Downton Abbey, the Film

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I admit I was worried that the film wouldn’t meet my expectations. Perhaps it wouldn’t translate to the silver screen.

The main plot involves the Crawley’s hosting the King and Queen of England (Elizabeth II’s grandparents). Will they be up to the task? What will go wrong?

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By framing the story around this glorious event, writer Julian Fellowes hit the target. It’s a story that puts both the family and the servants in a tizzy. Since perfection’s required, Carson’s called out of retirement as the once sneaky Barrows isn’t experienced enough as butler. As the residents of Downton unite, conflict enters in the form of the supercilious royal servant staff. They elbow our favorite servants into a corner. No cooking for Mrs. Patmore. Poor Mr. Mosley, who’s taken time off from his teaching to return to serve, won’t get to. The royals bring all their food, drink and personnel.

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A suspicious stranger comes to town and starts sniffing around Tom, the Irish son-in-law. What is this man who booked a room over the parade path in town up to? How will he implicate Tom?

Other subplots include Violet’s scheming to get a cousin to leave her fortune and property to Robert. Violet is beside herself when it seems that a maid will get everything.

Lonely Thomas may at last find understanding and possibly love (in a sequel?) but not till after surviving a very close call.

Widower Tom is pivotal in the film. He’s tied up with the mysterious strangerr, befriends the maid who’s to inherit a fortune and offers sage advice to a distraught royal.

It’s good fun to see this familiar cast again. Edith’s life has improved dramatically now that she’s married. Her problems are manageable, rich girl problems now that she’s away from Mary and has moved out and upward in status.

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Violet and Isobel spar with wit. The saddest scene takes place towards the end between Violet and Mary.

The pacing was brisk and the film was clever and entertaining. With a such a large cast it’s hard to get everyone a good part. Mr. Bates didn’t have much to do and Mary’s husband was out of the country most of the time.

As usual the costumes and sets were amazing. Lots of delights for the eyes. It’s a film that’s sure to delight Downton fans, which is its aim.

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Poldark, Final Season, Ep. 2

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Much of the episode takes place in London, where Demelza and the two children just arrived. Ned is out of jail! But he needs to clear his name because he wasn’t exonerated, but just released it seems. Ross discovers that Ballentine, Ned’s former secretary just happens to be in London.  If Ross can find Balletine, then Ned’s sure to be in the clear.

When Ned is in the mood for fun and he takes his wife Kitty to the Pleasure Garden. Ross and Demelza, Caroline and Dwight join them. As you’d expect the Kitty, who’s African American is insulted and stared at. Kitty defuses a confrontation and Ned & Co. leave.

Back in Cornwall, Tess, a new snakelike servant that Demelza has helped by giving her a job, is plotting to seduce Ross. She dreams of being the lady of the house. Prudie is on to her though.

George is amenable to signing a contract with a devil, i.e. Hanson, who’s made a fortune across the pond trading who-knows-what and who has no problem with the slave trade. The ghost of Elizabeth convinces George not to sign, making Uncle Cary hit the ceiling. This grief-induced madness is not funny.

Geoffrey Charles and Hanson’s daughter Cecily are getting cozy. Both are going back to Cornwall, where they’ll picnic on the beach, but this romance is headed for rocky shores as Cecily’s father wants her to marry the rich George.

Ross finds Ballentine and eventually convinces him to do the right thing. Ballentine writes a letter to state what a noble, just man Ned is. Ross discreetly circulates the letter. He wants to protect Ballentine. However, Demelza figures all and sundry should know how great Ned is. She gets Kitty and Caroline to help her hand out copies of the letter, which given that some very powerful people oppose Ned and make a lot of money off of the slave trade, endangers Ballentine and Ned.

Morwenna shows her maternal side when Valentine, who’s the spitting image of Ross, tells her how he expects his mother Elizabeth to return. She tries to sympathetically break the truth to the boy. Drake dreams of starting a family, but Morwenna recoils much as she’d like to oblige. She’s still traumatized by odious Ossy’s fetishes. One day . . . In fact my guess is that the series may end with Morwenna giving birth or at least getting pregnant.

An incredible futurist, Dwight spoke about mental illness and how criminals should not be held culpable when they’re not of sound mind. Caroline beams with pride at his lecture. A lawyer hears him and gets him to testify at the trial for the man accused of attempting to assassinate the King. This does not go down well with the elite.

The episode had plenty to like and characters who infuriated. George is still dangerous and Tess should be sent packing. Ross better not give in to her “charms.” Ross and Dwight champion justice. Cecily’s complex so I don’t know if she belongs with Geoffrey Charles, but she seems to.

Dwight’s ideas about insanity seem too modern for the era.  The ghost of Elizabeth seems rather false, hard to buy, but I suppose the actress also had a five year contract, which doesn’t make much sense since if you read the books, you know she died.

SPOILER ALERT

Ballentine’s body washes up on the shore. That’s what you get for pointing a finger at the powerful.

Poldark, Final Season, Premiere

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It’s a bittersweet time with Poldark returning, but for the last year. What will 2020 bring from the BBC and PBS?

As I was viewing I was wondering if the storylines were based on the Winston Graham’s novels. I enjoyed the episode, but something seemed off. I was right. Deborah Horsfield explained that:

“we knew at the end of Season Four that we were not going to be able to finish all of the remaining five books, because the cast were only optioned for five series. So the options were to stop after Season Four, or to have a look at some of the events that might have taken place, some of which Winston Graham refers to in The Stranger from the Sea, and to cover a kind of similar time period that he would cover in each book, a period of about two years.”

So, we are getting a Horsfield story this year, which should be fine.

The episode began with a flashback to the American Revolutionary War when Ross is shot and a new character, his colonel and comrade Ned Despard finds him. We then move to Despard in jail giving his African American wife a note for Ross, his only hope. The governor of British Honduras, Despard is an abolitionist. He’s married his kitchen maid, Kitty. Kitty goes to England to get Ross’ help.

Geoffrey Charles has returned to Nappara and since his mother, Elizabeth has died has decided to quit school and enter the military academy. That takes money (seems there’s no GI Bill or ROTC yet). Ross takes him to see George, who sends his stepson packing. No surprise there unless you count Ross’ naivety. Who thought George would be generous.

Grief has driven George crazy. He’s isolated himself and left the Poldark estate. He’s seeing Elizabeth at the dinner table and hallucinating that the nursemaid is Elizabeth. While I’m glad to see Heida Reed back, I can’t buy her ghost. TV programs often have the ghost of a dead character and it rarely works for me.

All’s well with Demelza and Ross in terms of their marriage. When Kitty arrives asking Ross to accompany her to London to champion Ned’s cause Demelza knows she can’t stop him and I think admires his decision to stand up for what’s right. We’ll see a lot about abolition this season, which is set in 1800. The date emphasizes how long it took for slavery to end.

Another new character, Tess is the Norma Rae of the village. An out of work kitchen maid, Tess resents Demelza and tells her off. Tess is the spokeswoman for the unemployed miners who worked for George, but won’t accept his stingy lower wages. thus these poor folks are starving or close to it. Demelza promises to help and Tess replies with sarcasm. Not much later Demelza offers Tess a job, but the jaded maid snaps that she doesn’t want charity, forgetting that a job really isn’t charity.

It’s unclear whether Tess is involved soon after Ross leaves for London, a fire strikes late one night. Luckily, no one’s hurt and the fire’s put out, but Demelza (and the audience) wonder whether Tess is at all responsible. Tess should be watched. She’s hard to read.

Caroline is still mourning the death of her baby daughter and Morwenna recoils from Drake’s touch. Both women’s psychological states make sense, but I hope this season we seen them heal and move on. Both have exemplary husbands now and it’s nice to see their patience and love.

Two more new characters are Ralph Hanson, a merchant, and his daughter Cecily, who’s of marriageable age. Ralph is cut from a Warleggen cloth and I wouldn’t trade with him for all the tea in China. Cecily is a question mark. She’s shrewd and at first I thought trouble, but she shows up at the lecture against slavery so she may have some good in her. George’s uncle wants George to marry ASAP and clearly thinks Cecily would make a good match if only for her father’s money. Yet she bristles at such talk. A strong woman, Cecily is not about to do someone else’s bidding.

