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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Celebrate Lincoln’s Birthday with Great Family Films

Posted on February 12, 2022 at 6:00 am

Happy birthday, Abraham Lincoln!

lincoln photograph

Celebrate the birthday of our 16th President with some of the classic movies about his life. Reportedly, he has been portrayed more on screen than any other real-life character.  I was honored to be invited to participate in the 272-word project from the Abraham Lincoln Library in Springfield, Illinois.  Each of us was asked to contribute an essay that was, like the Gettysburg Address, just 272 words.  Here’s mine:

Two score and six years after the death of Abraham Lincoln, he was first portrayed in the brand-new medium of film. 102 years and over 300 films later, Lincoln has appeared on screen more than any other historical figure and more than any other character except for Sherlock Holmes. In 2013 alone there were three feature films about Abraham Lincoln, one with an Oscar-winning performance by Daniel Day-Lewis, directed by Steven Spielberg. In another one, he was a vampire slayer. He has been portrayed by Henry Fonda (John Ford’s “Young Mr. Lincoln,” Raymond Massey (“Abe Lincoln in Illinois”), Walter Huston (D.W. Griffith’s “Abraham Lincoln”), and Bing Crosby – in blackface (“Holiday Inn”). The movies have shown us Lincoln defending clients, mourning Ann Rutledge, courting Mary Todd, and serving as President. We have also seen him traveling through time with a couple of California teenagers in “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure” and granting amnesty to Shirley Temple’s Confederate family in “The Littlest Rebel.”

Lincoln is appealingly iconic as a movie character, instantly recognizable as a symbol of America’s most cherished notion of ourselves: unpretentious but aspiring for a better world and able to find both the humor and integrity in troubled times. In every film appearance, even the silliest and most outlandish, he reminds us, as he did in The Gettysburg Address, of what is most essential in the American character: the search for justice.

PS My husband and I waited for two hours outdoors on a frozen January 1 to view the Emancipation Proclamation on its 150th anniversary. When I saw it, I wept. A security guard whispered, “I know how you feel.”

The Steven Spielberg epic, Lincoln is based on Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin, with Oscar-winner Daniel Day-Lewis.

Young Mr. Lincoln Directed by John Ford and starring Henry Fonda, this is an appealing look at Lincoln’s early law practice and his tragic romance with Ann Rutledge. Particularly exciting and moving are the scenes in the courtroom as Lincoln defends two brothers charged with murder. Both have refused to talk about what happened, each thinking he is protecting the other, and Lincoln has to find a way to prove their innocence.

Abe Lincoln in Illinois Raymond Massey in his signature role plays Lincoln from his days as a rail-splitter to his law practice and his debates with Stephen Douglas. Ruth Gordon plays his wife, Mary.

Gore Vidal’s Lincoln Sam Waterston and Mary Tyler Moore star in this miniseries that focuses on Lincoln’s political strategies and personal struggles.

Young_Mr_Lincoln_Henry_Fonda

Sandburg’s Lincoln Hal Holbrook plays Lincoln in this miniseries based on the biography by poet Carl Sandberg.

The History Channel has both a documentary and a miniseries about Lincoln.

I’m a huge fan of the Lincoln Museum in Springfield, Illinois. So is Conan O’Brien.

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Cyrano

Posted on January 31, 2022 at 6:48 pm

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for some strong violence, thematic and suggestive material, and brief language
Profanity: Brief strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Sword fights and battles, characters injured and killed
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie, but transphobic humor
Date Released to Theaters: February 4, 2022
Date Released to DVD: April 18, 2022

Copyright 2021 MGM
Cyrano” is a gorgeous film, a true labor of love. The basis, of course, is one of the great classic plays of all time, Edmond Rostand’s 1897 Cyrano de Bergerac, inspired by a real soldier/writer. Jose Ferrar won an Oscar for his performance as the title character in a 1950 film. The story of the man who cannot tell the woman he loves how he feels because of the way he looks has been adapted and rebooted many times, with probably the best known Steve Martin’s Roxanne and most recently set in a high school in “The Half of It.” Everyone can identify with a character who is afraid to approach the object of their affection and everyone would like to identify with a character whose wit is as ready and sharp as his sword. In the original and the Steve Martin version, the main character’s rapier-like comebacks to a thoughtless bully are a highlight.

