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:


DAMSELS IN DISTRESS (2012)

April 22, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. Filmmakers who see the world in an unusual way often appeal to me. Whit Stillman fits that description as evidenced by his Metropolitan and The Last Days of Disco. It’s been more than a decade since his last film, and his writing remains strong while his director’s eye may have atrophied a bit. We get a trippy, twisty maze of dialogue that is not double-entendre, but rather double-take.

The film takes place on a fictional campus named Seven Oaks College. We meet a small clique of young ladies led by Violet (Greta Gerwig, Greenberg). She has a noble life mission of “helping” young men who don’t recognize their own potential. She views this as a type of social work. Violet and her troupe are also dedicated to the high causes of perfume and fashion. They volunteer at a Suicide Prevention Center, where they seem to possess no skills other than handing out donuts and teaching tap dancing.

Violet’s followers include Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke), Heather (Carrie MacLemore) and transfer-student Lily (Analeigh Tipton). They could be termed caricatures, but I am not sure of what. Their philosophical meanderings could be considered arrogance, but their hearts seem to be in the right place. And it’s difficult to raise much ire towards Violet when her ambition involves inventing the next international dance craze … Sambola. She even provides an oral argument on the importance of dance crazes within society.  She acts like an adviser, almost a guru … but she ends up needing guidance as much as anyone.

To watch this movie, one must be willing to give Mr. Stillman some slack in the rope. To treat suicide with a touch of glib can be dangerous, but watching Aubrey Plaza defend the importance of “clinical” depression is pretty humorous. Analeigh Tipton acts somewhat as the voice of reason for viewers. She was outstanding in Crazy Stupid Love, and seems to be finding herself as an actress. Zach Woods (The Office) has a couple of decent scenes as the campus editor of “The Daily Complainer”, Adam Brody is the boyfriend who may not be what he seems, Alia Shawkat makes a quick angry appearance, and Taylor Nichols keeps his streak alive of appearing in all of Stillman’s films.

This movie may be best viewed and enjoyed as a glimpse into the mind of Whit Stillman. As a visual film, it’s really nothing special. The interesting part is in the dialogue and delivery of those lines … plus the social commentary offered up by the dialogue. Although, please don’t ask me what point that commentary is making.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF:  you are a fan of Whit Stillman’s previous films OR you are looking for an offbeat filmmaker in the vein of Wes Anderson (minus the visual flair).

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you prefer the story to make a clear point and the characters speak in “normal” thoughts (neither of which happen here)

watch the trailer: