(On Cable TV, October 2018) Hollywood has a fixation on making inspiring movies out of tragedies, and firefighter drama Only the Brave pushes this habit to the limit, leaving out a few less-savoury details along the way. The real events on which this film is based (and Only the Brave does itself a disservice by not stating this up-front) are tragic: nineteen close-knit firemen belonging to the fire crew of Prescott, AZ, died while fighting a brushfire. What the film insists on doing is to show the dedication, courage and tenacity of the doomed men, their relationships to be extinguished with their spouses, and so on. Everybody is ennobled in death, and the firefighters here are no exception. It’s a familiar script in that regard. What makes the film work beyond the mournful homage is in its execution from visually-strong director Joseph Kosinski. A solid cast headlines the film, with Josh Brolin as the chief leading the men in danger, and capable actors such as Miles Teller, Jeff Bridges, Jennifer Connelly and Andie MacDowell in supporting roles. The way the firefights are shown is also quite compelling—for a medium-budgeted film, Only the Brave has some exceptional special effects (in daytime, outside, wide-screen) to portray men fighting fires in dangerous circumstances. It’s almost certainly the best firefighter film since Backdraft and its earnestness does manage to keep the film going even when it’s not being subtle about what it’s doing. The film does end at the right moment, though: again, the real-life story had a very unpleasant epilogue, with the widows of some of the dead men having to fight the town council to secure benefits. That part is nowhere in Only the Brave, but then again some things are beyond Hollywood’s ability to transform in a noble uplifting film.
(On DVD, January 2017) I won’t go so far as to say that time can forgive anything—including a wholly unnecessary invasion of a foreign country that ended up killing tens of thousands of people and upsetting the geopolitical balance of an entire region—but barely a week into the Trump administration, I’m far more receptive to a sympathetic portrait of George W. Bush. It took noted agitator Oliver Stone to do it as well, and he didn’t even wait until the end of Bush’s second term to release it. Watching W. ten years later, it’s remarkable how Stone seemed to have been on target even then. For all of the revelations of the past ten years, the events chronicled in W. (hopping in-between a quick biography of Bush’ life, intercut with crucial moments in the ramp up to the 2003 American invasion of Iraq) still ring truthfully, with the personalities of the people involved being immediately recognizable. For those who overdosed on political commentary at the time (myself included), there’s a treat in reactivating those near-forgotten neural pathways and being able to recognize public figures merely from the actors playing them. (Thandie Newton as Condoleeza Rice—woo!) Their portrayal seem harsh but fair—and having Dick Cheney deliver an impromptu presentation on the harsh realities of strategic geopolitics is enough to make one wish for an evil genius rather than an incompetent salesman in the White House. (But I digress … or do I?) Suffice to say that W. may not exonerate Bush from what should weigh on his conscience, but it does humanize a president that was easy to caricature, even though some of the dad/son dynamics in-between Josh Brolin (a fine Bush Jr.) and James Cromwell (a very good Bush Sr.) seem overdone. All I know is that I ended up enjoying W. far more than I expected, and not all of it has to do with validating pointless hours obsessing over American politics.
(Video on Demand, January 2016) As far as hard unflinching thrillers go, Sicario is a cut above the average. Featuring a merciless look at the increasingly uncivilized war between governments and drug dealers on both sides of the US-Mexico border, this film takes viewers into darkness and doesn’t allow for much light at the end. Our gateway character is a competent police officer drawn into a murky universe in which answers aren’t forthcoming and may be harmful to the soul. Director Denis Villeneuve once again manages a spectacular-looking film: with the help of legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins, Sicario revels in the bleak gorgeousness of the desert and its menacing twilight. The “bridge sequence” is a terrific thrill ride, while the almost-cryptic lines of dialogue do much to suggest an entire universe beyond the words. Emily Blunt is good in the lead role, but Benicio Del Toro and Josh Brolin end up stealing the show at times. Heavy in macho rhetoric against which crashes our protagonist, Sicario has the heft of a big thriller, the likes of which aren’t seen too often in today’s studio environment. Still, it’s not quite a perfect film: The morbid reality of its vision can weigh heavily at times, but the script appears half-polished in the way it switches protagonists during its third act, doesn’t quite maximize its own strengths and occasionally seems unfinished. I wanted to like it a bit more than I did by the end. Still, Sicario stand tall as one of the big thrillers of 2015, and should be good enough to make adult-minded viewers happy with their evening choice.
(On Cable TV, December 2014) I’m not going to be coy about my biases going into this movie: The original South-Korean Oldboy did not need to be remade for an American audience. Seeing Spike Lee tackle the project is a bit of a waste, especially when the result seems to stick as closely to the original. I suppose that the film would be worth a look for those who haven’t seen the original: It has an intriguing mystery at its core, an unconventional revenge story, enough icky plot points to make it memorable and a bit of style as bonus. (It’s best not to think too long about the finer points of the plot, but so it goes.) Josh Brolin is a solid protagonist, Samuel L. Jackson has a flashy short role and Sharlito Copley turns in another off-kilter performance as the villain. Still, this American Oldboy runs long, never quite connects to the protagonist, somehow doesn’t earn its wilder plot points and doesn’t quite know how to control its tone. This being said, nearly everyone who should have seen the original has seen the original, and comparisons are where much of this remake’s interest is about. It does seem to beg comparison, so closely does it adhere to the original –there’s even a bit of a fake-out where it seems as if the most effective twist of the original has been neutralized. And while much of the remake is less impressive than the original, its coda is more credible than the hypnotism mumbo-jumbo of the Korean version. In the end, though, this Oldboy falls in-between respectable cinema and effective exploitation, satisfying no one –and annoying those who thought the (even flawed) original should have been left alone.
