Actually, Arya and Sansa’s confrontation on ‘Game of Thrones’ was brilliant, heartbreaking, and full of lessons on feminism. Allow me to womansplain.

Sansa-Arya 2

After witnessing the tense, heated conversation between Stark sisters Sansa and Arya on last night’s episode of Game of Thrones (“Beyond the Wall”), I had only one thought:

That was the best scene in the entire show.

Don’t worry, I’ve softened my opinion after a night’s sleep. After all, there are too many contenders to count for that title – Daenerys burning down the patriarchy in Vaes Dothrak, Brienne and Arya’s scrimmage swordfight, Cersei’s Walk of Shame, Tommen’s tragic and silent death, Jon Snow punching Ramsay Bolton in the face again, and again, and again… and many more. The standout scenes on this show are memorable for a variety of reasons: some are shocking, some are satisfying, some are tender – and some are all three. There have been blips, of course (what even is the pacing in this season? Is time an illusion in Westeros?), but the show has always represented a paradigm of masterful storytelling. Not for nothing has Game of Thrones shattered Emmy Awards records and become a worldwide phenomenon over the past few years.

Scene-stealing dragons are great, but Game of Thrones has always thrived because of its character studies. Here is a patriarchal, medieval world of monarchies and magic, common folk and religion. How far would a woman go to secure for herself the power that her male family members and husband are awarded at birth? With whom would a calculating eunuch be willing to align in order to ensure that the next ruler of this world does the most possible good? What would it take for a spurned son to betray his entire family while following his conscience? And is it true that the good guy always gets beheaded finishes last?

For all of its accolades, Game of Thrones has also gotten a lot of flak for its depiction of female characters. With the exception of Sansa’s rape providing character development for a male character, I am honestly baffled by most of the criticism. Yes, the world of Westeros is far from a feminist utopia, and the cultural and socio-political attitudes actually reflect back on our real world much more than we’d like to admit. But that is exactly what makes the characters so engaging; that’s what makes their struggles so potent. After all, the tension between the ideal and the real is what gives our lives and actions meaning.  

Until the end of last season, Cersei cared about nothing but power and her children. (Now: just power?) The fact that Cersei is cruel and psychotic and wants to rule the world – a villainous personality usually reserved for men – but is also maternal and wants only the best for her children – a typically female personality – makes her a radically feminist character. Brienne and Arya are similar characters separated by a generation, but both have to contend with the way their dreams of becoming knights clash with society’s expectations of their roles as noblewomen. They, too, are feminist characters.

Women contain multitudes, and Game of Thrones does a fabulous job exploring these multitudes. And in my opinion, there is no more fascinating and complicated female character than that of Sansa Stark.

In brief, because this is an essay for another time (one that I hope to get paid for… any editors reading this?), Sansa was always a great character specifically because she was so unlikable. This assessment is partially a personal preference in that she was not the type of girl I would ever want to be, or even be friends with. Growing up in Winterfell, Sansa was vain, selfish, whiny, and privileged. She was content with the status quo, ready to live her life in comfort and ease, more than willing to conform to patriarchal plans for her future. For many of these reasons, Sansa is an objectively unlikable character as well; from a narrative standpoint, she served as a foil to rebellious Arya, the cool underdog that fans loved and rooted for. Arya is resourceful, athletic, determined, fierce, clever. Sansa is… pretty. Of course, this does not make Sansa any less worthy of life. And people like her certainly exist in our world. But to 21st century humans with progressive attitudes towards gender, her attitude is understandably antiquated, and therefore less relatable.

Arya and Sansa’s shared last name – and their shared gender – does not necessitate that their characters would ever see eye-to-eye or suddenly share the same values.

In their years apart, Arya and Sansa endure an immense amount of suffering. Both witnessed the murders of their family, and both thought, for a long time, that each was the last remaining Stark. Arya responded by training to become an assassin, fulfilling her dream of becoming a warrior. Sansa lived through physical abuse at the hands of Joffrey, emotional abuse from Cersei, unspeakable torment from Ramsay (including the infamous and controversial rape), and through an extended series of circumstances, she is now closer than ever to the dream future she imagined, as the Lady of Winterfell.

Arya and Sansa have always been very, very different – complete opposites, even – so their reunion at Winterfell this season was unsurprisingly awkward. Naturally, each was happy to see the other alive. But their shared last name – and their shared gender – does not, in any way, necessitate that their characters would ever see eye-to-eye or suddenly share the same values and dreams of the future. In fact, it would be poor writing, and reflect a poor understanding of the human psyche, if they did.

So, now that we’re all on the same page, let’s talk about that scene in “Beyond the Wall.”

We learned in the previous episode, “Eastwatch,” that Littlefinger (*shakes fist*) is trying to play the Stark sisters against each other, so he ensured that Arya would find the letter to Robb that Sansa was coerced into writing back when she was a Lannister hostage. The letter contains Sansa’s entreaty for Robb to come to King’s Landing and swear fealty to King Joffrey, while also denouncing Stark patriarch Ned as a traitor. Naturally, Arya was none-too-pleased to learn that Sansa had, in Arya’s eyes, so willingly “betrayed” her family. Sansa tried to explain that she was just “a child” – terrified and naive – and that although she didn’t have a “knife at her throat,” as Arya blithely suggests, she was threatened all the same. Her explanation falls on deaf ears.

The way I understand it, viewers of Game of Thrones are angry because of Arya’s utter lack of empathy for her sister’s situation. But people seem to be conflating Arya’s lack of empathy for the male showrunners’ lack of empathy. If you think every character represents their creators, I have news for you: this is fiction. So, yes, I very much doubt that Dan Weiss and David Benioff are toasting cups of Dornish wine, crowing: “Ha ha! Sansa sucks because she got raped and also she is a weak, boring woman!”

In the context of the show, though, Arya’s coldness makes total narrative sense. Are we not supposed to understand, given the way Arya slaughtered pretty much the entirety of House Frey, that she is now utterly unhinged? That Arya, driven to this point by grief and anger and the freedom she’s always desired, has become a vengeful and rage-fueled monster? Though she made that pivotal choice to set off for Winterfell rather than continuing her single-minded murder crusade, she is still a very, very angry young woman. Indeed, Sansa picks up on this (gee, what gave it away?) and tries to rationalize Arya’s harsh judgement of her by telling Arya: “Sometimes anger makes people do unfortunate things.” After taunting Sansa for being afraid, Arya shoots right back at Sansa’s achilles heel: “Sometimes fear makes people do unfortunate things.”

Oof. Brutal.

The tension in this scene is so palpable because of what is said: Arya’s spiteful barbs demonstrate that she still views Sansa as a shallow airhead. Sansa’s responses, though delivered with startling calmness, show that she still views Arya as a little girl. But it is also brilliantly crafted to make us think of all that is not said. Sansa alludes to, but does not explicitly delineate, all of the horrific abuses she suffered at the hands of her various male counterparts (and, of course, Cersei). Even if Arya knew, though, I doubt she would be any more sympathetic. Arya’s rage – against everyone who specifically wronged her family, and against a society, represented by Sansa, that told her she couldn’t be the one thing she wanted to be – has fueled her for years. She is unmoved by fear and disgusted by weakness.

