A top movie at the box office and a top limited series on Netflix, both based on true stories about women, have something else in common. Both were also made by women, with female writers, producers, and directors.
None of this is to say that a male director couldn’t have achieved something similar, but it’s worth noting that Scafaria and other female producers had to fight to keep their vision for the film intact. Producer Elaine Goldsmith-Thomas told New York magazine that while some male studio executives were fine with how men treated women in, say, “The Wolf of Wall Street” — directed by Martin Scorsese, who passed on “Hustlers” — they were “a little uncomfortable” with a flipped premise.
For Vulture, my friend and fellow critic Jen Chaney writes that the limited series, written by Susannah Grant, Michael Chabon, andAyelet Waldman and directed by Grant, Jill Soloway, and Michael Dinner, “Unbelievable” on Netflix is the “most feminist crime show I’ve ever seen.”
Contrasting moments like distinguish Unbelievable as the most feminist crime show in recent memory, but one that is not feminist in the typical, “look at women being badasses” way that Hollywood often does feminism. As created by Susannah Grant, this series, which is ostensibly about the attempt to track down a serial rapist after his initial victim is deemed unreliable, is really about how women move through the world, not only as victims or detectives but as employees and bosses, mothers and partners, colleagues and friends. It’s a show about what happens when women use their voices, and how challenging it can be to figure out how to speak up and when.
The fact that Unbelievable is all of these things while still working within the traditional structure of the detective genre makes it quite remarkable.
If its opening weekend is any indication, “Hustlers” might become the latest female-led film to soar at the box office. That wouldn’t make it an exception to any rule — a study released in December by Creative Arts Agency and tech company Shift7 found that, between January 2014 and December 2017, female-led movies actually outperformed their male-led counterparts worldwide.
The Good Place is my favorite series on television and I always listen to the podcast hosted by Marc Evan Jackson, who plays the demon named Shawn. One of my favorite episodes featured the man who does the wonderfully imaginative and often whimsical special effects, Dave Neidnagel. NBC’s behind the scenes special about the show this week included some adorable examples of Neidnagel trying out the effects with his daughters.
Rated PG-13 for some violence and bloody images, and for brief strong language
Brief strong language
Peril and violence, characters injured and killed, some startling and disturbing images
Date Released to Theaters:
September 20, 2019
James Gray, the writer/director of Lost City of Z. has given us another story of a father and son who leave women behind to explore unknown territory. “Lost City of Z” was based on the true story of Percy Fawcett, who traveled through South America in search of the legendary city of gold, inspiring a generation of adventurers. In “Ad Astra” (“to the stars”) an astronaut goes to the farthest reaches of the solar system in search of answers that range from the most cosmic and existential to the most deeply wrenching and personal.
In both films, Gray is better with the settings than the characters and better with the characters than the storyline. And Brad Pitt’s acting is better than every other part of the film.
The look and sound of “Ad Astra” is spectacular. It creates a completely believable, fully-imagined near-future look and feel of an era of space travel and planetary colonization. It is difficult in a sci-fi movie not to want to show off the coolness of the technology, and make the most of the extrapolations of our time into the worst (or occasionally best) possible outcomes, for example, Earth destroyed by human failings or hubris. But this film makes its imagined future all the more believable by making it fit seamlessly into a world that seems just minutes from where we are now. So of course there will be bomb-sniffing dogs in the rocket hanger; just because we develop the technology for routine travel to outer space does not mean we will develop a safer world at home. And of course there will be a Subway (the sandwich place, not the mode of transportation) in a space outpost because why wouldn’t fast food corporations line up whatever territory they can.
I will not spoil the adventures along the journey; I will just say that the characters acceptance of them as ordinary and expected also underscores the vastness of the imagined world and deepens the impact of the dangers Roy faces.
The score by Max Richter, cinematography by Hoyte van Hoytema (“Intersteller”), and the sound design by Grant Elder shape the story-telling, making the exploration seem so completely realistic that we can believe it is already an ordinary part of our daily lives, but keeping things exciting and suspenseful when the time comes.
And then there is the story. Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) is an astronaut, like his father Clifford (Tommy Lee Jones), who disappeared on a voyage to Neptune when Roy was a child. Now someone needs to go to Neptune to investigate a mysterious electrical surge that is creating great damage on earth. And it seems possible that Clifford is involved somehow, that he has survived all this time.
The astronauts are required to do regular self-assessment check-ins on their mental and psychological states to determine whether they are stable enough for space travel. But it is not at all clear as Roy goes through the list of questions whether he is saying what he really feels or what he knows they want to hear. “I am focused only on the essentials,” he says, “I do not allow my mind to linger on that which is not important.” Can anyone believe that is possible? Or that it should be possible? What Roy’s superiors know is the data that they have received, showing that his pulse never goes above 80, even when the situation is very dire. So, should he have one of those “Houston, we have a problem” complications, they believe they can count on him to be level-headed and focus on practical solutions instead of getting emotional, frightened, or angry.
And so he seems to be the right choice for “a crisis of unknown magnitude,” unprecedented electrical surges that put all human life at risk and that seem to be connected to Clifford’s long-ago mission. Roy agrees to go to Neptune, requiring stops on the moon and Mars, to see if he can find and stop the surges. But there’s a warning. “We have to hold out the possibility that your father may be hiding from us.” “I remain mission ready,” Roy assures them.
