Downton Abbey: A New Era

Posted on May 19, 2022 at 5:27 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for some suggestive references, language and thematic elements.
Profanity: Mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Social drinking
Violence/ Scariness: Sad death
Diversity Issues: Class issues
Date Released to Theaters: May 20, 2022

Copyright Focus Features 2022
If the producers of “Downton Abbey” have become so fond of their characters after six seasons on television and a feature film that they can reunite them only for the most enticingly charming of storylines, well, that is fine with me and likely to be fine with the many, many fans who love to watch the residents of the fabulous title estate — both the upstairs Lord and Lady Grantham and their family (the Crowleys) and the downstairs staff who keep the place running.

The Crawley characters have survived the upheavals of world affairs; the first episode begins with the family learning of the sinking of the Titanic, with the heir to the estate on board and later World War I brings enormous changes during the course of the series. And they have survived family upheavals as well, the marriage of one of the three Crawley daughters to a commoner, the family’s chauffeur, and her death following childbirth. The staff have had their challenges as well, and the attention to all of the residents of Downton is a critical part of the story’s appeal.

But so is the display of wealth, including the dozens of servants required for the many many changes of fabulous clothes and the dinners with exquisite china and silver. For all of the concerns about whether the Crawley family can afford repairs to the roof, they have generational wealth and privilege that has a fairy tale quality. “Cinderella” is a fairy tale, too, and the concerns, challenges, and relationships of the staff, all safely in the past, allow a measure of safety as we convince ourselves that there is more opportunity and equality today.

This latest update may be called “A New Era” but it is even more of an old-fashioned fairy tale than the last one because of the gentleness of its storylines. It begins with a wedding. The last movie ended with a strong suggestion that the family connections would be shored up further when the chauffeur-turned-son-in-law, Tom Branson (Allen Leech) was falling in love with Lucy Smith (Tuppence Middleton), the illegitimate daughter of an estranged cousin, Maude Bagshaw (Imelda Staunton). This made the Crowleys happy because it would keep the property Lucy was inheriting from Maude connected to the Crawley family. Oh, and it would be nice for single dad Tom to find love, too.

And then the very large cast splits and goes in two different directions Dame Maggie Smith as the acid-tongued doyenne Violet Grantham has unexpectedly inherited a villa in the French Rivera from a man she knew when she was a young newlywed. His widow is considering challenging the will but his son has invited the Crowleys to visit.

Lady Mary, who is running things at Downton now, as accepted a lucrative offer from a film crew that wants to use Downton to make a movie about a high society romance. Well, they had to top the last film’s visit from the king and queen. Downton, as often happens, is caught between two traditions: the traditions of dignity, decorum, status, and remove from the activities of those without a title, and the tradition of keeping the roof from leaking and continuing to care for the family and the servants and as much of the way of life as they can continue to sustain.

Both stories take turns that range from melodramatic to preposterous, the film-within-a-film story landing somewhere between an early 20th century meta-verse and an audacious twist taken from one of the all-time-most beloved movies in history. But after all this time, the audience is not there for the plots. This is a film that has time for a full, rollicking jazz performance. We are there for the elegance and glamor, the costumes, the comfy familiarity. If you are not already a fan, this is not a place to start. But if you’re hoping for happy endings for almost every character — and if you are enough of a fan to know that when a member of the nobility and a servant are mistakenly thought to be a married couple that it is both a wink (the actors are married in real life) and a nod to the themes of changing times (like the jazz number and the movie production) and eroding class distinctions, then you will be as delighted as I was.

Parents should know that this film includes discussions of adultery and paternity and a sad death.

Family discussion: Which character do you enjoy the most and why? Were you surprised by the decisions made by Violet and Lady Mary?

If you like this, try: the “Downton Abbey” series and the other series from Julian Fellowes, including “Doctor Thorne,” “The Gilded Age,” and “Belgravia”

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Interview: Julian David Stone on “It’s Alive,” the Novel About the Making of “Frankenstein”

Posted on May 17, 2022 at 8:00 am

Copyright Universal 1931
The 1931 James Whale film about Dr. Frankenstein’s re-animated monster still thrills us today. In It’s Alive, a new novel with a title taken from one of the film’s most memorable lines, author Julian David Stone takes us behind the scenes as producer Carl Laemmle, Jr. struggles, negotiates, manipulates, and promises to get the film made. The stores behind the iconic details that have inspired dozens of remakes and spin-offs are told with as much suspense as you might hope to find in a movie. In an interview, Stone talked about doing enojugh research to immerse himself in the era, about Laemmle’s conflicts with his father, the founder of Universal Studios, and about how “Dracula” and “Frankenstein became the foundation for the genre of horror movies.