Sansa, meanwhile, is conventionally pretty, and she has always wanted conventional things. Arya believes that Sansa is “weak” because she doesn’t want to – as they say often on this show – “break the wheel,” and because she gave in to Lannister pressure when, let’s be honest, most of us would have done the same. But – and this is why I find her character so enlightening – her experience still matters. Her trauma still matters. It’s horrible, but Arya clearly thinks that Sansa doesn’t deserve to live because she’s not “strong” or “courageous” enough.  Arya views weakness as a moral failing.We know better.

There is a saying that’s been going around Tumblr for a while: “Are you brave? the devil asked. No, she answered, but I am alive. And sometimes those two things are the same.” This, I believe, represents Sansa to a tee – and it’s something I can relate to, as well. Sansa is no warrior. She is not particularly strong or cunning. She is not even particularly kind. But she is alive, she has suffered, and she is deserving of respect.

When Arya declares that “the rules were wrong,” she is effectively calling out the patriarchy: societal rules say that Arya cannot be a fighter because she is a girl. Arya stands here now, proof that the rules are wrong. From a culturally progressive perspective, Arya is right – the rules are wrong. But Arya own feminism is short-sighted – she believes that Sansa is worthy of scorn and derision simply because what Sansa wanted for her own life happened to align with what the patriarchal society wants for her. Arya’s resentment bleeds through into every word of their conversation, most notably when she describes seeing Sansa stand next to the Lannisters – “I remember the pretty dress you were wearing, I remember the fancy way you did your hair.”

And you know what? I used to resent Sansa for all that, too. But Sansa, who is not a mite-sized killing machine or a Three-Eyed Raven, has earned my grudging respect.

I’m seeing a lot of commentary on Twitter to the effect of: “THIS IS NOT HOW SISTERS WOULD ACT! MEN FAIL AT WRITING WOMEN!” And to be clear, I think it’s a huge problem that Game of Thrones has not employed a female writer or director since season four. In certain areas, the storytelling may have faltered because of that. (Plus, I obviously support any and all diversity initiatives regardless.) But this scene – this heartbreaking, gut-wrenching confrontation between Arya and Sansa, a focal point for discussions about gender, feminism, tragedy, and trauma –  is absolutely one of Game of Thrones’ strengths.


‘My Golden Days’ Is a Stumbling Trip Down Memory Lane

Quentin Dolmaire (left) and Lou Roy-Lecollinet shine in an otherwise dull narrative.

“My Golden Days” embraces its personal ties to director Arnaud Desplechin (who co-wrote the screenplay with Julie Peyr), but the resulting film is one that meanders, navel-gazes, and holds its viewers at arm’s length. If Desplechin hoped to imbue his film with some sort of universal truth— whether about the nature of memory and nostalgia or the vicissitudes of youth— that message is lost amid the confusing and off-putting mix of themes, styles, and cinematic techniques.

After a brief tryst in a bright, airy bedroom, “My Golden Days” picks up with a middle-aged Paul Dedalus (Mathieu Amalric, from the heartbreaking gem “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly”) getting stopped by security at the airport on his way to Paris— some kind of passport issue. What begins as a routine interrogation ends up with Paul flashing back to distinct memories, though it is unclear why he decides to indulge this unsmiling security officer with his life story. He had told the woman from the opening scene that he harbors “no nostalgia” for his time in Paris, but that statement evidently couldn’t be further from the truth: Paul simply cannot let the past go. He jogs down memory lane and makes three stops, broken down by the film’s title cards: “Childhood,” a brief sequence depicting Paul’s astonishingly vivid (and ostensibly baseless) hatred for his parents; “Russia,” in which young Paul (Quentin Dolmaire) and a friend embark on a mini spy mission to free refuseniks from Minsk; and “Esther,” the tale of Paul’s teenage relationship with a bold and brash high school student (played by the fabulously talented first-time actress Lou Roy-Lecollinet), which dominates the remainder of the film, past and present.

As a portrait of the fragmentation of memory, “My Golden Days” is accurate to a fault. The film seems to discourage interpretation by emptying characters and cinematic techniques of any larger meaning. The jumble of French music, American pop music and an original score leaves the viewer with no sense of a unified tone. Visually, the pinhole camera effect alerts us to the initiation of a memory sequence, but other artistic quirks feel oddly out of place: a split screen towards the beginning of the Esther sequence is gimmicky and never replicated, and a mugshot of Paul against a pitch-black background addressing the camera through a haze of fire is just plain baffling. The latter instance is not the only fourth-wall breakage— the film’s disconcerting final shot comes to mind— but it is implemented with little rhyme or reason. Voiceover can be a powerful and effective cinematic tool— used memorably in films as disparate as “Annie Hall,” “Shawshank Redemption” and “Mean Girls”— but the clunky shift from first to second to third person unsettles the film’s flow. Not that the film has any sense of pacing, anyway. We get it, memories are disjointed, tainted, and don’t necessarily mean more than the sum of their parts. But “My Golden Days” refuses even to try making sense of it all. “Life is strange,” Paul murmurs at multiple points in the film. Desplechin seems content to leave it at that.

“My Golden Days” calls to mind “Hiroshima Mon Amour,” with its non-linear flashbacks, agonized brooding, and philosophizing between lovers mediated by the camera (in this case communicated onscreen via dictated letters). But “My Golden Days” lacks the moral urgency and grand, historical importance of the war that foregrounds Resnais’s New Wave classic. Instead, Desplechin focuses a lens on his own personal history, setting much of the film in his own hometown of Roubaix and bestowing his protagonist with the surname of “Dedalus,” recognizable as James Joyce’s literary alter ego. “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake,” Stephen Dedalus says in “Ulysses.” In “My Golden Days”— a title that sours ironically over the course of the film— Paul Dedalus embodies a similar longing.

The film rambles aimlessly, forcing us to sit through a disproportionately long party scene, introducing us to a religious-minded brother who inexplicably buys a gun, and throwing in a whole host of other tidbits that lack any central coherence and don’t pay off later in the film. However, Lou Roy-Lecollinet, the actress who plays Esther, is a notable bright spot: her character is rude, egotistical, and shockingly unlikable, but Roy-Lecollinet infuses her with a vulnerability and unpredictability that makes her feel achingly human. Later on, the adult Paul mulls over their relationship, wondering if he was too good for her or not good enough, and if he was attracted to her because she was dangerous or because she was reassuring. The paradoxes could be illuminating, but with no discernible theme or character development, they fizzle. Paul thinks about his past while taking in an opera, and perhaps we are supposed to wonder about our own pasts while viewing Desplechin’s film. Unfortunately, it all falls flat. As young Paul was fond of saying throughout the film: “I felt nothing.”

‘Batman v. Superman’ doesn’t deserve your hatred. Here’s what the film gets right

“Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice” is a tale of two cities, a tale of two superheroes, and a tale of cinematic paradoxes. There is both clunky dialogue and profound expressions of ideology, story pacing problems and exceptional editing, flat characters and characters with dramatic arcs. And there is despair— lots of it— but also a glimmer of hope (just take a peek at the second half of the title). When the critical fire and brimstone clears, what is left very well may be a fascinating, finely-tuned film worth seeing and worth rooting for. Yes, hater in the front row: even Batfleck.

