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Friday, September 13, 2019

Downton Abbey

DOWNTON ABBEY

** SPOILERS **

Downton Abbey, creator Julian Fellowes and director Michael Engler's splendid feature film of the Emmy and Golden Globe award-winning TV series, is a pristine snowglobe where you peer into a lost and impossibly luxurious world that may never have existed quite like that but that's escapism of fantasy, isn't it? Downton Abbey picks up 18 months after the series finale and continues the stories of the Crawley family upstairs and the dauntless servants who live downstairs. As always, there's so much to do and there's no time for introductions; just as one cannot simply enter the splendid estate of Downton Abbey and poke around willy-nilly, the film isn't for first-timers or someone just wandering in off the street. You have to know your Lady Marys from your Mr. Molesleys to truly appreciate what's happening. Downton Abbey may be for fans only but for the devotees, this is a glorious reunion that puts everyone's best foot forward.

When Downton Abbey begins, tremendous news arrives: King George V (Simon Jones) and Queen Mary (Geraldine James) are touring Yorkshire in the North of England and will stay at Downton for the night. This is a great honor for the Crawley family - Robert, the Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville), Cora, Countess of Grantham (Elizabeth McGovern), Lady Mary Talbot (Michelle Dockery), Tom Branson (Allen Leech), and Violet, the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith) - but for the servants below-stairs, the arrival of the Royal staff only means one thing: invasion. Chuffed that the Royal Family will sample their food and hospitality, Downton's irrepressible servants Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan), Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nichol), Daisy (Sophie McShera), Andy the Footman (Michael Fox), Mr. Molesley (Kevin Doyle), Mrs. Baxter (Racquel Cassidy), Anna (Joanne Froggatt) and Mr. Bates (Brendan Coyle) are furious when The Royal Butler (David Haig) and the snooty Royal Chef Monsieur Courbet (Philippe Spall) lay down a new pecking order: they have all been replaced by the King's men and women. Meanwhile, Lady Mary is concerned that Barrow (Robert James-Collier) isn't up to snuff as Downton's butler and recruits Carson (Jim Carter) to return to lead the staff and defend Downton's reputation. Carson, surprisingly, finds himself in over his head but so does Barrow, who discovers his first gay night club and gets himself in trouble. Luckily, his new friend, the King's valet (Max Brown) is there to bail him out. 

While all that happens downstairs, there's plenty of drama upstairs. Indeed, Downton Abbey has more characters and concurrent storylines than Avengers: Endgame. Violet is ready for a confrontation when she hears her distant cousin Lady Maud Bagshaw (Imelda Staunton) is joining the King and Queen at Downton; Bagshaw refuses to name Robert Crawley the heir to her estate and instead plans to leave it all to her maid Lucy (Tuppance Middleton) - which prompts Isobel, Baroness Merton (Penelope Wilton), Violet's best frenemy, to serve as peacemaker. Captain Chetwode (Stephen Campbell Moore), a mystery man, recruits Branson - who's both Lord Grantham's son-in-law and an Irish Republican - for some sort of plot against the King. Edith, now Marchioness of Hexam (Laura Carmichael), arrives with her husband Bertie, the Marquess of Hexam (Harry Hadden-Paton) with happy news that she's pregnant but she receives unhappy news that the King requires Bertie to go on a tour of Africa just as their child will be born. The Crawleys also learn that Princess Mary (Kate Phillips) is unhappy in her marriage - oh, the Royals! They're just like us!

