The Karate Kid (2010, Harald Zwart)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

American Dre Parker is the target of bullies when he moves to Beijing, so the local handyman comes to his aid…

Cast and story:
* This remake of The Karate Kid, filmed 26 years after the original, follows the same basic storyline. But there are also some significant changes.
* Dre Parker (Jaden Smith) is an American boy who’s forced to move to China when his mother, Shelley (Taraji P Henson), gets a new job. Unlike the original movie’s 16-year-old Daniel, Dre is just 12.
* They leave a drab, saturated, rainy Detroit and fly to the vibrant, bright, busy Beijing. It soon becomes clear that one of the aims of this American/Chinese co-production is to show off China in a positive light. Both the city and the surrounding countryside look gorgeous, while the film ignores any difficult political stuff.
* Having moved into an apartment building, Dre soon meets handyman Han (Jackie Chan). He’s a bit of a loner and doesn’t mix with the other workmen. (Han solo, you might say.) He also tinkers with a damaged car that’s parked inside his home.
* Dre then plays basketball with some new friends (not football, as in the 1984 film). He flirts with a girl called Meiying (Wenwen Han) but irritates a local bully called Cheng (Zhenwei Wang). Cheng and his cronies are soon picking on Dre, who tries to fight back but ends up getting hurt.
* So, wanting a way of defending himself, Dre seeks out a local kung-fu school. (Yup, that’s right. Because we’re in China, the story’s martial art is kung-fu not karate. They kept the movie title from 1984 just for marketing reasons.) But wouldn’t you know it? The school he investigates is where Cheng and co are being taught how to be thugs by a psycho sensei.
* This telling of the story has no fancy-dress party, but Dre – like Daniel before him – still can’t resist tipping water over Cheng and legging it. Cheng gives chase through the streets and eventually corners him. Cheng and his gang then start to beat Dre up, but Han appears and stops them with ease… Now, here is a significant area where this movie has missed the point of the original. In the 1984 film, it’s a huge moment when the elderly, short, meek Mr Miyagi quashes a rough, tough gang of aggressive teenagers. He shouldn’t be able to do that! Here, however, the teenagers have been aged down to 12. And the Mr Miyagi figure is played by Jackie fucking Chan. *Of course* he can best a gang of brats. He’d still win if there were a hundred of them! The surprise, the wow factor, is totally lost by these casting choices.
* Han visits the king-fu school and – like Mr Miyagi in 1984 – strikes a deal with the bullies’ teacher, Li (Yu Rongguang). Cheng will leave Dre alone until after an upcoming tournament. The sequence is capped by a good gag: because the deal is struck in Chinese, it’s only on the walk home that Dre finds out he has to fight in a competition. “Huh?” he asks, not unreasonably.
* We then get the equivalent of the wax-on/wax-off stuff from the original – but with a nice twist. Dre has a habit of dropping his coat on the floor, and Han had earlier seen his mother getting irate about it. So, to begin with, Dre’s training regime consists *only* of him hanging his jacket up, putting it back on, taking it off, hanging it up again… and so on, ad infinitum. Of course, Dre gets frustrated with doing this a thousand times, but he’s unconsciously learning the basic kung-fu moves.
* Meanwhile, Dre is also still trying to chat up Meiying. They see each other at a shadow-puppet show and share a kiss. But her fussy parents object to her dating an American boy when she should be practising the violin. (Later, though, they’re impressed when Dre learns how to suck up to them in Chinese.)
* Jackie Chan then gets the same drama scene that Pat Morita had in the original: Dre finds Han drunk and mourning his dead family. Mr Miyagi’s wife and son died 40 years earlier in childbirth; Han’s were killed in a car crash – in the car he’s now obsessively tinkering with. It’s a very sweet moment when Dre pulls his friend out of his depression.
* After a training montage, we’re into the Open Kung-fu Tournament. The story then follows much the same beats as in 1984.

Review: This remake of The Karate Kid is enjoyable enough, with a mixture of pros and cons. It’s directed with an indie sensibility, so as well as lots of handheld camerawork we get some lovely and kooky images. When the drama comes it’s often effective – especially the moment when Dre realises Han’s been teaching him to fight – while the fights themselves are great; helped by some violent sound effects, you feel every punch and kick. But the movie is too long (135 minutes) and lowering the characters’ ages works against the story. Writing Dre and the other kids as 12-year-olds makes the bullies seem silly rather than menacing; gives Han an unfair advantage; and pushes Dre’s ‘romance’ with Meiying into uncomfortable territory. Presumably the switch was made so that Jaden Smith – the son of executive producer Will Smith – could be cast.

