The soap opera that is Downton Abbey continues as we move towards the 1930s with the Crawleys forced to come to terms with the modern world.
All the favourites return as an ailing Dowager Countess of Grantham (Maggie Smith) unexpectedly inherits a luxurious villa in the south of France. Transpires it’s from an old flame, a man who is prepared to displace his wife and son from the premises. Off go son Robert (Hugh Bonneville), Cora (Elizabeth McGovern) and other members of the family to check it all out. It’s perfect timing as Downton Abbey is about to become a film set for the shooting of the silent film, The Gambler. The Earl of Grantham is only too delighted to be out of the way. But as Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery), left in charge, points out: they need the money for a new roof.
As with previous episodes (television or film), upstairs and downstairs stories unfold with equal measure. The excitement below stairs is palpable as the film crew and stars arrive with Lady Mary unexpectedly becoming more involved in the film.
It’s all very staid and polite. A genteel continuum of the Downton Abbey saga that undoubtedly pleases fans but one that is unlikely to win new ones.
Whilst an overblown miniseries adaptation of Tony Kushner’s visceral two-part stage play, Angels in America, directed by Mike Nichols, remains an angry, powerful commentary on the political, religious and personal responses to the HIV/AIDS crisis in 1980s US.
Disparate stories connected, some fictional, some factional. Infamous New York lawyer Roy Cohn (Al Pacino) refuses to acknowledge he has AIDS (it’s liver cancer, motherf*cker as Cohn threatens to discredit his doctor of more than 20 years). Republican Mormon lawyer Joe Pitt (Patrick Wilson) simply refuses to acknowledge he is gay – something his wife Harper (Mary-Louise Parker), trapped in a sexless marriage, is only too aware. Her escape is copious amounts of valium. And then there’s Prior (Justin Kirk) who’s just told his lover of four years, Louis (Ben Shenkman), that he’s HIV+. Ben panics and abandons Prior, leaving him to deal with the ravages of the disease and the slow emotional and physical breakdown.
Such narratives are interwoven into fantastical visions as Prior’s nurse (Emma Thompson) invites him as an angel to be a prophet in death: Harper simply ‘travels’ in her mind’s eye whilst Joe’s deeply religious mother (Meryl Streep) arrives to sort out her son – who is having a clandestine relationship with Louis.
Angels in America is no easy watch – a confronting melodrama of life and, more prevalent, death. Wholly committed performances from an extraordinary depth of a cast add to the impact. As a live experience stage play (Royal National Theatre, London production in the ’90s), Angels in America personally blew me away. The medium of television dilutes the impact of some of the more fantastical scenes involving the Angel of Death, but this miniseries remains a riveting six hours.
Winner of 11 Emmys in 2004.
It may be pure hokum but Reacher is, unexpectedly, sheer unadulterated enjoyment with a deadpan, on-the-spectrum Jack Reacher (Alan Ritchson) a 6’4″ beefcake.
Arriving on foot in the small town of Margrave, Georgia, Reacher is arrested for murder. A highly decorated former special military police investigator, Major Jack Reacher, a self-confessed hobo, finds himself in the middle of small town politics and far-reaching corruption. With the initially reluctant support of head detective, Oscar Finlay (Malcolm Goodwin), and policewoman Roscoe Conklin (Willa Fitzgerald), Reacher is drawn into the violence of a Venezualan cartel as the bodies mount in a town essentially owned by Kliner Industries.
Whilst the narrative is far from original, the quick-witted repartee and vocal sparring between the lead characters in particular is a joy as the enigmatic loner delves and investigates first one, then two, three murders – and more as they keep turning up (although Reacher is responsible for a few of them himself). Reacher can be violent at times and there’s a lot of surnames to hold on to as those victims pile up. But, with the local Roscoe and Harvard educated Bostonian, Finlay, creating plenty of frisson both for and, later, with Reacher, this first season eight episoder is an intelligent adaptation of novelist Lee Child’s Killing Floor. There’s unquestionably more to come.
A powerful central perfromance by Sandra Bullock (Gravity, The Blind Side) provides a core to an involving but somewhat predictable and far-fetched unfolding narrative.
After 20 years in prison for the murder of the local sheriff, Bullock returns to Seattle in search of her much younger sister. Adopted out, shown in a separate narrative, Kate (Aisling Franciosi – The Nightingale, Jimmy’s Hall) has little recall of early childhood. In her search, Ruth returns to the isolated, former family farmhouse – now renovated and owned by professional couple Viola Davis and Vincent D’Onofrio.
Director Nora Fingscheidt’s (System Crasher, Ohne diese Welt) film is at it’s best when following Ruth’s struggles as a cop-killing ex-con fitting (or not) into her new reality. Less convincing is the quest to be reunited with Kate. And that stellar cast (which also includes Jon Bernthal) is essentially reduced to bit parts and wasted.
A tale of sexual curiosity and obsession, A Short Film About Love developed from an episode of director Krzysztof Kieślowski’s (Three Colours: Blue, Three Colours: Red) epic, ten-part television series, Dekalog.
With it’s reference to Hitchcock’s Rear Window and Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom, the Polish film is a dark, twisted tale as 19-year-old postal worker Tomek (Olaf Lubaszenko – Je treba zabít Sekala, Schindler’s List) spies on Magda, a sexually liberated thirtysomething artist living opposite his apartment. Lonely and inexperienced, he finds ways to meet the woman (Grazyna Szapolowska – Pan Tadeusz, 365 Days) of his obsessions where, unexpectedly, emotions shift.
