Movie reviews: The 'Downton Abbey' movie is a welcoming cup of tea
DOWNTON ABBEY: 4 STARS
Near the end of “Downton Abbey,” the big screen finale to the widely popular slice of British upper-class life, Cora Crawley, Countess of Grantham (Elizabeth McGovern) coos, “I do love our adventures.” I imagine the vast majority of the audience will nod in silent agreement, basking in the reflected glow of highly polished silverware in this very fan-friendly film.
The story picks up shortly after the end of the television series. Inside the mammoth country house that gave the show its name, Earl Robert Crawley (Hugh Bonneville) sips tea and trades barbs with his acid-tongued mother, the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith), with his wife Cora at his side. Daughters Edith (Laura Carmichael) and Mary (Michelle Dockery) are married to the 7th Marquess of Hexham (Harry Hadden-Paton) and Henry Talbot (Matthew Goode) respectively. Son-in-Law Tom Branson (Allen Leech), former chauffeur, Irish socialist and current estate manager for the property, raises his daughter with the help of… well, the help, who live downstairs.
Everyone, upstairs and down, are whipped into a tizzy when it’s announced that Queen Mary (Geraldine James) and King George V (Simon Jones) will be stopping by for a visit.
The news sends the house staff into a frenzy of silverware polishing and menu planning. Retired butler Carson (Jim Carter) is called back into service, while his head housekeeper wife Elsie (Phyllis Logan) gets the staff, including snooty butler Thomas Barrow (Rob James-Collier), cook Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nicol) and assistant cook Daisy (Sophie McShera), ready for the Royal visit.
Trouble is, Lady Maud Bagshaw (Imelda Staunton), one of the Queen’s ladies in waiting is in the Dowager Countess’ bad books. It would seem Lord Grantham is her closest relative but she intends to leave her substantial estate to someone else. Prepare for some grade-A Dowager zingers.
Add to that a suspicious character in the village (Stephen Campbell Moore), the pompous royal staff, questions about Tom’s allegiance, stolen knick-knacks, a mild mutiny in defence of Downton’s honour, unlikely love stories and one royal meltdown and you have a story that feels like a highfalutin soap opera made by Merchant Ivory on an Earl Grey binge.
“Downton Abbey” is pure fan service. Most of the characters return, although Lily James fans will be disappointed, the house is as grand as ever and James is just as petulant as ever, if perhaps a little less villainous this time around. Revelations are made, storylines from the TV show are closed and, as always, life goes on at Downton. It all feels very familiar but like a comforting cup of tea, very welcome.
AD ASTRA: 4 STARS
“Ad Astra,” a new space opera starring Brad Pitt, is not simply a journey into the universe but a trek into the star’s ability to keep the story earthbound while also reaching for the stars.
Set in the very near future, "a time of hope and conflict," “Ad Astra” stars Pitt as astronaut Maj. Roy McBride. His father, Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), went missing three decades before while travelling space, looking for alien life.
The younger McBride’s latest mission is his most important ever, both personally and professionally. Something or someone is sending deadly anti-matter surges toward the earth and NASA thinks they may be coming from McBride Sr.’s lost spaceship. They send the stoic Roy, armed with a nuclear device, on a top-secret mission to Neptune to find out what’s going on.
As Roy hurtles through space his path is fraught with risk. But the most dangerous part of the trip isn’t battling moon bandits or intergalactic monkeys, it’s the journey into his own psyche.
A father and son twist on “Heart of Darkness,” “Ad Astra” is cerebral, humanist sci-fi. It is more akin to films like “2001: A Space Odyssey” and Andrei Tarkovsky’s “Solaris” than the big budget space operas that tend to top the box office. It’s a solemn, meditative look at masculinity, isolation and emotional stoicism.
Pitt gives an understated but effective performance that relies on the subtlest of movements. McBride’s outward fortitude masks a tumultuous inner life, ripe with questions and muddled feelings. His training has taught him to stay even keeled—his pulse never raises above 80 even in the most stressful situations—but as he comes closer to Neptune and the possibility of being reunited with his father, cracks begin to appear in his carefully crafted facade. Pitt, in a largely non-verbal performance save for copious voiceover, shows his emotions through the cracks, allowing the character to reveal himself in the contemplative but compellingly unsettling way.
“Ad Astra”—which means "through hardships to the stars" in Latin—has all the hallmarks of a blockbuster. There’s a big star, beautifully shot action sequences by “Interstellar” cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema and the kind of end-of-the-world scenario the Avengers love, but it’s a heady one. It’s more concerned with what’s going on inside McBride’s head as what’s happening outside. Also, like so many blockbusters, it doesn’t know what to do with the female characters. Liv Tyler is glimpsed only through a screen and Ruth Negga, while always wonderful, is essentially an exposition machine. Still, the character study is spellbinding enough, thanks to Pitt’s performance, to maintain interest.
