Tag Archives: UK

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.

Beatlemania, revisited in Danny Boyle’s YESTERDAY

YESTERDAY. Country, UK, Russia. Director: Danny Boyle. Cast: Himesh Patel, Lily James, Joel Fry, Kate McKinnon, Ed Sheeran, Sarah Lancashire, Camila Rutherford, Robert Carlyle. Screenwriters Jack Barth, Richard Curtis. Language: English. Runtime: 116 minutes. Venue: C Newport Mall, Jersey City, NJ. Rating: C+

So you’re a musician, just shy from being a busker, and you’re trying to make it in a world filled with performers of all shapes and sizes, styles and talents. No one, except your only fan, wants to hear you, and you’re left to marinate in an uncertain future and working as a non-entity in a factory just to make ends meet.

That’s the reality of Jack (Himesh Patel), who’s life seems to be destined to hit a brick wall and stay there until Fate, or the Gods, if you will, decides to play a little joke on him. One night upon returning home from yet another disappointment, the planet experiences a massive, global blackout. Jack gets hit by a bus. When he recovers from his ordeal, he performs Yesterday to his friends who, while loving the tune, do not recognize it or The Beatles. At all.

It slowly dawns on him and he confirms during a Google search… The Beatles have never existed. There is no trace of any song from their catalogue, no mention of John, Paul, George, or Ringo. Nothing. That, of course, leads Jack to discover, that if The Beatles never were, neither were bands that based their sound on them — for example, Oasis.

So what’s a man to do? Can it be called plagiarism if Jack ‘steals’ the songs from a group that never existed? Jack never gives this a second thought — and neither it seems, does the movie — and allows that Jack begin performing Beatles tunes that he has, through sheer memory, brought back. He becomes a local sensation, even securing a spot aside Ed Sheeran who becomes a mentor. And then America beckons under the guise of a greedy exec (played to comic perfection by Kate McKinnon) shamelessly approaching Jack to make money “and secure herself another house.” Jack, who’s struggled all his life, can’t but take the offer and face “The Americanization of Jack” while singing songs that aren’t his, all the time wondering how long can the jig last before it’s discovered his performance is a sham.

Yesterday, however, isn’t trying to tell a story about posing — even when Jack’s renditions of Beatles’ classics often skirts the kind of indie music that can be heard ad infinitum on coffee-rock stations, pretty but not especially memorable. In Boyle’s movie you are asked to really listen to the songs, pay attention to the lyrics, as if the Beatles truly were a band nearing extinction, and in that way, it’s pretty clever and unique because it places their artistry at a level of rediscovery not seen since iTunes or their Free as a Bird video from 20 years ago.

Also, In many ways, the whole premise of the world hitting a weird fugue is merely a backdrop for Boyle to tell a sunny romantic love story between a boy and a girl who are meant to be together (and it helps that both Himesh Patel and Lily James are perfectly cast; he as the unwilling, passive rock star; she as the woman who knows him best). It just takes some gentle prodding from the blackout-turned-catalyst and the man himself, John Lennon (Robert Carlyle) in a much-needed emotional scene.

DANCING WITH THE ENEMY

MY COUSIN RACHEL
UK
Director: Roger MIchell
Runtime: 105 minutes
Language: English

Mostlyindies grading:

1 out of 5 stars (1 / 5)

Does anyone remember those haunting opening lines of Rebecca? Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again. It’s enough to send shivers down your back whether you’ve read the Daphne DuMaurier novel, allegedly plagiarized from Carolina Nabucco’s 1934 novel A Sucessora, or seen the Alfred Hitchcock masterpiece in Gothic suspense. It also shows that perhaps this dreamy ambiguity was good for only one novel and nothing else; as a writer, DuMaurier may have had her inspirations, but she was not exactly what I would call a good writer.

Perhaps then this is the reason that Roger MIchell’s version manages to colossally misfire and land in a puddle of mud before it even has time to tell its tale. Picture this, a story in which another ambiguous line starts the wheels of the plot in motion– “Did she? Didn’t she?” — reeks of phoning in a sense of dread, the kind that by its presence and atmosphere alone should grab a hold of your stomach and apply some unsavory pressure little by little until you can’t even breathe. The person who utters that question is our hero Philip (Sam Claflin, previously seen in Their Finest), who plays the male version of Rebecca‘s X — basically a non person who tells of a childhood living wile and free with his cousin Ambrose, who then went off to Italy, and while there met and fell in love with the titular Rachel only to suddenly fall ill and die soon after the two of them were married.

So much build up is placed on these events that we feel that after Ambrose kicks the bucket, Philip will turn into some kind of raving Byronic hero of the kind fo leave even Heathcliff in the dust. He does vow revenge on Rachel, whom he suspects of murdering Ambrose, but once she arrives at Plymouth all that falls by the wayside and Philip is practically giving Rachel the benefits of the doubt and the keys to his entire estate faster than you can see 45 tweet covfefe. Once I saw this happen with frightening speed my eyebrow arched, and I went “What just happened? Can we refresh this scene, please, and play it slowly? No? Okay. ” That, my friends,  just doesn’t quite gel in a story that should be less about what is said, shown, or spoken, and more about insinuations, side glances, and especially emotions just waiting to be released, at least, for a little. It doesn’t help that Rachel Weisz is completely wrong for this film — an actress who could be more enigmatic could have been a better choice — and Sam Claflin, like I said earlier, is written rather blandly. It’s hard to care for any of this movie’s people when they themselves don’t give their own moments on screen any life. My Cousin Rachel isn’t deadly; shes just plain dullsville. Perhaps I’ll wait for Lady Macbeth — that looks like it’s got teeth.

My Cousin Rachel is still playing in theaters and arrives on DVD at the end of August.

