(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 DVD, November 2017) For proof that “old-fashioned” in no insult, look no further than The Rocketeer, a glorious throwback to the adventure serials of the 1930s and a highly enjoyable comic-book movie from a time well before the current glut of comic-book movies. If this film has a secret weapon, it’s charm. The kind of quasi-goofy, rather comfortable charm that you get with a morally upstanding square-jawed hero (Billy Campbell), a curly brunette heroine (Jennifer Connelly), a scenery-chomping villain (Timothy Dalton), a fun piece of technology (a rocket backpack!) and a voluntarily retro setting that pays affectionate homage to the best features of the era. Here we are at the heroic age of aviation, with Gee-Bees barnstormers, Hollywood glamour, Nazis lurking at the edges of the screen and Howard Hughes coming up with fantastic inventions. It’s certainly not challenging, but it’s a lot of fun. Director Joe Johnston has proven time and again his ability to deliver straightforward adventures, but The Rocketeer still stands as one of the highlights of his career. The special effects aren’t particularly good, but who cares when the script, and the film, have this scene-to-scene watchability that will keep viewers glued to the screen. A similar movie would probably do better today (The Rocketeer is definitely a spiritual ancestor to Johnston’s Captain America: The First Avenger), and as it turns out there are steady rumblings about a sequel any time soon. I’m looking forward to that.
(On DVD, October 2010) I’m far too cynical to label any film as a “public service”, but the nature of Creation in today’s hyper-politicized controversy over evolution is such that I can’t help but admire the contribution that a well-made drama can bring to the public understanding of the man behind one of the most fundamental ideas of all times. A heavily dramatized account of the years Charles Darwin spend perfecting the manuscript for On the Origins of Species, Creation delivers a portrait of the icon as an immensely fallible man, tormented by visions of a dead daughter and debilitating convictions of heresy. It is, in many ways, a depiction of Darwin influenced by his critics, and yet a revealing look at a time where people thought very differently. The film wasn’t widely screened in theaters for reasons that soon become obvious to casual viewers: This is a film not of outer action, but inner struggles and the clash of new concepts. Like many works of primary interest to intellectual audiences, it presents ideas as inherently interesting and studies how people are affected by them. (Don’t tell anyone, but that’s as good a definition of Science Fiction as any). It’s not really helpful to add that the film is slow, contemplative and occasionally grating from a contemporary perspective. At times, overly-dramatic Creation seems to play more as a pre-emptive answer to Darwin’s critics rather than a celebration of the scientist himself. But there are a few standout sequences in the mix (an accelerated view of how species interact in nature is particularly good), while both Paul Bettany and Jennifer Connelly are effective in their roles. It all amounts to a film that will be presented in classrooms for a long time, and serve as a reminder that cinema can occasionally rise to the occasion and deliver a compelling celebration of human thought.
(On DVD, May 2010) Watching this film today is, in many ways, an exercise in nostalgia: As big-budget pre-CGI fantasy filmmaking, it visibly shows its age and the presence of puppets as creatures is a conceit that probably wouldn’t be allowed to go forward given today’s special effects technology. So watching Labyrinth is, apart from seeing a young Jennifer Connelly in a first starring role, also a game of effect-spotting. Fortunately, the story is strong enough to sustain scrutiny on its creakiest effects: As a fairy tale, it’s still strong and interesting after nearly a quarter-century. What doesn’t work as well is the unwieldy mixture of scares and thrills in a film aimed to the younger set, as well as a few musical numbers and comic set-pieces that drag down the story for a while. Still, Labyrinth’s not such a bad viewing experience, and seeing David Bowie in full goblin-prince attire is enough to compensate for a whole lot of other issues.