THE WEEKEND IN FILM - March 7-8
By Tom Augustine
Downhill (dir. Nat Faxon, rated M)
is based on 2014 Swedish comedy Force Majeure. As directed by Ruben Ostlund, the original is a film of hard edges and harsh truths. The new version, starring a game Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Will Ferrell, is a little less sharp, trading the irony of the original for mid-life malaise. It's fascinating to watch the ways in which it departs from the original within a different cultural perspective. The story remains roughly the same - a picturesque nuclear family is holidaying in an idyllic stretch of the Austrian alps when a controlled avalanche narrowly misses the restaurant where they're dining. As the mother grabs the children and cowers in fear, the father grabs his cellphone and runs away, leaving his family behind. This devilishly clever conceit forces the family unit to disintegrate during the course of the tense holiday. It is Louis-Dreyfus who burns up the screen, articulating her character's pain and resentment with real force. As opposed to the original, Downhill turns inward, trying to "solve" the characters' psychological issues as a way of explaining the event, which robs the film of some of its power. It is undeniable, though, that this film is far more ambitious, well-acted and well-shot than many of its American comedic counterparts.
Rating: Three stars.
One of the finest living American auteurs, Todd Haynes' films have always been interested in the sick, the dying and the infectious. In Dark Waters (rated M) , those interests are drawn toward perhaps the most accessible subject matter the film-maker has ever set his eyes on. Telling the true story of Robert Bilott (as portrayed by a wonderful, subtle Mark Ruffalo), the lawyer who took on DuPont Chemical after it was revealed they had willingly engaged in the poisoning of a small West Virginia town, Haynes has never been more overt or pointed. It's largely effective - a procedural courtroom drama, lit and shot like a psychological thriller and featuring sumptuous cinematography from the great Ed Lachmann. It is, perhaps, the least abstract picture Haynes has ever put his name to but what it lacks in nuance it largely makes up for in raw, elemental rage at an unfair, rigged system designed to keep the working class down. Do I wish he took a few more risks on this one? Perhaps - but Dark Waters is the kind of bleak, urgent film-making that reflects the times we're in without flinching. A pessimist Erin Brockovich for the modern era.
Rating: Four stars.
This is the last regular column I'll be writing for Canvas. It has been a real pleasure and privilege to be able to discuss this wonderful artform week to week on these pages. I'll still be writing about film - if you'd like to keep reading my work you can find me on Letterboxd (@thaugustine), or on Twitter (@tom_augustine). I hope this column has encouraged some of you to take a chance on titles you may otherwise have missed, or think differently about those you've seen. Cinema is a wonderful thing - worth studying, learning from and fighting for. In the words of Martin Scorsese: "Movies touch our hearts and awaken our vision and change the way we see things. They take us to other places. They open doors and minds. Movies are the memories of our lifetime. We need to keep them alive."