MOKA
France / Switzerland
Director: Frederic Mermoud
Runtime:  85 minutes
Language: French

Mostlyindies grading:

4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

Emmanuelle Devos is a French actress that I’ve been seeing on film for the past 15 years now, and while she’s a good performer for the most part, that little girl voice of hers and that look of perpetually helpless wait begging to be rescued somewhat puts me off. It’s the sole reason I didn’t go to see Moka at the Film Forum when it premiered and waited a couple of days until it was extended for a third and final week there. I just wasn’t sure if I wanted to sit in a theater listening to a woman just over 50 talking like a sex-kitten filled with angst and vulnerabilities plod her way through an intellectual thriller that someone like Isabelle Huppert could handle in her sleep without the slightest effort.

Well, dear reader, I have to say I was blown away with Devos in this little Swiss-French thriller that also paired her with acting giant Nathalie Baye. [As an interesting little note, Baye’s previous role was another barely seen French thriller in which she played the Devos role.] Moka starts with the image of Devos (who plays a woman named Diane) silently banging her head against a window. We don’t know where she is, until the camera pans away and we realize she’s in some sort of mental facility. And then the cards that plant the seeds of the plot get revealed: Diane has lost her son Luc in a freak accident where he was fatally involved in a hit-and-run. Since then, time and basically everything has stopped for Diane. Because the perpetrators were never brought to justice, Diane has hired a private investigator to find out about the vehicle that killed her son. She learns that it was a mocha-colored car registered to a woman who lives in Lausanne, Switzerland.

The woman happens to be Marlene (Baye). Marlene is the owner of a beauty salon, and from the moment both women meet there is a sense of uneasiness in the air. But Diane has other plans, and so does the story: while she is befriending (and getting to know Marlene), she’s also flirting with Marlene’s boyfriend Michel who is selling the mocha vehicle, and at the same time, she also establishes a tentative friendship with Marlene’s daughter from a previous relationship.  To add to the whole situation, Diane has met a guy who does deals on the darkside and produces a gun for her, and as a final nail, Diane’s husband eventually appears on stage wondering what has happened to her. Sounds complicated? It’s because it is, and director Mermoud wastes no time in getting into the meat of the action while allowing it to breathe and develop on its own. We wonder where is all this going and how long can Diane keep her charade alive without recurring to cheap solutions. Devos plays Diane as a relentless avenger, but with enough frailty and vulnerability that we wonder if she will carry out her affairs in Lausanne until the end. Baye, her hair bleached a cheap, older woman peroxide blonde, is prickly, suspicious from the get-go, but all reception. She’s a beautician, so she hears stories from her clients, and Diane’s doesn’t ring totally true. Even so, she lets her slowly in and we wonder if there isn’t some agenda . . . or is she being set up for something terrible.

It’s not often that movies feature strong women in leading roles playing complicated characters that dance around each other like samurais waiting to strike. Moka is a complex psycho drama that touches on the topics of grief and loss and the need to mete out personal justice without turning it into exploitation and offers enough twists and turns and even an emotional finale to out-guess aficionados of the thriller genre and leave them satisfied.






A UNITED KINGDOM

A UNITED KINGDOM

4/5

In 1947 Seretse Khama and Ruth Williams (David Oyelowo and Ruth Williams in outstanding, empathetic roles) met each other in a London dance hall and hit it off immediately from the moment they laid eyes on each other and shared their opinions on jazz music. Soon they were seeing each other with an increasing regularity, sensing an increasing intimacy and something bigger than themselves steadily developing between them. It was only time before their escapades would take another more formal tone, and Seretse would pop the question, to which Ruth would accept even if it meant estrangement from her own family and country.

However, while Ruth and Seretse may have been completely in love with each other, they had one hurdle to overcome. For one, Seretse was Prince of Bechuanaland (now Botswana); Ruth Williams was a white Englishwoman. Their marriage occurred two decades before Loving vs. Virginia would take the US by storm and the ban on interracial marriages would get overturned in the entirety of the country. In the UK, while such unions had occurred, Seretse’s and Ruth’s created an international conflict mainly because of Britain’s interests with Bechuanaland and Seretse’s own obligations, which meant he was slated to marry one of his own.

Amma Assante’s follow up to her previous historical romance Belle, a movie that also explored another controversial figure of African descent who had to endure circumstances that were out of her control, is a less complex feature and plays it very, very safe and somewhat two-dimensional. Scenes of intimacy between Seretse and Ruth, for example, are directed with a sense of old-school, old-Hollywood glamour: timidly, and from a safe distance, as opposed to, for example, Brad Pitt’s and Marion Cotillard’s love scene in Allied which went further (and against a whirling sand-storm). I can only assume that Assante believed the story itself was more important, but as a minor observation, I’ve seen other couples receive the full sensual treatment in other movies — that it didn’t happen here may say something of the type of audience this movie was aiming for.

A United Kingdom manages to, even with some time-compressed events, to present the ups and downs the Khamas experienced during the early part of their marriage and the twists and turns both had to undergo in order to prevail above the bureaucracy of the time and the friction between Seretse and his people. Ruth’s fight is just as intense; to win the love and respect of a people who see her as an usurper to the Queen’s throne (as one of Seretse’s sisters spits at her early on. Her’s is a victory hard won and Assante presents it in a moving tribute the woman of the land give Ruth.

And of course, no movie that depicts a couple overcoming odds would be complete without a couple of good villains, and none are as salient and hateful as those played by Jack Davenport and Tom Felton. Both bring that old-school villainy into their performances, and  the picture looks the best when Davenport and David Oyelowo lock horns, and when in one short sequence, Pike quietly and defiantly stands up to Felton. A tad superficial, Assante’s film is a crowd-pleaser filled with emotional peaks and valleys and a highly satisfying ending.