Tag Archives: Focus Features

Downton Abbey (2019, Michael Engler)

I’m trying to decide if Downton Abbey is wholly incomprehensible to someone who didn’t watch the television show, or if they’d appreciate it. Julian Fellowes’s screenplay is very tidy, no loose strings, always the right mix between A, B, and C plots, so one can at least appreciate the pacing without knowing exactly why it’s so especially funny when footman Kevin Doyle makes a fool of himself in front of the King and Queen, but one would still get the surface humor. Downton’s got a bunch of great surface humor, including Maggie Smith and Penelope Wilton, which is a rather impressive feat for Fellowes, Smith, Wilton, and director Engler because the film doesn’t do any setup. There’s not just very little ground situation establishing going on, there’s none. The movie opens with the hook—the King and Queen send a letter to Downton Abbey, let’s watch the letter get there via 1920s transportation, oh, how lovely and quaint, thanks to Ben Smithard’s gorgeous photography (they go Panavision for the movie, which is full of lingering shots on the country house itself, also showing off the increased helicopter budget)—plus the letter getting to the town and the familiar sights before the house itself. Maybe, with the quaintness, the lovely photography, and John Lunn’s always very effective theme… an unfamiliar could get in the right mood.

Because while it’s impressive how successfully Fellowes writes the almost two hours, with the fifteen or twenty person principal cast, it’s not a surprise he’d accomplish it. Fellowes wrote many years of the show, including some extended length holiday specials. Downton Abbey: The Movie feels very much like a very special holiday episode. There’s not a lot of progress from when the show ended, at least not in terms of new cast. There aren’t any new regulars, there are a lot of previously emphasized, sort of unresolved subplots examined—Sophie McShera still hasn’t decided if she’s getting married, Robert James-Collier’s still miserable in the closet, and… um. Okay, maybe there’s not a lot on that front. But James-Collier gets one of the bigger B plots, and McShera’s got a solid C. The only reason James-Collier’s subplot, involving actual romance for him, isn’t an A plot is Fellowes keeps it on low until the third act when he needs some drama to juxtapose with the chaos at the royal dinner. It’s a very smart script, just self-indulgent enough, just pleasant enough.

Is it particularly ambitious? No. The biggest A plot—besides everyone in the movie preparing for the royal visit in one way or another—is Allen Leech. Leech gets to do the “Irishman under investigation” subplot and he gets to do a “maybe the widower finally move on” subplot. Laura Carmichael gets a solid B plot. Michelle Dockery, however, is seated at the “here to support other people’s plots with none of my own” table, along with Hugh Bonneville and Elizabeth McGovern. There are good moments for everyone and all the acting is good, they just don’t get anything special to do. No heavy lifting.

Though Dockery does get a little at the end, as she’s the one who gets to have the big moment with Maggie Smith. In its last few minutes, Downton: The Movie unintentionally reveals its great potential would not have been as an extended, Cinemascope holiday special, but as something from Smith’s perspective. The ambition isn’t there though. The film’s got just the right amount of fan service as well as new material.

Technically the only complaint is, occasionally, Engler chooses the wrong character to—literally—focus on in a shot. It’s like he doesn’t have the right sense of some scenes’ emotionality. And, of course, it’s over too soon. It’s not too short. But it is over too soon.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Michael Engler; written by Julian Fellowes; director of photography, Ben Smithard; edited by Mark Day; music by John Lunn; production designer, Donal Woods; produced by Fellowes, Gareth Neame, and Liz Trubridge; released by Focus Features.

Starring Laura Carmichael (Lady Edith), Allen Leech (Tom Branson), Michelle Dockery (Lady Mary Talbot), Maggie Smith (Violet Crawley), Elizabeth McGovern (Cora Crawley), Hugh Bonneville (Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham), Penelope Wilton (Isobel Merton), Phyllis Logan (Mrs. Hughes), Jim Carter (Mr. Carson), Robert James-Collier (Thomas Barrow), Joanne Froggatt (Anna Bates), Brendan Coyle (Mr. Bates), Sophie McShera (Daisy Mason), Lesley Nicol (Mrs. Patmore), Michael Fox (Andy Parker), Raquel Cassidy (Miss Baxter), Kevin Doyle (Mr. Molesley), Harry Hadden-Paton (Bertie Hexham), Imelda Staunton (Maud Bagshaw), Tuppence Middleton (Lucy Smith), Kate Phillips (Princess Mary), Geraldine James (Queen Mary), Simon Jones (King George V), Max Brown (Richard Ellis), Stephen Campbell Moore (Captain Chetwode), Susan Lynch (Miss Lawton), David Haig (Mr. Wilson), Mark Addy (Mr. Bakewell), Philippe Spall (Monsieur Courbet), and Richenda Carey (Mrs. Webb).


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Greta (2018, Neil Jordan)

Greta is exceedingly competent. It’s way too unimaginative, predictable, traditional, and restrained in the final third, but it’s always exceedingly competent at those things. Even after it’s clear top-billed Isabelle Huppert isn’t going to create a singular cinema villain and even after it’s clear she’s not even as good as she was in the first hour… she’s always exceedingly competent. Ditto de facto lead Chloë Grace Moretz; she gets thin, melodramatic backstory, an annoying sidekick, a boring job, and a bland dad, but she always makes it work. Greta’s even able to make its utterly predictable last shot work.

Probably because the whole thing is utterly noncommittal and emotionally exploitative until the thriller dangers take over.

The film doesn’t start out noncommittal or emotionally exploitative. The first act at least hints at some sincerity—another of the script’s efficiencies—Moretz is a recent college (Smith, natch) graduate living the dream in New York City. Literally. She works as a waitress, but has no future ambitions and doesn’t need any because she lives with good friend Maika Monroe, whose dad bought her a loft for college graduation. Monroe doesn’t appear to do anything but yoga and party. Again, efficiency after efficiency. Moretz’s dad, Colm Feore, lives back in Boston. Moretz came to New York not because she gets to live rent-free in a bitchin’ loft but because her mom died the year before and she’s grieving. It’s implied Feore grieved his way immediately into another marriage, but it’s never explained. Because efficiency. And also the implied detail makes the film less shallow.

So one day Moretz finds a handbag on the train and—thanks to the lost and found not being open—has to bring it back to the owner herself. The owner is French-ish Isabelle Huppert, who lives all by herself because her husband died the year before and her daughter is off in Paris. Huppert and Moretz immediately bond, much to Monroe’s chagrin—she feels like Moretz is judging her negatively for being a superficial rich girl (which Moretz can’t be because she doesn’t do yoga and also dead mom). Except (and it happens before the second act) it turns out Huppert is seriously creepy creeper and Moretz tries to break off their relationship, only for Huppert to start stalking her. And eventually Monroe, leading to some great thriller sequences from Jordan, cinematographer Seamus McGarvey, and editor Nick Emerson.

Huppert’s stalking gets worse, leading to bigger and bigger set pieces, until the last third (or so) of the film when the danger to Moretz starts to become far more literal. No more foreshadowing, no more backstory hints (and the ones the film has revealed add up to nothing because of how the third act plays), just terror.

The conclusion is a mix of predictable, problematic, satisfying, and truncated. Greta runs just less than a hundred minutes and definitely could use a more thorough denouement. Jordan and co-writer Ray Wright go for intensity to get the film to the finish, which is fine in the moment, it just doesn’t add up to anything. Nothing in the film adds up to anything. None of the suspicions, none of the characters’ traumatic histories, none of the characters’ criminal histories (private investigator Stephen Rea discovers more about Huppert from one file folder than the cops do after multiple interactions with both Huppert and Moritz); none of it matters in the end. So no character development, not for Moritz or Huppert. Moritz definitely needed some. Huppert, if the villain role were better, might be able to get away without it. But the role’s not better. It’s lacking. Even if she does power through the third act quite well.

Moritz is good too, though the film’s patronizing towards her, like it resents her for not having enough to do because it doesn’t give her enough to do. Monroe gets better as things go on. She’s good at action, not at exposition. She’s real rough in the first act.

Rea’s great.

Feore’s okay. It’s a perfect role for stunt-casting or a character actor and instead it’s filler with Feore.

Like I said, it’s all exceedingly competent, making Greta a successful viewing experience without being a successful film.

It’s too bad. A better, sincerer, more ambitious script could’ve given Huppert, Moretz, and Monroe some great roles.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Neil Jordan; screenplay by Ray Wright and Jordan, based on a story by Wright; director of photography, Seamus McGarvey; edited by Nick Emerson; music by Javier Navarrete; production designer, Anna Rackard; produced by Lawrence Bender, James Flynn, Sidney Kimmel, John Penotti, and Karen Richards; released by Focus Features.

