Trial by Fire

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It is the capricious nature of wildfire that can make it a lethal adversary. My own too-close-for-comfort brush with the beast occurred back on August 11, 1972 at a place called Harris Ridge, near the little town of Kooskia, Idaho.

It was the summer after my freshman year away at the university, and I'd found work as a chainsaw jockey thinning timber for the Idaho Department of Public Lands office in Orofino. The thinning crew — which could be pulled away from its thinning duties to fight wildfires if needed — was a young bunch: Greg had just graduated from high school; Ned, like me, had graduated from high school the previous year and had just finished his freshman year away at the university; and our two senior members, Russell and Rex, the foreman, were still in their twenties.

Of particular importance is a drill the firefighters have to perform in the event that things go to hell in a handbasket and their position is about to be overrun by fire.

Our assignment, when we had been dispatched to the Harris Ridge fire, was to climb a steep, brushy hillside, spread out, and start digging fire line to keep the fire on top from creeping down the hillside. At one point during our ascent, Ned and I ended up hugging either side of a brush-choked gully. We heard a faint cry of warning from somewhere below us, turned, and saw a huge, crackling fireball racing up the gully, right at us. I peeled away from the right side of the gully, took a quick look over my left shoulder, and saw through a wall of flame Ned's hardhat bobbing as he scrambled up and away to the left. I continued my lateral retreat, linked up with Rex, and made it back down to the bottom. Rex and I later linked back up with Ned, who had managed to get to the safety of a burned-out area on top.

But where were Greg and Russell? They had been well to the east of the rest of us, away from where the stealthy, encircling fire had ignited the tinder in the gully. They would have had plenty of time to get to higher ground as the fire burned across the hillside below them. In fact, I had even visualized them perched safely atop a bluff, taking a breather, and anxiously watching as Ned and I scrambled for our lives. Their bodies were found the next morning. According to the ensuing investigation, they had apparently found refuge atop a bluff — only to be knocked from their perch and into the inferno by a snag that had rolled down on them from the burned-out area above.

Those memories couldn't help but come to mind as I took my seat in the theater to watch Only the Brave. Based on Sean Flynn's excellent GQ article “No Exit,” the film deals with the Prescott, Arizona Fire Department's wildfire crew, headed by Eric Marsh. Knowing it was only a matter of time before Prescott itself would be menaced by wildfire, Marsh lobbies for the certification of his crew as “hotshots,” elite firefighters who can directly engage the fire, as opposed to being relegated to “mopping up” operations behind the hotshots. The film shows the crew honing its skills on a series of wildfires, one of which demands an evaluation of the skills that led to the crew’s certification. Of particular importance is a drill the firefighters have to perform in the event that things go to hell in a handbasket and their position is about to be overrun by fire: they hurriedly have to clear combustibles from a patch of ground, break out a thin protective covering that stretches from head to toe, and hunker down prone until the fire passes over them.

Snafus — such as air tankers dumping payloads of water on deliberately set backfires instead of on the actual burn — are also dutifully chronicled.

The film also tracks the character arcs of certain of the 20-man crew. A couple of young men who can't stand each other end up bonding like brothers. A young man dealing with substance abuse relapse and an unplanned pregnancy becomes a responsible father and provider. A crass womanizer finds true love. Marsh — in his forties the “old man” of the crew — has to deal with marital tensions at home. Josh Brolin, who plays Marsh, and Jennifer Connelly, who plays his wife Amanda, turn in particularly strong performances. In a masterly piece of dramatization,the film captures the anxiety of the crew's loved ones as they await news of the identity of the lone survivor of the Yarnell Hill fire, the visceral grief that follows that revelation, and the effect this has on the survivor himself.

The direction and cinematography are superb, capturing the essence of what it's like to be on a wildfire crew: charred, smoking ground where a burned-out tree trunk can topple over on a man, the black-faced griminess of a mop-up detail, the skies busy with helicopters and planes carrying loads of water and retardant to be dumped on critical areas, and the speed with which a wildfire can spread. Snafus — such as air tankers dumping payloads of water on deliberately set backfires instead of on the actual burn — are also dutifully chronicled. The film ends with a touching tribute to each of the firefighters.

As someone who has been there and done that, this reviewer gives Only the Brave a big thumbs up.


Editor's Note: Review of "Only the Brave," directed by Joseph Kosinski. Di Bonaventura Pictures, 2017. 133 minutes.



