Movie reviews: 'Only the Brave,' 'Victoria & Abdul'

Posted by Chip Chandler on
The Granite Mountain Hotshots are profiled in "Only the Brave."
Courtesy Sony Pictures

By Chip Chandler — Digital Content Producer

Check here for thoughts on the surprisingly effective Only the Brave and cute, but unbalanced Victoria and Abdul


Only the Brave

Miles Teller stars as Brendan "Donut" McDonough in "Only the Brave."
Courtesy Sony Pictures

It's tempting to tell you not to go into Only the Brave unprepared.

I imagine some of you already know the story of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, the first municipal squad to advance to the elite ranks of what's essentially the Navy SEALs of firefighters. 

If I did know about them, I unfortunately forgot or didn't connect that story with trailers for this film — trailers which, I'll be honest, were pretty lame, between the generic uplifting music and clunker lines like "It's not easy to share your man with the fire." 

But I saw good reviews when the film opened, and my curiosity was piqued — and I do find it hard to resist seeing Jeff Bridges in anything.

One headline made me realize something was up, so I was on guard for an emotional experience. But boy, oh boy, I wasn't prepared for how the film ended.

Before that: We follow Eric "Supe" Marsh (Josh Brolin) and his efforts to get his squad certified so that they can be on the frontline of the vicious wildfires tearing through their native Arizona and neighboring states. We also follow Brendan "Donut" McDonough (Miles Teller), a pothead, drunken layabout who, when he learns that he has impregnated an ex-girlfriend, looks at joining the squad as astep to changing his life for the better.

We get to know most of the other squad members, notably Christopher MacKenzie (Taylor Kitsch), who hazes Donut the hardest but becomes his closest friend, and Jesse Steed (James Badge Dale), Marsh's deputy. Who we notably don't get to know, other than Marsh's understanding but understandably frustrated wife Amanda (Jennifer Connolly), are any women in these men's life. (Bridges' character's wife, who uttered that lame line above, is played by Andie MacDowell, but that's the most memorable thing she does.)

It's extraordinarily frustrating that most of the women in the film are named "Nurse #1" or "Local Hottie #2," with characterizations to match. And it doesn't help that the firefighters feminize the fires they fight, using demeaning, abrasive language in doing so. 

That aside, Only the Brave is filled with respectful, heartfelt depictions of the powerful bond between these men. It's not lip-service, either: These are complicated portraits of humans, not cardboard heroes. And director Joseph Kosinski's film is almost equally effective visually, with haunting visual effects that will stun and terrify you in equal measure. 

Now, about the ending: Well, I still don't feel right in telling you, despite this being a true story. If you don't know, the film will hit you like a freight train, so if you are truly curious and anxious, you can read the GQ story that inspired the film. 

And if you do know the ending, rest assure that Kosinski and his actors pay majestic tribute to the real-life figures they portray. 

(PG-13 for thematic content, some sexual references, language and drug material; click here for showtimes at Amarillo Star 14 and Hollywood 16)


Victoria and Abdul

Judi Dench and Ali Fazal star in "Victoria and Abdul."
Courtesy Focus Features

Look at that title, Victoria and Abdul. Two people, right?

Now, granted, when one half of the title is Queen Victoria, one of the most iconic monarchs in human history, it's perhaps understandable that the narrative leans more toward her. And that goes double when she's played by Judi Dench (who, you'll remember, already played the monarch in her first Oscar-nominated role, 1997's Mrs. Brown). Dench is in full command of her powers as an actor here, and woebetide anyone who can't stand as her equal.

That's unfortunately the case for Ali Fazal, the other half of our titular duo, though it's not really his fault: Lee Hall's screenplay and Stephen Frears' direction let him down.

Don't get me wrong: Victoria and Abdul is extremely charming, and Frears uses a purposefully light touch with the story that frequently makes it a joy to watch. 

Hall's script, based on a book by Shrabani Basu, tells a previously unknown, late chapter of Victoria's life, centering around her unexpected but apparently powerful bond with Abdul Karim, an Indian Muslim who rose to surprising heights in her court.

Abdul was chosen to deliver a gift to the queen at her Golden Jubilee and, when he ignored her staff's exhortations not to look Victoria in the eye, she became fascinated with him. She insisted he and his Indian companion Mohammed (Adeel Akhtar) become her footmen, then she asked Abdul to begin teaching her Urdu and about the Koran — elevating him with the title "Munshi," or teacher.

Dench is delightful, both in her enlivening intellectual curiosity and in her heartbroken loneliness, having survived her husband, her closest friend and two of her children, left primarily with her heir, the unctuous Bertie (Eddie Izzard). 

Fazal is a charmer, too, but the script has very little interest in Abdul's interior life, more interested in hitting the same notes over and over about Victoria's court's distrust of him. 

(PG-13 for some thematic elements and language; click here for showtimes at Hollywood 16) 



Chip Chandler is a digital content producer for Panhandle PBS. He can be contacted at, at @chipchandler1 on Twitter and on Facebook.

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