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Posts Tagged ‘maggie smith’

“DOWNTON ABBEY” My rating: B+ 

122 minutes | MPAA rating: PG

Feature film spinoffs of successful TV series have an iffy track record (“Sex and the City,” “Entourage,” “Absolutely Fabulous”), but the folks at “Downton Abbey” have done it right.

The new “Downton Abbey” movie is an astonishingly effective piece of work, one that hits all the notes that made the TV show so successful and then adds a couple of new ones.

Will the movie make sense to anyone who wasn’t glued to PBS on Sunday nights?  Well, maybe, but the real pleasure here comes from continuing our relationships with characters we already know inside out.  It’s like a family reunion…only you actually like hanging with this family.

Writer Julian Fellowes, who created the series and scripted most of its episodes, provides a screenplay that gives almost every member of the huge cast at least one memorable moment and effortlessly balances multiple story threads.

Director Michael Engler deftly handles the pacing and the impressive technical production (he’s in charge of the actors, too but since most of these players have been doing their characters for the better part of a decade, how much coaching could they have required?).

The plot? Well, there are a dozen of them, but the overriding one has the King and Queen visiting Downton. It’s like when the FBI takes over a local murder investigation…Their Majesties’ arrogant retainers invade the Abbey, relegating the resident staff to observer status.  But not for long, thanks to machinations that come off as a more genteel iteration of “Revenge of the Nerds.”

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The Dames: Maggie Smith, Joan Plowright, Eileen Atkins, Judi Dench

“TEA WITH THE DAMES” My rating: B- 

84 minutes | No MPAA rating

“Tea With the Dames” is a slapdash affair, less a well-crafted documentary than a fly-on-the-wall peek at a reunion of four great English actresses.

Theatre geeks will be captivated. Others perhaps not so much.

The “dames” of the title are Maggie Smith, Joan Plowright, Judi Dench and Eileen Atkins, all of whom have received that honorary title from Queen Elizabeth for their contributions to English arts.

The youngest is 83, the oldest 88; one of them is blind; two are widows; the other two apparently are divorced (although their present marital status is never addressed).

For this doc director Roger Michell assembled the four at Plowright’s lovely country home (the one she shared with the late Sir Laurence Olivier) and over the course of a long weekend filmed them talking and sipping the occasional cordial.  The conversations are illustrated with clips and photos from the women’s illustrious careers.

Over the course of the film the ladies discuss their careers, their craft, their private lives (within limits). Occasionally director Michell attempts to steer the conversation, not that anyone pays him much attention. (“Let’s talk about aging,” suggests his off-camera voice. “Fuck you, Roger,” one of the dames shoots back.)

“Tea…” has no format, really.  The girls talk about what they damn well want to talk about.

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**, Maggie Smith

Alex Jennings, Maggie Smith

 

“THE LADY IN THE VAN”  My rating: B

104 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

Imagine Maggie Smith’s Dowager Countess  from “Downton Abbey” as an imperious, demanding bag lady.

That’s the premise of “The Lady in the Van,” and it is less off putting than this description suggests.

For one thing, it’s based on real events.  Playwright Alan Bennett, who wrote the screenplay from his memoir, was for years host to Miss Shepherd, an old lady who lived in his London driveway in a series of rusting vans.

For this act of charity he was routinely dismissed by his ungrateful guest, who had her own way of doing things and saw no reason to change. Apparently she believed that this preferential treatment was rightfully hers.

The film from Nicholas Hytner (“The History Boys,” “The Madness of King George”) chronicles that bizarre relationship, which went on for 15 years.

There’s a temptation to regard Bennett (played by Alex Jennings) as some sort of saint. (After all, this “houseguest” saw to her bodily functions simply by squatting in the drive.)

So that we’ll know that Bennett wasn’t a holy fool or a complete sucker, he has written into the screeenplay conversations with himself.

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The usual suspects reunite

The usual suspects reunite

“THE SECOND BEST EXOTIC MARIGOLD HOTEL”  My rating: C-

122 minutes | MPAA rating: PG

Ideally, a sequel gets made because there’s more to explore in the story or characters.

Most often, though, the sole motive is money.

And you can hear the spare change clanking incessantly beneath the dialogue of “The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.”

The first film was a sleeper hit, thanks to its stellar British cast (Maggie Smith, Bill Nighy, Judi Dench), the exotic Indian setting and its amusing blend of expatriate adventure and cheeky septuagenarian sexuality.

It never added up to much, but it went down easily, especially with the gray-haired crowd that rarely gets to see itself portrayed with any sort of dignity on the big screen.

But though this follow-up was made by the same people — director John Madden, screenwriter Ol Parker and the returning players — all the charm seems to have evaporated. It’s a paint-by-numbers effort.

The screenplay gives each of the retiree residents of the Marigold Hotel [added:] in Jaipur a crisis to overcome — usually a romantic one. Contrasting against those late-life liaisons are the impending nuptials of young hotel operator Sonny Kapoor (Dev Patel) and his beloved Sunaina (Tina Desai).

Fortune hunter Madge (Celia Imrie) has two well-heeled Indian gentlemen on tap but can’t decide which one to marry. Nighy’s Douglas is smitten with Dench’s Evelyn, but he’s too shy to jump and she won’t commit.

Bon vivant Norman (Ronald Pickup) fears that he has inadvertently put out a mob hit on his girlfriend, Carol (Diana Hardcastle).

Muriel (Maggie Smith) grumpily lectures Americans on how to make tea and quietly nurses her concerns when a medical checkup doesn’t go as planned.

These subplots circle a larger story.

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Billy Connolly, Maggie Smith, Tom Courtenay and Pauline Collins

Billy Connolly, Maggie Smith, Tom Courtenay and Pauline Collins

“QUARTET” My rating: B- (Opens January 25 at the Tivoli and Glenwood Arts)

98 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

“Quartet,” the movies’ latest exercise in geriaxploitation, is about old folks living in a not-for-profit British community for retired musicians.

It’s  “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” with operatic solos instead of sitars and tablas.

It’s also the feature film directing debut of actor Dustin Hoffman, who doesn’t appear on the screen but proves himself more than capable of calling the shots behind the camera. “Quartet” isn’t astoundingly cinematic, but Hoffman clearly knows how to work with actors.

Of course it helps to have an A-list cast of graying Brit thesps on hand.

Set in a formerly grand English country house which now has been divided up into apartments, Ronald Harwood’s screenplay (based on his stage play) centers on the arrival of Jean Horton (Maggie Smith), a once world-famous soprano whose shaky finances have forced her to give up her London townhouse. Now she’s come to Beecham House to live among her aged peers.

Not that she’s looking forward to it. Group living is a real comedown for the imperious Jean, who spends the first few days taking her meals in her room and listening to old LPs of her performances.  There’s a touch of the imperious Lady Violet Crawley (of “Downton Abbey,” natch) in Smith’s performance, but also a welcome vulnerability.

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