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From Double 0 Seven to Double 0 Zero

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There are three compelling reasons to see a spy thriller: satisfying plot twists, sardonically witty interplay, and thrilling fights and chase scenes. I suppose we could add a fourth reason as well: familiarity. We become familiar with the characters in the various spy franchises, from Bourne to Bond to Ethan Hunt (Mission: Impossible), and we can’t wait to see what they are up to every couple of years.

Spectre, the latest entry in the James Bond franchise, fails on almost every count. It’s getting decent enough reviews from the critics and viewers, but I think those reviews are based more on expectation than on the execution of the film.

Let’s start with premise one, the satisfying plot twists. As Spectre begins, MI6 and the Double-0 gang are being phased out and merged into CNS, a more bureaucratic intelligence division headed by C (Andrew Scott). That’s not a bad premise, since it puts Bond on his own as a rogue individualist up against the government organization. But that storyline was done already this year, in the most recent installment of the Mission Impossible franchise. And let’s face it: Carly Simon theme songs aside, MI does it better. In both films, the secret agents get the news of their organization’s dissolution at the beginning of the film, but seeing the photos of the collateral damage that Ethan (Tom Cruise) and his band of misfit agents have wreaked upon historic buildings as they “saved the world” was a lot more fun than listening to two aging British agents, M (Ralph Fiennes) and Bond (Daniel Craig), keep their upper lips stiff as they react to the news. The rest of the plot also unfolds quietly, in muted conversations punctuated by sudden bursts of wanton killing. Even the fairy tale ogre-ish villains are gone, replaced by ordinary thugs and Big Pharma (of course).

There are three compelling reasons to see a spy thriller. "Spectre" fails on almost every count.

Premise two, witty interplay, suffers just as much. I miss the sardonic wit of Roger Moore, the double-entendres of Sean Connery, the sophisticated good looks of Pierce Brosnan. I can still recite funny one-liners from Goldfinger and others, but there wasn’t a single memorable line in Spectre. Craig was praised for the rugged ruthlessness he brought to the character when he took on the role of Bond ten years ago, but he has receded too far into himself now, and we can’t connect with his persona. Moreover, those ten years have not been kind to Mr. Craig. He’s fine in his love scenes with the 50-year-old Monica Belucci, but it’s creepy watching him make love to the sweet young Madeleine Swann (Lea Sydoux), the daughter of Bond’s contemporary.

Premise three, the chase scenes, is disappointing too. Yes, there is a thrilling fight inside a flailing helicopter, but Tom Cruise did that in MI as well — only he did the stunt himself, hanging onto the outside of an airplane as it flew at high speeds above the ground. Instead, Craig’s stunt double is all-too-obvious standing on the strut of the chopper, and the interior fight scenes are just as obviously filmed in front of a green screen. The biggest chase scene, in which Bond commandeers a small plane and tries to force a car off the side of a snowy mountain road, doesn’t even make sense, because the girl he is trying to rescue is inside the car that he is trying to force off the mountain!

The rest of the plot also unfolds quietly, in muted conversations punctuated by sudden bursts of wanton killing.

The only saving grace in the film is Christoph Waltz as the mastermind, Franz Oberhauser. Waltz has become an expert at playing the smilingly sadistic bad guy with the sophisticated German accent, and here he is just as well-mannered, genteel, and kind as he inflicts pain and torture upon his victims. Waltz’s go-to villain was developed under the slightly psychotic direction of Quentin Tarantino in Inglourious Basterds (2009) and Django Unchained (2012), for which he won two Oscars. But there is nothing new and special — nothing gargantuan — about Franz Oberhauser, and that’s what we expect in a Bond film: gargantuan comic-book villains. He’s just too familiar, too perfectly typecast.

This leads us to premise four: familiarity. Familiarity with a character and a franchise can bring us to the theater, but it can’t sustain us by itself. The Broccoli film dynasty has been producing Bond films every couple of years for over half a century, and they have become as comfortable — and as welcome — as an old shoe. But if the past three films are any indication of their permanent new direction, I think the premise of Spectre’s plot might be the only part of this film that rings true: it may be time to retire the Double-0 franchise.


Editor's Note: Review of "Spectre," directed by Sam Mendes. MGM and Columbia Pictures, 2015. 148 minutes.



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Doing Your Own Stunts

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In a film season marked — or marred — by sequels, remakes, and television upgrades, two films characterized by old-fashioned filmmaking provide the most fun to be had in a movie theater this summer. Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation puts the superheroes to shame, with thrilling action sequences, snappy dialogue, satisfying storytelling, and palpable rapport among the cast members. Add to this director Christopher McQuarrie’s decision to have Tom Cruise perform most of his own stunts (and Cruise’s obvious glee in performing them) and you have easily the best big film of the summer.

