Movie Review ~ Downton Abbey


The Facts
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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.

The Silver Bullet ~ Lady in the Van

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Synopsis: A man forms an unexpected bond with a transient woman living in her car that’s parked in his driveway.

Release Date: TBD 2015

Thoughts: It’s always tricky to adapt a play for the cinema. The confines of the stage can lead to a very intimate experience but these moments can be lost when the world is expanded to include other characters and settings. I’m not familiar with Alan Bennet’s true story of an elderly woman who lived in a van parked in his driveway for over a decade but I’m sure familiar with the people involved with bringing his 1999 play to life. Dame Maggie Smith (Quartet) created the role onstage and, spry as ever, looks to be an irascible delight in the titular role. She’s joined by the likes of Jim Broadbent (Paddington), Frances de la Tour (Mr. Holmes), Dominic Cooper (Dracula Untold), and James Corden (Into the Woods) under the direction of veteran theater director Nicholas Hytner. Smith can probably play this role in her sleep but I’m not one to begrudge a little resting on laurels when the talent is this good.

 

The Silver Bullet ~ The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

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Synopsis: Two hopeful new arrivals at The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel for the Elderly and Beautiful quickly learn that there is only a single room left to rent.

Release Date: March 6, 2015

Thoughts: A surprise hit that built dynamic staying power thanks to good word of mouth when released in early summer of 2012, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel was a pleasant bit of fluff that benefited greatly from its starry cast of over the hill talent. In an interesting move, a sequel has been constructed that reunites the cast, writer, and director of the original in hopes that audiences will want to check-in again. I wasn’t knocked out by the first film but in all honesty by the time I saw it the hype machine was in full swing so I’m chalking my middle of the road feelings toward it up to overly lofty expectations. Based on the trailer for the sequel, it’s more of the same in store but when you have a cast featuring Judi Dench (Skyfall), Maggie Smith (Quartet), Richard Gere (American Gigolo), and Bill Nighy (About Time) I have little reservation about making a, uh, reservation.

Movie Review ~ Quartet

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The Facts:

Synopsis: At a home for retired musicians, the annual concert to celebrate Verdi’s birthday is disrupted by the arrival of Jean, an eternal diva and the former wife of one of the residents.

Stars: Maggie Smith, Billy Connolly, Michael Gambon, Pauline Collins, Tom Courtenay, Sheridan Smith

Director: Dustin Hoffman

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 98 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again…the best kind of movies are the ones that sneak up on you and take you in a different direction than you originally thought.  Like Silver Linings Playbook, Quartet is a film that on the surface (and certainly in its preview) looks like it’s rather conventional but in reality it provides a wealth of entertainment for those that like to color outside of the lines.  It takes a slower pace than one might expect and occasionally wanders off topic but it all somehow works to end up a quite satisfying experience.

I tried to resist describing Quartet as a mash-up of Downton Abbey and Fame but fans of both should see where I’m coming from once Quartet has begun.  Though it takes place in the present, it sets its action at a stately retirement home for musicians in the English countryside.  The large estate looks like a scaled down version of the famous Downton Abbey location – the various rooms and grounds provide a great setting for the story to unfold in.

The previews for Quartet are a bit misleading – it’s not an outright comedy about the antics of seniors living out their days in a community of their previous peers and rivals.  It’s also not a pained examination of what the aging process is like and how it takes its toll on all of us.  Rather, it’s a film that shows respect to its actors, characters, and subject matter by portraying these people as realistically as possible.  Even the more outsized characters (like Gambon’s puffy blowhard) seem familiar and relatable.

It’s hard to believe that Hoffman has never taken a turn behind the camera before.  The Oscar winning actor has been a lauded member of the Hollywood community for years so it’s even more interesting that he would choose such a stately British piece (by Sir Ronald Harwood, adapting his own play) to start out with.  Hoffman lets the actors play their scenes without doing anything fancy…he just lets the camera roll and some nice magic occurs.

Smith, recently self-described in an interview as ‘spikey’, has been the go-to actress for British resiliency. In 2012 she turned in a typically acerbic performance in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and her reign as queen of Downton Abbey is undisputed.  She plays a similar character here but with a grace that proves once again why she’s one of the best actresses out there.  It’s a vulnerable and intimate performance that should have been recognized by the Academy Awards.

The other three members of the quartet are played equally as strong, especially Courtenay as Smith’s ex-husband.  Her arrival stirs emotions he had long since pushed aside and forces him to confront them all over again.  Connolly plays another rascal and Collins is appropriately dotty in her comedic relief role.  Other inhabitants of the home include real life retired performers that once graced the stages all over the world.  Stick around for the credits to see pictures of the large cast throughout the years – it’s a striking montage.

