Fall of the Patriarchs. Films reviewed: Downhill, Sonic the Hedgehog, Nose to Tail

Posted in Austria, Canada, comedy, Cooking, Family, Fantasy, Ski, Snow, Super Villains, Toronto, video games by CulturalMining.com on February 14, 2020

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

It’s Valentine’s Day today, as good a time as any to catch a new movie. So this week I’m looking at films about unusual relationships. There’s a husband and wife rejuvenating their marriage at an Alpen ski resort; a divorced, master chef dating the restaurant’s maitre d’;  and a super-sonic, electric-blue hedgehog in a bromance with a traffic cop.

Downhill

Dir: Nat Faxon, Jim Rash

Pete and Billie (Will Ferrell, Julia Louis-Dreyfus) are a happily-married couple. He’s a workaholic and a bit of chowderhead, while she’s an successful, if opinionated, lawyer. Billie is worried about her husband. He spends more time texting than playing with their two sons.  And he hasn’t been the sane since his own father died last summer. So when Pete books a family vacation at a ski chalet in the Austrian Alps — and handles all the arrangements — they are all looking forward to a fun, quiet time to heal their inner wounds. When they arrive, they are greeted by an Alpen sexpot named Charlotte (hilariously played by Miranda Otto: Aunt Zelda on  CHilling Adventures of Sabrina) who assures them nudity is encouraged and enforced. (Turns out the family lodge is nearby… they’re at the swingers chalet.)

Then Pete secretly invites his younger workmate Zach (Zach Woods) and Zach’s girlfriend Rosie (Zoë Zhao) to join them. But things really get bad when a planned avalanche crashes near the chalet, sending patrons on an outdoor patio running for cover in the sudden whiteout. Turns out, Billie stayed behind to protect the kids from what they thought was their final moment. And Pete the family patriarch? He grabbed his smart phone and ran, leaving his family to die. No one did die, of course, but now Billie and the kids feel abandoned by Pete in a dangerous crisis.

Will Pete ever regain Billie’s trust or his his kids’ respect? Or are his marriage, his family and his self confidence damaged beyond repair?

Downhill is a mildly funny dramatic comedy about the fall from power of the proverbial middle class white American male. It’s also an American remake of the brilliant Swedish film Force Majeure. But it’s less visually attractive, less biting and bitter than the original, trading subtlety for the broad strokes of tired Euro stereotypes.  Odd sex has been replaced by straightforward moral lessons. Louis-Dreyfus is great as Billie, conveying her hurt and suspicion through a single squint or pursed lip. Ferrell is less successful as a clueless Joe Biden-type, seemingly unaware of his imminent downfall.

Downhill is OK, but not great.

Sonic the Hedgehog

Dir: Jeff Fowler

Sonic is an electric-blue hedgehog who lives in a cave  furnished with a beanbag chair and a ping pong table, near Green Hills, Montana. He looks like a plush toy with spaghetti legs, a button nose and bright red sneakers.  And he can run faster than anything else on earth. He’s so fast he can play ping pong with himself. He’s so fast he can play all the bases on a baseball game at once, pitching a fastball from the pitcher’s mound and then hitting it from home plate. When he’s truly in danger he rolls up into a small blue ball and can generate mammoth amounts of electricity. He carries a bag of golden rings, magic portals that can instantly take hint to any place in the universe.

Sonic is a social animal who speaks perfect English (voiced by Ben Schwartz) and would love to meet friends, but is forced to remain hidden. If anyone found him – or discovered his secret powers – he would be in great danger.

But when he accidentally triggers an interstate blackout, the DC generals fear an enemy attack. They send out an expert to solve the problem and capture the so-called terrorist. This expert is the infamous Dr Robotnik (Jim Carrey) a brash and arrogant genius with multiple PhDs and a curly moustache. He plans to find the elusive source of the blackout… and dissect him. Luckily, Sonic is taken under the wing of the local speed-trap cop named Tom (James Marsden). Although dubious at first, eventually Tom takes to the hedgehog and the two become fast friends They set off on a roadtrip to San Francisco to evade Robotnik, recover the lost gold rings and save the world. But who will triumph? The evil Dr Robotnik? Or the fast little hedgehog and his buddies?

Sonic the Hedgehog is a kids movie based on the famous Sega video game. I have said it before and I’ll say it again, movies based on video games is the worst new genre out there. But you know what? I actually enjoyed this one. It’s silly of course, but the special effects are terrific. And the scenes shot from Sonic’s point of view, where everyone else seems frozen in time – like a barfight in a roadhouse where the spiny mammal runs rampant around redneck bikers – are totally fun to watch. OK, there’s relentless product placement (the whole movie is basically an ad) but still… it is fun. And Jim Carrey is a perfect as the villain and very funny.

If you see it, remember to watch it until the credits roll.

Nose to Tail

Wri/Dir: Jesse Zigelstein

Dan (Aaron Abrams) is an arrogant, self-centred master chef at a restaurant in downtown Toronto. He oversees every dish and inspects each outsourced vegetable that arrives in the morning. If anyone in the kitchen steps out of line, he lashes out like a boot camp sergeant. Dan starts his day with a makeshift breakfast of single malt whiskey and prescription drugs. The restaurant is everything to him. He depends on Chloe (Lara Jean Chorostecki) at the front of house, Keith, his Chef de Cuisine ( Brandon McKnight) in the kitchen, and Steven his sommelier (Salvatore Antonio) to keep the wine cellar well stocked. Problem is his world is collapsing all around him.

He’s four months overdue on the rent. Online bloggers are dissing his abrasive manners (fuckin’ millennials!). Keith is heading for greener pastures and his bills are piling up. He stood up Chloe (his on-again, off-again girlfriend) and has berated and verbally abused his entire staff, burning bridges all around him. Then his ex-wife drops by with unexpected news, and a popular new food truck parks right across the street. Everything depends on a high school friend and millionaire (Ennis Esmer) who is coming for dinner that night. Will he invest in the business? Or will the restaurant – just like the heritage pig he cuts up on camera, from nose to tail – go belly up?

This isn’t the first drama about a high-strung egotistical chef –  think Bradley Cooper in Burnt and Jon Favreau in Chef, to name just two – but Nose to Tail has a level of intensity and density – the whole movie lasts just one day – that beats those other two hands down. And Aaron Abrams (The Go-Getters) gives a tour de force performance, keeping close to the boiling point till the bitter end.

Downhill, Sonic the Hedgehog, and Nose to Tail all open today in Toronto; check your local listings.

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning, on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com.

Summer Popcorn Thrillers! Films reviewed: The Girl Who Played with Fire, Predators, Inception

Summer’s here, and sometimes a movie’s good enough to watch if it lets you sit in a comfortable seat, in a dark, air-conditioned room, while pretty pictures dance on the screen in front of you. If there’s a bit of a plot, credible acting, or a thrilling story – all the better. Escapism is simply getting away from the heat.

This week I’m looking at three very different summer thrillers about groups of people chasing — or being chased by — their opponents.

The Girl who Played with Fire

Dir: Daniel Alfredson

This is number two in the series adapted from Stieg Larsen’s mysteries, that started with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Lisbeth Salander, the super computer hacker, stone cold, secretive, punk-goth detective , and sexually liberated woman-about-town is back in Sweden after a sojourn in warmer climes. Her erstwhile partner, the left-wing journalist Blomkvist, wants to talk to her.

But there’s also a mysterious cabal of baddies that are out to get her, so she has to be extra careful. So she gets Miriam Wu, her ex-lover, to move into her apartment as she reconnoiters the Swedish scene to find out what’s shaking. Who’s doing this? Is it the police? The Russian Mafia? Is it her noxious parole officer from the first movie? Or maybe it’s something from her own past –- the reason she had been jailed as a juvenile. And who’s this blond giant, an almost zombie-like killer, that even a professional boxer can’t hurt? He’s definitely a bad guy, but what’s his role? And is he the mysterious “Zala”?

Throw in some bad-ass bikers (Swedish Hell’s Angels? Who’da thunk it?) a meddlesome poplice detective, and Blomqvist’s journalistic ventures… and you have a lot of plotlines on the same plate, calling out for closure. This movie keeps you interested, it was not bad, there are a few stunning revelations, but it doesn’t have the oomph and the feeling of catharsis of the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Too much this, that, and the other – not enough driving plot or satisfying finish. I don’t think we’ll get that until number three in the series.

“Predators”

Dir: Nimrod Antal

…is a new version of the 80’s action movie, Predator. It’s the kind of BOOM BOOM BOOM movie that pulls you in from the first moment, and drags along with them till the last battle. This action/ thriller/ horror pic starts with an unnamed soldier (played by a wiry tougher-looking Adrian Brody) falling through the air, and crash landing in tropical jungle. Where the hell is he? Other, similar alpha dogs, predators all, are plopping down all around him. But are they hunters? Or are they the prey in this most Dangerous Game?

Wherever they are, and whatever they’re all there for, much like the characters in the TV series “Lost”, they soon realize they’re going to have to live together… or die separately, one by one. Brody, Alice Braga (as a hard-ass soldier with a soul), and Lawrence Fishburne (as an whack jungle survivalist) head up an international cast of predators, fighting to stay alive in this treacherous jungle, and trying to see who exactly their enemy or enemies are.

It’s a good, gross and gory, summer B-movie with the feel of Alien, Lost, and Rambo (shorn of all the nasty, 1980s CIA central American guerrilla stuff in the original Predator). Some of the special effects don’t do it — the CGIs and background mattes are often kindergarten-ish — and some of the fight scenes – especially a Samurai style showdown – seem way stupid and out of place, but the movie’s still worth seeing on the big screen for a good crappy action getaway.

Finally, there’s the popular, and bafflingly – to me – critically acclaimed big-budget movie

“Inception”

Dir: Christopher Nolan (and starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ellen Page, Ken Watanabe).

Cobb, an international corporate spy, is hired by a Japanese executive to infiltrate — with his mission impossible team — the dreams of a man, in order to change his mind. Why? Cause this man has inherited the monopoly on big oil – and it should be broken up among competing oil interests. Wow – there’s a motive. Also, if they do this, Cobb’s unnamed criminal charges will be dropped, and Cobb will go back to see his kids in America.

So they build a sequence of dreams, not one, but a whole bunch, each one a dream within a dream. So we get to follow them around, ski-shooting, driving a van in a city, or… going to a mock crime scene. Each dream is precisely calibrated with the others and they’re all going on simultaneously, sort of like in a video game. But, there’s also Cobb’s sub-conscious occasionally intruding into the story line, via a woman from his past – so a bit of intrigue, bit of romance.

I don’t want to ruin it for anyone who hasn’t seen it yet, but it didn’t do it for me. It’s a movie about dreams, but with the most un-dreamlike storylines imaginable, and with all these co-conspirators participating in real-time, inside someone else’s head.

To illustrate this, (and I’m not saying “my dreams are interesting, Nolan’s are boring”) let me tell you my own dream the night I saw this movie, last week.

I’m looking down a desolate stretch of urban highway with telephone lines beside very wide street. It’s all in black and white.

In the distance dark clouds – and what look like three tornadoes — start spinning toward me. I run and hide, inside somewhere… I know I have to stop them somehow, so I make little bombs out of household cleansers and powders in plastic baggies.

The tornadoes have stopped spinning around and are “standing” there in a grassy clearing near a stand of trees. (It’s in colour now.)

In fact they’ve changed form, into three pinkish giant plucked chickens (like the yellow rubber chickens bad comedians used to pull out in lieu of a punch line —— only these guys are three stories tall.) But I know they’re still tornadoes who just happen to look like rubber chickens.

I have to hit one with a bomb-baggie to blast the tornadoes away — but they’re so far away… Will I hit one?

I toss a baggie bomb, but it just bounces off a rubber chicken’s forehead, instead of exploding. I guess it was a dud. But a few seconds later, the giant rubber chicken tornado stiffens and TIMBERRR…! it falls straight to the ground like a tree.

We’re safe again.

