David Fincher’s ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’ Stands On Its Own

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo 2011 poster

To call David Fincher’s “The Girl with The Dragon Tattoo” a remake of the excellent 2009 Swedish thriller wouldn’t be fair. Yes, it too is based on the runaway bestseller by the late Stieg Larsson, but Fincher has taken this material and, with the help of ace screenwriter Steve Zaillian, made it his own. His version proves to be one which is neither better nor worse than the original, but one which effectively stands on its own two feet to where any comparisons are not really necessary.

Daniel Craig takes on the role of Millennium Magazine writer Mikael Blomkvist who, at the movie’s start, has lost a libel case against the wealthy but corrupt businessman Hans-Erik Wennerström, a defeat which will seriously deplete his savings account. To escape the prying eyes of the press, he accepts an invitation from retired CEO Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer) to investigate the mysterious disappearance of his great-niece Harriet. Vanger believes she may have been murdered by a member of his family, one which proves to be far more dysfunctional than any you may know.

Fincher’s film takes its time in establishing the characters of Blomkvist and Salander, who is played here by Rooney Mara. In fact, they don’t meet face to face until an hour into the movie. While studio executives were probably begging to see these two come together a lot sooner, it gives these actors time to establish their characters to where we feel like we understand them and are eager to see each work with one another.

Stepping outside of the James Bond franchise, Craig is terrific in conveying Blomkvist’s single-mindedness in finding answers which need to be uncovered. This is not a heroic character taking out the bad guys with relative ease, but one who is dedicated to finding out the truth and soon comes to realize just how much danger he is in. But as frightened as he is, Blomkvist is in no position to just give up and go home.

As for Mara, her performance as Lisbeth Salander is nothing short of a revelation. She must have given one hell of an audition for Fincher because very little in her resume, certainly not the bland “Nightmare on Elm Street” remake, could have prepared us for how good she is here. That is, except for her performance as Max Zuckerberg’s girlfriend who dumps him without remorse at the beginning of “The Social Network.”

Having watched Noomi Rapace inhabit this character previously, it was hard to think of another actress who could be anywhere as good in playing Lisbeth Salander. Mara, however, is more than up for the challenge, and her commitment in portraying this understandably anti-social character is utterly complete. I kept trying to find traces of Mara in this film, but I came out of it feeling like I never saw her. Instead, I felt like was watching Lisbeth Salander and no one else. Now this is a performance worthy of awards consideration!

Not to take away from Rapace’s star-making performance, but Mara has the advantage here of dealing with this character’s complexities which were not as deeply explored in the 2009 film. While Mara puts up a tough exterior, she simultaneously allows you to see those cracks of vulnerability hiding just beneath the surface. You fear for Lisbeth even though you know she eventually will kick ass.

There are many other great performances to be found here, and the actors have the fortune of playing characters which are given more depth in this version. Plummer has had quite the year with this and “Beginners,” and he gives Henrik a biting sense of humor which has aided him in dealing with the emotionally sordid history of his family. Robin Wright pulls off a surprisingly confident Swedish accent as Blomkvist’s co-worker and lover Erika Berger. Steven Berkoff of “Beverly Hills Cop” and “A Clockwork Orange” fame is a strong presence as Henrik’s lawyer Dirch Frode, Stellan Skarsgård remains one of the most reliable actors in movies with his performance as Martin Vanger, and Joely Richardson is fantastic as Anita.

Director of Photography Jeff Cronenweth does a superb job of capturing the frozen landscapes of Sweden to where you get frigid just looking at the screen. The scene where Blomkvist desperately tries to warm up the cottage Vagner has provided for him pushes this point across than it would ever need to. I haven’t shivered this much since after I finished swimming the 2011 Los Angeles Marathon.

Fincher’s movie also has a mesmerizing score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, both whom won the Best Original Score Oscar for their work on “The Social Network.” They give the story and its characters a sonic soundscape unlike the typical orchestral score, and it brilliantly captures the growing emotions which get stronger and stronger as the movie reaches its brutal climax.

Speaking of brutal, Fincher never sugarcoats this story or makes it easy to digest down to a PG-13 rating. In retrospect, I’m not sure there was a way he could as it deals with serial killers and features a vicious rape perpetrated on the main character. As with the majority of his movies, Fincher’s vision of the world is a dark one where the characters can be as cold as the snowy weather, but his vision also remains one of the most powerful in today’s cinematic world.

