MOVIE BUFF-ET: Art imitates life with Spotlight, The Big Short, 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi

Hollywood may be a fantasy land, but films based on true stories often garner the awards and bring the most prestige to studios, directors and actors that summertime cash cows just don’t deliver.

Three recent films based on true events stand out at theaters for breaking down complex stories in compelling if not entertaining fashion. The films do take some liberties with the facts to make for an easier-to-digest narrative. No book reports based on any of the trio, please. However, each of the films sheds a basic light on the true events, offering an emotional context that is often not in the purview of hard news reporting.

13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi

(R) 2 hrs. 24 min.

Paramount Pictures

The Michael Bay- (Armageddon, Pearl Harbor and Transformers franchise) directed and co-produced film is based on Mitchell Zuckoff’s 2014 book “13”, which details the inside story of the Sept. 11, 2012, attacks by Islamic militants on a U.S. diplomatic compound and a nearby CIA covert base in Benghazi, Libya.

The attacks killed U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, U.S. Foreign Service information officer Sean Smith, and CIA security contractors Tyrone S. Woods and Glen Doherty. Ten others were injured in the attacks.

The film steers clear of most of the politics surrounding the attacks, but it supplies plenty of raw emotion and heart, something most of Bay’s films lack. To my estimation, the film is Bay’s best work to date.

The movie deftly details the obstacles a unit of six ex-soldiers from various military backgrounds face as contractors, hired to protect U.S. CIA operatives in the Middle Eastern tinderbox.

By the time the situation actually blows up in their faces, the audience knows and respects each member of the team. That makes it all the more difficult to watch as capable men fail from being hamstrung by the system. Likening the attack to a latter-day Alamo isn’t off the mark, but unlike those who fought for Texas’ independence, help finally did arrive for those trapped in the Benghazi CIA annex.

John Krasinski (The Office) as Jack Da Silva leads the ensemble cast, but is barely recognizable behind a burly beard. The actors melt unrecognizably into their roles as former servicemen who had rather be with their loved ones but whose bankable skills continue place them back in harm’s way.

The film will likely inspire righteous anger to viewers for the various questions it poses. The questions that anger each individual will likely depend on which side of the political aisle the viewer sits.

The Big Short

(R) 2 hrs. 10 min.

Paramount Pictures

How do you make the subject of shorting sub-prime mortgages not only understandable but also entertaining?

Just ask writer-director Adam McKay and his screen-writing partner Charles Randolph. They did it in spades with their creative and fourth-wall breaking adaption of Michael Lewis’ 2010 book The Big Short.

While the housing market and credit-bubble burst of 2007 and 2008 was not a joke. It literally brought our country to its knees, creating the greatest financial crisis the U.S. has faced since The Great Depression. However in a creative stroke of near genius, McKay and Randolph framed the disaster as a comedy of greed, ignorance and stupidity of monumental proportions.

All involved deserve the plaudits of its Oscar nominations.

Aided and abetted by a stellar ensemble cast featuring Ryan Gosling, Steve Carell, Christian Bale and Brad Pitt, McKay crafts a movie so funny it keeps you from crying about the financial debacle that all but destroyed millions of lives as the economy crashed.

Bale, Oscar-nominated for Best Supporting Actor, plays mathematical wunderkind Michael Burry, who discovers and acts on the information that the U.S. housing market is built on the unstable financial excrement of subprime loans. Burry predicted the financial collapse of 2007 and put a billion dollars behind his prophecy when he and bankers created the credit default swap market. Basically Burry bet against the U.S. economy, knowing it was going to fall.

Carell plays a hedge-fund manager, who gets wind of the scheme when a misplaced call by stock trader Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling) finds his office. Vennett is the smart-alecky narrator for portions of the adding a snarky quality that makes watching the financial fallout more palatable. For my money, Gosling should have gotten the nomination over Bale.

A thickly bearded Pitt plays it low key as a big-time trader who made his dough and opted to escape the New York rat race. After crunching the numbers supplied to him by two young traders, who need his help to get into sub-prime shorting game, Pitt is dragged back in like Michael Corleone, and helps them out. Pitt’s character makes out like a bandit, but he feels bad about it. His tiny soul shows through in a strong scene where he lectures his partners of the implications of their financial bonanza.

This is another film with a story destined to anger, but you have to applaud McKay for making you mad in such a charming way.


(R) 2 hrs. 8 min.

Photo by Kerry Hayes / Open Road Films

Like anyone who has ever worked at a newspaper, I have to admit up front that being a part of news investigative team like the one featured in the film Spotlight would be somewhat of a dream come true.

So, I am biased when I write that Spotlight is the best film from 2015 that I’ve seen. Granted there are movies I missed and avoided this past year. But if you are looking for an excellent drama that takes no missteps as it unfolds, check of the Tom McCarthy film, which received nominations for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Supporting Actress for Rachel McAdams and Best Supporting Actor for Mark Ruffalo.

Spotlight is based on the true story of how the Boston Globe’s investigative news team, branded Spotlight, uncovered the far-reaching sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests and how it was systematically covered up by the Catholic Church itself.

