Downton Abbey: A New Era
by Hope Madden
The Crawleys exit the roaring 20s a bit cash-strapped (can’t fix the roof but can holiday en masse, butlers in tow). Fans of the long-running series, now unleashing its second feature film, can rest easy. Heads held high, the family is ready to face a new decade with new leadership and the same old posh spirit.
Elegant escapism of the breeziest order, Downton Abbey: A New Era follows the idle rich through the travails of trying to remain both idle and rich. Now about that attic.
It seems a film producer hopes to shoot a movie in Downton. Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) wants no part of it, but Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) is running the show now. She hates to seem common, but the fee will fix those leaks.
Of course, the servants are thrilled to have real-life movie stars in the building. All except Mr. Carson (Jim Carter), who can’t bear to see the family stoop so low. Why, the Queen of England sat right at that table!
Meanwhile, Lady Grantham (Maggie Smith, scene-stealing, as is her way) is surprised to have inherited a French villa from a man she knew many wistful years ago. Mysterious? Or is it scandalous?!
So, off half the family goes to investigate, leaving Lady Mary and the servants to contend with the handsome director (Hugh Dancy), charming actor (Dominic West) and dour actress (Laura Haddock).
The old gang has fun stretching their familiar characters a bit for the big screen, although director Simon Curtis (My Week with Marilyn) has a tough time staging the interior conversations as anything more than expensive TV set pieces.
Still, the expansive grounds are gorgeous and Nice is gorgeous, and it can be restful to spend a full two hours where the stakes are no higher than whether or not the world will remember granny as a tramp.
Downton Abbey is a really well-dressed, well-acted, well-produced, uptight soap opera. Droll dialog, stunning locales and exquisite costuming elevate each scene to something more than a guilty pleasure, but the film’s sites never veer from its target audience.
by Hope Madden
Alex Garland bats 1.000 with his third feature, Men, a terrifying look at the complicated aftermath of trauma.
Jessie Buckley (flawless, as always) plays Harper, a woman in need of some time alone. She rents a gorgeous English manor from proper country gentleman Geoffrey (Rory Kinnear) and plans to recuperate from, well, a lot.
Garland unveils Harper’s backstory little by little, each time slightly altering our perception of the film. The more about Harper we learn, the more village folk we meet: vicar, surly teen, pub owner, police officer, and a naked man in the woods. Each is played by Kinnear—or by actors sporting Kinnear’s CGI face—although Harper never mentions this, or even seems to notice.
Is she seeing what we’re seeing?
All is left open to interpretation. An easy read, given Kinnear’s multiple roles, is simply that all men are the same. And while each of Kinnear’s characters represents a specific and common type of male threat, as bizarre reality begins tipping further into outright fantasy, it seems likelier we are seeing more of Harper than we are of men in general. She is putting a face—the same face—on a lifetime of traumas, large and small.
Garland’s bold visuals—so precise in Ex Machina, so surreal in Annihilation—create a sumptuous environment just bordering on overripe. The verdant greens and audacious reds cast a spell perfectly suited to the biblical and primal symbolism littering the picture.
Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow’s score meshes with Garland’s lush imagery, releasing a blend of music, ambient sound and, at its most eerily beautiful moments, Buckley’s voice. The result is powerful and unnerving.
Men is more of a head-scratcher than either of Garland’s previous films. Yes, even Annihilation. It’s far more of a horror film, for one thing, and far less of a clearly articulated narrative. Rather than clarifying or summing up, the film’s ending offers more questions than answers. But if you can make peace with ambiguity, Men is a film you will not likely forget.
by Hope Madden
Heartbreak, hardship, hard living and broken dreams — that sounds like a country song.
How well does it work for a horror movie? Director Brea Grant (12 Hour Shift) finds out, with an assist from effortless badass Katey Sagal in the Music City thriller Torn Hearts.
Sagal plays Harper Dutchess, country music legend and what remains of the Dutchess sisters, a duo that made it big in the 90s, before tragedy hit. Now a recluse in her Nashville mansion, Harper is none too happy to see upstarts Jordan (Abby Quinn) and Leigh (Alexxis Lemire) show up at her door hoping to record a song with her that will put them on the path to stardom.
Screenwriter Rachel Koller Croft stumbled into something fresh with the country music angle. Horror is no stranger to rock music, disco, techno, metal, punk, but country? That’s new.
Unfortunately, she repackages a lot of familiar ideas inside that Western fringe. But Grant finds ways to keep things interesting.