Once again Ethan is abandoned by his government while on assignment and left to save the world by himself while trying to figure out whom he can trust.

This is the fifth in the Mission: Impossible series, each with a different director and each creating its own ambience. The original MI (1996) was dark and foreboding, while this one, although it has its share of menace and torture, is more lighthearted and campy, thanks in large part to the presence of Benji Dunn (comedian Simon Pegg), the techno geek who has been pulled reluctantly into field service in the last three films.

As this story opens, the Impossible Missions Force is being absorbed by the CIA for wreaking havoc around the world while trying to save it, and all IMF agents have been called in. MI fans will get a kick out of references to capers in earlier films as CIA director Alan Hunley (Alec Baldwin) makes his case before a congressional committee. However, Ethan (Cruise) is hot on the trail of The Syndicate, the ghostly supervillain organization that dogs him in every episode, and he refuses to come in. Yes, once again Ethan is abandoned by his government while on assignment and left to save the world (and his own skin) by himself while trying to figure out whom he can trust.

What makes this film sing, however, is the joy of watching true filmmaking again.

His biggest quandary comes from beautiful and mysterious double agent Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson) who helps him in one scene and tries to kill him in the next. Is she a double agent or a triple agent? Or a quadruple agent? We don’t know, and that keeps us engaged. Her name gives us a clue — has she indeed made a pact with the devil? A Swedish beauty who looks a lot like Ingrid Bergman and channels Bergman’s cool charm, Ferguson plays the role flawlessly, with just the right mix of passion, pathos, and power.

What makes this film sing, however, is the joy of watching true filmmaking again, with stunts that are performed by the actors themselves, not by stunt doubles, and not by computer geeks in post-production. Yes, that really is Tom Cruise hanging sideways from the door of an Airbus A400 M, sans parachute or wires, while it flies at full speed as much as 5,000 feet from the ground. Yes, that’s him again speeding recklessly through narrow streets and down the steep steps of a foreign town while being chased by bad guys with guns. That’s him again, leaning so far into the curve from his high-speed motorcycle on a winding mountain road that his knee nearly skims the pavement. It’s so refreshing to see his face in these exciting scenes, instead of the telltale hat that actors usually don that signals “Here comes the stunt double” in most action films. It has been almost 20 years since the first MI episode, but Cruise still has it.

Add to all of this the soaring score of Puccini’s Turandot mixed with Lalo Schifrin‘s iconic Mission Impossible theme, and you have the perfect summer popcorn flick.

Another film that shines as much for its filmmaking as for its storytelling is Mad Max: Fury Road, which premiered in late spring and is still in theaters. It is easily my favorite film of the year so far. OK, the characters aren’t nuanced, the storyline is one unending chase scene, and the dialogue is almost nonexistent. Still, it’s the craziest, wildest, most badass thrill ride to come to a theater since — well, since Mad Max: Road Warrior premiered in 1981.

What you see on screen is real — and it’s breathtaking. It’s also totally bizarre.

I reviewed Road Warrior for Liberty in March, after seeing a special screening of a remastered version hosted by director George Miller at the gigantic Paramount Theater at SXSW. I pointed out some of the characteristics that made RW so unusual, including its linear filming strategy (Miller filmed each scene in order, from beginning to end), crazy S&M costuming, and souped-up classic cars, live stunts that produced eye-popping heart-in-the-mouth gasps from the audience, and an implied but unstated mythology and backstory for the characters. The story couldn’t be simpler: a lone hero travels through a dystopian future searching for fuel, food, and survival while avoiding marauding bands of violent scavengers. He encounters a community of people who need his help. Will this humanize him, or will he continue on his isolated journey to nowhere?

I wondered: could a new version filmed more than 30 years later using CGI special effects and modern action-movie expectations possibly measure up to the live-action craziness of the original film?

Not to worry. Miller chose to eschew CGI and stay true to his original film process, including a heavily storyboarded linear film schedule, multiple homages to the original film and characters, and live action stunts, even in the most harrowing chase scenes. He did use a few computerized magic tricks, but they were reserved for things like changing Charlize Theron’s arm into a prosthetic device and air brushing the stunt rigging out of scenes. For the most part, what you see on screen is real — and it’s breathtaking. It’s also totally bizarre, with wild characters swooping down on their victims by means of giant flexible poles, drivers spraying their mouths with chrome war paint, and a crazy electric guitarist riding on the front of the lead truck like a revolutionary drummer boy, spewing heavy metal and fiery flames all at once. The music inFury Road isn’t classic opera, à la MI’s Turandot, but its thundering soundtrack blares an anthem nonetheless.

