13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi

13 Hours is a 2016 film depicting the 2012 Islamist siege on diplomatic and CIA american compounds in Benghazi, Libya. I kept noticing it on amazon prime so decided to give it a try. It took me three days to get through the film, in part due to my ankle biters, in part because the film is long- nearly 2 1/2 hours.

While watching this film what amazed me the most is that it was made at all. How did this get through liberal Hollywood? (No matter what your politics, you have to admit Hollywood is quite liberal!) While not directly addressing politics, the film depicts the Obama administration’s response to the Benghazi siege as at best inept, and at worst willfully indifferent to the lives of its ambassador and agents.

The first 45 minutes of the film are slow and choppy. The cinematography employs an annoying “shaky cam” technique which I guess is supposed to make us feel close to the action, but to me it just looked sloppy. Interspersed with the shaky cam are sweeping panoramas backed with melancholy music. I guess this was supposed to make the film feel atmospheric. But instead of atmospheric or edgy, the end result is discombobulated. However, the depiction of the siege begins around 0:43 and the remainder of the movie functions as a much better executed “film within a film.”

13 Hours is based on a book of the same name by Mitchell Zuckoff, written in cooperation with the annex security team that single handedly defended the compound where nearly two dozen CIA agents, including women, were housed. These men were former special forces now employed as private military contractors– a controversial phenomena that is increasing worldwide, with nebulous moral and legal boundaries.

While the overview of the battle is likely accurate, I’m not sure if smaller plot details really happened or if they were interspersed for dramatic flavor. Was there really a beautiful CIA agent with a french accent, who brattily rebuffs attempts to save her life? Was the CIA chief really a thickheaded blowhard? Did Boon really quote Joseph Campbell?

The slow opening notwithstanding, this is a good film that provides a fascinating and tragic glimpse into the events of the siege. If you’re curious about the events of Benghazi, 13 Hours comes highly recommended.


The Terminator

Somehow I managed to reach the tender age of 42 never having viewed The Terminator. I’d seen one of the later iterations, and more recently my husband forced me so sit through Terminator Genisys (a painful experience). Since his company has put out some Terminator books, I decided to finally watch the original version to see what exactly has been paying the catholic school tuition.

  • There are a lot of car chases and gunfire. At least 80% of the movie contains either a car chase, or gunfire. It gave me a headache.
  • While Linda Hamilton is a decent actress, the Sarah Connor character utterly lacks gravitas. Her pet iguana has more depth. No way can I believe the savior of humanity issues from her loins.
  • Michael Beihn is very good as Kyle Reese, the hardened time-traveling soldier sent through time to rescue Sarah. The love story between them is kind of sweet, and in theory could occur in an infinite loop.
  • Arnold is brilliant as the terminator. What stage presence! And hardly any lines. I asked my husband how he was cast for the role, and he says James Cameron got the idea for a near-silent character from Conan the Barbarian, where Arnold likewise barely speaks.

strong silent type

  • I find it impossible to believe a ragtag, starving army of humans would have any chance against robots and cyborgs. If the robot apocalypse ever does transpire, we’re toast.
  • On that note, the portrait of humanity portrayed in The Terminator is so grim (note how Sarah is mistreated as a waitress) one wonders why it’s worth saving.
  • Squishing the terminator works, but blowing him up multiple times with nitroglycerin doesn’t work. This doesn’t make sense.
  • Why does Sarah embark to Mexico to wait out the robot apocalypse? If anything life will be worse in post-apocalyptic Mexico than in the states, particularly for a single woman traveling alone. In fact, life is so dangerous for women along the border that female migrants go on birth control so they won’t get pregnant when (not if) they’re raped during the crossing.
  • Where did Sarah get the money for the new vehicle and german shepherd? My sister’s german shepherd cost nearly $2000.

So, would I recommend this film? I guess, if only because it has grown iconic to our society. For example, I never knew the precise context of “I’ll be back” until now. As my husband informed during the final credits: My dear, you’ve officially been inducted to geekdom.

Staten Island Summer

When I first noticed Staten Island Summer on Netflix I was delighted. A movie about Staten Island! Since when does that happen? I mean there was Copland which I believe was a thinly disguised version of Staten Island, but generally this island, despite its proximity to the cultural mecca of Manhhatan, has been left out of the cinematic universe. I eagerly clicked PLAY.

