Will Ferrell and Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ new comedy quickly goes downhill

Will Ferrell and Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ new comedy quickly goes downhill

In this round-up our reviewers critique movies released this week: from 'big name' features to local and independent films that deserve the spotlight. Which ones are worth the cost of a ticket?

Downhill ★★

Force Majeure, directed in 2014 by Sweden's Ruben Ostlund, isn’t a film I would recommend to anybody as a barrel of laughs. It’s a literally and figuratively chilly story, in which an affluent middle-aged couple find themselves at odds while on holiday in the Alps. Nothing about the film makes it an obvious candidate for an American remake, but for some reason this task has been taken on by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, comic actors-turned-filmmakers whose previous feature, The Way, Way Back, was a coming-of-age story set at a water park in Cape Cod, writes reviewer Jake Wilson.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Will Ferrell in Downhill.

That the stars of Downhill are Will Ferrell and Julia Louis-Dreyfus (otherwise known as Elaine from Seinfeld) tells you that Faxon and Rash aren’t aiming to replicate their source. Their film is nearly half an hour shorter, and lighter in every sense – but despite some promising elements, it never finds a viable identity of its own.

Once again, the setting is the Alps: Ferrell and Louis-Dreyfus play Pete and Billie Staunton, middle Americans who check into a ski resort with their two pre-adolescent sons (Julian Grey and Ammon Jacob Ford).

From the outset, there are signs of strain between the pair. Why, for instance, is Pete spending so much time on his phone? But they’re determined to enjoy themselves at whatever price, until the threat of natural disaster leads to catastrophe of another kind.

With the plot of Force Majeure as a basis, the film resembles a string of semi-improvised skits, or a extended pilot for a Netflix sitcom. The studied distance of Ostlund’s visual style has been replaced by a blander, more televisual flatness, with the grandeur of the mountain scenery used as counterpoint to the pettiness of the Stauntons’ squabbles.

The intended tone seems to be cringe comedy, where a grotesque situation is portrayed with enough emotional realism to prompt an agonised sort of laughter. The lack of specificity here suggests that Faxon and Rash haven’t much of their own to say about either long-term marriages or Americans abroad.

The casting is interesting in theory but neither star departs much from their trademark schtick. Ferrell plays a relatively subdued version of his pompous man-baby character, while Louis-Dreyfus keeps up a stream of can-you-believe-this reactions, widening her eyes in incredulity or squinting in suspicion.

The sitcom rhythms leave little room for what the material seems to require: moments when we hang back, watch the characters think and wait to see what emerges. But if you wind up seeing Downhill, you may decide to take what amusement you can get.

Read Jake Wilson’s full review here.

Dark Waters ★★★★

The groundswell of dogged determination propelling this environmental thriller is so powerful that it deals effortlessly with the knotty tangle of facts packed into its plot. Much of this is down to the film’s star and initiator, Mark Ruffalo, playing a whistleblower whose courage has little to do with the flashier brand of heroism displayed by more conventional movie crusaders, writes reviewer Sandra Hall.

Bill Camp (left) as Wilbur Tennant and Mark Ruffalo (right) as Robert Bilott in in Dark Waters.

Rob Bilott is a corporate lawyer who has acted for some of the US’s biggest chemical companies. His career trajectory takes an abrupt turn to the left with the discovery one of his firm’s most important clients, DuPont chemicals, is polluting the water of a town in West Virginia, causing cancers and birth defects and killing dairy cows and other farm animals.

DuPont responds to his inquiries with overkill. Boxes of files arrive at his office, filling an entire room and keeping him penned up for months as he sifts through reams of paper in a painstaking attempt to find something that he can use.

The film is an adaptation of a New York Times Magazine expose by Nathaniel Rich. Ruffalo bought the rights to it and hired Todd Haynes to direct – an unorthodox choice, given that Haynes’ biggest films, Far From Heaven and Carol, are lavishly furnished time trips which conjure up comparisons with Douglas Sirk’s romantic melodramas of the 1950s.

Bilott’s legal bouts with DuPont began in the 1990s, taking 20 years to reach a resolution. And it turns out Haynes can do much grainier work than his earlier films suggest. Dark Waters was shot in the winter and gloomy intimations of discord and decay are built into the very weather patterns. Nature is very angry.

You might be relieved to know Bilott doesn’t spend too much of the film closeted with his piles of paper. He has a wife, Sarah (a fractious Anne Hathaway), who views his obsession with the case with a mixture of alarm, awe and growing respect for his tenacity, and he has a boss, Tom Terp (Tim Robbins), who allows him extraordinary latitude tempered by the fact Bilott has been prepared to take a massive pay cut while his research continues.

The plot contains a few unexplained loose ends, but they count for nothing when stacked up against the film’s basic accuracy. Its best quality lies in the fact it has no Eureka moment. Bilott’s wins are incremental – a series of advances and retreats that add up to victory. And even then, his story suggests, the battle is not over. If we’re to maintain a just balance between environmentalism, consumerism and corporate profits, it never will be.

