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

In ‘The Good Liar,’ Ian McKellen and Helen Mirren Bring Their Own Violent Spin to the Con Artist Game

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CREDIT: Warner Bros.

Starring: Ian McKellen, Helen Mirren, Russell Tovey, Jim Carter

Director: Bill Condon

Running Time: 110 Minutes

Rating: R for Shocking Old Person-on-Old Person Violence and a Quick Walk Through a Strip Club

Release Date: November 15, 2019

As Ian McKellen meets up with Helen Mirren for a first date and they complain about the “computer service” and its supposed reputation for “mismatching the delusional with the hopeless,” it’s a good bet that The Good Liar isn’t just a simple septua/octogenarian rom-com. Even if you didn’t know going in that this was a thriller, the smoking hot, fine-tuned wit would tip you off that something deeper and more sinister, is going on. And sure enough, as Ray Courtnay (McKellen) and Betty McLeish (Mirren) continue going out together, Ray is also busy with his business partner Vincent (Jim Carter) on a grift worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. You very quickly get the sense that pretty much everyone in Ray’s life is a target of his cons, and each act in the film gives a new clue of the lifelong layers of his false identities. All of this should seemingly have us very worried for Betty.

But if you are like me, you were never seriously concerned that she would be the ultimate victim, considering that she is played by the indomitable Helen Mirren and con artist films so often turn on a reversal of fortune. So the fact that Betty pulls one over on the most frighteningly masterful deceiver should come as no shock. The joy is in the details of beholding her playing her part so perfectly and the final revelation of just why she is the one who would want to turn the tables (a date to see Inglourious Basterds is an early hint). No punches are pulled as we learn the truth, which transcends just Ray and Betty’s story and touches upon all of Europe reckoning with its violent past. Ray is the kind of man who doesn’t think twice about killing someone to protect himself and then slip away undetected. Betty’s story is about ensuring that all-too-common terrible legacy finally catches up to him.

And as one last important note, I must mention the tablets that Ray and Vincent use to transfer funds in the deployment of their grifts. These things are hilariously bulky, looking more like giant calculators (with conveniently large-print text for the senior set) instead of any familiar twenty-first century gizmo. Perhaps these really are what people with bank accounts worth millions of dollars actually do use to make convenient transfers at home and on the go. And it’s not like there was ever any way to make pushing buttons on these tablets look particularly cinematic. Honestly, though, I’m not complaining. It’s not like these moments demand to be visually seamless. These tablets certainly aren’t part of the mental picture I have for big-time con artists, but I often enjoy it when my expectations are confounded.

The Good Liar is Recommended If You Like: Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, The Remains of the Day, The Debt

Grade: 3.75 out of 5 False Identities

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

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:
Comedy
Drama
Variety

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”

Commercial
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
Community

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