REVIEW: “Only the Brave”

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If you aren’t familiar with the story of the Granite Mountain Hotshots but plan on seeing “Only the Brave”, do yourself a favor and don’t read up on their story before seeing the movie. It’s worth it just to experience the fullness of the emotional gut punch this film packs. I had not heard of  these brave men who fought wildfires on the frontlines. I’m certain that’s why this movie provoked such a powerful response from me.

“Only the Brave” could have been several things under that familiar guise of “based on a true story”. It could have been some big studio action movie with more CGI than human element. It could have been a cliché-riddled buddy survival-thriller that Hollywood has produced by the dozens. To be honest I was expecting a bit of all that. What I got was a movie far more interested in its characters than I expected it to be. It isn’t perfect, but when focused on the right stuff (which is more often than not) it reveals a depth that will surprise a lot of people (including me).

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Eric Marsh (Josh Brolin) heads a team of firefighters in Prescott, Arizona. They are a top-notch group who find themselves constantly brushed aside by higher ranked elites. Sick of the federal bureaucracy and lack of progress for his crew, Eric seeks the help of mentor and former firefighter Duane Steinbrink (Jeff Bridges). Because of Duane’s pull a portion of the film deals with the team earning their elite certification and becoming the Granite Mountain Hotshots.

The reason this is even the slightest bit interesting is because of the characters. The writing team of Ken Nolan and Eric Warren Singer put the bulk of their focus on two of the firefighters, Brolin’s Eric and Brendan “Donut” McDonough played by a very convincing Miles Teller. Donut is a stoner looking to turn his life around following the birth of his daughter. Eric sees him as a kindred spirit of sorts hinting at some baggage looming from his past. Team-wise there is some strong supporting work James Badge Dale who plays Eric’s reliable second-in-command and Taylor Kitsch, a bit of a flake but a good-hearted one and always dependable in the field. The other firemen aren’t given much attention yet they still feel integral and important.

A lot of time is given to the team chemistry both in the field and away from it. There are plenty of good scenes that show the camaraderie of this tight-knit unit. At the same time the writers occasionally overdo it with some of their banter which I think is meant to be stereotypical “guy talk”. At times it gets a bit silly and perhaps even offensive (depending on your perspective).

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But we really see these characters open up in the scenes where these men step away from their firefighting. Eric’s story is especially compelling because we get Jennifer Connelly who is excellent playing his wife Amanda. She spends more time with the horses she nurses back to health than her husband who is always away on duty. Over time we begin to sense the stress it has on their relationship. Connelly shrewdly maneuvers through Amanda’s slowly shifting emotions never hitting a false note. She’s so good in the scenes she is given and has a great chemistry with Brolin.

All of this relationship building and character development fuels the final act which, despite some predictable narrative setup, has a profound dramatic kick. Director Joseph Kosinski needs no manipulation or gimmickry because by this point his characters are in a good place and he has the emotional heft of the true events to carry his ending. And by the end I not only knew about the Granite Mountain Hotshots, but I had an intense respect for them and their loved ones. 

VERDICT – 

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REVIEW: “The Other Woman”

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I suppose there was a chance, albeit a small chance, that “The Other Woman” could be a funny and spirited revenge movie for women. The concept, while admittedly dopey and trite, could be entertaining if placed in smart and creative hands. Well let me say not one single smart or creative hand touched any part this film. “The Other Woman” is unquestionably one of the most brainless and insipid attempts at comedy I have seen in a while. Not only is it offensive to intelligent women everywhere, it’s also offensive to any halfway discerning movie fan.

I’m not certain what screenwriter Melissa Stack is going for, but she definitely didn’t hit her mark. The film isn’t remotely funny. There isn’t an ounce of originality in the attempted humor. The characters are obnoxious, shallow, and brain-dead. I didn’t like anyone in this movie nor did I care about their situations. Basically the film trashes every bit of its women’s empowerment and independence potential.