But we learn that Roy understands rage. He has seen it in his father and he feels it in himself. There will be sacrifices along the way, and decisions with tragic consequences. I found the ultimate encounter less than satisfying, not up to the ambitions of the premise and the settings. But Pitt’s performance and the world of the film provide more than enough reason to watch and wonder.
Parents should know that this film includes sci-fi style violence with peril and some disturbing and graphic images, themes of parental abandonment, characters who are injured and killed, and some strong language.
Family discussion: Was Roy honest in his answers about his emotional state? How was he like his father and how was he different? Would you like to explore space?
If you like this, try: “2001,” “Gravity,” “The Martian,” and “Silent Running”
Rated PG for thematic elements, some suggestive material, and language
Brief strong language
References to out-of-wedlock child
Assassination attempt, scuffle
Date Released to Theaters:
September 20, 2019
There’s a reason the hugely popular “Downton Abbey” television series is named for the property, not the characters. The part of Downton Abbey the building, or, I should say, the estate, is played by real-life historic Highclere Castle. It is over a thousand acres and has 200 rooms. And (which you can stay in via Airbnb). The story began in 2010 (1912 in Downton years) with the vital question of the future of the estate, which like most British great homes, was entailed. That means that it would always be inherited by the eldest male of each generation. (For more on this issue, see Sense and Sensibility and Moving Midway and let me just have a brief aside here to say that one completely revolutionary decision of our founding fathers that does not get enough credit for deciding that in the United States people could leave their property and land as they wished.).
The noble family occupying Downton Abbey are the Crawleys, headed by Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville of “Paddington”), who with his American wife Cora (Elizabeth McGovern) has three beautiful daughters and no sons. The property will thus go to to a cousin, who conveniently has become engaged to the oldest daughter, Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery). Unfortunately, as the first episode begins, he had been traveling to the United States on the Titanic, and he has been killed. Lady Mary is very sorry to lose her fiancé, but the family is in a complete upheaval because the next male relative is someone they don’t even know. Meanwhile, one of the great strengths and points of interest in the show is that it devotes equal attention and respect to the extensive staff below stairs, the servants, who all have complicated characters and conflicts and lives. They include Mrs. Patmore, the cook (Lesley Nicol), Carson, the head butler (Jim Carter), Tom Branson, and the chauffeur (Allen Leech), who crosses the uncrossable line by marrying one of the Crawley daughters. And there’s everyone’s favorite character, the acid-tongued Dowager Duchess exquisitely played by Dame Maggie Smith.
And so now, here we are with the first Downton Abbey feature film, picking up the story in 1927, and once again the issue of property and inheritance is at issue. Writer Julian Fellowes had a daunting challenge. He had to take two dozen characters the fans were deeply invested in and were used to being able to watch through long-form storylines over the course of months. It’s kind of like “The Avengers” for the PBS/Anglophile crowd (I consider myself happily and proudly in both camps).
And, you know what? He pulls it off, with a brilliant mechanism for bringing everyone together in a high-pressure situation that gives even the most devoted fan many sigh-worthy and highly satisfying developments. As the movie begins, we follow a very important letter from its creation to its receipt. They are to receive a visit from the King and Queen of England (that would be King George and Queen Mary, the parents of future abdicator Edward VIII and “The King’s Speech” younger brother who became George VI, father of the present Queen Elizabeth II, the longest-reigning monarch in British history). This is an honor that no one can turn down. And so Downton is made ready, every tiara and silver serving piece polished, every piece of furniture in every one of the 200 rooms shined, and every arcane protocol meticulously followed.
There are ups and downs, none of the downs too terrible, all of the ups reassuring and satisfying. If we think about it for a moment, we will remember why we do not want to return to that world. It will take less than a moment if we consider the possibility we would be returning as the servants, not the nobility; the Crawleys may worry about money, but they get to worry in some beautiful clothes and settings while they are nicely cared for. We are aware that both the upstairs and downstairs characters struggle with the restrictions of their positions but somehow it all seems like a fairy tale to escape to in this lush and beautiful version, where we can all imagine ourselves dressing for dinner and receiving a visit from the royal family.
Parents should know that this film includes references to terminal illness, family conflicts, assassination attempt, scuffle, an out of wedlock child, and some mild language.
Family discussion: Why did the servants rebel? Why did Violet change her mind about the property? Do you agree with what Thomas told the princess?
If you like this, try: “Gosford Park” and the “Downton Abbey’ television series
A scientist who does not believe in the supernatural (Kristen Bouchard) teams up with a man investigating the origins of evil along the dividing line between science and religion (Mike Colter) in a compelling new series simply called “Evil.” It will be on CBS Thursday nights at 10 (9 Central). The series is from Michelle and Robert King, the creators of The Good Wife and The Good Figh, which means the dialogue with crackle and the themes will be provocative and timely. Storylines include a possible “miracle” as a young athlete comes back to life after being dead (or “dead”) for two hours, a theatrical producer who goes from demanding to possibly demonic, and a young boy who may be psychopathic, or perhaps possessed.