Tag Archives: secrets

A Return to DOWNTON ABBEY, Upgraded for the Big Screen

DOWNTON ABBEY. Country, UK. Director Michael Engler. Screenwriter: Julian Fellowes. Based on the PBS series of the same name and characters created by Julian Fellowes. Cast: Michelle Dockery, Matthew Goode, Maggie Smith, Penelope Wilton, Tuppence Middleton, Elizabeth McGovern, Hugh Bonneville, Laura Carmichael, Allen Leech, Imelda Staunton, Harry Haden-Paton, Raquel Cassidy, Robert James-Collier, Phyllis Logan, Sophie McShera, Joanne Froggatt, Jim Carter, Kevin Doyle, Michael Fox, Lesley Nicol, Brendan Coyle, Geraldine James, Kate Phillips, Max Brown, Susan Lynch, Simon Jones, David Haig, Philippe Spall, Douglas Reith, Perry Fitzpatrick. Language: English. Release Date: September 20, 2019. Runtime: 120 minutes.

Mostly Indies rating: A+

It had to happen. Even though it ended four years ago amidst much drama and fanfare and lots of Kleenex, the series we know and came to love, Downton Abbey, came to an end, and left us Anglophiles with not much to hold on to. While Masterpiece Theatre consistently has brought to life countless shows, some with their own spin-offs, none it seems has resonated with so much verve as Downton, an exploration of (what else?) upstairs and downstairs life at the turn of last century, something that R. F. Delderfield could write in his sleep.

This time, director Michael Engler pulls out all the stops. Even when every episode had the characteristic of a one-hour movie and often was treated with much care and cinematic attention to detail, when we see the movie that is Downton Abbey, we are in for quite the experience. A letter, a very important letter, is on its way to Downton, and its travel is treated with enormous suspense, with the music by John Lunn waxing and waning so beautifully you can’t but help but hold your breath, Once it is clear where it’s headed, cameras floating over the hills reveal the majestic castle, and thus begins the wistful, melancholic, rich theme we have come to know and love. The camera continues to move and pan and zoom in and out, giving us snippets of life at Downton, with Andy (Michael Fox) receiving the letter, Daisy and Mrs Patmore (Sophie McShera and Lesley Nicol) going about in the kitchen, in and about the many, many rooms, where we see Lady Mary Talbot (Michelle Dockery) discussing business (as it’s clear she’s the one who runs the house). It is a remarkable way to introduce practically everyone who lives and works in Downton, and if you are new to the story, it probably doesn’t require you to have seen the series, as Fellowes has left his people intact, with some slight changes. Thomas Barrow (Robert James-Collier) now runs the house as butler alongside Mrs Hughes (Phyllis Logan) and is actually a nice guy. Retired butler Mr Carson (Jim Carter) tends to his garden. Other than that, it is business as usual: the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith) and Isobel Merton (Penelope Wilton) continue to exchange barbs (although, let’s be real, those two love each other in the same way Lady Mary and Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael), for once, happily married, don’t. Tom Branson (Allen Leech), who had attempted life in the US, is back. Henry Talbot (Matthew Goode)? Absent, mostly. The Bates’ (Brendan Coyle and Joanne Froggatt)? Check. Lady in waiting Miss Baxter (Raquel Cassidy? Check.

Missing, but mentioned? Lady Rose MacClare (Lily James) and Lady Rosamund Painswick (Samantha Bond), and that’s okay, We have new people to introduce, and that letter I mentioned is precisely why Downton begins that way. It turns out that the letter is coming from none other than Buckingham Palace itself. The King (Simon Jones) and Queen (Geraldine James) are coming to visit, since they are performing a tour around the country’s royal residences as a move to espouse the importance of the monarchy. Man the harpoons! Everything has to be picture perfect down to a science. Not having it is Daisy, who voices her more modern opinion that this is all a colossal waste of time, and of course, we side by her, but of course, we don’t really care, because let’s face it, Downton.

