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After a slow start, Only the Brave rallies to become a solid tribute to the Granite Mountain Hotshots, 19 of whom died battling the massive Yarnell Hill Fire in 2013.

The Hotshots were an elite Prescott, Ariz., crew led by veteran firefighter Eric Marsh, played here by Josh Brolin. This performance ranks among Brolin’s best, as he shows us a passionate man presiding over his crew like a father to his sons.

Marsh takes a risk on Brendan McDonough (Miles Teller), a former drug-user seeking redemption and a decent living to provide for his newborn daughter. The always-reliable Teller matches Brolin’s acting triumph every step of the way, making both Marsh and McDonough fleshed-out, complicated characters. The two seem right at home with each other onscreen.

Director Joseph Kosinski takes a solid step beyond his prior sci-fi blunders (Oblivion, TRON: Legacy) to deliver a movie that is technically sound and emotionally powerful, if a little hokey and overlong in spots. The movie is never bad, but it does drone on a bit during some of the melodramatic build up. It never goes wrong when the team is on the job and fighting fires; it just gets a little sleepy when folks are sitting around talking or bickering.

We see the team containing numerous fires throughout the film, giving us the sense that these guys were in full command of their trade. Of course, nature is an awesome and awful beast—and when the wind shifts and sends the Yarnell blaze toward the unsuspecting men, you get a true sense of how random and crazy the event was. These guys were the best of the best, and even they couldn’t predict what was going to happen.

Kosinski has assembled a cast that includes Brolin’s True Grit cast mate Jeff Bridges as Duane Steinbrink, Marsh’s supervisor. You can’t go wrong with Bridges; he delivers good humor, at one point busts out a guitar, and ultimately provides the movie with a solid emotional punch during the finale. Taylor Kitsch gets some good laughs as troublemaker Christopher MacKenzie; he gripes about handing over his new Vans to trainee Brendan, but winds up becoming his best friend over time.

As Amanda Marsh—Eric’s wife who takes care of injured horses when he’s away—Jennifer Connelly gets a chance to shine. Like Eric, Amanda has had a rough past, and problems bubble to the surface during some of his stop-ins between fires. Connelly does well with material that could seem played out in the hands of others. She adds angst to the mix with Amanda, and it works.

Knowing nothing about the art of firefighting, I can’t vouch for the authenticity of this film, but it sure does feel realistic. The Hotshots do controlled burns to protect landscapes, save historic trees and rescue neighborhoods. Additional supporting cast members, like James Badge Dale as Jesse Steed, Marsh’s second in command, give you a sense that the actors did a lot of ride-alongs for their roles.

Even though the fate of the men in the film is well-known, the depiction of the Yarnell Fire still blindsides you. Brolin’s Marsh figures it will be an easily contained fire, with the men home for dinner. Kosinski portrays the shock of the whole situation effectively; the men were working a situation which seemed to be completely under control.

The final sequences in the movie are so well done that you’ll feel kind of bad for groaning during the film’s more lumbering parts. By the time Kosinski shows the real-life firefighters alongside their Hollywood counterparts, the film has become a nice homage to these great, unselfish, all-giving men.

Parts of the country are going through some of the worst fire seasons in modern history. It’s not surprising this film didn’t have a big opening weekend; it’s a subject very close to home and truly painful for many. It’s a movie that will gain an audience over time.

Only the Brave is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

Larry Kramer’s semi-autobiographical The Normal Heart, based on his play with the same name, offers up some of the best acting you will see in any movie or TV show.

Mark Ruffalo plays Ned Weeks, a character Kramer loosely based upon himself. He’s a gay journalist with a blasé attitude about love and life. When visiting a party at Fire Island in 1981, one of the revelers falls to his knees, coughing, on the shoreline. In this moment, Ned and his friends are introduced to AIDS.

What follows is a history-based dramatization of what happened to a group of men and doctors trying to raise AIDS awareness against a backdrop of citizen indifference and political blocking. The film addresses the controversial stance taken by New York City mayor Ed Koch, with the Weeks character proclaiming that their (allegedly) closeted gay mayor and politicians like him were essentially out to murder the gay population.

