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Heroics and humanity in Only the Brave and Marshall

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ONLY THE BRAVE. Director Joseph Kosinski's last feature Oblivion (2013) left me with mixed feelings: beautifully made from a technical standpoint, vividly imagined, well cast and acted, and yet its story came apart midway through and never recovered. It was an exercise in frustration, in potential greatness lost to a screenplay that needed just this much (holds finger and thumb almost imperceptibly apart) re-tooling to really accomplish something. Based on Kosinski's apparent aptitude in the science-fiction realm (his debut was Tron: Legacy, 2010), I wouldn't have guessed that he would re-group and come back with a story drawn from true events to prove he is more than a visual stylist. But he did and while Only the Brave is certainly of a piece with his other work aesthetically, it is a more focused, character-driven and emotionally challenging proposition.

In the midst of a typically challenging Arizona wildfire season, a Prescott-based crew led by Eric Marsh (Josh Brolin) struggles for top tier "hotshot" certification. While Marsh and his boss, Duane Steinbrink (Jeff Bridges), campaign the mayor for a certification evaluation and the funds to become the first municipal hotshot crew in the country, aimless young Brendan McDonough (Miles Teller) starts in their direction. Shaken from the routine of free-basing in his mom's basement and getting bounced from bars due to the pregnancy of an ex-girlfriend, McDonough pulls it together enough to try out for Marsh's team. Seeing something in the guy that no one can seem to (maybe the almost indiscernible marks of a fellow recovering addict), Marsh gives him an opportunity and before long McDonough is part of the brotherhood.

As the team members grind through a long, hot season, making their bones and waiting for their shot, Marsh continues building and maintaining his marriage to Amanda (Jennifer Connelly), a horse-trainer as tough and obstinate as he is, and who finds it harder, as years go by, to be left alone for seasons at a time. McDonough, meanwhile, tries to demonstrate to his child's mother that he has changed, that he intends to be a positive presence in their lives moving forward. But the totality of his work, the commitment of time and focus it requires, proves an impediment, just as it has for Marsh. They, more than most of the others on the crew, find themselves torn between their passion for that crew — and for the vital, thrilling, consummately dangerous work they do together — and for the fledgling lives they've made for themselves outside of that work.

While Only the Brave has a tragic trajectory, it moves nimbly from emotional highs to lows to highs again, progressing organically toward the climax, while diligently servicing the characters and their often complicated relationships. It is a credit to writers Ken Nolan and Eric Warren Singer, working from a magazine article by Sean Flynn, that what is ultimately a disaster movie can feel so emotionally truthful, and the difficulties of negotiating marriage and parenthood and friendship are not overshadowed by the difficulty of fighting fire. Undoubtedly the strength of this script (and the strength of Kosinski's vision for it) helped to attract the movie's sterling cast and they make fine work of it. Brolin and Connelly's scenes together in particular bristle with the entangled, clashing personalities of people deeply in love and yet often as deeply in conflict.

Kosinski makes some bold visual choices here with camera placement and lighting, sacrificing none of the elements of style that worked so well in Oblivion, but using them in service of a tight, honest and heartbreaking story. The result represents both an elevation of the material and his style. PG13. 133m. BROADWAY.

MARSHALL. Chadwick Boseman, an actor of great acuity and charisma, has also been assigned pseudo-transformative powers and it can be a little distracting. In the last five years he has portrayed Jackie Robinson and James Brown on the big screen, and while Thurgood Marshall may not be as instantly recognizable, he casts an even more imposing shadow over the American cultural landscape. So even as Boseman alters his speech and physicality, and pours himself into the role, it can be hard not to see him as the guy who played Jackie Robinson and James Brown. But one shouldn't let that spoil the movie.

In 1941, Marshall (Boseman) is the only attorney employed by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. He travels the country defending wrongly accused people of color in court. And so, even as it further strains his marriage, it comes as no surprise when he is handed a train ticket to Connecticut and told to meet his client Joseph Spell (Sterling K. Brown) in a jail cell there. Marshall liaises with local attorney Sam Friedman (Josh Gad), who, despite his reticence, is pressed into service as lead counsel for Spell's trial due to the arrogance and xenophobia of the presiding judge (played with customary calculated brilliance by James Cromwell). Spell stands accused of rape by his employer Eleanor Strubing (Kate Hudson) and, with a checkered past and no witnesses in his defense, has a daunting battle ahead.

Director Reginal Hudlin (House Party, 1990; The Ladies Man, 2002) sets off with a sort of bopping, hyper-saturated throwback style but it doesn't persist much after the opening. The movie then settles into a steady, if slightly antiseptic mode that allows the story to play out and the actors to do their thing quite well, even if it doesn't deliver much in terms of visual excitement. PG13. 118m. BROADWAY.

— John J. Bennett

For showtimes, see the Journal's listings at www.northcoastjournal.com or call: Broadway Cinema 443-3456; Fortuna Theatre 725-2121; Mill Creek Cinema 839-3456; Minor Theatre 822-3456; Richards' Goat Miniplex 630-5000.

Previews

DONNIE DARKO: DIRECTOR'S CUT. Because the wide release version wasn't trippy/creepy enough. Starring young, monster-rabbit-haunted Jake Gyllenhaal. R. 134m. MINOR.