When it comes to comparing the 2009 and 2011 movies, this one has an upper hand in that it’s far more cinematic. The original Swedish film was actually a television miniseries which got shortened when released theatrically. That one remains a great thriller worth watching, but David Fincher’s version of “The Girl with The Dragon Tattoo” threatens to be more compelling as it builds on the original without taking away from it. I have yet to see him make a truly bad motion picture, and yes, that includes “Alien 3.”

* * * * out of * * * *

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Lisbeth Salander is Resurrected in First Trailer for ‘The Girl in the Spider’s Web’

The Girl in the Spider's Web poster

Lisbeth Salander returns to the silver screen after a long hiatus (7 years to be exact), but you may notice something a bit different. Despite the success of David Fincher’s cinematic adaptation of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” studio executives felt it should have made more money than it did. After efforts to follow up “Dragon Tattoo” with the next book in Stieg Larsson’s Millennium series, “The Girl Who Played with Fire,” fell through, Sony and MGM decided to do what they called a “soft reboot” of the franchise with “The Girl in the Spider’s Web” which is based on the book by David Lagercrantz who wrote it following Larsson’s death. Now with its just-released first trailer, we do see some changes, but I am also reminded of what Snake Plissken said in “Escape From LA:”

“The more things change, the more they stay the same.”

Is this good or bad? Well, let’s take a look.

Taking over the role of Lisbeth Salander here is Claire Foy, an English actress best known for playing the young Queen Elizabeth II on Netflix’s “The Crown.” It is my understanding many people right now are having some difficulty accepting Foy as Salander because they can’t quite get the image of her playing the Queen out of their heads. I, on the other hand, do not have the same baggage as I have not watched “The Crown,” so perhaps this gives me an advantage here.

From her first appearance in this trailer, Foy owns this role with a strong confidence as we watch her subdue an abusive husband who has just used his wife as a punching bag like Ike Turner did with Tina Turner years ago. As Salander tells this spineless fraction of a man how she plans to transfer money from his accounts to the two prostitutes he was acquitted of beating up, we know right away this character is in the hands of the right actress. As the abused wife threatens to call security on Salander, the brilliant but antisocial heroine informs her she will be getting the rest of his money. The wife then puts down her phone, grabs her child and leaves. Just as she did with the hideous Nils Bjurman, Salander has cornered this man into a position he cannot undo, and we revel in her success in making him pay for the crimes he has committed. While I am bummed Rooney Mara, who earned an Oscar nomination for her work in Fincher’s film, is not returning, Foy looks to be a good choice to inhabit this unforgettable literary character.

The one question I did have, however, was this: how did Salander know this man would be in the exact position he needed to be in so she could capture him in a rope which would leave him dangling helplessly from the ceiling? It seems impossible she, or anyone else, would be able to pull this off, but then again this is Lisbeth Salander, and her brilliant mind has already managed to ensnare this man in a web of his own making to where he has no choice but to realize how karma is a bitch.

I was struck by the look of this movie from the trailer as it seems to match the icy cool visuals of Fincher’s film, and it makes this project look like much more than the average adaptation of a best-selling novel. Directing “The Girl in the Spider’s Web” is Uruguayan filmmaker Fede Alvarez who helmed the “Evil Dead” remake which I thought was just okay. But then he gave us “Don’t Breathe,” a horror thriller which kept us on the edge of our seats in a way few movies do these days. The screenplay was written by him, Jay Basu and Steven Knight, the screenwriter behind “Dirty Pretty Things,” “Eastern Promises” and “Locke” which he also directed. Looking at this, it feels like this “soft reboot” is in good hands.

But the most interesting thing about “The Girl in the Spider’s Web” is how it introduces Salander’s main antagonist. We hear a female narrator saying how Salander is “the righter of wrongs” and “the girl who hurts men who hurt women.” Those of us who have seen the previous cinematic adventures of Lisbeth Salander can attest to this, but the narrator reveals herself to be the one woman Salander did not succeed in saving, and as a result, she is quite bitter. This woman is revealed to be Camilla Salander, Lisbeth’s estranged twin sister who is played by Sylvia Hoeks, the same actress who gave us a most lethal replicant in “Blade Runner 2049.” Learning Lisbeth will face a female antagonist here instead of a male one makes this film seem especially intriguing to where this “soft reboot” seems like it was worth the effort. Mara, Daniel Craig, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross may be gone, but those taking over this franchise seem ready to give us something we will not easily forget.