Granted, Fury Road isn’t for everyone. I wouldn’t take my mother. Heck, I wouldn’t even take my husband. But for pure, nonstop thrills with an undercurrent of resonant mythology and a libertarian hero just looking out for himself, Fury Road can’t be beat.


Editor's Note: Reviews of "Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation," directed by Christopher McQuarrie. Bad Robot Films, 2015, 131 minutes; and "Mad Max: Fury Road," directed by George Miller. Village Roadshow Pictures, 2015, 120 minutes.



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The Never-Ending Trek

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Wookiee vs. Trekkie: The friendly competition between Star Wars and Star Trek aficionados has raged for decades. Star Trek was more scientific and cool, emphasizing the technology of "Beam me up" rather than the intuition of "Feel the force." Even their goals were different: the cast of Star Trek was on a mission merely to observe the universe, while the cast of Star Wars was out to save it. But Star Trek's "Prime Directive" demonstrates democracy at its worst: "The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few." No wonder I've never been a Trekkie.

The latest episode of Star Trek — Star Trek: Into Darkness — is a bit of a muddle between these two fan-chises: some characters early in the film look and talk like Ewoks, a la Return of the Jedi; they meet in a jazzy bar populated by strange rubber-bodied creatures a la Star Wars: and the film begins with our heroes fleeing alien creatures on an alien world without our knowing why, a la The Empire Strikes Back. James Kirk (Chris Pine) even looks a lot like Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) in the second two Star Wars films, after Hamill's aquiline nose became pugged from a car accident he had between films.

The technique of beginning a film at the climax of a storyline that the audience hasn’t seen is recognized as Cubby Broccoli's trademark opening for the James Bond films, and it’s used in this movie too. It succeeds in giving the audience an early adrenaline rush. Just five minutes into the film we see Spock falling into a churning volcano. (Hmmm. Spock is a Vulcan. Vulcan is the god of volcanoes and the forge . . . shouldn't he have felt right at home there?) After his dramatic rescue (no spoiler alert here, since this happens ten minutes into the film), that storyline ends, and we settle into the central conflict for this film.

In this episode a former Starfleet commander (Benedict Cumberbatch) has turned rogue (a la Darth Vader . . . there they go again!), and the crew of the Enterprise is enlisted to go after him. That's about all you need to know. There's a lot of warp speed action, dodging of asteroids, climbing around on cool CGI-generated equipment, and fist-to-fist fighting — love how these Star Trek films come full circle and use brawn over brain or technology when people are fighting; Star Wars still goes in for those laser swords.

The Star Trek films were popular in the ’80s and ’90s, but they started to wear thin, as the original actors started to wax larger, both in age and in heft. The only way to continue the franchise was to turn from sequel to prequel. That worked extremely well in Star Trek (2009). It was fun to ooh and ahh over the excellent casting selections and see the back stories of the characters who have become a part of our cultural fabric for more than four decades. And director J.J. Abrams successfully repackaged Star Trek from a cerebral exercise in philosophy to an action-packed sci-fi adventure.

It was also cool in the 2009 movie to see the young Mr. Spock (Zachary Quinto) fall in love with the young Lieutenant Uhura (Zoe Saldana). For nearly 50 years the biggest challenge for the Star Trek crew has not been fighting Klingons but trying to get Mr. Spock to feel and express emotion. Spock is a Vulcan, and Vulcans don't have feelings (odd that the god of fire would be chosen as the name for the passionless planet, isn't it?). But Spock is also half human, and in every film there is the possibility that his human heart might kick in and overpower his logic. All of that has happened in previous episodes, however, so that too is starting to wear thin. We get it: with enough provocation, Mr. Spock can cry. He can kiss. He can bicker with his girlfriend. Enflamed by a desire for revenge, he can even beat an enemy to a pulp with his bare hands. He's becoming positively touchy-feely.

Star Trek fans love this movie. Reviewers seem to like it too. I thought it was pretty good, for what it is. But my patience for the whole Star Trek franchise is starting to wear thin. Or maybe I'm just waxing old. I'd rather just see a movie that boldly goes where no man has gone before.


Editor's Note: Review of "Star Trek: Into Darkness," directed by J.J. Abrams. Paramount Pictures, 2013, 129 minutes.



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