In the original and “Roxanne,” the impediment is a nose so big that the Cyrano character believes no one can see him as a romantic partner. In this swooningly romantic new version, set, like the original, in the 17th century, the physical obstacle is size. Writer Erica Schmidt adapted the play as a musical to be performed on stage by her husband, actor Peter Dinklage (“Game of Thrones”) as Cyrano, and ravishingly lovely Haley Bennett as Roxanne. They play those parts in this film, directed by Bennett’s significant other, Joe Wright (“Atonement,” “Pride and Prejudice”)

Roxanne is loved by three men: Cyrano, the handsome but better-with-a-sword-than-with-poetic-love-letters Christian (Kelvin Harrison, Jr. of “Waves”), and the selfish, predatory De Guiche (Ben Mendelsohn). Cyrano has been her closest friend and confidant since childhood. De Guiche is pressuring her to marry him. Her maid reminds her that she has no money and no other options for supporting herself. But one night at the theater, she glimpses Christian, a newcomer to the military unit where Cyrano serves, and she loses her heart to him. Cyrano agrees to ghost-write love letters from Christian to Roxanne. He pretends it is to help the new recruit but in reality it is to have his one chance to tell the woman he loves how he feels, even if the letters are signed by someone else.

In a way, Schmidt is giving her words to the man he she loves so that we can see him the way she does, gallant, mordantly witty, a brilliant actor, and a person of deep and generous humanity. A scene where he is almost about to dare to hope that Roxanne will say she loves him, the emotions that flicker across his face as he is almost successful maintaining his composure is one of the most touching moments on screen this year.

With Schmidt and Wright creating the words and images for the people they love, in spectacularly beautiful costumes (Massimo Cantini Parrini and Jacqueline Durran) and settings (Sicily filling in as 17th century France) with music and even some dance numbers, the unabashed romanticism almost bursts out of the screen. Bennett makes a lovely Roxanne, clever and spirited but allowing her own romanticism to blind her to the love that is already hers. Mendelsohnn seems to specialize in bad guys these days, and this is another strong performance, De Guiche’s brutality glimpsed under a very thin veneer of suavity. Harrison makes a gallant Christian. But it is Dinklage who is in every way the heart of the story. Just as we get to see Cyrano finally use his own words under cover of darkness to play the part of the man whose outside matches his inside, in this film we get to see Dinklage take center stage, with a performance of heart-stopping vulnerability. Rostand would be proud, and so would the man who inspired the play that continues to capture us more than a hundred years later.

Parents should know that this film includes brief strong language, sexual references, sword fights, and battle scenes, with characters injured and killed.

Family discussion: Should Cyrano have told Roxanne how he felt? If so, when? Is there a time when you misjudged someone based on looks or when you were misjudged?

If you like this, try: “Roxanne” and the Ferrar and PBS versions of “Cyrano de Bergerac”

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Dune

Posted on October 21, 2021 at 5:21 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for some disturbing images, sequences of strong violence, and suggestive material
Profanity: Mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Sci-fi drug use
Violence/ Scariness: Extended peril and violence, monsters, guns, knives, many characters injured and killed including major characters and sad death of a parent, some scary and graphic images
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: October 22, 2021
Date Released to DVD: January 10, 2022

Copyright Warner Brothers 2021
If some of the elements of “Dune” feel familiar to you, it is because the book series it is based on was published in the 1960s and epics have been drawing from it ever since, just as it drew on Hero With a Thousand Faces legends of young heroes up against impossible odds and evil villains with the help of wise counselors and beautiful romantic partners, and sociopolitical history. If it feels incomplete to you it is because it ends not in the middle of the story but at the end of the beginning; it is something of an origin story that just begins to set up the bigger story to come. If it feels confusing to you it is because you have not read the long, dense, intricate books, in which case I suggest this very helpful background from New York Magazine’s Vulture website. It might also be because you saw the cult-y earlier movie version from cult-y director David Lynch. The one with Sting.

But while you may be pondering those ifs, you will be stunned and amazed by the astonishing worlds on the screen (please see it on IMAX if you can do so safely), one of the most remarkable examples of cinematic world-building magic ever made, thanks to “Arrival” duo director Denis Villeneuve and art director Patrice Vermette.

Timothée Chalamet plays Paul Atreides, the son of a powerful Duke (Oscar Isaac) who is loyal to the emperor and his beloved concubine, Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), who is a member of a group called Bene Gesserit. They are a secretive, nun-like group with magical powers. Remember how Obi-wan Kenobi told the imperial guard “These are not the droids you are looking for” and the guard bought it? The Bene Gesserit has powers like that only to do it they have to use a low-pitched growly voice.

So Paul comes from political and financial power on one side and mystical power on the other, quite a potent mix and as a teenager he is still sorting it all out, especially some weird and possibly predictive dreams he has been having.

The emperor makes a controversial decision to remove one of the Duke’s rival houses, House Harkonnen, from the extremely lucrative desert planet Arrakis, where they have accumulated incalculable wealth from the planet’s precious resource, called spice, by exploiting the environment and abusing the planet’s residents, the Fremen, who are now mostly hiding out literally underground. He orders the Duke to take over, and the Duke and his family dutifully obey. Needless to say, House Harkonnen and its leader the Baron (Stellan Skarsgård in Jabba the Hutt mode) is angry. This means Paul has to contend with all the usual teenage angst and identity issues plus the angry Fremen and possibly some traitorous insiders.

