[Warning: Spoilers ahead – not for the movie, but for television's ITV/PBS show that ended its run in 2015. If you're planning a binge-watch in preparation for the film, you may want to skip the first paragraph.]
When last we saw our beloved characters from Downton Abbey … .
Well, actually, I have no idea.
After greatly enjoying the first season – or rather, the first series, to use the British nomenclature – of creator Julian Fellowes' British period porn and mildly enjoying the second, I gave up on the program a couple episodes into series three, finding myself exhausted by the blitheness of its soap-opera format and witty-to-a-fault dialogue. (Shirley MacLaine's arrival, I'm sorry to say, did nothing to help matters.) So I never made it to the deaths of Lady Sybil and Matthew Crawley; never saw the arrivals of figures played by Lily James and Matthew Goode; never witnessed, thank God, the rape of Anna Bates; never got teary at the sight of Mrs. Hughes accepting Carson's marriage proposal … .
Yet my knowing about all of these events, and without having to resort to Wikipedia, suggests that TV's Downton Abbey never quite left my mind – or maybe my heart, embarrassing as that is to contemplate. Incredibly, this might make me and fellow near-fans ideal viewers for director Michael Engler's and screenwriter Fellowes' big-screen follow-up. Obsessives who passionately devoured every minute with the upstairs Crawleys and the downstairs help might very well be annoyed by how little everyone is given to do, and how little any of it matters. Those who never watched a second of the show might be utterly lost and left wondering what the big deal is. For my part, though, I found this feature-film exercise in unmitigated fan service a touching, entertaining reunion with half-forgotten friends, even though it doesn't resemble a movie so much as a highbrow Comic-Con panel in which those on the dais receive thunderous ovations merely for showing up.
Considering that Engler and Fellowes could easily have gone for maximum pandering, giving all of our familiar characters pointed closeups or signature lines at the moments of their carefully teased arrivals, our re-introductions to the Downton Abbey denizens are handled with unexpected speed and elegance. We don't, for instance, have to sit through a long tracking shot of the shoes and cane of the Dowager Countess of Grantham as she approaches the mansion door, the camera finally landing on Maggie Smith's incandescently sour expression as she utters some withering bon mot guaranteed to send the audience into a stately tizzy. Instead, Engler merely cuts to her in the middle of random conversation, the crowd barely having time to take in Smith's appearance before the focus moves to other Crawleys in the room. While Downton Abbey's exterior is treated to as many loving, almost fetishistic establishing shots as the USS Enterprise received in the first Star Trek movie, no such reverence is bestowed on its humans – and that proves a smart and sane choice, because otherwise we'd be in for at least a four-hour haul.
With inspiring economy, they're quickly returned to us: benevolent aristocrats Robert and Cora Crawley (Hugh Bonneville and Elizabeth McGovern); perpetually irritated Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery); insecure middle sister Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael); Smith's haughty Violet Crawley and her sparring partner Lady Merton (Penelope Wilton); former chauffeur Tom Branson (Allen Leech); retired butler Carson (Jim Carter) and his housekeeper wife Elsie (Phyllis Logan); valet John Bates (Brendan Coyle) and his lady's-maid wife Anna (Joanne Froggatt); surly butler Barrow (Robert James-Collier); cook Mrs. Beryl (Lesley Nicol) and kitchen maid Daisy (Sophie McShera). Apologies if I've missed any of your favorites, but unless they're dead, banished, or played by Lily James, they're probably here, too. So are a few newbies, principally King George V and Queen Mary (Simon Jones and Geraldine James), whose 1927 arrivals inspire most of the film's narrative threads, and the queen's lady-in-waiting Maud Bagshaw (Imelda Staunton), whose presence gives Maggie Smith someone to be bitchy toward whenever Penelope Wilton isn't around.
It's tempting to pity the poor soul who might enter this Downton Abbey without prior exposure to all these figures and their complicated(-ish) relationships. In truth, though, Fellowes introduced just as many in his sublime, Oscar-winning script for the 2001 murder mystery Gosford Park, and though I can't vouch for certain, he appears to provide the requisite amount of backstory and personal baggage – with the actors filling in the blanks – for Elgler's movie to make reasonable sense to latecomers. I just wish everyone had more interesting reasons for being here. The royals' visit provides some fun as the Downton servants enact vengeance on the king's holier-than-thou staff, leading to a priceless bit in which the Crawleys' excitable butler Molesley (Kevin Doyle) makes a delirious ass of himself in front of the king and queen. (With Elger's reaction shots and Mark Day's editing particularly sharp in this sequence, the largely senior crowd at my screening roared at Molesley's comic humiliation for almost a full minute.) But the other plotlines aren't nearly so engaging, and that's when it's possible to discern plotlines at all.
Newly pregnant Edith worries that her husband Bertie (Harry Hadden-Paton) will be touring Africa during the birth of their child. Tom makes the acquaintance of a mysterious stranger (Stephen Campbell Moore) and hits it off with both a visiting maid (Tuppence Middleton) and, unbeknownst to him, Princess Mary (Kate Phillips). Sophie's flirtation with a handsome plumber (James Cartwright) angers her footman fiancé Andy (Michael C. Fox). An off-duty Barrow finds his way to a hidden gay nightclub in Yorkshire. Violet and Maud fight over an inheritance. These narrative arcs, the very definition of “marking time,” are presented with all the insouciance their easily digestible, TV Guide-esque synopses would suggest, and some longtime Downton Abbey players aren't even given this much to chew on. Bonneville and McGovern serve almost no purpose beyond acting as genially regal host and hostess; Coyle and Froggatt, the heart of the show back when I was watching it, are criminally underused; and after Mary cajoles Carson back into service – with no mention made of the physical ailments that forced his retirement – Dockery's only apparent film assignment was to act peevish. Considering that's pretty much all Lady Mary did on TV, at least in the years I was a viewer, it hardly seems a stretch.
Yet I'll counter my complaints with the same response you'd probably hear from the many, many patrons at my screening who applauded at the end and cackled at every single thing Dame Maggie said: Who cares? The period detail is lovely. The conversations are literate and clever. The pacing is swift. The characterizations are relaxed. The laughs are plentiful. (Smith deserves all of hers, as do Wilton, Carter, Logan, and Nicol.) The tears are earned. The appeal is enormous. And the audience's obvious love for their object of worship is duly rewarded, with happy endings for everyone who deserves them – which, given this crew, is everyone. You don't need me, or anyone else, to tell you whether you might like the Downton Abbey movie. You already know. And you won't be wrong.
Neptune is an awfully long way to go to resolve one's daddy issues. But it's where Brad Pitt heads to iron them out in Ad Astra, and I, for one, am glad he took the trip. Directed and co-written (with Ethan Gross) by James Gray, this deeply meditative, frequently riveting sci-fi drama sends Pitt's astronaut Major Roy McBride to the deepest reaches of space in hopes of locating his long-lost scientist father (Tommy Lee Jones), a potential madman whose extraterrestrial-seeking experiments are threatening to tear the universe to shreds. Neptune is the eventual destination. Before that, however, there are detours on Mars and the moon, plus a whole lot of voice-over narration as Pitt, like he did in Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life, ruminates on life and love and fathers and sons and guilt and responsibility and the emptiness of existence – a two-hour therapy session viewed through the lenses of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness and Stanley Kubrick's 2001. With chase scenes and a killer baboon. To be blunt, this shouldn't work, and certainly shouldn't in the hands of Gray, a seriously talented (and just-plain-serious) filmmaker whose indie résumé – The Lost City of Z, The Immigrant, We Own the Night, etc. – has suggested that he's among our most reliably earthbound of directors. Yet Ad Astra is a wonder. It's a problematic movie, to be sure, but one filled with so many extraordinary elements that roughly 90 minutes in I started to fear for my ocular health, given that I was pretty sure I was forgetting to blink.
My reference to Tree of Life may have seemed flip, but I actually meant it as a compliment, as there are few actors who can recite pithy “What's it all about?” considerations with Pitt's extraordinary nuance and soul. Those qualities extend to both his Ad Astra voice-overs and his physical performance, which slowly, almost invisibly morphs from heroic stoicism to damaged, voiceless anguish and regret – it's a beautifully interior performance to match Pitt's thrillingly exterior one in this summer's Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood. Yet while Pitt is reliably great here, other pleasures arrive as considerably less preordained. Despite having no previous experience in science fiction, Gray attacks the genre with phenomenal assuredness, staging a car chase – or rather, a land-rover chase – on the moon with alacrity and tension, and lending such intensity and foreboding to a mid-film rescue scene that, for a few heart-stopping minutes, you'd almost think you'd landed in an unofficial remake of Alien. (That this segment could have been cut from the movie with no noticeable loss doesn't at all diminish its effectiveness, and, in fact, subtly adds to it once you realize that the film is all about Roy McBride getting to Neptune as alone as he can possibly get.)
The sound and frequent lack thereof are at all times magnificent, as are the bevy of gifted actors who keep popping up, sometimes only for a handful of seconds: Donald Sutherland, Ruth Negga, Liv Tyler, John Ortiz, Kimberly Elise, Loren Dean, LisaGay Hamilton. Amazingly, Gray even finds room for comedic talents Natasha Lyonne and Jamie Kennedy, and even more amazingly for this particular filmmaker, he finds room for jokes, too, with the information that a blanket-and-pillow combo during McBride's moon trek is available for a cheap $125 and that well-worn spacesuits “smell like a locker room.” (I'd never before thought about it, but yeah, they probably would.) I was disappointed by the movie's last 15 minutes – they're far too conventional considering the metaphysical trippiness Gray delivers elsewhere – and for all of its grandeur, it's still a sci-fi epic in a distractingly minor key, with the fate of the galaxy given less ultimate weight than McBride's self-questioning about whether, in the end, he's a good person. When Ad Astra works, though, this expansive genre outing works gloriously well, and deserves to be seen on the biggest screen you can find. I always anticipate gravity from James Gray, but until now, I certainly never expected Gravity.
RAMBO: LAST BLOOD
Although it's borderline-impossible to remember now, there actually was a time in which Sylvester Stallone's two most iconic characters – Rocky and Rambo – felt distinguishable. As even he would probably tell you, Stallone has never displayed much in the way of performance variety. Yet during the end credits of director Adrian (“Yo, Adrian!”) Grunberg's Rambo: Last Blood, we're treated to a five-minute, sepia-toned greatest-hits package of clips from the four previous Rambos that began with 1982's First Blood, and it's really an astonishing sight. Much of the shock comes from again seeing Sly, bronzed and glistening, showcasing 12-pack abs as he annihilates sneering Russians and Vietnamese soldiers in 1985's Rambo. What's truly arresting about this slow-motion reverie, though, is the intensity in Stallone's eyes and physical presence – an alert demeanor that's about as far from goofy, guileless Rocky Balboa as you could imagine. Aging, though, can be cruel. And in Last Blood, at age 73, Sylvester Stallone no longer comes close to resembling the icon of vengeance John Rambo he once pulled off with such monosyllabic brio. He just looks like Creed-era Rocky Balboa: dopey and punch-drunk and adorable, with even his über-violent assaults, and there are loads of them, tinged with an aura of sweetness. This is all to say that while this fifth and (maybe? hopefully?) final Rambo is upsetting on many fronts, it may be most significantly so as a swan song. It's like if the last memory you had of your grandpa was of him ripping the head off a puppy.
Granted, it's not a dog that Rambo is decimating here, but rather the swarthy Mexican creeps who kidnapped his beloved teen ward (Yvette Monreal), plied her with drugs, trafficked her into a sex-slave operation, and left her for dead. To be sure, they deserve what's coming to them, and get their comeuppance after our hero lures these bastards to his Arizona farmstead and systematically offs them in ways suggesting a Tarantino-directed take on Home Alone. But while the Rambos, at least since First Blood, have never been remotely believable, they've never been quite as offensive and ridiculous as Last Blood, which turns the specifics of truly appalling global tragedy into mere grist ensuring that John Rambo never get's a decent night's sleep. And I'm sorry, but while it was possible to buy Stallone in the role even 11 years ago, it simply isn't anymore. The guy looks and sounds too exhausted to even finish his morning coffee and crossword puzzle, let alone to have recently constructed a labyrinth of underground tunnels and outfit them with booby traps and explosives, the cost of which must have been equal to the GDP of a small industrial nation. (Exactly how does this Rambo earn the money for that construction and artillery anyway? Did he wisely invest while on the run all those years? Are his retirement benefits really that good?) Rambo: Last Blood, which Stallone co-wrote with Matthew Cirulnick, would be odious under almost any circumstances. But its star, in present form, makes it odious and silly, and amidst the wretchedly on-the-nose dialogue, narrative obviousness, and obscenely over-the-top viscera, the only accidental entertainment I got came from Rambo's dispatching of particularly bad hombre who's in the shower when Sly shows up. We never see the killing, but we do see the corpse resting against a bedpost: a headless body outfitted in a T-shirt and sweatpants. That means Rambo probably murdered the naked guy and then, in a nod toward delicate sensibilities, dressed him. So considerate, our John.