Ok – now if someone were to tell me that seeing the tornadoes or rubber chickens would convince me to break apart my monopoly on world oil – I’d say: what are you talking about? Are you crazy? It’s just a dream.

Dreams are weird, not ordinary, not just literal recreations of everyday life, not neatly functioning things. And whatever they are like, they are generated by your brain, from your memories and according to your internal method of seeing and understanding the world. They may be strange, but they’re understood and accepted as your own internal reality.

So if someone were to rewrite your dreams so they were turned into a three hour action-adventure movie – wouldn’t you notice something a little … odd about them? Like the fact that they have absolutely nothing to do with the normal functioning of your brain?

Anyway, “Inception” was not awful. The movie had some neat themes — like a subtle reference to Matteo Ricci’s Memory Palace, where Cobb is able to store his own memories in mental compartment in a self-created city inside his mind. I also liked the some of the spectacular background special effects, like the images of crumbling buildings (that you can catch in the trailers and TV commercials). But on the whole, it was just another much too long, convoluted action movie, with a science fiction twist and ridiculous plot. It’s a B-movie disguised as a deep drama, another vapid Ocean’s 11-style caper flick pretending to be something deep.

Shame and Guilt. Movies reviewed: Hot Tub Time Machine, Greenberg, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Last week I was talking about that cheesie sword-and-sandals movie Clash of the Titans as a “guilty pleasure”, meaning something I enjoyed, even though I realized it was a bad movie. And a woman I know told me she has a weakness for what she calls “chick-lit”, and the equivalent type of movies, chick flicks and "rom coms" (romantic comedies) – they were her guilty pleasures. She devours those books by the dozen and automatically goes to any movie with even a hint of the old TV show Sex in the City. A guilty pleasure.

But then I thought about it. Where’s the guilt? Where’s the sin? What’s morally wrong with going to a bad movie and enjoying it anyway? Nothing. And I was at an after-party with a filmmaker a couple weeks ago, and made a comment about the crowds at the movie Hot Tub Time Machine. His response: “You saw Hot Tub Time Machine? For shame!”

Is it shameful to go to bad movies? I’d say no to that, too.

Once they dim the lights in a theatre, you’re a passive viewer, no shame there. You didn’t make the movie. But this sort of crystallizes for me the subtle difference between guilt and shame. The anthropologist Ruth Benedict declared after World War II, that the US was a guilt culture, whereas Japan, (which was under US military occupation at the time) was a shame culture. In other words, she said, in a guilt culture, like the US, you feel terrible deep down inside when you do something wrong, but in a shame culture, like Japan, you feel your reputation among others is what is damaged when you do something wrong or unacceptable. (I don’t buy the US / Japan distinction, but shame culture / guilt culture is an interesting concept.)

Anyway, to get back to movies, maybe we all set the bar fairly low in terms of what we can derive enjoyment from, but as long as you can both tell the difference between a good movie and a bad one, and then accept your own taste in movies, whether they’re good or bad, you’re fine. No shame, and no guilt, just pleasure. Not guilty pleasure.

Hot Tub Time Machine

"Hot Tub Time Machine" is what it says it is – a comedy with a paper-thin plot. A bunch of middle-aged losers pining for their glory days — days of getting drunk, getting stoned, and trying to get laid at a ski lodge — decide to revisit it. But once they get there they see the place has gone to seed, just like their lives. But somehow a hot tub sends them back – back to the future – to relive the worst of the eighties. Then they do jokey comedy things as they try to get back. That’s the movie. The visual punchlines were mainly based on the various liquids that are expelled from men’s bodies. (You get the picture.) I think they were all covered. Except maybe… pus. Was there a pus joke? I think they’re saving that for the sequel.

The thing is, it was sort of funny, in an intentionally campy way. I saw it with zero expectations, so I ended up laughing — or groaning — a lot. The comedians / actors – especially Rob Corddry, in all his horribleness — were good at what they were doing, and there were a few good cameos, notably Crispin Glover as the one-armed bellboy.

Don’t feel ashamed for seeing this movie, but don’t feel guilty if you miss it.

Greenberg

"Greenberg", a new movie by Noah Baumbach, who directed the really great "The Squid and the Whale" a few years ago, is a human drama about a guy going through an internal crisis, and the aimless woman he gets involved with. Boy meets girl.

This is a romantic comedy – sort of — that’s made the way romantic comedies should be made, if I had my druthers.

Roger Greenberg (Ben Stiller) crashes like a green iceberg onto his brother’s house in L.A. He’s a feckless, benighted, compulsive, neurotic carpenter who’s there to do nothing in particular, and doesn’t mind saying so. He wants to be alone and resents the world for invading his house-sitting solitude. He’s totally shameless — saying whatever pops into his mind – but also wracked with guilt for his past misdeeds. He has no possessions — no house, no car – to worry about, just his toolbelt. He is building a wooden doghouse for Mahler, his brother’s dog, as he learns to cope outside a mental institution.

Greenberg got along OK in Manhattan, hopping cabs or taking the subway, but he suddenly finds himself back in LA, dependent on his former best friend (Rhys Ifans) whose rock career he’d sabotaged, and his brother’s personal assistant, Florence (Greta Gerwig), to ferry him around. He’s horrified and baffled by the whole city.

Then he begins to have a sort of a relationship with younger Florence, who is driven and hardworking, but adrift, and coming to terms with the physical consequences of a previous relationship. Can they love each other? Can they even stand each other?

They’re both “hurt people” who are afraid they’ll hurt other people. All of the characters in Greenberg, even the bit parts, are interesting, and three-dimensional (as opposed to 3-D), though not necessarily likeable.

The whole movie looks like the late 70’s or early 80’s – the colours, the design, the costumes, the font of the titles, the way the camera moves or zooms in, most of the music on the soundtrack… everything. It’s stunning to watch. Don’t go to this expecting a whacky, overacted Ben Stiller comedy. Go for a moving, gentle – though mildly disturbing – comic drama. This is a really good movie.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Another good movie, “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”, is opening today. This is a great Swedish mystery thriller about Blomkvist, a disgraced journalist, and Lisbeth Salander, a young, mysterious hacker, and their interactions with the Vanger group, a very shady family of billionaires.

Blomkvist loses his job at a leftist magazine and faces a prison term after writing an expose on a corrupt billionaire. His source proved to have been a set-up. So he is forced to take a well-paying job as a sort of a researcher / detective for a different, billionaire, who’s trying to find out what happened to his niece Harriet, who was kidnapped or killed – the body was never found – decades before. The Vanger family is sleazy to the Nth degree. They live out in the woods in sinister, Nordic hunting lodges, equipped with a skeleton in every closet. Tons of shame and guilt here.

But Blomkvist is gradually unveiling the hidden past, with the help of an anonymous helper on the internet.
This helper, Lisbeth, is a fantastic character, a cross between Steve McQueen and Tank Girl. She’s tuff, she’s rough, she’s stone cold. She’s a punk, she’s a loner, she’s an ex-con, she’s a computer genius. She’s also the girl of the title, with the dragon tattoo. She’s initially hired by the Vangers to spy on and write a report on Blomkvist, to make sure he can be trusted. They eventually meet up and form a sort of alliance, to try to find out what happened to the missing girl, and solve the ever-thickening mystery.

This is just the kind of mystery-thriller I like, where you’re solving it alongside the characters, but with enough hidden that you can’t really predict what’s going to happen next. It’s visually fantastic, with clues and images like old photos and newspaper clippings driving the story – so much so, you wonder how it worked on paper. It also has lots of amazing Swedish scenery and landscapes, makes you want to jump on a plane to Stockholm – if it weren’t for all the thugs, murderers, rapists, stalkers and Nazi’s hiding in the pine trees.

A few potential drawbacks: this movie has a few extremely violent, extended scenes. They’re not exploitative scenes – the movie doesn’t glorify the violence or make it titillating; you feel for the victims not the violence – but it’s still a bit hard to watch. It’s also tied to the famous mystery novels by Stieg Larsson, so it spends a long time tying up all the loose ends in the story. But I think it’s a great movie, and I can’t wait for the next one. I think I’m going to read book two in the meantime… but I won’t call it a guilty pleasure.

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