From the interminable string of trailers, Snapchat filters, posters, and interviews with actors of other superhero franchises, every promotion for “Batman v. Superman” bills it as an epic showdown between two titans of comic book lore, akin to Marvel’s own upcoming “Captain America: Civil War.” But it’s not really about that fight— and least, not the physical one, though that sequence certainly does deliver on bone-rattling spectacle. Batman (Ben Affleck) and Superman (Henry Cavill) only start raining down blows on each other in the last third of the movie, and the fight dissipates rather suddenly (many would say too suddenly, but I was both moved and satisfied. More on that later). No, Zack Snyder’s unsurprisingly bleak yet surprisingly resonant film crackles with contemporary relevance, tapping into xenophobic fear-mongering and addressing moral and spiritual disillusionment. Perhaps I’m giving Snyder a bit too much credit— here’s the guy who said it was okay that Superman inadvertently razed half a city in this film’s precursor, 2013’s “Man of Steel,” because “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” destroyed an entire planet. (Um, Zack? Those billions of people in “Star Wars” were murdered by the bad guys.) But I won’t deny what’s right there on the screen, and even if the film fumbles with answers, it deserves praise, at least, for asking the pertinent questions.

“Batman v. Superman” takes its comic book inspiration from Frank Miller’s seminal four-issue miniseries, “The Dark Knight Returns,” and the multi-arc Doomsday narrative, so fans of both can already guess at the film’s trajectory. (Given opening weekend box office grosses, though, knowing what’s going to happen isn’t exactly keeping fans away.) After an abridged but artful explanation of the Batman origin story, the film dives into the aforementioned destruction of Metropolis in “Man of Steel,” this time from the perspective of a horrified Bruce Wayne. Already we’re offered a salient (if unintended) bit of meta-commentary: for those of us who were deeply disturbed by the unchecked devastation at the end of “Man of Steel,” Batman’s got our back— and so begins his fervent mistrust of the mighty and seemingly impenetrable Superman. Though it may seem self-serving to begin a sequel with a sizzle-reel from the franchise’s previous film, it works here, framing “Batman v. Superman” as a feature-length response to its own controversy.

The plot, at times numbingly complicated and at others thinly underdeveloped, can be summed up like so: Batman and Superman disagree with the other’s dispensation of justice. Thanks to some prodding from Jesse Eisenberg’s “psychotic” Lex Luthor— and because this is a Zack Snyder superhero movie— their ideological spat naturally escalates to violence. Say what you will about Snyder’s philosophical motivations, but his lush visuals make movie-goers feel like they’re right beside the action rather than merely in front of it. The film’s score stands apart as well; collaborating with multi-instrumentalist Junkie XL, musical magician Hans Zimmer ratchets up the emotion of unfolding drama with an operatic, “Star Wars”-esque theme, while the hopeful, Smallville-evoking tune from “Man of Steel” seeps into the background of more tender moments. Wonder Woman’s electric war drum theme starts to feel a bit grating when it kicks in for the fifth time, but, hey, the first four cues were pretty epic, amiright? For Themyscira!

With the immediate introduction of so many larger-than-life figures and set pieces, the film stumbles a bit coming out of the gate. But in other ways, the editing masterfully evokes the parallel journeys of our two superheroes: a close-up of Clark’s iconic glasses transitions to a shot of Batman’s equally iconic “Batarang” gadget; Clark approaching a smoldering ruin near his Fortress of Solitude shifts to Bruce standing in the rubble of Wayne Manor; and Clark watching news footage of Batman’s crime-fighting antics is interspliced with Bruce doing his own digging on the Man of Steel. Unfortunately, other scenes are laid out like puzzle pieces that don’t quite fit together: a flashback here, a different flashback there, a convoluted dream sequence (or two…or three…), journeys from Nairobi to Metropolis and from the Indian Ocean to Gotham. Frankly, it’s exhausting. But perhaps there is a metaphor to be gleaned here, as Snyder’s scattered movie and broken superheroes reflect a contemporary society equally as shattered.

“Batman v. Superman” was penned by Chris Terrio (an Oscar winner for “Argo”) and David S. Goyer, the latter of whom received a story credit for Christopher Nolan’s groundbreaking “Dark Knight” trilogy, the first hugely successful superhero franchise in the post 9/11 age (aside from Sam Raimi’s tonally different “Spider-Man”). This film falls far from the psycho-ethical thrill of “The Dark Knight,” which is arguably the best superhero movie of all time. But 15 years after 9/11, when terrorist attacks have become the numbing norm rather than a watershed event, Snyder’s film feels adroitly reflective of the state of our fractured world. These are conflicted heroes wrestling with the relation between power and morality, while humanity— through newscast-ready soundbites— debates the same. As Lex Luthor gleefully insists: “If God is all-powerful, He cannot be good. If God is good, He cannot be all-powerful.” Perhaps referring to Superman as “God” feels extreme; perhaps I occupy the niche spot in a bizarre Venn Diagram of people who are religious and intellectual and huge comic book nerds, but I actually do agonize over such matters, and it’s apparent that Snyder does too. Even so, let’s think things through from a practical standpoint: if an alien from Krypton were to land on our humble blue planet, people would react a lot like they do in “Batman v. Superman”—with equal parts Messianic reverence and fear. Snyder unashamedly feeds into the former; every time Superman is struck down or the Dark Knight rises, another Christ figure is displayed, and smoking crucifixes adorn the blazing aftermath of the climactic final battle. The entire film is a baptism by fire and water, and it’s both aesthetically and morally affecting.

Disturbingly, however, Batman reacts to “the Superman problem” with fear. “He has the power to wipe out the entire human race,” Bruce Wayne says to his butler and confidante, Alfred (Jeremy Irons), “and if we believe there’s even a one percent chance that he is our enemy, we have to take it as an absolute certainty.” That’s the type of damning rhetoric we’ve been hearing from the Republican party. To make matters worse, Bruce consistently refers to Superman as an “alien,” which, although true in a literal sense, reveals an undercurrent of mistrust and hostility that shouldn’t exist in the souls of our supposed “heroes.” And yet, I still found the Batman arc compelling because of its resolution— Batman and Superman don’t, of course, go on brawling indefinitely, and though the reason for their sudden team-up can be viewed as contrived, it’s stirring because it promotes the commonality needed to breach the distance between two alleged “others.” Incredibly, Ben Affleck manages to sell this jaded, dangerously mistaken hero for the entire journey. Affleck’s tired eyes betray Batman’s wounded soul, and a defiled Robin suit hanging in the Batcave hints at a past tragedy that still haunts him. Chin up, Sadfleck: you done pretty good.

