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DOWNTON ABBEY

Producer: Gareth Neame, Julian Fellowes and Liz Trubridge
Director: Michael Engler
Writer: Julian Fellowes
Stars: Hugh Bonneville, Maggie Smith, Jim Carter, Penelope Wilton, Elizabeth McGovern, Michelle Dockery, Laura Carmichael, Robert James-Collier, Joanne Froggatt, Allen Leech, Tuppence Middleton, Imelda Staunton, Sophie McShera, Phyllis Logan, Brendan Coyle, Stephen Campbell Moore, Simon Jones, Lesley Nicol, Kevin Doyle, Harry Hadden-Paton, Matthew Goode, Kate Phillips, Raquel Cassidy, Geraldine James, Michael Fox, Andrew Havill, James Cartwright, Douglas Reith, Oliver Barker, Mark Addy, David Haig, Susan Lynch, Phillipe Spall, Max Brown and Perry Fitzpatrick
Studio: Focus Features

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Julian Fellowes’ long-running PBS period soap opera had, one might recall, a flamboyant finale, but apparently that was not enough for him. Now fans are treated to a big-screen addendum, which you might call a stand-alone affair were it not for the fact that the narrative pretty much presumes acquaintance with, and affection for, the small army of characters who are shoehorned into the story—so many that it’s hard to imagine anyone without at least a fleeting recollection of the series enjoying “Downton Abbey” much, except for its sumptuous costumes and sets (Daniel Woods was production designer and Anna Robbins the costumer) and the luscious widescreen cinematography by Ben Smithard, all smothered in John Lunn’s swooning score. Those who were addicted to the “Upstairs, Downstairs”-style dramatics of the program will, however, undoubtedly appreciate being invited anew to the old place and finding it chock-full of incident.

The occasion for all the activity is an announcement that as part of a tour of Yorkshire in 1927, King George V (Simon Jones) and Queen Mary (Geraldine James) will drop by Downton for dinner before proceeding to Harewood House for a ball with their daughter Princess Mary (Kate Phillips) and her husband Lord Lascelles (Andrew Havill). The aristocratic Crawleys—Robert (Hugh Bonneville) and his American wife Cora (Elizabeth McGovern)—are none too impressed, being members of high society themselves, and their imperious daughter Mary (Michelle Dockery) is annoyed at having to take charge of the event, but the servants are thrown into an absolute tizzy at the thought of seeing to the needs of royalty.

They are to be disappointed, however, as they will be shunted to the side, as the snooty royal staff will take over the household duties for the duration. That comes as a special insult to retired butler Carson (Jim Carter), whom Mary has called upon to resume his duties—a change that so distresses his replacement Barrow (Robert James-Collier) that he announces he’s taking a vacation. The treatment of the staff leads to a plot devised by Mr. Bates (Brendan Coyle) and his wife, lady’s maid Anna (Joanne Froggatt), to send the royal staff packing and have the Downton stalwarts resume their old duties surreptitiously.

There’s also the problem caused by the presence in the royal entourage of Lady Maud Bagshaw (Imelda Staunton), the queen’s lady-in-waiting. She’s a cousin of Robert’s, but is considered a turncoat to the family by the Earl’s redoubtable mother, the Dowager Countess Violet (Maggie Smith), because Maud refuses to bequeath her lands to Robert, instead preferring that her heir be her maid Lucy (Tuppence Middleton). Fortunately, Isobel, Lady Merton (Penelope Wilton), will divine the rationale behind Maud’s decision and help heal the wound—something made easier by the friendship that quickly develops between Lucy and widower Tom Branson (Allen Leech), the onetime Crawley chauffeur who became Robert’s son-in-law. Tom’s also involved in helping Princess Mary overcome her marital issues, and as an Irish nationalist comes under the scrutiny of the mysterious Major Chetwode (Stephen Campbell Moore), who might be a royal intelligence agent—or something else.

These are but some of the plot threads woven into Fellowes’ script. The other Crawley daughter, Edith (Laura Carmichael) is overjoyed by one family revelation but distraught when her husband Bertie (Harry Hadden-Paton) is singled out to join the Prince of Wales on a foreign trip. Barrow gets caught up in a police raid on a York gay club, only to be rescued by an unlikely new friend (a subplot that seems, quite frankly, a way of pandering to modern sensibilities). Outspoken kitchen maid Daisy (Sophie McShera) must reach a decision about a possible marriage to jealous footman Andy Parker (Michael C. Fox). Royal obsessive Mr. Molesley (Kevin Doyle), returned temporarily to the Downton staff under cook Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nichol), makes a terrible faux pas when serving the royal dinner.