With so many characters and stories and so much opulence and pageantry, it's fascinating who falls into mere supporting roles (Lord Grantham, Mr. Bates) and who emerges to the forefront. As much as anyone's, the movie belongs to Tom Branson, Daisy, and Anna Bates. Anna masterminds the defense of "the glory of Downton". She leads the revolution downstairs where Downton's staff engineers the dismissal of the King's people so that they would have the honor of cooking and serving the royal dinner - which Mr. Molesley almost ruins in the film's most gasp-inducing moment. Daisy, more confident and spirited than ever, reveals that she's not a monarchist and asserts herself throughout the film before deciding it's time to marry Andy (a story thread that will perhaps be picked up in a sequel). And cheerful, noble Branson is literally the hero of the hour: he prevents a dastardly assassination plot on the King and finds a new romance with Lucy, who, it really comes as no surprise to anyone who remembers Lady Edith's storyline with Marigold, is actually Lady Bagshaw's daughter. Of course, if Tom marries Lucy, her vast inheritance would go to him - a delicious scheme Violet is calculatedly perpetrating from the shadows. Speaking of Violet, there's a moment between her and Lady Mary that harkens back to Spock telling Valeris that she is meant to succeed him in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country that's both sad and lovely - no doubt, it will work out better for the Crawleys than it did the Vulcans.

Despite the rich drama (and the notable absences of Lily James as Lady Rose and Samantha Bond as Aunt Rosamund), there is lovely heart and humor all throughout Downton Abbey and nary a villain to be found upstairs. Even the King and Queen turn out to be decent and affable people who are "quite used to people acting strangely" around them. Indeed, the film, like Downton Abbey the series, is about second chances, looking closer past a facade to find the (often beautiful) truth underneath, and celebrating people above and below, in all stations of life. Thankfully, Downton Abbey saw no need to reinvent the wheel or transform what the series was into something it isn't to please the masses. As a feature film adaptation of a beloved TV series, Downton Abbey is superior to and more fulfulling than its peers like X-Files: Fight The Future, Star Trek Generations, and the Veronica Mars movie. Downton Abbey, like the great house, the Crawley family, and the traditions they cling to, refuses to change (too much) and, in these troubled times, that's its greatest and most reassuring strength.

Monday, September 9, 2019

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

IT: Chapter Two

IT: CHAPTER TWO 🎈🎈

** SPOILERS **

In IT: Chapter Two, the Losers Club return to their haunted home town of Derry, Maine after 27 years to solve the same problem they faced as tweens: How do you kill a CGI clown? In IT: Chapter One, they beat IT with the power of friendship, a united front, and by hitting it over and over with whatever blunt instruments they had on hand. But IT, also known as its preferred form (for some reason), Pennywise the Dancing Clown (Bill Skarsgard), is awake again and launched a new reign of terror over Derry. The lone Loser who remained in town, Mike Hanlon (Isaiah Mustafa) sends out the TroubAlert ordering the rest of the Losers back to Derry to honor the solemn vows they made as children. They all shit their pants when they get the call and they continue shitting their pants all throughout IT: Chapter Two as the Losers face their old enemy and the memories of the horrific trauma they all suffered at the hands of IT.

Structurally, IT: Chapter Two is something to behold - and you're forced to because the movie three hours long and feels it. Just as the adult Losers are plunged in a cycle of repetition as they remember the awful moments of the summer of 1989 (when none of them watched Batman), the audience is also plunged into a cycle of repetition. IT: Chapter Two takes about a half-hour to check in with each Loser and how they're doing in their adult lives before they reluctantly return to Derry. Then, once they're back in Derry and meet for Chinese food, they split up like an old Justice League comic book and we have to follow each individual Loser as they collect a special magical token and confront their memories of events we didn't see in IT: Chapter One. The young actors who played the Losers, including Sophia Lillis as Beverly Marsh, Jaeden Martell as Bill Denbrough, Jeremy Ray Taylor as Ben Hanscom, Finn Wolfhard as Richie Tozier, Chosen Jacobs as Mike Hanlon, Jack Dylan Grazer as Eddie Kaspbrak, and Wyatt Oleff as Stanley Ulis, return in the flashbacks and while they don't quite blow the adult actors out of the water, the kids still bring more heart and emotion than their grown-up selves can muster, try as they might.