What’s more, these heroes are facing villains that embody opposing reactions to this chaotic world: mindlessly destructive anarchy, as exhibited by the barely sentient Doomsday, and nihilistic glee, carried out by Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor. Though the villains represent intriguing prototypes of morality, the way each plays out in the film is, admittedly, pretty disastrous. The entire Doomsday plot brings nothing but befuddlement and a draining final act, and should have been cut outright. As for Luthor: Jesse Eisenberg seems to be making a career out of playing painfully awkward geniuses, and to his credit, many of his roles optimize that trait, from Mark Zuckerberg in “The Social Network” to David Lipsky in “The End of the Tour.” Here, Eisenberg embodies Superman’s archenemy like a Zuckerbergian Moriarty of the Andrew Scott variety infused (somewhat desperately) with a dash of Heath Ledger’s Joker. Naturally, it’s a total mess. Though he has a few good lines that resonate, most of his pontificating on the problem of evil lands with a resolute thump, and his invocations of— by my count— Lucifer, Jesus, Icarus and Prometheus serve more to confuse the audience than to illuminate age-old mythological truths.  (Perhaps Luthor’s Prometheus shout-out—cheekily uttered while Clark, Bruce and Wonder Woman’s alter-ego, Diana Prince, are all sneaking around under his nose, not paying attention in the slightest to the madman with the mic— reflects a twisted motivation to “save mankind,” but the message is too far buried to count for much.)

And then there’s Superman himself. Snyder backed himself into a corner with an uncharacteristically gritty portrayal of America’s ur-superhero in “Man of Steel,” forgoing truth, justice, and the American way for anguish and uncertainty. Like his Gotham-based counterpart, Superman does go through a drastic transformation over the course of “Batman v. Superman,” but Snyder’s iteration of the character is still the weak point of the budding DC cinematic universe. Superman should be the focal point, the beacon of light and hope and all that is good and true. But after “Batman v. Superman,” I have hope that Snyder is building towards a grand rebirth that will showcase a lighter hero. We just have to have a little faith.

“Superman v. Batman” is undoubtedly a ponderous film. Tapping into culturally relevant paranoia as well as the nature of heroism, the film aims for the brilliance of Nolan’s “The Dark Knight” but falls towards the heavy-handedness of “The Dark Knight Rises”– which is, of course, impressive in its own right. “Batman v. Superman” is overstuffed on plot and rushed when it comes to introducing major game-changers, and the female characters don’t fare too well in terms of overturning decades of damsel in distress tropes. But there’s a lot to appreciate here, too. Snyder takes all of these characters so seriously that he entrusts them with the fundamental questions that plague the human race, and perhaps it’s too much, too soon. As Luthor would say, Snyder, like Icarus, flew too close to the sun. Luckily, he’s dealing with a mythic being who doesn’t need wax wings to fly. Godspeed, Mr. Snyder: The Justice League awaits.

‘Midnight Special’: The Indie Sci-Fi Gem That Outshines Them All

It’s special, alright.

In a 2007 TED Talk, director J. J. Abrams revealed the inspiration for his creative vision: a “mystery box” from a midtown Manhattan magic store that has remained unopened since he purchased it as a child. “What are stories, but mystery boxes?” Abrams explained. “What’s a bigger mystery box than a movie theater? You go to the theater, you’re just so excited to see anything— the moment the lights go down is often the best part.”

So it is with “Midnight Special,” a small-time, supernatural drama from writer-director Jeff Nichols that blends the Abrams approach to storytelling with the intimacy of a Spielberg classic. In the current Hollywood climate, storms of viral marketing and near-pathological media attention ensure that moviegoers are so well informed on upcoming epics (think: “Batman v. Superman” and “Captain America: Civil War”) that actually going to see the movies feels like a rote formality. By contrast, “Midnight Special” opened in limited release with relatively little preceding fanfair, making that tantalizing moment when the lights go down feel all the more exhilarating. “Midnight Special” thrives on the mystery box formula (much like Abrams’s recently released, hush-hush production, “10 Cloverfield Lane”) by holding its secrets close to its chest. But it also flourishes as a profound exploration of familial love and personal values, grounding the extraordinary in the ordinary.

“Midnight Special” marks Nichols’s first foray into the science fiction genre, after 2011 film festival darling “Take Shelter” and the McConaissance-initiating “Mud” in 2012, but it is his fifth collaboration with actor Michael Shannon. Shannon shines as Roy, father to Alton (Jaeden Lieberher), a child born with supernatural powers who is worshipped by a religious sect with morally dubious leadership. A small group of superb supporting characters lends the film additional gravitas: Joel Edgerton (“Black Mass”) as Roy’s buddy Lucas, a former cop; Kirsten Dunst as Alton’s mother, Sarah, in a one-note but still effective performance; and Adam Driver, coming off of a very different role in a rather huger sci-fi epic, “Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens,” as NSA codebreaker and “Alton Meyer expert” Paul Sevier.

“Midnight Special” picks up in medias res, chugging forward while delivering backstory in tiny, cinematic morsels: news bulletins, brief lines of dialogue, and significant glances serve to lay the scene and clarify the stakes. David Wingo’s captivating score shifts between a melodious piano theme and a pulse-pounding bass, setting the tone for the film’s interplay between the wonder of the supernatural and the suspense of an “on the run” thriller. Early on, as the whirlwind of mystery picks up, religious leader Calvin Meyer (Sam Shepard) turns to the FBI officers investigating Alton Meyer and muses, “You have no clue what you’re dealing with, do you?” At this point, neither do we— and it’s a scintillating feeling.

“Midnight Special” takes its time answering the little questions (Who is this kid? What can he do? What’s going on?) while steadily building up the insurmountable questions of “how” and “why.” Many elements of the story remain unanswered, and it is in this regard that “Midnight Special” truly sets itself apart. Due to a side-effect of Alton’s powers, much of the film takes place at night, with breathtaking sunrises and sunsets marking the rotation of night and day, and there’s a storytelling benefit in (literally and metaphorically) leaving the audience in the dark: it precludes narrative spoon-feeding while allowing for a more active partnership between the filmmaker and the viewer. This richly drawn film needs you, the moviegoer, to use both your brain and your heart.

“Midnight Special” is the rare film that infuses its characters with as much complexity as it does its mystery, ensuring that the humanity at its core does not get lost in supernatural splendor. Roy burns with a quiet but fierce love for his child; he is gentle and caring from the outset, and his steadfast belief in the boy is never questioned as he spirits Alton away from institutions that aim to use him for their own gain. When Roy tucks his son into bed, adorning his youthful face with aqua-colored goggles and bright orange headphones, his tenderness is palpable, as though Alton were just another kid with a strange malady. Roy and Alton’s relationship is the beating heart of this story, and it is to the credit of both the actors and Nichols himself that father and son exhibit such magnetizing emotion. Through little dialogue, Lieberher, resplendent and mature beyond his years, indicates that there is luminous depth to Alton, while every crinkle of Shannon’s eyes demonstrates the aching burdens of parenthood. “You don’t have to worry about me,” Alton assures him. “I’ll always worry about you, Alton,” Roy responds. “That’s the deal.” You’d smile if you weren’t too busy trying to hide your sniffling.

“Midnight Special” also touches on weightier themes without forcing them to sweat it out under the spotlight. How would people react to the appearance of the supernatural? Calvin Meyer’s reverent cult is already established before the opening credits, and the FBI’s briskly bureaucratic manhunt is well underway as the story begins. Rather, by delving into the psyches of the characters, the film is more subtly able to explore the limits and excesses of knowledge and power. In one ironic scene, Alton, reading a Superman comic by flashlight in the back of a darkened car, asks Roy about kryptonite, and Roy berates Lucas for giving Alton the comic book in the first place, insisting that Alton “needs to know what’s real.” But knowledge proves to be an elusive concept; instead, faith and belief take center stage. As Meyer puts it at the conclusion of a sermon: “To know the source of such things is to know our place in the world.” “Midnight Special” revels in this search for purpose, embracing an all-too-rare sense of awe and wonder.