Frankenstein has been one of the most re-told stories in movie history. Why do we keep coming back to it?

I think the theme of bringing the dead back to life is one of the most universal, if not the most universal, that you find in every culture. And the theme is just as prescient today as it was 200 years ago when the original book of Frankenstein was first written. Separately, the 1931 film adaptation explores other themes that are also still very relevant today — man’s relationship to technology, the concept of ‘just because we have the ability to do something, should we do it?’, The unexpected consequences of our actions in the blind pursuit of technological advance, etc.

Copyright 2022 Greenleaf

Tell me about your research. First, where did you go to find out about all of the day-by-day details and the thoughts of the key figures.

Research is one of my absolute favorite parts of writing. I particularly love doing research from sources from the actual time period that the story takes place — contemporaneous magazines, newspapers, books, etc. This is where a lot of the great details about the lives of the three main characters in my novel were found — scouring any and all media sources from the early 1930s. Additionally, interviews with the main characters were also very helpful. In the case of Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, they were both famous for a very good portion of their lives, so there are many great interviews with them and they were very helpful.

Junior Laemmle was another story. There are a lot of interviews with him up to 1936, when the Laemmle family lost the studio. After that, almost nothing. So a lot of Junior’s story was pieced together from whatever tidbits I could find. Researching him was a great detective story on its own!

I’m particularly interested in some of the 1930s slang. Where did you find it and how did you balance the authenticity with the need to make it accessible?

Once again, it was all the contemporaneous media sources that were very helpful. Also, since my story takes place in 1931, I was fortunate that the sound era of motion pictures was in full swing, so watching them — and particularly newsreels with interviews — were a great source of slang and the vernacular of the time.

You have a lot of very clever metaphors that feel true to the period. How did you think about them?

Research, research, research. As I said, I love to research and I like to say, “I want to be able to ‘wear’ an era” before I start writing about it. In the case of It’s Alive! I was well into my research, but I was still struggling with the story when I realized I was making a big mistake. I was focusing my research to specifically on the Universal Monster movies and Universal itself. That’s when I forced myself to take a step back and dive into all of Hollywood in 1931. I started watching as many films as possible from the era — not just Universal’s films — and I read as many of the trade publications as I could get my hands on sequentially, staring in January, 1931. This was so valuable as you could watch the progression of trends in the movie business, as well as the rise and fall of certain stars. After about a year of deep research into the period was when the story really started to fall into place.

Copyright Universal 1931

A lot of the suspense in the story comes from who would play the monster. What would the movie have been like with Bela Lugosi in the role?

That’s one of the great questions that fans of the Universal Monsters, and classic film fans in general, endlessly bandy about. I think Karloff’s performance in Frankenstein is one of the greatest and most iconic in cinema history, so I truly can’t imagine anyone else in the role. But interestingly, Lugosi did eventually play the Monster years later in one of the later films of the Universal Monster cycle and his performance is quite different — to say the least — than Karloff’s. But I don’t think it’s really fair to compare the two as it was many, many years after Karloff, and the way the Monster acted had already been established, and had gone through a lot of changes as different writers and directors tackled the material.

As an interesting side note, before the original 1931 Frankensteinfilm was made and well before Karloff was cast as the Monster, a screen test was shot of Lugosi in the role. Sadly, it has been lost, as it would be an absolutely fascinating piece of film to see — How Lugosi approached the role before there were any preconceived notions of how the Monster should look or act. One can only hope and dream that someday this footage may be discovered!

Copyright 1931 Universal

What were the biggest differences of perspective and between Laemmle senior and junior? How did that reflect the changes in culture and technology and the difference between creating the business and keeping an established business vital? Do you see any parallel conflicts today?

The relationship between Laemmle Senior and Junior was one of the main things that drew me to the story in the first place. It had some very typical elements with the father being more conservative in his approach to business and the type of material he wanted to put on the screen, and the son being more liberal and daring in what films he wanted the studio to make. But then there were some very unusual elements in that their conflict centered around the operations of a movie studio, and that Junior had a dark side that went well beyond the desire to present new and forward leaning material on screen.

How did you find out about the turn of events in filming The Guilty Generation that made it possible for Karloff to play the monster?