“The Girl in the Spider’s Web” is set to premiere in theaters on November 9, 2018. Please check out the trailer below.

This ‘Peter Rabbit’ is Far From Ultimate

Peter Rabbit 2018 poster

After watching the trailer for Sony Pictures Animation’s “Peter Rabbit,” I kept thinking of the times when brands like KFC and Planter’s Peanuts among others changed their image in commercials to something more hip which made them look ever so desperate to appeal to a youthful demographic. It was both hilarious and cringe-inducing to see these popular brands reduce themselves to current trends they were never created for, and more often than not, it just revealed to us how tone deaf corporate executives can be in their quest for a profit. Those of you who have seen the “Peter Rabbit” trailer can agree this is not quite the same character we grew up reading about in those wonderfully imaginative books by Beatrix Potter. Now that I have seen the movie all the way through, I can confirm Ms. Potter is rolling over in her grave.

This “Peter Rabbit” is nothing more than a bastardization of those innocent tales as the filmmakers go out of their way to modernize this material to such an infinitely nauseating extent, and it hurt to see everyone trying way too hard to be clever. The harder everyone tries to be hip here, the more depressing this movie becomes as its story becomes increasingly convoluted and eventually turns in a poor man’s version of “Home Alone” as Peter tortures his nemesis in the same way Macauley Culkin tortured Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern.

Directed by Will Gluck who previously gave us the ill-advised remake of “Annie,” this movie isn’t so much an adaptation of “The Tale of Peter Rabbit” as it is a story which exists outside of it. Even though Peter Rabbit (voiced by James Corden) came close to meeting his maker the last time he invaded Mr. McGregor’s vegetable garden, we see he has not learned his lesson as he continues to steal every single vegetable he gets his paws on. But when a new McGregor moves into town, things will become even more challenging for him and his furry friends.

The opening minutes of “Peter Rabbit” serve to introduce not only Peter, but also a number of Potter’s other creations like Benjamin Bunny (Matt Lucas), Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle (Sia), Tommy Brock, Mr. Tod and Mr. Jeremy Fisher. Seeing this, I couldn’t help but think Sony Pictures was aiming to create a cinematic universe to rival the one Marvel Studios continues to add to. If this movie succeeds at the box office, we may very well see these characters get their own solo adventures to where they might have their own “Avengers” or “Justice League” movie. Still, I don’t think we should expect “Peter vs. Benjamin: Dawn of Radishes” anytime soon. After all, neither has a mother named Margret.

Peter runs afoul again of Mr. McGregor (a completely unrecognizable Sam Neill), but a heart attack suddenly does the old man in, freeing up the rabbit and his friends to have the equivalent to an endless rave party in his home. But then into the picture comes family relative Thomas McGregor (Domhnall Gleeson) who moves in after being fired from his job at Harrods in London, and no time is wasted before he and Peter wage war against one another which involves, among other things, repeated electrocution.

Perhaps it was too much to expect the filmmakers to remain true to “The Tale of Peter Rabbit” with had its main character being portrayed as being very naughty and later paying a price for being recklessly disobedient to his elders. This particular Potter tale was a great one for kids as it taught them the value of being good, something which Peter did not value in the slightest. “Peter Rabbit,” however, defies the tale’s morality and shows how this rabbit’s rebellious ways are something to cheer on instead of lay caution to. Also, Peter’s sisters Flopsy, Mopsy and Cottontail are shown to be willing participants in his rebellious escapades, something they were not previously.

I was also shocked to see how Neill’s Mr. McGregor was portrayed as a bloodthirsty meat eater who showed no hesitation in making a rabbit pie out of those who failed to escape his clutches. This leads “Peter Rabbit” to have a “Watership Down” scene where we learn how one of his parents became a tasty meal for Mr. McGregor, and this reeks of shameless manipulation on the part of the filmmakers. At the very least, this movie is bound to appeal to vegans as much as it will to children.

Then there is Thomas McGregor, and Gleeson portrays him in a way very similar to his role as General Hux in the recent “Star Wars” movies. Thomas is such an obsessive neat freak to where he wants the toilets at Harrods to be so clean he could drink out of them, and he almost does so with a straw. I expect sick humor like this in “The Human Centipede,” not in a family movie. If you want to see Gleeson in something good, check out “About Time” or the underrated “Goodbye Christopher Robin” instead.

