By Anne Brodie
So what goes down on Downton Abbey: A New Era, you say? Well, I’ll counter with what doesn’t? It is chock a block with plot twists and turns, lots of laughter and tears and love, as it brings Downton into the modern era of 1929. You’ll ponder onetime chauffeur Tom Branson and his life arc, rising from nothing to everything – hooray for the good guys! Mr. Molesley and Miss Baxter and their a moment captured forever on wax, Lady Mary turns down an offer you and I could only dream of, Mr. Barrow does not, the countess counts her blessings, and new-fangled Hollywood pandemonium at the Abbey – so many people, so many storylines, the standard high calibre of the wardrobe and set design, Julian Fellowes’ gracious writing, so many moments and emotions crammed into slightly over two hours, a feast for the fans. It would be helpful to have some knowledge of the series and initial film before diving in, otherwise, its many winks and nods will be lost on you. All our favourites are present, and new and grown-up characters offer chances for exciting chapters here and hopefully in the future. And there’s a drone shot of the Abbey lit up at night that is worth the price of admission. Look for Hugh Bonneville, Laura Carmichael, Jim Carter, Brendan Coyle, Michelle Dockery, Kevin Doyle, Joanne Froggatt, Matthew Goode, Harry Hadden-Paton, David Haig, Robert James-Collier, Allen Leech, Phyllis Logan, Elizabeth McGovern, Sophie McShera, Tuppence Middleton, Lesley Nicol, Maggie Smith, Imelda Staunton, Penelope Wilton, Kate Phillips, Simon Jones, Stephen Campbell Moore, Geraldine James, Michael Fox, Hugh Dancy, Laura Haddock, Nathalie Baye, Dominic West ..Written by Julian Fellowes. In theatres.
Canada’s Jennifer Baichwal, one of North America’s most influential documentary filmmakers enters the world of big business toxins in her startling new film Into the Weeds. It focuses on the years-long battle against Monsanto, now Bayer, the chemical company, and its carcinogenic herbicides Roundup and Ranger Pro widely used in industrial farming. Baichwal’s subject, landscaper Dewayne Lee Johnson worked with the chemicals in California and following an accident that soaked him, developed incurable cancer. Johnson knew it would be tough going against the corporate giant which has a stranglehold not only on global herbicides but on crop seeds known as “Roundup-ready”, but he became the face of a legal battle to hold Bayer accountable. He says “This is about food, seed spill, environment, it’s bigger than me”. He and his eco law team face what they call a “dysfunctional department of justice (in the US)” that has failed to keep big companies in line. The filmmakers found proof that these chemicals cause cancer and know the companies have known for 40 years. Johnson had no training in using the chemicals while execs claim it is safe enough to drink. The prime ingredient glyphosate causes tumours in lab rats but Bayer says not in humans allegedly based on inappropriate testing. A farmer dressed in a Tyvek protective “space suit” applies 7000 litres of the stuff to his fields each season. It’s all about raising a profitable weed-free crop. For fifty years Ray Owl has spoken out against the herbicide’s devasting effects on natural lands, noting children used to spread it by hand for money and now it’s dumped via helicopter, killing forests, lands, and water in the biological chain. Baichwal follows Johnson through the trial against Bayer – a nerve-wracking exercise that details its knowing culpability and its efforts to dodge it. Extremely important, essential viewing that affects every one of us. In theatres.
Whatever one thinks of the world’s richest man, tech whiz entrepreneur Elon Musk, there’s no denying he’s made a lot of promises to us. He’s inspired dreams of a new Jetsons-style future filled with devices and desires of our lazy hearts. Foremost among the dreams was that of a self-driving car, one that could drive us across the continent while we sleep. Musk’s Tesla invention was to fulfill that dream but it became a nightmare of lies, failures to do the right thing, in the face of multiple deaths and injuries. Josh Brown was shredded when his Tesla ran under a tractor-trailer the car apparently did not see, even as Musk assured investors and his “Musketeers” that Autopilot is “a solved problem”. The New York Times took note and got on the case. The result is the chilling Elon Musk’s Crash Course the latest installment of FX’s Documentary Film Series The New York Times Presents. Included are interviews with former staffers and insiders who detail Musk’s trail of his lies and exaggerations and habit of pulling from thin air things to say that his public found magnetic, bold, and sci-fi-y. Things that have not been backed up. Like regarding car safety “you can be superhuman with two cameras” when eight are needed, is just fancy fiction. One man points to shorter “appeasement projects” – not total complete solutions to feed his ego. The doc’s experts recommend the public stay wary and know that full autonomy might be decades away.
Night Sky follows the strange lives of Franklin and Irene York played with passionate authenticity by J.K. Simmons and Sissy Spacek. They’re an elderly couple living in a rural community and they’ve kept a reality-shattering secret for decades. There’s a deep hole in their shed that leads to a small theatre from which they are able to view life on a deserted planet somewhere out in the universe. They routinely end their days with a look at the TV news followed by a look at the vast universe, its enormity, and the activity of shooting stars, volcanos, space dust storms, and calm. 857 nights spent watching the great beyond. One night they go to bed and miss violent explosions in space, around the same time a neighbour begins snooping around, he’s only been there six months but they have a history – he’s certain they’re hiding something in the shed. The Yorks are forgetting things, like picking up the other from a doctor’s appointment, forgetting to gas up, closing doors, ignoring or not noticing issues that must be dealt with, and that their son Michael is dead. Their granddaughter (Kiah McKirnan) arrives to suggest they move to a place where life will be simpler. Franklin wants to tell someone their secret but Irene won’t allow it, she can’t leave it. “What if I died? I’d die. What about our secret? It’s been our secret long enough. I want us to live to 100. I want those years”. And a young man (Chai Hansen) shows up, barely alive and they take him in. In Argentina, a single mother (Julieta Zylberberg )and her rebellious daughter (Rocio Hernandez) live alone on an isolated homestead in the mountains tending their llamas and selling wool. There is a chapel on their property; the mother is religious and the daughter is not, she’s unhappy with her lot in life. They too have a secret chamber with a view of the universe. Night Sky’s rich, far-reaching imagination soars into sci-fi and mysticism without sacrificing the characters’ authenticity – Spacek and Simmons are phenomenal. On Prime Video.
Crave’s HBO Original two-part documentary, George Carlin’s American Dream, directed by Judd Apatow looks at perhaps the most iconoclastic comics in the history of modern entertainment. Strangely, the first of the two-part doc opens with Carlin railing against conservatives back in the 70s for their anti-abortion, misogynist, and far-right, freedom sapping ideals. It could easily be a bit from last night’s late-night shows. For fifty years he terrified TV conservative radio and TV sponsors and caused conniptions when he repeatedly broke industry standards. He was an exciting left-wing oracle who reminded audiences that there was no such thing as “rights” in the US, that they are “fiction” and that America (“the freak show” was in love with war (Vietnam at the time). Carlin starred in 14 HBO specials and appeared on The Tonight Show 130 times, in countless international venues and on corporate airwaves. Despite his withering views of America, he also was a regular feature on middle-of-the-road variety series like Tony Orlando and Dawn and the Perry Como Show, and silly mediocre shows he says embarrassed him. Carlin was born a latchkey kid of a single mother, a juvenile delinquent, and a pot addict by 13, three times court-martialed in the Air Force who felt betrayed by religion. He was deeply subversive. One of his earlier regular characters the Hippy Dippy Weatherman with “dog whistles for hippies” as high on weed. He says the kids would know but their parents wouldn’t. Carlin had an extraordinary life and influence on culture and suffered many setbacks including addiction, violent marriage, and more but is remembered and revered as one of the greats. And he was able to reinvent himself at the perfect moment. Don’t miss this. Deja vu all over again.
The Kids in the Hall‘s reboot completes today with the Prime Video release of their unexpectedly moving documentary Comedy Punks! The return “from the dead” marks a tidal change in the lives of Dave Foley, Bruce McCulloch, Kevin McDonald, Mark McKinney, and Scott Thompson. Amid their phenomenal rise in the 90s was plenty of soul searching, rifts, illnesses, and bumps in the brotherhood. There were stretches when they didn’t speak and the time Foley was ostracised for taking a lead in CBS’ NewsRadio and abandoning a long-awaited KITH tour. Various fans- including Eddie Izzard, and Mae Martin – chime in on the Kid’sinfluence and maturing comedy style, the film playlets, black and white, inspired by the French New Wave and classic European fare, and Thompson’s dive into sausages for a wordless segment that left the others scratching their heads. Archival footage of the Kids in writing meetings with Paul Bellini (Guy in a Towel) shows joyful, impassioned co-operation, blazing fights, rolled eyes, and silent treatments. It’s a miracle to think they put all that behind them to focus on their by now precise art, their decades-long friendship, and love, and make something to carry on the KITH legacy. And they’ve done it – a reboot of the original series and Comedy Punks now available that somehow reassures us that good things are at play in the world.