(On Cable TV, March 2013) Nobody was asking for a third Men in Black installment after the disaster that was 2002’s second film, but here we are: Will Smith wants another box-office hit, and this is the best franchise he’s got. To be fair, the Men in Black concept is still strong: it’s a great framework through which to combine humor, gadgets, action, special effects and the occasional bit of awe at the strangeness of the universe. When it clicks, Men in Black 3 is able to touch upon all of those strengths. Alas, it doesn’t always do so, and whatever strong points it has often seem accidental thanks to the ego of a few of the people involved. Let’s start with elements of the premise, which sees both lead characters reprise the same character dynamics despite a ten-year gap: Will Smith is still playing his character (heck, his entire screen persona) as a mid-twenties smart-ass, which wears increasingly thin for someone in his mid-forties. Does it make sense that his character (still single) should still have the same relationship with his job partner a decade later? Who knows: at least it sets up a laborious series of scenes all reminding us that Tommy Lee Jones’ character is emotionless. After a surprisingly gory opening sequence and some obnoxious flaying around, Men in Black 3 finally hits its stride when it sends its protagonist back in time: Milking the era for a few Mad-Men-in-Black jokes, it also has fun reconceptualising the MIB agency in an earlier time. Josh Brolin makes for a droll younger Tommy Lee Jones, while some of the considerations surrounding the improbability of even the most mundane events are good for a bit of sci-fi pop-philosophy. The time-traveling elements are used in a manner that is both ingenious and nonsensical (don’t be surprised if your suspension of disbelief snaps at a crucial junction, because it really doesn’t make sense even with a neuralizer.) It doesn’t help that Barry Sonnenfeld is at his usual inconsistent best: While he can handle comic set-pieces and great visuals with a deft touch, he’s all-too-often likely to include head-scratching diversions and meaningless details good only for making us wonder why. Tallying the pluses against the minuses, we end up with a film that’s generally better than its predecessor, with enough high points (and an absence of truly bad points) to make it worth a look. It’s not a complete success, but it’s quite a bit better than anyone was expecting given the film’s troubled production history and decade-distant awful predecessor. See it as a buffet, and take only the parts that you like.
(On DVD, June 2011) Never having seen The Goonies (I know, I know…), I can’t say for sure if the film holds up for those with fond memories of the original. But seen fresh, the film still has a lot of fun and narrative energy. Sure, the kid actors often overact: Corey Feldman, in particular, seems to be mugging for the camera over and above what a motor-mouth should. The acting is broad and unsubtle: there’s little naturalism in how the characters are portrayed. But up to a certain point, that’s part of the charm: The Goonies is recognizably an early-teen fantasy of adventure and action: in-between wacky inventions, ingenious traps, first kisses, sibling tension, silly criminals and treasure maps, the film aims square at boys and girls and succeeds in portraying the kind of adventure many wished for in late grade school. As a collaboration between producer Steven Spielberg, writer Chris Columbus and director Richard Donner, The Goonies is also a powerhouse of talents who were at their mid-eighties peak: all would go on to make other things, but their reputation would hinge heavily on this film. Even from the first snappy minutes, it’s easy to see how everything clicks in this film. Not every sequence and plot elements works as well (I’m not so fond of Sloth, nor the various plot tricks), but even a quarter of a century later, the pacing is fairly good, the atmosphere between the kids is credible and the spirit of adventure rarely flags. There’s an added bonus in seeing familiar actors in younger roles, from Sean Astin to Josh Brolin to Joe Pantoliano. The DVD does justice to the film, with great picture quality and extensive supplements ranging from a superlative audio/video commentary to a few featurettes about the making of The Goonies. I’m probably one of the last kids of the eighties to see this film, but the wait has been worth it.
(On DVD, October 2010) “Not as terrible as rumoured” isn’t much of a positive review, but given how Jonah Hex was savaged upon release as one of the worst big-budget release of 2010 (with rumours of a very troubled production), it’s almost a relief to watch the film and notice a few worthwhile things. Much of those, alas, are conceptual rather than actual: It’s a movie that sounds a lot better than it plays largely because it ineptly executes its most interesting ideas. Part of the problem is the script’s middle-of-the-road commitment to the Hex comic book mythology’s most outlandish aspects: The resulting film feels as if it never commits to full-blown fantastical concepts, and its occasional anachronism feel like weak sauce in today’s steampunk-knowledgeable media universe. It’s not often that Wild Wild West is held up as an example to follow, but it –at least- didn’t forget to have some fun in introducing anachronistic concepts in a Western setting. Worse yet is Jonah Hex’s execution of what it chooses to embrace: Thanks to the scattered direction, It’s not rare to figure out after the fact what the film was trying to do, and think that there was a far more coherent way to achieve it. It’s violent without being gory, and yet displeasingly so in a film that otherwise seems suited for an escapist romp. As such, Jonah Hex limps along from one semi-interesting scene to another, and it ends (after a mere 80 minutes) with an underwhelming, overly-familiar whimper. So, what are its good points? While Megan Fox’s character is useless and John Malkovich is wasted as the antagonist, Josh Brolin does a fine tortured Hex. There are occasional flourishes of direction in, say, resorting to comic-book panels to show what would have been unbearable to watch as live action, and there is some interesting twisted western imagery in the mix. But even with those advantages, Jonah Hex goes in the “almost” category: almost interesting, almost good and almost worth watching.