Cameron Diaz gives yet another silly performance playing a New York lawyer named Carly. She has fallen for suave and debonair guy named Mark (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau). Things look good for them until she finds out he is married to the teeth-grindingly annoying Kate (Leslie Mann). The two develop an unusual friendship which only strengthens when they find out that Mark is also cheating with a third woman, an air-headed supermodel named Amber (Kate Upton). The three scorned ladies join forces to enact the ultimate revenge on the two-timing (or is it three-timing) Mark?

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Stark and director Nick Cassavetes give us an annoying and inept mess of a movie. It doesn’t have an original thought or an shred of ambition. It seems to be copying things we’ve seen in other films. It’s so poorly made from its idiotic fecal jokes to its pretentious use of Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Want to Have Fun”. And the performances don’t help. Bad performances from Cameron Diaz have become commonplace and it’s no different here. Mann is probably the most annoying of the cast and that’s saying something. Upton, well she is no actress and she makes that crystal clear.

I read that “The Other Woman” pulled in $200 million at the box office. I can’t tell you how perplexing that is. We all sometimes like a silly, dumb movie as long as it doesn’t insult us and it offers some semblance of filmmaking intelligence. “The Other Woman” has none of that yet it raked in a ton of money. I would love to watch a good comedy featuring the empowerment of women at the expense of a slimy disgraceful guy. “The Other Woman” is certainly not it.

VERDICT – 1 STAR

REVIEW: “Only Lovers Left Alive”

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Several years ago vampires became all the rage in modern pop culture. “Twilight” made millions from novels and movies. “True Blood” was a hugely popular television series. And while I can’t say many flattering things about the quality of these properties, fans could get their vampire entertainment fix almost anywhere. Now, as the vampire craze appears to be fading, writer and director Jim Jarmusch gives us a vampire tale that is boldly unique and intelligently metaphoric. It would also send Twilight fans running for the exits.

“Only Lovers Left Alive” could be described as a mood piece. Like other Jarmusch films, this is more centered around developing characters than developing plot and your enjoyment of the movie will probably depend on how much you enjoy being with these people. As you can guess the two main characters are vampires, but part of the film’s genius is how it uses vampire concepts while stiff-arming the usual tropes and gimmicks. In fact it seems like calling it a ‘vampire movie’ is actually doing it a huge disservice.

At the core of the film lies the love story of a centuries old vampiric couple. Adam (Tom Hiddleston) is a recluse living in an old two-story Victorian on the abandoned outskirts of Detroit. He surrounds himself with out-of-date electronic gadgets and his music. His wife Eve (Tilda Swinton) lives in Tangier, Morocco where she spends most of her time enjoying books and literature. The two are very different. Adam has grown forlorn and sour due to the current state of the world. Eve is more playful and optimistic, choosing to embrace hope and happiness. Yet despite these differences the two soulmates deeply love each other.

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Sensing Adam’s depression Eve travels to Detroit where the two are reunited. From there the film opens up the characters and their relationship by simply following along with them. We listen to their conversations which range from scientific theory to makes and models of classic guitars. We listen to Adam lament the death of creativity at the hands of humans (who the couple call zombies). We listen to Eve remind him of the great artists and innovators they have known through the centuries. These are fascinating individuals who have a number of fascinating discussions, but they all aim to serve the movie’s greater points.

In many ways “Only Lovers Left Alive” is an indictment of humanity, or at the very least a call for introspection. We hear how humanity’s appreciation for the arts has declined. In fact, in what may be Jarmusch’s jab at modern moviemaking, we hear Los Angeles refered to as “zombie central”. We see how humanity has destroyed what it has created as evident by the hollow and empty Detroit landscapes. We learn about humanity’s destruction of the environment particularly through a couple of references to the scarcity of clean water. Humanity has even destroyed themselves. Vampires are forced to seek alternate methods of acquiring blood because humans have poisoned their own. None of these things ever get to the point of being preachy. Instead they are thoughtful story components that are clever and thought-provoking.