The premiere has set up some interesting themes and plot lines. I’m unsure about a story not based on the books, but I’ll be back this week and hope for the best.

All That Heaven Allows

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The trailer promises “torture and ecstasy.” Maybe we get some.

I don’t mean I didn’t enjoy All that Heaven Allows (1955) starring Jane Wyman and Rock Hudson as a November – June romance, but the movie does swerve into the melodrama lane as the ad suggests.

The movie opens with wealthy widow Cary (Wyman) getting urged to attend a party by her friend Sara (played by Bewitched’s Agnes Morehead). Cary’s got to fend off loneliness after all. Sara later urges Cary to get a television set as that’s a good companion. At a country club party, Cary and the audience are bored by the snobbish guests who idolize convention.

Then young and handsome Ron enters Cary’s life and soon they’re in love. A gardener by trade, Ron prefers a simple, outdoorsy life. His friends admire his down-to-earth value system. As time goes by, Ron proposes and Cary wants her friends and college age kids to know about her relationship.

A beautiful middle-aged woman and a young man?! This pair sends shockwaves through the town. Cary’s friends are vicious towards Ron. Her children through adolescent tantrums. What are you thinking? Do you know how this looks?

Cary has to choose between her secure past and a romantic future.

The film took on a fresh situation. Questions like does Ron want children? aren’t addressed as the main theme is the effects of snobbery and convention. Sometimes the dialog was laid on thick and wanted to tell the director “I know what you’re driving at so you don’t need to be so obvious.” All in all, I was pulled into the story and happy to stick with it.

Death of a Cyclist

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Death of a Cyclist (1955) is a powerful film from Spain. I found this via serendipity as the image on the DVD box intrigued me. The Criterion Collection site offers a plot summary I can’t trump, so here that is:

Upper-class geometry professor Juan and his wealthy, married mistress, Maria José, driving back from a late-night rendezvous, accidentally hit a cyclist, and run. The resulting, exquisitely shot tale of guilt, infidelity, and blackmail reveals the wide gap between the rich and the poor in Spain, and surveys the corrupt ethics of a society seduced by decadence. Juan Antonio Bardem’s charged melodrama Death of a Cyclist (Muerte de un ciclista) was a direct attack on 1950s Spanish society under Franco’s rule. Though it was affected by the dictates of censorship, its sting could never be dulled.

Compelling and intense, Lucia Bosé stars as Maria José, the stunning mistress who’s anxious about the black mail and incrimination she faces, while not worrying much about her responsibility for the death of the bicyclist. As the film progresses, the professor faces a career crisis caused by distraction due to his ruminating over the accident. As the university students lay siege to the administration building, the professor gains moral clarity which leads to a most surprising ending.
 

I liked that the story offered unpredictable plot turns. Lucia Bosé’s beauty and style were simple and captivating. The cinematography was bold and showed how black and white films can achieve more stunning results than color more often than not. I do wonder was Spain of the 1950s that immoral? How much of this is exaggeration?

I highly recommend Death of a Cyclist and I’ll look for more films with Bosé and directed by Juan Antonio Bardem.

The Music Man

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The Goodman Theater offers solid brass band entertainment in Mary Zimmerman’s production of The Music Man. One of the top American musicals in my book The Music Man tells the story of con man Prof. Harold Hill comes to small town Iowa to cheat the townsfolk of their hard earned cash by promising them their boys will avoid the evils of the pool hall, a veritable den of inequity, if they just entrust them to him. For the price of instruments, sheet music, and uniforms, Prof. Hill will soon have these children’s virtue in place and they’ll be able to play beautiful music to boot.

The town’s mayor, who owns the new pool hall and the spinster librarian, Marian are among the most skeptical. Hill aims to win them over, though it won’t be easy. Marian won’t be the first skeptical lady his charm has won over.

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With a full orchestra, solid dancing and tunes like “Seventy-Six Trombones,” “Trouble,” “Good Night My Someone” and “Till There Was You” The Music Man knocks it out of the park.

The Chicago Tribune’s reviewer thought the show’s star couple lacked chemistry. Perhaps they weren’t the most electric couple in musical theater, but they did a good job and with these songs, the colorful costumes, creative set, and familiar story, this production won me over.

