“No Matter What You Hear Or What’s Going On, Stay Together…”
Directed by American filmmaker Joseph Kosinski (Tron: Legacy, Oblivion), Only the Brave tells the dramatic and heartbreaking tale of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, an elite team of firefighters who in their attempts in thwarting the Yarnell Hill Fire in June of 2013 became American heroes and the subject of Sean Flynn’s GQ article “No Exit” of which Kosinski’s movie is based upon, and whilst the American’s previous forays into the world of science fiction cinema have been somewhat laboured, the same cannot be said for his ability in the genre of biographical dramas, with Only the Brave being a slow-burning, character-driven tale of heroism and bravery which follows in the footsteps of Deepwater Horizon and Patriots Day by being effectively crafted without ever falling into the realms of schmaltziness or cliche. Working with an ensemble cast which includes a reunion with Jeff Bridges and the likes of Josh Brolin and Miles Teller, Kosinski uses the ultimate conclusion of the tale to full emotive effect by using the bulk of the movie to develop meaningful relationships and characteristics, ranging from Miles Teller’s Brendan’s evolution from junkie to father to Josh Brolin’s “Supe” who uses the thrill of his occupation to fill the gap left behind by a previous illegal pastime.
Whilst the movie does suffer slightly from being twenty minutes too long and sometimes not using the likes of Jeff Bridges and Jennifer Connelly to full effect considering their pedigree as actors, Only the Brave chooses instead to focus primarily on Josh Brolin and Miles Teller’s characters, particularly in regards to their respective personal issues and familial ties, and whilst this sometimes leaves other members of the team to come across as simply window dressing, the performances of both hold the key to the film’s successes, with the contrasting final arc of their tale bringing the previous development together to a nicely cropped end which will leave even the most thick skinned audiences gasping with a sense of awe and shock, particularly in one of the film’s final shots when we see our heroes’ family members waiting together in a staggering state of uncertainty. Mixed together with a soundtrack which ticks all the boxes in terms of greatness, with the likes of Pearl Jam, AC/DC and Metallica all making a welcome appearance, Kosinski’s movie manages to be both an excellent homage to the true heroes of the tale and a menacing thrill ride at the same time and with central performances at the top of their game, Only the Brave is an excellent piece of biographical cinema.
Overall Score: 8/10
“I Like Your Agenda. I Know Exactly What To Do With You…”
Based upon Vince Flynn’s 2010 novel of the same name, American Assassin presents itself within the realm of 21st century spy thrillers which take on both the ethos of the Bourne franchise and the direction of Paul Greengrass, with the filmmaking tactics deployed in The Bourne Supremacy onwards having a widespread influence on a vast spectrum of cinema ranging from the gargantuan Bond series to the more B-Movie approach of the Taken franchise. Brought to the big screen by Kill the Messenger director Michael Cuesta, this first entry into an anticipated string of Flynn-based releases features Dylan O’Brien as civilian-turned-killer Mitch Rapp and Michael Keaton as veteran training agent Stan Hurley, and whilst many audiences fall under the spell of money-grabbing action cash-ins due to a underlying love of anything with extravagant explosions and expletive-ridden dialogue, American Assassin is a prime example of an action movie so lazy and plodding in its’ creation, it is actually harder to comprehend its’ existence than it is to actually enjoy it.
With a lifeless, growling and utterly dull leading performance from O’Brien as the titular stone-cold killer, one who uses the cranked in and wholly exploitative plot point of a particular death as reasoning for murderous rampaging, American Assassin falls under the old chestnut of simply not being clever or eager enough to add any sense of depth to proceedings, resulting in a vacuum of space where the utter lack of either sympathy or empathy resides and is replaced by a severe level of tedium which in turn results in a much more enjoyable sleep-induced coma which the audience falls into in order to pass the time. Slapped with an 18 certificate, American Assassin contains a simply undeserved level of sadistic, awkward violence which has no reasoning for its inclusion and just results in a total sense of alienation from characters who are hard to distinguish between friend and foe, and with a conclusion which ranks up there with the most jump-the-shark scenes I have ever seen, Cuesta’s movie is the sort of tripe which brings absolutely nothing new to the overpopulated realm of action movies and is simply there for monetary issues. On this evidence, I can’t see that being a winner either.