James Corden is a wonderful talent, and I always enjoy watching his late-night sketches which include many unforgettable carpool karaoke episodes. But when it comes to roles like voicing Peter Rabbit, he tries way too hard to be funny and hip. This was the same problem with his work in “The Emoji Movie” which, in retrospect, I gave him too much leeway on. His performance in “Peter Rabbit” is definitely spirited, but seeing him trying to be infinitely clever to where he is desperate to stay one step ahead of the audience becomes painful and exhausting as the movie drags on.

Indeed, the filmmakers try way too hard to make “Peter Rabbit” seem so hip and cool to where they include songs like Len’s “Steal My Sunshine,” a great pop song which has now been officially used once too often in movies. Gluck also includes Big Country’s “In a Big Country,” Rancid’s “Time Bomb,” Vampire Weekend’s “The Kids Don’t Stand a Chance,” and The Proclaimers’ “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles).” You know, the kind of music Potter listened to endlessly while she wrote. Seeing the animals dancing the latest dance moves here was very dispiriting to me, but at least we never see Flopsy, Mopsy or Cottontail do any twerking.

If there is one real saving grace in “Peter Rabbit,” it is Rose Byrne. As Bea, the McGregor’s next-door neighbor, painter and animal lover, she is so infinitely appealing to where she truly lights up the screen whenever she appears. Byrne gives these proceedings a heart and soul which doesn’t deserve them, and I became infinitely jealous of Peter whenever she picked him up and cuddled him. It’s moments like those which had me wanting to be Peter, but anyway.

The children I saw “Peter Rabbit” with really enjoyed the shenanigans portrayed onscreen, and I am sure many of them will get a kick out of this movie. I, on the other hand, stared at the silver screen feeling dejected as the plot went down a road which filmmakers have traveled thousands of times before. Things get even more ridiculous when Thomas and Peter go from being bitter enemies to much needed allies. Seeing one character attempting to blow up another with dynamite is enough to bring about a restraining order. These two coming together near the end is as ridiculous as the thing which kept a pair of superheroes from beating one another to death in “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice.”

“Peter Rabbit” is the first 2018 movie I have watched, and I’m positive many others which have yet to be released will be far better. Parents right now have a chance to take their children to movies which are far more imaginative and thoughtful like “Paddington 2,” but it looks like they will be quicker to get in line for this one instead. Call me a purist, but this is not how a Beatrix Potter tale should be translated to cinema. Of the many rabbits out there, this one is far from being ultimate.

* out of * * * *

 

‘Attack the Block’ Features John Boyega in a Terrific Debut Performance

Attack the Block movie poster

Attack the Block” is a highly entertaining combination of action and sci-fi genres which deals with humans defending themselves against a swarm of unfriendly extra-terrestrials. It follows a street gang of young kids who, in the process of robbing a female nurse, get greeted by an alien who lands with a loud thud on someone’s car (here’s hoping they have auto insurance). It marks the beginning of an attack by an alien race which immediately tears apart anything in its path, and it’s up this gang of delinquents to save the day.

The majority of “Attack the Block” takes place in a council estate, a location which houses the financially challenged of England’s residents, and it is generally overrun by a nasty criminal element. This setting has been used to great effect in “Fish Tank” and “Harry Brown,” movies which effectively showed how isolating it can be to live there. The characters presented feel very true to life, and it makes what could be seen by many as another B-movie far more effective as a result.

Leading this street gang is Moses (John Boyega), a 15-year-old who is older than his age would suggest. Moses and his mates spend their time robbing those walking through the terrace they live in. But when the aliens enter into their territory, they find antagonists that are completely unwilling to give up their valuables (assuming they have any), and the threat they pose to this gang make their struggles in daily life a cakewalk in comparison.

“Attack the Block” was directed by Joe Cornish, an English comedian, television and radio presenter, director, writer and actor. This marks his directorial debut as he has previously helmed several behind the scenes documentaries like “The Fuzzball Rally” featured on the “Hot Fuzz” DVD and Blu-ray. Cornish’s work here is very assured, and he does an excellent job of combining elements of horror and comedy to great effect, something never easy to pull off. He also generates highly suspenseful moments which really get the audience on edge, and they make for a surprisingly unpredictable motion picture.