That particular detail came up in a couple of different sources and interviews. If you watch The Guilty Generation, Karloff has a big part in the beginning of the film and then sort of disappears until the end. And the way his final scene is shot — a very simple single close-up of Karloff talking into a phone — very much leans into the idea that the director, Rowland Lee, was trying to help Karloff finish his work early. And an interesting bit of trivia is, the very same Rowland Lee would go on to direct Karloff in Son of Frankenstein almost ten years later — Karloff’s third and last appearance as Frankenstein’s Monster.

How were the father/son conflicts between the Laemmles reflected in the Frankenstein story?

Ultimately the movie Frankenstein is a father and son story. Dr. Frankenstein, in the end, is disappointed by his creation — The Monster. To a similar extant, Carl Laemmle, Sr. was disappointed in his son, his creation, Junior Laemmle. And the two fought quite a bit over the direction of Universal Studious after Junior was made Head of Production and wanted to make very different films than his father made. Frankenstein — and the entire Universal Monster Cycle for that matter — being chief among them.

Was Karloff’s name really misspelled on the studio’s entry list?

It may have happened, but there was no specific incident that I was referencing. It was more a nod to where Karloff was in his career before the role of the Monster made him a huge star. He was a working actor, getting by, but it was still a day to day struggle. To give you an example, the first film to be released after he shot Frankenstein — but filmed before Frankenstein was made — in the credits his role is “Waiter”. His character didn’t even have a name.

What do the struggles over Whale’s Frankenstein tell us?

That it is important to stay true to your original vision.

The 1931 film Frankenstein is a great film and an absolute classic because it is the combined effort of several great artists. But it would never have existed in the first place if not for the drive and desire of one man: Junior Laemmle, who, despite no one else wanting to make the film, or for him to make it, stayed true to his vision and pushed the project forward. And all of Hollywood was never the same.

One of the ways I like to put it is: I would never claim that Junior invented the horror film, but I think you can make a pretty strong argument that he is the single person most responsible for it becoming a genre. When no one else in the entire movie business wanted to make Frankenstein, and Dracula before it, he did. And he made sure they got made. From there the entire Universal cycle of horror films was launched and all of what we call horror today grew out of these classics from the 1930s.

What are you going to write about next?

I have my next novel about half written. It’s about the 1960s space race and the competition between the United States and the Soviet Union to land the first man on the moon. The era and the Apollo program specially are big passions of mine, so I am very excited about this story — as well as immensely enjoying doing the research!

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Top Gun: Maverick

Posted on May 16, 2022 at 8:00 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for sequences of intense action and some strong languag
Profanity: Strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol, scenes in bar
Violence/ Scariness: Extended intense military peril and action
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: May 24, 2022

Copyright 2022 Paramount
I’m happy to report that “Top Gun: Maverick” is everything a fan could hope for. It is exciting, it is endearing, it just about blows kisses at the fans, and it is guaranteed to make many new ones. You want to start right off with Kenny Loggins singing about the danger zone! You’ve got it. You want hot guys with their shirts off playing some sort of ball game on the beach! Happy to provide. You want to see Tom Cruise on his motorcycle? There it is. (No helmet though, not too happy about that.) You want to see him run very fast? Well, sorry about that. JK it’s a Tom Cruise movie, of course he is going to run and no one runs like Tom Cruise runs. You want to see some very cool and intense action in the sky, shot with lenses specifically developed for this movie? Of course you will. You want to see complex characters and believable plot lines? Oh, come on, no you don’t!

Maverick (Tom Cruise) is still the same break-the-rules hotshot he was 36 years ago. We see him working on his old plane as we hear Kenny Loggins sing. And once again (there will be a lot of “once agains” in this movie) he is in trouble for taking risks and ignoring orders. Just as before, over the objections of his commanding officer (a brief appearance by Ed Harris), he is being sent to Top Gun, the San Diego-based training facility for elite Navy fliers. He has a friend and protector fans of the original film will be glad to see again, Val Kilmer as Iceman, now an admiral.

Maverick is needed to train the best of the best of the best for an impossible real-life mission, taking out a nuclear weapons facility in the Mideast before the arrival of uranium in three weeks, when bombs would release radiation. Instead of describing the “two miracles” necessary for blowing up the construction site, I will refer you to “Star Wars: A New Hope,” because it is pretty much the same thing. I half expected one of the pilots to say, “I used to bullseye womp rats in my T-16 back home.”