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The film also has a smart sense of humor which shows itself most when the vampires are relating to the past. For example Eve reminding Adam of his time spent playing chess with Lord Byron or sharing creative ideas with composer Franz Schubert. Then there are several gags tied to John Hurt’s character. He plays Eve’s dear friend and fellow vampire Christopher Marlowe – yes, the 16th century playwright. Some fun is had with the conspiracy theory that he wrote many important pieces of literature under the assumed name of William Shakespeare.

It also helps that Jarmusch cast the two best possible people for the parts of Adam and Eve. Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton are so intensely convincing both in their intelligent coolness and blanched physical appearances. You never doubt them as connoisseurs of fine art and music, and you never doubt their vampire status. They are two of the most compelling and strangely attractive characters I’ve seen this year. I loved spending time with them.

“Only Lovers Left Alive” can be called a vampire movie, but in reality it bucks nearly every common vampire trend. It’s a slick, stylish, and moody character piece that doesn’t shy away from asking good questions and prodding reflection. It’s also great fun watching a true independent director like Jarmusch work with top talents like Hiddleston and Swinton. This certainly won’t be up everyone’s alley, but I found it to be mesmerizing entertainment and a refreshing jolt to the 2014 movie year.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

REVIEW: “Only God Forgives”

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I’m one of the few people who didn’t fall in love with the film “Drive”. Director Nicolas Winding Refn and star Ryan Gosling garnered a ton of critical praise for their 2011 crime drama. While I liked the movie, overall I felt it was lightweight with very little underneath its stylized surface. Well let me say “Drive” has nothing on Refn and Gosling’s latest collaboration “Only God Forgives”. This film takes all of “Drive’s” missteps and amplifies them x10. Even worse, it doesn’t have a strong Albert Brooks-like performances to save it from its hollow and lifeless end result.

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THE EVER-PRESENT STARE…

The film is set in Bangkok where Gosling’s character Julian runs a kickboxing promotion which is a front for a drug dealing operation he runs with his brother Billy (Tom Burke). But Julian’s main job is staring. That’s all he does for 99% of the movie. Much like in “Drive”, Gosling gives another bland, poker-faced performance that never shows a hint of emotion. It’s frustratingly cold and dry – something Refn clearly has a fondness for. For me it grows old and it doesn’t add an ounce of depth to the character. Get used to them because Gosling’s eye-rolling blank stares and emotionless demeanor are ever-present regardless of the situation.

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Get used to this stare from Gosling. It never goes away.

Not to be outdone, Vithaya Pansringarm plays the corrupt police Lieutenant Chang who has Billy killed after he rapes and murders a woman. Chang is brutal, has a god-complex, slow walks like a zombie in a trance, and has a weird fascination with singing in nightclubs. Sounds like a well-rounded chap doesn’t he? I know Refn was shooting for some unique stylistic approach to the Chang character but quite honestly I started laughing whenever he would show up. He is in a constant state of slow motion and he has this one single expression throughout the film. He comes across as a stiff cardboard cutout that will occasionally commit acts of graphic violence.

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See? Still staring.

And speaking of violence, there is a lot of it in “Only God Forgives”. The movie becomes a story of revenge one-upmanship especially when Julian’s wacko mother (Kristin Scott Thomas) shows up to avenge her first born. Thomas is a fine actress but she gets mauled by this lurid over-the-top character she plays. Her men kill one of Chang’s men then he kills one of hers in some gruesome fashion. Rinse and repeat. Refn splatters blood on walls, sprays blood out of gaping wounds, makes us watch an unsettling torture scene, etc. etc. etc. I’m not one that is automatically put off by scenes of graphic violence but none of these felt as if they served a purpose. I figure Refn had something he was trying to say but it never resonated with me.

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Seen this look before? Yep, it’s the stare…

While Refn may not like strong narratives, deeper characters, or good dialogue he certainly loves mood lighting, long hallways, and gaudy wallpaper. We get a ton of that stuff in “Only God Forgives”. It’s the ultimate example of style over substance. I found the whole exercise to be a pretentious and self-aware mess. I will say that Refn does show hints of brilliance when it comes to framing shots. He also can build tension in a scene when he is able to restrain himself. But those attributes can’t save this film from its dullness and overindulgence. Some will see it as a beautiful piece of stylistic cinema. Personally, I see it quite differently.

VERDICT – 2 STARS

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By the way, still staring…

REVIEW: “Oblivion”

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Since his questionable comments and ill advised sofasaults on Oprah, Tom Cruise has become an actor that many people love to hate. But those things are in the past and as wacky as they were they still didn’t effect the level of his onscreen work. He’s a talented actor who throughout his career has tackled a wide variety of roles in iconic 80’s cheesefests, stirring and emotional dramas, big budgeted franchises, and even sci-fi thrillers. Now he returns to the science fiction genre in “Oblivion”, a much more direct and vast sci-fi picture than Cruise’s other efforts.

“Oblivion” is co-written and directed by Joseph Kosinski, the man behind Disney’s $400 million money maker “Tron: Legacy”. Disney originally purchased the rights to “Oblivion” in hopes of repeating Tron’s success but later relinquished the rights. It was quickly gobbled up by Universal Studios with Tom Cruise and Jessica Chastain set to star in the picture. Chastain would eventually drop out for “Zero Dark Thirty” with Olga Kurylenko replacing her. The movie is based on Kosinski’s unpublished graphic novel and was given an ambitious $120 million budget.

I have to say I was really excited for “Oblivion”even though the studio was very cryptic in regards to the film’s details. That’s a good approach to take because I found that the less you know going in the more effective the story will be. And for me it was quite effective. “Oblivion” doesn’t fall into the category of a science fiction masterpiece but thanks to its visionary conception, stunning effects, and some strong committed performances it doesn’t miss by much.

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Now there have been three main criticisms hurled at “Oblivion”. Some have complained about its thin plot. Others took off points for its lack of originality. And yet others have had problems with the lack of any meaningful character development. I certainly don’t flippantly dismiss any of these gripes but I don’t necessarily agree with them either. There’s a lot going on in “Oblivion” and while it does borrow from several other sci-fi pictures, the same could be said for most science fiction. As for the lack of character development, that may be true but I found there to be a good and needed reason for it.

Like I said the less you know the better so I’m not going to spoil anything by divulging any significant details. The film is set in 2077 during the aftermath of a war with an alien species known as the Scavengers. The Scavs (as they’re affectionally called) destroyed our moon which sent Earth into a series of natural and environmental convulsions. A full invasion of Earth followed. The humans won the war but the planet was left ravaged and in disrepair. The surviving population now inhabit one of Saturn’s moons called Titan. Now if a sci-fi movie wants to score points with me just give me a futuristic world that’s not only visually impressive but that I can get lost in. That certainly happened here and even if you do have issues with the story, no one can say this isn’t an expressive setting.

Cruise plays Jack Harper one of the last people left on the planet. He works as a technician who does security and repair work as humanity tries to salvage the last bit of resources from the planet. His lone co-worker is Victoria (Andrea Riseborough). She oversees Jack’s work and reports back to their commanding officer Sally (Melissa Leo). Jack and Victoria have only two weeks left before they get to join the others on Titan, something she’s very excited about. Naturally things can’t go without a hitch. A series of events triggered by the appearance of a mysterious woman named Julia (Olga Kurylenko) catapult the story into some fun and rather exciting directions.