Of all the performances, the most impressive comes from John Boyega as Moses. This is his film debut, but he looks and acts like he’s been acting for ages as his eyes reveal a battle over how far he will go and of all the bad things he has seen in life. As the fight against the aliens goes on, it offers his character a chance for redemption and to be a hero, and Boyega makes Moses earn those honors long before the film’s conclusion.

Also impressive is Jodie Whittaker as Sam, a hospital nurse faced with an impossible situation where she has to work with the same gang of kids who mugged her in order to survive. Whittaker convincingly takes her character from being a frightened woman to one who holds her own alongside these kids, and she is not your typical horror victim screaming her way throughout the entire movie.

It’s also great to see Nick Frost here as the drug dealer, Ron. Frost brings an ever so dry humor to the proceedings, and all the other actors work off of him to great effect. In each movie he does, Frost is brilliant at sneaking the occasional joke in when you least expect it, and you can always count on him to leaving on the floor laughing.

“Attack the Block” was made for only $13 million, and the visual effects the filmmakers came up with are very impressive considering the budget. Having less money forces directors to be more creative, and Cornish succeeded in making this film look like it cost a lot more. The aliens themselves are minimal in their design, but they feel far more threatening than the ones you might remember from “Cowboys & Aliens.” Their pitch-black fur is highlighted by neon-like eyes and teeth, and their horrendously loud shriek is certain to make audiences jump out of their seats more often than not.

The action is also highlighted by a super cool electronic score by Basement Jaxx which really puts you in the right frame of mind. I definitely recommend buying the soundtrack once you have watched this movie. I myself didn’t even hesitate in purchasing a copy. That’s how much I like this kind of film music.

The summer 2011 movie season was mostly disappointing due to a lack of creativity and inspiration as many of the blockbusters were cynically made by studios with the intention of making money while giving audiences what they thought they wanted. Watching “Attack the Block” though is a great reminder of how much fun it can be to go to the movies, and it was one of the best action movies to come out that year. This is a must see.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘Looper’ – From the Director of ‘Star Wars: The Last Jedi’

Looper movie poster

Rian Johnson’s “Looper” is an ingenious movie which combines the genres of noir, science-fiction and western into a mind twister of a film which will have you enthralled throughout. It reminds you of all those time travels movies you grew up watching, and yet it feels very original when compared to them. It also proves Johnson is a creative filmmaking force to reckon with, and it gives each cast member an opportunity to give their best performance in any film they appeared in during 2012.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars as Joe Simmons, an assassin in the year 2044 who works for the mafia and kills agents sent back from the year 2072. In this future, time travel is possible and also illegal, and the mob takes advantage of it to get rid of their garbage. The movie’s title refers to the kind of assassin Joe is, a foot soldier who is paid on the condition their targets never escape. They are given a shotgun called a Blunderbuss which doesn’t have much of a range but it is powerful enough to kill a person up close. When “Looper” starts, Joe looks to have been doing this for a while and has been living the good life as a result.

Things, however, change drastically when the mob decides to “close the loop” by sending back the Loopers’ future versions of themselves to eliminate. Joe ends up coming into contact with an older version of himself (played by Bruce Willis), and the old Joe escapes before young Joe can get him in his sights. From there, the young Joe is on the run as he has searches for his older self in order to get the mob off his back and live to see another day, so to speak.

To say more will spoil some of “Looper’s” most inventive moments as it is full of surprises you don’t see coming. The story looks to have been very well thought out, and its focus is more on the characters than anything else. Also, it creates a future which looks futuristic and yet not far removed from our present. Some movies can alienate you with their overreliance on special effects, but “Looper” isn’t out to blow you away visually. Instead, it finds its most potent moments involving the insane situations Levitt and Willis find themselves in.

Seeing Levitt and Willis face off in a diner gives us one of the most riveting scenes in any movie released in 2012. Considering how brutal they are to each other throughout “Looper,” I couldn’t help but think: talk about being hard on yourself!

Time travel as a concept has been done to death in movies, and Johnson is fully aware of how familiar audiences are of the rules surrounding it. I loved how he used this familiarity to his advantage here as it makes “Looper” easier to follow than it might seem at first. Johnson also succeeds in juggling different storylines to great effect as things could have burned out creatively speaking before the end credits came up. You go into “Looper” thinking it’s about time travel, but then it becomes about something else entirely. It is a film which demands to be seen multiple times for you to take in all its meanings.