Six cobras out of 10

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Downton Abbey: series 1 episode 7

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SPOILER WARNING: Plot points will be revealed in this episode-by-episode discussion of ITV period drama Downton Abbey.

Written by Julian Fellowes. Directed by Brian Percival. Originally broadcast: 7 November 2010, ITV.

The family return to Downton after the season in London… Mary considers whether to marry Matthew or not, Bates’s job hangs in the balance, Mrs Patmore’s eyesight needs drastic action, and Cora discovers she’s four months pregnant.

When is it set? An on-screen caption tells us the episode starts in July 1914. It ends with a garden party on Tuesday 4 August, at which Robert announces that Britain is at war with Germany.

Where is it set? The house. The dowager’s cottage. Crawley House. For the first time, the show visits London: there are scenes set in St James Park, Rosamund’s house in Belgrave Square, Moorfield Eye Hospital, and an army barracks.

Debuts, deaths and guest stars:
* Lady Rosamund Painswick (Samantha Bond) appears for the first time, having been mentioned in previous episodes. She’s Robert’s sister and lives in London.
* Mrs Bird (Christine Lohr) is Isobel’s cook. She’s seconded to the big house when Mrs Patmore has to go away for an eye operation. She’s an unlikeable battleaxe, but there’s a nice twist when Mrs P returns from London and the two women bond over the perils of being a cook.
* Mr Bromidge (Sean McKenzie) comes to the house to install the telephones. He moans that he can’t find a secretary, so Sybil persuades him to interview Gwen for the job.
* When the household learn that Mr Bates was imprisoned for theft, he won’t explain what happened. So Anna sets off to investigate. She visits Bates’s former army barracks and talks to an unnamed NCO (Richard Hawley), then goes to see Mr Bates’s mother (Jane Wenham), who tells her that her son was covering for his wife, Vera.
* Cora’s mother is mentioned for the first time – she lives in America, and Cora dreads the idea of her coming to visit.

Best bits:
* Cora praises Sybil on her success during the ‘season’ in London. Edith is jealous: “You never say that to me.” “Don’t I?” her mum patronises. “You were very helpful.”
* Robert’s stunned reaction to Cora being up the duff. “I don’t understand what we’ve done differently.” She suggests he go and offer the doctor a whisky.
* The lighthearted subplot about Sybil getting Gwen a secretarial job. Composer John Lunn gamely trots out his plinky-plonky comedy music.
* Carson practicing using a telephone. He accidentally calls the operator.
* Cora loses her unborn baby. “It was a boy,” says Robert, his voice cracking.

Worst bits:
* Upon returning home from weeks in London, Robert asks if there’s any local gossip. Mrs Hughes, aware of the need to shoehorn historical references into the dialogue, replies that everyone’s concerned with the murder of the Austrian archduke. “I’m afraid we haven’t heard the last of that,” says Robert.

Real history:
* The episode is set around the start of the First World War. Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria (1863-1914) was assassinated in Sarajevo on Sunday 28 June. Thomas reads in the Daily Mirror that the killer, Gavrilo Princip (1894-1918), has been arrested. The end-of-series cliffhanger is Britain declaring war after Germany failed to recognise the neutrality of Belgium.
* Violet mentions writer and political activist HG Wells (1866-1946), a pioneer of science fiction amongst much else.

Upstairs, Downton: The First World War broke out in season three of Upstairs, Downstairs. In The Sudden Storm (1974), the servants are on a day out by the seaside there they hear of the declaration.

Maggie Smithism of the week: Violet is not happy with the idea of progress. “First electricity, now telephones,” she says. “Sometimes I feel as if I were living in an HG Wells novel.”

Mary’s men: Mary is staying with her aunt in London as the episode begins. She’s not getting many romantic offers because, as Rosamund points out, she’s now seen as a survivor rather than a society debutant. Old pal Evelyn Napier pops round and assures her that he’s not responsible for the gossip about Pamuk’s seedy death. He reckons the leak came from Edith, so Mary later scuttles her sister’s romance with Sir Anthony. At the end of the episode – which is also the end of the first series, of course – Matthew breaks her heart by deciding to leave Downton. She left it too long to answer his proposal.

