Downhill

Comedians inevitably want to be taken seriously, if not in life then in dramatic film roles. And they are often quite capable. But I am quite happy queuing up a movie with comedic giants like Will Ferrell and Julia Louis-Dreyfus and expecting a light hour or so of quality laughter.
Warning: Downhill is not a funny movie. That is not to say the movie is devoid of humorous moments, but they are more of the uncomfortable, awkward situational variety than pratfalls and belly laughs you’d expect from man-child Ferrell or Seinfeld foil Dreyfus. After all, there’s skiing in this movie. You mean Ferrell doesn’t get tangled up in a lift or take an agony-of-defeat tumble down a black diamond run? Nope.
This is the story of Pete and Billie, a couple silently struggling in their relationship following the death of Pete’s father eight months earlier. Pete is in awe of his father’s memory, and uncomfortable assuming the mantle of family patriarch. A seemingly therapeutic family ski vacation to the Alps finds them welcomed by a sexually confrontational hotel concierge, a gigolo ski instructor and an avalanche from which Pete instinctively runs, leaving his family to be buried at their table during lunch. That sounds funny, but it isn’t played for laughs. From that event arise deeper doubts about the strength of the marriage, the father’s love of his two sons and both partners’ willingness to fully commit to each other.
This is a short movie that feels long, and $5.99 felt about right to view it at home. It is an American adaptation of the 2014 Swedish film Force Majeure currently streaming for free on Hulu. Julia Louis-Dreyfus produced the remake with directorial help from writers Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, whose 2011 The Descendants won them an Oscar for best adaptive screenplay. Zach Woods, who played Gabe in The Office, is at his awkward, unconfident best here, basically a redo of that character. Here he plays Zach, the submissive half of an adventurous young couple, traveling the world without a plan or a care, but with the aid of “shrooms.”
There’s a lot of talent involved in this production, but it feels somewhat amateurish. That said, the cast’s ability to make the audience squirm speaks to the effectiveness of the script and their delivery. Ultimately, this is a film about redemption and the ability to own a crippling shame. It is also about forgiveness.
If you’d like to save a few bucks, see the Swedish version. Or for a fun visit with your old comedy buddies, watch Elf or Seinfeld.

Downhill (2020) runs 1 hour 26 minutes and is rated R.
Should I see this movie?

The Hunt

The release of this film was delayed last September when it coincided with mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton. They thought the timing would be better now with six months of lesser shootings behind us. Doubly cursed, the second release coincided with the nationwide pandemic shutdown of movie theaters, so it has been released as a streaming option for home viewers at a cost of twenty dollars. Maybe we’re just not supposed to see or enjoy this movie.
This is the latest offering by BlumHouse, Jason Blum’s production company known for twisted tales with gobs of violence and gore. They most recently brought us The Invisible Man and Fantasy IslandThe sleeper hit Get Out was also a BlumHouse feature.
The story line – liberals hunting conservative humans for sport – is far from that simple. As is the case in many films lately, a cell phone is the first character we meet, this time displaying a group text conversation that is either a joke in poor taste or commentary on a plot that the participants have agreed never to speak of. The text exchange, supposedly deleted, is exposed, resulting in career loss for the parties involved. It may also have become the launching pad for an actual plot that is of course denied. It’s just fake news.
Are you an elite liberal or a redneck conservative? A snowflake or an immigrant? It doesn’t matter. All labels are at play in full force during The Hunt. Political stereotypes, correctness, convincing but irrational arguments from both perspectives, the “deep state,” crisis actors, deplorables and “fake news” abound in every scene throughout the film. As with most conspiracy theories, there is overlap between truth and lies, reality and imagination, often projected by partisans onto themselves and explored in painful brush strokes evocative of the evening news. The truth is hard to determine for the film’s characters as well as the audience, but the absurdity of today’s politics are clearly exposed.
Betty Gilpin plays Crystal, one of twelve people kidnapped and released in a clearing to be hunted. They are gagged and provided with an arsenal of weaponry but the deck is overwhelmingly stacked against them. Yet Crystal has some skills and manages to take on the hunters.
Hillary Swank plays Athena, mastermind of the hunters, toppled from her lofty corporate position and seeking revenge against Crystal in particular. When debating the legitimacy of their respective positions with Athena, Cyrstal comments, “Depends on whether they’re smart pretending to be idiots or idiots pretending to be smart.”
You might want to brush up on George Orwell’s Animal Farm before seeing The Hunt, especially if you’re a redneck conservative because, well, liberal elites would never imagine you’ve read it.
By the end of this very dark but clever satire you may be surprised at who you’re cheering for because, as you know, all pigs are created equal, but some pigs are more equal than others.
The Hunt (2020) runs one hour 30 minutes and is rated R.
Should I see this movie?  