The best of the best of the best have skills, but as we’ve seen, they also have a lot of ego, a lot of adrenaline, and a lot of hyper-competitive posturing. Just to make this throwback even throwback-ier, there’s a special blast from the past. Many movies have what is called a DBTA, which stands for Dead by Third Act, a character whose only role in the story is to give the main character a death to mourn and learn from. So it has to be someone we in the audience connect to as well. Goose in “Top Gun” is the quintessential DBTA. As soon as he plays “Great Balls of Fire” on the piano with his wife (Meg Ryan) and toddler son, we know he is too adorable to make it to the end of the story. That toddler son is now one of the best of the best of the best, call sign Rooster (Miles Teller), and he has a huge amount of resentment toward Maverick.

If Rooster is the new Maverick, impulsive and abrupt, then the new Iceman is the terrific Glen Powell as Hangman, careful and by the book. Maverick has to prepare the young pilots for the impossible mission while his exasperated immediate superior officer (Jon Hamm) does his best to get in the way.

The original film had a reference to some trouble Maverick got into with an admiral’s daughter named Penny. She shows up in this film as a single mom who owns the local bar and is played by Jennifer Connelly with grace and wit.

Speaking of “Star Wars,” there is also a Yoda-esque theme with Maverick stressing the importance of intuition and the human being more important than the gizmos, even a touch of the old fable of John Henry being faster than the machine. And some of the plot developments in the last half hour are near-ridiculous. That is less important than what works in the film, outstanding cinematography, editing, action, romance, terrific performances from a collection of young performers, and of course full-on movie star Tom Cruise, clearly having a blast.

Parents should know that this film has intense military action with dogfights and bombs. Characters drink and use strong language and there are sexual references and a non-explicit sexual situation.

Family discussion: If you were Penny, what rules would you adopt in the bar? Are you more like Hangman or Rooster?

If you like this, try: “Top Gun” and the “Mission: Impossible” movies and check out these thoughts on the movie from an air combat expert

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61 Years After the Legendary Vast Wasteland Speech

Posted on May 9, 2022 at 8:09 am

Copyright 2016 TWH
Sixty-one years ago today, on May 9, 1961, my dad, the 35-year-old Chairman of the FCC, Newton Minow, made three significant appearances. In Washington, he gave his famous “vast wasteland” speech to the National Association of Broadcasters, telling them that while “when television is good, nothing is better,” he expected them to do more to uphold their statutory obligation to serve “the public interest, convenience, and necessity.” Then he went back to the FCC office, where he met with Elizabeth Campbell to sign the original license for WETA, the first educational television station in the nation’s capital, now the producer of the Ken Burns documentaries and the nightly Newshour. And then he flew to Chicago to attend the father-daughter dinner for my Brownie troop.

I often thought about how those three events defined his character: inspiring those around him to do better, supporting the visions of people making enriching cultural content and reliable news sources widely available, and always putting his family first. Over the next decades this was reflected in his efforts as a founder and board chair of PBS, a director of CBS, helping to create the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD), where he served as vice chair until this year, working to require the V-chip and closed captioning, helping to get the start-up funding for “Sesame Street,” and arguing for the rescission of the radio license of a station that broadcast virulently racist and anti-Semitic programming. His countless awards include more than a dozen honorary doctorates, a Peabody, and the highest honor for American civilians, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, awarded by President Barack Obama (who met Michelle when they were both working in my father’s law office). Our family’s favorite “honor” might be the sinking ship on “Gilligan’s Island,” named as an insult to my father for his criticism of television by producer Sherwood Schwartz. They later had a very cordial correspondence.

He appeared on Chicago’s PBS station last month to talk about the RNC’s announcement that they would not participate in the Presidential Debates.

Today Cornell law professor Robert Hockett recognizes the anniversary of the speech with a proposal my sister endorsed in her book, Saving the News (with an introduction by my father titled “From Guttenberg to Zuckerberg”), a “public option” for social media.

Mike Leonard’s documentary about my dad has some wonderful stories.

I talked to my dad about some of his formative experiences, including the words from Bobby Kennedy that inspired him to focus on telecommunications, what he will advise the new FCC Chair, and why he told President Kennedy the first telecommunications satellite was more important than putting a man on the moon.

He is the world’s best dad and grandpa. We are so lucky.