Overall Score: 3/10
A Truer Detective?
This week brought an end to the second season of Nic Pizzolatto’s highly addictive crime sage True Detective, a show that this year has been rife with criticism and finger-pointing with many arguing that aside from being wholly unsubstantial to its’ predecessor, it has also been an utter disaster with many being critical of its over-elaborate plot, cliched characters, and the ability of lead-writer Pizzolatto who has come under much scrutiny for this season’s attempt to diverge from the occult-ridden themes of the first and move into a noir-fueled epic, featuring a bundle of new characters and a range of different plot threads in order to make up its’ eight episode run. In terms of my own personal viewpoint on this season of True Detective, I am seemingly one of the few in believing that this series offered the opportunity for Pizzolatto to expand his horizons in regards to what can be achieved with such a format that True Detective holds, resulting in a season that yes, did have a wide range of flaws and weaknesses, but was also highly enjoyable with moments of sheer greatness which distinguished itself from anything else on TV at this particular moment of time. And I salute it.
In a rather ironic sort of way, “Omega Station”, the concluding episode of this years’ series, pretty much epitomised everything that True Detective stood for this time around, with the beautiful cinematography, including the wonderful overhead shots of California’s vast landscape, and heart-pounding scenes of tension, particularly in regards to Velcoro’s tragic last stand, being the highlights of the episode. These particular highlights were traits that although were absent slightly from the first three episodes of the series in which time seemed to go rather slowly with not much actually happening in regards to the overall plot, came to form the basis of the second half of the series in which the story finally managed to take a step forward, resulting in the last three episodes of the series being undoubtedly the best in a string of episodes that began with a drag yet concluded with an almighty band. And what a bang it was. If Frank and Ray’s raid on Agranov’s cash deal wasn’t thrilling enough, “Omega Station” left us with a range of memorable scenes, ranging from Velcoro’s redemption to Semyon’s hallucinatory last-breath, something of which was straight out of the Lynch-school for dramatic weirdness.
In typical noir-esque fashion, the fate of our three heroes in this years’ season, as well as Vince Vaughn’s Frank Semyon, was rather depressing to say the least, with only Rachel McAdam’s Ana Bezzerides coming out alive, albeit on-the-run from the corrupt power structure that has overtaken our beloved heroes’ home, following the now-famous Game of Thrones policy that sometimes that bad guys have to win. In regards to out main band of heroes, it was obvious that Colin Farrell’s Ray Velcoro was indeed the most interesting of the bunch, with Farrell’s acting being on top-notch from the start, whilst Vince Vaughn must also take credit for embodying a role which so easily could have gone majorly wrong due to Vaughn’s capacity for cringe-worthy comedic acting, yet ended up being one of the better points of this years’ season resulting in a true sense of redemption for an actor so easily laughed at for his involvement in a string of rather questionable movies more recently. So, where did it all go wrong? In my own opinion, most of the backlash in regards to this years’ series simply came from people jumping on the True Detective-bashing bandwagon, with it seemingly being hip and cool to add to the growing list of haters for this years series, whilst many simply couldn’t deal with the fact that this years’ series was nothing at all like the first, something of which I was impressed by, with this season offering a truer and more down-to-earth take on the crime genre than the occult-ridden themes of the first.
