Downton Abbey *** 2019


Downton Abbey wasn’t press-screened in my country; perhaps understandably, because it’s hard to imagine anyone mistaking this greatest hits package of tv faces for an actual movie. It’s a television special, hitting cinemas in September, to enable raking in the grey pound in three months time for thoughtlessly gifted Xmas DVD’s to fill the shelves of tomorrows charity shops. The plot is; Downton Abbey receives a royal visit. Creator Julian Fellowes has made no effort whatsoever to broaden the programme’s substantial nostalgic appeal; if you’re not a fan of the series, it’s taken as read that you already know everyone involved, so no new audience is possible or welcome. The only thing that’s big screen here, in this Upstairs Downstairs-lite battle of the geezer Downton regulars with the posho royal staff, is star Maggie Smith, who takes every opportunity to wring every ounce of wit out of Violet Crawley, master of the bon mot. She’s one of a number of plot-lines converging on a royal visit, with a touch of Gosford Park-style intrigue, some contrived confusions, and a ball that drags the story on for one hurdle too many. Fellowes clearly envisages this as a curtain call, and indulges himself with a few sub-plots; there’s a plea for gay rights which fell flat with the elderly audience on opening day, who tutt-ed and murmured disapproval at a man-on-man kiss. It feels like Fellowes has misjudged his audience in this instance, yet it’s one of the few moments where any kind of drama surfaces. Fellowes clearly wants to make fun of people todying to the monarchy, yet his whole film is an act of todying. Equally, he wants to point out how the Establishment sideline homosexuals, and yet his writing is in thrall to the Establishment that oppress gay people. It’s a permanent contradication in Fellowes’ writing that, Gosford Park aside, has kept him in televsion and out of cinemas. Downton Abbey is a well-upholstered, well-cast and generally pleasant way to spend an afternoon in the cinema with elderly relatives, but it’s absolutely not a film, a motion picture event, or any reason for non-adherents to enter a cinema.


The Osterman Weekend 1989 ****


It must be something of a surprise to those who knew the late actor Rutger Hauer to read obituaries like this ( which show almost no knowledge of the man or his films. Hauer came to prominence as a cinema actor of phenomenal power, working on a series of collaborations with Dutch auteur Paul Verhoeven such as Turkish Delight and Soldier of Orange, both of which are covered elsewhere in this blog. His celebrated turn in The Legend of the Holy Drinker is probably his most mature work, but the stardom that he gained from villianous turns opposite Sylvester Stallone in Nighthawks or in The Hitcher made him a bankable enough name to get him a role in Sam Peckinpah’s final film The Osterman Weekend. Adapted from Robert  “Bourne Identity” Ludlum’s book, it’s a Big Brother-type story of various espionage agents holed up in a remote house where micro-surveillance systems have been employed. Hauer plays tv journalist John Tanner, who is being manipulated at arms length by CIA chief Maxwell Danforth. It’s one of Hauer’s most substantial roles, with an ahead-of-its-time conceit and great support from John Hurt, Dennis Hopper and Craig T Nelson. The script is a little muddled, with writer Alan Sharp amongst those fighting Peckinpah’s famed desire for self-sabotage. That none of the above films get even a single mention in the above obituary suggests that Peckinpah’s pessimism was justified ; The Osterman Weekend nails the idea of media manipulation, and its concerns are still relevant today.


Frankenstein’s Monster’s Monster Frankenstein 2019 ****


Actor David Harbour presumably had a blank check to cash on the back of his success in Stranger Things; it’s a shame that the actor couldn’t find anything better to do with his Netflix cash than to rest on his family laurels. Harbour has taken it upon himself to exhume footage from his father David Harbour Jr’s excellent TV production of Frankenstein; a classic show, fondly remembered, but ill-served by his son’s piece-meal handling of the footage here. Harbour’s grandfather, the great David Harbour III must surely be turning in his grave, as must Mary Shelley’s poor, beknighted creation. Of course, it doesn’t help that so many of the ideas here have been done better elsewhere; the iconic meat commercial featured here was ripped off shamelessly by Transformers star Orson Welles for his Frozen Pea performance art installation, and the abrupt commercials, plus the rickety doors and windows of the set were an obvious influence of Dan Curtis’s Dark Shadows. Even the title is a clear spin on Kenneth Branagh’s Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; it’s hard to imagine that an actor as storied as Harbour isn’t aware of that text, or even of the IMDB itself where such information might freely be found! Still, there’s some vague amusement to be found as Harbour questions those who remember his father, with faded stars like Alfred Molina, Kate Berlant, and newcomers like Mary Wonorov and Michael J. Lerner, still remembered from the Back to the Future films. It would have been better to use Harbour’s ill gotten gains for a full restoration of The Actor’s Trunk, a much admired show given precious little screen-time here, than on this miserly cash in on the Harbour family jewels. Perhaps Harbour’s proposed sequel, tentatively pre-cancelled at Amazon Instant Now Video Today and titled Frankenstein’s Monster’s Monster Frankenstein; The True Story, should be made just to set things right.

Network 1976 ****


Way ahead of its time in terms of disaffection with the media, Sidney Lumet’s 1976 drama is still frequently referenced today; the character of Howard Beale, weatherman turned prophet, has come to stand as a symbol of social anger about the way television in particular can distort and suppress public thought. Played by Peter Finch, Beale is a force of nature, wigging out on air and challenging authorities to stop his messianic message of revolution. Paddy Chayefsky’s knowing script also takes the time to establish firmly what Beale is rebelling against; Faye Dunaway and William Holden do great, if less iconic work as the network execs who try to figure out how best to control and exploit Beale’s sudden popularity. Inspired by a real on-air tragedy, network is a monumental film in the history of media self-analysis.