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.

Movie Review ~ The BFG

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A girl named Sophie encounters the Big Friendly Giant who, despite his intimidating appearance, turns out to be a kindhearted soul who is considered an outcast by the other giants because, unlike them, he refuses to eat children.

Stars: Mark Rylance, Ruby Barnhill, Penelope Wilton, Jemaine Clement, Rebecca Hall, Rafe Spall, Bill Hader

Director: Steven Spielberg

Rated: PG

Running Length: 117 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: There’s something about a Steven Spielberg film that makes it instantly recognizable. I feel I could watch a film of his with or without a blindfold and know right away that the director of Jaws, E.T., Raiders of the Lost Ark, or Close Encounters of the Third Kind was the captain of the cinematic ship. Lately, Spielberg has dug into more dramatic territory with the historical epics of War Horse, Lincoln, and Bridge of Spies with many of the muscles he used for his early flights of fancy going unstretched.

Long interested in bringing Roald Dahl’s 1982 book The BFG to the screen, Spielberg finally gathered the pieces together and I think that’s owed in no small part to the director finding a new leading man muse. After teaming with stage actor Mark Rylance on Bridge of Spies (which brought Rylance an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, surprisingly beating out odds-on favorite Sly Stallone in Creed), Spielberg has caught Rylance fever, casting the actor in The BFG and (as of now) his next two pictures.

In the not too distant past, a lonely orphan girl goes on the adventure of a lifetime one night when she’s plucked out of her bed by The BFG (Big Friendly Giant) and brought to his home in Giant Country. Not really a prisoner but not quite allowed to leave, the headstrong Sophie clashes at first with her towering friend. As she comes to know him better she recognizes the loneliness of this outsider as reminiscent of her own life and sets about to help him out from under the thumb of nearby giant bullies. Pretty soon there’s a trip to Buckingham Palace and a finale involving the Royal National Guard, with Sophie and The BFG bonding over dreams, sadness, and wishes for the future.

All of this is right up Spielberg’s alley and reteaming with the late Melissa Mathison on her final script, Dahl’s world is recreated from the ground up in a faithful adaptation. While other Dahl works like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and The Witches have had memorable their trips to the big screen, The BFG feels the most like it sprung from Dahl’s brain fully-formed. And that’s where there’s some trouble.

Dahl’s books are lovingly bonkers escapades with numerous tangential diversions along the way, almost feeling like curated episodes than one streamlined work. The BFG has several of these that don’t quite land the way I think Spielberg or Mathison (or Dahl for that matter) intended. Each moment of the film is beautifully shot by Janusz Kaminski (The Judge), gorgeously scored by John Williams (Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens) and skillfully designed by Rick Carter (Jurassic Park)  but the middle of the film seriously drags and it winds up a solid 20 minutes too long. Though the trip to meet the Queen (Penelope Wilton, The French Lieutenant’s Woman) is a nice lark, it goes on for an eternity as Sophie and The BFG have a spot of tea with Her Royal Highness before an extended sequence of fart jokes.

The whole thing is perhaps too sophisticated for its target audience and likely should be marketed more to adults than young children who will tire quickly of the talky nature of the piece. When Spielberg does give us something substantive, such as a knockout sequence where Sophie and The BFG catch firefly-like dreams, it can feel too heavy-handed and repetitive.

I’m not sure if any other actors were considered for the titular role but it’s hard to imagine anyone playing it quite like Rylance has. While the performance may be motion-captured, Rylance brings a special magic to the part, uniting the actor with technology to fairly stunning results. Many have felt that motion-capture performances should be recognized by the Oscars and you can be sure Rylance’s work here will be cited as an example of why.

Newcomer Ruby Barnhill is a real find, believably navigating a range of emotions that suggests a promising career as she matures. Wilton is a hoot as the Queen while Jemaine Clement (Men in Black 3) voices The BFG’s tormentor with a nice mixture of weirdness and humor. I’m not quite sure what Rebecca Hall (Closed Circuit) and Rafe Spall (Prometheus) are doing here, with their characters feeling exceedingly extraneous to the proceedings. Hall and Spall (hey, that rhymes) are pleasant actors but they seem to know they’re little more than human-sized props.

Any chance for Spielberg to make us feel like a kid again is a worthy experience in my book. While not on par with the best of the director’s works from the past, The BFG is a reminder of how good a storyteller he is when working with material that’s personal for him. I just wish he hadn’t been quite so precious with Dahl’s source material, I think even Dahl would say there’s opportunity to trim it down without losing any heart.

The Silver Bullet ~ The BFG

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Synopsis: The imaginative story of a young girl and the Giant who introduces her to the wonders and perils of Giant Country.

Release Date:  July 1, 2016

Thoughts: The works of Roald Dahl have found their way to the screen over the years, from a 70s take on Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (and Tim Burton’s unwise remake thirty years later) to a splendid retelling of The Witches. Dahl even wrote the screenplay to You Only Live Twice, one of James Bond flicks that took major flights of fancy.  Now comes The BFG, Dahl’s celebrated tale of an orphan girl and the Giant she befriends.  The Disney production reunites E.T.’s director (Steven Spielberg, JAWS) and writer (the late Melissa Mathison) so you know it will have its heart in the right place. This nice teaser trailer creates some interest…but I’ll be interested to see the blending of live-action and CGI that will bring Dahl’s novel to life.

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 ~ 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.