But in all my fondness for the series, there were noticeable weaknesses and missteps, no more so than the ear-gratingly bad dialogue that our characters spoke at particular moments of the season, with our heroes’ hatred of E-Cigarettes being a personal favourite whilst Semyon’s attempt at being his own personal Gandhi with cringe-worthy anecdotes and “inspirational” speeches being draining at times, highlighting that perhaps all the critical praise Pizzolatto received first time around slightly going to his head. Also on the weaker side was the rather messy plot lines that although were rather hard to follow at times, also resulted in a sense of hollowness during the revelation of Caspere’s true murderer, which, in the end, was wholly anti-climatic and had only a slight relevance to the messy plot lines regarding corrupt police officers and business officials which Pizzolatto felt compelled to tell us about. But hey ho, I’d rather watch a series with flaws and weaknesses than anything else if that particular series has as much entertainment value as True Detective undoubtedly has. At the end of the day, Nic Pizzolatto’s crime sage may not have been for everyone this time around, but for me it was wholly refreshing and gave me a reason to wake up early on a Monday morning, and for those reasons alone I am going to miss it. I can only hope for Season Three this time next year.
Episode Score: 9/10
Death ‘Til Us Part
With the complex and sometimes baffling plot threads, questionable dialogue, and a desire to try and out-class its’ critically acclaimed predecessor this season, True Detective Mark II has had a wide range of detractors and naysayers, yet this weeks’ episode proved that when done correctly, True Detective has the fundamental genetic makeup to be a true great within the already brilliant HBO lineup whilst having the potential to match and rival anything on TV all across the globe. This weeks’ penultimate episode featured everything that made True Detective what it was last year with an increased level of threat and danger towards our main three heroes, solid acting from all involved, and twist and turns that solidified my anticipation for the concluding episode next week in which we are set to tie together the many loose ends that have been left by the complex nature of the overarching plot-line regarding the death of Ben Caspere. This week also handed us the first taste of death for one of our “True Detectives” with Taylor Kitsch’s Paul Woodrugh violently biting the dust at the hands of Ray Velcoro’s police chief. Lieutenant Burris, after narrowly escaping a confrontation with his blackmailers, all of whom seem to be privy to the events of last week’s drug infused orgy in the hillsides.
With Kitsch’s Woodrugh off the payroll, one man who took the lead with some panache this week was Vince Vaughn, who although at times hasn’t had the best writing to work with, particularly in regards to his sometimes ear-grating dialogue, has proven to be one of this highlights of the season with this week’s episode allowing him to fully embrace the deceptive and seedy nature of Frank Semyon who once again escaped from bleeding out entirely and instead remained firmly on the ropes after destroying his two clubs after acknowledging the power struggle between him and Russian gangster, Osip Agranov. Following suit, Detectives Bezzerides and Velcoro also felt the heat this week by both turning to the other side of the law after a turn of events in which their one trusted source within the law department was found dead in their car with the blame firmly placed in the lap of Velcoro. With the walls falling in around our three remaining leads, next week’s conclusion of this year’s season of True Detective is one that shouldn’t be missed. See you then.
Overall Score: 9/10
Due to an enormous level of work and cinema constraints (Damn you Inside Out!), my rather punctual review of the week’s episode of True Detective has annoyingly come two days too late, but nevertheless, such a time period has allowed me to fully digest “Church In Ruins”, an episode in which events within the personal and overall plot-lines of our main heroes and heroines took a step up in an attempt to ready us for the roller-coaster ride that hopefully will be the series’ two concluding episodes. If one overall positive thing is to be taken away from this years’ series of True Detective, it is undeniably going to be Colin Farrell, who’s performance as troubled cop Ray Velcoro hit top-notch this week, particularly during the scene in which we relentlessly witness his descent back into drugs and drink in order to fully accept the notion of losing his son once and for all. On the opposite side of the law, Vince Vaughn continues to impress as Frank Semyon who continues to try and progress in his own investigation into the death of Ben Caspere whilst once again feeling the pressure from the depths of the criminal underworld with the return of the eerie, if rather out-of-place, sombrero wearing Mexican.