You Will Rue the Day You Saw ‘Knight of Cups’

"Knight of Cups"
Just walk away, Padme.

You’ve heard a lot about experimental filmmaker Terrence Malick, so you decide to give his latest release, the Christian Bale headlined “Knight of Cups,” a shot. You never expected to emerge from the theater blinking uncomfortably in the sunlight as though recently released from solitary confinement, feeling ostracized (if you identify as anything other than a white male) and confused and hopelessly downtrodden.

When cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki’s signature landscape shot fills the opening screen, you’re already thinking ahead to the 2017 Academy Awards. Will Lubezki make history yet again by winning four Oscars in a row? At the very least, this film will be pretty, you think.

But, wait, the movie is running merrily along, leaving you in the (artsy) dust. You shift your attention back to the screen, where models slathered in black slime and painted eyeball masks undulate suggestively. You ponder the implications of Dadaism.

There is an earthquake in Christian Bale’s apartment. His living quarters are sparse, but in a classy way, like he has money to burn but can’t be bothered to spend it because of his crushing ennui. He rushes outside, barefoot, as though late for a beachfront photoshoot. Others are cowering with him on the clean-swept pavement. Potted plants lay smashed on the ground, like his dreams. It’s a metaphor. Probably.

There is an argument in a conference room with bright windows. You catch snatches of the conversation and gauge that Christian Bale’s character is a screenwriter named Rick. You’re already lost and confused but you’re an attentive, intelligent moviegoer, so you at least pick up on basic plotlines. But it turns out that the film doesn’t have much of a plot, so your meager knowledge is useless.

“Where did I go wrong?” Christian Bale’s character muses dolorously at the camera. “Knight of Cups” has only just begun, and yet you check your watch, wondering the same thing.

Your exasperation increases as the film goes on and Christian Bale attends more and more glamorous parties at mansions glittering with treasures worth the equivalent of a small nation’s GDP. Poor guy, tortured by his opulent lifestyle and white male privilege! you think. He must be suffering from affluenza. You send thoughts and prayers.

Soon, however, your feeling of generic queasiness is replaced by a blinding rage, helpfully sounded out onscreen by the oceanic roar that permeates the film alongside Hanan Townshend’s paradoxically pleasant score. As Christian Bale’s character drifts through a lineup of interchangeable women— each one tall, thin, big-eyed and coy— he becomes the literal embodiment of the male gaze, as the women amount to nothing more than different shades of wallpaper. What’s worse, the one woman of color, an Indian model (et tu, Freida Pinto?!), is depicted as an exotic yogi who slurs something about “casting a spell” on Christian Bale’s character. You furiously scribble “orientalism” in your notebook, which is now drawing ink from your own blood.

You live in LA, or perhaps you just wish you did. Either way, as the camera— constantly in motion— passes dispassionately over the greatest hits parade of Los Angeles locales, you feel sparks of recognition: here is the Santa Monica pier, there is the sadly barren LA River, here is Venice Beach, there is an ad-infested Sunset Boulevard, building-sized posters staring out as blankly as the characters in this film. When you lose interest in the film completely, you start to connect these locations to scenes from other movies: there’s a “Hail, Caesar!” scene, there’s an “Inception” scene, there’s a much happier scene from “Grease.” You briefly remember when seeing a movie was actually moving.

To distract from the tedium, you design a “Knight of Cups” Bingo card consisting of the following squares:

  • Christian Bale + [interchangeable character] frolicking on the beach
  • Highway montage
  • Underwater camerawork
  • Christian Bale sleeping
  • Woo! girls
  • Voiceovers in dramatic whispers

When you realize the characters are never going to actually converse with one another, you start trying to parse the impossibly obtuse voiceovers. Your mind jolts back to the beginning of the film, with John Gielgud intoning a passage from John Bunyan’s seminal Christian allegory, “The Pilgrim’s Progress.” But before you can recall a hazy lesson from your twelfth grade European History class, the fable shifts. Over a montage of Christian Bale’s character livin’ it up in Tinseltown, the voice of Brian Dennehy (who plays his father) laments the loss of the prodigal son, a prince in search of a pearl who diverted from his path and fell into a deep sleep.

At that point, you should have left. Or fallen into a deep sleep yourself.

The entire film is a nihilistic non sequitur: images out of context and muddled voiceovers (sample: “Don’t go back to being dead” and “You have love in you, I know it”— the latter from Natalie Portman, dredging up memories of her cringe-worthy turn as Padmé Amidala in Star Wars) as well as characters so thinly realized it makes you want to weep for the fate of humanity— and not in a cathartic way. Christian Bale’s character, the supposed “everyman,” wanders around in a daze, goo-like and catatonic, an empty shell of a person, and you realize you’ve been calling him “Christian Bale” because his character— Rick, was it?— feels like a papery husk, floating away at the merest mention. The irony of “Knight of Cups” is that it is a film about a screenwriter that was ostensibly put forth  by Malick without a screenplay of its own; actors on camera were encouraged to extemporize as the spirit moved them. The result is painfully awkward, demonstrating a film deeply at odds with itself; it is supposed to be freeing, but instead feels suffocating.

At some point, Christian Bale ends up at a strip club, ogling Teresa Palmer, who is described in the official plot synopsis as “a spirited, playful stripper.” Look how spirited and playful she is! See Teresa. Strip, Teresa, strip. When he asks her name (do men really do that? you wonder), she grins flirtatiously and tells him she can be whomever he wants her to be. “You can be whoever you want to be,” she burbles. Which is the much more heartfelt, hopeful and complex message of “Zootopia,” you realize.

Wes Bentley is Christian Bale’s brother and is overly cheerful and therefore inwardly sad and tragic and has a loft with a cracked mirror and a skateboard.

In the theater, someone’s cell phone rings, and you’re shockingly, sickeningly grateful for the distraction, for the reminder that a world exists outside this Malick monstrosity, a Los Angeles that is not all billboards and bimbos, where the sun shines unmockingly and people smile sincerely.

“Knight of Cups” leaves you feeling unbearably bleak and existentially depressed. You wonder if masochists would gain something from this movie, but you are still so enraged over the insipid thoughtlessness of the film and its specific treatment of women to care.

You really should have seen “Zootopia.”

Studio Ghibli’s ‘Only Yesterday’ is a Gorgeously Rendered Meditation on Life and Memory

only yesterday.jpg
Takahata’s 1991 film charts the emotional growth of a young woman pursuing her dreams.

Though it was originally released 25 years ago, Isao Takahata’s “Only Yesterday” could have been made, well, only yesterday. Based on the manga by Hotaru Okamoto and Yuko Tone, “Only Yesterday” became a surprise Japanese box office hit, but has only recently made its way to North American screens. Fortunately, the film’s bittersweet exploration of one woman finding her place in the world— a universally appealing story aided by the lush animation of the famed Studio Ghibli— has gracefully withstood the test of time.