Sixty seconds in I knew I was in serious trouble. A “cartoon New Jersey” copulates with a “cartoon Brooklyn” to give birth to Staten Island. Yuck! Could they have been more crass? Technically this is true as Staten Island accents are a blend of Brooklyn and New Jersey- but animate it as porn? Blech. This was only the beginning.  From that initial point vulgarity, vapidity, and aimlessness only increased. Dick jokes, cleavage jokes, masturbation jokes. No, no, no!

I decided to lie back and think of England, enduring the whole damned 108 minutes of this monstrosity.

Let me state it bluntly: this is a horrible movie. Horribly written, horribly acted (with allowance for the disgusting, pointless script) horribly edited, there’s no significant plot, the characterization is abysmal and I’m pretty sure most of the scenes shot in “Great Kills” were in fact shot on the dreaded North Shore. Mysteriously no one in this film has a Staten Island accent except for the token guido, mafia boss, and extras. That’s right folks: the major players in a film about Staten Island sound like Julliard trained actors. I should have expected as much.

Et tu, Brute?

There were a few funny scenes, or at least I found myself laughing once or twice through this sorrowful adventure. The scene where John DeLuca- the token guido- struggles with basic math on his Navy exam was funny. The animated scene where creepy pool manager (Michael Patrick O’Brien) births Satan’s spawn was humorous. The scene where the cops, mafia, African American drug dealers, and the crazed Hispanic maintenance worker all pull guns on each other was vaguely funny. But otherwise this was a giant waste of time and hardly emblematic of the city’s most verdant borough. Maybe writer Colin Jost spent too much time in Hollywood, but this was a useless, worthless, unavailing cinematic effort no matter which vantage point you approach it from. Don’t squander your life watching this film! Or at least fast-forward to the sparse scenes that might make you laugh.

A Better Life

My husband borrowed A Better Life from the library this weekend. I have little interest in watching 90% of the films he watches. We have different tastes. I prefer documentaries and the odd indie film; he likes sci fi, serial killer, action/ adventure (like James Bond and the Bourne films), and horror. Every so often we both like something from the other’s taste. I really liked Ronin and Heat, for example. And he liked Winged Migration even though he– initially– absolutely did not want to watch it.

So it was with some skepticism that I considered watching A Better Life, but when I noticed Demian Bichir had been nominated for an Academy Award, my interest was piqued. I still wasn’t expecting much, though– I figured it would be a sappy tale about the plight of illegal immigrants, something better suited for late night TV than the big screen. Yet within the first fifteen minutes I was surprised by the atmospheric, sweeping cinematography (the camera work reminded me of Heat, in fact) and the poignant, understated narrative, which is less about illegal immigration than the painful alienation that can take place between teenage children and their parents. There is also a strong undercurrent of gang activity and the perils gangs pose to their communities, though the film is cautious never to be overtly dogmatic. In one scene Carlos (played by Demian Bichir) and his son pass what looks like a Dream Act rally. When his son asks what the protest is about, Carlos refuses to discuss it and shrugs it off.

Demian Bichir (right) as Carlos Galindo

I can’t say enough about the cinematography of this film, which was done by Javier Aguirresarobe. He was also cinematographer for The Others starring Nicole Kidman, and indeed, in A Better Life, the camera seems to be watching the cast like a quiet stalker or phantom. The music (composed by Alexandre Desplat) is also outstanding and not at all what I expected from a film about Mexican immigrants.  Director Chris Weitz is better known for mainstream films like About a Boy, the Twilight films, and perhaps for his performance in the extremely creepy stalker film Chuck and Buck. Bichir, who is Mexican, is no stranger to crossover work and currently stars in the detective show The Bridge produced by the FX network. His performance as the beleaguered Carlos Galindo is masterful and more deserving of an Academy Award than was winner Jean Dujardin (for The Artist— I thought that movie was overrated to begin with). As per usual the best performances, like the late Dennis Farina in The Last Rites of Joe May, go unrecognized.

I would especially recommend this excellent movie to film students or aspiring screenplay writers, as its pacing, narrative arcs, and visual storytelling were virtually flawless (I should also note that the film is mostly in English). My one word of warning is to NOT watch the trailer for this film as it gives the entire plot away, beginning to end. I’m not sure why Hollywood does this with trailers, but the official trailer for A Better Life is shameless in this regard.


“Flight” is a 2012 Robert Zemeckis film about an airplane pilot who, despite his struggles with substance abuse, manages to land a mechanically doomed plane under death-defying circumstances.  It takes a lot for me to actually sit through an entire non-documentary film but I’d heard laudable opinions of the movie so decided to give it a try, thinking I’d be bored within fifteen minutes.

