Downhill

A remake of the critically acclaimed 2014 Swedish movie Force Majeure, Downhill has the elements of being a great dark comedy as a result of its terrific casting of Will Ferrell and Julia Louis-Dreyfus, but, unfortunately, the slow and rather boring script does not translate into the same level of success enjoyed by the original film. The very simple plot follows an American family on a ski trip in the beautiful Austrian Alps and repercussions suffered by the couple stemming from a single incident. Pete Staunton, played by the usually very funny Will Ferrell, and his wife Billie Staunton, played by the terrific comedian Julia Louis-Dreyfus, are enjoying a nice vacation with their two young sons until a supposedly controlled avalanche comes dangerously close to the family. The main plot device reveals itself as how inappropriately Pete reacts to the avalanche by walking away instead of trying to protect his family from the avalanche that turns out to be safe. Billie is visibly upset with her husband and is not afraid to let other people at the resort, including Pete’s co-worker and his girlfriend, hear about her great displeasure. The movie tries to work as a dramedy in which the married couple’s relationship is strained as a result of one traumatic event and layers in extremely awkward dark humor created by the very different reactions to the situation. Quite surprisingly, the film’s comedy mostly goes downhill and is unable to use the comedic talents and chemistry of Will Ferrell and Julia Louis-Dreyfus who have never worked together in the same movie. Of course, it does have its moments that are uncomfortably funny, especially in the scenes with the sex-obsessed resort worker who is played by Australian actress Miranda Otto, and incisive about the ups-and-downs of marriage and how it evolves from the young love on display by Pete’s coworker and adventurous girlfriend. Overall, I found the film to be a lost opportunity to really harness the full comedic potential of the comedy greats Will Ferrell and Julia Louis-Dreyfus and makes you question the reason why Hollywood had to remake a well-received and creative movie in the first place.

The Rhythm Section

Directed by acclaimed cinematographer Reed Morano and based on the 1999 novel of the same name written by Mark Burnell, The Rhythm Section is your fairly average action flick with a quite predictable plot but is marked by a terrifically dynamic acting performance given by Blake Lively and has some beautifully shot action sequences. The story follows Stephanie Patrick, played by a gritty and emotionally distraught Blake Lively, who was a typical British citizen until she loses her entire family and eventually embarks on a vengeful and very violent mission targeting those responsible for her parents’ and siblings’ deaths in a plane crash. Officially declared a plane crash resulting from a mechanical failure, Stephanie learns from a freelance journalist that the crash was actually the work of a terrorist group who planted a bomb on the commercial airliner killing all aboard. On her own, she discovers the journalist’s confidential source is a former MI6 agent named Iain Boyd, played by Jude Law, hiding out in the remote countryside of Scotland who begrudgingly agrees to train her to be an assassin and have the skills to go after her family’s killers. Eventually, she travels around the world tracking down and killing everyone connected to the terrorist attack. Along the way, she meets several mysterious individuals, including a shadowy figure living outside Madrid, Spain who traffics in secret information named Mark Serra, played by Sterling K. Brown. Although there are several quite well-done and gripping action scenes that are clearly influenced by the filmmaker’s experience as a cinematographer with its use of frenetic camera work, the film suffers from an unnecessarily slow pace that wallows too much in the anguish and grief of Blake Lively’s very troubled character. Furthermore, the plotline, especially the ending revealing the real bad guy, is way too predictable to make for a genuinely unique action flick. Despite all of the movie’s flaws, Lively should be praised for her physically grueling and dedicated performance that feels extremely raw and realistic as if she really did live those feelings of profound loss and desire for revenge at all costs. Overall, I was fairly disappointed that it did not meet my expectations, established by the movie trailer, for a very entertaining and dramatic action thriller; even with Blake Lively’s terrific performance that could make for a turning point in her acting career, the movie is unable to really recover from the poor pacing and lack of originality.