A couple of other points: Arrakis has some indigenous animal life, including a cute mouse creature and some gigantic and extremely scary and lethal sand worms, with mouth-like openings the size of a circus tent. They are attracted to — of all things — rhythmic sounds, like…footsteps. And spice is extremely valuable and can turn users’ eyes blue.

Even if you are confused, you can still be drawn into the story because it is clear who the good and bad and good/bad characters are and who we are supposed to root for. And the visuals are so compelling that the confusing parts make us more curious than frustrated. It is overlong for an origin story, but made with so much thought and story-telling mastery that I’m confident the next chapter will be even better.

Parents should know that this film includes some mild language, some sexual references, and extended sometimes bloody violence including weapons and poison. Major characters are injured and killed, including a parent.

Family discussion: What historic events may have inspired this story? What elements of the story inspired later classic movies?

If you like this, try: The books by Frank Herbert and others like Stranger in a Strange Land and The Foundation Trilogy

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The Last Duel

Posted on October 14, 2021 at 9:49 pm

C
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Very intense medieval combat violence, characters injured and killed, brutal rape, graphic and disturbing images
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: October 15, 2021

Copyright 20th Century 2021
“The Last Duel” is well-intentioned but ponderous and pretentious. It wants to be about the different perceptions of its three main characters, telling the same story three times. But for the viewer it is about the different perceptions of its actor-screenwriters, Ben Affleck and Matt Damon and its director, Ridley Scott, who seem to be making different movies. The screenwriters wanted to tell a story about honor, truth, misogyny, and justice. Scott wanted to tell a story about medieval combat. You can tell from the title which side won.

Like the classic “Rashomon,” this is the story of a rape and a death told from three different points of view. Damon and Affleck wrote the segments of the two male characters in the story, and the third segment, the point of view of the woman involved, was written by indie writer-director Nicole Holofcener.

It is based on real historical events, the last officially recognized “judicial duel,” meaning a battle to the death to determine the outcome of a trial, fought in France. The duel was fought in 1386, based on the notion that God would not let the combatant telling the truth lose the fight.

At one point the two men were friends, but they were very different. Jean de Carrouges (Damon) was a knight (he gets very angry when his hard-won title is not recognized). He was extremely brave and firmly dedicated to his ideals of honor. We first see him disobeying orders and going into battle to prevent the slaughter of innocent citizens. He was not educated and could not read or write his name. After his wife and son died, he married Marguerite (Jodie Comer) the daughter of a wealthy but disgraced (for supporting the losing side in the war) man. She was well-educated and they were genuinely affectionate and devoted.

Squire Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver) was well-educated in languages, literature, and numbers. He was something of a libertine, encouraged by his patron (Affleck), Pierre d’Alençon, a powerful nobleman, after Le Gris ingratiated himself by straightening out the books and collecting the back taxes.

Marguerite tells her husband that when he was away Le Gris came to their home and raped her. Rape, at the time, was not considered an assault on the woman but a crime against the man in her life. She was seen as his property and it was he who was damaged by the degrading attack. Marguerite is encouraged not to tell anyone by her mother-in-law, who admits that she was once raped as well. To accuse a man so close to the nobility is dangerous. But de Carrouges has courage in life as he does in battle and a sense of honor — plus some more personal grievances against Le Gris — that will not allow him to pretend it did not happen. He knows Le Gris’ patron will protect him, so he takes the case to the king. And that is what takes us back to the joust we glimpse at the beginning of the film. If de Carrouges wins, that means God has protected him for telling the truth. If Le Gris wins, then he will be deemed to have told the truth and Marguerite will be burned for falsely accusing him.

Scott does a great job with the combat scenes and special credit goes to DP Dariusz Wolski and especially to the sound crew for some of the all-time great clanky sounds as swords strike shields and armor. Unfortunately, the dialogue is even more clanky. Affleck and Damon, whose Bahston townie talk in “Good Will Hunting” was both believable and exceptionally sharp, have made the dialogue in this film heavy with clumsy exposition. The reiteration of the story does not add as much as it thinks it does, and ultimately becomes tedious and heavy-handed. And the hair and make-up may be based on historic styles, but Affleck, as the louche embodiment of white privilege, has a blonde surfer look while Damon has an unfortunate mullet that goes with his unfortunately superficial character. This is the second time in a row that he has tried to convince us he’s an uneducated person of limited experience and both movies suffer from his efforts.

Parents should know that this film has strong, bloody violence with medieval combat and disturbing and grisly images. There is some strong language, explicit sexual situations with nudity and a brutal rape, and alcohol.

Family discussion: Why does de Carrouges decide to believe Marguerite? Given the ideas at the time, was his mother right?

If you like this, try: “Gladiator”

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