Shot predominantly at night, Kieślowski’s feature is unconventional yet compelling in its claustrophobic exploration of desire and loneliness – deep, psychological and slightly unnerving.
An engrossing multi-narrative tale on the war on drugs American-style as Washington appoints Judge Robert Wakefield (Michael Douglas – Wall Street, Ant-Man) to oversee the out-of-control issue.
But preoccupied with the responsibilities, Wakefield fails to see problems at home, including his A-grade high school daughter (Erika Christensen – Flightplan, TV’s Parenthood) as a crack addict. In Mexico, Tijuanan policeman Benicio Del Toro (Sicario, Che) struggles with local, high profile corruption whilst wealthy socialite Catherine Zeta-Jones (Chicago, Ocean’s 12) finds herself picking up the reigns of her husband’s LA drug distribution business following his arrest.
Located predominantly in the homes of wealth and away from gang warfare and the streets, director Steven Soderbergh (Erin Brockovich, The Laundromat) weaves the separate narratives into a cohesive brutality of a docufeature, a gripping uncertainty pervading the fate of the characters, whether state witness, drug mule, assassin or law enforcer.
Nominated for 5 Oscars in 2001 including best film, won 4 – best director, supporting actor (Del Toro), adapted screenplay (Stephen Gaghan – Syriana, Rules of Engagement) and editing.
The cult TV series hit the big screen in 2008 with more of the same – love, heartbreak, fun and lots of shopping and glamorous frocks for Carrie Bradshaw (Sarah Jessica Parker – The Family Stone, Failure to Launch).
Format for the feature remained unchanged – four women, best of friends supporting each other through thick and thin. And when Big (Chris Noth – TV’s The Good Wife), the on-off-on-off relationship with Carrie, finally pops the question, it looks only good. But as Big literally jilts Carrie at the (New York Public Library ballroom) altar she spirals into depression. Her frame of mind mirrors the friends’ lives as the independent women come to terms with getting older and the associated responsibilities.
New York – the city of dreams. Director Michael Patrick King (A.J. & the Queen, 2 Broke Girls) pays homage to the city as much as the friendships of the four women. It’s slight, entertaining, glamorous – and moreorless forgettable, a shadow of the earlier TV series.
A growled threat of violence at her own son for burning a batch of cupcakes is the introduction to Janine ‘Smurf’ Cody. Queen-bee matriarch of an extended criminal family, Smurf (a quite extraordinary Ellen Birkin) is devious, manipulative, ruthless, sensual, charming, smart. And with the overdose death of her estranged daughter, Smurf welcomes her 17 year-old grandson, J, into the family with open arms.
Based on the award-winning Australian film of the same name, Animal Kingdom sees J (Finn Cole) navigate through the politics of his new family and shifting internal loyalties, fuelled by money, drugs, sex and alcohol. But the dingy suburbia of Sydney has been upgraded to sun-bleached southern California – a geographical location that inevitably upgrades the whole scene with Mexico and the Mexican cartel a quick scoot down the highway.
Plot lines ebb and flow over the four seasons of Animal Kingdom – as do those family loyalties.
J’s rise in the trust of Smurf – he quickly learns to understand the business – creates mistrust in his cousins. Instilled with a huge dose of charm, Craig (Ben Robson) is a stoner whilst Deran (Jake Weary) a surfer dude who, with a bar on the beach and his own secrets, wants to go straight. But its the deeply unnerving Pope (Shawn Hatosy), psychotic and unpredictable, who needs to be watched.
It’s all high-octane thrills – with more than a little everyday family domesticity thrown in for good measure (Smurf always cooks for the boys on their return from a job) round the house and pool or Deran’s bar. Violent in can certainly get – these boys and their associates are no angels – but Animal Kingdom is a compelling drama of the highest order.
It’s certainly a long way from the original Australian film and its source material of Melbourne’s Pettingill family!
The smash TV series hits the big screen with all the upstairs and downstairs characters back as the King and Queen come to stay for a night on the royal tour of Yorkshire.
It’s a straightforward, pleasant enough narrative but all a little too vanilla and over reaching. In the TV series, each ‘story’ would have been one episode: in the film, most are dispatched in 10-15 minutes. The threat to the King: a light-fingered visiting staff member: Barrow’s (Robert-James Collier – The Ritual, A Christmas Star) close call with the police. Underlying it all is the responsibility of tradition, preserving the established way of life in light of political and social changes.
The film is a true ensemble but delivers a surprise in that characters such as Hugh Bonneville and Elizabeth McGovern as Lord and Lady Crawley are to be found in the background. Downton Abbey is about the past represented by Maggie Smith letting go, with the future in the hands of Mary (Michelle Dockery).
What it lacks in tension, Widows more than makes up for in its depth of characterisation (no surprise there – it’s adapted (and directed) by Steve McQueen (Shame, 12 Years a Slave) along with novelist Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl).
A cerebral heist movie as four women, led by the indomitable Viola Davis (Fences, The Help), look to pay off the debt incurred by their dead husbands, killed in a shoot-out with the Chicago police. It’s tough, serious-minded – and feisty, with Cynthia Erivo (Bad Times at the El Royale) as a single-mom driver the stand out.
It’s slick, it’s current – and it’s unexpected.