Just the thought of that topic is nauseating and infuriating to any person of good conscious. While the film does not ignore the ramifications of the abuse on its victims, that is not the film’s focus. The movie is a newsroom procedural, following the flow of the developing story as the reporters and editors slowly piece together what happened.

The film delineates the wide-ranging social and cultural implications of publishing articles that strike at the very heart and moral core of a proud city like Boston, and the political pressure brought to bear against the newspaper.

The ensemble cast truly shines, and as worthy as McAdams and Ruffalo’s nominations were as the co-lead reporters on the story, I think Michael Keaton was even better in a subtler yet still moving performance as their editor Robby Robinson. John Slattery as Ben Bradlee Jr. and Liev Schreiber as Marty Baron also deliver in smaller but still pivotal roles.

Perhaps the most truthful moment of the film comes when the first article finally goes to print, and the investigative team gathers with its editors. Obviously, it’s a job well done, and the film shows the pride among coworkers and comrades, but it also offers that not all victories have winners as the group contemplates the effect their reporting will have on their city and its people.

New In Local Theaters

  • Airlift (NR) 2 hrs. 5 min.
    (Rogers Towne)
    » Watch trailer
  • The Boy (PG-13) 1 hr. 37 min.
    (Fiesta Square, Razorback)
    » Watch trailer
  • The Danish Girl (R) 2 hrs.
    (Fiesta Square, Razorback, Pinnacle Hills)
    » Watch trailer
  • Dirty Grandpa (R) 1 hr. 42 min.
    (Fiesta Square, Razorback, Rogers Towne)
    » Watch trailer
  • The 5th Wave (PG-13) 1 hr. 53 min.
    (Fiesta Square, Razorback, Pinnacle Hills)
    » Watch trailer
  • Room (R) 1hr. 58 min.
    (Pinnacle Hills)
    » Watch trailer

More Oscar Contenders Arrive in NWA

Two more films that garnered Academy Award nominations trickle into local theaters this week with Room playing at the Malco Pinnacle Hills Theater in Rogers and The Danish Girl playing at AMC Fiesta Square Theater and the Malco Razorback Theater in Fayetteville and at Malco Pinnacle Hills Theater in Rogers.

Room stars Brie Larson (Trainwreck, Short Term 12 and 21 Jump Street) in an Oscar-nominated role for Best Actress as the mother of a 5-year-old child (Ethan Tremblay). Both have been held captive in an enclosed space for the boy’s entire life. Nominated for Best Picture, Room also deals with the mother and child’s adjustment to freedom outside the room.

Eddie Redmayne (Theory of Everything and the upcoming Harry Potter prequel Fantastic Beasts and Where You Can Find Them) garnered his second-consecutive Oscar nomination for Best Actor for his role as Lili in The Danish Girl. Redmayne plays an artist who struggles in early 20th century society while transitioning from a male to a female.

Classic Corner

January has already been a cold month for Classic Rock fans with the all-too-soon deaths of David Bowie and Eagles founder Glenn Frey. It was a one-two punch no one expected as both kept the severity of their illnesses private.

The images of the two men couldn’t have been more different. Bowie’s style was as big and broad as his music, while Frey and his band mates generally preferred to let their music do most of the work.

While their music is what will no doubt endure, both worked in films. Here are a few options if you’d like to put together your own film tribute them at home.

Bowie’s film oeuvre is more extensive than Frey’s, but the three films that capture the Thin White Duke best for me are The Man Who Fell to Earth from 1976, The Hunger from 1983 and Labyrinth from 1986.

The Man Who Fell to Earth, directed by Nicholas Roeg, is based on the 1963 Walter Tevis novel of the same name about an extraterrestrial that crash lands on Earth during a voyage to procure water for his draught-ravaged planet. The cult film is dated and more of a curiosity today, but it is Bowie in his 1970s glory.

Labyrinth, directed by Muppets creator Jim Henson and produced by Star Wars mastermind George Lucas, holds up better. Bowie plays Jareth the Goblin King, and a young Jennifer Connelly stars as Sarah Williams. The 15-year-old Williams journeys into the Labyrinth to find her baby brother Toby after she had wished the Goblin King would take him away.

In Tony Scott’s The Hunger, Bowie co-stars with Catherine Deneuve and Susan Sarandon as the aging and dispensable leg in a vampire love triangle.

Frey is better known for his guest-starring role as a smuggler on Miami Vice than his dabbles in film.

However, Frey does have memorable bit role in his friend Cameron Crowe’s engaging but weepy Jerry Maguire.

While working on a feature article about the Eagles for Rolling Stone, Crowe lived with Frey and Eagles co-founder Don Henley in Topanga Canyon house that overlooked Los Angeles while they wrote tunes for the album One of These Nights. Crowe also traveled extensively with the band on the following tour. That assignment among others informed Crowe’s film Almost Famous, which he won an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. Billy Crudup’s role of rock star Russell Hammond is a composite character, but there is reportedly a good bit of Frey in the characterization.

However, the closest one can get to Frey on film is the authorized autobiography History of the Eagles, directed by Allison Ellwood. It’s a deep dive into the band and is an entertaining and candid look at what being a rock star meant in the 1970s.