ONCE WERE BROTHERS: ROBBIE ROBERTSON AND THE BAND: 4 STARS
As the title suggests, “Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and the Band” is a study of a brotherhood that changed the way music was made in the 70s and 80s.
The documentary, inspired by Robertson’s 2016 memoir, “Testimony,” produced by the powerhouse duo of Ron Howard and Brain Grazer and directed by Daniel Roher, details the guitarist’s early life as the son of Mohawk mother Dolly and “Hebrew gangster” father named Alexander Klegerman who died before he was born. An interest in music and storytelling came from visiting his relatives on the Six Nations Reserve, inspiring him to pick up a guitar and express himself.
His “personal big bang” came with the discovery of rock and roll. An even bigger bang came when the teenaged Robertson saw Rompin’ Ronnie Hawkins, a flamboyant, expat Southern American rockabilly musician playing in Toronto. The music, a frenetic blend of rock and roll and hopped-up country music, expertly played by a band that included drummer Levon Helm, spoke to Robertson, revealing an aural passageway to a world he had only ever read about. Eventually, at age 16, he joined the band, a move that set him on the path to helping to take Bob Dylan electric, and form a band that melded Hank Williams, Muddy Waters with roots music into something that had never been heard before. When they played together, talking head and fan Bruce Springsteen says, “Something happened that couldn’t happen on their own. Something miraculous.”
The Band, Canadian multi-instrumentalists and singers Rick Danko, Richard Manuel and keyboardist Garth Hudson, alongside Robbie Robertson and Helm, made classic albums like “Music from Big Pink,” “The Band” and “Stage Fright,” and formed a logical, if not biological, musical family. “I was an only child so this brotherhood was so powerful,” says Robertson. But like all families there were problems. Unbridled creativity and stardom led to drug abuse and in 1976, after 16 years together and documenting their final star-studded concert in the Martin Scorsese-directed “The Last Waltz,” they went their separate ways. Robertson says the idea was “to get back together and make music like never before… everyone just forgot to come back.”
This is Robertson’s documentary. Helm, Danko and Manuel are all gone, while Hudson appears only in archival clips, so the film has the feeling of a requiem for a friendship and brotherhood lost. Other than a visit to Helm’s deathbed, Robertson hadn’t spoken to his old bandmate in years. The film chalks up the schism in their relationship to drugs, jealousy and fighting the way only people who love one another can.
With a deep, sonorous voice that makes you wish he would narrate every documentary made from now on, Robertson eloquently shares his story, sometimes funny—having a hypnotist on stage at the Fillmore West to help him overcome nerves—and sometimes heartfelt—"I still loved him but something was broken,” he says of his relationship with Helm. “It was like glass. Hard to put back together.”—in a way that doesn’t lay blame, simply present his side of a much-debated rock ‘n roll feud.
Adding colour to the story are testimonials from Springsteen, Eric Clapton, ex-wife Dominique Robertson and, best of all, Hawkins who livens things up with his reminisces. “There was enough flour and sugar in that to make us sneeze biscuits,” he says of the cocaine backstage at “The Last Waltz.”
The final word on The Band is, of course, the music they left behind. Their musical partnership may have ended amid acrimony but “Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and the Band” understands that the lasting legacy is in the songs. Music appears throughout but Roher bookends the film with remarkable performances. Early on we see the guys, crammed into a small room, so closely packed they’re almost sitting on top of one another, rip through a version of "Up on Cripple Creek" so transcendent it could only be played by musicians connecting on a spiritual level. Roher finishes things off with footage from “The Last Waltz” that showcases the band in all their ragged glory proving that in the end, it’s the music that matters.
RIOT GIRLS: 3 ½ STARS
Set against a teenage wasteland where adults have been killed off by a mysterious disease, “Riot Girls” is a throwback to grindhouse genre films but with a new and improved attitude.
It’s 1995 and in the aftermath of a deadly plague, the film sees the mohawked Scratch (Paloma Kwiatkowski), girlfriend Nat (Madison Iseman) and their small band of “Eastsiders” brave a post-apocalyptic world, divided by geography and ideology from the bloodthirsty Westside Titans.
When Nat’s brother Jack (Alexandre Bourgeois) is kidnapped by the jocks from the other side of town, led by the psychotic Jeremy (Munro Chambers), the Eastsiders, with the help of Sony (Ajay Friese) who knows his way around the westside, go to war.
Although set in a dystopian world “Riot Girls” is a more universal (although bloody) story of high school rivalry between freaks and the bullies. The stakes are higher and the story heightened, but this is an age-old story with a new twist. It’s “Lord of the Flies” with letterman-jackets but, more importantly, it also places its focus and power on the female characters. With a behind-the-scenes team lead by director Jovanka Vuckovic and writer Katherine Collins, “Riot Girls” is a rarity. It’s a genre film, set to a throbbing punk and metal soundtrack, that delivers with the culty-thrills you hope for while also throwing typical gender roles out the window.
“Riot Girls” is a propulsive story of survival that feels, simultaneously, like a throwback to the drive-in and completely fresh.