The Lighthouse

Our second film while sheltering in place cost $4.99 on Amazon Prime. This one made it into a list in our local paper of movies recommended while in isolation. What the article didn’t say is that, if you’re feeling down and despairing over your current plight, there’s nowhere to go but up after you see how much worse it could be, as depicted in The Lighthouse.
Filmed in black and white and set in the late 1800s somewhere in New England, this is a tour de force for both Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe. The choice of monochrome perfectly draws the viewer into the bleak and lifeless rocky setting, more often than not awash with either crashing waves or relentless rain. But the stormy human relations within the lighthouse chip away more consistently at the sanity of the two men and the viewer's tolerance.
Dafoe plays Thomas Wake, a crusty old salt so stereotypically embodying the image of New England fishermen he might have walked off the label of a Gorton’s Seafood label. He is the lighthouse master who arrives with young assistant Thomas Howard, played by Pattinson. The two have enlisted for a four-week stint in the dreary quarters at the base of the illuminated tower. This is all pre-electric, so the only energy on the rocky outcropping is that produced by a coal-fired motor that turns the overhead beacon. Drinking water is obtained from a cistern so befouled as to prevent decontamination of its contents. As a result, and due to boredom, alcohol becomes a favored beverage. As the supply of liquor runs out, it appears the men turn to a mixture of lamp fuel and honey, which erodes their remaining sanity.
Wake is a superstitious, abusive taskmaster. His heavy brogue (hard to understand at times) is almost pirate-like during frequent rambling soliloquies, poetic toasts and questionable tales of his seafaring past. Howard labors over repairs and maintenance of the weathered structure under threats of withheld wages if not performed to Wake’s increasingly demanding specifications. The truth of Howard’s own past is eventually revealed and weaponized by Wake in ensuing arguments that blow up into a full-fledged feud. When a NorEaster cancels arrival of a relief crew and supplies, things come completely unglued.
Throughout their month together, the seamen seek alone time for moments of sexual release. Howard seems obsessed with fantasies of mermaids, and there’s no telling what fuels Wakes daydreams. Eventually, the wall between the men softens somewhat, alcohol intervenes, close dancing ensues and the audience begins to wonder if the movie might be more appropriately titled Brokeback Lighthouse, or does it really take a houseful of semen to run a giant light bulb?
Robert Pattinson has come a long way since his youthful Twilight days. And Willem Dafoe, always intense and frequently sinister in his extremely busy career, never disappoints. Cinematography within the confines of this small set and in mostly harsh outdoor conditions is impressive, but lighting is so dark you want to turn up the brightness on your TV. Director Robert Eggers only other feature film is 2015’s The Witch, a low budget horror film set in 1630s New England. This film might earn him some recognition as a director, though not due to box office receipts. Released in October of 2019, the current pandemic is not to blame for its failure in the theaters.

The Lighthouse (2019) runs 1 hour, 49 minutes and is rated R.
 Should I see this movie?  



Just Mercy

A late 2019 entrant that became available early this year enjoyed only a brief stay in theaters before being relegated to streaming services. Since we are currently unable to visit our local theater, I am reviewing films that we pay to see at home.
This is a true story, another profile of American racism that makes you gasp at how recently African Americans suffered virtual lynching through rigged justice systems, in this case that of Alabama in the early 1990s.
Michael B. Jordan (Creed, Black Panther) stars as Bryan Stevenson, an idealistic recent Harvard law school grad and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama. This film is adapted from Bryan’s book of the same name. It tells the story of his work to overturn the wrongful murder conviction of Walter McMillian (Jaime Foxx), waiting on death row and without hope even of an appeal.
This is the first film appearance by Jaime Foxx since 2018’s Robin Hood. While not inactive since his career best performance in 2004’s Ray in which he seemingly channeled Ray Charles, this is perhaps his most powerful role in a while. Django Unchained and The Amazing Spider Man 2 were decidedly less serious films.
Brie Larson joins the cast as Eva Ansley, cofounder and longtime Operations Director for the Equal Justice Initiative. Together, she and Stevenson begin to take on the defense of seemingly hopeless death row inmates, some of whom have been framed or otherwise railroaded in a corrupt and isolated county. They are threatened and harassed by residents of a town in which justice for the murder of a local woman requires that someone, anyone pay with their life. In this case, McMillian.
It is perhaps Stevenson’s efforts outside of courtrooms where he does his best work, getting into the heads of key people previously unwilling or frightened to tell the truth for fear of personal or professional reprisals. But even with crucial new testimonies, it takes appeals to the state Supreme Court to find willing listeners.
The success of the Equal Justice Initiative has resulted in 75 overturned convictions since its founding. There were disappointments along the way. Stevenson walks one inmate to the electric chair when his appeal is denied. This takes us into a scene that feels reminiscent of an execution gone wrong in The Green Mile, but without the graphic horror of a sadistic sabotage. The experience is life altering for witnesses.
Just Mercy is interesting in that it portrays a true story worth telling. It is somewhat predictable but encouraging nonetheless. Truth and real justice triumphing over corruption and evil are always satisfying.
This is Destin Daniel Cretton’s first directorial project since 2017’s The Glass Castle, also starring Brie Larson.
Just Mercy (2019) runs 2 hour 17 minutes and is rated PG-13.
Should I see this movie?  

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

Marvel fans are pushing this film to huge box office receipts. I’m not sure it’s deserved.  I recommend that you see  Iron Man 3  before see...