Oh Heavens, How Ever Will ‘Downton Abbey’ Enter a ‘New Era’?

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Downton Abbey: A New Era (CREDIT: Ben Blackall/Focus Features)

Starring: Nathalie Baye, Hugh Bonneville, Samantha Bond, Laura Carmichael, Jim Carter, Raquel Cassidy, Paul Copley, Jonathan Coy, Brendan Coyle, Hugh Dancy, Michelle Dockery, Kevin Doyle, Michael Fox, Joanne Froggatt, Robert James-Collier, Harry Hadden-Paton, Laura Haddock, Sue Johnston, Allen Leech, Phyllis Logan, Alex MacQueen, Elizabeth McGovern, Sophie McShera, Tuppence Middleton, Lesly Nicol, Douglas Reith, David Robb, Maggie Smith, Imelda Staunton, Charlie Watson, Dominic West, Penelope Wilton, Jonathan Zaccaï

Director: Simon Curtis

Running Time: 125 Minutes

Rating: PG for Some Hints of Impropriety

Release Date: May 20, 2022 (Theaters)

In another area of my work outside this Movie Review Rat Race, I was recently working on a list of the Downton Abbey cast’s real-life romantic partners, which resulted in me becoming inexplicably excited for the latest cinematic excursion to the Crawley estate. I say “inexplicably” because I never watched an episode of the original TV series (though I did check in for the first movie). I certainly soaked up the Downton phenomenon through pop culture osmosis, as several of my family members were devoted viewers, and I bore witness to its not insignificant awards show presence. Meanwhile, several of its regulars have popped up in movies and shows that I have seen. Which is all to say, A New Era felt like a cozy trip back home for me, and I imagine that will be even more true for longtime fans.

It’s 1928, and epochal changes are afoot on both sides of the Atlantic. Downton is falling into disrepair, while thousands of miles away Hollywood is marching forward uneasily into the talkie era. These two stories collide when a film crew rents out the mansion to mount a massive silent production. Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) stays behind and becomes sweet on the director (Hugh Dancy), while the rest of the family heads to the south of France and discovers some potentially life-altering secrets about their matriarch’s past. Each plot twist is reacted to like it’s the end of the world, then there’s a gentle reminder that all this drama isn’t worth overreacting to, the formula repeats, and that’s all part of the charm.

That understated over-the-top approach is most fully embodied in the case of the Dowager Countess, with Maggie Smith still as adorably cutting as ever at 87. Everyone suspects that these may be her last days, and they all make a big to-do about it, while simultaneously insisting not to make a big to-do about it. Meanwhile, the Countess herself is as healthy and mentally sharp as the script needs her to be in one scene, while as unhealthy and close to death’s door in another scene as the dramatic stakes require. Really, though, we should all be so lucky to have such a coherent goodbye from a loved one. Downton Abbey is and always has been light and frothy, but it cares about its people.

Downton Abbey: A New Era is Recommended If You Like: Getting all worked up but then realizing that everything is perfectly fine, more or less

Grade: 3 out of 5 Talkies

This Is a Movie Review: The New ‘Tomb Raider’ is the Old Everything Else

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CREDIT: Ilzek Kitshoff/Warner Bros.

This review was originally posted on News Cult in March 2018.

Starring: Alicia Vikander, Dominic West, Walton Goggins, Daniel Wu, Kristin Scott Thomas

Director: Roar Uthaug

Running Time: 118 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Bloody Violence in Which the Camera Cuts Away Before You See the Worst of It, and Indiana Jones-Style Skin Decomposition

Release Date: March 16, 2018

The latest big screen version of Tomb Raider supposedly justifies its existence by positioning itself as Lara Croft’s origin story, but it could hardly be considered untold, as it is fundamentally derivative of every other entry in the globetrotting action-adventure genre. Even if you have not seen the Angelina Jolie TR films or never played any of the video games (like myself), chances are you will still feel like you have already seen this “new” one. This is basically a video game transferred to a different medium, but without actually adapting it into cinematic form. To wit, Alicia Vikander’s Lara spends most of her time solving puzzles (like arranging rocks to open a cave door) or jumping across platforms (like bouncing around all the boats in a crowded dock to escape some baddies). Again, the conclusion to be drawn is: you’ve seen this all before, better and elsewhere.

The mythology that kicks Tomb Raider’s plot into motion is fairly fascinating: Himiko, Queen of Yamatai, is said to have had power over life and death, with the ability to kill people just by touching them. Lara’s father Richard (Dominic West) has spent much of his life tracking her down. After disappearing for years during his search, he is presumed dead, and an absentee dad is only the first classic genre trope TR makes sure to give us. We also get the timeless purity-vs-profitability conflict, as naturally enough the villain is Richard’s rival archaeologist Mathias Vogel (Walton Goggins), who only cares about getting rich off Himiko’s remains. Furthermore, the climax is essentially Indiana Jones-lite, with giant rolling rocks and unwise choices resulting in consequences akin to drinking from the wrong grail.

But despite all these shortcomings, I must accept that a fundamental aspect of my criticism (and all good criticism, I would argue) is identifying whether or not a film is exciting or boring. And on that score, Tomb Raider kept me engaged enough to feel like it was not a complete waste of time. Plus, it has a decently satisfying feminist bent, as any skin displayed by Lara primarily emphasizes Vikander’s athleticism, and at the moment when she thinks her father is being his most patronizing, he instead compliments her bravery. These are welcome elements, but they are mostly surface level. That shallowness prevents true terribleness, but it also leaves some uncomfortable implications less-than-fully addressed. Like, what is Mathias’ deal with wrangling up slave labor? There could have been an opportunity here for indelible villainy, but instead Tomb Raider plays it thoroughly safe.