Now & Then on Apple TV+ is a gripping eight-part Mexican thriller around six Miami university friends who celebrate graduation on Key Largo Beach one night, a long way from home, a boozy, dark, and romantic night. Two turn up dead, and the survivors hold secrets until we catch up with them twenty years later. The survivors haven’t kept in touch much to be reminded of that night until each receives a text from an unknown person telling them to pay a million dollars each or be reported to the police. All of them have been haunted by that night and none did what they intended to in life, burdened by their secrets. It’s a complex web that threatens to catch them – a married man is running for Mayor of Miami, and carries on an affair with his male chief of staff, a wealthy plastic surgeon has a full closet of secrets, a woman puts up a front to cover her poverty and desperation, and they all begin to suspect one another. Meanwhile, Rosie Perez plays a detective who caught the case twenty years ago before it went cold but has steadfastly kept working on it. One of the women on the beach that night is murdered and she lands the case and works to solve it before anyone else dies. And as luck would have it, the kids’ graduation class is having a 20th Reunion and all her suspects will be there. There’s lots to ponder, the psychological state of the suspects, the illicit sexual escapades of the past and renewed, the chain that binds them together. A worthy watch! Shot in both Spanish and English, Now & Then stars Marina de Tavira, José María Yazpik, Maribel Verdú, Manolo Cardona, Soledad Villamil, Željko Ivanek, Jorge López, Alicia Jaziz, Dario Yazbek Bernal, Alicia Sanz, Jack Duarte, and Miranda de la Serna.
Theo James is Henry and he has a unique “disability” and Rose Leslie’s Claire his wife and friend for decades, even though he doesn’t know it. Henry’s a time traveler and not by choice in Crave’s The Time Traveler’s Wife. But as Claire reminds us, this is her story, not his. And her story is one of extreme patience. His time travels in a flash – he begins to feel sick, and suddenly disappears leaving his clothes where they fall. He lands in an unknown place and time naked and frankly glistening from what I imagine is body oil with metallic micro powder, the current makeup, youth-restoring craze. He tells us he must constantly fight and steal as a naked man loose in the streets with nowhere to keep his wallet. He met Claire as a grown man to her child and a bond is sparked. Nothing fishy; his character squirms when she says she’s “grooming” her Little Pony. “Ok”, he says “moving on!”. Then boom, he gets sick and he’s gone, steals clothes, and meets grown Claire for a date. She tells him she is his future wife, a surprise to him. As far as he knows they met that day. To fill in the “magical” and intricate relationship over decades requires labourious explication, Henry describes it to Claire at different ages, to a boy also a time traveler he must train and Claire explains it to us from her point of view. We watch him crash to land naked innumerable times, so romance fluff with a hokey twist isn’t my cup of tea. Based on the bestseller by Audrey Niffenegger.
Robert Siodmak, the master filmmaker whose moody early style of German Expressionism later became the artistic basis of his American film noirs, also had a deep appreciation for the visual details that make up everyday life, lending poignant realism. His 1930 German film Abschied or Farewell now on Kino Classics of Kino Lorber is a great example of his signature. Brigitte Horney and Aribert Mog are lovers Verkäuferin Hella and Vertreter Peter Winkler, tenants in a family run rooming house. Close quarters and multiple guests create a sense of claustrophobia and fostered p[ersonal interactions based on secrecy and dishonesty. Hella and Peter have a complicated relationship, he’s quick to hit and manhandle her and she accepts it, acting like a meek child. She learns from housemates that he is to leave the city the next day for Dresden. He hadn’t told her due to gossip and mistrust between them and she’s devastated. As viewers, we are relieved because of his lack of respect and feel protective of her. Terrific scenes in the home, studies of characters’ bedside tables, dressers and even sock drawers are intimate and of a place in a time long ago. It’s troubling to think the Nazification of Germany and WWII were just a few years ahead. Mog became a prominent Nazi and died on the Eastern Front at age 37 while Horney lived several years in Cambridge Mass. and later returned to Germany. Siodmak went to Hollywood and enjoyed a prolific career. P.S. Without Siodmak’s permission, Farewell was reshot with a happy ending after an initial release. Both are on the DVD.