It turns out most of the adult Losers are doing great, at least on the surface: Bill (James McAvoy) is a successful screenwriter, even though everyone hates the endings he writes, including director Peter Bogdonavich. Ben (Jay Ryan) is a rich architect. Richie (Bill Hader) is a successful stand-up comedian, even though he still tells the same foul-mouthed jokes he did when he was 12 and didn't evolve his material to be more sophisticated. Eddie (James Ransone) is a successful NYC business guy of some sort. Stanley (Andy Bean) is also rich and married.  Poor Beverly (Jessica Chastain) is a millionaire fashion designer but she's trapped in an abusive marriage (and she has the scars on her wrists to prove it, which none of the Losers ever mention). Only Mike is living in a ramshackle fashion in the attic above the Derry Library, but he's spent 27 years communing with Native Americans trying to figure out a way to kill IT. Yikes, look how long this review is already just name-checking everyone and trying to get up to speed. I haven't even mentioned the other characters from Chapter One that reappear, like Beverly's sicko dad and Henry Bowers, the psychopathic bully who turned into a psychopathic adult bully/killer/servant of Pennywise. Also, Stephen King lives in Derry and runs the thrift store because of course he does.

As the Losers get reacquinted with their past lives in Derry, old buried traumas bubble to the surface, always accompanied by Pennywise terrorizing them but never going for the kill for some reason. Bev remembers the postcard she thought Bill sent her but it was really Ben, who loved her from afar and still does. Richie confronts a secret he's long buried (he's gay) that Pennywise taunts him about but no one else discovers and why is it such a big secret in 2016 anyway? (Maybe the reason is this movie contains a sickening amount of literal bashing of gay men.) Bill has to reconcile his guilt where he believes he's the reason that Pennywise killed his little brother back in '89. Eddie has to face that his mom was fat... or something? Poor Stan killed himself rather than return to Derry; he explains this later in a letter that he "took himself off the board" and thereby did the Losers a solid since he's "the weakest one". Meanwhile, Mike has the thankless job of trying to wrangle all of the Losers and explain his half-baked plan to do a ritual to kill Pennywise, using an old Native American thing that has a drawing of six people holding hands (so I guess it's convenient that Stan couldn't make it).

It (and IT) all culminates in the cavernous bowels underneath the obvious haunted house in Derry where the true origin of Pennywise is revealed: IT came from outer space! The malevolent entity is a space alien of some sort and the remains of his meteor are still deep beneath Derry. The Losers have to muster all of their bravery to confront IT in its domain, but unlike when they were 12, only one of them brought a weapon: a fireplace poker fueled by the power of belief. Yet, in the end, the Losers defeat Pennywise not by hitting it with stuff but with a new, even more effective method: by yelling at it a lot and bullying the clown into submission - then they literally tear its heart out and smush it. Sure, why not. And with that, the Losers finally triumph over the ancient evil that infected their hometown, although no one else in the town is any the wiser.

IT: Chapter Two is best broken up into thirds: one third is very good, specifically the children and their relationships back in 1989, which are hearteningly resolved. One third is quite fine, specifically the adult Losers, who labor in the shadows of their childhood selves. The final third is complete schlock, specifically the jarring tonal abnormalities of the relentless comedy awkwardly jammed into this movie all throughout, and also Pennywise himself, a CGI monstrosity that's scary if you're absolutely terrified of pixels. IT: Chapter Two relies on the same moves over and over: LOUD noises and showing the clown briefly behind someone, wait until they turn around, and then the clown attacks them as a PlayStation-caliber CGI thingamajig that they escape by screaming and running away. And yet, despite the machinations of the jump scares, IT: Chapter Two is held together with a poignant underlying message of loyalty, unity, and caring for one another. Just as they did in IT: Chapter One, it's really thanks to the young Losers that IT: Chapter Two is occasionally elevated above being IT: Chapter Schlock.

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