(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.
(Video on Demand, September 2013) For all of the nice things I have to say about Oblivion, there’s something just… off in the way it comes together. The first few minutes don’t quite establish the required suspension of disbelief required for it to work smoothly: The visuals it presents don’t make a lot of sense and the pandering to modern lowest-denominator audiences seems blatant (let’s see: Yankees cap, Football stadium, dog, motorcycle and a cabin in the woods. Yup, just one regular guy, no wacky sci-fi to see here…) For viewers used to prose science-fiction Oblivion seems to pivot entirely on a familiar cognitive breakthrough structure, and the way it self-importantly reveals its secrets is a bit annoying, as if it expected audience’s minds to be blown apart by fairly obvious reveals. The plot doesn’t quite seem to hold together the longer you look at it, and the visuals it shows (combining a ruined New York with what looks like epochal landscape alteration) are so nonsensical as to make anyone’s head hurt. But let’s focus on the positive for a moment: It’s a science-fiction film that’s not explicitly based on existing intellectual properties, it features relatively original imagery (the “house in the clouds” is particularly nice) and it has the willingness to combine familiar tropes into a somewhat cohesive whole. For writer/director Joseph Kosinski, it’s certainly a step up from the pretty-but-vapid Tron: Legacy. Tom Cruise is overbearingly Tom Cruise-ish in the lead role (see “Yankees cap, football, motorcycle” above), but the supporting performances by Morgan Freeman, Andrea Riseborough and Olga Kurylenko bring a bit of balance in the film. While there’s little that’s objectionably wrong in Oblivion, it doesn’t click either, and that’s a more crucial problem in SF movies than in other genres due to the required suspension of disbelief. While it certainly looks nice and feels more original than yet another sequel of a comic-book movie adaptation, it doesn’t seem to have enough heft to it, and given the nature of the film’s revelation it’s hard imagining watching this a second time for fun.