All of which merely scratches the surface of all the goings-on at Downton and the adjoining village during the royal visit. But there is nonetheless an overarching theme to the details: the preservation of tradition. Will Downton survive? That’s the question on the mind of Lady Mary, who shoulders most of the burden of keeping the place afloat. She wonders whether it’s worth all the effort, a question that’s resolved only at the very end, when the Dowager Countess, in what can only be described as a valedictory moment, reminds her of her duty.

Of course, the larger question that the film never raises, any more than the series did, is whether Downton should survive. The perspective Fellowes has always taken, in the series and now here, is an extremely insular one. To be sure, there have been occasional implications of progressivism in the Downton story—in Branson’s rise to acceptance in the family, or Daisy’s egalitarian outbursts here. But generally speaking, there has never been any serious questioning of the rightness of the Crawley’s posh, privileged position—nor of the servants’ unquestioning loyalty to their masters, whether immediate (the Crawleys) or more distant (the crown).

The lack of any recognition of change in the wider world is especially pointed for anyone even vaguely knowledgeable of British history at the point Fellowes has chosen for his screenplay. In the year preceding the royal visit to Downton, the UK had witnessed the General Strike, an event that goes unmentioned, and the 1920s also saw the rise of the Labour Party.

The class-based socio-political structure of the UK was in decline as well. George V was really the first king to accept the role of a constitutional monarch, and accepted the passage of the 1911 Parliament Bill sharply reducing the power of the House of Lords. (He also changed the name of the dynasty to Windsor in response to public opinion.) The post-war economic circumstances were dire as well.

Except for Downton’s financial problems, none of this really impinges on Fellowes’ narrative, or on the obliviousness of the ruling class to the changes occurring around them. Instead we are shown that the king and queen, despite the pomp and circumstance that surrounds their lives, are in the end pretty nice folk (note Mary’s easygoing reply to the crestfallen Molesley, and George’s treatment of Edith’s concerns). As for Princess Mary, she’s just your typical unhappy housewife—except that she gets to wear a crown and has a retinue to wipe away her tears. The real snobs and even villains here are, with one signal exception, the royal servants, a smug and unreliable bunch.

Still, fans of “Downton Abbey” don’t want any hint of serious social consciousness—they’re looking for the opulence and ingrained sense of entitlement among the swells that marked the series, and under Michael Engler’s workmanlike direction that’s what is offered plentifully here (it’s the same impulse that explains many Americans’ fascination with the royals even in their present, often less-than-admirable, state). Surely the perfect embodiment of the combination of serene haughtiness and verbal brilliance they crave is Smith’s Dowager Countess, whom Fellowes gives a stream of one-liners that don’t match Oscar Wilde’s, but not for lack of trying. No one else in the cast comes close to matching Smith—if this is her swan song in the role, it’s a fine sendoff—but all the actors from the series fit snugly into their roles, as might be expected. Among the newcomers Staunton makes an especially good addition.

Like the series, the feature of “Downton Abbey” will never be accused of depth—except, perhaps, in terms of the pile of jewelry in our ladies’ dresser-top boxes—but it will provide fans with another opportunity to wallow in the extravagant, though melodramatically troubled, lifestyle of the pampered elite of between-the-wars Britain, and of the servants who were mindlessly devoted to doing the pampering.

AD ASTRA

Producer: Brad Pitt, Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner, James Gray, Anthony Katagas, Rodrigo Teixeira and Arnon Milchan
Director: James Gray
Writer: James Gray and Ethan Gross
Stars: Brad Pitt, Tommy Lee Jones, Donald Sutherland, Ruth Negga, John Ortiz, Liv Tyler, Greg Bryk, Loren Dean, Kimberly Elise, John Finn, LisaGay Hamilton, Donnie Keshawarz, Bobby Nish and Natasha Lyonne
Studio: 20th Century Fox

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Writer-director James Gray, who ventured far from his customary haunts on the streets of New York with his last film, “The Lost City of Z,” vaults even further away from his erstwhile hunting ground with this outer-space epic. “Ad Astra,” or “To the Stars,” nonetheless remains tethered to earth by its reliance on the “Heart of Darkness” template for its narrative thrust, to which is added a thread about a man struggling to resolve long-standing issues with his father. He just has to go to Neptune to thrash them out.

Of course, if you’re going to model your narrative on a literary classic, Conrad’s tale of a journey to the unknown is not a bad choice. After all, Matt Reeves used it recently in “War for the Planet of the Apes,” where the allusion to “Ape-okalypse Now” scribbled on a wall drew a connection not only to “Heart of Darkness” but to Francis Ford Coppola’s Vietnam War epic, which was modeled on it. Gray’s film also shows the influence of other classics—in visual terms especially, and probably inevitably, Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey.” It may even be that an episode featuring some baboons being used as test specimens on a research vessel is intended as a nod to Reeves’s movie as well as Kubrick’s.