As for Detective Bezzerides, wow. The concluding scene in which we witness one of the weirdest undercover operations ever was not only difficult to watch in some places, but also brilliantly executed within all the madness and endless sexual intimacy that was presented on-screen. Kudos too to Bezzerides’ for her ninja skills in the inevitable, yet rather cool and badass knife-attack in which we finally see her expert knife-wielding tactics being but to good use. Oddly enough, with all the attention firmly on Velcoro and Bezzerides this week, Taylor Kitsch’s Paul Woodrugh decided to take a step back this week from the limelight and oddly enough, brought about a much better episode, with his own personal storyline definitely being the weakest of the trio’s throughout the series so far, yet his looming one-two of marriage and fatherhood may be the cause for his troubles to have finally stopped. This week’s episode of True Detective therefore definitely produced a high watermark for the series, propped up by Farrell’s magnificent performance and a scintillating final scene in which the bones of the overall storyline just got a little bit juicier.
Overall Score: 8/10
With the bloody, gunshot ridden conclusion that rounded off last week’s episode of True Detective, this week’s venture into Nic Pizzolatto’s noir-crime drama was bound to deal with the consequences of such, particularly in regards to the surviving trio of Velcoro, Bezzerides and Woodrugh who witnessed first hand a barrage of death and destruction. After a weird and ambiguous change to the show’s theme tune to start us off with, such consequences of the shootout are swiftly distinguished within “Other Lives” with Velcoro and Bezzerides seemingly ending up with the short change, with the latter now working under Frank Semyon and the former ending up in storage, whilst Woodrugh has seemingly taken all the plaudits and rewarded with the opportunity to have a go at being Detective. Of course being only halfway through the series, the fact that both Velcoro and Bezzerides are now out of the main picture, it has given them a chance to establish, low key, other inquiries into the ever-confusing death of Ben Caspere, much to the enjoyment of every True Detective fan with this particular episode diving deeper into the seedy backstory into his death, including a rather nasty looking hut with a rather bloody look to it in a scene that bears similarities to that of the first series.
Elsewhere, Frank Semyon attempted to reconnect with his human side in an attempt to rekindle his relationship with Mrs. Semyon whilst Velcoro was asked to look into his personal staff in an attempt to detect the blame in regards to his loss of finance which followed the death of Ben Caspere. With Velcoro well and truly under the thumb of Semyon, the rather shocking twist regarding the true fate of his wife’s rapist brought the episode to a mouthwatering close, in a confrontation that will ultimately have heavy repercussions heading into the final few episodes. With all the negativity regarding the snail-esque pace of this season’s main storyline, “Over Lives” fought back with a bang and offered a chance to delve deeper into the lives of all four of our main protagonists whilst moving forward with its’ underlying through point regarding the death of Ben Caspere at a rate which finally is leading Season Two of True Detective into a direction it deserves to be heading in.
Overall Score: 8/10
To Live and Die In L.A
With the first series of True Detective declaring it’s sheer awesomeness during its’ fourth episode when we were treated to the now-famous one-take, gang-land escape scene, this week’s episode of series two was bound to include some sort of monumental set-piece in some form or another. And boy, wasn’t it just? The explicitly violent massacre that concluded “Down Will Come” not only was shocking as it was bloody, but also featured ten minutes of ramped-up action that had been absent from this season so far, concluding with Officers Velcoro, Bezzerides, and Woodrugh physically repelled at the sheer carnage they had just all witnessed after a search and seizure on a potential suspect was turned completely on its’ head. Although such a scene was downright epic in its’ own right, parallels to the first series was inevitable. regardless of how good such a scene was going to be, yet I think it’s time to move away from comparisons to the first series and just enjoy True Detective for what its’ attempting to be this year; a dark and brooding noir crime thriller that is trying it’s hardest to shake off the plaudits of its’ predecessor by not being just more of the same.
Of course, the argument that its’ attempting to not be “more of the same” can be easily criticised due in part to the way in which such a set piece in this week’s episode was pretty much expected, but on the whole, the concluding shootout worked and I believe if such a scene was placed into another, bog-standard crime show, it would be applauded. I know True Detective, you just can’t win. Although the final scene was something to take away from this week’s episode, in terms of the overall plot, not much was entirely expanded upon, with Frank Semyon still attempting to rebuild his legacy in the crime underworld, whilst the depth of the case was only focused on within the last ten minutes or so, aside from some rather confusing plot lines regarding spiritual seminars and land development, making this week’s episode memorable in places, but overall, just filler in the overall context of the seasons overarching plot threads.