Levitt had a fantastic year so far in 2012 with terrific performances in “The Dark Knight Rises,” “Premium Rush” and “Lincoln,” but “Looper” was truly the icing on the cake for him. As the young Joe Simmons, he gets one of his meatiest roles ever as an assassin who’s a drug addict (what’s in those eye drops anyway?), but who still has a conscience even after all the damage he has done to himself and others. While the prosthetics on his face, which were used to make him look more Willis, are a bit awkward to take in at first, Levitt gives the role his all and looks thrilled to able to transform himself into a character like this.

So much has been said about Bruce Willis over the years as his role as John McClane from “Die Hard” will forever be burned into our consciousness, but seeing him as old Joe in “Looper” reminds us of what a great actor he can be. His Joe is driven to correct the past so he can save the future he has built up for himself, but it also forces him to do things which leave him morally conflicted. Seeing the pain which crosses Willis’ face makes us root for him somewhat in “Looper” even as his character goes seriously astray with his deadly actions.

Then there’s Emily Blunt who plays hard bitten single mom Sara, and she is an incredibly powerful even when she is not wielding a heavy-duty shotgun. Blunt has been a continually wonderful presence in each movie she’s appeared in, and here she gets to be both bad-ass and very vulnerable. Her scenes with Pierce Gagnon, the 5-year old actor who is amazing as her son Cid, are as emotionally powerful as they are deeply suspenseful.

There are also other terrific performances to be found in “Looper” from actors like Paul Dano who plays the neurotic assassin Seth, and Noah Segan who channels Billy the Kid into his role of a six-shooter carrying killer named Kid Blue. And there’s no forgetting the great Jeff Daniels who brings both danger and humor to his role of mob boss Abe. Some are surprised to see Daniels in this kind of role given how he has been typically cast as nice guys in movies, but keep in mind, this is the same guy who played the most embittered of writers in “The Squid and The Whale.”

It’s a treat for moviegoers that a film as endlessly inventive as “Looper” got produced in a time where creativity was at a cinematic low. Everyone involved in this picture clearly came to it with tremendous enthusiasm, and it shows in every single second which unfolds before us. It is not only one of the best movies of 2012, but also one of the best time travel movies ever made. And watching it again makes me all the more excited for Johnson’s biggest movie yet, “Star Wars: The Last Jedi.”

* * * * out of * * * *

‘Only the Brave’ Celebrates the Lives of Those who Risk Everything to Keep Others Safe

Only the Brave movie poster

While watching “Only the Brave,” I kept thinking of what Mike Kellerman said in an episode of “Homicide: Life on the Street:” “Fire is a living thing. It eats, it breathes air, it can be killed. Something about that power draws people in.” This dialogue played in my head while Josh Brolin stares at a wildfire off in the distance, wondering which direction it will spread in. From this, we can tell he doesn’t just see fire as simply something to be put out, but as a force to be fought with on its own term. The term fight fire with fire takes on a special meaning here, and it is shown to be more than just the title of a Metallica song.

“Only the Brave” is, yes, based on a true story. In this case, it is about an elite crew of firefighters who came to be known as the Granite Mountain Hotshots and who risked their lives on a regular basis to stop wildfires in their tracks. In June 2013, 19 of their members died while fighting the Yarnell Hill Fire in Arizona, and it remains one of the deadliest incidents involving United States firefighters outside of the September 11th attacks. I figured the movie would be all about this fire and of who survived it and who didn’t. However, it is really about these group of men who come together to form a brotherhood of sorts as they come to depend on one another as their work is always very dangerous. In the process, we also see the bonds they have with their families and loved ones, and of the constant balance they have to work at between work and family life.

Brolin plays Eric Marsh, the leader of the Granite Mountain Hotshots who is eager to build a team of firefighters which will not simply serve as background performers while other elite firefighters push them to the side. You would think firefighters from different places would be quick to band together in the face of mother nature’s havoc, but each individual firefighting group is shown to be a competitive bunch as they want to claim the glory of being a hero before anyone else. After dealing with conflicts and money problems inherent in the realm of politics, Eric gets the funding he needs to begin training men who are infinitely eager to fight fire with fire.