Taeko (voiced by “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” actress Daisy Ridley in the English-language version) is 27, unmarried, and living in Tokyo. From a phone conversation with her sister early on in the film, we learn that Taeko is free-spirited and independent. Her character immediately shines, shying away from the hackneyed “bitter office drone” prototype and instead embracing refreshing self-awareness as a young woman who simply yearns for something more. Taeko exudes excitement when discussing her unorthodox idea of a vacation: harvesting in the countryside. Her sister is baffled, but Taeko is immediately understood by Toshio (“Slumdog Millionaire”’s Dev Patel), who collects her from the train station and enthuses right along with her.

This opening is interspersed with the film’s first flashback to fifth-grade Taeko (voiced by Alison Hernandez), as her school friends boast of their upcoming summer vacations to the countryside. Taeko’s family’s trip is less glamorous to her fifth grade mind, but she makes the most of the alternate plans and demonstrates a delighted enthusiasm that immediately endears her to the audience. Yet despite her bohemian temperament, it becomes clear that Taeko is still, in many ways, beholden to her past. “I didn’t intend to bring my fifth grade self on this trip,” 27-year-old Taeko muses on the train from Tokyo. “But she was always around.”

Taeko’s fifth-grade life is more engaging and vibrant than her present-day story, and the film lags a bit during her languid, repetitive days in the safflower fields. But perhaps that’s part of the point. Fifth-grade Taeko is an underdog, the misfit of her family and the “goody two-shoes” of her class. The youngest of three daughters, she struggles to relate to her older sisters, who were, like normal teen girls in the ‘60s, fully consumed with notions fashion and a global Beatles obsession.  Taeko navigates the wonders and pitfalls of adolescence, from her first crush, to sex ed, to hall monitor politics. Older Taeko, all bubbly optimism, seems to have her life all figured out.

But “Only Yesterday” is a more delicate film than that. Taeko’s reminiscences are no mere nostalgia trip; her past informs and shapes her present— indeed, her entire worldview— in more subtle ways. She recalls failing a math test and trying to learn from her mistakes with her impatient sister, Yaeko (Ashley Eckstein): Taeko draws a picture to explain her sophisticated thought process, but a bemused Yaeko waves her away and instead simply rattles off the mathematical laws. Soon after, the girls’ stern mother expresses the underlying sentiment felt throughout the film: Taeko is not a normal kid.

It is worth noting— and praising— Takahata’s pitch-perfect portrayal of little girls and young women across all cultures. From fifth-grade Taeko’s embarrassment about periods to her older self’s ambivalence towards marriage, the overall character feels startlingly real. Studio Ghibli is known for producing well-crafted female protagonists, and Takahata’s fellow Ghibli director, Hayao Miyazaki, has been particularly outspoken about this initative, calling his leads “brave, self-sufficient girls that don’t think twice about fighting for what they believe in with all their heart.” Taeko is a worthy addition to these ranks.

But “Only Yesterday” is also very different from other Ghibli films, foregoing the fantastical for a more understated tale reflected in its pastel-colored minimalism. Animation is an industry growing at an exponential rate, but at nearly three decades old, the film’s luscious, watercolor landscapes feed into the romantic, nostalgic tone perfectly. Even the drawn-out slicing of a pineapple is effective— I could actually feel my stomach rumbling.

“Only Yesterday” traces an unusual young woman’s identity over time, and true to the complexity of this journey, it’s difficult to judge whether the ending is a victory for Taeko or a defeat. (Speaking of the ending, make sure you stay through the credits, or you’ll miss it.) It’s a slow process at times, but the soft beauty of the animation more than makes up for the plot’s meandering, and the nostalgia of childhood coats the film like the rosy rouge of the safflower. In a voiceover, Taeko wonders at the vividness of her fifth-grade memories, noting that the remembrances played “like a movie in my head.” Audiences will walk out of “Only Yesterday” feeling the exact same way.

Foreign Language Film Nominee ‘A War’ is Delicate and Wrenching

A war is fought on all fronts in Tobias Lindholm’s latest moral drama. (Nordisk Film)

Tobias Lindholm’s “A War,” a 2016 Academy Award nominee for best foreign language film, covers well-trodden ground with its depiction of the fight against the Taliban in Afghanistan. But like his 2012 film “A Hijacking,” in which the Danish writer-director tackled the subject of Somali pirate hijackings months before the widely acclaimed “Captain Phillips” took the stage, “A War” is far from trite, demonstrating Lindholm’s knack for delivering a finespun, gritty drama with a quiet but effective moral center.

Unlike “13 Hours,” Michael Bay’s bombastic addition to the movie world’s war genre, “A War” holds our attention by way of internal struggles rather than aggressive machismo. And in contrast to fellow Oscar nominee (and foreign film frontrunner) “Son of Saul” (Hungary), Lindholm’s film forgoes artistic boldness for a more subtle, understated aesthetic.

Pilou Asbæk, who starred in Lindholm’s two other feature films (“A Hijacking” and 2010’s “R”), plays Danish military commander Claus Michael Pederson. (The remaining soldiers, according to the Danish Film Institute, are portrayed by real-life Afghanistan veterans.) Claus and his men are stationed in the Helmand province and tasked with patrolling the area to protect local civilians. They are grim in a distinctly military fashion, but they are no robots— fear, uncertainty and guilt are simmering beneath the surface like the very minefields they patrol.

The opening of the film is silent— almost serene— as the camera lens provides a static sweep of the Afghan landscape before closing in on Claus’s group of patrolmen. The airwaves are punctuated only by the clipped military speak crackling over the soldiers’ radios, but tensions are running high; in the silence lurks one of many IED devices. When it explodes, a 21-year-old soldier becomes the latest in an ever escalating line of casualties. We are not spared the grisly visual details of the aftermath of such an explosion, but Lindholm is a more delicate filmmaker than those who use only guts and gore for the shock factor. Instead, he swiftly shifts to the psyches of the soldiers witnessing a horror they can never unsee while fighting a war they don’t quite understand.

After the IED incident, one soldier tells Claus that the young patrolman’s death “doesn’t make any sense.” Indeed, to Lindholm’s credit, he doesn’t try to make sense of war, brutality, severed limbs or pervasive terror. “A War” finds meaning in the smaller moments of kinship and compassion: when Claus shares a cigarette with a frantic Afghani father of two, and when an injured soldier video calls the unit from his hospital bed in the UK (communicating via notebook paper due a throat wound), thanking Claus for saving his life and telling his brethren to look out for one another. We see it when the soldiers cheerfully greet local children. And we see it when tragedy strikes, when military order is blown to hell and the soldiers ask each other (rhetorically) if they’re okay, as one gently tells his traumatized companion, “It’s okay to be upset.” No one’s kidding themselves with testosterone-fueled, gun-blazing epics— as a medevac helicopter transports the injured soldier out of the region, the camera lingers on the retreating copter, as though everyone below desires nothing more than a similarly miraculous way out of the cycle of violence.

As Claus and his men strive to keep the peace abroad, Claus’s wife Maria (Swedish actress Tuvo Novotny) struggles nobly to hold down the fort back home. Novotny conveys a stunning mixture of somber strength and vulnerable sadness without even saying a word, caring for three young children while stoically awaiting her husband’s safe and speedy return.