Doggie! Spotted sat by Robert’s feet when Mrs Patmore is called up to the library to discuss her eyesight.

Review: The outbreak of the First World War hangs over the whole thing, and a number of pointers to how series two will play out are apparent. But domestically the biggest thing that happens here is Cora’s short-lived pregnancy. It’s slightly odd that this subplot is confined to just one episode – she reveals she’s expecting and then loses the child in just 42 minutes of screen time. But it gives the entail storyline a kick up the arse: if she has a boy, Matthew will no longer inherit Downton and Mary therefore might not be so keen to marry him. Then the way Cora suffers her tragedy is also rather shocking. Lady’s maid O’Brien thinks (incorrectly) that she’s about to lose her job, so cruelly engineers an ‘accident’… Downton Abbey is largely a safe, cosy, Sunday-night drama but it’s often very effective when it steps outside that framework and does something genuinely nasty. Elsewhere, lots of other plots are bubbling away – Mrs Patmore gets her eyes fixed, Anna digs into Bates’s secret past, Thomas tries to secure a cushy job for the coming war, and Mary wrecks Edith’s hopes for romance. The cliffhanger – “We are now at war with Germany…” – points to changes coming in the second series.

Next episode…

Downton Abbey: series 1 episode 6

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SPOILER WARNING: Plot points will be revealed in this episode-by-episode discussion of ITV period drama Downton Abbey.

Written by Julian Fellowes and Tina Pepler. Directed by Brian Percival. Originally broadcast: 31 October 2010, ITV.

Rumours about Mary cause a stir, but she’s realising that she’s in love with Matthew… Elsewhere, Sybil attends political rallies with Branson, but is injured in a fight, while Bates and Barrow’s rivalry leads to Bates offering his resignation…

When is it set? An on-screen caption tells us it’s May 1914. The episode takes place over a few days.

Where is it set? Rippon, country lanes, the house, the dowager house, and Crawley House.

Debuts, deaths and guest stars:
* Lord and Lady Flintshire are mentioned for the first time. Susan is Robert’s cousin, so therefore also Violet’s niece. Hugh is a minister at the Foreign Office.
* Sir Anthony Strallan appears for a second time, intending to woo Mary but ending up making a connection with Edith. He talks about his late wife, Maud.

Best bits:
* While they get ready for bed, Robert apologies to Cora for losing his temper over dinner. “Next time you want to treat me like a naughty schoolgirl,” she says, “you might do it in private.” So, *that’s* how it is in their marriage!
* Edith having a bit of happiness with Sir Anthony is very sweet.
* Mary and Matthew’s flirting. She says she likes a good argument. He replies that if that’s the case “we should see more of each other.”
* Sir Anthony arrives to say he has two tickets to a concert in York. Mary starts to make some excuse… but then he says he talking to Edith.

Worst bits:
* Robert is annoyed that his daughter Sybil went to a boisterous political event without his permission. “I confess I was amused at the idea of an Irish radical for a chauffeur, but I see now I have been naïve,” he quips, naturalistically.

Real history:
* A man in a street is giving an impassioned speech about Emily Davison, who “last June” was crushed to death under the hooves of the king’s horse during the Epsom Derby. May 1914, meanwhile, saw a spate of suffragette protests: in separate incidents, three portraits at the Royal Academy were defaced, while a planned march on Buckingham House was stopped by the police.
* A by-election is due, and Robert assumes the Tory will be returned. (The Liberals had been in government since December 1905, but presumably Downton is in a safe Conservative seat.)
* Sybil is due to be ‘presented’ to King George V (1865-1936), who’d been on the throne for four years by this point, and Queen Mary (1867-1953) the following month.
* Sir Anthony Strallan has recently been to Austria and Germany. Mary says that’s interesting. “Interesting and worrying,” he says. He tells Edith that Kaiser Wilhelm II (1859-1941) is “such a mercurial figure: one minute a warlord, the next a lovelorn poet.”

Upstairs, Downton: The subplot of outsiders knowing about Mary’s indiscretion with Mr Pamuk reminds us of a pair of episodes of Upstairs Downstairs from 1972 – Magic Casements, where Lady Marjory has her head turned by a younger man, and The Property of a Lady, where someone tries to blackmail her about it.