Also not quite having it but willing to suffer is Violet. The Queen’s lady-in-waiting, Maud Bagshaw (Imelda Staunton) is also Robert’s cousin once-removed and there has been a falling out over an inheritance that has left the families all estranged.

Interestingly, the real drama starts once the King and Queen’s staff arrive. Richard Ellis (David Haig), the Page of the Backstairs, behaves in a manner that is so offensive he reduces Barrow into absolute timidity. Lady Mary has no other choice but to bring the reliable Carson back, but even that has no effect on the Royal Staff who continue to act as if they own the house and none of the Downton staff even exist. This puts a monkey wrench in the plans of almost everyone involved: Mrs Patmore sees her cooking will not be put to service, Mrs Hughes finds herself relegated to the background, and basically everyone is forced into a corner. In the meantime, Anna Bates who really needs her own show where she plays a Miss Marple character, has put her sleuthing to good use, this time with a Royal Staff employee with a penchant for legerdemain.

Midway up the stairs, Tom Branson has been approached by a stranger with ulterior motives, and Branson finds himself somewhat out of place with the sheer spectacle of it all while he also serves as a counselor to Princess Mary (Kate Phillips) who finds herself trapped in a marriage to an abusive man and he also finds possible love with Maud Bagshaw’s maid Lucy (Tuppence Middleton). Busy man.

Interestingly of all is Barrow’s own storyline. Barrow is the only downstairs character who other than being basically a bitter bitch through the entire show never quite had a storyline that would be satisfactory. He makes friends with one of the King’s footmen (Max Brown). It’s only too bad that Fellowes doesn’t take the opportunity to make this meeting a bit more pregnant with some foreboding of times changing the same way he is so verbal with Daisy’s snarling against the attention to pageantry. But, perhaps had this been a three-part miniseries or an official sixth season, that would have been a bit more fleshed out.

Yes, this happens.

There is not a thing I can really say against the movie version of Downton Abbey (other than some plots move at cannonball speed and everything gets touched with such a light tone as to leave the viewer as though he saw it all through an impressionistic fog, but caught only the most salient of the best of the menu. Yes, there is a ridiculous amount of attention to period pieces, detail, gowns, lighting, because again, this isn’t your average 40 inch screen. The writing is often on point and of course, the best and bitchy lines go, hands down, to Maggie Smith, Probably a minor quibble is the way Elizabeth McGovern and Hugh Bonneville seem to have reduced their characters down to befuddled spectators on the side just enjoying a life of pure privilege, but that is just a side observation. Judging from box office receipts, it looks like America really, really loves royalty, castles, and intricate family plots involving heirs toe and whatnot that only serve to remind that this is a life that once was privy to a handful. Do not be surprised if we in 2021 or 2022 see a further iteration of Downton.

LUCE tackles the ghost of prejudice and privilege and comes up with no easy answers.

Kelvin Harrison, Jr. stars in Julius Onah’s Luce.

LUCE. Country, USA. Director, Julius Onah. Language, English. Cast: Kelvin Harrison, Jr., Naomi Watts, Octavia Spencer, and Tim Roth. Screenwriters, JC Lee and Julius Onah. Release Date, August 2, 2019. Runtime, 110 minutes. Venue: Angelika Film Center. Mostly Indies rating, A +.

Sandwiched in between The Nightingale and Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood is what I consider to be one of the best movies this year: Julius Onah’s Luce. Based on JC Lee’s off-Broadway play and also co-written by Onah, Luce is quite the conversation piece because of how difficult a story it is: in fact, the story offers so much complexity in narration, and characterization, that one cannot but only follow its puzzle, interpret the information it (selectively) gives, only to have it reveal something else entirely, and arrive at a conclusion that one would never expect. This is the kind of movie that we need more of, not empty-plotted monster movies or lousy exercises in action. Luce, even as a character study and rooted in theater, has loads of action happening right in front of you (and some developments, off-screen). It is, in essence, a master-class in compelling story telling with a quartet of actors at their best, the standouts here being Octavia Spencer as Luce’s discriminating teacher and Kelvin J Harrison Jr as the title character and by far, the glue that holds this entire thread in the palms of his hand.