Now a movie like this typically employs a number of stereotypical characters like the ladies’ man, the fearless leader, the trusted second-in-command the one who looks as if he is in the wrong place, and “Only the Brave” does traffic a bit in this area to where I thought this might become “Top Gun” but with firefighters instead of pilots. But thanks to an excellent cast which includes Miles Teller, James Badge Dale, Taylor Kitsch, Scott Haze, Alex Russell and Ben Hardy, we get to be intimately involved in the exploits of these firefighters to where we have to admire their selflessness in what they do.

An actor worth noting in particular is Teller who has given excellent performances in “Whiplash” and “The Spectacular Now.” Teller plays Brendan McDonough who, at the movie’s start, is a hopeless drug addict. From the character’s first appearance, I figured Brendan would be the one to start the Yarnell Hill Fire as he carelessly is shown smoking crystal meth to where he is barely conscious, and I kept waiting for him to drop a match in a field without even realizing it. Brendan comes to discover his ex-girlfriend is pregnant, and he reacts to this news flippantly as it only increases his capacity for self-destruction. But upon seeing his baby for the first time, he suddenly begins to turn his life around and looks to get employed on Eric’s firefighting team.

Teller’s performance is superb as he doesn’t make Brendan into the typical cinematic addict, but instead a person who goes from being lost in life to one who finds a purpose as he seeks to give his child the life his father never gave him. The interview scene he has with Brolin is superb as Teller never overdoes it as Brendan knows full well he can’t fool Eric since he sees right through his addiction. I kept waiting for Brendan to relapse as this is usually the case for addicts in a movie, but Teller makes his character’s hard-fought battle towards sobriety noble and believable. This is also the second movie he’s been in these past few years where he plays a man determined not to take painkillers even though they certainly would help (the other is “Bleed for This”).

Brolin is an ace at playing blue collar workers, and he never has to do much to convince us how believable he can be in portraying a firefighter. Through his expressions and actions, we quickly see this is someone who can tame the nastiest fires he and his team come into contact with. The “No Country for Old Men” actor shares a lot of great scenes with his male-costars, but his best moments come between him and the always terrific Jennifer Connelly who plays Eric’s wife, Amanda. Their relationship is a strong one, but it takes on an increasing strain when Amanda wants kids, something Eric is not quick to agree on. From this description, it sounds like the average marital conflict we see in every other movie, but Brolin and Connelly bring a lot of raw emotion to their roles to where they inhabit their characters more than anything else. This could have felt clunky, but the actors keep this from happening, and this is especially the case when Amanda reminds Eric what she goes through every day when he walks out the door to go to work.

“Only the Brave” was directed by Joseph Kosinski whose previous films were “Tron: Legacy” and “Oblivion.” This one takes place in the real world instead of in the realm of science fiction, and yet he still brings a strong visual flair to each scene as we watch the fires lay waste to the land with an unforgiving power, and we fear for the deer running through the fields even as a wildfire gets closer and closer. At the same time, he also puts much of his attention on these men as this movie is about the job they did, not the fire which killed many of them. Kosinski makes us share in the friendships they build with one another and of the joyous moments they spend with their families to where we feel we are a part of their lives. Nobody involved with this motion picture should need to convince anyone of the emotional investment they put into this material, and this makes its tragic climax all the more devastating to witness.

Even though I knew how things would end for this group of firefighters, it didn’t make it any easier to sit through. These men had the best training and were constantly being drilled on how to protect themselves in the event of being trapped in a fire, but like other natural disaster, a fire is indiscriminate in who and what it attacks as it seeks to breathe for as long as it can. What everyone is left with are a tremendous amount of grief and survivor’s guilt, both of which deserve a movie of their own to explore.

I walked out of “Only the Brave” in tears as the filmmakers paid special tribute to the men of the Granite Mountain Hotspots, those who lived and those who died. Even the best of preparations could not spare them from the destructive flames they perished in, but it still never took away from the bravery the showed us, and this movie gives them a well-deserved memorial to their selfless efforts. While we mourn the loss of life, we celebrate the lives these men led as they deserve much more than being just a footnote in history.

“Only the Brave” marks a big leap forward for Kosinski as he shows there is more to him than directing big science-fiction films with awesome music scores. It is also worth noting how the movie’s credits are shown at the beginning as opposed to at the end like in “Tron: Legacy” and “Oblivion.” Not only that, but the credits are presented in a surprisingly subtle fashion as Kosinski must have realized his talents could not and should not upstage the firefighters of the Granite Mountain Hotshots.