Read Sandra Hall’s full review here.

Escape And Evasion ★★★½

It’s not the script which provides the punch in Australian director Storm Ashwood's Escape and Evasion. That comes from Josh McConville’s embodiment of an Australian army officer who has returned from a mission to Myanmar suffering post-traumatic stress syndrome, writes reviewer Sandra Hall.

Josh McConville (left) stars as a former soldier with PTSD in Escape and Evasion. 

McConville has a brooding look and the bulk to back it up – credentials which, in the past, have set him up for roles as alpha males nursing grudges. He may be big and bearish, but he traces the patterns of guilt and anger warping this desperate soldier’s sense of self with a delicacy that keeps you with him every step of the way.

Seth is unsuccessfully trying to recuperate from his tour of duty in a gloomy little shack on the Gold Coast near his ex-wife and young daughter, Lizzy (Jessi Robertson), another of the unnervingly wise children to be found on the screen these days. Seth and his unit were supposedly on a landmine-clearing mission, but his fellow soldiers have not returned and it’s clear that something covert was involved.

Ashwood begins to tease out the truth with glimpses of the mission gleaned from Seth’s dreams and delusions and these keep us interested, serving well enough as a build-up to the final revelation. At the same time, he’s being pumped for information by Rebecca (Bonnie Sveen), a journalist who is also the twin sister of Josh (Hugh Sheridan), one of the missing soldiers and Seth’s best friend. Less credible is the fact she’s starting to fall in love with him, and he with her.

What makes the film work is McConville’s success in evoking a sense of what it must be like to suffer PTSD. Seth never knows what will spark his next attack. It might the unheralded pop of a balloon or the awareness of a figure looming up behind him in a bar that pitches him into a state of sweaty panic. Even Lizzy is thrown by these moments, as her sweet-natured father is suddenly transformed into a stranger.

Fifty minutes in, the secret haunting him is revealed in an extended flashback which sets out to re-create the atmosphere of blurred reality that can distort perception in a guerrilla war when decisions have to be made at speed in murky circumstances. But the effect is not entirely convincing because the central premise is so far-fetched and the climax introduces a character drawn with such cartoonish relish that caricature takes over for the first time in a film that has, up until now, been scrupulous in its determination to get things right.

The ending, too, is a bit neat and predictable to be persuasive, but through all the implausibilities, McConville’s performance never falters. He comes close to having you believe it all, but not quite close enough.

Read Sandra Hall’s full review here.

Honeyland ★★★★

Documentary has never been pure, but that doesn't mean its practitioners ever stop trying to convince us otherwise. Honeyland takes us to the Balkans, where two ageing women live in a slate hut with a dog and three cats amid an arid mountain landscape. It's primitive, beautiful, elemental – just the sort of place to produce a great documentary story. And it does, writes reviewer Paul Byrnes.

Macedonian beekeeper Hatidze lives a life mostly untouched by technology.

Hatidze Muratova, born 1964, has a face like Mount Rushmore and teeth like a broken fence. She raises Macedonian bees in the old way, finding their wild hives, bringing them home to the ruined village where she and her mother Nazife are the only inhabitants. The old woman is 85, bedridden and blind, with an awful sore under a dressing on the right side of her head.

They are Turks in what's now called North Macedonia, hemmed in on all sides by the former Yugoslav republics of this and that. By tradition, the last daughter remains unmarried to look after the parents. Hatidze is that daughter; most of her sisters are buried outside.

Let me be clear: this is an exceptionally beautiful film about these women, and what happens when another family – a raucous, jangling couple with seven children – moves in up the road with 50 head of cattle. It's also a constructed narrative in which the directors make many choices.

The filmmakers were originally commissioned to make a sponsored short documentary about this region, but then they met Hatidze, who was keen to share her personal conservation philosophy. The arrival of Hussein Sam and his family changed the whole direction of the film. At first, Hatidze is pleased to see them: they are nomadic Turks, so they speak her dialect. She befriends the rowdy children, teaching them her songs and dances. She helps Hussein when he decides to give beekeeping a go – although she knows the dangers. If he harvests his honey too soon, or takes too much from the hives, his bees might attack her bees. She imparts her most important lesson – always leave as much as you take. "Half for the bees, half for me," she says. Hussein does not listen. A trader offers him €10 (euros) per kilo. Hussein has many mouths to feed.

The naturalness of these people before the camera is more than remarkable: it's suspicious. All of them seem completely impervious to the film crew. When Hussein and his eldest boys argue, hurling ear-tingling insults at each other after suffering multiple bee stings, the comedy and drama seem almost too good to be true. They may be just what they seem: a family struggling against abject poverty. Or they may be collaborating with the filmmakers' suggestions. On balance, it's better to believe than not.

Read Paul Byrnes full review here.

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