From the moment we meet Luce we get a picture of a successful, polite, charming young man who is being groomed for greatness. Once Luce was a child soldier in Eritrea and was rescued, only to be adopted by Amy and Peter Edgar (Naomi Watts and Tim Roth). Through their love, their compassion, and — let’s face it — their affluence, Luce was able to conquer trauma, negative memories, and re-emerge into a star pupil at the verge of greatness in both his studies and athleticism. However, immediately that intro passes, we see some troubling signs that all is not quite right. For once, his teacher, Harriet Wilson (Octavia Spencer), known for being particularly hard on African American students, doesn’t exactly cheer Luce after he delivers a rousing speech at the start of the movie. It could be she’s just stern, or perhaps there is something else.

That something else reveals itself as an essay Luce has written from an assignment she herself gave, His topic of choice, Frantz Fanon, a controversial figure who wrote about the implementation of violence as a mode to confront colonialism, disturbs her so much she calls Amy to her office to discuss her parenting as well as to give her a bag with fireworks she found in his locker. Keep in mind, from this essay that she herself assigned, she has somehow felt it her duty to invade his privacy, the locker he shares with his buds, and fears he might have troubling thoughts lingering underneath. Today’s climate at school, with students potentially acting out scenes of violence, Wilson feels it is her duty to confront it head on and see if there isk in fact, any truth to that. Amy and Peter don’t confront Luce immediately, but Luce soon has a series of confrontations with Wilson — one, a rehearsal for a debate, the other, an apparently cut and dry meeting in her office where Luce possibly throws a veiled threat. Needless to say, this threat does not sit well with Wilson.

We question the reason the Edgars don’t immediately confront Luce with the evidence (that they even leave carelessly tucked into a cabinet in the kitchen). Its never clear if this is because of genuine love (and keep in mind, parents will go to the ends of the earth for their child, adopted or not) or perhaps a need to be White saviors for a child that in other circumstances would never have had a chance. Where the situation becomes a bit thorny is when Amy does bring her doubts to the surface. Luce immediately starts calling her by her first name and withdraws. She starts asking her own questions, and in a scene involving Luce’s ex-girlfriend Stephanie (Andrea Bang), who may have had something awful happen to her at a party, she finds out more than she might have wanted to. This piece of information gets delivered extremely piecemeal, and when Wilson gets it in her possession, she sees it as a chance to vindicate herself, because as of yet, her claims have not been heard, and adding to that, the appearance of her mentally unstable sister at school, a scene that goes viral almost immediately, lands Wilson’s credibility and even her competence in shaky ground.

This is the type of story I live for. A narrative that seems to be at surface value cut and dry morphs constantly into something deeper and reveals shades of shadows even in its most well-defined characters. Luce forces you to first see one thing, then hear of another event linked, and then become privy to yet more information that might either negate what you thought was the truth and leave you with no one to truly root for. Is Luce a remarkable psychopath? Is Wilson, a strict teacher, in the right to have cut the dreams of another African American student short because she found pot in his locker, a locker that again, was shared? Could Luce have possibly engineered some of the later events in the movie and walked out a victor as Wilson despairs and his own parents sit silently by?

No answers, and that is just how I like it. Luce is a shapeshifting masterpiece with stellar performances from its quartet, one that crackles with tense energy and treats its scenario of life in school as if it were a puzzle with one or more of the crucial pieces missing and a growing sense of mysteries that we probably will not fully understand. Onah understands closeups and uses them to their maximum to elevate a rather wordy play into something else quite revealing… shadows hidden within light, characters who have traumas that they’d rather keep hidden.