Add in some nice zingers that get lobbed and Smith’s utterance of a word she’s never said in film before and you have a real winner.  While it may be slower than most will have the patience for, I was immensely satiated by Quartet thanks to Hoffman’s gentle direction, Smith’s incredible performance, and superb supporting work from a talented cast.

2013 Oscar Nominations – Predictions

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Forget Thanksgiving and Christmas, we are now officially in my favorite holiday season…Awards Season.  This Sunday are the Golden Globe Awards and you can click HERE for a full listing of nominees.   I enjoy the Golden Globes for what they are…the slightly tipsy foreign exchange student to the Oscars.  A few weeks later on January 27th the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) Awards are given out and these are enjoyable because they are only given for performance categories and are voted on by the true peers of the nominees/winners.  That’s true somewhat for the Oscars but there’s something about the SAG Awards that make them feel like a valued win and not a popularity contest.  The day before the Oscars are the Spirit Awards given out to independent films from the past year.  If you’ve never watched these awards I highly encourage it…they are very much like the films they celebrate…independent and rough around the edges.

All of these are merely appetizers for the Academy Awards which will be given out on February 24, 2013.  Sure to be a lavish affair (even if they are being hosted by the mostly funny but ego-centric Seth McFarlane, Ted), I’ve yet to miss an Academy Awards telecast or the live announcement of the official nominees.

Before the nominations are announced at 7:38 am tomorrow morning, let me go out on a limb and give my predictions as to what is going to be up for major awards and who is going to wake up an Oscar nominee.

Best Picture

Ever since the field was changed from 5 nominees to a possible 10, this one is always hard to predict…so let me start with five nominees and then go up from there….

Lincoln
Zero Dark Thirty
Argo
Les
Misérables
Silver Linings Playbook

Life of Pi

Moonrise Kingdom

Beasts of the Southern Wild

Django Unchained

Amour

Close Calls – While The Master was a huge buzz film before it was released, its actual reception was so chilly I’m not sure it will earn a place on the list. 

If there’s any justice… Skyfall will be the first James Bond film to be nominated for Best Picture.  One of the best films of the year and most definitely the best Bond film ever produced, this was a full serving of entertainment with more to it than just cool cars and spy adventures.

Best Director

Steven Spielberg, Lincoln
Kathryn Bigelow, Zero Dark Thirty
Ben Affleck, Argo
David O. Russell, Silver Linings Playbook
Tom Hooper, Les Misérables

Close Calls – With The Life of Pi sitting just outside the top five Best Picture nominees, director Ang Lee may have a tough time locking down a nomination.

If there’s any justice… Actually, this list is pretty complete.

Best Actor

Daniel Day-Lewis, Lincoln
Denzel Washington, Flight
John Hawkes, The Sessions
Hugh Jackman, Les Misérables
Bradley Cooper, Silver Linings Playbook

Close Calls – Again, The Master is popping up as a close call…but potential Best Actor nominee Joaquin Phoenix is such a puzzle in and of himself, he may have hurt his chances at a nomination by starring in an equally puzzling film.

If there’s any justice… Poor Richard Gere…he just can’t catch a break.  Though he could possibly unseat Jackman, his work in Arbitage probably will go un-nominated.

Best Actress

Jennifer Lawrence, Silver Linings Playbook
Jessica Chastain, Zero Dark Thirty
Marion Cotillard, Rust and Bone
Naomi Watts, The Impossible
Quvenzhane Wallis, Beasts of the Southern Wild

Close Calls – Helen Mirren is also being mentioned in this category…and while she was wonderful in Hitchcock the film itself wasn’t well liked.  I think there are enough women who did great work in better films that should wind up with a nomination.

If there’s any justice… PLEASE let Quvenzhane Wallis be nominated!  If anyone should go from this list it’s Watts…I’ve heard her film is strong as is her performance but let’s have the youngest ever nominee (Wallis) up against the oldest ever nominee (Emmanuelle Riva, Amour)

Best Supporting Actor

Tommy Lee Jones, Lincoln
Robert De Niro, Silver Linings Playbook
Philip Seymour Hoffman, The Master
Alan Arkin, Argo
Javier Bardem, Skyfall

Close Calls – Leonardo DiCaprio may miss the boat on this, his work in Django Unchained was better than his last five films but he’s in good company with his co-stars Christoph Waltz and Samuel L. Jackson…both of whom could wind up here.  Bardem might be the one to miss the mark if DiCaprio love fills the hearts of voters…but I wouldn’t count out Bardem’s recent surge of support.

