(On Cable TV, October 2018) Hollywood has a fixation on making inspiring movies out of tragedies, and firefighter drama Only the Brave pushes this habit to the limit, leaving out a few less-savoury details along the way. The real events on which this film is based (and Only the Brave does itself a disservice by not stating this up-front) are tragic: nineteen close-knit firemen belonging to the fire crew of Prescott, AZ, died while fighting a brushfire. What the film insists on doing is to show the dedication, courage and tenacity of the doomed men, their relationships to be extinguished with their spouses, and so on. Everybody is ennobled in death, and the firefighters here are no exception. It’s a familiar script in that regard. What makes the film work beyond the mournful homage is in its execution from visually-strong director Joseph Kosinski. A solid cast headlines the film, with Josh Brolin as the chief leading the men in danger, and capable actors such as Miles Teller, Jeff Bridges, Jennifer Connelly and Andie MacDowell in supporting roles. The way the firefights are shown is also quite compelling—for a medium-budgeted film, Only the Brave has some exceptional special effects (in daytime, outside, wide-screen) to portray men fighting fires in dangerous circumstances. It’s almost certainly the best firefighter film since Backdraft and its earnestness does manage to keep the film going even when it’s not being subtle about what it’s doing. The film does end at the right moment, though: again, the real-life story had a very unpleasant epilogue, with the widows of some of the dead men having to fight the town council to secure benefits. That part is nowhere in Only the Brave, but then again some things are beyond Hollywood’s ability to transform in a noble uplifting film.
(On TV, July 2016) Curiously enough, I’d never seen Four Weddings and a Funeral, even despite being familiar with the stream of romantic comedies inspired by its success. Going back to the roots of the subgenre shows a film with the quirks and strengths of a relatively original script trying something its own way … rather than copying what’s been done before. Richard Curtis’s script is loosely structured around, yes, four weddings and a funeral (not in this order), this romantic comedy follows a foppish man (Hugh Grant, in a persona-defining performance) falling for a mysterious woman over a few key events. There’s a refreshing chaos to the amount and nature of the exposition required to set up a film with a core of friends and their acquaintances, and Four Weddings and a Funeral is perhaps most notable for the amount of stuff it doesn’t spell out along the way, trusting viewers to make up their own minds. This, however, can be taken too far: As much as I like Andie MacDowell in general (to the point of tolerating some dodgy line readings), she’s simply not given much to say here and the film feels weaker for being built on such a mystery. You can see how a modern retelling of the film, based on its imitators, would try to streamline the various charming little imperfections of the film—restricting the time continuity of the story to the days of the five events, spelling out subtleties, polishing some of the rough moments. It probably wouldn’t be as good, though: part of Four Weddings and a Funeral’s charm is how unassuming it is, and how it succeeds almost against all odds. That the result was often imitated yet rarely surpassed may be the ultimate compliment.
(On Cable TV, April 2012) Curiously enough, I’d never seen Groundhog Day until now, nearly twenty years after its release. It’s one of those films quoted/referenced so frequently that it’s easy to feel as if you don’t need to see the actual footage to know about it. But that’s wrong in predictable ways: This film hasn’t become a minor enduring classic for no reason: Past its high-concept, Groundhog Day is a solid, well-made movie with an appealing lead character perfectly played by Bill Murray, many small pleasures, terrific scene-to-scene narrative momentum, an eye-catching Andie McDowell, and a deeply satisfying thematic subtext. Spiritual, funny, thought-provoking and unpretentious at once, it’s a film that clicks on nearly every level. Its annoyances and contrivances are easily swept under the rug, and what remains is a terrific film even after two decades. The spiritual growth of the lead character is inspiring, and is enough to make anyone think about how they’d act in similar situations. As a fantasy, it may not be particularly rigorous, but thematically it’s completely satisfying. Don’t miss it, even if you think it’s way too late to see it.