THE SENSE OF AN ENDING

 

THE SENSE OF AN ENDING
UK
Director: Ritesh Batra
Runtime: 108 minutes
Language: English

2.5/5

If you’re looking for a 15 dollar nap to alleviate your insomnia, then by all means, you’re cordially¬† invited to the Lincoln Plaza or the Landmark Sunshine in NYC where you can go, sit back, stare at the metronome of a story suspended before you, let the somnolence of this messy plot take you past the gates of Lethe. If you catch yourself snoring a litle, don’t despair — you won’t be alone. Just make sure you’re not in the middle of the theater, or close to the front. The Lincoln Plaza is basically the geriatric theater, and some of the older folk who attend movie screenings tend to be rather vocal at all times, commenting when they should be watching the film, so if your snore happens to catch their ears you can be sure they will let you know you are infringing on their viewing pleasure (as they themselves continue to yammer away at the tiniest scenes, or wonder who could that actress playing Jim Broadbent’s daughter be?).

Reader, what a colossal disappointment this movie is. After seeing the trailer on YouTube I went in, unsuspecting, hoping for a restrained drama that would eventually reveal its secrets after peeling back layers and layers of events half-mentioned, secrets half-disclosed, into some major revelation, something approaching catharsis. No. That never happens here. Nothing of consequence ever happens, and perhaps that is the point? That the effect we think we have on our friends and ex-college classmates wasn’t as important as we imagined it to be. Either/or, The Sense of an Ending, while it’s speckled with moments of curt humor between Jim Broadbent and Harriet Walker who play ex-spouses, or Broadbent and Michelle Dockery (as his lesbian daughter), the film’s backstory is merely filler treated in a way as to present a mystery that reveals more mysteries.

So, let’s get into the premise. Tony Webster (Broadbent) receives a notification that a woman he knew when he was in college, Sarah Ford (played in flashbacks by Emily Mortimer), the mother of a girl he awkwardly dated, has died and left him a diary for him to read. The conflict of the novel arises when the daughter (and former flame), Veronica (Charlotte Rampling) refuses to hand over the property. Conversations point to the fact that perhaps she isn’t willing to part just yet due to a personal attachment, which is entirely possible. All this looks like it should be some sort of romantic suspense story — will we learn the contents of the diary or not? — but Ritesh Batra holds off to this important plot point, preferring instead to go back in time to when Webster was in college, falling in love with Veronica, losing her to a close friend who it seems that he also held some affection (or is it attraction). It’s a problem because the entire movie hangs onto this One Thing, and when we finally get there, when Rampling finally enters the picture to deliver her Beatrice Straight scene (she essentially has one long scene with Broadbent, but is seen later in glimpses), it comes not as a revelation but a let-down.

This is why Sense of a an Ending is so disappointing. I don’t mind pictures that fail to disclose all of their secrets — if anything, sometimes that works to magnify a film’s allure — but when you have a story that is amplified up by bloat, and a main character who seems not to have grown over the years and reflected upon his own life and relation to others, you have a movie that is closer to dead on arrival.






LOUDER THAN BOMBS

4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

 

louderthanbombs

Nothing brings a family dysfunction to the surface like the departure of the glue that holds them together, and in Joachim Trier’s and Eskil Vogt’s new film Louder than Bombs it all rings too true. However, this is not a melodramatic film — it would have been easy to give actors scene after scene of loud arguing, emoting, and a finale of almost grandiose proportions. Trier instead has created a rather tender and quiet portrait of a father and his two sons coming to terms with the premature death of their mother who was a noted photo journalist and had a couple of secrets of her own.

The mother, Isabelle (Isabelle Huppert), hovers over the picture like a ghost who won’t rest in peace. When we first see her she’s getting some award for her body of work. Soon later we realize how it was she really died — in a car crash, possibly caused by her, which would make it suicide. However, no one ever truly speaks out that word and it starts a chain of avoidance between the surviving characters who now have to contend with this shattered new reality. Gene (Gabriel Byrne), Isabelle’s widow, has no idea how to reach his teenage son Conrad (David Druid) who has become withdrawn and aggressive, so he takes to either following him after school or playing World of Warcraft in order to connect. Gene has also been carrying on with Hannah (Amy Ryan), David’s teacher, in a movie that seems more out of loneliness than anything.

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In the meantime, in for a retrospective of his mother’s work, older son Jonah (Jesse Eisenberg) shows up. He’s recently become a father and on the night that his wife borne him a son he ran into and reconnected with a former flame who’s mother was also dying in the hospital.

As I said before, this isn’t a movie with big revelations complete with an abundance of self-important dialog or all too camera-ready scene chewing. If at all the only moment that any performance feels completely naked even when it doesn’t reveal anything other than inner torment is a flashback sequence showing Huppert in a hotel, her face pinched and sad. It’s no wonder she’s this force that will not give away: Huppert has imbued her character with a world of inner pain that perhaps had no other solution than the way out. Everyone else is left to gravitate around her and try to fill in the void she has left.

Because of this, Louder than Bombs may disappoint viewers looking for that “a-ha!” moment when everyone comes into the foreground and sounds off. I actually preferred this somewhat elliptical turn, since let’s face it, this is closer how we tend to react to traumas such as these. It’s probably despite of this, where the film films incomplete, that one will appreciate its content more.






L’ATTESA (THE WAIT)

2.5 out of 5 stars (2.5 / 5)

 

attesa1

There is an undercurrent of similarities between Anne, the grieving mother in Piero Messina’s debut feature film L’Attesa (The Wait) and the grieving mother and widow she played a little under a quarter of a century ago in Krzystof Kieslowski’s Trois Couleurs: Bleu (Three Colors: Blue). Both women start off losing a loved one, but where Julie retreats into her inner world and virtually disappears into the streets of Paris only to find herself through her dead husband’s last musical composition for the Unification of Europe, Anne remains a mystery only unto herself and the loss that pains her. I’m perfectly okay with that–I tend to gravitate to stories where characters move within their own little psychodramas that may or not have a perfect resolution. However, L’Attesa suffers from too much pretension and too little substance and fails to bring any closure on any level, and that to me is a problem.

We know from the start that Anne has lost her son Giuseppe. We don’t know how, but that it seems, doesn’t matter. We next see his girlfriend Jeanne (Lou de Laage, previously seen on this side of the pond in the excellent movie Breathe [Respire], which debuted here at the 2015 Rendezvous with French Cinema) arriving for a visit. It seems Giuseppe had invited Jeanne to visit him at his mother’s house before the events that start the movie. When she arrives, she’s greeted with a silence that is frankly, unsettling — almost Gothic. It doesn’t help that the house is darker than the mansion in The Others save for some dim blue lights coming from the stained glass windows. It also doesn’t help that the hostess (Anne) is so out of sorts it’s a wonder she can even speak. That no one in the house informs Jeanne what has transpired is an oddity in itself, and makes me wonder, am I in the middle of a thriller? Is something else amiss that I’m going to eventually find out? Is Giuseppe a male version of Rochester’s wife, in Jane Eyre, locked in a dungeon or an attic and perhaps Anne is deranged? And if she is, what mess has Jeanne gotten herself into?

attesa

No. L’Attesa plays its cards firmly against its chest and reveals rien. We are left with two women continuously circling each other, attempting to make conversation, observing, yet never totally giving in. Why Anne makes the choice she makes is beyond any comprehension unless there’s that “verbalizing would eventually make something unthinkable real”, but even then — it just strains credibility and turns a story that had enormous potential into images in chiaroscuro that really don’t amount to much. L’Attesa only saves itself from being a terrible mess by the performances of Juliette Binoche and Lou de Laage who foil each other perfectly. Other than that, it’s an okay debut for Piero Messina (who has worked as assistant director for Paolo Sorrentino and it shows), but not much else.