DOWNHILL (2020)

February 13, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. Overwhelming apprehension. That’s the feeling I had walking into the theatre for the Americanized re-make of one of my top 10 favorite movies from 2014 … FORCE MAJEURE. Sure, it’s common practice for U.S. filmmakers to farm international cinema for “new” projects, but when they mess with the really good ones, I can’t help but feel nervous to the point of dread. A sliver of hope existed since this new version was co-written (along with Jesse Armstrong, creator of “Succession”, and Oscar nominated for IN THE LOOP) and co-directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, the creative forces behind THE WAY WAY BACK (2013).

Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Will Ferrell star as married couple Billie and Pete. Along with their two teenage sons, they are on an Austrian ski trip meant to help Pete get through grieving his father’s death, and bring the family closer together. If you have seen the original or the trailer, you know what happens next. Pete’s reaction to a near catastrophic event creates a divide between him and the family … especially Billie, who is left shaken. This part is all quite similar to the original film, yet this version is different in so many ways.

Casting two brilliant comedic performers in the lead sends a strong signal that humor will play a role, and that the exceptional gravitas from filmmaker Ruben Ostlund’s FORCE MAJEURE will be softened somewhat. Both of those points hold true. However, surprisingly, this re-make manages to still generate some of the shaken-to-the-core emotions that come from having trust broken in such a startling manner. Ms. Louis-Dreyfus is especially strong here, and carries a much heavier load than Mr. Ferrell. As she is balancing her shock, frustration, and anger, while still attending to their equally shaken boys, Mr. Ferrell is relegated to spending much of the film wearing a wounded puppy look as he attempts to move on without addressing the issue.

Adding to the comedy elements are Zoe Chao (“The Comeback”) and Zach Woods (“The Office”) as Pete’s friends who get drawn into the fracas. Miranda Otto takes a break from her usually dramatic roles to play Charlotte, a wacky resort employee whose personality is a bit out of step with normalcy; although her zaniness succeeds in preventing the weight of the event from crushing Billie. Fans of the original will recognize Kristofer Hivju, who plays a resort security advisor this time. Another difference is that the kids (Julian Grey, Ammon Jacob Ford) play a bigger role in the family dynamics and fallout.

It’s clear that filmmakers Faxon and Rash set out to purposefully make a more mainstream, accessible movie than the Swedish version. The film remains effective at generating conversation about survival instinct and protecting one’s loved ones. It should be mentioned that this is not a typical Will Ferrell movie, and anyone expecting Frank the Tank, may only be pleased with one brief scene. Instead, this is about a man coming to grips with how his actions affected his family, and even his view of himself.

watch the trailer:


THE HOMESMAN (2014)

December 1, 2014

homesman Greetings again from the darkness. We have come to expect our Westerns to be filled with stoic heroes and nasty villains, but this film delivers a pious, yappy leading lady paired with a selfish, no frills drifter. Based on the 1988 novel from Glendon Swarthout, it’s also the second directorial outing from Tommy Lee Jones (The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, 2005).

Hilary Swank plays Mary Bee Cuddy, a name repeated so many times that it will surely stick with you … even if the movie doesn’t. Thirty-one years old and unmarried, Ms. Cuddy is not without talent. She works the plough horses, cooks up fried chicken, and plays a mean fake piano. As is pointed out to her a couple of times, she is also “bossy” and “plain” looking … neither trait especially appealing to men in the wild west.

Ms. Cuddy volunteers to take three local women to Iowa. The three women (Grace Gummer, Miranda Otto, Sonja Richter) have each gone insane, and somehow Iowa is the most civilized place within a wagon ride’s distance. Cuddy teams up with a low-life drifter played by Tommy Lee Jones, after they strike a deal that allows him to escape certain death. The verbal clash of cultures and personality between the two main characters provides most of the action on screen, as the three women being escorted are mostly muted and either locked in the back of the wagon or tied to a wagon wheel during riding breaks.

The film is at its best when focusing on the harsh realities of frontier life. Cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto (Brokeback Mountain) does a nice job of capturing the wide expanse and stark vastness of the landscape, while also tossing in some artsy silhouettes and proof of abruptness of this life. Director Jones utilizes some haphazardly timed flashbacks to help us better understand the plight of the three women, but this could have been done much more effectively. Courage, inner-strength, and morality all play a role here, and the contrast between frontier and civilization was most distinct.

Much of the film plays like an oddball buddy picture – think Nolte and Murphy in 48 Hours, or Bogart and Hepburn in The African Queen. If you find the interaction between Swank and Jones to be realistic, then you will probably buy into the whole film. If not, the lack of flow and choppiness of scenes will jump out. There seems to be a never ending stream of little more than cameos from a tremendous line-up of actors: Barry Corbin, William Fichtner, Jesse Plemons, David Dencik, Evan Jones, John Lithgow, Tim Blake Nelson, James Spader, and Hailee Steinfeld. There are even a couple of scenes near the end featuring Meryl Streep (her daughter Grace Gummer plays one of the 3 insane women). The slew of familiar faces actually detracted from the story for me, because the Swank and Jones characters just couldn’t hold my attention.

The ending seems quite odd and a bit out of place for what we have just watched, and I’m still confused by the line of dialogue addressing the difficult “winter” they must have had on the wagon trip … it’s clearly stated that the trip began in May and would take a few weeks. Even in Nebraska, May and June can’t be considered winter. If you enjoy Hilary Swank on a soapbox or Tommy Lee Jones dancing a jig, then perhaps the pieces will fit better for you than they did for me.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are intrigued by a long, mostly uneventful wagon trip where 3 of the 5 people don’t speak and one rarely shuts up.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: Tommy Lee Jones dancing a jig (twice) or Hilary Swank playing air piano just aren’t enough to pull you away from holiday shopping.

watch the trailer: