Movie Review ~ Downton Abbey


The Facts
:

Synopsis: The continuing story of the Crawley family, wealthy owners of a large estate in the English countryside in the early 20th century.

Stars: Hugh Bonneville, Laura Carmichael, Jim Carter, Brendan Coyle, Michelle Dockery, Kevin Doyle, Joanne Froggatt, Matthew Goode, Harry Hadden-Paton, Robert James-Collier, Allen Leech, Phyllis Logan, Elizabeth McGovern, Sophie McShera, Lesley Nicol, Penelope Wilton, Maggie Smith, Imelda Staunton, Geraldine James, Simon Jones, David Haig, Tuppence Middleton, Kate Phillips, Stephen Campbell Moore

Director: Michael Engler

Rated: PG

Running Length: 122 minutes

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review:  Needless to say, if you aren’t up to date with Downton Abbey it’s best to steer clear of this review until after you’ve seen the film.  I wasn’t quite caught up by the time the movie came out so had to delay my visit with the Crawley family for a week, they understood and I will also understand if you need to bookmark this review and come back when you’ve finished the sixth season of Downton Abbey.  I shan’t spoil the movie, no worries on that, but I may wind up spoiling something from that richly fulfilling final episode…so you’ve been warned.

Christmas has definitely come early to all of the ardent fans of the Crawleys, their extended family, and their staff at Downtown Abbey.  The long buzzed about movie that’s a continuation of the series which wound up its run in 2015 has arrived and it’s an absolute delight.  Delivering everything we’ve come to expect in the show and managing to provide supremely satisfying moments for every one of the major cast members, the Downtown Abbey movie is that rare instance of a television series translating beautifully to a feature length film.  It’s arrived in style with a pristine release date far removed from the late summer madness and just ahead of the more achingly serious work the fall brings us. Sure, you can quibble it’s really just a two hour “special episode” of the show…but what an episode!

It’s 1927 and a letter arrives via post to let Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville, Paddington) and his wife Cora (Elizabeth McGovern, Ordinary People) know that the King and Queen will be staying at Downton Abbey for one night as part of their tour of the country.   Everyone has a job in preparation for this royal visit.  As the agent of the estate, Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery, Non-Stop) makes sure the grounds are in order with the assistance of Tom (Alan Leech, Bohemian Rhapsody), who becomes distracted by the arrival of a strange man with unknown intentions.  Meanwhile, downstairs in the servants quarters emotions are running high in the kitchen with Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nicol, Ghostbusters) fretting over the food and Daisy (Sophie McShera, Cinderella) dragging her feet on setting a wedding date with Andy (Michael Fox, Dunkrik).  Butler Thomas (Robert James-Collier, The Ritual) struggles with the responsibilities of his first big test as head butler while continuing to suffer silently as he hides a personal secret.  Now retired, Mr. Carson (Jim Carter, The Witches) can’t quite relinquish his reins over the household staff, much to the withering eye of his wife (Phyllis Logan, Secrets & Lies).

There’s more family and staff to cover but I’d rather let you see for yourself where writer Julian Fellows (Tomorrow Never Dies) takes these beloved characters over the ensuing two hours.  With the royal family bringing their own staff who wind up undermining the servants at Downtown Abbey, you can imagine there’s room for mischief as well as more serious subjects of marital strife and illegitimate children.  At least no one shows up to arrest Mr. Bates (Brendan Coyle, Me Before You) or his wife Anna (Joanne Froggart)…that seemed to happen every season 🙂  While I’m sure the storyline for the film had been percolating in Fellows brain for some time (and may even have been planned for the television show) he’s made good work of making the most out of the screen time each person is given in the film.  Fellows has always been good at using language eloquently and not saying something in 10 words when he could use 5 and that carries over here, too.  As such, the good-natured back and forth between the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith, The Secret Garden) and Isobel (Penelope Wilton, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) is as crisp and crackling as ever.  I could honestly have sat for two hours, watched these women have a slyly barbed conversation, and been just as happy.

Were the main sources of conflict, like many situations in Downtown Abbey the series, things that could be solved if people had just sat down and talked with one another instead of gossiping secondhand or outright avoiding the subject entirely?  Of course.  Yet this is something longtime fans have come to expect from the show so it’s all much easier to swallow than a standalone feature without an established rhythm. Were there characters I missed seeing?  Sure.  Both of the Countesses hysterically squabbling servants are sadly absent and the film lacks an imposing figure that presents a significant challenge to anyone.  Did I think some staff members got a little more time to shine than others?  Yeah.  Yet these characters shining now often took a backseat in the series so why not let them have their moment in the sun.