I have to say I was surprised not just by Washington’s acting, but by the trajectory of the narrative itself.  Every time the film appears to fall into cliche, it veers off course and offers surprising narrative threads.  There were issues with the pacing, and I could have done without certain plot elements, namely, Washington’s implausible and slightly awkward romance with a prostitute. Overall, though, I was taken aback by the nuanced complexity of the film and the existential matters it addresses in an adroit and often tragicomic fashion (in the vein of “Breaking Bad”).  There is one scene where Washington encounters a terminally ill man smoking in a hospital stairwell, and if for no other reason, the monologue that ensues makes the film worth watching.

Despite portraying a black pilot, the film does not directly touch on issues of race.  In fact, other than Washington mentioning his father was a Tuskegee airman, you hear nary a word on the subject.  The cockpit scene contains the racial trope hollywood so loves– the panicking, bumbling white man (copilot Brian Geraghty) in the face of an intelligent, collected black man (pay attention to television advertisements, you’ll see this routine all the time), but the film never unravels into hackneyed racialism beyond this, and in fact quietly addresses the plight of black fatherlessness in a jarring and unsugared manner.

Washington was nominated for an Academy Award for his performance but was beat out by Daniel Day-Lewis for his performance in “Lincoln” (which I’ve not seen).  Were it not for lengthy glimpses of Nadine Velasquez’s breasts (a nod to Mike Street Station who has mentioned he watches films for this sole purpose), and a brief scene on a porn set, the film would probably be appropriate for children over age 13 or 14, as long as you’re comfortable with them being exposed to explicit depictions of alcohol and drug abuse.


Wake Up

“Wake Up” is an odd documentary about Jonas Elrod, a cinematographer who one day starts seeing visions of angels, demons, spirits, and “energy.” The film follows him over three years as he grapples with his newfound abilities. He is greatly distressed by these visions, clearly does not like talking about them, and after a battery of psychological and physical exams rule out schizophrenia or brain anomalies, he seeks the counsel of gurus, mystics, and paranormal researchers.

Elrod getting his chakras massaged.

In one particularly spooky scene, he consults “ghost photographer” Umberto Di Grazia in Italy, who places him in a chamber where images of a woman and a wide-eyed alien are picked up while Elrod meditates. Elrod is visibly shaken when shown these photographs and refuses to discuss them further. Di Grazia, who’s had similar visions, postulates the extremely creepy theory that aliens, or “interdimensional beings” are using us remotely as “viewing pieces,” or for vicarious experiences or emotions, and when glitches in wiring occur (as happened to Elrod) we get a glimpse into what is truly going on, much like Neo with his deja vu of the cat in “The Matrix.”

Glitchy kitty.

I began to wonder at this point in the film, if the whole thing was a hoax. However, if a hoax, it’s a poorly done one. There’s no real narrative to the documentary, neither Elrod nor his whiny girlfriend– both aging, chain smoking hipsters– are very likable or watchable. Elrod comes across as spoiled, temperamental, irreligious and lost. In fact, the prospect of another side to terrestrial existence clearly disconcerts the quasi-atheistic couple.

Another reason I don’t believe this docu is a hoax, is because I’ve had similar, though less dramatic, experiences myself. In 2004, after a ragingly high fever, and after nearly a year of suffering from recurring infections (causing the fevers), I started having visions much like Elrod describes. I saw spirits, streaks of “energy,” and what I think might have been angels or divine beings (I never did see big-eyed aliens though). These experiences gradually faded over the course of a month and lingered, sporadically, for months after that. During the “visions” I felt no fear whatsoever, and remained skeptical even while they were happening, assuming my brain had been fried from stress, pain, and fever. Even today I’m not entirely sure what exactly I was seeing.

Elrod visits Ramtha’s School of Enlightenment, a sort of summer camp for would-be mystics, which provides one of the few humorous points in the film. He also speaks to Roger Nelson, the coordinator of the Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research laboratory. In one experiment, they place small random 1/0 number generators (“electronic coin flippers”) at 65 locations around the globe, and notice that during emotionally fraught events, the devices stopped emitting equal numbers of 1s and 0s as they do under normal circumstances. This phenomena was seen not only on 9/11, but beginning four hours before the first tower was hit. Their theory is that humanity emits a collective “resonance” that impacts the number output.

Overall this was a somewhat sad, rambling documentary but the subject matter was so interesting that it kept me watching. Elrod’s struggle with his spiritual “abilities” versus the dearth of sustenance offered by organized religion– even the religions of the fringe variety– is poignant and at times difficult to watch, and is probably something we can all relate to on a lesser scale.