Starring Isabelle Huppert (Greta Hideg), Chloë Grace Moretz (Frances McCullen), Maika Monroe (Erica Penn), Zawe Ashton (Alexa Hammond), Stephen Rea (Brian Cody), and Colm Feore (Chris McCullen).


Moonrise Kingdom (2012, Wes Anderson)

With Moonrise Kingdom, Wes Anderson has finally put his directing craft so far ahead of his narrative, the narrative doesn’t matter. Neither, in Moonrise‘s case, do the actors. There isn’t a single outstanding performance in the film… maybe because Anderson and co-writer Roman Coppola don’t write one. They’re to the point of using Jason Schwartzman as a gag cameo.

Moonrise is purposefully, aggressively artificial–Bob Balaban plays an omnipotent, future narrator who interacts with the characters. But it doesn’t really matter because Anderson’s craft is outstanding and the writing is still decent. A lot of the scenes between preteen outcasts Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward are lovely.

Anderson shoots as much of the film as he can in profile; the camera pans to introduce new action instead of cutting. Partially due to the film’s artificiality–partially to Anderson and cinematographer Robert D. Yeoman’s photography–it works. Moonrise isn’t supposed to be real. For instance, Tilda Swinton’s reduced to her job title.

Swinton’s no great shakes in the picture, but she’s not supposed to be. She’s gag casting, much like Schwartzman and Harvey Keitel. Keitel’s the best of those three. Bruce Willis and Edward Norton both do pretty well, though neither have enough material. Anderson and Coppola give Bill Murray absolutely nothing–he doesn’t even interact with his kids in the film, just barks near them. As his wife, Frances McDormand is better.

Moonrise Kingdom‘s a masterfully produced film. It’s just pointless, save demonstrating Anderson’s abilities as a director.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Wes Anderson; written by Anderson and Roman Coppola; director of photography, Robert D. Yeoman; edited by Andrew Weisblum; music by Alexandre Desplat; production designer, Adam Stockhausen; produced by Anderson, Scott Rudin, Jeffrey Dawson and Steven M. Rales; released by Focus Features.

Starring Jared Gilman (Sam), Kara Hayward (Suzy), Edward Norton (Scout Master Ward), Bruce Willis (Captain Sharp), Bill Murray (Walt Bishop), Frances McDormand (Laura Bishop), Tilda Swinton (Social Services), Jason Schwartzman (Cousin Ben), Harvey Keitel (Commander Pierce) and Bob Balaban (Narrator).


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The American (2010, Anton Corbijn)

If someone had told me, I don’t think I would have believed Anton Corbijn got his start directing music videos. His direction of the American is so gentle and deliberate–so forcibly detached from his characters–it just doesn’t seem possible. Maybe they were all really well-directed music videos.

I hadn’t originally planned on rushing to see the American, which, it turns out, would have been a big mistake. I think the title’s meant as a joke (the source novel has a different one), because the film puts George Clooney–one of America’s most recognizable celebrities–in a completely not American film.

And Clooney’s the only American around in the film. But his presence isn’t played for comedy or irony–he even has big American ideals, though they’re never spelled out.

The film takes place over–at most–a month. It’s carefully paced, never exciting (it’s not a thriller), and extremely cautious. Think Our Man in Havana mixed with a Clouzot film, only without any humor.

And the ending works. Once it gets to the third act, it’s all brilliant, but there were a couple very bad places it could go. It goes to neither, doing something lovely and unexpected instead.

Clooney’s great–the American suggests he’s just going to get even better–and his supporting cast is wonderful. The two women, Thekla Reuten and Violante Placido, are amazing–Placido in particular. Reuten is good in a simpler role, Placido’s is rather complex.

It’s a quietly significant film.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Anton Corbijn; screenplay by Rowan Joffe, based on a novel by Martin Booth; director of photography, Martin Ruhe; edited by Andrew Hulme; music by Herbert Grönemeyer; production designer, Mark Digby; produced by Anne Carey, Jill Green, Ann Wingate, Grant Heslov and George Clooney; released by Focus Features.

Starring George Clooney (Jack), Violante Placido (Clara), Paolo Bonacelli (Father Benedetto), Thekla Reuten (Mathilde) and Johan Leysen (Pavel).


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