Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Ad Astra and Downton Abbey

   Crises: Planet-Wide for All of Us vs. A Small Sliver of Antiquated 
Aristocrats (lovable as they may be for many viewers)

Reviews by Ken Burke

I invite you to join me on a regular basis to see how my responses to current cinematic offerings compare to the critical establishment, which I’ll refer to as either the CCAL (Collective Critics at Large) if they agree with me or the OCCU (Often Cranky Critics Universe) if they choose to disagree.
                   Ad Astra (James Gray)   rated PG-13

“Executive Summary” (no spoilers): In Earth’s “near future,” U.S. SpaceCom’s Maj. Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) goes on a top-secret mission into the far reaches of our solar system to locate the source of a growing series of energy blasts doing great harm to our planet, in the process also attempting to reconnect with long-lost father Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), a famous astronaut who disappeared years ago while on a mission seeking contact with extraterrestrial life.  The father may be a legend of space travel, but the son, while highly successful, cheery enough in his public demeanor, is a mass of shut-down-emotions whose lack of empathy toward anyone around him (including his now-departed-wife, Eve [Liv Tyler]) has left him as psychologically-scarred even though he consistently, easily passes the system’s computer-administered personality-well-being tests.  First, Roy’s off to the Moon (accompanied by an old friend of Clifford’s, Col. Pruitt [Donald Sutherland]) from where they’ll next blast off for a way-station on Mars, but our Moon’s now colonized in a haphazard manner by several Earth nations so on the trip to the launch area they have to fight off an attack by local pirates, leaving Pruitt badly injured, Roy alone on his quest, where another danger awaits during that somewhat-short voyage.  Once he’s on Mars he seemingly does make contact with his father, but Roy’s unscripted transmission makes him suspect for further activity with this venture although he finds his way onto the Neptune-bound ship anyway with the clandestine help of Helen Lantos (Ruth Negga).  Beyond that, any further plot details get us into unacceptable spoiler territory so either blast past that barrier to read what’s just below or go see it yourself (which I—and the CCAL—recommend, although it’s pretty somber most of the time, a bit unnerving at others), which is easy to do as it’s likely playing at a multiplex near you, where you can probably get in more easily than by fighting those crowds watching Downton Abbey right next door.

Here’s the trailer:  (Use the full screen button in the image’s lower right to enlarge it; activate that same button on the full screen’s lower right or your “esc” keyboard key to return to normal size.)

If you can abide plot spoilers read on, but as this blog’s intended for those who’ve seen the film—or want to save some bucks—to help any of you who want to learn more details yet avoid important plot-reveals I’ll identify any give-away sentences/sentence-clusters like this: 
⇒The first and last words will be noted with arrows and red.⇐ OK, now continue on if you prefer.

What Happens: Set sometime in “the near future,” we find Major Roy McBride (Brad Pitt)—working with U.S. Space Command (SpaceCom) but as more of an engineer than an astronaut—climbing around to do repairs on a huge International Space Antenna orbiting just above Earth’s atmosphere, for use in trying to contact extraterrestrial life, when a strange power surge hits the device causing several coworkers to be shaken loose, seemingly falling an enormous distance to their deaths.  Roy falls as well, fights blackout from the rough tumble, is saved by his parachute (afterward, he hardly acknowledges the danger he faced, though, as he keeps his emotions locked away, devoting himself completely to his work at the expense of any warm relationships including his marriage, verified in a quick shot of wife Eve [Liv Tyler] leaving him).  Personal trauma continues mounting for Roy as he’s given a top-secret-mission from the government: travel to deep space (Neptune) in an attempt to stop these unpredictable energy blasts from doing more harm on Earth (tens of thousands have died already), which possibly are being caused by his father, famed astronaut Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), who disappeared along with his crew 16 years ago on a voyage to a distant realm of our solar system, presumed dead by Roy who now harbors anger against Dad due to fierce abandonment issues.  Flying commercially to our Moon (so as not to call attention to himself, as the clandestine plan requires), Roy’s joined by Dad’s old friend, Col. Thomas Pruitt (Donald Sutherland).  However, the Moon’s been settled by several Earth nations with no clear boundaries nor consistent law so when Roy, Pruitt, and their escort head to the sphere’s dark side for their clandestine blast-off to Mars (lower gravity allowing easier thrust toward Neptune) they’re attacked by pirates, barely escaping during a dangerous, frantic chase in which Pruitt’s seriously wounded, can’t go farther, as Roy joins the crew of the Cephaus, no one else knowing his true mission.  On the way to Mars (Roy doesn’t take the required “mood stabilizer” pills so as to maintain his fierce inner demeanor) he’s overruled by Captain Lawrence Tanner (Donnie Keshawarz) who insists on responding to a distress signal from a Norwegian (apparently Pres. Trump’s favorite country after the U.S.; surely not intended here as a political statement) biomedical research station, but when Roy and Tanner enter the vessel they’re attacked by crazed baboons (must have been part of some failed experiment; maybe these Norwegians aren’t so brilliant after all) who mortally wound Tanner before Roy’s able to kill these beasts.  Roy then takes command of the Cephaus, performing a difficult manual landing on Mars in the midst of another deadly energy surge from afar.

 On Mars Roy sends an officially-scripted-message to Dad, but with no reply from the long-silent Lima Project ship (sent to Neptune with hopes of making extraterrestrial-life-contact, at a distance far from the intrusive solar winds to aid transmissions).  When Roy tries again, he goes completely off-script with a personal appeal to see his father again, after which he gets the sense there was a reply but he’s mysteriously taken off the project, surprisingly failing his frequent psychological-stability-test through interaction with a computer.  While Mars facility director Helen Lantos (Ruth Negga) has issues with Roy (his father killed her parents during a confrontation on the Lima; she shows him a secret video from Clifford sent long ago in which he admits terminating mutinous crew members, the hidden reason the top brass assumes elder McBride’s gone rogue somehow, using the antimatter propulsion system of his ship to send those deadly blasts back toward Earth), she tells him how to sneak to the Neptune-launch-site via a long swim through an underwater chamber.  He manages to climb onto the rocket just as it’s blasting off (how he gains access without being blown away isn’t clearly shown) where the 3-person crew tries to follow procedure by subduing him; however, in the ensuing melee he accidently kills them all, continues to pilot the ship to Neptune over the next 79 days.  ⇒When he reaches his destination he sees the Lima, flies over to it in a small shuttle, can’t dock because of damage, manually enters, finds Dad as the last survivor of his mission where Roy learns the mutiny occurred because they found no signs of alien life, wanted to return to Earth, but Clifford was determined to continue searching, fought off their rebellion, damaging the ship’s power source in the process so he’s been unable to prevent those antimatter-surges, yet still insists on remaining, determined to find life somewhere out there.  Roy, though, sets up a timed-nuclear-bomb to destroy the Lima, convinces Dad to come back to Earth with him, but when they exit the ship Clifford pulls away, voluntarily sending himself into the vacuum of space to sure death while Roy returns to the Cepheus, using the blast from the exploded Lima to initiate his propulsion back home (maybe via Mars and/or the Moon; not clear as the film gallops toward conclusion).  Upon his return, Roy’s gone through an internal conversion, now willing to appreciate life on a daily basis rather than lose himself into a near-robotic-focus on career accomplishments, enhanced with a similar quick shot like we saw in the beginning as Eve now comes back to him.⇐

So What? The second item about Ad Astra (Latin: “to the stars”) under Related Links far below is an interview with director Gray in which he talks about how this story's intended to have a sense of myth, in this case influenced by Joseph Campbell’s scholarship on worldwide hero mythology as well as a twist on Homer’s ancient tale of The Odyssey with this version focused not on the father’s (Odysseus [Ulysses in Latin]) challenges as he wandered far from home but instead on what happens with the son (Telemachus) during the father’s absence.  Gray also notes influences from Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola, 1979)—with echoes, of course, of its source in Joseph Conrad’s novella, Heart of Darkness (1899)—in terms of lonely protagonist Capt. Willard (Martin Sheen) in that film providing us with voiceover about his troubled understandings of his life and assassination mission, as we have no characters we can learn from about these interior conflicts in either film, due to there being no one available for dialogue as Roy flies to Neptune just as Willard didn’t reveal himself to us through dialogue with others but in that case it was by choice as he consistently confined his thoughts even as others around him babbled on constantly.  (There’s also the semi-parallel here with Willard sent to terminate renegade Col. Kurtz [Marlon Brando] whose private war against the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese couldn’t be tolerated by the U.S. military—even though it was proving to be more effective than their official strategies—just as the mission to the remains of the Lima Project was to terminate Clifford McBride, although that’s why Roy inserted himself not only to neutralize the antimatter-threat but also to bring his father home alive.)  Other reviews frequently cite 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968) as being something Ad Astra aspires to emulate, with some reasonable parallels (human attempts to locate/understand the possible [tangible in 2001 …] presence of alien life out in deep space; a sophisticated machine providing challenges for the protagonist [the HAL 9000 computer almost kills the entire Jupiter-bound-crew in 2001 …; the psychological-analysis-computer’s seemingly programmed to deny Roy further participation in the ultimate quest for his father now Dad’s location’s been determined]), along with notable differences (aliens are a crucial presence in the earlier film but they’re absent from the latter one; in 2001 … a signal from the monolith on the Moon sends humans on a journey culminating in a further-evolutionary-stage whereas in Ad … the message from deep space comes in the form of destruction as our own technology turns on us once again).  Whether Gray had any hopes of making the kind of lasting cinematic statement Kubrick did is something I doubt he’d admit (no matter how much sincere effort he put into this latest attempt at serious sci-fi), yet I’ll commend him for creating something worthwhile to see—mixing adrenalin-pumping-scenes with more-contemplative-ones—with all the cast, especially Pitt, giving tangible substance to their roles.

 It’s also visually-spectacular a lot of the time with its various extraterrestrial settings (including that opening device, the International Space Antenna, which I’d say is far enough above Earth to qualify for that designation), giving us a decent sense of how isolated, desolate, and dangerous any attempts at settlements on the Moon or Mars will actually be, even if we have no choice as a species for preserving ourselves from our own created-crises on Earth by pushing forward to other celestial bodies as we wreak havoc on the one already provided to us by God’s will/cosmic chance/whatever other explanation you may have as to how we’ve come to survive so far on this rock hurtling through our galaxy.  There’s even the distinction of the tensions on Mars just being the result of a hostile environment, so all human activity except the launching pads for space travel must be located beneath the ground because there doesn’t yet seem to be any international competition on the Red Planet for domain of whatever resources it might provide, while the Moon could just as well be our planetary Mideast with hostile factions from various Earthly-tribes (nations, if you wish to give them a more-sophisticated-veneer) pushing each other for dominance in disputed-territories while renegades try to impose their will on those less capable of defending themselves.  Once more of Earth’s nations get to Mars, such conflicts are likely to be established there as well, although maybe as we as a species get farther away from our home base into regions where life hangs by the thread of properly-functioning-machinery every second we’ll be more able to find common purpose—despite our differences—as shown by Helen Lantos who has easy reason to simply let the Neptune-bound-crew continue on their mission of destruction in protection of mankind’s home planet, yet she aids Roy in joining them, knowing he wants to save his father whom she has every reason to abhor.  These more uplifting aspects of this story are nicely spoken about in this video (8:00), which even provides a written summary of its comments down below the YouTube screen.  However, human progress in such a vein will also have to deal with true technological realties which undermine how Roy (standing in for us in our most estranged, self-confining modes) could even survive to better himself given what one author says this film gets wrong about space travel, astronomy, and the search for extraterrestrial life—mistakes Gray briefly admits in that interview farther below (yet, don't forget, this is fiction which needs relief from certain factual-restrictions in order to deliver its intent).  Nevertheless, one thing (among many) co-screenwriter/director Gray gets right is the appearance of the lunar surface during that deadly pirate chase, which he expressly details in this anatomy of a scene.  Whatever other complaints anyone might have about Ad Astra, they certainly have to also acknowledge how vital the images are in this film (probably spectacular in IMAX but quite impressive to watch in standard-cinematic-projection).

Bottom Line Final Comments: While the optimistic ending featuring Roy's sudden enlightenment may be a bit facile (although useful as species-uplift-encouragement at a time when international relations, partisan politics, and constant triumphs of immediate greed for the über-rich over global survival for the planet seem to be pushing us beyond the breaking point of reclaiming a safe, productive future), even if the experience as a whole doesn’t fully measure up to the previous high standards of cosmic contemplation (2001 …) or determined self-preservation (Gravity [Alfonso Caurón, 2013; review in our October 9, 2013 posting], Interstellar [Christopher Nolan, 2014; review in our November 13, 2014 posting]) of some earlier Oscar-winners (or even non-Oscared-but-still-cinematically-worthy examples of narratives such as The Martian [Ridley Scott, 2015; review in our October 8, 2015 posting]),* I found Ad Astra to be quite intriguing (although its odd title may result in a good number of potential viewers skipping over its very existence, assuming it’s some sort of Romanian art film; this title does imply the filmmakers’ lofty ambitions, but in the increasingly-dumbed-down-world of our entertainment media [not improved much by some of our current political discourse] this erudite reference to Roman poet Virgil’s phrase sic itur ad astra [“thus one journeys to the stars”] spoken by Apollo in Aeneid book IX, line 641 [29-19 BC] probably means little except to the few college students still majoring in some form of Classics or Humanities).  I’m joined in that opinion by the CCAL, with Rotten Tomatoes offering a substantial 83% positive reviews while the usually-less-generous folks surveyed by Metacritic come in with an almost-equal 80% average score.  While it placed at a distant second in last weekend’s debut releases to Downton Abbey, its $19 million domestic (U.S.-Canada) gross from 3,460 theaters (a bit more venues than Downton …) gives it a per-screen-average of $5,492, far and away a notable winner in this area (except for a couple of openings on a tiny number of screens), topped only by … Abbey’s hefty $10,079 p-s-a, due to its considerable overall intake—more on that in the review below (Noteworthy is Ad Astra did even better in international markets, taking in $26 million for a global total of $45 million.)  Admittedly, Rambo: Last Blood (Adrian Grunberg)—a critical disaster—made a lot also, $18.9 million, but it has the legacy of that franchise going for it, easily recognized from its title while you’d have to explore Ad Astra to even realize the big names in its cast, so Disney’s finally making some notable cash on its acquisition of the 20th Century Fox film studio and its already-available-product, with other recent releases from that big deal not making too much of an impact.

*Although such comparisons can be done in a positive light, as in this laudatory review by Peter Travers, where he makes brief mention of such other triumphs including Ad Astra in their company.

 Well, that’s about all to offer you on Ad Astra except a strong encouragement to consider seeing it, especially while it’s still very readily available (I didn’t even have to go to an art-house-cinema to find it), so I’ll bow out from this review with my usual Musical Metaphor, actually 2 this time, 1 each for the father and son McBrides, neither one not all that creative on my part (but, honestly, I couldn’t think of anything else) with “Space Oddity” (from the 1969 David Bowie album) at https://www. (begins slowly) for Clifford, who, like the song’s protagonist, has gone off-radar (“Your circuit’s dead, there’s something wrong Can you hear me, Major Tom?”), while Roy ultimately returns to Earth as his life’s “Getting Better” (from The Beatles’ 1967 album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band) at so even though he “used to be cruel to my woman I beat her [emotionally, if not physically] and kept her apart from the things that she loved Man, I was mean but I’m changing my scene And I’m doing the best that I can.”  Roy and Eve have a lot of needed-repairs ahead, but at least he's finally into it.
 I’d normally put this next review into my intended-to-be-more-abbreviated Short Takes structure, but, given my lack of backstory-awareness on this narrative's extensive plot developments which forced me to look up enormously long summaries and cast lists to even get a handle on it, I’ll stick with my regular review format in hopes it better guides me through this tedious process of analysis.
               Downton Abbey (Michael Engler)   rated PG
“Executive Summary” (no spoilers): (Note: This is written by a guy with precious-little Downton Abbey experience and knowledge, so for here and the What Happens segment below, forgive me if I’ve left out or misinterpreted something “crucial”; if you’re like me you might benefit from this 10:08 recap of the original TV series.)  In 1927 the tranquility of the Downton Abbey countryside-estate—except for constant sparring by 2 of the family's older women, Violet Crawley and Isobel Merton—is upset with the announcement they’ll soon be visited by King George V and Queen Mary, with a retinue including Maud Bagshaw (the Queen’s lady-in-waiting), cousin to Violet’s son, Robert Crawley, with bickering between this pair of older ladies as to whether Robert will inherit Maud’s riches.  Robert’s daughter, Mary Talbot, finds her butler, Thomas Barrow, isn’t up to the challenges of the royals’ arrival so she asks long-time-but-now-retired butler, Charles Carson, to resume those duties during the visit, causing some tension with Barrow; footman Andy Parker’s also upset because kitchen worker Daisy Mason’s hesitating on marriage with him, as well as flirting with a local plumber so Andy attacks the just-fixed hot water heater, causing a bit of chaos for the visiting dignitaries.  Haughtiness also rears its ugly head among the servants when those who travel with Their Majesties essentially push the Downton staff out of the way as  improperly trained for such “monumental” tasks.  A more serious crisis is also brewing when a would-be-assassin of the king, “Major Chetwode,” makes quiet contact with Crowley former in-law, Tom (once married to a Crawley daughter [now deceased], still a loyal family member despite his Irish Independence connections), yet Tom saves the day by overpowering “Chetwode” (actually an Irish radical) as he attempts to shoot King George V.  The other Crawley daughter with a problem, Lady Edith, is pregnant, but the king wants her husband, Bertie Pelham, to accompany the Prince of Wales on a 3-month tour of Africa during the time when the baby will be born.  As tensions mount in many directions, the Downton servants hatch a plan to push the royals’ arrogant staff aside in order to cook dinner for the king and queen as a private legacy for themselves.  I don’t know how you can contain yourself over not knowing more about how this all works out if you’re among the few who haven’t seen the movie yet (or, if you can’t wait, the spoiler-filled-details are just below), but I wouldn’t want to ruin the outcome for you.  I found the whole enterprise mostly pleasantly-amusing, even though I could easily have spent my time and money on something else, yet I know there’s a devoted audience for such well-acted, well-produced melodrama, so gobble it all up as you desire. 

Here’s the trailer:  (Use the full screen button in the image’s lower right to enlarge it; activate that same button on the full screen’s lower right or your “esc” keyboard key to return to normal size.)

      Before reading any further, I’ll ask you to refer to the plot spoilers warning far above.

What Happens: In 1927 (a year after events of the PBS TV series concluded) everything’s pleasantly stable at the Downton Abbey estate, with managing the property now done by eldest daughter, Lady Mary Talbot (Michelle Dockery), in support of her parents, Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville), and his wife, Cora (Elizabeth McGovern), Countess of Grantham, although there’s always the expected bickering between Robert’s mother, Violet Crawley, Dowager Countess of Grantham (How in the world does anybody keep up with all these titles?)—played with great sarcasm by Maggie Smith—and the mother of Lady Mary’s deceased husband, Lady Isobel Merton (Penelope Wilton).  The tranquility’s upset, though, with the arrival of an announcement from King George V (Simon Jones) and Queen Mary (Geraldine James) that they’ll be staying a night at Downton as part of their tour of the area.  This upsets Violet even more than usual because the monarchs will be accompanied by the queen’s lady-in-waiting, Lady Maud Bagshaw (Imelda Staunton), who’s had a falling-out with Violet, somewhat endangering whom she’ll leave her fortune to, even though her cousin, Robert, should be the likely heir.  Within the servant corps at Downton things are getting tense also, largely because of the snobbish attitudes of the early-arriving royal staff: Mr. Wilson (David Haig), the Royal Page of the Backstairs (true title, I kid you not); Mrs. Webb (Richenda Carey), the Queen’s Royal Dresser; Monsieur Courbet (Philippe Spall), the royal chef; Richard Ellis (Max Brown), the King’s Royal Dresser (least snotty of the bunch).  They basically tell the Downton regulars to just stay out of their way, along with others who’ll soon arrive, even as Mary worries their own butler, Thomas Barrow (Robert James-Collier), isn’t up to the task of whatever graciousness locals are supposed to provide so she asks retired-former-butler, Charles Carson (Jim Carter) to take over again temporarily which he does, though to Barrow’s great disgust.

(The cinematography of this movie's much more lush than some of these photos indicate,
but, as usual, I've got to work with what I can find so just imagine this one with better saturation.)
 Another unhappy servant is Downton footman (another odd title) Andy Parker (Michael C. Fox), irritated because kitchen worker Daisy Mason (Sophie McShera) isn’t rushing into his intention of marriage, instead giving some attention to a local plumber, so Andy gets his revenge by attacking the just-repaired-hot-water-heater with a shovel, causing further consternation as the royals arrive.  A more substantial simultaneous-subplot involves an Irish rebel calling himself Major Chetwode (Stephen Campbell Moore), acting as if he’s a security man concerned with the sentiments of Tom Branson (Allen Leech), formerly married to a now-deceased-Crawley daughter but still (despite his Irish heritage) a loyal member of the family, who saves the king from assassination by “Chetwode”; later, Tom meets, becomes infatuated with Lucy Smith (Tuppence Middleton), Lady Bagshaw’s maid.  A final complication arrives with the monarchs, in that the other Crawley daughter, Lady Edith Pelham (Laura Carmichael), Marchioness of Hexham (wow!), is pregnant yet King George V wants her husband, Bertie Pelham (Harry Hadden-Paton), 7th Marquess of Hexham (more wow!), to accompany the Prince of Wales on a 3-month-tour of Africa during the time the baby will be born.  One final wrinkle (Are you exhausted just from reading all this plot setup yet?) has Tom coming upon Princess Mary (Kate Phillips)whom he does not recognizecrying in the garden, then gives her advice helping her decide to stay married to her overbearing husband for the sake of their children.

 With all that setup now in place, events begin to work their way more rapidly to conclusion:  The Downton servants rebel against their hostile treatment, working out a scheme to send some of the royal entourage back to London while they incapacitate the others, allowing the Downton regulars to cook and serve the royal dinner (although Joseph Moseley [Kevin Doyle], overcome with pride at the event, blunders by telling the monarchs who's actually responsible for their fine meal, causing great embarrassment for the Crawleys); Barrow and Ellis go into town for a drink, but while Ellis visits his parents Barrow gets invited to a secret nightclub (essentially a gay bar in a warehouse) which is raided, but Ellis, with his royal connection, gets Barrow released, then admits he’s gay also, as they hope to meet again; Violet’s angry because Maud has chosen her maid, Lucy, as her heiress, but a bit later Isobel gets Maud to admit Lucy’s actually her illegitimate daughter, so when Violet’s informed of this she relents; King George V changes his mind about Bertie accompanying the prince to Africa, although it’s because Cora talked privately with Queen Mary about her daughter’s distress at not having her husband present when their child’s born; Violet reveals to Mary she’s recently been to a doctor in London who’s told her she doesn’t have long to live, but she’s confident Mary will preserve Downton Abbey for generations to come; Tom, still unaware of how rich Daisy will someday be, begins to woo her in earnest, which she accepts (assuring us the family fortunes will be united, stable into the future); Andy admits to Daisy his breaking of the boiler was out of jealousy toward her attention to the plumber so she’s now more ready to marry him; Mr. Carson returns home with his wife, Elsie Hughes (Phyllis Logan), another prominent member of the Downton servant class, with assurances to her Downton Abbey will endure for years to come.⇐   (I’ve left out some details and characters—ones I not only didn’t know from the previous TV narrative but also didn’t seem that critical to me in this account; if you’d like to know more, please consult this more detailed summary, maybe this character list [ignoring Wikipedia's concerns].)

So What? If I saw more than 1 episode (curiosity) of PBS TV's version of the Downton Abbey series (6 seasons from 2010-’15, 47 episodes plus some season-ending-holiday-specials for the latter 5 clusters)* I’d be surprised, so as a virtual novice where this extended-narrative’s concerned I turned to a nearby-expert, my wonderful wife, Nina, devoted fan of the show, who gave me a useful summary of the main character arcs on our way to the theater.  Oddly enough, when our screening was over and I offered my tentative rating of 3 stars (it was all amusing enough, featured some delightful acting, clearly wrapped up its plot threads—although I suppose if it sells enough tickets it's open for a cinematic-sequel) she countered with only about 2 stars (maybe a bit better after some contemplation).  In her opinion, all important plot developments from the TV series along with crucial characters are plausibly addressed—especially given the constraints of a standard 2-hour-movie—but it all seemed rushed because so much had to be packed into the limited running time, especially with so many characters to at least get marginal notice as events galloped toward the royals' visit and after.  Therefore, at least in her case, familiarity might have bred a little contempt as she much better appreciated the slower development of plots stretched out over several weeks (then years) on TV where relationships could develop, problems could reasonably arise to be dealt with, some characters could legitimately depart as new members were integrated into the cast.  None of that had much chance of being realized in this 1-and-done-concoction (especially with the general fan expectation of seeing as many familiar faces on screen as possible), so for her it was more like those end-of-season-specials, somewhat insignificant in relation to the storylines which had evolved in 8 episodes (7 in the first season) over a couple of months in each broadcast year.  Don’t let me misrepresent her, though; she somewhat enjoyed what she saw, just hoped for more story-substance, reminiscent of what she’d most appreciated in the TV series, as opposed to so much time spent on the demands of proper etiquette when monarchs descent upon your residence.

*At this PBS site you can see all episodes, but apparently you need to be a member of your local PBS station to access them on the PBS Passport system.  Now Nina knows about this (fortunately for me, she reads this blog, providing invaluable feedback and proofreading notations each posting) all I’ll have to do to find her during the next couple of weeks is follow a homing signal to her laptop.

 I, on the other hand—surprisingly—was pleasantly-amused-enough by what I saw (although I wouldn’t have seen it at all had I not been going with Nina), yet I’d probably be down in the 2½-star-range (at best) without the benefit of her summary-preparation, because for a completely-novice-viewer I think there are way too many characters to keep straight—let alone maintain interest in—along with story aspects (such as the quick subplots involving assassination, Barrow’s secret gay complications) that at best seem to be in the realm of unnecessary distractions, at worst feel like desperate attempts to give more gravity to a tale of nothing more than superficial flutterings about a royal visit to a family of aristocrats (especially after hearing a recent lecture about Thomas Paine’s influential American-Revolutionary-era-pamphlet, Common Sense, as he argued for no royalty at all [to suit my far-left-tastes, I’d buy a copy of that joined with an essay by Democratic Socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders on why we don’t need any U.S. upper-class-aristocracy either]).  Along that line of shallow-commentary (yeah, I really don’t have much to say about Downton Abbey, truth be told), I’ll note that when the king and queen come to Downton Abbey it’s not by invitation, rather they issue an announcement as to when they’ll arrive because (of course) a monarch simply gives orders rather than asks permission.  In its own rural manner, this reminded me somewhat of when my parents lived in the small town of Clyde (roughly 1975-2000, where my grandmother "kept court" for decades [sort of local royalty herself, living to almost 100] having 2 houses from 2 deceased husbands so my parents get a rental-bargain after Dad retired), very close to Abilene in west Texas.  They had a neighbor across the street (she ran a beauty parlor) who’d just walk in without knocking any time of the day: “Hey, Marge, you got any coffee on?” (A rhetorical question because my mother always had a pot of coffee going, probably drank about 12 cups a day, never understood why she didn’t sleep well at night.  However, Nina tells me the coffee was so weak [I never developed a taste for the bean] it was like brown water so maybe Mom wasn’t over-caffeinated after all.)  I suppose if you’re better-versed in either Downton Abbey or proper manners around royals you’d better appreciate the constant concern of all the Downton residents about precisely-proper-procedure in the presence of monarchs, but to me all the shock/embarrassment about Moseley blurting out who had actually prepared the meal they’d all just enjoyed was one aspect of these storylines that was essentially-atrocious for me, although in the context of the moment I could still chuckle at what occurred on screen.  More impressive was the location of Highclere Castle in north Hampshire, used for the Downton exterior shots, many of the interior ones.  There’s no need for people to actually live in such ostentatious luxury anymore (even in more-modern-mansions all over the developed world), but, as architecture to be admired, it offers grand, truly stunning images.

Bottom Line Final Comments: Equally-stunning—although to be expected, given the large, loyal fan base and extended wait they endured after the TV series finale until this movie finally debuted—was the hefty $34.3 million domestic gross, which, added to $41.2 million in international sales for a $75.5 million global total in less than 1 week (the domestic total puts it at #48 for 2019 already with the likelihood of adding significantly to that as the next few weeks go on, although neither Downton Abbey nor anything opening between now and Dec. 31 is likely to come close to the $858.4 million domestically [plus another $1.9 billion internationally, yielding the All-Time global #1 title at $2.796 billion] of Avengers: Endgame, so with all that plus holding the next 3 top domestic spots this year with The Lion King [2019], Toy Story 4, and Captain Marvel* Disney’s doing exceeding well, despite the poor performance of most of their recently-purchased-Fox-product, noted above at the end of the Ad Astra review).  That financial success is generally followed by CCAL support with RT offering 85% positive reviews but MC back down to their more-common-hesitations with only a 64% average number, so my 3 stars are more in line with MC.  (I guess more of the RT reviewers were regular fans of the series—or maybe not, if a good number of them follow Nina’s response to this “you need a scorecard to keep up with the players” revisitation of a beloved TV series, at least for those who chose it over FOX TV’s “The Simpsons” and “Bob’s Burgers” on Sunday nights—Nina’s a big fan of those also [me too], but that’s what the cable box record button’s for, allowing for a variety of programming choices while eating dinner on TV trays [maybe that doesn’t make us sophisticated enough to have any royalty barge in on us for a night’s stay, but, except for B.B. King {R.I.P., but spirits are always welcome here to join in with the ones who seem to keep playing little tricks on us} or Queen Latifah, there are few of them I’d care to spend much time with anyway—though it'd be interesting to hear what Queen Elizabeth II’s encountered so far in her long life {born in 1926}, so much so I’ll offer her a silly semi-Musical Metaphor to counter the pomp and circumstance of Downton Abbey with The Beatles’ “Her Majesty” {from their 1969 Abbey Road album} found at—"God save the Queen"]).

*Rather than clutter this paragraph any further with directors and Two Guys reviews dates on these other Disney successes (proving again how brilliant it was for them to purchase Marvel and Pixar) I’ll just ask you to gather that data if interested at our summary of Two Guys Film Reviews, where, alphabetically by stars-ratings, Avengers: Endgame and Toy Story 4 are in the 4 stars-listings, The Lion King [2019] resides in the 3½ stars-group, while Captain Marvel dwells with my 3 stars-reviews.

 To close out these marginally-useful-comments on Downton Abbey (from the perspective of one—mewho's only marginally-interested in it, but if you’re already a fan, you might love it—or not, given Nina’s response—however, if it’s unknown territory but intriguing to you I encourage at least a look at that short summary video noted far above at the head of this review, in which case the lower your expectations possibly the more you’ll appreciate this as a marvelous-looking, likeable-enough diversion if you get it at matinee prices), I’ll continue my frequently-snarky-attitude* toward this lavish movie with a very different aspect of British culture as my Musical Metaphor, Dire Staits’ “Money for Nothing” (from their 1985 Brothers in Arms album), at (the official music video with some animation, some footage of the band, some blue-collar-workers vs. pop celebrities, fitting in with my comments just below), as I’ll maintain my sarcastic attitude toward aristocrats (no matter how charming—or hilarious, like Violet—some of them can be) with a song from the mansion staff’s perspective (even though I acknowledge their intense devotion to their employers in the actual movie), workers with never-ending-daily-responsibilities (“We got to install microwave ovens Custom kitchen deliveries We got to move these refrigerators We got to move these color TVs”) also including my snotty attitude toward these entitled-aristocratic-employers who live cushy lives by being born (or maybe even better) marrying into wealth with concerns as vital as whether the silver will be properly polished for the king or who’s the proper inheritor of even more riches (“You play the guitar on the MTV That ain’t workin’ that’s the way you do it Money for nothin’ and chicks for free”).  I’m sure there are more sophisticated, more supportive songs I could have chosen here, yet this one felt so right to me, heathen scum that I am where proper appreciation of Downton Abbey’s values are concerned, but suggested alternatives are always welcome in the Comments section at the far end of this posting.

*You might be interested in this Vox article which also isn't supportive of the problems of the rich, even if circumstances in various eras put pressure on them to maintain their privileged-status (including the more-struggling-than-usual-post-WW I Crawleys), whether they may deserve it or not.
Related Links Which You Might Find Interesting:
We encourage you to visit the summary of Two Guys reviews for our past posts.*  Overall notations for this blog—including Internet formatting craziness beyond our control—may be found at our Two Guys in the Dark homepage If you’d like to Like us on Facebook please visit our Facebook page. We appreciate your support whenever and however you can offer it!

*A Google software glitch causes every Two Guys posting prior to August 26, 2016 to have an inaccurate (dead) link to this Summary page; from then forward, though, this link is accurate.

Here’s more information about Ad Astra: (56:43 interview with director James Gray, actor Brad Pitt, NASA representatives Lindsay Aitchison, Dr. Sarah Nobel [begins with a little
bit of different content in the trailer from the one far above introducing the film's review])

Here’s more information about Downton Abbey: (25:05 interview with producer-screenwriter Julian Fellowes, director Michael Engler, producers Liz Trubridge and Gareth Neame [the flow's
interrupted briefly at about 8:00 and 17:00 by ads, so beware of the choppy intrusions]) and (36:56 interview with actors Michael Fox, 
Jim Carter, Kevin Doyle, Lesley Nicol, Phyllis Logan, Sophie McShera [begins with the same trailer 
from the beginning of that review above, so skim through it if you prefer to get on with the show])

Please note that to Post a Comment below about our reviews you need to have either a Google account (which you can easily get at if you need to sign up) or other sign-in identification from the pull-down menu below before you preview or post.  You can also leave comments at our Facebook page, although you may have to somehow connect with us at that site in order to do it (most FB procedures are still a bit of a mystery to us old farts).

If you’d rather contact Ken directly rather than leaving a comment here please use my email address of if you truly have too much time on your hands you might want to explore some even-longer-and-more-obtuse-than-my-film-reviews—if that even seems possible—academic articles about various cinematic topics at my website,, which could really give you something to talk to me about.)

If we did talk, though, you’d easily see how my early-70s-age informs my references, Musical Metaphors, etc. in these reviews because I’m clearly a guy of the later 20th century, not so much the contemporary world.  I’ve come to accept my ongoing situation, though, realizing we all (if fate allows) keep getting older, we just have to embrace it, as Joni Mitchell did so well in "The Circle Game," offering sage advice even when she was quite young herself.

By the way, if you’re ever at The Hotel California knock on my door—but you know what the check out policy is so be prepared to stay for awhile. Ken

P.S.  Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, Home in a Texas Bar, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker.  But wherever the rest of my body may be my heart’s always with my longtime-companion, lover, and wife, Nina Kindblad, so here’s our favorite shared song—Neil Young’s "Harvest Moon"
—from the performance we saw at the Desert Trip concerts in Indio, CA on October 15, 2016 (as a full moon was rising over the stadium) because “I’m still in love with you,” my dearest, a never-changing-reality even as the moon waxes and wanes over the months/years to come.
Finally, for the data-oriented among you, Google stats say over the past month (which they seem to measure from right now back 30 days) the total unique hits at this site were 30,452 (as always, we thank all of you for your support with our hopes you’ll continue to be regular readers); below is a snapshot of where and by what means those responses have come from within the previous week:

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