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

The ‘Downton Abbey’ Movie Does Right By Its Dozens of Characters

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CREDIT: Jaap Buitendijk/Focus Features

Starring: Hugh Bonneville, Max Brown, Laura Carmichael, Jim Carter, Raquel Cassidy, Brendan Coyle, Michelle Dockery, Kevin Doyle, Michael C. Fox, Joanne Froggatt, Matthew Goode, Harry Haden-Paton, David Haig, Geraldine James, Robert James-Collier, Simon Jones, Allen Leech, Phyllis Logan, Elizabeth McGovern, Sophie McShera, Tuppence Middleton, Stephen Campbell Moore, Lesley Nicol, Kate Phillips, Douglas Reith, Maggie Smith, Phillippe Spall, Imelda Staunton, Penelope Wilton

Director: Michael Engler

Running Time: 122 Minutes

Rating: PG for Some Stolen Kisses and Slightly Scandalous Secrets

Release Date: September 20, 2019

I like to be upfront about the fact that I don’t always consume media straightforwardly. Sometimes I start TV shows five seasons in. Sometimes I watch the fifth sequel in a franchise despite never having any seen any previous entries. And sometimes, as in the case of Downton Abbey, I watch a TV-to-film adaptation without ever having seen a single episode of the series. Thus, I cannot report with any expertise about how the big-screen adventures of the Crawleys and company compare to their small-screen foibles. But I can tell you how it works as a cinematic experience while coming in with (basically) no expectations.

In an era of nerd culture dominance, it seems like there is a new superhero movie every other month that expects its audience to be up-to-date on years of backstory for a multitude of characters. Downton Abbey is often the type of movie that tends to get shoved aside in this current marketplace, but it does share one important quality with your Avengers or your Justice League. And that is its magnificently sprawling cast. I’m sure that keeping track of everyone is easier for fans of the show than it is for me, but even so, properly attending to approximately three dozen characters in only two hours sounds exhausting for both a screenwriter and a viewer.

Luckily, show creator Julian Fellowes, who penned the script, knows how to keep the focus, and Michael Engler offers no-fuss direction that lets the actors do what they do. It all starts with King George V and Queen Mary (Simon Jones and Geraldine James) announcing that they will be making an overnight visit to Downton Abbey as part of a tour of the country. Chaos (or chaos-ish) ensues. Along the way, there are small pleasures all over the place that add up to a full feast of pleasures. An arrogant royal chef makes a fool of himself, conversations about how the future might bring more rights to the underclasses are discussed, and the Dowager Countess drops her devastating quips. It’s admiringly economical comfort food.

Downton Abbey is Recommended If You Like: Downton Abbey the TV show, presumably

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Royal Visits

This Is a Movie Review: The Fundamentally Implausible ‘The Commuter’ Speeds Towards the Upper Tier of Entertainingly Ridiculous Action Thrillers

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CREDIT: Jay Maidment/Lionsgate

This post was originally published on News Cult in January 2018.

Starring: Liam Neeson, Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Jonathan Banks, Elizabeth McGovern, Sam Neill, Florence Pugh, Clara Lago, Ella-Rae Smith, Andy Nyman, Rolland Møller, Colin McFarlane, Adam Nagaitis

Director: Jaume Collet-Serra

Running Time: 105 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for All the Ways That Liam Neeson Can Improvise on a Train to Dispatch His Opponents

Release Date: January 12, 2018

Much of Liam Neeson’s post-Taken filmography has been readily reduced to “Taken on a [blank]” or “Taken, but this time they steal his [blank].” This is especially true in his collaborations with director Jaume Collet-Serra. 2011’s Unknown checked in as “Taken, but this time they steal his identity,” while 2014’s Non-Stop was essentially “Taken on a plane.” Their latest teamup, The Commuter, may at first glance be their “Taken on a train,” but a more accurate pitch would be: “take the government and law enforcement corruption elements of something like Chinatown, compress them into the hijacked train scene of The French Connection, and stretch out to feature length.”

Insurance salesman and former cop Michael McCauley (Neeson) has just been laid off, only a few years before retirement, when a mysterious woman (Vera Farmiga) offers him a proposition during his ride home along the Hudson on the Metro-North train: would he be willing to do one little thing that would affect someone he doesn’t know and receive a significant reward in return? This is presented as a hypothetical, but it soon becomes very real when he discovers a hidden bag filled with tens of thousands of dollars in cash. This is an effectively simple premise insofar as it immediately kicks the narrative into high gear, but it is simultaneously confounding with how many details it leaves under wraps.

Ultimately, that is to the audience’s benefit, as we are strung along with just enough info to want to sniff out what is going on. All Michael has to go on is the stop that this person is getting off and the fact that he or she does not normally ride this train. Collet-Serra specializes in populating his cast with a full crew of conceivably suspicious characters. Could it be that this mystery person is the tattooed girl with a bag full of fake IDs? That certainly raises alarms. But for all we and Michael know, the nurse stuck in an emotional texting session is just as much of a suspect.

The Commuter sort of fits in the vein of the “decent man fights back against a rigged system” genre, but really, that is only the narrative that has been forced upon Michael. Yes, he has been unfairly fired. True, he did lose all his savings thanks to the recent market crash (and he makes sure to flip off the vain Goldman Sachs broker on the train). But the reward dangled in front of him appeals to his selfish motives and does not actually give him an opportunity to stick up for the little guy. Besides, he is driven more by the threats against his wife and son and his own law enforcement instincts for uncovering the truth. It is implied that this criminal enterprise is so insidious and far-reaching that they could set up any patsies they want and frame them for any motivation

As the vast conspiracy begins to be revealed, we are left to confront the question of plausibility. But in a thriller like this, verisimilitude matters less than following the own theoretical rules of this extreme situation. That is to say, The Commuter needs to be at least as relentlessly entertaining as it is ridiculous. And on that score, given the director, star, and location, it is unsurprisingly adroit. The film’s logical internal consistency, though, may be worth investigating a little more deeply, as the passengers at the mercy of Michael’s mission may come to trust him –  a man who has been getting into fights and throwing people out windows – more quickly than is conceivable. A late-stage Spartacus homage is quite amusing, though indicative of that questionable trust. But in a profoundly puzzling situation with life-or-death stakes like this one, it only makes sense to go along for the ride.

The Commuter is Recommended If You Like: Non-Stop, Face/Off, The French Connection

Grade: 4 out of 5 Train Defenestrations