Downton Abbey – Movie Review

By Leslie C. Halpern

After watching nearly 30 minutes of the Downton Abbey staff go into a cleaning, polishing, and food-planning frenzy in anticipation of a royal visit, this period piece pulls the metaphorical imported rug out from under us.

Maggie Smith and Michelle Dockery star in the movie version of Downton Abbey. Photo copyright 2019 Focus Features.

What begins as a rather stuffy beginning that introduces the inner-workings of the estate and the central and supporting characters shifts into an entertaining combination of interconnected stories about the devoted servants and high-falutin residents of Downton Abbey (based on the famous Crawley family from the PBS television series of the same name.)

Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How

So once the first quarter of the film establishes who (the Crawley family and their extensive staff), what (dinner, dance, and parade for the royal family), when (1927), where (Downton Abbey, of course), and why (why not?), the final three quarters of the film tells us how (with considerable planning, preparation, work, and subterfuge). And how the Crawleys and their staff navigate the visit from Queen Mary (Geraldine James) and King George V (Simon Jones) proves to be enormous fun—even for those unfamiliar with the television series.

Under the sarcastic command of Violet Crawley, Dowager Countess of Grantham, (Maggie Smith) and her tough granddaughter, Lady Mary Crawley (Michelle Dockery), servants scurry and family members (for the most part) tow the line to keep the two women happy. The problem is with so many people living, working, and visiting one enormous estate, something will always go wrong—a comical state of affairs that rattles the characters, but should delight most audience members.

Stellar Production Values

The chuckles keep coming throughout the film, as do the unexpected plot developments. The costumes (by Anna Mary Scott Robbins) are exquisite, the acting terrific, and the cinematography (by Ben Smithard) an artistic blend of establishing longshots, tight close-ups, and everything in between. Downton Abbey is an immersive film that sweeps viewers back to the past and into the opulent estate where titles, positions, and roles must always be maintained—except when they aren’t.

Downton Abbey

Based on the popular PBS television series of the same name, this film looks at before, during, and after a royal visit to the family estate in the English countryside in the early 20th century.

  • Stars: Matthew Goode, Maggie Smith, Michelle Dockery, Tuppence Middleton, Elizabeth McGovern, Allen Leech, Joanne Froggatt, Laura Carmichael, Imelda Staunton
  • Director: Michael Engler
  • Writer: Julian Fellowes
  • Genre: Drama
  • Run Time: 122 minutes
  • MPAA Rating: PG (for thematic elements, some suggestive material, and language)
  • Click here to watch the trailer.

Leslie C. Halpern is the author of Scantily Clad Truths: Essays on Life with Clothes (and without) and 200 Love Lessons from the Movies.

Ready or Not – Movie Review

By Leslie C. Halpern

The extremely wealthy Le Domas family, whose ancestors made their fortune in creating games, must keep alive a wedding night tradition whenever someone new enters the family. It’s just a little game playing at midnight. What’s so frightening about that?

Plenty, if the game card the new spouse selects happens to be “Hide and Seek.” Grace (Samara Weaving) is a lovely young bride deeply in love with her new husband, Alex (Mark O’Brien). Having grown up poor in a variety of foster homes, she longs for the large family and wealth that Alex can provide. His father (Henry Czerny) hates her, his aunt (Nicky Guadagni) gives her the stink-eye, and his older brother (Adam Brody) hits on her. Even so, they’re the family she’s never had.   

Samara Weaving stars in Ready or Not. Photo copyright 2019 Fox Searchlight Pictures.

Family’s Gaming Tradition

When Alex finally tells her about the gaming tradition, Grace good-naturedly goes along with it. When she selects the “Hide and Seek” card, however, the tone gets decidedly darker. She scampers over to hide in the mansion’s dumbwaiter only to find a shivering servant already in there.

They’re having a little chat until the servant gives away Grace’s location, and then suddenly the servant receives a fatal wound that’s meant for Grace. Although the audience watches as the relatives are assigned various deadly weapons in an earlier scene, it isn’t until that moment at the dumbwaiter that Grace realizes this is a true hunting game, and she is the prey.

Dark Humor

Despite the horrific premise, gallons of blood and guts, and truly suspenseful moments, Ready or Not proves plenty of dark humor sprinkled throughout that helps break the tension. The Le Domas mansion and its grounds play a formidable role in this sure-to-be-a-cult-classic film. Darkly foreboding with tight security and intricate secret passages, the house works against Grace as much as any of the characters. As Grace in her blood-soaked, ripped-to-shreds wedding gown, Weaving is as likable as the Le Domas family is unlikable.      

Plot twists, sarcasm, and some silliness keep things interesting (in a Zombieland [2009] kind of way), and this is not a predictable thriller. Even if you figure out one or two of the surprises in advance, you won’t expect all the craziness the script provides for these characters. Other than a miscast Andie MacDowell (who can’t seem to capture enough bitchiness to be the Le Domas matriarch), the actors (especially Weaving) take their parts and run with them…and then hide…and then seek.