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I can honestly say I completely bought into this premise. For the most part it’s a well conceived storyline that undeniably takes from several other familiar sci-fi films. But it works for me mainly because of how intelligently it took all of these components and put them together to form what I think is a very competent and compelling science fiction piece. The story itself grabbed me and pulled me into this visual spectacle and I never found myself wanting to check out.

The movie also managed to surprise me. I knew there were twists involved and I had my eyes open for that. For the most part it kept me off balance and had me looking in every direction trying to guess where things were going. While I did eventually figure some things out before they were revealed on screen, it didn’t hurt my experience whatsoever. I also appreciate how this wasn’t a movie of wall-to-wall action. Don’t misunderstand me, there is action, some of it spectacular. But to my surprise the movie spent more time deliberately peeling off layers to the story. Now it may move too glacially for some but I really responded to this approach.

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With all that praise being said, I did think the film flirted with convention a bit too much in the final act. It’s not that it’s terrible and poorly done but for me it didn’t really fit with the way the movie had progressed up to that point. I’m being pretty vague but let’s just say things are a little too on the nose. And while I do think the three main characters aren’t fully developed for good reasons, there are some characters and a particularly important plot point that felt terribly underwritten. This effected a rather important turn that the film takes later on. I’ll also add that there was one big special effects money shot at the end that I felt was a pretty humdrum. Considering the dazzling effects we had been given up till then, I was expecting a bigger payoff. I’ll leave it at that.

Those are my only gripes and even though they do restrain “Oblivion” from being one of the great science fiction pictures, they didn’t kill my experience. In fact I like the film a great deal. Cruise gives another strong lead performance and he’s helped by solid work from Kurylenko and Riseborough. The eye-popping visuals help create a futuristic wonder and the Iceland locations give a perfect sense of desolation. And I haven’t even mentioned the marvelous sound design and the soundtrack from M83 which I found to be a really nice fit. There’s just so much I liked about “Oblivion”. And while I can’t just completely overlook its handful of flaws, they’re easy to get past especially when you were as intrigued and glued to the screen as I was.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

“Olympus Has Fallen” – 4 STARS

Olympus posterLet me preface this review by saying I grew up on the action movies of the late 1980s and early 90s. In some ways I cut my movie watching teeth on the films of Schwarzenegger, Stallone, Willis, and company – the same movies that Antoine Fuqua’s “Olympus Has Fallen” undeniably and unashamedly pays homage to. From the bullets and body count to the plot holes and conveniences, “Olympus Has Fallen” mirrors those old-school action pictures. But there is another much more important thing that it has in common with the older films. It’s one heck of a fun and entertaining time. “Olympus Has Fallen” knows exactly what it wants to be. It sets its target, aims for it, and hits it dead center. I’ve always appreciated when a movie does that.

Throughout the reviews I’ve read, there seems to be two main criticisms hurled at this film. The first is that it’s nothing more than a “Die Hard” knockoff. Others blast the film for its blatant flag-waving American patriotism. I find it funny that people have gotten hung up on these two things the most. “Olympus Has Fallen” has its share of problems both structurally and narratively. But these two stumbling blocks for some didn’t hurt my experience in the least. As a matter of fact in some instances they actually helped it.

Look, the “Die Hard” gripe has some merit. In fact you could call this “Die Hard in the White House”. A mysterious terrorist group with North Korean ties attacks Washington DC in broad daylight. It starts with an air assault from a modified C130 followed by a violent ground attack which leaves many civilians dead and the city in chaos. But their prime target is the White House which they manage to take control of in 13 minutes. So much for our impenetrable national security, right? The terrorists seem to have the upper hand except for one small kink – U.S. Treasury desk jockey Mike Banning (Gerard Butler).

