Only the Brave (2017)

brave1Sometimes, expectations are everything: Only the Brave is a frustrating film. Oh, its sincere enough, and a noble attempt at telling its true story with respect and surprising restraint- this isn’t the huge Hollywood effects spectacle that might be expected. It just doesn’t, sadly, ignite (sic). Its such a strange thing- competently staged and with a really great cast (Josh Brolin, Jeff Bridges, Jennifer Connelly)… actually, maybe that cast is the problem, maybe its just too good a cast, with too much cinematic baggage behind them that carries all sorts of expectations in itself.

I was surprised to see that it was directed by Joseph Kosinski,  of Tron: Legacy and Oblivion fame, as that in itself would suggest a big, spectacular and horrifying canvas would be put up on the screen but Kosinski seems to deliberately play against those expectations. Its just a different sort of movie than his previous films might suggest. Yeah, there’s those confounded expectations again.

But it isn’t an intimate character-driven piece either, possibly because those big-name actors, or that visually-adept director, aren’t exactly an arthouse cinema bunch. Its therefore caught somewhere in-between, and so intent on treating the real events and people caught up in them with proper due respect that the film just… exists, without really saying anything.

It reminds me rather a great deal of The 33, another film based on true events that impacted on a reasonably large group. While Only the Brave mostly centers upon Josh Brolin’s character, it also tries to flesh out the rest of  the Granite Mountain Hotshots that he leads in the firefighting, and like The 33, the film suffers from not having enough time, or perhaps the script isn’t finely honed enough, to do so many characters justice.

I don’t know, its really a strange one. Its a good film, but it just lacks that essential spark, if you’ll forgive one more fire metaphor. I’m tempted to suggest the issue may lie with the score, funnily enough. I just find myself thinking of the film Glory, and James Horner’s magnificent score. Sure the music and the film were perhaps overly manipulative but the combination of film and music involved me, made me feel something.  I didn’t really feel anything with Only the Brave; I enjoyed it and found it very worthwhile but it didn’t engage me emotionally. It might seem odd to suggest blame lies with the music score but film music isn’t what it used to be, and the industry has lost something of the genius of the likes of Goldsmith and Horner and that kind of film music, no longer in vogue, certainly worked back in the day.

So a missed opportunity then, unfortunately, but certainly a sincere enough effort.

Hail, Caesar! (2016)

hail12016.87: Hail, Caesar! (Amazon VOD)

Hail, Caesar! is the Coen Brother’s rather affectionate ode to the Golden Age of Hollywood. There’s little mystery to why the critics lapped this up- for anyone who loves those 1950s Hollywood classics that many of us grew up with on television, whether it be the biblical epics, innocent Westerns or musical extravaganzas, this seems like a love-letter to a lost age when the old Studio system yet reigned. Its full of elaborate sequences of films being shot in the manner of Golden Age movies, like complex musical numbers and huge spectacles that are rich with nostalgia for the period. I’m not so sure though that it actually works as a movie in itself, which is likely why the public weren’t so enamoured with it. Besides, many of the in-jokes and film-genre references are likely lost on any viewer under the age of forty unless they are film-lovers enough to watch the cinema of that era (most of my colleagues at work are largely ignorant of films made prior to 1980, unless Lucas was involved).

One of the problems is an unfocused script, with myriad plots and sub-plots vying for attention. The central character, and unlikely ‘hero’, is Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), the head of Capitol Pictures who is overseeing film projects and the lives and careers of the talent signed to his studio.  If a starlet becomes pregnant or a star is caught in a compromising position with someone who isn’t his wife, Mannix is the man to step in and sort it out. If the tabloids get a potentially damaging scoop, Mannix knows how to strike a deal with a more favourably-scripted scoop instead. If your star lead in your major blockbuster of the year disappears from set mid-production, its just one more problem for Mannix to solve.

hail2

The secret to Mannix’s success is that he lives and breathes the movies; its truly in his blood. During the course of the film he is approached by Lockheed with a major management post, the Lockheed rep promising him a career in something with a future, something more important than a management job in a silly business like film-making. The rep doesn’t understand that his overtures are a lost cause, but he is right about a career with a future- films might have a future, but the studio system and the film-making so beloved by Mannnix is surely doomed. There is a sadness that is woven inside the jokes and warmth of the film studio depicted here. Time is running out for these kinds of movies and movie-making, and studio heads like Mannix.

Film within-film Hail Ceasar! is a biblical epic in the tradition of Ben Hur, which falls into production woes when its star  Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) is kidnapped in a Communist plot that intends to ultimately undermine the Studio system so beloved by Mannix. Mannix has to manage the costs of the delayed production whilst negotiating Whitlock’s return, whilst juggling all the other daily problems that arise for his attention.