Pearls That Were His Eyes

This morning, my husband asked my thoughts on my fast-approaching 40th birthday.  “Did you ever think you’d make it to 40?”

Huh?  No, I thought all the hard drugs, random sex, and midnight drag racing would get to me first!  What kind of question is that?  I’ve been baking cookies and taking naps for the past 17 years.  I’m the old school kind of housewife, who lived long and prospered until slumping over knitting needles around age 100.  I may have to witness 15 more presidential elections.

I watched bits of “Titanic” last night with my husband and daughters.  That is one goddamn depressing movie.  So depressing, in fact, that I couldn’t bear to watch and kept walking out of the room.  I can’t stand Leonardo DiCaprio as an actor, either.  There’s exactly one movie I liked him in– Catch Me if You Can– but other than that I find him painfully unimpressive.  Kate Winslet is kind of lame too, and I don’t sense any chemistry between the supposedly star crossed lovers who part ways in the chilly Atlantic.  I just didn’t feel like watching a crowd of people drown.  My girls were horrified by the movie.  But I remember, this film was a huge hit, and I even saw it in the movie theaters– one of the last films I saw in a theater.  I think THE last film I saw in a theater was one of the X-Men films, or maybe, Nemesis.  Then I realized that sitting in a dirty, crowded room with strangers wasn’t something I wanted to pay money to do.

The Muppets

So I finished the 2011 “The Muppets.”  Hmmm, what to say?  I guess it was good.  Which is to say it had disco chickens, huge fuzzy creatures, TNT, a villain named “Mr. Richman,” and some good drum riffs from Animal.  There was also a brief appearance from a Spanish-accented cockroach.  There were some sappy songs, upbeat songs, and a rap song disconcertingly performed by 60-year old Chris Cooper.  As I sat through it, I kept thinking how a tinfoil hat conservative would have a field day dissecting the liberal bias of the film– the two human protagonists have been living in sin for a decade; Miss Piggy has decided to be an independent woman rather than pine over Kermit; the main muppet protagonist who is “born different” (ahem) eventually comes to accept and love himself, and, of course, the sinister Rainbow Connection– we all know what that means.

But overall it was just ridiculous.  If you have kids try it out on them, unless you don’t want them to be brainwashed by Fozzie Bear’s bad jokes and Gonzo’s anarchist agenda.


Life By Heart

“Into the Wild” is a film based on the real-life story of Christopher McCandless, a college grad who spurns his well-to-do family to embark on an epic survivalist journey.  He donates the remaining $24,000 of his college fund to Oxfam, shreds his social security card, and burns any remaining cash on hand.  He survives on foraged edible plants, the kindness of strangers, and the odd menial job, all the while dreaming of a climactic solo expedition to Alaska.  He encounters a motley assortment of nomadic hippies and drug-addled tourists, but at no point does he contact his parents– who by this point have hired a private investigator to find him– to assure them of his well being.

Mr. McCandless comes across as petulant child, budding philosopher, and rugged adventurer all at once.  The film does raise interesting questions about parental expectations, and how they can impact children who might not fit the designated mold, but instead wish to live a life by heart.

This is something I can more than relate to, as I’m certainly not living the life my parents prescribed for me.  The screws were put on early for me to have a lofty career (however unrealistic that might have been).  It’s amazing, really, to find yourself being a disappointment while living a life you consider to be very beautiful. I remember, once, after my 4th or 5th child was born, the midwife smiled and said, “Your parents must be SO proud of you!”  Err… no.

My sister is similar.  Other than a four hour a week job as the town treasurer (she’s very good at math), she has no career.  We both opted, to our mother’s distaste, to be home with our kids.

Maybe I’m dumb, but I’d find it kind of cool if my renegade child set off on a brazen voyage, though of course I’d adjure him to send me the occasional postcard.  But I don’t have to worry about my own son going off the radar to the Alaskan wilderness.  He once told me that he hates the outdoors, because it has such lame graphics.

The Last Rites of Joe May

“The Last Rites of Joe May” is a little-known indie film about an ailing, low level mobster whose life intersects with that of a struggling single mother and her dovelike daughter.  A shaky friendship ensues, as the film’s namesake struggles to regain his foothold in life, while assisting his new comrade to the best of his ability.  While the story is compelling– if predictable and gratuitously depressing– the shining star of the film is Dennis Farina. Farina’s performance is tour de force and it amazes me that the film is not better known for his virtuoso performance.