(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 Cable TV, April 2017) I had too-high hopes that War Dogs would be another strong entry in my pet geo-sardonicism subgenre—geopolitics treated with a good dose of sardonic humour as a way to make sense of an increasingly unlikely world, an updated Lord of War for the post-Iraq generation. I half-got my wish. For one thing, War Dogs is, indeed, a comedy taking on geopolitical issues: namely arms dealing and the unlikely profits coming from the unintended consequences of well-meaning government procurement policy changes. Miles Teller is the narrator and protagonist of an incredible story (partially based on real events) in which an underachieving young man ends up putting together multimillion dollar deals for the government’s war efforts. His patter, especially in the film’s first half, is interesting and damning at once. War Dogs starts out well with a first half filled with comedy, rags-to-riches incidents, and incredible war stories. It plays a bit like one of Ben Mezrich’s American-hustler books. Director Todd Philips knows how to present a film with pop and irreverent energy, and Jonah Hill does bring a degree of uncomfortable energy to the proceedings. Alas, this sugar high doesn’t last as the movie predictably settles into something far less fun in its latter half. War Dogs has to punish its villains, and those include our two protagonists. Their adventures get a great deal less fun as they turn on each other, renege on deals and get caught up in a federal investigation. There is no triumphant ending in store—at best, a soft (ish) landing. Still, War Dogs is a delight for those moment in which it does works. If the film’s not quite successful, then so be it—I’d rather see an imperfect take on procurement corruption than a more successful vapid comedy.
(On Cable TV, January 2017) As I write this, it looks as if the Divergent series will never be completed on the big screen: Box-office results for the series (and Allegiant itself) were so bad given the end of the teenage-dystopia craze that plans are now to do the follow-up as a TV movie and/or TV series. For my reaction to this, imagine a tap dance on a grave: Hunger Games aside, the teen-dystopia crash could be seen well in advance by the generic nature of the copycats involved. Allegiant (which was consciously split from its ending in order to make two movies as bigger profits—funny how that didn’t turn out as expected) is an exemplary part of the trend in that it’s utterly forgettable. It blathers on and you don’t even need to pay attention to figure out the various familiar betrayals unfolding on-screen. It gets worse if you do pay attention, given that you can’t assume that the plot-holes dumb twists and unexplainable motivations have been addressed at some point. Shailene Woodley is reportedly dissatisfied that the series is going to TV and the only possible answer to that is along the lines of “boohoo, what did you expect?” She doesn’t even manage to get out of Allegiant with her dignity intact: only Miles Teller does that with a sarcastic character who seems to be as embarrassed as his actor to be stuck in there. No, there won’t be any tears shed about the Divergent series going to TV. I’ll even argue that it should have remained confined to YA books, and then quickly forgotten.
(Netflix Streaming, December 2016) What? Miles Teller playing a cad who learns better?!? Well, yes: for an actor as young as he is, Teller has already developed a strong screen persona that’s part arrogance and part cynicism. Time will tell if he can sustain it (especially given his similarities with a younger John Cusack) but, in the meantime, he’s effective and even entertaining in those roles. In The Spectacular Now, Teller plays a high-school version of a character we usually see in older stages of life: the underachieving boozer/womanizer, getting by on minimal effort and apparently willing to dismiss everything and everyone but secretly harbouring some long-lasting emotional scars. Focusing on a girl as kind of a rebound Pygmalion project seems like a passing fancy at first, but we know it’s not going to be as simple as making his ex-girlfriend jealous so that he can get back with her. Not too far from the recent John Greenish mode of teenage moviemaking, The Spectacular Now does have the grace to play between drama and comedy, with flawed characters, difficult situations, uncomfortable choices and characters growing up. Shailene Woodley is fine as the romantic heroine and Mary Elizabeth Winstead makes a remarkable appearance as an older sister, but it’s Teller’s film. The film is remarkable by what it doesn’t do—namely, fall into the traps of the usual teenage dramedies … although I’m a bit worried that, along with The Way Way Back and other John Green-adapted films, it’s forging a set of new clichés for that subgenre. Time will tell, as time will tell whether this will remain a definitive performance for Teller’s early career.
(On Blu-ray, September 2016) The recent proliferation of teenage dystopias has been made worse by the sameness of their premise and the shameless way they all adopted the same ways to talk to teenagers. As a latecomer to the party, the Divergent series has to contend with a stronger sense of déjà vu, and as a middle volume in a series, Insurgent has a harder time distinguishing itself from other, often better competitors. Here, the nonsensical adventures of our heroine continue without too many revelations: There is now an open rebellion against the established order, and the order doesn’t like that at all. Shailene Woodley does fine as the super-special protagonist, but there isn’t much in this instalment to keep viewers interested. The sole exception worth mentioning are the oneiric segments in which our lead character deals with surreal fantasies: the visual polish of these sequences in fascinating, and for a moment or two the film manages to be better than its own material. (Heck, it even had me unexpectedly patting myself on the back for watching this on Blu-ray rather than DVD.) Then Insurgent goes back to reality, a cackling Miles Teller as the wildcard (the only other actor who manages to emerge from this film with some dignity) and more groundwork laid for the next volume. As I write this, the plans for the Divergent series have almost entirely collapsed, with a planned fourth instalment being either put on hiatus or being redesigned as a TV show pilot. Given the lack of interest of the series so far, I’m not exactly complaining.
