Review: Only the Brave

The story of the most deadly event for US firefighters since 9/11

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The Yarnell Hill Fire was the deadliest incident for US firefighters since the September 11 attacks. 19 brave men of the Granite Mountain Hotshots lost their lives protecting the homes and lives of a countless more. Joseph Kosinski, whose previous works include the innovate yet ill-received Oblivion, takes on this devastating story and the result is devastating in equal measure. Out of the 20 firefighters from the City of Prescott, Arizona who went to tackle the wildfire, only one returned.

That man, Brendan McDonough, is played by Miles Teller. The only wildfire he tackles initially is the one destroying his life. He gets kicked out of his mother’s house after a slew of bad decisions; his addiction to heroin, his arrest for theft and his discovery of an ex-girlfriend’s pregnancy. Now at rock bottom, he decides to follow the straight and narrow to support and provide for his child. The quest for employment takes him to the headquarters of the Prescott Fire Department when he hears of two open slots on their team.

McDonough’s reputation as a burnout preceded him and the firefighters almost laugh him out until the boss (Josh Brolin), known affectionately as Supe, decides to give him a chance. Although lacking the strength or stamina to keep up with the pack he eventually completes the test and gets a space in the crew. Teller’s portrayal of an addict is remarkable, showing that there is still much we haven’t seen from him.

As this arc develops we follow another simultaneously. Supe’s wife Amanda (Jennifer Connelly) wakes up to find her husband packing up his gear, the call to arms sounded, and asks to resolve their previous night’s fight before he goes. During the conversation, she mentions that she has a love for lost causes. This embodies her whole story, from the broken dishwasher, to her occupation of caring for horses that would otherwise be put down, to her longing to start a family with a husband who does not share her ambition.

The theme of this lack of family and loneliness in Amanda’s life is especially evocative when juxtaposed with the brotherhood that the firefighters have. As they battle blazes the necessity of tight bonds is what keeps them alive and if just one man fails out on the line, he risks the lives of them all. Kosinski puts this love front and centre without it becoming overly macho. The banter and practical jokes never feel exaggerated and, excluding their chiseled physique, they are relatable.

One of these crew members, the principal prankster, becomes McDonough’s best friend and roommate. Taylor Kitsch who plays Chris MacKenzie does a marvelous job and frankly, it’s the first role in which the character he plays is even memorable. The pseudo-homosexual relationships between the two roommates, especially when they have McDonough’s baby for the night, don’t feel out of place, rather a natural extension of their bonds.

This is the latest entry into what seems to be the latest craze sweeping Hollywood. To choose a tragedy, namely one that happens in America or to Americans, and recreate it using a lot of CGI and special effects. The market for war films seems to have diminished slightly in the past few years but producers have been quick to replace them with these. Only the Brave is a fantastic example of a tragedy film done right and regardless of slight pacing issues and an at times flat dialogue there is an underlying message that is deeply affecting, especially in the final scenes.

They are playing a dangerous game however by choosing tragedies that have occurred closer and closer to the present day. The real Yarnell Hill Fire took place in 2013 meaning it only took four more for the film to reach the cinema. Similarly, the Boston Bombings happened four years ago and now has two blockbuster films about it. While this undoubtedly has something to say beyond theatrics I strongly believe making films based on events still tender in our hearts and minds is exploitative and I hope focus shifts to scripts that place those tragedies into a fictional world.

Review: War Dogs

Iraq is dope. I’m thinking about getting a place there.

War Dogs is the tale of two high school friends that find a government loophole that allows them to bid on army contracts. They start off as bottom feeders and work their way up to be major players, eventually bidding on a contract to arm the entire Iraqi army. With a better director I feel this premise could have led to something great. Instead we have a film that is entertaining yes, but instantly forgettable nonetheless.

Whilst there is an array of issues within the film, the script stands out as the most blatant. Far too often the dialogue felt flat and wooden, with many of the gags missing their marks. The tone shifts so many times it seems that director Todd Phillips can’t decide on what type of film he wants to make. One moment it’s about two greedy friends out to stuff their pockets with as much of the American taxpayer’s money as possible and in the next moment it will try to persuade you that Teller’s character is only doing it to provide for his family.

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This is without a doubt an incredibly messy film. Although Phillips does has a history of such films, this was generally purposeful and worked to benefit an overall enjoyment (The Hangover trilogy). He tries to follow in suit of comedy directors before him such as Adam McKay and reshape his career to work in the domain of serious pictures, but refuses to reshape his filmmaking style accordingly.