But after an ill-fated command by Claus leaves him under suspicion of war crimes, his homecoming occurs sooner than expected. The scene of the war morphs from the sandy desert of the Helmand province to the sterilized whiteness of the military tribunal, where Claus is being tried for unintentionally causing civilian deaths. Even within the setting of the bland bureaucracy, we’re riveted to the screen because we care about Claus— we’ve seen all the good he has done and all the men he has saved, and we’ve experienced the chaotic senselessness of war along with him.

“A War” is not so much about right and wrong as it is about a man trying to do what’s right when everything is already so wrong. At the beginning of the film, Claus comforts a soldier who feels responsible for the 21-year-old patrolman’s death, and later on, he is the one who is burdened with incalculable guilt and the burden of culpability.

All this is deftly revealed through furrowed brows and prematurely lined mouths, through haunted eyes and brooding cigarette breaks, and with a repeated image that packs the emotional punch of the girl in the red coat in “Schindler’s List.” Lindholm follows around his characters from the back (an interesting contrast to “Son of Saul”), wanting to pry into their thoughts but respectfully keeping his distance. When Maria and Claus have an intimate conversation about a particular experience in Afghanistan, the camera again waits outside. In “A War,” silence speaks volumes.

‘Hail, Caesar!’, Humor, and the Meaning of Movies

George Clooney as buffoonish actor Baird Whitlock in the Coen brothers’ hilarious ‘Hail, Caesar!’ (Universal Studios)

There is a special brand of humor associated with Joel and Ethan Coen— it’s irreverence without the scorn, satire without the snottiness, lines of dialogue that inspire chuckles rather than roars of mirth. “Hail, Caesar!”, the Coen brothers’ latest writing/directing production, expertly toes this comedic line. And though the different threads of plot feel, at times, overextended, the spiritual quest at the heart of the film ultimately shines through.

Like many Hollywood auteurs, the Coens attract a rotating cast of regulars to their films, and it is on these actors’ shoulders that the film rises and falls. Coen vets George Clooney, Josh Brolin and Tilda Swinton don’t so much slip into their roles as melt into them, lending their characters a realness without ragged edges. The actors carry along their past filmography in a way that elevates their performances further: As Eddie Mannix, an overworked Capitol Films executive trying to juggle daily duties with retrieving his kidnapped movie star (George Clooney’s Baird Whitlock), Josh Brolin channels a profound world-weariness. Clooney, in turn, dons his goofball hat in the role of the affably obtuse Whitlock. Tilda Swinton does double duty as twin reporters (Thora and Thessaly Thacker) who espouse journalistic values that aren’t quite as divergent as they repeatedly insist.

Past this trio, the remainder of the ensemble primarily services the film’s humor wheel. Jonah Hill, oddly, gets top billing for a single scene as a stoic lawyer-type. Scarlett Johansson is charming as ever as a Brooklyn-accented, foul-mouthed starlet, but Mannix’s plot to marry her off in order to polish her image feels tacked on. (As usual, Johansson is too talented to realistically inhabit a supporting role; her character would be much better served in a spin-off of her own.) Ralph Fiennes is delightfully funny as prestige period piece director Laurence Laurentz, appearing for all the world like he just wandered off a Wes Anderson set— his fruitless attempt to teach cowboy western star Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) to deliver a line with any degree of emotional nuance and accurate pronunciation is one of the film’s most amusing gags, complete with a perfect payoff in the editing room of C. C. Calhoun (Frances McDormand).

If that seems like a lot to keep track of, it is. Though the full realization of distinct personalities is usually indicative of strong storytelling, the sheer abundance of characters in “Hail, Caesar!” often distracts from rather than supplements the overall narrative. Mannix is the connective tissue that ties together these disparate plots, but the film barely allows us the space to truly empathize with him. Which is a shame, because Mannix’s contemplative search for the meaning of movies at the dusk of Hollywood’s Golden Age is by far the film’s most compelling story.

“Hail, Caesar!” frames Mannix’s quest in overtly religious tones. The film opens with a swell of somber chamber music and a close-up of Jesus on the cross, an image neatly paralleled towards the end of the film when Mannix approaches three backlit crucifixes on a studio soundstage. Mannix begins and ends his long day in confession— at first, admitting to a petty lie; at last, asking probing questions about what really matters.

“Hail, Caesar!” is an ode to filmmaking, but it does not thoughtlessly idolize the motion picture industry. Anyone involved with or simply in love with movies must ask the same questions Mannix does: Is any of this important, or is the art of Hollywood merely artifice? Do motion pictures mean something, or— as a business executive trying to snatch Mannix away from the industry insists— are they simply “frivolous” distractions from the hydrogen bombs of the real world? Mannix, for one, is dedicated to ensuring the film industry’s worth. In classic Coen brothers fashion, a meeting with four religious leaders plays out like a sketch comedy while also revealing Mannix’s desire to do right by people of faith, as he strives to bestow his own temple— the movie set— with inherent (and, in this case, religious) value. Boldly subtitled “A Tale of Christ,” the film starring Clooney’s Baird Whitlock as a Roman who discovers the humble glory of Christ is woven throughout the overarching narrative of Eddie Mannix— a clever meta-commentary on the movie we’re watching, in which Eddie himself strives for a similar earthly enlightenment.

Mannix’s yearning is inversely paralleled by that of the communist “study group” responsible for Whitlock’s abduction. Nibbling on finger sandwiches in a seaside Malibu villa, a gaggle of blacklisted writers and intellectuals laments their lot in life, using Whitlock as a sympathetic sounding board. But the joke’s on them. They wax poetic on the dialectics of history, science and economics, purporting to champion “the little guy” while a disgruntled maid vacuums the impeccable carpeting and a glowering photographer shoots photos and dirty looks. In their high-minded denunciation of capitalism, the communists miss the point entirely, and underneath the comical dialogue (“You can’t share your own ransom, that would be unethical!”) lies the satire that highlights the contrasting, quietly heroic journey of Eddie Mannix.

By laughing at the communist crew, we implicitly root forMannix, and it’s a mark of the Coen brother’s genius that the high-powered Hollywood pusher— Mannix— becomes the prototypical “little guy” in terms of audience sympathies. When Whitlock parrots the commies’ anti-Capitol(ist) jargon back at him, Mannix responds with an impassioned rant about his movie’s worth. Mannix believes in the profound value of his films, and by the end of “Hail, Caesar!”, so do we.

‘The Finest Hours’ Showcases Spectacle Over Character

Casey Affleck as engineer Ray Sybert in ‘The Finest Hours’ (Disney)

What “The Finest Hours” lacks in character development, it makes up for in spectacle. Craig Gillespie’s roaring, relentless Atlantic Ocean may as well have been directed by Poseidon himself. If only Gillespie’s decorated cast had mustered up half as much intensity as their inanimate counterpart.

“The Finest Hours” tells the tale of the incredible true story (stop me if you’re heard this one before) of a daring rescue attempt pulled off by a bunch of brave men against all odds. The would-be tragedy in question is the sinking of the Pendleton oil tanker during a 1952 blizzard off the coast of Cape Cod. On the tanker, Casey Affleck’s Engineer Ray Sybert takes charge after the ship’s captain is lost at sea. Coast guard officer Bernie Webber (Chris Pine) is chosen to lead the rescue, armed with only three additional crewmates and a 36-foot motorized lifeboat.