Overall Score: 7/10
May The Elvis Be With You
Last week’s episode of True Detective left us questioning whether the series had accomplished one of the most shocking deaths of recent times with the supposed murder of Detective Velcoro, a character portrayed majestically by everyone’s favourite Irish export Colin Farrell, yet such a mystery was immediately resolved in the first few minutes of “Maybe Tomorrow” when we established that the murderous bird-masked assailant had thankfully decided to load his shotgun with rubber bullets, much to the relief of Velcoro himself as well as most viewers I would assume who, like me, see Velcoro as one of the more interesting characters in this years’ series. One negative aspect of such a quick resurrection however was that all the fun and games of playing that one scene over and over in the week between the two episodes was quickly overshadowed with such an attempt on one of the leading characters life being brushed over rather instantaneously, a major shame in my opinion. Top marks however for the obvious Lynch/Twin Peaks inspired dream sequence that kicked this week’s episode off though. A good, retro, Lynch reference is always going to win me over. Well done.
With Velcoro’s swift resurrection, “Maybe Tomorrow” marched swiftly forward in an attempt to speed up the rather rambling plot lines that are starting to materialise, with the editing in this particular episode flying like a steam-train in order to keep us privy to not only dealings within the police force, but out of it, with Frank Semyon finally unleashing his inner evil after seeing one of his henchman being brutally murdered in manner not too dissimilar from that of Ben Caspere (Were his eyes not removed?). Furthermore, the obvious symbolism of sexual incapability between the two leads of the series in both Semyon and Woodrugh ties into the notion of both seemingly being absent from what they desire most, with Semyon reeling from the notion of leaving the criminal enterprise and Woodrugh’s obvious defiance from “coming out” as it were. This undercurrent sexual motif has been highly recurrent in this series so far, making me question whether lead writer Nic Pizzolatto is purposely fleshing out characters with such vices in order to have not one, but a whole range of potential suspects for the series’ main mystery on both sides of the law.
Weaknesses of the episode followed suit of the series’ overall weaknesses so far, with a few more examples of cringe-worthy dialogue, whilst the shallow, caricature-ridden portrayal of Mayor Chessani ‘s family, including his trophy wife and extremely annoying son was rather laughable in places. Furthermore, what is everyone’s problem with E-Cigarettes? I mean come on, there are much worse problems out there. In conclusion therefore, True Detective once again supplied another solid and intriguing slice of gritty, noir-esque mystery, stifled with sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, a winning recipe if ever there was one, if suffering from questionable dialogue and an all-too-quick resolution to the cliffhanger of the previous episode.
Overall Score: 8/10
Wow. HBO has officially become the number one slaughterhouse for main characters in any of its’ many series, with the final scene of this week’s True Detective episode seemingly killing off Colin Farrell’s conflicted cop character, Detective Ray Velcoro at the hands of the same masked murderer (The Birderer as it were) who was seen driving the deceased corpse of Ben Caspere. This is HBO however, and in a similar vein to the death of Jon Snow in Game of Thrones, the death of Velcoro just seemed rather strange, if rather shocking, due to fact that not only was he undoubtedly the most interesting character on the show so far, but his storyline was slowly expanding into something much deeper and darker which was ultimately the backbone of the season so far. With this in mind, the fact that Velcoro took the bulk of his killers’ shotgun blasts to the chest suggests that death may not be the outcome of such a tragic event, but hey, I assume we will find out in the near future.
“Night Finds You” also began to expand on the death of City Manager Ben Caspere, starting with the autopsy in which our trio of heroes were subject to not only being told he was privy to an STI or two, but to be shown the remains of his John Thomas which had been blown to shreds by a shotgun (eh, ring any bells?). Also on the agenda of Caspere’s death was the financial game of cat and mouse he was supposedly playing with Vince Vaughn’s Frank Semyon, with Caspere refusing to invest Semyon’s livelihood in a field of industry swaying more towards the legal side of business than anything perhaps Semyon has encountered before. With money the hot topic on Semyon’s mind, Caspere’s death subsequently has sent him on his own personal investigation into his murder with the location in which Detective Velcoro was shot being one in which Semyon had found on his own accord. Was it just by accident that Semyon sent Velcoro to his supposed doom or was it in fact intended, with Velcoro’s reluctance to continue playing puppy dog to Semyon’s demands being the only justification for such that I can think of.
