“Downton Abbey”

It’s 1927 and they’re all here, the upper class and the serving class, the familiar, even beloved, characters from six years of avid PBS-watching: the lives and loves of the Crawleys, AKA the family of the Earl of Grantham. The slight excuse for a story—a royal visit from the King and Queen for one full day—provides a framework for several smaller threads concerning old family quarrels and secrets, new loves above and below the staircases, even a plot to kill the king. And let us not forget the magnificent settings, palatial estates in the English countryside that take one’s breath away, gowns that are absolutely stunning in their drape and detail, valor and stiff upper lips and, oh, all of it. Maggie Smith, as always, deserves her own sentence here, as she can’t seem to be in a scene without stealing it. But, really, all of the actors are so very good. At over two hours, this reviewer lapped it all up and sighed at the end. Is it a masterpiece? Not even close. Are there some moments of dialog that are creaky with melodrama and expository detail? Without a doubt. Does it look at English history through very rose-colored glasses? Most certainly. An ending that ties everything together with a bow and is, yes, quite corny? Yes. And so what? At this time in our world, when there is so much darkness and cruelty, I rejoiced in two hours of a fairy tale come to life. Thank you, Julian Fellowes, for creating these people and their trials and tribulations; you’ve performed a service for us all.

“Ad Astra”

Space and all its dark glories. Striking visual effects. Daddy issues long unresolved. Brad Pitt as a brilliant astronaut who has total control over his emotions. Earth being threatened by sudden energy surges that will destroy the planet if not stopped: These are the elements in director/co-writer James Gray’s gripping sci-fi drama and they mostly work quite well. The plot is slight, a short story rather than a novel, but we are engaged by the details that lead up to the journey to the outer reaches of our galaxy, then the journey itself and its final resolution. I did have a hard time wrapping my head around the fact that Neptune is years and years and years away but seemed to be reached fairly quickly. Oh, and there was that scene of Pitt falling through space and into our atmosphere and surviving. What? Just a tad difficult to believe. Even so, “Ad Astra” works well as a kind of quiet and reflective inner journey that feels more existential than formulaic, more adult than most sci-fi films. Pitt is excellent—the man gets better and better as he ages—and is ably supported by Tommy Lee Jones and Ruth Negga. 

“Cyrano My Love”

France considers Edmond Rostand’s “Cyrano de Bergerac” the most beloved play in their history. Rostand was a failed poet who was deeply in debt, had a family to support, hadn’t written in two years and was given only days to come up with a play to fill a theatrical slot that had suddenly become available. Fascinating stuff, and this film thoroughly captivated me; it’s a delightful, fast-moving and amusing little gem. Opening in theaters on Oct. 18, be sure to catch the back-story of this tale of a (very) long-nosed poet who writes letters for a friend who wants to impress a lady, even though the poet himself worships her. Sound familiar? Both Jose Ferrer (1950) and Gerard Depardieu (1990) have adapted the play for film, and Steve Martin did a bang-up job setting it in modern times (“Roxanne”) in 1987. Do yourself a favor and follow the chaos, setbacks, frustrations and ultimate triumph of Rostand (Thomas Soliveres) that produced a masterpiece. You’ll be glad you did. In French with English subtitles.

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