An authentic soundtrack of music penned by Brittany Allen grounds Torn Hearts in authenticity, while Yaron Levy’s cinematography works the creepy Dutchess mansion for all its gothic, garish Nashville weirdness.
Both Lemire and Quinn fit their roles well. As Harper picks away at the young duo’s insecurities, each performer gets the chance to show some range, both physically and emotionally.
Sagal steals the show, though. The picture of hard living, Harper manipulates the young musicians with sometimes sadistic ease. Sagal relishes the contempt, crafting a formidable central figure and ensuring rapt attention, no matter what weaknesses the film has in store.
Torn Hearts layers its somewhat rote plot points with context about the harsh misogyny of country music, points Sagal’s performance drives home.
Spooky buddies! What’s what we’re talking about, that’s who we’re talking to.
5. The Ritual (2017)
David Bruckner has entertained us with some of the best shorts in horror today, including work from V/H/S, Southbound, and one of our favorites, The Signal. Directing his feature debut in The Ritual, Bruckner takes what feels familiar, roots it in genuine human emotion, takes a wild left turn and delivers the scares.
Five friends decide to mourn a tragedy with a trip together into the woods. Grief is a tricky, personal, often ugly process and as they work through their feelings, their frustration quickly turns to fear as they lose themselves in a foreign forest where danger lurks.
The film works for a number of reasons, but its greatest triumph is in making the woods scary again. That environment has become such a profound cliché in horror that it is almost impossible to make it feel fresh, but there is an authenticity to the performances, the interaction among the characters, and the frustration and fear that grounds the horror. And then there is horror—intriguing, startling, genuinely frightening horror. Yay!
4. The Cabin in the Woods (2011)
You know the drill: 5 college kids head into the woods for a wild weekend of doobage, cocktails and hookups but find, instead, dismemberment, terror and pain. You can probably already picture the kids, too: a couple of hottie Alphas, the nice girl, the guy she may or may not be into, and the comic relief tag along. In fact, if you tried, you could almost predict who gets picked off when.
But that’s just the point, of course. Making his directorial debut, Drew Goddard uses that preexisting knowledge to entertain holy hell out of you.
Cabin is not a spoof. It’s not a satire. It’s sort of a celebratory homage, but not entirely. What you get with this film is a very different kind of horror-comedy.
3. Tigers Are Not Afraid ( 2017)
Issa Lopez’s fable of children and war brandishes the same themes as Guillermo del Toro’s masterpiece Pan’s Labyrinth, but grounds the magic with a rugged street style. One pack of feral children have only each other and their imaginations to keep them safe.
Tigers follows Estrella, a child studying fairy tales—or, she was until her school is temporarily closed due to the stray bullets that make it unsafe for students. As Estrella and her classmates hide beneath desks to avoid gunfire, her teacher hands her three broken pieces of chalk and tells her these are her three wishes.
But wishes never turn out the way you want them to.
2. The Descent (2005)
Adventuring buddies get together for a bit of spelunking. Writer/director Neil Marshall begins his film with an emotionally jolting shock, quickly followed by some awfully unsettling cave crawling and squeezing and generally hyperventilating, before turning dizzyingly panicky before snapping a bone right in two.
And then we find out there are monsters.
The grislier the film gets, the more primal the tone becomes, eventually taking on a tenor as much like a war movie as a horror film. This is not surprising from the director that unleashed Dog Soldiers – a gory, fun werewolf adventure. But Marshall’s second attempt is far scarier.
For full-on horror, this is one hell of a monster movie.
1. It Follows (2014)
It Follows is a coming-of-age tale that mines a primal terror. Moments after a sexual encounter with a new boyfriend, Jay discovers that she is cursed.
As Jay’s close-knit crew does what they can to help her evade the shapeshifting horror that follows her, Mitchell captures that fleeting yet dragging moment between childhood and adulthood and gives the lurking dread of that time of life a powerful image. There is something that lies just beyond the innocence of youth. You feel it in every frame and begin to look out for it, walking toward you at a consistent pace, long before the characters have begun to check the periphery themselves.
by Hope Madden
The pandemic — as crushing and debilitating as it was for so many people — also showed us how resilient people could be. Nowhere is that clearer than with art and, in particular, filmmaking.
To continue to create, filmmakers had to get creative in ways they may not have in the past. They limited themselves to small casts, tight locations, small crews — nothing terribly new to low-budget indie filmmakers. Sometimes that sparked something excellent, like Roshan Sethi’s 7 Days.
But there’s no room for weakness when an audience’s attention is focused so narrowly. Here’s where Chris Cullardi and Jennifer Raite’s mindbender The Aviary comes up short.