JIGSAW. Still more strangers thrown together and turning on one another in a gratuitous game of random torture. Except in a horror movie instead of our national political hellscape. R. 91m. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK.

LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS: DIRECTOR'S CUT. How a giant alien plant devouring people on Skid Row was meant to be seen. PG13. 94m. MINOR.

THE LOST BOYS (1987). Kiefer Sutherland, Jami Gertz, Jason Patric and both Coreys in the beach vampire classic. R. 97m. MINIPLEX.

THE SHINING (1980). All work and no play makes Jack Nicholson homicidal. R. 146m. BROADWAY.

SUBURBICON. Matt Damon and Julianne Moore star as crustless white-bread '50s suburbanites who get their manicured hands and lawns bloody in a thriller about murder and mob intrigue in a seemingly perfect town. R. 105m. BROADWAY.

THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW (1975). Do the Time Warp again. R. 100m. MINOR.

SPIRITED AWAY. Hayao Miyazaki's dreamy animated feature about a little girl transported to a magical world, toiling in a spa for the supernatural when her parents are turned into pigs. R. 100m. MINOR.

THANK YOU FOR YOUR SERVICE. Iraq War veterans struggle to adjust to life stateside. Starring Miles Teller and Haley Bennett. R. 108m. BROADWAY.

THIS IS THE LIFE (2008). Director Ava DuVernay's hip-hop documentary about a group of influential West Coast emcees. NR. 97m. MINIPLEX.

Continuing

AMERICAN MADE. Tom Cruise and director Doug Liman find their groove in this entertaining true story of a pilot in over his head with cartels and the CIA in the 1980s. Cruise adds self-doubt to his usual bravado and Sarah Wright and Domhnall Gleeson shine in supporting roles. R. 115m. FORTUNA, MILL CREEK.

BATTLE OF THE SEXES. Emma Stone and Steve Carell nail their roles as Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs in a movie saturated with 1970s color and style. If only King's personal struggles had been presented with the same intensity. PG13. 1121m. MINOR.

BLADE RUNNER 2049. Director Denis Villeneuve cleaves to the DNA of the original — talky and broody, but gorgeous in its decrepitude, which will surely please hardcore fans more than general audiences. With Ryan Gosling and Harrison Ford. R. 163m. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK, MINOR.

THE FOREIGNER. Jackie Chan drops his trademark grin for a grim mask of revenge in this sure-footed actioner about a man seeking revenge against his daughter's killers. But between fight scenes, the plot is all over the place. With Pierce Brosnan. R. 114m. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK.

GEOSTORM. Those weather-controlling satellites the guy on the plaza is always talking about finally go berserk and attack Earth. Gerard Butler stars and presumably saves the day by tossing rolls of paper towels. PG13. 96m. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK.

HAPPY DEATH DAY. Director Christopher Landon handles relatively tame violence with humor and humanity, while playfully and stylishly sending up slasher movies in this Groundhog Day-esque teen horror. PG13. 96m. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK.

IT. True to the spirit of the Stephen King novel, if not the letter, director Andy Muschietti wrests touching performances from child actors in a horror that blends old-fashioned jump scares with the dramas of early adolescence. And Bill Skarsgård is deeply creepy as Pennywise the Clown. R. 97m. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK.

KINGSMAN: THE GOLDEN CIRCLE. Director Matthew Vaughn's spy comic adaptation sequel is cartoonish, ultra-violent and silly. It's also gorgeously constructed and uniquely entertaining. Starring Taron Egerton, Colin Firth and Julianne Moore. R. 141m. BROADWAY.

THE LEGO NINJAGO MOVIE. The sharp little ninja figures you keep stepping on in the living room have an animated movie now. With Jackie Chan and Kumail Nanjiani. PG. 101m. BROADWAY, FORTUNA.

THE MOUNTAIN BETWEEN US. Kate Winslet and Idris Elba crash survivors stranded in the wilderness. Smart money says she doesn't push him off a raft like Leo. PG13. 104m. MILL CREEK, FORTUNA.

MY LITTLE PONY: THE MOVIE. Ride-or-die pals Twilight Sparkle, Applejack, Rainbow Dash, Pinkie Pie, Fluttershy and Rarity defend Equestria against a punk who brings dark powers to a magic-of-friendship fight. PG. 104m. BROADWAY.

RUMBLE: THE INDIANS WHO ROCKED THE WORLD. Documentary about the unsung role Native musicians have played in shaping American music. NR. 103m. MINIPLEX.

TYLER PERRY'S BOO 2: A MADEA HALLOWEEN. Perry pulls the wig back on as the mouthy matriarch in a slasher send-up set at a haunted campground. PG13. 100m. BROADWAY.

VICTORIA AND ABDUL. An aging Queen Victoria (Judy Dench) bonds with Indian clerk Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal), who becomes her adviser, tutor and confidante. PG13. 111m. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK, MINOR.

WELCOME TO WILLITS. Well, this looks batshit. Pot farmers, alien abductions and Dolph Lundgren in the Willits woods. Expect to see lots of Louisiana and Los Angeles. PG. 82m. MINIPLEX.

— Jennifer Fumiko Cahill

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John J. Bennett

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