Episode Two in this season of True Detective definitely explored much more ground than the previous in regards to the main story arc that will be focused on in the coming weeks, with greater character development of our heroic trio being greatly needed, whilst suffering once again from some cringe-worthy lines of dialogue (Velcoro’s speech in which an E-Cigarette was seen as a robot’s penis springs to mind) that endanger it into falling into a satire of its’ own existence. The final scene will get the headlines undoubtedly, but I believe the death of one of the series’ most interesting characters is a decision come way too soon and will subsequently be sorted out in the coming weeks but hey, this is HBO, anything could happen.
Overall Score: 9/10
With Game of Thrones over for another year at least, HBO has delightfully helped us deal with the death of Jon Snow by rewarding us with the return of the brilliant True Detective, albeit with a completely different cast and story to the first season which featured Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson as its’ lead stars. Replacing them in the lead roles of Season Two is the equally brilliant Colin Farrell (Phone Booth, In Bruges) and the less-than remarkable Vince Vaughn (Swingers, Dodgeball) who has decided to play against the stigma of his highly associated comedic roles and embrace the darker side of his acting ability. With True Detective running for a solid eight-week run, I will be doing weekly reviews of HBO’s highly engaging crime drama and conclude with an overall season score. The first thing to say about Season Two of True Detective is that it has a high threshold to follow after the critically acclaimed first series, yet the first episode has presented some promising, if rather familiar, story arcs to settle down into over the course of its’ two month run.
Of course, acting as an anthology of stories per season rather than a continuation of character arcs and plot-lines, Season Two was inevitably going to begin by highlighting some in-depth characterisation of the key players in this years’ storyline. Within “The Western Book of the Dead” therefore we are introduced to characters on both sides of the law, with Colin Farrell’s troubled Detective Ray Velcoro arguably having the most interesting on-screen presence, solidified by the performance of Farrell who manages to sway the character of Velcoro away from the stereotypes of the corrupt cop into a much deeper and darker ground. The scene in which he faces his “child’s” bully was quite startling, if rather OTT to say the least, but the sheer range of emotions Farrell managed to cruise through in a single scene was evidence of what a great leading actor True Detective has once again managed to bag. Of course the hyphenated use of “child” signified my first response to seeing Ray’s “son”, yet the plot thread of knowing that he may have been born out of rape only adds fuel to the fiery rage of one of this seasons’ most interesting characters already.
Also on the side of the law is Officer Paul Woodrugh (Taylor Kitsch) and Detective Ani Bezzerides (Rachel McAdams) who follow in the footsteps of Velcoro in each having their own particular vices, suggesting that the trait of the damaged cop is particularly ripe in the state of California, yet vices aside, the entirety of “The Western Book of the Dead” pretty much offered backstory to these three core characters, with the final scene highlighting the main plot thread for the series and conjoining the trio together for the first time. On the opposite side of the law, Vince Vaughn’s Frank Semyon offered a point of view from the criminal enterprise which is set to offer a much more in-depth and layered insight into the main story arc of the series by having characters that we may possibly root for on both sides of the law. True Detective can also offer redemption for Vaughn as an actor with a much more serious and darker role offering the chance to rescue Vaughn’s career from sliding off into the depths of despair and from the small screen-time we had with his character, it seems it may be slowly being saved.
“The Western Book of the Dead” therefore offered plenty of backstory for the characters of True Detective Season Two, whilst leaving us with a final scene which established the core plot thread for the series in which murder mystery is set to be rife once more. With a strong cast heading the bill once again, True Detective is set to offer two months of engaging entertainment and compelling drama. HBO, we salute you.
Overall Score: 8/10