Tomb Raider is Recommended If You Like: Every Indiana Jones knockoff, Watching someone else play a platform-jumping video game

Grade: 2.25 out of 5 Tank Tops

This Is a Movie Review: Palme d’Or Winner ‘The Square’ Skewers the Art World Savagely But Also Kind of Lovingly

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CREDIT: Magnolia Pictures

This review was originally posted on News Cult in October 2017.

Starring: Claes Bang, Elisabeth Moss, Dominic West, Terry Notary

Director: Ruben Östlund

Running Time: 142 Minutes

Rating: R for Tourette’s-Fueled Potty Mouth, Outrageously Offensive Violence, and Dangerous Handling of a Condom

Release Date: October 27, 2017 (Limited)

A chimpanzee roommate walks around the apartment right before some hanky-panky is about to go down. A tug-of-war over a condom very nearly leads to some messy results. A shirtless performance artist acts like a gorilla for sanctioned live theater at a fundraiser dinner. For all the merciless weirdness that occurs in The Square, it is ultimately rather on-the-nose with the point it sets out to make.

The Palme d’Or winner at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, The Square is the latest satire from Swedish writer/director Ruben Östlund. To American eyes, it may at first glance seem like the latest case of the Europeans going full-bore with their European wackiness. But to Scandinavian viewers who are likely more familiar with Östlund’s sensibility, this probably looks like a straightforward comedy of manners, if perhaps a bit overlong. Plus, if you can get past the subtitles (and a good chunk of the dialogue is in English anyway), it becomes a lot more accessible. Besides, there is a hardcore zing directed at Comic Sans, so it cannot be completely incomprehensible.

The major conflict involves the testing of museum curator Christian’s (Claes Bang) ideals after his wallet and cell phone are stolen. This actually serves as the perfect opportunity to test out the message of the installation piece by American artist Julian (Dominic West) that Christian is currently presenting. The piece, which gives the film its name, is designed as an area where trust between patrons is binding. It is a slice of society in which everyone is looking out for each other. When Christian distributes a letter throughout an apartment building requesting the quick return of his possessions, his thief actually complies, thus fulfilling the promise of The Square. Alas, as Christian has given his letter out to all the building’s residents, the parents of a preteen boy wrongfully punish him for the same theft. In turn, the boy becomes a steady vengeful thorn in Christian’s side, constantly threatening to “make chaos.” In addition to all that, Christian must deal with a viral video campaign to promote The Square that gets out of hand, as well as the fling he gets into with Anne (Elisabeth Moss), a journalist covering the opening, that develops beyond his emotional comprehension.

The Square is much stronger in its outsize moments of satire than in its more intimate moments. From the viral video that exploits the plight of the homeless by exploding a baby, to the man shouting misogynistic obscenities during an interview at the museum who claims to have Tourette’s, to the aforementioned ape-man performance artist who takes his routine way too far, these set pieces are all steady and effective in their outrageousness. But Christian’s more personal moments of crisis are harder to unpack for a clear meaning. His fight with the non-thief boy putters out unsatisfyingly and a little sickeningly, while his situation with Anne is just plain impossible to define, with Moss giving a performance that is solid but hard to pin down. Overall, The Square is an adventure of morality that will have you asking “How would I act in that situation?” and also, “Is it even worth it to entertain the possibility that I could ever end up in that situation?”

The Square is Recommended If You Like: The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, The Art World but also making fun of the Art World

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Dirt Piles as Art

2015 Emmy Nominations Predictions and Wishlist

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For my detailed thoughts on my predictions and wishlists in the major Drama, Comedy, and Variety categories, check out these links:

Guest Actor, Comedy
John Hawkes, Inside Amy Schumer
Michael Rapaport, Louie
Chris Gethard, Parks and Recreation
Dwayne Johnson, Saturday Night Live

Guest Actress, Comedy
Susie Essman, Broad City

Guest Actor, Drama
Mel Rodriguez, Better Call Saul

Guest Actress, Drama
Allison Janney, Masters of Sex
Linda Lavin, The Good Wife

Directing, Comedy
Rob Schrab, “Modern Espionage,” Community

Directing, Drama
Adam Arkin, “The Promise,” Justified

Writing, Comedy
Dan Harmon and Chris McKenna, “Emotional Consequences of Broadcast Television,” Community

Writng, Drama
Thomas Schnauz, “Pimento,” Better Call Saul

Animated Program
Bojack Horseman – “Downer Ending”
American Dad! – “Dreaming of a White Porsche Christmas”
The Simpsons – “Treehouse of Horror XXV”

Android – “Friends Furever”

Host – Reality/Reality Competition
RuPaul, “RuPaul’s Drag Race”

Interactive Program
Last Week Tonight with John Oliver

Main Title Design
Man Seeking Woman

Single-Camera Picture Editing, Comedy
Bojack Horseman – “Downer Ending”

Short-Format Live-Action Entertainment Program
Too Many Cooks
Billy On The Street With First Lady Michelle Obama, Big Bird And Elena!!!

Stunt Coordination for a Comedy Series or a Variety Program

Special Visual Effects in a Supporting Role
Man Seeking Woman – “Traib”