With its high flying shots of Downtown Abbey (really Highclere Castle), all the familiar locations back in play, and that gorgeous theme music used in all the right places, director Michael Engler (who directed four episodes of the series, including the finale) doesn’t have to do much but let the actors do their thing speaking Fellows words while wearing Anna Robbins (Wild Rose) gorgeous costumes.  I think the finale of the film goes on a bit too long and rather serious/emotional conversation behind closed doors is inter-cut intrusively with another scene in a ballroom, but by that time I felt I had no right complaining because up until then Downton Abbey folk had been such great hosts.  With a smash bang opening and steady box office returns, the possibility of a return visit to Downtown looks highly likely.

Movie Review ~ The Commuter


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A businessman is caught up in a criminal conspiracy during his daily commute home.

Stars: Liam Neeson, Vera Farmiga, Sam Neill, Elizabeth McGovern, Jonathan Banks, Andy Nyman, Florence Pugh

Director: Jaume Collet-Serra

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 104 minutes

TMMM Score: (4.5/10)

Review: Bless Liam Neeson, that Irish Energizer Bunny. For the last decade or so he’s perfected starring as the everyman that takes a licking but keeps on ticking. In movies like Taken and its two sequels, Unknown, Non-Stop, and Run All Night, Neeson has been a dependable action hero that manages to make tired premises seem like new ideas, even if they just magically vanish from your memory the moment the lights come up in the theater. Teaming up for the fourth time with director Jaume Collet-Serra (The Shallows), Neeson and his frequent collaborator aren’t navigating to any new destinations  in The Commuter but instead are focused solely on the ride.

Michael MacCauley (Neeson, The Grey) is having a bad day. He’s just been let go from his job in life insurance and isn’t sure how he’s going tell his wife (Elizabeth McGovern, Ordinary People, in a glorified cameo) that their already hand-to-mouth life is going to get that much more difficult. A former cop that had Patrick Wilson (Insidious) as a partner and Sam Neil (Jurassic Park III) as his boss, MacCauley is pondering his next move when a mysterious woman (Vera Farmiga, The Conjuring) approaches him on his commute home from NYC to the outer suburbs. She poses an interesting proposition to him, identify the one person on the train that “doesn’t belong” and he will be rewarded with a $100K payday.  Of course, this being a thriller desperate to be called Hitchcock-ian, there’s a deadly twist to taking the money. As soon as MacCauley pockets ¼ of the cash he’s thrust into making good on his promise to locate a material witness or suffer increasingly dangerous consequences.

So begins a game of Neeson trekking back and forth through the train, eliminating suspects with each stop before gathering the remaining passengers in one car in an Agatha Christie-esque wrap-up.  While you may feel the movie is constructing a bit of skilled puzzle, I’d advise you to trust your instincts for the identity of the witness nicknamed Prynne isn’t that hard to decipher.  The movie throws in enough red herrings to nearly make a trip to the dining car a necessity but anyone familiar with these types of films will catch the subtle clues that point to the solution rather quickly.

Like the previous Neeson/Collet-Serra vehice, Non-Stop, the set-up rather amiably carries the film for the first 50 minutes or so but the more the movie shifts from its early mystery intrigue to more action based sequences the less engaging it becomes. While Neeson looks game but gaunt, the most interesting character is Farmigia and (slight spoiler) she’s not on screen for the majority of the film. Shoddy CGI effects and some pretty lousy acting by a bunch of Brits desperately trying to disguise their accents aids in the film running of a steam long before a protracted finale and lame epilogue completely derails it.

No doubt about it, this is slick entertainment but largely a hollow experience. Typical for a January release after the big holiday push of new releases, The Commuter offers no real challenges but is a decent bit of counter-programming to the Oscar-bait entries filling most theaters right now.

Movie Review ~ Woman in Gold

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Maria Altmann, an octogenarian Jewish refugee, takes on the government to recover artwork she believes rightfully belongs to her family.