Phillips makes liberal use of other director’s trademarks, but opts to implement them bewilderingly poorly. For example the title cards with quotes lifted from the original Rolling Stone article are an astonishingly lazy form of foreboding, devoid of any creativity or individuality. With the exception of Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here, every song used was tacky and predictable. As if they doubted the audiences ability to connect the dots deciding instead to hold our hand, pointing out when the mood changes and we should perk up and pay attention.

What baffles me most though is that this is based on a true story, a remarkably interesting story with huge cinematic potential. One that a director with even the smallest glimmer of inspiration could turn into something respectable. Instead of keeping the real version of events as a base and building upon it, the writers chose to insert various elements that, I presume, were intended to satisfy the masses. The most excruciating of which was the inclusion of a romance subplot with Teller and Ana de Armas. Needless romance for the sake of ticking off a square in the bingo card of Hollywood filmmaking is something that I feel needs to stop.

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The only saving grace was found in Miles Teller and Jonah Hill’s acting. Despite the script challenges faced they managed to salvage a mildly entertaining film. Hill in particular produced a fantastic performance, his character feels off from the first introduction and this crescendos as he becomes more unhinged. At the climax it is revealed that the only true statement he makes is that Scarface wasn’t on TV. Had the rest of the film lived up to this same high standard the result would be far more gripping

All these problems aside, if you’re looking for casual film to switch off and enjoy then this is perfect. While there is nothing innovative or original, there is enough here to hold your concentration. It’s just a shame that yet another fascinating true story has been given sub-par Hollywood treatment.

Review: Bleed For This

A thrilling boxing biopic enhanced through Miles Teller’s fantastic performance

A measure of an exceptional actor is not only their ability to embrace the character mentally, but also physically. Sports movies especially demand an immense level of commitment to achieve the body to match the words. Miles Teller (Whiplash, The Spectacular Now) brings yet another stellar performance in the incredible true story of Vinny Pazienza’s rise to the top.

From the offset, this Italian-American Junior Welterweight boxer’s arrogance is evident, opting to spend his time gambling away money instead of completing vital pre-fight preparation. This carelessness forces him to desperate lengths in order to make weight and the dehydration he suffers ultimately becomes his downfall in the ring. After a series of embarrassing defeats, his father (Ciaran Hinds) hires the famed trainer of Mike Tyson, Kevin Rooney (Aaron Eckhart), in an attempt to revitalise his career. In a move considered suicidal by the rest of Pazienza’s team, Rooney recommends a shift in division, up to the Junior Welterweight. Here Vinny thrives, no longer cutting corners to make weight and ultimately winning the title bout.

In typical Pazienza fashion, Vinny heads to a casino in order to celebrate his comeback victory, however a devastating head-on collision on the journey there cuts the festivities short. His spine may have been broken but his spirit most certainly isn’t as he immediately expresses the desire to get back into the ring as soon as possible. This lust to continue boxing is not shared by his team nor his family, who collectively become resigned to the seemingly obvious truth that the Pazmanian Devil’s career is over.

Upon leaving the hospital, Vinny’s head resembles scaffolding after receiving multiple screws to the skull. Although the device, named a Halo, has the potential for clear religious parallels, cinematographer Larkin Seiple purposely strays away from provoking such themes. Instead, his mother Louise (Katey Sagal) is the beacon of religion choosing to listen to her son’s fights in a nearby room filled with holy tokens rather than watch him get hurt.

Quickly becoming frustrated with his newfound immobility and reliance on others, Vinny begins to secretly train in the basement of their family home and soon after Rooney is persuaded against his better judgement to assist. Initially the training is strenuous with the bar being the extent of what Vinny can manage. One Rocky-esque training montage later though and his return to the ring seems more realistic. This does not go unnoticed, with his father Angelo quick to condemn their actions and refusing to become involved, not wishing to see his son further injured.

What follows is by no means groundbreaking, nor does it push the boundaries of the boxing genre forward, but is entirely captivating nevertheless. Director Ben Younger conveys the dogged determination and resilience of Pazienza’s journey brilliantly with highly commendable performances from Eckhart and Teller. The lack of emotional depth however is an ever-present one which, aside from making this picture a simple watch, hinders it from entering the domain of the boxing classic.