The problem is that despite its grandiose aspirations, Gray’s film, apart from its technical excellence, falls short of rivaling the films that served as obvious inspiration for it.

It does, however, boast some stunning sequences, including the opening, in which astronaut Roy McBride (Brad Pitt), part of a team working on a mammoth space antenna, is thrown off the towering structure when it’s struck by an overwhelming power surge from parts unknown. Tumbling toward earth from an incredible height, he manages to open his parachute at just the right moment—having turned off an electrical switch on the antenna before letting go.

Roy’s presence of mind under such wildly stressful circumstances is, we learn, typical of his physical control—his pulse rate never goes above eighty. And yet in a stream-of-consciousness narration that runs through the entire film, it’s clear that his seemingly unflappable exterior conceals great inner turmoil (his wife, played by Liv Tyler, has just left him because of his emotional remoteness), principally arising from his feeling of having been abandoned by his father Clifford (Tommy Lee Jones), a legendary astronaut who departed earth when his son was a teenager in command of was called Project Lima, a ship designed to go into deep space in search of extraterrestrial life. After sixteen years, the Lima vessel suddenly disappeared, and it was presumed that Clifford and his crew were killed. Their last known position was near Neptune, the very spot where it’s been determined the recent power surge originated. It did great damage, and future ones could doom life on earth.

The suspicion among the generals (the most notable of whom is played by John Ortiz, smiling like a shark), is that the surge indicates that Clifford might still be alive and using the anti-matter power source aboard the Lima vessel to unleash the destructive force. Roy is asked to go to Mars and broadcast a plea to his father to make contact so that the danger can be averted. Roy agrees, though his inner thoughts disclose the psychological discomfort he feels, even if his outer expression does not.

That begins his series of adventures. The flight to the moon is relatively uneventful, but Roy’s time there is hardly that. The place has become a virtual war zone among hostile groups vying violently for the lunar resources, and to reach the launch vehicle he and the ship’s crew must survive assault from a squadron of enemy dune buggies. Once in flight, the vessel detours to answer a distress call from that research vessel that leads to another harrowing action sequence, the one with those baboons.

Roy must take over control of the ship when a nervous co-captain (Loren Dean) proves unequal to the task, but they make it to the Red Planet, where Roy sends his message to his father, with apparent success. But because of his emotional attachment, he’s then detached from the mission—a decision he’s unable to accept. With the help of a young woman (Ruth Negga) with a familial connection to the Lima Project, he gains unauthorized entry to the Neptune-bound ship—chalk up another impressive action sequence—and shepherds it to a reunion with his long-absent father. Their meeting will, however, be a fraught one, and ultimately Roy will have to learn—quite literally—to let go.

Gray stages the major set-pieces quite well, abetted by his visual effects crew (supervised by Allen Maris) and cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema, whose carefully calibrated images are often wondrous to behold. Kevin Thompson’s production design is also impressive, with the futuristic sets combining the austerity of Kubrick’s vision with the more lived-in feel of films like Ridley Scott’s “Alien.” The editing jointly credited to John Axelrad and Lee Haugen adds to the somber mood that prevails in the subdued expository scenes.

But while Pitt is physically an able partner of Gray’s efforts, the writer-director and his co-scripter Ethan Gross have made a major miscalculation in overburdening the picture with Roy’s interior rumination—most of which is banal, often verging on the worst sort of psychobabble. “2001” was hardly a silent film—its majestic, classically-based score is one of its most memorable aspects—but Kubrick kept dialogue to a minimum, giving his film a hushed, haunting quality. By contrast Roy’s near-constant babbling is a terrible irritant, giving even the most extraordinarily images an earthbound quality at odds with the visual impact. In space, the “Alien” tagline read, no one can hear you scream; in “Ad Astra,” unfortunately, we have to listen to Roy’s ramblings all too often.

Pitt nonetheless manages to give Roy an air of grave intensity, effectively carrying the film in human terms. The only other actors who register strongly are Jones, who brings a powerful presence to Clifford even if the character’s motives are never fully defined, and Donald Sutherland as Colonel Pruitt, an old comrade of Clifford’s who accompanies Roy on one leg of his mission and performs a function similar to that of Dr. Heywood Floyd at a significant point in “2001.” Negga makes an appropriately solemn impression as the woman who offers Roy more information on the Lima Project’s end, and Dean is convincing as a pilot in over his head.

Like its protagonist, “Ad Astra” reaches high, but only intermittently hits its target. It’s certainly watchable, but unlike its twin models is unlikely to achieve classic status.