Its all fairly chaotic with a great cast possibly actually wasted, as they are spread rather thinly to the point of being just cameos. But the film is warm and affectionate, and while I’d hesitate to describe it as genuinely funny, it is quite fun. Some of the on-set recreations of movies of that era are very complex, like a musical number involving sailors singing and dancing in a bar that is an obvious ode to the films of Gene Kelly. Also, the ‘real-life’ sequences involving the kidnap of and hunt for kidnapped star Whitlock are shot like they belong in a Hitchcock thriller. Its homages within homages, films within films within films. Whether it actually makes for a good film in of itself is open to some debate. Maybe it improves with repeat viewings- it wouldn’t be the first time a Coen Brothers film sneaked up on me over the years.

Clearly a film made by and for film-lovers then. Not quite the resounding success I had expected it to be, but worth watching nonetheless.

 

Sin City 2: A Dame To Kill For (2014)

sin1After languishing on the shelf since last Christmas when I received it as a prezzy, I’ve finally gotten around to watching Sin City 2. Why exactly it remained unwatched for so long I’m not sure- I was a huge fan of the original film and have all the Frank Miller Sin City graphic novels (indeed, I bought the massive hardback omnibus volume several months ago to replace my paperback copies). Probably it was the negative word of mouth that had kept me away from the theatrical release of the film too. Like many fans, I’d waited several more years than expected to get a second Sin City flick- a delay that raised expectations in fans and fostered disinterest in others and likely cost the studio a mint as it turned out- and it was clear from reviews that the final film was a major disappointment.

To be fair, being a fan of the books, it was clear already that A Dame To Kill For aside, the best stories were featured in the original film. It also cannot be denied that Frank Millers artwork and plotting all suffered increasingly as the series of books wore on, almost becoming a parody of itself towards the end. I don’t know if it was boredom or laziness on Miller’s part but the law of diminishing returns rears its ugly head over his Sin City. Which was such a shame, as the first volume was wonderful. So anyway, I rather expected the second film to suffer the same fate of the books- after all, the films are so slavishly faithful to the graphic stories, if the stories were slipping in quality as they went on, that would inevitably translate to the film versions, too. And it does.

sin2SIn City 2 opens with a short tale Just Another Saturday Night, and instantly sets the alarm bells ringing. There’s not really any story here to tell of, just a perfunctory plot to set the violence off. Sin City‘s violence is hyper-stylised stuff, all graphic slo-mo sequences with bright gushes of white splatter and severed limbs. It works great in the comic and was a novel (at times shocking) approach in the first movie, but it was always in the context of the bigger story, the drama and the characters, such as they were in its pupish noir universe. Its as if the film makers thought that it was the crazy graphic violence that made the first film so popular, when, in my opinion at least, it was the web of intrigue and fatal characters that was the real success of the film.  In this opener it just seems cartoon violence for its own sake and actually seems boring rather than exciting. It feels too forced and an ill-judged opener to the film (the first film opened with a lovely moody sequence much more restrained and was all the better for it). Most frustrating of all, Marv, one of the most interesting and enjoyable characters before, comes across here as just a dumb tank, lacking the pathos and doom-laden end that he had in the first film. This continues later on when he appears in the later chapters of SIn City 2, utterly diminishing his character.

The most successful chapter of the film, as might have been expected, is A Dame To Kill For. Its the closest it gets to the ‘feel’ and intensity of the first film. Yes its violent, yes its decadent and sexy, but its got a great noir story and great characters played by a marvelous cast. Eva Green is, as ever, simply magnificent, chewing up the black and white cgi scenery as well as the men her character traps in her poisonous web.Josh Brolin is very good as her ex-lover Dwight, doomed to fall back into her clutches before battling his way out. It has the tone of a genuine pulp novel and is the highlight of the whole film. I almost wish that the story had been expanded somehow rather than have been so faithfully reproduced from the original graphic series, as it feels just frustratingly short and diminished by the stories that surround it.

sin3On the whole though I did enjoy the film- certainly more than I had expected too. Its hardly the disaster that the reviews I read intimated it to be, and considering how the graphic series turned out its hardly surprising that it suffers in comparison to the original. Maybe just too many years had passed and the creators misjudged what had made the first film such a success. In anycase, I’ll forgive the film its digressions just for the fine A Dame To Kill For segment, glad to finally at least have that after having waited so many years for it.

So it’s extremely unlikely we’ll ever get a Sin City 3, which does seem a shame. It might have been an entertaining trilogy of films. Indeed I get the feeling of ‘what might have been’ about Sin City 2, and that’s a frustrating thing to say when you consider it wasn’t a quick cash-in after the first film but rather a film that came out several years later and, ironically perhaps because of this failed to recreate that original spark. But it’s not a bad film at all, just…. yeah, just not what it might have been.