Ready or Not

An innocent young bride marries into a bizarre family that has dangerous wedding night rituals.

  • Stars: Samara Weaving, Adam Brody, Mark O’Brien, Henry Czerny, Andie MacDowell, Melanie Scofano, Kristian Bruun, Nicky Guadagni, Elyse Levesque
  • Directors: Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, Tyler Gillett
  • Writers: Guy Busick, Ryan Murphy
  • Genre: Horror/Thriller/Comedy
  • Run Time: 95 minutes
  • MPAA Rating: R (for violence, bloody images, language throughout, and some drug use)

Leslie C. Halpern is the author of Scantily Clad Truths: Essays on Life with Clothes (and without) and 200 Love Lessons from the Movies.

The Peanut Butter Falcon – Movie Review

By Leslie C. Halpern

While comparisons to Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn are anticipated and even encouraged by the filmmakers, there’s more to this adventure than a dangerous coming-of-age story set in the Deep South.

The Peanut Butter Falcon stars Shia LaBeouf and Zack Gottsagen. Photo copyright 2019 Roadside Attractions.

The bonus feature concerns the movie’s central character, Zak (Zack Gottsagen) a childlike man of 22 with Down syndrome who’s been abandoned by his family in a state-run home for senior citizens. Although his case worker at the nursing home, Eleanor (Dakota Johnson), clearly cares about his well-being and realizes he doesn’t belong in that setting, she’s forced to follow the rules and state laws that govern the young man’s situation.

The Salt Water Redneck

Zak dreams of becoming a fierce wrestler like his hero, The Salt Water Redneck (Thomas Haden Church) in part as an escape from his daily life and to fully embody his self-image (explored later in the film). After multiple unsuccessful escape attempts, he makes his getaway one night through his window with the help of his roommate (Bruce Dern), who doesn’t think to throw some clothes out the window for his young friend. Tasked with finding the underwear-clad escapee, Eleanor flashes Zak’s photograph around neighboring towns in an effort to find him before possibly losing her job.

Meanwhile Zak is on the run, partnered with a small-town criminal named Tyler (Shia LaBeouf), who keeps moving to escape his recent past transgressions. Through unfortunate circumstances, both men are acting out roles assigned to them by others, rather than living happy lives. Despite Tyler’s initial resistance to his nearly naked tagalong, he develops a fondness for Zak—like an older brother caring for his younger sibling. This relationship helps heal both of their emotional wounds over time.

Sweet, But Not Too Sweet

The backwoods, rivers, and small-town settings add richness to the film, as do the performances of LaBeouf (nuanced and convincing) and Gottsagen (fearless and sincere). John Hawkes convincingly portrays a relentless thug, and Thomas Haden Church gives his larger-than-life character more sides than the obvious arrogance we are expecting to discover. Dakota Johnson has a generic role as the caregiver who needs family as much as Zak and Tyler. She smiles a lot, looks sympathetic, and stays calm; it’s a forgettable and thankless role that any attractive young actress could have played. This sweet story has just enough rough edges with vengeful rednecks, a mean-spirited kid, and backyard wrestling matches to keep it from overdosing on goodness.

The Peanut Butter Falcon

A 22-year-old man with Down syndrome escapes from his assisted living facility and goes on a wild river adventure with a small-time criminal.

  • Stars: Shia LaBeouf, Dakota Johnson, Zack Gottsagen, John Hawkes, Thomas Haden Church, Bruce Dern
  • Directors: Tyler Nilson, Michael Schwartz
  • Writers: Tyler Nilson, Michael Schwartz
  • Genre: Adventure
  • Run Time: 93 minutes
  • MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for some violence and language)

Leslie C. Halpern is the author of Scantily Clad Truths: Essays on Life with Clothes (and without) and 200 Love Lessons from the Movies.

Brian Banks – Movie Review

By Leslie C. Halpern

This dramatic biopic begins and ends with the concept of freedom and what it means to one young man, a rising football player named Brian Banks (Aldis Hodge).

Greg Kinnear (left) as Justin Brooks and Aldis Hodge (right) as Brian Banks in Tom Shadyac’s Brian Banks, a Bleecker Street release. Photo credit: Katherine Bomboy / Bleecker Street.

The film begins with a flashback of Banks as a youngster playing football in an open field with neighborhood friends, feeling safe and free. From there, the movie jumps back and forth in time as we see Banks (at age 16) promised a full-ride athletic scholarship to the University of Southern California, which he loses after a false rape charge by a female acquaintance at high school.

A Broken Legal System

A victim of the broken legal system, he is directed by his attorney to plead no-contest, and is sentenced to six years in prison with five years of parole. Meanwhile, his 15-year-old accuser, Kennisha, (portrayed with alarmingly callous disregard by Xosha Roquemore) receives $1.5 million from suing the school system (under her mother’s direction) for not providing a safe environment. With that much money at stake, she has no intention of recanting her testimony, despite learning of how the conviction has devastated Banks’s schooling, career plans, and personal life.

We see flashbacks to high school and prison (where Banks is mentored by a wise teacher [Morgan Freeman] to control his response to life even when life is out of control), and current scenes where Banks attempts to interest the California Innocence Project in helping to clear his name.

California Innocence Project

Led by Justin Brooks (Greg Kinnear), the organization enlists the aid of a group of legal professionals to help exonerate people charged with crimes they didn’t commit. Their emphasis is on those who are currently imprisoned, so Banks (now free, but on parole, after serving his time) is a low-priority. However, Banks is insistent. Not only was he wrongly charged, convicted, and sentenced, but he’s further punished by not being able to get a decent job or find a romantic partner because of the rape conviction.

The story is gripping and the acting impressive. Hodge has the physical presence to portray a rising athlete (as the younger and older versions of himself), and his accuser is portrayed as a mindless, heartless young woman by Roquemore. Though in some ways a stereotype, Kennisha needed to be portrayed as someone lacking insight and depth; otherwise her actions would not have made sense. Kinnear provides his usual reliable performance as the over-worked, jaded doo-gooder who needs his conscience prodded to do good in this case.

Director Tom Shadyac, whose recent work leans more toward the spiritual, presents a well-intended story that loses some of its edge with frequent disorienting shifts back and forth through time. Those who are unfamiliar with the details of the case may find the film particularly moving.

Brian Banks

Based on a true story, high school football star Brian Banks is wrongly convicted of a sex crime that lands him in prison and ruins his chances for a career in sports until the California Innocence Project finally takes an interest in his case.

  • Stars: Aldis Hodge, Greg Kinnear, Sherri Shepherd, Melanie Liburd, Tiffany Dupont, Matt Battaglia, Xosha Roquemore, Morgan Freeman
  • Director: Tom Shadyac
  • Writer: Doug Atchison
  • Genre: Biographical Drama
  • Run Time: 99 minutes
  • MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for thematic content and related images, and for language)

Leslie C. Halpern is the author of Scantily Clad Truths: Essays on Life with Clothes (and without) and 200 Love Lessons from the Movies.

The Spy Behind Home Plate – Movie Review

By Leslie C. Halpern

In addition to various books and a narrative feature film (The Catcher Was a Spy [2018]) about the enigmatic athlete, scholar, and patriot Morris (Moe) Berg, baseball fans now have a documentary by director Aviva Kempner to add to the mix. The doc covers most of Berg’s adult life through photographs, newspaper clippings, interviews with baseball experts, authors, and historians, and archival footage of Berg, his family, and his overseas adventures.

Spied for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS)

Berg caught and fielded during baseball’s Golden Age in the 1920s and 1930s during his 15-year athletic career. Well-known for also earning a law degree from Columbia Law School, speaking ten languages, memorizing facts about multiple subjects, and overcoming Jewish stereotypes, he also spied for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) in Europe to help America undermine Germany’s war efforts.

Moe Berg’s Passport

In addition to a few personal facts—including his father’s disdain for baseball and Moe’s reputation as a womanizer—the film divides its time between his professional career and his spy efforts. Berg’s time working for the Brooklyn Robins (which became the Dodgers), the Chicago White Sox, the Cleveland Indians, the Washington Senators, and the Boston Red Sox are highlighted, along with a mention of his mediocre running skills. Berg’s exotic travels to Japan, Paris, and Switzerland (often shrouded in mystery about their purpose) included instructions to film specific locations and interview Italian physicists about their knowledge of the German bomb program.     

Moe Berg: An American Hero

It’s hard to imagine a more intriguing real-life person to document. Berg was handsome, charming, athletic, brilliant, fluent, and daring. Despite the dramatic elements in his life and the enigmatic nature of the man, this documentary lacks the sizzle that Berg apparently possessed. Although it covers all the bases (so to speak), the doc fails to draw any important conclusions or delve into the psychology of the man.

We learn that parental pressure caused the respected athlete to also pursue a law degree, but there’s no insight into why Berg would repeatedly risk his life to gather information for his country. Rumors of his homosexuality (addressed in other works about him) are not addressed here; in fact, he’s portrayed as a ladies’ man.

The doc outlines the important facts about Berg and presents plenty of experts (often accompanied by their books on the subject prominently displayed next to them). Even so, there’s little dramatic flair in this film, despite the obvious dramatic flair of its subject. Yes, he clearly was an American hero, but what drove him to it?   

The Spy Behind Home Plate

This documentary focuses on Moe Berg, a professional major league baseball player and spy during WWII.

  • Stars: Moe Berg (archive footage),  Sam Berg (archive footage), Brad Ausmus, Bruce Adams, Ira Berkow, Nicholas Dawidoff, Robert K. Fitts, Franklin Foer
  • Writer-Director: Aviva Kempner
  • Genre: Documentary
  • Run Time: 101 minutes
  • MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Leslie C. Halpern is the author of Scantily Clad Truths: Essays on Life with Clothes (and without) and 200 Love Lessons from the Movies.