If there’s any justice… Tom Cruise would get some love for putting it all out there in Rock of Ages.  Yes, the film was a total mess but his performance is still one of the most memorable (in a good way) for me at the end of the year.  It’s never going to happen but I had to go on record saying he deserves it.

Best Supporting Actress

Anne Hathaway, Les Miserables
Sally Field, Lincoln
Helen Hunt, The Sessions
Amy Adams, The Master
Maggie Smith, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

Close Calls – I haven’t seen The Paperboy but boy is Nicole Kidman getting surprising recognition for her steamy work.  Though it came and went pretty fast, Kidman may just pop up here, replacing Adams or Smith.

If there’s any justice… the Supporting categories are always where Oscar tends to throw a few nice curveballs so here’s hoping that Brit Kelly Reilly scores her first nomination for her haunting work alongside Denzel Washington in Flight.  Director Robert Zemeckis could have cast any Hollywood female for the role but he made a killer choice by going with Reilly.

Movie Review ~ The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

The Facts:

Synopsis: British retirees travel to India to take up residence in what they believe is a newly restored hotel. Less luxurious than its advertisements, the Marigold Hotel nevertheless slowly begins to charm in unexpected ways.

Stars: Judi Dench, Bill Nighy, Maggie Smith,Tom Wilkinson, Celia Imrie, Ronald Pickup, Dev Patel, Penelope Wilton 

Director: John Madden

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 124 Minutes

Random Crew Highlight: Unit Minibus Driver ~ Chris Hammond

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  It’s almost too easy.  The gathering of some of the UK’s most celebrated actors and actresses in one film creates a pile of good will right off the bat.  Add to that a respected director, gorgeous locales, and a plot that brims with surprises and it’s no wonder the film has been a sleeper hit since it was released in the US in May. 

Opening with the expected rainy and grim shots of London, the ensemble drama introduces us to our main group of old-timers as they hit all the stereotypical “old age” milestones.  Loss of spouse, loss of independence, loss of available partners…it’s all covered in a mature way that lets us know that if anyone would be swayed by a brochure for a luxury retirement hotel in mysterious India, these people would.

There’s no obvious main character in the film but Dench stands out as a quasi narrator that the film could be seen through the eyes of.  A recent widow with bills to pay she sells her flat to cover her costs and heads to India alongside a handful of others in similar situations.  I found it hard to believe that everyone would be leaving on the same day, on the same route, with the same transportation but that’s part of the easy going nature of the film that you forget about logical wrinkles.

Speaking of wrinkles, it’s refreshing to see stars of a certain age owning their advanced years without lampooning themselves.  There are a few jokes made at their expense, yes, but as this is a UK made/financed production the script is fine tuned to place the actors in lightly comedic situations rather than making humiliating jokes about diapers, Viagra, and bad driving (as you know any American made film would have). 

Dench is in good company with the likes of Wilkinson as a judge who returns to India for an unexpectedly sincere reunion, Wilton and Nighy (in a tender and welcome departure) as a couple who feel that a change will help them avoid red flags in their relationship, and singles Imrie and Pickup as randy old timers that long for companionship with good old fashioned benefits.  Only Patel seems to take the easy way out and fashion his hopeless Indian hotel manager character through the eyes of an American idea of the Indian people.  He settles down as the picture unspools so that by its conclusion his story is as important as the people renting space in his hotel. 

Smith almost always deserves special mention so I’m calling her out here as the sparkling center of the Marigold experience.  Her part isn’t all that challenging (she spends nearly all of it in a wheelchair) but Smith doesn’t need to move around much to deliver a smashing performance…though the film does at times use her more as a plot tool rather than a real character.  Still, no one can send a sharp barb quite like Smith and the film really comes alive with her experiences at the hotel.

In an ensemble movie it can be difficult to juggle so many characters and storylines without occasionally losing sight of the through line.  I did feel that people would disappear for long stretches…long enough for you to forget they are also playing a part in the overall story.  In that respect, the movie feels longer than it should although it doesn’t overstay its welcome.  Madden (Shakespeare in Love, The Debt) does corral the film nicely, though, and does an admirable job showing the day-to-day life of the Indian culture.

The acting is strong across the board but with actors this good and characters so broadly drawn I found myself wondering what it would have been like had the parts shifted a bit.  I’m not sure it would have mattered because I think the actors could have made any combination work and probably what ended up on screen was for the best. 

It took me a while to get to it as my time was taken up with the latest summer blockbuster…but finally taking in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel was a frothy affair.  It won’t go down as the best film in the roster of these pros but is a film I can see returning to with pleasure.