Malin Akerman and Lorenza Izzo are two friends escaping Seth (Chris Messina) and Skylight, a cult in the New Mexican desert. Each woman comes at the journey and the decision to break from their confines a bit differently. As the escape grows more and more complicated and terrifying, those differences breed distrust.
Akerman’s solid if uninspired as the more rugged and world-wise Jillian, once a high-ranking member of the organization. She lured Blair (Izzo) into the fold and now feels responsible to get her safely away.
Izzo’s performance stands out a bit more, ranging from shellshock to paranoia to mania as the journey wears on.
At its high points, The Aviary becomes a potent allegory for toxic relationships. Messina is particularly effective, his take on the cult leader somehow more insidious for its sincerity and tenderness.
Cullari and Raite, who co-write and co-direct, don’t have anything especially fresh to say, though. Their writing is fine, never exceptional. Their ideas are solid enough, not innovative by any means. The direction works but never excites.
That obviously leads to a palatable if forgettable cinematic experience. Worse though, it draws attention to flaws because there’s not much else to focus on. The film’s twists feel lazy, illogical rather than surprising. The disappointing payoff turns a relatively bland journey into an unfortunate slog.
by Hope Madden
If you are in the mood for something decidedly different, let Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s meditative wonder Memoria beguile you. Or bewilder you. Or both.
You won’t be alone. Indeed, you’ll be much like Jessica (Tilda Swinton, perfect, of course). She’s awakened one dawn by a sound, a kind of “bong” that’s impossible to ignore. She assumes construction in a nearby building is to blame, but eventually, this sound follows her wherever she goes.
A desperate yet somewhat resigned curiosity drives Jessica to try to place the noise, or to identify its cause, whether natural or supernatural.
Her journey unfolds in gorgeously unconventional and profoundly cinematic fashion. Weerasethakul’s approach is simultaneously deliberate and dreamlike, and his tale rejects simplification or, indeed, proper summarization. It certainly avoids that comforting Hollywood structure, but Memoria offers a meticulous structure of its own, one that feels vague but supports the spell being cast.
The film becomes a mystery of sorts, but one that dredges up more questions than answers. On the filmmaker’s mind seems to be concepts of collective memory and isolation, sensory experience and existence.
Jessica’s travels through Colombia in search of answers becomes an entrancing odyssey. Akritchalerm Kalayanamitr’s sound design heightens the experience, almost becoming a second character in the way that the sound supports Swinton’s performance.
And what a performance. Quiet and precise as if always listening and careful not to disturb, Swinton once again disappears wholly into a role.
No fan of simple solutions to life’s puzzles, Weerasethakul still leaves the story with an enigmatic but astonishing resolution. The spell he and his lead cast while bringing you to those final moments offers an experience more surprising and unique than anything else you’ll find onscreen this year.
Marvelous and the Black Hole
by Hope Madden
Anybody who remembers Cheers knows Rhea Perlman can be tough as nails. But a magician hoping to befriend an angry adolescent? Well, that’s just masochism.
Still, that is the plot of Kate Tsang’s Marvelous and the Black Hole. Sullen Sammy (Miya Cech) is in trouble again. Her widowed father (Leonardo Nam) doesn’t know what to do with her, but the vandalism and angry outbursts — especially toward his new love, Marianne (Paulina Lule) — have got to stop.
The ultimatum: get an A in a summer course at community college or go to a religious boot camp.
But the course on entrepreneurship is lame and the teacher’s a moron so Sammy hits the bathrooms for a smoke. There she runs afoul of Perlman’s Margot, on campus to entertain a preschool. Margot sees something of herself in Sammy. Slowly, reluctantly, they pull friendship out of a hat.
Tsang’s got a history with whimsy, which certainly informs her feature debut. Animation, fantasy and magic spill together in sometimes inspired, sometimes ill-fitting ways to highlight Sammy’s tumultuous coming of age.
There’s an interesting clash of visual styles, but beneath that is a uniformly predictable story. Situations and characters are too broadly drawn, but just when you’re tempted to give up on the film, Tsang and gang hit a note of authenticity that pulls you back in. That’s particularly true with the way the film deals with grief.
What elevates Tsang’s tale no matter the scene is Cech’s performance. She anchors the story with a believably angry girl trapped between the tantrums of childhood and the self-destruction of adolescence. The performance feels authentic rather than angsty and it elevates even the weakest scenes.
Perlman’s a charmer as the lonely mentor and she and Cech share a sweet chemistry. The film boasts some laughs and some cringes, but uneven as it gets, Cech delivers.