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Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness

Posted on May 3, 2022 at 11:27 am

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for frightening images, action, intense sequences of violence, and some language
Profanity: Some strong language, s-word
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drugged drinks
Violence/ Scariness: Extended comic-book/fantasy peril and violence, scary monsters, zombie, disturbing and grisly images
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: May 6, 2022

Copyright Disney 2022
The year of the multi-verses continues with the latest Marvel entry, “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness,” directed by master of horror Sam Raimi (and with a special cameo by Raimi’s favorite actor, Bruce Campbell). As the MCU continues to evolve and expand, this movie builds not just on all of the Marvel movies that have come before. There are references to Thanos turning half the population to dust and to the most recent Spider-Man movie (where Strange played a key role). It also helps a lot to have seen the television series “Wandavision,” with Elizabeth Olsen as the Scarlet Witch, a sometime Avenger with, even by Avenger standards, extraordinary powers. She can create almost anything and in that series, her response to the tragic loss of her love, Vision, was to create an entire world, in part inspired by the videos of American television series she saw as a child in fictional Communist Bloc country Sokovia, where she and Vision lived in sit-com suburbia.

It begins in medias res, a battle with a very big monster who seems to be made of electrified spaghetti. There is a teenage girl and a choice, something that would destroy her but save the world, at least until the next monster. Doctor Strange, the famously hyper-rational, often arrogant surgeon-turned sorcerer with the greying temples and magical cloak, has to decide. What will he do? What should he do?

He makes a choice and then he wakes up. It was a dream. Or maybe it was not. He will learn that it was a peak into the multiverse, the parallel versions of our world we got a glimpse of in “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” when two other Spider-Mans (Spider-Men?) and a handful of their villains joined together in our world. There is a way to physically enter the other verses and there is a way to “dream-walk,” to inhabit another verse’s version of you and substitute your thoughts and emotions. And that teenager, America Chavez (a terrifically natural Xochitl Gomez of “The Babysitter’s Club”) shows up with the key to some of that verse-hopping.

Strange seeks out Wanda to ask for her help. They walk through her peaceful grove of apple blossoms and he tells her they smell “real.” She assures him they are, that she is done with world-building. The meaning of “real” is a theme of the film as the different versions of the characters in the multi-verses present different ideas of reality, including free food and a verse where everyone is paint, plus some surprising switches in roles, personalities, hair color and style (Strange with a ponytail?), and destinies. And there are monsters, including a very cool one that looks like a gigantic corrugated octopus with a head that’s one enormous eyeball, like a spider-y band member from The Residents.

That’s as spoiler-y as I want to get. So I will stick to some general comments. Cumberbatch makes Strange vivid, layered, even a little bit vulnerable, and the interactions with the woman he loves, Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams) and America have a nice symmetry that helps us see Strange work through his options, both for fighting the villain and for moving forward in his own life. The visual design is wonderfully imaginative, each verse filled with enthralling details. The action scenes are well staged, Raimi brings a tingly horror twinge to the mood, and Danny Elfman’s music is everything you want a superhero soundtrack to be. It feels good to be back in the IMAX MCU.

What keeps it under the level of the best of these films, though, is what has been an increasing issue in superhero movies. The powers are not clearly defined, so the stakes are not clearly defined. It is not enough to say it’s about the fate of the world or even the fate of America (the person, though of course the country, too). It feels like too many times that we’ve been told that someone has ultimate power, and then someone comes along with more ultimate power. (I did think it was very funny when we saw the Infinity Stones carelessly tossed into a low-level bureaucrat’s desk drawer in the “Loki” series.) I’m not saying every superhero has to be Superman, with his abilities and vulnerability clearly defined. But this film’s search for two artifacts as the keys to resolving the conflict are a distraction from the level of mythic existential conflict this movie tries for. It is a particularly weak moment when Strange, whose power comes from intensive training, resorts to the old “just figure out how to use your power in the next nano-second.” The special effects are state-of-the-art but there’s only so much they can do with characters who just shoot electricity at each other.

NOTE: Stay all the way to the end of the credits for two extra scenes.

Parents should know that this is at the upper edge of a PG-13 with some strong language (s-words) and extensive comic book/fantasy peril and violence with some disturbing and graphic images, including a disintegrating zombie. Characters are drugged.

Family discussion: Is it ever right to sacrifice one person to save many? (Look up “The Trolly Problem.”) What does it mean to always want to be the one holding the knife?

If you like this, try: “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” and “Another Earth”

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