31 Days to Scare ~ The Ritual

The Facts:

Synopsis: A group of university friends trekking through the forests of north Sweden are stalked by a malign presence that doesn’t want them to leave.

Stars: Rafe Spall, Robert James-Collier, Arsher Ali, Sam Troughton, Paul Reid, Maria Erwolter

Director: David Bruckner

Rated: TV-MA

Running Length: 94 minutes

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review:  For a while, it seemed like Netflix was getting to be a place where cheap-o horror was coming to flourish.  I can’t tell you how many times I was enticed in by an interesting bit of artwork, description, or star rating only to be opting for something else five or ten minutes in because the movie was garbage.  Then, once the company started to become a fledgling-movie studio and wanted to be taken a bit more seriously, you could see a shift in the way they started to acquire content to release under their own banner.  While Netflix would soon get into the game of financing their own films, in order to build out their library they had to track down some quality completed work first.

That’s how they came to procure The Ritual, a nifty little horror yarn based on a 2011 novel by British author Adam Nevill.  Adapted by Joe Barton who helped to give the story a bit more of an arc and directed by David Bruckner (V/H/S), this was another one of those pleasant surprises I wasn’t expecting to enjoy as much as I did.  Like Apostle, what The Ritual may have lacked in overall prestige had it been made in the studio system, it more than makes up for in creativity and atmosphere.  Receiving a small release in the UK before Netflix bought it, it’s a movie I can see not being totally right for theaters but working better as an at-home watch.

A yearly weekend trip for a group of five university friends takes on a special meaning a year after losing one to a random act of violence.  Paying tribute to their fallen buddy by moving forward with his idea of hiking the mountains in Sweden, Phil (Arsher Ali), Dom (Sam Troughton), Hutch (Robert James-Collier, Downton Abbey), and Luke (Rafe Spall, Prometheus) are approaching middle-age and realizing they aren’t the same kind of friends they were in their youth.  They squabble and press each other’ s buttons, clearly missing their one friend who seemed to be the glue that held them all together.  The hike isn’t half over before one is injured and they have to find a way back to town.  Opting for a shortcut through a nearby wood proves a fatal mistake as the men walk headfirst into a place of evil.  Resting for a night in a ramshackle deserted cabin filled with the kind of harbingers of doom that scream “Turn back!”, the men wake up the next morning having had visions of death in their dreams to find strange marks on their body.  As the fear of the unknown mounts, so does the paranoia.  Unable to find their way out of the forest, they delve further inward toward an unspeakable terror waiting to be fed…and it’s mighty hungry.

With a small cast and modest budget, Bruckner does good work by never letting the audience get too far ahead of the game.  There’s a lot of exposition in Barton’s script near the end that has to be conveyed without slowing the action down and it’s nice to see these important final scenes aren’t bogged down by all of this explanation.  As is often the case, the solution isn’t always as interesting as the mystery but The Ritual manages keep us engaged longer than most.  The gore is doled out appropriately and the performances from the men are nicely metered in comparison to the emotional stakes presented to them.

I hope Netflix continues to take cues from successful acquisitions like The Ritual.  While the film may be a bit cliché in some of its crude moments of violence, I liked the quieter times it focused on the men and their relationships to each other.  It produces some more than decent chills and works hard to bring its audience into the mood of the situation.  A cut above, no doubt.

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.