Stars: Helen Mirren, Ryan Reynolds, Katie Holmes, Daniel Brühl, Elizabeth McGovern, Jonathan Pryce, Tatiana Maslany, Charles Dance, Max Irons, Frances Fisher

Director: Simon Curtis

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 109 minutes

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review:

Review: For Oscar winning star Helen Mirren, Woman in Gold probably looked like a sure bet.  Here was a true life tale of a woman battling painful memories from her childhood in her quest to take back what is lawfully hers and teaming with a young upstart lawyer to do so.  Throw in some courtroom drama and a lovely series of period-set flashback sequences and the Dame was likely flashing that wickedly smug smile of hers to any passerby on the street.

So how does Woman in Gold come across so phony, so airless, so totally beneath her talents?  It’s all in the surroundings, my friends…all in the surroundings.

As an attorney introduced to Maria Altmann (Mirren, The Hundred-Foot Journey, RED 2) by a mutual acquaintance (his mother, played by Frances Fisher, who hopefully pocketed a nice paycheck for her five minutes of screen time) Ryan Reynolds (A Million Ways to Die in the West, Ted) spends the first half of the film playing second fiddle to Mirren’s old biddy of a client.  She wants to reclaim a series of paintings by family-friend Gustav Klimt, the well regarded artist responsible for the painting known as Woman in Gold.  Maria knows the titular character as her aunt Adele, a beauty that died tragically young but with a visage immortalized in the gold leaf heavy work.

Forced out of her home and homeland by Nazi invaders, she came to know that the paintings that adorned the walls of the stately apartment owned by her wealthy family were seized and later displayed in one of Austria’s most renowned galleries.  As a way to retrieve some semblance of a family legacy, Maria joins the famous legal battle in the late 90s that sought to restore the countless works of art stolen by the Nazis to the Jewish families they originally belonged to.

No doubt about it, all the elements for a finely tuned drama were available to everyone involved but what a mess they make of it.  From the tin-earned dialogue courtesy of Alexi Kaye Campbell to the ham-handed direction of Simon Curtis (My Week with Marilyn) the final product is a teeter-totter of a film with some very good elements unable to overcome the larger weaknesses that weigh the whole thing down.

The first problem is Mirren’s co-star.  Reynolds has never been what you’d call an emotional heavy in his roster of roles up until now, trading on his good looks and frat boy “charm” in place of lines delivered with any semblance of sincerity.  Reynolds has carved a nice little career in comedies and the occasional superhero bomb film (Green Lantern, X:Men Origins: Wolverine) but his dramatic roles have been scarce.  There’s clearly a reason for that.

A bizarre party of random familiar faces dot the supporting cast, most of whom can’t make heads or tails of their roles which are little more than walking plot devices for Reynolds and Mirren to do their thing.  I have to believe that most of Katie Holmes’s role was removed in editing…how else can you explain her character (Reynolds’s wife) dropping in only to have the occasional child and reciting lines that, and I’m paraphrasing slightly here, “Here’s what you’re going to do.  You’re going to drop me off at the hospital so I can have this baby and then you’re going to Washington D.C. because it’s the right thing to do.”  The scenes between Holmes (Batman Begins) and Reynolds are awkward to sit through because they’re meant to be emotionally driven yet the film never establishes anything about them as a couple so we don’t care about what they’re going through.

Jonathan Pryce (Tomorrow Never Dies) and Elizabeth McGovern turn up as various judges that Mirren and Reynolds appear before.  Pryce is supposed to be a member of the Supreme Court but for the life of me I can’t figure out which one.  McGovern, the wife of the director, obviously did her husband a solid and donned a robe for her brief, yet enjoyable, cameo.  There’s also Brit Charles Dance (Dracula Untold) doing the most head-scratching Kentucky-fried accent you’ve ever heard and several minor doughy-faced European males feebly sketched as villains that won’t relinquish Maria’s beloved painting.

The good news is that a good chunk (though not nearly enough) of the run time is devoted to Maria’s flashbacks to her youth when she’s played by Tatiana Maslany (The Vow).  Not only does Maslany look strikingly like Mirren but she makes it feel like Mirren modeled her performance off of Maslany and not the other way around.  These flashbacks are where the real gold lies in a film that’s otherwise very paint by numbers.  Another positive to mention is that these flashbacks are almost entirely in German, resisting Hollywood’s penchant for being afraid of using subtitles.

Had the movie been set in the past with brief glimpses of the present, Woman in Gold may have been an overall better film.  Saddled with weak performances (Maslany and Mirren notwithstanding), a hokey-pokey script that feels like the first draft of an intro to screenwriting assignment, and a director that can’t make lemonade out of these lemons, it’s a pure pyrite affair.