As I write this review, wildfires have been doing tremendous damage in Northern California near where my brother lives with his family. Seeing this film makes me think about what his family and others are enduring right now as the damage left in the fires’ wake is just awful. I also find myself thinking of those firefighters up north and wonder if they are getting the respect, not to mention the funding, they deserve. Whereas “Backdraft” felt more like a Hollywood take on the lives of firefighters, “Only the Brave” feels like the real deal, and it makes me want to go up to those who are working tirelessly to keep wildfires from spreading and shake their hands. This movie is proof of how much they deserve our respect.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

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Risen

risen-movie-poster

The story of Jesus Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection has been told countless times, but “Risen” looks to tell it from a different perspective. This movie follows powerful the Roman Centurion Clavius (Joseph Fiennes) as he is ordered by Pontius Pilate (Peter Firth) to investigate the disappearance of Yeshua’s (a.k.a. Jesus of Nazareth) body which has vanished from its resting place. What results is a motion picture which proves to be anti-climactic more than anything else, and this is regardless of the fact it is better produced than other faith-based films out there today.

Things start out with Clavius leading his troops out into battle in a fight scene which looks like something out of “300.” Then we see him as he helps to close off Yeshua’s final resting place which is sealed off with an enormous stone wall. Somehow this wall is breached and Clavius is left with his aide Lucius (Tom Felton) to figure out who absconded with Yeshua’s body, and the answer will forever change what he has been led to believe.

“Risen” was directed by Kevin Reynolds who may be best known for directing “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves” and the infamous “Waterworld” with his friend and, at times, worst enemy Kevin Costner. He approaches this movie as a detective story as we watch Clavius interrogate many people about who might have made off with Yeshua’s body when the guards were not looking. This is where things are at their most interesting as it seems like Reynolds is testing us in regards to what we have been taught to believe about Jesus Christ among other things. Witnesses say one thing, but we are skeptical as to what we should accept as truth.

But then Clavius discovers Yeshua has somehow come back to the land of the living, and this is where the movie fell apart. Perhaps I should mention “Risen” starts with Clavius roaming the barren landscape, having been deeply affected by an experience we have yet to see him discover for himself. As a result, any tension or suspense this movie hoped to offer its audience is thrown out the window because we already have a pretty good idea of what’s going to happen.

Dramas of any kind suffer tremendously when conflict is absent, and “Risen” quickly renders any potential conflict as null even when the movie could have benefited from more of it. Clavius’ association with the Roman Army quickly becomes non-existent when he sees with his own eyes how Yeshua has somehow come back from the dead. His loyal aide Lucius (Tom “Draco Malfoy” Felton) sees him as a betrayer of the Romans, but any confrontation that could come between the two of them is rendered moot in no time at all. By the time the movie reaches its conclusion, I couldn’t help but wonder what Reynolds was trying to get across. Was it belief helps you overcome being a Roman Centurion who helped pin Christ to the crucifix and then leave all those years of training behind upon discovering Christ has been resurrected? Look, I’m a big believer of anything being possible, but Clavius’ sudden conversion feels very far-fetched.

Fiennes is a fine actor (no pun intended) and he does give Clavius a stoicism which would make the common criminal buckle under an especially intense interrogation. At the same time, he makes Clavius a little too stoic to where his face seems far more frozen than it has any right to be. Clavius is supposed to be a very serious dude, but some moments of levity could have helped to at least remind audiences that Fiennes’ range as an actor is much broader than is presented here.

I do, however, have to give credit to Cliff Curtis for giving us a powerfully mesmerizing interpretation of Yeshua/Jesus of Nazareth. Whenever he appears on screen, the actor exudes a sereneness and calm which is not as easy to pull off as he makes it look. This is the same actor who played FBI Deputy Director Miguel Bowman in “Live Free or Die Hard,” and here he digs into this role internally to where you are desperate to follow him no matter where he goes. His performance makes this movie more watchable than it would have been otherwise.

Aside from that, “Risen” is beautiful to look at thanks to director of photography Lorenzo Senatore, but there’s not much about the movie to recommend. The story of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ has been told in more compelling ways than what is presented here. But being this is a Kevin Reynolds movie, it won’t matter what audiences think of it because Kevin Costner will watch it and say he could have made it better.

* * out of * * * *

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