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
Date Released to DVD: July 4, 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 title is “Downton Abbey: A New Era” but the story remains reassuringly retro.

The Crawley characters have survived the upheavals of world affairs from the beginning; 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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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
Date Released to DVD: November 1, 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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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
Date Released to DVD: July 25, 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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Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore

Posted on April 14, 2022 at 8:32 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: 4th - 6th Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for some fantasy action/violence
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: Social drinking
Violence/ Scariness: Extended fantasy peril/action/violence
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: April 15, 2022

Copyright Warner Brothers 2022
“Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore” comes from the world of Harry Potter, so it is about magic. But it is also about that most human of connections: brothers. It’s also about chiseled cheekbones; this is a movie that even by movie-star measures has an exceptional assortment of beautifully sculpted faces. Contrary to the title, it is not so much about Dumbledore’s secrets as it is about his efforts to stop someone he once loved from destroying both the magic and human worlds. And in doing so, it includes some political commentary that may seem pointed given its depiction of corruption, nativism, and the appeal of an autocratic leader. It relies on a level of knowledge about the Harry Potter cinematic universe that does not make this two and a half-hour movie easy for viewers who are not as familiar with the characters.

We got a glimpse of Dumbledore’s backstory in the last volume of the Harry Potter series, so we know that when he was a young man, Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law) was in love with Gellert Grindelwald (now played by Mads Mikkelsen), and that during that time they created one of the wizarding world’s most powerful charms that protects each of them from being harmed by the other.

But as we learn in the opening scene, as the two wizards meet again after distance in time and in life choices. Dumbledore is now a teacher at Hogwarts, devoted to justice and decency. Grindewald has become an agent of chaos who wants to destroy the structures of both the wizard and non-wizard muggle worlds. “With or without you,” Grindewald says, “I will burn down their world and there’s nothing you can do to stop me.”

Dumbledore has to find a way to prevent that despite the obstacle of the charm that binds them and Grindewald’s ability to see the future, thanks to a rare creature stolen just after birth by Grindewald’s henchpeople. But they don’t know that there was a twin, rescued by magizoologist Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne).

And so, they have to find a way to proceed that cannot be traced by Grindewald, whose coterie includes mind-reader Queenie Goldstein (Alison Sudol) the love of muggle friend Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler). It also includes ailing Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller), severely traumatized by being told his was abandoned by his birth parents and by the virulently anti-magic woman who raised him.

Credence is the son of Dumbledore’s bitter, estranged brother Aberforth (Richard Coyle). There is another tragic loss that divides the brothers as well. Newt is helped by his brother Theseus (Callum Turner, a perfect choice for a fraternal resemblance). Another member of Dumbledore’s group is Yusuf Kama (William Nadylam), a brother motivated by the loss of his sister, but willing too relinquish his memories of her to take on a dangerous role.

Yes, it is all very complicated. This is not for the kind of audience who is new to the world of Harry Potter. This is for the kind of audience who will be delighted to glimpse a young Minerva McGonagall and will get the joke about Slytherin. Those not already invested in Queenie, Jacob, and Credence will have some catching up to do.

The production design by Stuart Craig and Neil Lamont and costumes by Colleen Atwood are never less than spectacular. Despite the best efforts of the cast, the look of the film does better in telling they story than the screenplay.

Parents should know that this movie has extensive fantasy peril and violence including some scary creatures. There is some social drinking and some verbal harassment.

Family discussion: Why did Dumbledore and Grindewald take such different paths? Why did so many wizards and witches support Grindewald? Why did Dumbledore turn down the position?

If you like this, try: the other Harry Potter world books and movies

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The Ice Age Adventures of Buck Wild

Posted on January 27, 2022 at 5:53 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for some action and mild language
Profanity: Schoolyard language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended carton-style peril, fire, no one badly hurt
Diversity Issues: Disabled character
Date Released to Theaters: January 28, 2022

Copyright 2021 Disney
At this point, it almost seems as though the Ice Age movies are going to go on longer than the Ice Age itself. This latest chapter, like the recent 4th episode of “Hotel Transylvania: Transformania,” is straight-to-streaming with some sound-alikes replacing the original top-talent voices, but continues in the spirit of silly humor combined with warm tributes to the importance of family.

Since many in the intended audience or even their teen-age babysitters were not yet born when the first “Ice Age” movie was released in 2002, this sixth in the series (not counting video games, television specials, and short films) begins with a recap in cave-painting style, letting us know how the various characters met and decided, even though some of them were natural predators and prey, they would become a family and protect each other. That includes Manny the gloomy mammoth (Sean Kenin replacing Ray Romano), Sid the silly, sibilant sloth (Jake Green replacing John Leguizamo), Diego the grumpy saber-tooth tiger (Jake Green replacing Denis Leary), and Ellie the warm-hearted mammoth (Dominique Jennings replacing Queen Latifah). But those characters are all at the edges of this story, which focuses on Ellie’s two “brothers,” the goofy possums Crash (Vincent Tong) and Eddie (Aaron Harris), and the swashbuckling weasel with an eye-patch, Buck Wild (returning Simon Pegg).

Ellie has cared for Crash and Eddie since the death of their mother, who took Ellie in when she was alone and frightened. But they are chafing under her efforts to keep them safe and want to go off on their own. “She’s smothering us with reasonable advice!” they complain as they dream of a cool bachelor pad where they can do whatever they want. This fantasy setting includes a bling-y necklace and a hot tub. So they go off on their own and end up in the Lost World, where giant spiders and enormous carnivorous plants live with dinosaurs and mammals. They are rescued by Buck Wild, who first appeared in 2009’s “Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs.” His Edenic garden-like area, with all of the animals living together in peace, is being attacked by a monomaniacal dinosaur named Orson (Utkarsh Ambudkar), who has returned from being banished and wants revenge. He was bullied when he was young for being small and having a big head, but he is proud of his large brain and believes it will help him take over so that he can be the boss.

Buck wants Crash and Eddie to leave because he cannot keep them from getting into trouble while he is fighting Orson. “What they lack in intelligence,” he says, “they make up for in fumbling ineptitude.” And Buck is not sure about accepting help from an estranged friend named Zee (Justina Machado), a skunk-like creature with a Batman-style utility belt. Meanwhile, Diego, Manny, Ellie, and Sid are out looking for Crash and Eddie to bring them home.

As with the other films in the series, this chapter entertainingly combines goofy humor for both kids and adults with some heart-warming lessons about standing up for what is right, working together, taking responsibility, and the families we choose. The younger audience members will enjoy outsmarting Crash and Eddie and adults will enjoy the cultural references. Yes, a character claims to “love the smell of stinky gas in the morning,” just like Robert Duvall loved the smell of napalm . Characters work out their differences, sometimes by “using feeling words,” sometimes by apologizing, and characters discover courage and strength they never realized. Some even come to understand that even families who love each other sometimes have to let go, but they can always come home.

Parents should know that this movie has references to loss of family members and a disabled character who is very capable. There is extended cartoon-style peril with fire and an authoritarian bully.

Family discussion: When should you plan and when should you improvise? What made Buck and Zee stop being friends and how did they get to be friends again? Why didn’t Zee want to tell anyone her real name? Why does Orson want to be the boss?

If you like this, try: the other “Ice Age” movies

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