As several tropical disturbances churn disquietingly in the Atlantic, those winds you feel in the darkened confines of your local movie theater are that quickly revolving door of early fall releases. Some are here to stay a while. Others blow through town within a week without leaving much of an imprint. Call it the opening salvo of the 2019 awards season, that first rush of releases that hope to capitalize on festival buzz or simply aim to make a tidy profit despite failing to generate traction for year-end kudos.
For dedicated moviegoers, it's a reminder that this is a marathon, not a sprint, and as such it behooves us to pace ourselves, lest we burn out too early in the game. (This is one of several reasons why I tend to draw a blank when asked which movies I'm looking forward to the most. One week at a time, folks.) But the news is (mostly) good, reader. The balance, at least for this critic, falls squarely in the “plus” column. The following quartet, comprised of three films opening in theaters this weekend and an ongoing runaway hit, hints at what promises to be a momentous period between now and Oscar night. So hunker down and start mapping out your viewing schedule. This ride is gonna get bumpy before it's over.
“Downton Abbey”: A question gnawing at Hollywood's pundit royalty revolves around this handsomely mounted big screen incarnation of the hit ITV/PBS series. Will the loyal viewers who followed the long-running saga of the Crawley family and their servants through six seasons make the trip to the movies to watch the same characters they enjoyed from the comfort of their homes?
I say they will, with good reason. Series creator Julian Fellowes has penned a briskly paced follow-up to his show that manages to juggle about as many characters as the source material without losing its balance. He finds in TV vet Michael Engler (“30 Rock,” “Sex and the City,” "Six Feet Under”) the ideal director to bring this glossy, elegantly packaged trinket of an ensemble piece to fruition. The creative team understands what can and cannot work within the constraints of a feature film format, and as such they limit the main narrative strand to one single event: an official state visit from King George V and Mary of Teck to the titular Yorkshire country estate circa 1927, about a year after the end of the show's final season.
The film begins with a thrilling Steadycam flourish, as it follows the royal invitation through mail rooms, aboard a train and into the hands of patriarch Robert Crawley (Hugh Bonneville). “A royal luncheon, a parade and a dinner? I'm going to have to sit down,” says longtime cook Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nicol) when Downton's downstairs employees receive the news. But the royals have their own help, and they're even more snobbish than their bosses. Broad head-butting and displays of one-upmanship ensue.
But this super-sized “Downton Abbey” would be rather inconsequential if it solely focused on this battle of wills. Fellowes and Engler show they're also committed to delving into the emotional lives of this mansion's current and former inhabitants, whether it's showing Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael), the Crawleys' youngest daughter, experiencing domestic trouble with hubby Bertie (Harry Haden-Patton), or whether it's Robert's mother Violet (Maggie Smith), Dowager Countess of Grantham, confronting estranged relative Maud Bagshaw (Imelda Staunton), who happens to be the queen's lady-in-waiting, over an inheritance issue. Even more intriguing, as well as a nice payoff for “Downton's” big gay following, is showing that vindictive head butler Thomas Barrow (Robert James-Collier) is a big romantic sap under that hard shell. No spoilers from me, but let's just say it's heartening to see how far Fellowes takes this character's arc while still managing to secure a PG rating. (Which also shows how far we've come when it comes to LGBTQ representation in mainstream fare.)
But what gives this comfort-food entertainment that extra spring in its step is not how seamlessly it juggles multiple storylines. It's the way it positions Irish chauffeur-turned-Crawley-in-law Tom Branson (the dreamy Allen Leech) as the film's leading man: gallant, poised and willing to dole out some hard-earned wisdom. It all leads to a ball that revels in period fetish and heralds this sprightly confection as a spiritual heir to wish-fulfillment fare going as far back as Romy Schneider's “Sissi” trilogy. Could we be witnessing the birth of the Abbeyverse? Ask me again in a couple of weeks.
“Ad Astra”: An introspective character study disguised as a lush sci-fi adventure, director/co-screenwriter James Gray's voyage into the outer reaches of our solar system, set in the near future, faces an uphill climb, both for newly Disney-owned 20th Century Fox and for viewers expecting a kinetic action movie. (Spoiler alert: it's not that.) Some moments of peril aside, this is a methodically paced portrait of an astronaut who prevails over every logistical obstacle that comes his way but struggles to come to terms with the gaping void inside his head.
To his astonishment, Roy McBride (a stellar Brad Pitt), learns his father, H. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), did not die after embarking on a mission to search for intelligent life beyond Earth more than two decades ago. That's about the extent of the good news. The bad news is he may have gone cuckoo and killed the rest of the tripulation. The military officials who summon Roy believe the elder McBride might also be behind the mysterious power surges that are wreaking havoc on the planet.
Roy accepts Uncle Sam's request to retrieve Daddy, who's currently located near Neptune, but the willing recruit suspects there's information that's being withheld from him. A more conventional space yarn would mine this conspiratorial minefield, but Gray (“We Own the Night,” “The Lost City of Z”) seems far more concerned with his protagonist's slowly gestating meltdown, to the extent that he uses voiceover narration to peer into the character's thoughts. The use of Roy's mental soundtrack differs from, say, Terrence Malick's frequent use of the device to grapple with matters of faith. The musings initially come across as obvious and superfluous, but what the filmmaker is after is their cumulative effect. Coupled with some impeccable production values, led by cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema's breathtaking vistas and composer Max Richter's evocative score, and “Ad Astra” amounts, not just to a rebuke of toxic masculinity, but a devastating allegory of clinical depression.