(Netflix Streaming, May 2016) The release of this Fantastic Four reboot was accompanied with wild rumours of a troubled production, an out-of-control director and such vehemently bad reviews that the worst could be expected from the final result. Unfortunately, most of those low expectations are met: Fantastic Four is a mess of a movie, dull and bland in the ways that comic book movies used to be before their formula was perfected, and disjoint to the point of incoherence. The detailed story of the film’s production may or may never be known, but, in the meantime, we’re left with a dour film that rehashes an overly familiar origin story, veers into a generic third act and can’t be bothered to make us care about archetypical characters that, let’s face it, shouldn’t take much work to flesh out. No matter why directory Josh Trank lost control of his film, the result feels botched and hurriedly completed to satisfy contractual obligations: There’s no sense of joy to comic book characters that should exemplify it, and if Fantastic Four very briefly forays into a fascinating body-horror sequence, it quickly forgets all about it moments later. What’s too bad is that it features good young actors who can’t be blamed for the mess: Miles Teller, Michael B. Jordan and Kate Mara, in particular, can’t do much with the featureless material they’re given. (Mara, in particular, is given material fit to make her exceptionally unlikable, which is not how she comes across in other films.) Fortunately, all three have made better movies before and after, so their careers are probably OK. The inanity of the script may be organic or due to studio meddling—it’s hard to tell, but it’s not hard to be disappointed for the results. While some of the most vitriolic reactions to Fantastic Four may be due to frenzied Marvel fan-activism (as in: “Marvel should be doing Fantastic Four films! Let’s hope it tanks so that Fox give the rights back!”), the movie as made available feels like a throwback to fifteen years ago when studios given comic book properties didn’t even bother to treat the material with respect. No surprise is the result is almost instantly forgettable and (as hard as it may be to type this), makes Fox’s previous two Fantastic Four movies look good in retrospect. Strange world. But mark me down as interested if ever “Fantastic Four: The Director’s original vision with unfiltered commentary” ever comes out.
(On Cable TV, February 2016) There’s a sub-genre of movies that could be called (for lack of a better name) “forgettable romantic comedies featuring up-and-coming movie stars”, and That Awkward Moment is a perfect addition to that canon. Its most noteworthy feature is that it stars Miles Teller, Michael B. Jordan and Zack Efron—while the third is already a star in his own way, Teller and Jordan both have other movies (Creed, Whiplash) that hint at their true acting talent. Here, they’re not actually asked to do any dramatic heavy lifting: the film coasts a long time on their basic charm, even as their characters aren’t particularly admirable. Another romantic comedy for men that celebrates immaturity and boorishness, That Awkward Moment is perhaps best appreciated as a fake-anthropological study of young males on the cusp of romantic responsibility, although by the time the Hollywood process is done with the film, there’s nearly nothing authentic left to see. Various bits and pieces work; other bits and pieces are just puzzling or unpleasant given the casual misogyny of the script. Imogen Poots and Mackenzie Davis do well as the female matchups for the male protagonists, and as usual in these kinds of films they’re far more level-headed and sensible than our nominal main characters. It doesn’t amount to much: by the end, That Awkward Moment is slight enough to escape making any lasting impression other than a vague feeling that this isn’t going to be one of the films that Jordan or Teller will highlight once they become authentic megastars.
(On Cable TV, August 2014) Anyone could be forgiven, after reading a short summary of Whiplash’s plot (“Student Jazz Musician tries to prove himself to demanding teacher”) that this would be a relatively sedate and dull affair, somewhere along the lines of a musical Good Will Hunting. But that would be a terrible mistake, because Whiplash tells a musical coming-of-age drama with the tempo of an action movie. Miles Teller is pretty good as the student willing to sacrifice just about everything in order to become a great musician, but J.K. Simmons is stellar as his nemesis, a teacher who thinks that developing a great musician or worth the worst methods imaginable. His performance is Whiplash’s biggest special effect – a blend of meanness, bad temper, outright machiavelism and unapologetic righteousness. Much of his character’s complexity is reflected elsewhere in the tight script, which delivers a deceptive triumph of an ending with implications that aren’t as triumphant as you may think. Otherwise, the music sounds great even to untrained jazz listeners, the editing is spectacularly good and Damien Chazelle’s direction is effective without being showy. The ending is terrific and caps off a film with very little padding. (In fact, as the mystery of the missing folder suggests, it may even miss a bit of connective narrative.) Whiplash, in other words, is a surprisingly good film, a more-than-worthy Oscar nominee, and a memorable viewing experience. Who knew you could care so much about a drum solo?