perform at Carnegie Hall. A skeptical press and public await.

“Florence Foster Jenkins” contains Meryl Streep’s record 20th Academy Award acting nomination. For some perspective, Jack Nicholson leads the men with twelve. Streep isn’t bad in this meant to be heart-warming “true” story of the world’s worst opera singer. It’s just that it’s paint-by-numbers stuff, that Meryl can pull off in her sleep. Streep has cornered the market recently on recognition for being broad and flamboyant. Amy Adams and Annette Bening, on the other hand, turned in ignored work that was much more subtle and complex. It’s a highly theatrical film, and I enjoyed that aspect. Plus, there’s wonderful support work from Simon Helberg and Nina Arianda. Director Stephen Frears though, once great (“The Grifters”, “Dangerous Liaisons”), is now stuck firmly in the land of the middlebrow. This movie offers no excitement or surprise. You’ve practically seen it all in the trailer.

Grade:  C+

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Life, Animated

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Nominated for Best Documentary Feature at the 89th Annual Academy Awards

Like quite a few Oscar-nominated releases I’ve experienced of late, this documentary is a wonderful and interesting story, that nevertheless suffers from a few issues in its execution. However, “Life, Animated” does have a ringer, in the fascinating centerpiece personage of Owen Suskind. The now twentysomething Owen, was diagnosed with autism at the age of three, and withdrew into a mostly silent world, that cut off almost all communication with his distraught parents, and older brother. But then–a breakthrough happens. Owen’s father, Ron (a journalist, who wrote this, as well as the book that it’s based on), discovers that his son is finding ways to communicate through dialogue he’s heard in the Disney cartoon features that are always playing in the house. As he gets older, this connection to the animated movies is strongly promoted, and Owen is able to converse increasingly dexterously through the Disney screenplays that he’s committed to memory verbatim. It opens Owen up to the point where he is on the verge of living “on his own” in a supervised community. But some pitfalls do occur.

Roger Ross Williams has already won a documentary short subject Academy Award for 2010’s “Music by Prudence”, and he directs “Life, Animated” with a sure hand. However, there are some dramatic lulls present, especially regarding the employing of inserted animated samplings, that are meant to represent Owen’s thought process. I found them to be flamboyant flourishes that don’t quite work, but they certainly pad that running time to feature-length. Was that the intention? Plus, as if Disney needed another boon to its profit margin, multiple classic, animated features are frequently sampled. Owen’s journey becomes well-known enough over time, that we are treated to Jonathan Freeman and Gilbert Gottfried, from the “Aladdin” vocal cast, making an appearance at Mr. Suskind’s Disney viewing club gatherings, for people with autism. At one point Owen is called upon to make a speech in Paris, and the scenario is handled beautifully. It smartly avoids an over-reliance on sentimentality. So, despite the occasional misstep, “Life, Animated” is a worthwhile odyssey through the mind of a young, inspirational man.

Grade:  B

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A Man Called Ove

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Nominated for Best Foreign Language Film (Sweden) at the 89th Annual Academy Awards

Nominated for Best Makeup and Hairstyling at the 89th Annual Academy Awards

Ugh. File under the “irascible old man loses a loved one, and then is forced to find joy again when kids move into his neighborhood” section. Honestly, the foreign films come Oscar time, are getting just as weepy and sentimental as the American nominees. No easy feat. There are some worthy things in this film to make it borderline recommendable. But on any given day, I may have been too cranky to even bestow that much leeway. Believe me, there are no real surprises or revelations in this Swedish import with English subtitles. It simply connects the dots from ‘A’ to ‘B’ to ‘C’ and so on.  And did I say there are cute kids?

Ove (Rolf Lassgard…strong) is a 59-year-old recently widowed man, living in a townhouse complex. He’s also worked at a railroad job for decades, and he’s just been removed from his position too. Depressed, lonely, and suicidal, Ove still lords over his gated community as the appointed prefect. You see, grumpy, crusty Ove, has a reputation for being a stickler for the rules. So, when a young couple with children move next door, his various attempts at taking his own life are thwarted, as he comes out of his funk long enough to battle to enforce the association’s strict codes. Along the way, we experience flashbacks to a younger Ove (a very good Filip Berg), and his eventual romance with his charming wife, Sonja (Ida Engvoll).

This film was directed and written by Hannes Holm, and it’s based on Fredrik Backman’s popular book of the same name. I see no reason to ever read that book. The acting saves this just a bit, with the fine performances from all the aforementioned principals, as well as Bahar Pars and Chatarina Larsson, among others. Also, Ove’s attempts to snuff out his existence are played as black comedy, and it occasionally becomes poignant. Other than that it’s the sweet, life-affirming, comfort cinema that your eccentric grandmother sends all of her friends to. You’ll have no doubt from the get-go, that Ove will soften. The biggest conflict the movie takes on, is the civil war of Volvo vs. Saab. Ove declares the winner there, but I won’t ruin it for you. Pleasant enough at times, “A Man Called Ove” plays it much too safe.