Now you know how this works, Banning is much more than a pencil pusher. He was at one time President Asher’s (Aaron Eckhart) Secret Service head honcho and close friend to the First Family, but an uncontrollable tragedy cost him his job. But you can’t be a one-man army just by doing Secret Service work. Just like Arnie, Sly, and Chuck in so many of their films, Banning is also a former Special Forces Ranger. Like John McClane in Nakatomi Plaza, Banning is the lone eyes, ears, and muscle inside the enemy-occupied White House. The “Die Hard” comparisons are unavoidable but is that really a bad thing? “Olympus Has Fallen” is a much better “Die Hard” film than either of the last two “Die Hard” movies. And while this doesn’t do much in terms of originality, it nicely uses several of the key ingredients that made that franchise so great.

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Then there’s the patriotism criticism. I guess I missed the announcement. When did patriotism become a liability or a weakness in a film. I can understand it becoming a problem when a movie beats you over the head with it, but that’s not the case here. There isn’t an ounce of subtlety in this movie’s pro-American spirit presentation but I don’t see why there has to be. As long as it doesn’t drown us in it. At one time there was an overload of ham-fisted patriotism in movies but that was a while ago. This was one area where the movie did feel surprisingly fresh. In other words the patriotic angle worked.

“Olympus Has Fallen” is helped by its nice supporting cast. Morgan Freeman is rock solid as always. He plays the Speaker of the House who is elevated to Commander in Chief after the President’s abduction. Melissa Leo was good as the Secretary of Defense even though she’s given a few pretty corny lines to wrestle with. I also loved seeing Robert Forster as a grumbling Army General and Angela Bassett as the head of the Secret Service.

But this is an action movie and the action is the film’s bread and butter. After a rather slow moving beginning which serves more as table setting, the action kicks in gear when the terrorists attack DC. Now I’ve heard a lot of criticism over the special effects but I don’t see it. With the exception of a few small hiccups, I thought the visuals were quite good. Maybe I got lucky but the DLP digital screen at my theater was ablaze with furious gunfire and massive explosions. The C130 attack, while preposterous, looked great and sucked me right in. There’s also a fantastic shootout on the front lawn of the White House that’s nothing more than old-school, bullet-riddled fun. Shootouts and hand-to-hand throwdowns continue throughout the rooms and halls of the White House with the percussion-heavy score amping up the macho intensity. Once the action starts you rarely have time to catch your breath.

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In an action movie like this one has to know it’s violent. But it should be said it’s really violent. Bodies drop at an alarming rate per minute and there’s no shortage of the red stuff. A lot of blood splatters through a huge variety of violent deaths. Be prepared for the numerous neck snaps, knife stabs, and head shots. Explosions are everywhere from jets and helicopters to buses and garbage trucks. Everything is fair game for Fuqua’s explosive experts.

As I hinted at earlier, this type of movie mandatorily requires some suspension of disbelief. You also must be prepared to deal with certain gaps in logic, tons of action movie cliches, and a few gaping plot holes. These things didn’t take away from the fun I had with “Olympus Has Fallen” but they are the kinds of things that keep it from being a truly magnificent film. There are several head-scratching moments that will pull you out of the film if you allow yourself to dwell on them. Why would the entire White House security code system remain the same even though people with access to them have been fired for a year and a half? Why do these and most other action movie villains insist on dragging out their missions instead of quickly carrying them out before the heroes have time to get in their way? I could go on. There are several in this film but if you can put it aside you’ll have a good time.

For me “Olympus Has Fallen” was a trip back in time through both the film’s high-octane action as well as with its predictable shortcomings. This was the real key to my enjoyment. There was a genuine nostalgic satisfaction as well as an appreciation for a film that sets out to be a specific kind of movie and never deviates from that goal. Now those who find testosterone-driven action flicks with fast moving kill counters to be relics from an outdated genre will have a hard time digesting this film. I can understand that. But this movie really surprised me, certainly not for its perfection, but for its rousing fun factor. There are tons of bullets, loads of explosions, and pride in the American spirit. For me, that’s not necessarily a bad thing and at the end of the movie I left with a smile on my face. Mission accomplished Mr. Fuqua!