The theater was quite full and some shows have already sold out. I urge you not to miss this summer’s The Music Man.

Lucky Me

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As Doris Day just passed away at the age of 97, I figured watching some of her films would be a good memorial. My library displayed their DVDs with Day and I chose Lucky Day at random.

In Lucky Me, Day plays Candy Williams an aspiring singer and dancer who’s very superstitious and won’t walk by a black cat or step on a crack. Any superstition you’ve heard of in America, she won’t test. Williams is part of a struggling troupe of performers led by Phil Silvers, who’s perfect for his part. Candy gets duped by a well-meaning composer and romantic comedy ensues.

Though Lucky Me isn’t Day’s finest film and there are no great classic songs I recognized, the film entertains. It’s a cheerful story which showcases Day’s optimistic style. It’s sure to make you smile. The supporting cast includes Nancy Walker, who I remember from the sitcom Rhoda. Walker’s dancing skill was a nice surprise and Silver was a wonderful father figure in this tale of old showbiz.

Les Misérables, Ep. 1

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It’s no secret that Les Misérables is one of my favorite stories of all time. I’ve read the book and seen the musical, the film with Liam Neeson, the film with Jean Gabin and the one with Harry Barr. I’ve loved them all.

I lost track of time and missed the premier of Masterpiece’s newest Les Mis, but fortunately, I taped it and am now ready for episode 2.

Beginning with Thénardier (Adeel Akhtar) robbing the pockets of soldiers killed at Waterloo. As luck would have it, Pontmercy, a solider, wakes up and mistakes Thénardier for a savior. Then in the prison where Jean Valjean (Dominic West) toils away while being abused, beaten and tricked by the guards and Inspector Javert (David Oyelowo), a 19th century French Pharisee. Early on we also see Pontmercy’s wealthy father-in-law who’s taken custody of his grandson when the boy’s mother died. Vehemently opposed to Pontmercy’s politics, the grandfather forbids Pontmercy to see his own son, Marius, a cutie pie in velvet and frilly collars.

Fantine’s story of meeting Felix, Cossette’s father, this production starts earlier in the book than the musical. We get to see the slimy, philandering Felix who loves and leaves poor, naive Fantine. Interwoven with Fantine’s story, we see Jean Valjean get freed from jail and encounter hostility and injustice till he’s welcome by the saintly Bishop Digne.

I’m thoroughly enjoying the story. It’s a lush production. I always have an odd feeling about computer graphics. I can tell it’s not real (or faux real). I sense something lacking in the vast settings that must be computer graphics.

The story spans decades and contains several plot lines. Victor Hugo dedicated each section of the book according to a main character. The screenwriter has woven several sections together and the chronology’s changed. Some things seem to be simultaneous here, when they weren’t in the book. For example, at the end of episode 1, Fantine’s holding her daughter Cossette, who looks like she is at least a year old. Yet Felix just abandoned her a few hours before. I thought Fantine got pregnant after Felix left her. Also, Jean Valjean has just left the Bishop’s. It seems the timing is off between Fantine, whose story doesn’t need much time to progress to the next stage, and Jean Valjean, who took many years to get to the next point when he’ll meet Fantine.

Even though there are some differences between other productions and these do bother me, the annoyance is small and Les Misérables is a story that can’t be ruined. (Knock on wood.) So far this series is off to a good start.

Les Misérables, Ep. 3

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The story moves on. Jean Valjean (J.V.)decides to go to the court to exonerate a man falsely accused of stealing and mistaken as Jean Valjean. It would be so easy to let this pass. Le Mayor (J.V.) could let this go and race to save Cosette, whom the Thenardiers abuse and neglect. But Jean Valjean (le Mayor) realizes he should free the man wrongly accused, even though that man is a thief. It’s a tough decision and few would sacrifice as J.V. does.

Fantine dies alone without seeing her daughter Cosette. She’s alone, emaciated and looks white as a ghost. A nun tries to pacify Fantine by lying that the doctor won’t let Cosette come because she’s so sick. Really, if Cosette was there, consider how zombie-like poor Fantine looked her daughter might have been traumatized for life. Better that Cosette remember her mother when she was healthy.