Grade:  C+

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Jim: The James Foley Story

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Nominated for Best Original Song (“The Empty Chair”) at the 89th Annual Academy Awards

This is a very tricky area for a film critic. What to say about a man, who performs so heroically in a variety of ways, and ultimately dies a horrific death at the hands of ISIS terrorists? In no way would I even begin to disparage the life, the work, or the actions of James Foley. He suffered the unimaginable, and appears to have been a very much loved, and quite interesting young man. And, therein lies the issue, because the filmmakers are way too close to the subject at hand. For instance, first-time feature filmmaker Brian Oakes, is a childhood pal of the late Mr. Foley. This allowed apparently unlimited access to Foley’s family, friends, and associates. But it also seems to have assisted in tipping that line from biography into hagiography. Hey, maybe James Foley indeed was an all-around fantastic guy. I don’t doubt it. But I would’ve loved to learn more about what made him tick, and theories on just why he made some of the dangerous choices he made. I also found the overuse of recreations in the documentary’s latter half to be an almost fatal flaw. Throw in a now Academy Award-nominated song, co-written and performed by Sting, and the Oscar-baiting devices all appear to be in full swing. I’m glad that this story of a conflict journalist being captured in war-torn Syria, and then horrifically being slaughtered for his passions (note: there is a video of Mr. Foley’s execution…but it is not shown in the film) exists. Especially considering our current political climate. But a more complex approach, from a more experienced director, would have helped paint a more unforgettable picture. And a little trimming of the 111-minute running time wouldn’t have hurt either. All that being said–much respect to the memory of Mr. Foley, and his family.

Grade:  B-

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Lion

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Nominated for Best Picture at the 89th Annual Academy Awards

Nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay (Luke Davies) at the 89th Annual Academy Awards

Nominated for Best Supporting Actress (Nicole Kidman) at the 89th Annual Academy Awards

Nominated for Best Supporting Actor (Dev Patel) at the 89th Annual Academy Awards

Nominated for Best Cinematography (Greig Fraser) at the 89th Annual Academy Awards

Nominated for Best Original Score at the 89th Annual Academy Awards

Honestly, I haven’t known quite what to make of the hit art film “Lion” ever since first experiencing it recently. After all, I’m not made of stone, and I do have a heart. “Lion” certainly has an emotional finale that promotes tears. I’m not immune…Mark Leonard cried. HOWEVER–couldn’t first-time feature director Garth Davis, and screenwriter Luke Davies, figure out something more interesting for the movie’s slog of a 2nd half? I mean, the last hour plays like a commercial for Google Maps! And let’s not fall into the convenience of the “based on a true story” trap. Stories based on non-fiction are often riddled with untruths. See: “Argo”. Maybe “Lion” isn’t dishonest…I don’t know. But what I DO know, is that after a fine start, we end up with a muddled latter portion that’s stuffed with all the big movie stars. Often, less is more.

Five-year-old Saroo (adorable Sunny Pawar) accompanies older brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate) to a train station in India, so they can scrounge for money to bring home to their mother and siblings. Guddu initially shows resistance to bringing Saroo, because of his tender age. When Saroo eventually gets too tired, Guddu leaves him to sleep on a station bench, and says he’ll return for him soon. When Saroo awakens, Guddu is nowhere to be found. Saroo’s wanderings to locate his big brother get him into a variety of mishaps, including attempted abduction. This after riding a train that deposits him far from home. Eventually ending up in an orphanage, he is adopted by an Australian couple. Sue (Nicole Kidman) and John Brierley (David Wenham) raise Saroo to young adulthood in Tasmania. A now grownup Saroo (a solid Dev Patel) decides to study hotel management in Melbourne, where he begins dating American student, Lucy (Rooney Mara, in a thankless role). Soon, Saroo begins searching for his biological family, and tries to track his poverty-stricken past.

Again–I get it. This story is wonderful and heartbreaking in many ways. I’ll bet the book that it’s based on (“A Long Way Home” by Saroo Brierley with Larry Buttrose) is a captivating read. It’s the execution of the film that irks me. Garth Davis didn’t have the finesse to make the transition of the two halves a smooth one. The last hour is often leaden. Dev Patel is actually fine as the adult Saroo, but I’m still pondering what Nicole Kidman was trying to convey with her off-key performance. It showed a usually strong actress making unconvincing choices. Plus, I found myself angered by the throwaway role given to the perpetually excellent Rooney Mara. Her scenes with Patel were filled with predictable dialogue and clichéd scenarios. Of course, things perk up a bit for the sentimental finale. Listen, I love the tale of this odyssey. But its cinematic handling needed more experienced hands at the controls. Still…not without merit.

Grade:  C+

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Captain Fantastic

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Nominated for Best Actor (Viggo Mortensen) at the 89th Annual Academy Awards

“Captain Fantastic” is infectious. It reminded me of the “Wilderness Family” movies I attended as a boy. Remember those? It was a trilogy from the 1970’s, about a family that ran away from life in the polluted, capitalistic, big city, and escaped to living in the tranquility of the wild. In retrospect, they probably weren’t very good films. But (at least), the first one was a pretty sizable box office hit. It captured something that audiences may have been longing for in 1975. “Captain Fantastic” finds that same feeling. But it’s also grittier, better written, and showcases some wonderful performances. And it ain’t just Viggo!

Ben Cash (a very charismatic Mr. Mortensen) is fed up with polluted, materialistic American Life, so retreats to the Washington wilderness with his wife and six children–and lives off of the land. The kids are all home-schooled, athletic, creative, and taught survival techniques. But upon the sudden death of their mother, they are beckoned back into society upon word that their grandfather Jack (Frank Langella, making the most of playing the “heavy”), has planned a funeral for his daughter, that goes against their late mother’s wishes. So, Ben and his clan, venture to stop Jack–even after he threatens to have Ben arrested.

Mr. Mortensen finds just the right rhythm here, for his character Ben, and I’m certain that his ease in displaying that so confidently is what landed him an Oscar nomination. Also quite fine is George MacKay, as eldest son Bo. Mr. MacKay’s quirks and mannerisms as a socially inept young adult, trapped between two worlds, are wonderfully effective. Matt Ross provides strong, uncluttered direction, even when his screenplay makes the expected turn into sentimentality. The film suffers a little bit from that eventuality…but it hardly spirals out of control. “Captain Fantastic” is a solid film, made better by some superb performances. I highly recommend it for that, as well as for its emotional honesty.

Grade:  B+