Clemency

Directed by Nigerian-American Chinonye Chukwu who became the first black woman to win the U.S. Dramatic Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival for this particular movie in 2019, Clemency is a profound and insightful film with a unique perspective on the American criminal system and capital punishment by presenting itself as a character study of a prison warden overseeing executions; it feels very realistic as a result of the brilliant performance given by Alfre Woodard. The story is a rather simple one that follows the female African American prison warden Bernadine Williams, played by Oscar nominee Alfre Woodard in by far her best performance, during the rather bureaucratic preparations for the execution of convicted murderer Anthony Woods, played by the terrific Aldis Hodge. Yes, it explores the divisive institution of capital punishment as a whole in a fairly negative light, but the main thrust of the movie is to show the immense psychological toll that legally putting someone to death has on the prison employees, particularly the warden who is responsible for making sure everything goes according to the state’s plan. Unlike the stereotypical Hollywood depiction of wardens as either extremely cruel or indifferent background characters, the filmmaker does a excellent job of showing how the difficult job of being a prison warden, especially when an execution is about to take place, affects the character Bernadine in both her personal and professional lives. She has trouble connecting with her husband Jonathan, played by Wendell Pierce, who fears she is becoming emotionally distant in their relationship the direct result of her stressful and important career. Reflecting the slow-moving anguish for Anthony as well as the victim’s family and the extended time it takes to finally reach the actual execution, the movie has a very deliberate and drawn-out pace that portrays even the smallest details of the lead-up to the lethal injection of a death row inmate and how each staff member is responsible for a certain task related to ending Anthony’s life. Woodard, who was definitely snubbed by the Oscars, is able to convey her character’s gut-wrenching mixed emotions just through her facial expressions during the quiet and difficult moments as she reflects on her job and whether it is morally right to be in charge of enacting capital punishment. Overall, I found it to be one of the more emotionally powerful films I have seen in a long time and, although it is very difficult to watch at times, is a cinematic experience that should be seen in order for people to gain greater insight into the death penalty by delving deep into the largely unheard-of viewpoints from prison staff and the warden.

The Song of Names

Directed by French-Canadian filmmaker François Girard best known for 1998’s The Red Violin and based on the 2001 book of the same name written by Norman Lebrecht, The Song of Names is a suitably interesting drama full of great potential with such a fascinating story and well-known cast but suffers from a convoluted narrative structure that makes for a movie that should have been much more powerful for the audience. Taking place over several decades, the story follows the evolving relationship between the English Martin, played by Tim Roth as an adult, and the Polish Dovidl, played by Clive Owen as an adult, who become somewhat of adoptive brothers after Martin’s wealthy British family takes in the violin prodigy Dovidl right before the onset of World War II. Dovidl’s impoverished parents decide it would be best for his safety as a Jew to live with Martin’s family who could also provide him with the needs to pursue his very promising musical career. When the two boys first meet each other as young adolescents around the age of nine, the standoffish Martin does not like the overconfident Dovidl and vice versa, but, as they get to know one another, they begin to see themselves as brothers. The filmmaker tries the interesting choice of constantly switching between three different times in their lives and so the film eventually shows both of them in their twenties at a time when the already acclaimed Dovidl is about to give his first public appearance on a London stage. The main plot device then reveals itself as Dovidl never appears at his concert and disappears for many years. The final time period focuses on Martin’s renewed search for his long-lost friend when he is in his fifties, and the movie takes us on his complex journey to discover the whereabouts of Dovidl who would have become a highly successful virtuoso if he did not vanish. Eventually, he is discovered by Martin and the audience learns the emotionally powerful reason why he did not show up on that fateful day. Suffice it to say, Dovidl rediscovers his religious and cultural roots as a Jew, which sets up a beautiful and heart-wrenching ending that relates to his family and the Holocaust. Unfortunately, the emotional potency of the final moments of the film does not have the intended full impact for the viewer distracted by the overly complicated plotline that would have been better suited if told in a linear fashion. Overall, I found it to have enough of a compelling story to make the movie worth watching; however, I did leave the theater disappointed by what the filmmaker could have done to have made it a vitally important and personally resonating cinematic study of relationships, religion, and forgiveness.

Les Misérables

Directed by French filmmaker and son of Malian immigrants Ladj Ly and nominated for an Oscar for Best International Feature Film, Les Misérables is a riveting look at the gritty slums surrounding Paris that powerfully presents the systemic issues causing friction between the immigrant populace and the mostly white French-born police officers. To underscore the social and political injustice that are the underlying issues of the film, the filmmaker cleverly decides to name the movie after the famous Victor Hugo novel Les Misérables that chronicles the social ills of 19th century France and setting the story in the predominantly impoverished French commune east of Paris named Montfermeil in which part of the 1862 book took place. The fairly simple plot follows the police officer Stéphane Ruiz, played by Damien Bonnard, who has just transferred into the SCU’s anti-crime police brigade and is starting his first day with the corrupt white squad leader Chris, played by Alexis Manenti, and his longtime black partner Gwada, played by Djibril Zonga. We witness the xenophobic and ruthless Chris alongside his complacent partner on a relatively normal day terrorizing the slum neighborhood, all to the shock to Ruiz who has worked his entire policing career in a relatively peaceful French town. Eventually, things go out of control and a young black kid named Issa is inadvertently injured by Gwada during a confrontation in which the kid is accused of stealing a lion cub from a circus led by the violent Zorro. Eager to make sure there is no evidence of the attack against the juveniles, Chris and Gwada with the help of the begrudging Ruiz go to extreme lengths to finding a boy who recorded the whole episode on his aerial drone. The film vividly depicts the brutality of the small group of officers, especially the strikingly immoral leader Chris, against kids who act out criminally the result of their dire circumstances living in poverty and surrounded by crime in the slums. This one particular incident shown taking its course over the movie is designed to depict just one example of the serious problems plaguing the predominantly immigrant communities of suburban Paris and the degree to which justice is practically non-existent for its impoverished residents due to political indifference and police corruption. Overall, I found it to be a sobering dramatic film that effectively visualizes the social and political problems that have beset societies since the beginning of time, especially for the unprivileged, while also exploring the very real current events taking place in France, including the recent yellow vests protest movement and the simmering animosity between migrants and the native French.