Bernie is an odd hero, as far as these stories usually go. Chris Pine plays up the aww-shucks shyness, but his performance is a bit too understated; I found myself wishing instead for Tom Hanks, that paragon of the heroic everyman, and probably the only actor who could infuse life into this one-dimensional character. Pine slides into the skin of a much brasher, much more arrogant captain— one James Tiberius Kirk— more smoothly than that of the passive, rather nebbish Bernie Webber.

When sent out on this suicidal rescue mission by station commander Daniel Cluff (Eric Bana), Bernie’s fellow officers urge him not to go, but he gives a doe-eyed shrug and apologetically follows orders; submitting to authority is just the way Bernie does things. He is also ribbed by his colleagues for requesting the commander’s permission to marry his lady love, Holliday Grainger’s Miriam (how quaint!), after she was the one who proposed marriage in the first place (the horror!). Still, everyone in the film insists on reminding us that Bernie is “a good man.” It’s a tiresome refrain, but it does stick— and by the end, I felt a twinge of affection for the man’s sheer perseverance.

While Bernie navigates the unfamiliar waters of his relationship with Miriam, Ray Sybert (Affleck) is tasked with coming up with a plan to save the remaining crewmembers of the sinking Pendleton until help arrives. This proves to be difficult, since no one seems to like him very much. This backstory is teased but never fully fleshed out, leaving Affleck and his supporting crewmates with a confusing amount of animosity. To be sure, Sybert’s grim persona does not exactly inspire confidence, either on the part of his crewmates or moviegoers. Still, Sybert knows the ship better than anyone, so the men choose to throw in their lot with their best chance of survival. Other supporting characters don’t fare as well either: Eric Bana’s commander is depicted as and verbally denounced as incompetent, but he’s not a typical blowhard, and it’s unclear how he ended up in his position at all. (Perhaps greatness was thrust upon him, as with Bernie?) Meanwhile, Ben Foster’s turn as one of Bernie’s rescue mission volunteers is essentially a still-life rendition of his IMDB profile page picture. I know you have other facial expressions, Ben!

Fortunately, the film’s special effects blow all thoughts of half-baked character development out of the water. The film was promoted in IMAX 3D, and for good reason: every mammoth wave that threatens to capsize Bernie Webber’s ant-like rescue boat looms like a merciless wall of sheer force, and the terrifying screech of dying machinery reverberates with each pounding of the Pendleton’s formidable hull. A booming score from the illustrious Carter Burwell (a 2016 Oscar nominee for “Carol”) heightens the drama even more.

“The Finest Hours” tries too hard (or not hard enough) to set up emotional arcs that don’t quite set sail. There’s a nice bit of parallelism with Bernie’s coast guard buddies and the tanker crew: both groups start out standoffish and vaguely resentful, only to come together in times of peril and dredge up much-needed camaraderie. But because of the lack of character insight, it doesn’t quite feel earned. What does feel earned is the rush of relief when the survivors step onto the dock after their rescue. It’s just a shame that the stellar cast couldn’t match the performance of the perfect storm.

’13 Hours’ is Murky to its Core

John Krasinski stars in ’13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi,’ Michael Bay’s latest addition to the war film genre.

“13 Hours” has a two-and-a-half hour runtime but feels like a 24 hour ordeal. It’s a harrowing and deliberate film from a director better known for constructing (and destroying) robots than for fleshing out blue-blooded humans. But Michael Bay’s latest film, about the 2012 attack on the American diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, is surprisingly thrilling and thoughtful.

An aura of uneasy suspense is established at the outset of the film, from the moment ex-Navy SEALs Jack Silva (John Krasinski) and Tyrone “Rone” Woods (James Badge Dale) meet up at the Benghazi airport. The streets are bustling with everyday activity, until the weapons emerge; within minutes, Jack and Rone get caught in a hold-up with a local militia. Guns are drawn, threats are exchanged, and Rone convinces the scowling leader that Uncle Sam has a couple of drones flying overhead, ready to strike at a moment’s notice. Guns are lowered. Rone backs the jeep out and returns to the main road.

“Welcome to Benghazi,” Rone says wryly.

Jack has been summoned to Benghazi to join a security team of U.S. military vets, hired by the CIA to protect the American diplomats operating out of the region. The tension between the diplomats and the security team is established early on: Sona Jillani (Alexia Barlier) bristles when the presence of her “babysitters” interferes with diplomatic talks, and the on-site CIA chief known only as Bob (David Costabile) is a constant thorn in their side, and can almost be viewed as one of the film’s antagonist, insofar as the others are nameless, faceless terrorists. “You’re not CIA,” he snaps at Rone. “You’re hired help. Act the part.”

The animosity among the Americans situated in Benghazi is one part of the film that feels a bit orchestrated, and the veracity of Bob’s stony refusal to give the security team free reign has been called into question. But to its credit, aside from the obligatory “This is a true story” epigraph splashed on the opening of the film, “13 Hours” treats the truth as a murky matter, save for one character’s uncontestable, mid-film summation: “What a shitshow.”

Unfortunately, the dialogue is nowhere near as nuanced as the overall message, with clunky references to “the bad guys” and “the good guys” bogging down otherwise visceral moments of horror. But when the shooting starts, we’re drawn right into the action, as the jittery camerawork, the hazy night-vision lighting and the Hans Zimmer-inspired score ratchets up stress levels and heart rates.

“13 Hours” focuses on heroics rather than politics. Save for a couple lines of meaningless prattle from a boardroom full of suits, the scenes from “back home” are few and far between. Instead, the film wisely fixates on the bravery of a group of men in a no-win situation, fighting to defend American lives in the face of certain death. As the assault on the diplomatic compound begins, Jack, Rone and their impeccably trained compatriots hide their shellshock well, and their steely-eyed exteriors prove that they’ve been involved in similar circumstances too many times to count. But their haunted expressions betray their all-too-human core.

The camaraderie between the CIA contractors, many of whom served together, all of whom speak the common language of brothers at war, is effortless. At times their rapport feels too effortless, their personalities too similar, to the extent that we can barely differentiate between each of the buff, tanned, rugged ex-soldiers. (So, that one is an ex-SEAL and that one is just an ex-Marine? That one has slightly darker facial hair? That’s the guy from “The Office”?) And, sure, Michael Bay gives audiences a couple glimpses of family photos to tug at the heartstrings. But the film’s most quietly impactful scene comes before the explosive action, before the bursts of heroism. As the camera pans through a montage of each member of the security team Skyping home with family and loved ones, the scene feels peaceful, ordinary, and all the more touching because of its simple universality.

Even the politically-slanted scenes serve to humanize our heroes rather than cast the lens of blame on any one person or administration. In between waves of attack, Rone and Jack share a moment of vulnerability on the roof of the compound, as Jack tearfully wonders about his daughter telling her friends of her father who died in a country far from home, fighting in a war he didn’t believe in.

In one of the film’s final scenes, the camera wordlessly hones in on images of wailing women throwing themselves at the ground by the fallen bodies of the men who had led the brutal attack on the American compound and CIA base. Nearby, a tattered and bullet-ridden American flag floats listlessly in the dirty water of the slain U.S. ambassador’s once sparkling pool. Are we meant to pity these women while apotheosizing the men who killed them? It’s not entirely clear. And perhaps it never will be.