Gray revels in Roy's ambivalence, about the mission and about his fraught relationship with his father, but he's too much of a classicist to deprive viewers of concrete answers. The dreamer in me wants to tell the director to take a hike over what he has to say about our place in the universe, but he imparts the message with such meticuously crafted eloquence that I couldn't help being enraptured by his heady brand of intimate, character-driven sci-fi. The journey of a few billion miles is dwarfed by the chasm separating an unmoored man from being able to reach his loved ones, Gray conveys with exacting mastery of his craft. He's made one of the best films of the year, one that, I'm sensing, has multiple layers waiting to be unpeeled.
“Hustlers”: If the above titles represent a hearty meal for moviegoers extending across various demographics, then this rollicking tale of sisterhood, shady deeds, all-American greed and fabulous wardrobe certainly feels like a decadent dessert. Inspired by Jessica Pressler's 2015 New York magazine article about a group of strippers who milk Wall Street high rollers' credit cards dry in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, it tells the story of Destiny (“Crazy Rich Asians'” Constance Wu), an exotic performer struggling to make ends meet. At least until she befriends Ramona (Jennifer Lopez), a street smart queen bee who takes the younger performer under her wing and teaches how to hone and maximize her talent for seduction. As the two women team up to rake in even bigger paydays, they become closer. And then the stock market goes belly up, sending them straight into a brick wall.
What follows plays like a lively page-turner that grafts some of Martin Scorsese's trademark verve and paranoia into a narrative that recalls Sofia Coppola's underrated “The Bling Ring.” Writer-director Lorene Scafaria doesn't quite match the nervy momentum Scorsese sustained in “Goodfellas,” but she more than compensates by eliciting strong performances from her ensemble cast, including Lopez, who hasn't been this good since Steven Soderbergh's “Out of Sight.” (Keke Palmer and Lili Reinhart round up the central quartet of strippers willing to take some big risks by playing wealthy execs.)
Scafaria coaxes an effortless camaraderie between the women. Their interaction feels organic and lived in, thanks to her textured direction and refusal to manufacture contrived rifts between the characters. “Hustlers” only feels strained when it resorts to a framing device, showing a slightly older Destiny being interviewed by a journalist (Julia Stiles), that attempts to overexplain the motives behind Destiny and Ramona's ethical lapses. It makes sense from a structural perspective, but the rest of the movie is so strong that those scenes end up feeling largely unnecessary. “Hustlers” otherwise forges ahead with unbridled confidence and a big heart. It's sassy, brash and sneakily tender. Don't let it get away.
“A Name Without a Place”: Alas, that moviegoing high brought on by these even-better-than-expected releases comes crashing down with this stillborn, woefully miscalculated indie road movie that screened earlier this year during the Miami Film Festival. The narrative, concocted by South Florida-based filmmaker Kenny Riches (“The Strongest Man”) focuses on Gordon Grafton (saucer-eyed Bryan Burton), an aimless slacker who spends his days drifting around Miami Beach and his nights catching old movies at some repertory theater that only exists in the director's fetid imagination.
Gordon is dating and living with Gretchen Lansing (Elizabeth McGovern, who I'm pretty sure much would rather you go see her in “Downton Abbey” instead), a past-her-prime movie star who is away on shoots more often than she is home. The screen diva's obsession with her fading looks made me cringe, not realizing this would be the first of many indignities Riches would inflict on his film's female characters. Let's call his attitude hostility bordering on cruelty.
Gordon comes across his late twin brother's journal, and the discovery prompts him to drive down to the Keys for reasons that will later be tied to recent trauma in his life. Along the way, he meets Emma Lee Herring (Australian actress Charlotte Best), a standoffish rebel who claims she's still a virgin and wants to be deflowered in a porn movie. (I really wish I could be making this up.) The banter between the two misfits are a far cry from Gables and Colbert on “It Happened One Night,” it's safe to say. A contrived series of events send the duo stumbling into the secluded estate of Samuel Sussicran (Patrick Fugit, the sole bright spot here), a courtly Southerner whose inflections feel conspicuously antiquated.
The scenes at Sussicran's picturesque home initially suggest a respite from the insufferable whimsy to which Riches has subjected viewers up to this point. But while there's a certain morbid appeal to the outlandish scenario, the surprises “A Name Without a Place” has in store feel at once half-assed and overly deterministic. What's the point of attempting to give the characters eccentric quirks when they're so dull and unpleasant to begin with? But Riches keeps adding bright coats of paint to a house that's being eaten away by termites. All that's left by the time this stinker reaches its shrug-inducing conclusion is a hazy relief that it's finally over and a lingering regret that a lousy movie about the passage of time has made off into the night with our own.
“Downton Abbey” is now showing in wide release at various theaters, including the Coral Gables Art Cinema, Landmark at Merrick Park, O Cinema North Beach, the Silverspot Cinema in downtown Miami and The Classic Gateway Theatre in Fort Lauderdale. “Ad Astra” is also showing in wide release, including IMAX engagements at AMC Sunset Place, Regal South Beach and the AutoNation IMAX in Fort Lauderdale. “Hustlers” continues its hit theatrical run across South Florida. “A Name Without a Place” is now showing at O Cinema South Beach and Tower Theater in Little Havana. The latter venue is hosting a special premiere screening on Friday, Sept. 20 beginning at 6 p.m. Riches and cast members are expected to attend and take part in a Q&A after the movie.