Uncut Gems

Co-written and directed by Josh and Benny Safdie best known for 2017’s Good Time starring Robert Pattinson, Uncut Gems is a fast-paced and thrilling drama about a jeweler in New York City who is spiraling out of control as a result of his gambling addiction and debts to dangerous loan sharks. Played by Adam Sandler in an Oscar-worthy performance, the Jewish Howard Ratner is in the middle of brokering his biggest jewelry sale after he acquires a very large uncut gem from Ethiopia and is desperate to sell it in order to pay off his large gambling debts. He owns a small jewelry shop in the frenetic New York City Diamond District and caters to famous clientele, including Boston Celtics basketball star Kevin Garnett, played by himself, who are brought to him by the well-connected Demany, played by Lakeith Stanfield. By following the very unlucky Howard over the course of several days, the filmmakers are brilliantly able to take the audience on a dizzying adrenaline-fueled chase through the city as Howard tries to survive one big misstep after another while on the run from his angry loan shark Arno, played by Eric Bogosian, and his thugs. What makes the movie work so well is the rapid-fire dialogue in which characters speak over one another as if in real life and the switching very quickly from shot to shot and edit to edit. It also feels authentic because it films in the actual Diamond District that is notoriously cautious of outsiders and shows the real gritty and fast-paced world of a very particular kind of jeweler whose lives and livelihoods depend on making deals on a daily basis. As he deals with his very deadly gambling debts and losing possession of the gem that he believes will turn his life around, Howard’s personal life is equally tumultuous as he balances time between his estranged wife Dinah, played by Tony winner Idina Menzel, and his much younger mistress Julia, played by Julia Fox. The unexpected brilliant performance given by Adam Sandler, who is known for juvenile comedies, terrifically illustrates how his character’s entire life is nothing but a series of gambles: there are bets that pay off and others that incur great debt to volatile individuals. Overall, I found it to be a non-stop and exhilarating one-of-a-kind cinematic experience that both entertains and leaves the audience on the edge of their seats; the hyperactive cinematography and filmmaking along with the believable and committed acting performances make for a brilliant movie.

A Hidden Life

Written and directed by critically acclaimed filmmaker Terrence Malick best known for 1978’s Days of Heaven, 1998’s The Thin Red Line, and 2011’s The Tree of Life, A Hidden Life is a visually spectacular and deeply contemplative film that uses brilliant cinematography and philosophical voiceovers to tell the true life story of Franz Jägerstätter. Visualized by the sweeping bucolic mountain vistas of Austria, we first meet the farmer Franz, played by German actor August Diehl, enjoying his peaceful country life with his wife Fani, played by Austrian actress Valerie Pachner, and we see his life play out over several years as they have children. However, at the outbreak of World War II, Franz is sent away to train for the German military but is allowed to return home after several months training. Eventually, the German military is in need of new soldiers to fight so they call up Franz to swear allegiance to Hitler and become a soldier in his army. A deeply religious man, he refuses to take an oath to Hitler who goes against all of his beliefs. Because of his openly defiant disobedience, he is sent to prison until he pledges allegiance, but, after months of still not giving in, he is transferred to Berlin where he faces a death sentence for treason. At the same time, his wife and three young daughters remain in Austria where they are subjected to insults and outright rejection from the local villagers who believe Franz’s act is reprehensible. Resembling the long and arduous time that he must wait in prison for what he knows is ultimately death, the movie is effectively slow-paced and is almost three hours long, which is fairly typical for a Terrence Malick picture. This somewhat unorthodox approach allows the viewer to truly contemplate what it means to suffer for your beliefs and stand up to what is evil in the world; especially with its shots of nature and the grandeur of the mountains, the film becomes somewhat of a spiritual or religious cinematic experience. Overall, I found it to be a truly magnificent movie that reinforces the unique genius of Terrence Malick who is able to create a film that reflects on the beauty and destruction of the world through the eyes of one of the most famous World War II conscientious objectors who later became a martyr in the Catholic Church.