Jean Valjean entrusted his manager to rescue Cosette, but that grumpy, judgmental woman didn’t bother. Time passes and eventually JV manages to get free from jail and race ahead of Javert to get Colette.

At Thenardier’s we see how horribly they’ve treated Cosette. This production adds more suggestion that JV is buying Cosette for untoward reasons. It was particularly slimy. After JV departs with Cosette and her new porcelain doll, the Thenardiers report her as kidnapped. That was a strange, unnecessary addition. Then the Thenardiers are soon evicted from their inn. That was a change from the book and odd, because they had just received a windfall from JV.

JV and Colette make a life in a lower class neighborhood in Paris, where they live a quiet life, except for a nosy neighbor who wears an elaborate powdered wig, which I thought only rich people could afford. Any way this French Mrs. Kravitz suspects that JV isn’t Cosette’s kin and reports him to — da da da da –Javert. Hugo sure gives us a small world for this story.

Javert goes after JV, who manages to flee to a cloistered nunnery. In this story rather than a gardener, whom JV knew, helping him. The nuns do. The abbess agrees to let Colette attend school there, hires JV and lies to Javert.

I think it’s impossible to ruin this Victor Hugo’s story, but I could have done without a few of the changes that modernized or over-explained. Fantine’s make up was overdone IMHO and the added scenes on with Thenardier’s eviction and the nosy neighbor who suspected pedophilia didn’t improve the story. Nonetheless I enjoyed the episode.

Les Misérables, Ep. 4

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In a blink of an eye, Cosette has blossomed into a young lady. Her friends at school are dreaming of romance and marriage and make it clear that it’s awful that her Papa has agreed that Cosette become a nun and they continue living in the convent. Evidently, Cosette hadn’t thought much about that. She’s appalled and convinces Jean Valjean that she needs to see the real world.

He takes her out to the “real world,” the world of beggars, thieves, prostitutes, urchins and scoundrels. It’s pretty frightening. Jean Valjean didn’t need to go far to expose Cosette to these realities. They were right out their cloistered doorstep.

Jean Valjean finds housing in a poor neighborhood where the same nosy concierge with the bad powdered wig, who ratted out Cosette before she left Paris to find work, works. Hugo creates such a tiny world.

Marius learns all about how his grandfather has lied to him about his father. After confronting gramps, he leaves and finds his own room adjacent to . . . the Thenardiers. Ugh. Yes, Monsieur and Madame Thenardier are just as unctuous as before, if not more so. Their oldest daughter Éponine becomes smitten with Marius, but it’s a one-sided love. Ce Marius cultivé n’est pas exactement beau dans mon livre, donc il est difficile de croire que les filles vont tomber pour lui. 

Javert continues to brood over Jean Valjean. It’s amazing since he must have known and knows hundreds if not thousands of prisoners, but this makes the story work. Hugo voulait nous montrer un pharisien (Javert) comparé à un disciple du Christ (Jean Valjean).

We meet Marius’ friends. They’re young men eager for political change and more egalité in society. Peut-être que s’ils aidaient effectivement des gens pauvres eux-mêmes, ils verseraient une partie de l’égalité qu’ils désirent. These boys are a rougher bunch, in terms of bearing and language, than we saw in the musical, but they’re alright.

Valjean felt badly about shocking Cosette with the real world so he takes her to the Luxembourg Gardens, where Cosette crosses paths with Marius and they immediately fall in love. This part of the story was sped up quite a bit compared to other productions and I think that’s a shame. Jean Valjean notices this love connection and he’s not ready for his dear Cosette to grow up like that.

I was surprised by the many changes from the book in this episode. Some were long-winded explanations, that I didn’t think were needed. In fact, I think they weakened the story. One change was that Jean Valjean explains his criminal past to Cosette. This should make the later parts of the story less dramatic so I can’t see what’s gained.

The episode ended when after getting tricked by Monsieur Thenardier and fighting his way out of the ambush, Jean Valjean and Cosette narrowly escape getting captured by Javert. Each week ends with a real nail biter of a scene.

Yet, it’s impossible for me to not love Les Misérables and I haven’t had a good drama to watch on Sundays since Victoria ended in February, so I am pleased with the show as a whole. I admit I miss the songs, though.