Ruffalo is astoundingly good here, as is Julia Roberts as a lone doctor screaming in the wilderness for people to identify the illness and find a cure. Both performers have moments in this movie that are better than anything else they have ever done.

The same can be said for the likes of Taylor Kitsch, Jim Parsons, BD Wong, Matt Bomer, Alfred Molina and Joe Mantello. Kitsch is especially good as Bruce Niles, a friend of Weeks who essentially becomes his adversary as Weeks’ protesting tactics become more and more controversial.

HBO was already a leader in gay cinema with And the Band Played On (1993) and the amazing Angels in America (2003). This further establishes them as a leader in bold, important cinematic projects.

Who needs movie theaters, right?

Published in TV

Lone Survivor, an explosive passion project from writer-director Peter Berg, takes an unrelentingly gruesome look at Operation Red Wings, the failed 2005 mission in Afghanistan that claimed the lives of 19 American soldiers.

Autopsies and first-hand witness accounts have revealed that three Navy SEALs were brutally killed by bullets and the rugged countryside tearing them apart. As for the other 16 soldiers killed, they died when a Taliban rocket-propelled grenade struck their helicopter and sent them crashing into a cliff.

Most of the movie centers on the four Navy SEALs dropped into hostile territory, and how an unfortunate civilian encounter and communications problems led to a massive gun battle with insurmountable odds.

In a performance that stands among his best, Mark Wahlberg plays Marcus Luttrell, the Navy SEAL who co-wrote the book upon which this movie is based. (The real Luttrell actually has a cameo early in the film; he acted as a consultant.) Luttrell and fellow Navy SEALs Michael Murphy (Taylor Kitsch), Danny Dietz (Emile Hirsch) and Matt Axelson (Ben Foster) were performing reconnaissance for a mission meant to capture or kill a notorious Taliban leader when a trio of goat herders stumbled upon their camp.

In a powerfully acted scene, the four men debate whether or not they should let these prisoners go, or “terminate the compromise.” Their decision ultimately leads to a skirmish wherein they are far outnumbered.

This is where Berg and his stunt-and-effects crew really go to work. Aided in part by Greg Nicotero, who does the makeup effects for The Walking Dead, Berg shows injury after injury; it’s a true horror show. When the actors take hits in this movie, they sound very real—and extremely painful. This is especially true during two sequences in which SEALs must evade bullets by jumping off cliffs. These plummets feature stuntmen crashing into rocks and trees with a ferocity that looks positively deadly. Berg seamlessly injects edits of the actual actors falling as well.

There’s a story circulating (told by both Wahlberg and Berg) that the first stuntman to leap off a cliff for Lone Survivor broke a bunch of ribs, punctured his lung and had to be airlifted off the set. When you actually see how jarringly realistic this movie is, you’ll be shocked the stunt guy’s injuries weren’t worse.

The last act of the film depicts how some sympathetic Afghani villagers found one of the SEALs and sheltered him from Taliban forces until Americans arrived. Don’t think this part of the film represents anything near relief, because the SEAL endures plenty of pain and near-death episodes during this stretch, too.

This film features one of the best acting ensembles of the last year. Wahlberg leads the group with fury, as well as the occasional—and much-needed—humorous touch. Kitsch, who recently headlined the Berg stinker Battleship and starred in the ill-fated John Carter, experiences a complete career resurrection here. He offers a strong, sympathetic presence as Murphy.

Hirsch, so good in the recent Prince Avalanche and The Motel Life, breaks hearts as Dietz, who loses his drawing hand during a battle. Foster is perhaps the most powerful of the bunch as a man who actually gets shot in the head, yet keeps on fighting.

Lone Survivor pulverizes the senses and features good actors at the top of their games, giving the film the sort of emotional anchor sorely missing in too many military-based movies. The men here don’t die waving American flags accompanied by “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” They die some of the hardest, loneliest deaths you will ever see—and that fact is all the more horrifying because these deaths are steeped in reality.

Lone Survivor opens Friday, Jan. 10, at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews