The Descent

Mark Palermo goes spelunking.

The nature-survival film gets rehauled as straight horror in The Descent, a UK item that’s well-versed in scare tactics. The documentary quality of the shot setups and observational tone recalls Wolf Creek, but The Descent’s primal terror—clautrophobics might have a rough time with it—hits harder, with more innovation and skill.

The location of the horror is a cave system within the Appalachian mountains. Six women are exploring it for sport, partly to get their friend Sarah (Shauna Macdonald) back on her feet a year after the grisly demise of her husband and daughter. The thrill-seekers, of course, get put in their place.

Affording this metaphoric value to the underground shows writer-director Neil Marshall (Dog Soldiers) thinking above the meaningless US horror release The Cave. Sarah’s road to recovery becomes a further descent into anguish. I’m aware that there’s a patronizing vibe to this. Marshall takes the fraudulent route of condemning people for being unable to cope perfectly with the worst situations of their life—a cruel attitude that played as faux-intellectualism in In the Bedroom and Mystic River, and does here as well.

Marshall uses a female cast for empathetic appeal rather than empowerment, and that’s where the characterizations are lacking. The group leader Juno (Natalie Mendozza) is given 90 percent of the spelunkers’ personality traits, leaving several others with nothing. As Juno is the one person The Descent bothers developing, she’s also the most likable. Marshall’s occasional efforts to get viewers to hate her are poorly reasoned, and never helped that there’s no one better to side with.

If The Descent never rises above a visceral level, as a strictly emotional fright film it’s very strong. At its most powerful (and evil), it lets viewers feel like they’re being buried alive. Sarah’s blood-soaked Carrie get-up at the end moves beyond homage to a memorable horror image in its own right. The feel of The Descent is so compelling that once Marshall introduces the threat of monsters (a commercial selling point), it’s an unneeded element. The women vs. nature scenario is scary enough without diluting its tragic potential.

Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby

“A bunch of dumbasses going around in circles” is how Butthead described NASCAR races. Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby looks at the corporate race car industry as a whole Culture of Stupid. But its mocking of lowbrow thrills is basically loving, and that’s how the comedy stays pertinent.

Co-writer and star Will Ferrell collaborates with co-writer and director Adam McKay to make racecar hero Ricky Bobby’s ballad a sly dig at both celebrity movie biographies and American slobbery. Before his life comes crashing down, Ricky’s at the height of fame. He takes a trophy wife (Leslie Bibb), fathers two hell-spawn children and defends his country from the snobby French, appearing in the form of competition Jean Girard (Sacha Baron Cohen). The USA is, he and his friend insist, the country that invented Chinese food and pizza. Some miscalculations in delivery (rock hits detract from the quality of simultaneous comic banter) don’t derail Talladega Nights’ pointed funniness.

It follows through to the end with the focus Anchorman only stuck to in its first act.

Tough act to follow? write:

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