Maggie Smithism of the week: When the Dowager is aghast that Sybil has been canvassing for a potential MP, Mary sticks up for her sister, saying she’s entitled to her own opinions. “No, she isn’t,” snaps Violet, “until she is married, then her husband will tell her what her opinions are.” Also worth mentioning is the scene where a shocked Violet learns that Cora helped Mary move a dead body.

Mary’s men: Rumours about Lady Mary and Mr Pamuk are now doing the rounds in London. (In the previous episode, we saw Edith write to the Turkish Ambassador, presumably telling him about what happened.) Cora even has to admit to mother-in-law Violet that the stories are true. Mary is unaware of all this, though, and her face lights up when Matthew comes for dinner. He later proposes – incredibly oddly, he pops the question off-screen. She tells her mother she’s thinking about it…

Doggie! Robert’s pet is spotted sitting by his feet as he writes at his desk.

Review: Adding Branson to the mix (it’s odd that he wasn’t already there in episode one) brings Downton Abbey’s attitude to revolutionary politics into the light. He and Sybil are both radicals who want to challenge the status quo, and the Edwardian/pre-War era of these stories was a time of upheaval and change. But Downton is nothing if not cosy. It’s a Sunday-night period drama on ITV, so the script is constantly checking the bolshiness. Branson might be for an Irish uprising and votes for women, but he still has to admit that Lord Grantham is a decent man and good employer. Also questionable from a political point of view is the scene where the announcement of the by-election result descends into a punch-up – because, you know, working class people can’t be trusted to act reasonably. Elsewhere, the show’s idiosyncratic attitude to the passage of time continues. Nine months have passed since the last episode yet characters behave like it’s only been a few days. But because it’s spring, the women often wear very pretty dresses.

Next episode…

Downton Abbey: series 1 episode 5

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SPOILER WARNING: Plot points will be revealed in this episode-by-episode discussion of ITV period drama Downton Abbey.

Written by Julian Fellowes. Directed by Brian Kelly. Originally broadcast: 24 October 2010, ITV.

It’s the week of the Downton Village Flower Show, but will the Dowager Countess win the prize again? Elsewhere, Mary and Edith spar over men, Daisy struggles with her huge secret, and an expensive snuff box is stolen….

When is it set? In an early scene, Sybil receives a letter that tells her Gwen has a job interview on Friday 1 August, and Gwen says that’s tomorrow. The episode takes place over a few days. We’re still in 1913.

Where is it set? The house and its grounds. Crawley House. The village and its village hall. The local countryside. The offices of a secretarial company in Malton, a town in North Yorkshire.

Debuts, deaths and guest stars:
* Robert’s sister, Lady Rosamund Painswick, is mentioned for the first time.
* Mr Molesley’s father, Bill (Bernard Gallagher) is entering his roses into the local flower show, but is keenly aware that convention dictates the Dowager will win.
* Sir Anthony Strallan (Robert Bathurst) is a boring, middle-aged man who’s been invited to dinner as a potential suitor for Mary. She couldn’t be less interested. Edith, however, strikes up conversation with him, partly as a way of needling Mary. So Mary responds by flirting with him out of spite.

Best bits:
* The one time that Daisy steals a couple of biscuits, which as Anna points out will only get thrown away at the end of the day, and Carson catches her. She nervously claims to just be cleaning the barrel.
* Gwen, having faked an illness so she can have the afternoon off, says that Anna would never betray her because they’re like sisters. “Then she’s not like my sisters,” says Sybil.
* On their way home from Gwen’s job interview, Sybil and Gwen’s horse casts a shoe and they can’t find a blacksmith. Cue scenes of them walking for miles, pushing their carriage through fields and falling in mud.
* A flustered Mrs Patmore drops a cooked chicken on the floor and a cat has a nibble at it. They don’t have anything else to serve for dinner, though, so Anna wipes it clean and says no one will notice. It’s a similar moment to a gag in Fawlty Towers, and in fact Mrs P says, “What the eye can’t see…” which is more or less what Terry the chef says in the sitcom.

Worst bits:
* More oh-it’s-funny-because-we-know-what-will-happen dialogue. Robert moans about every Tom, Dick or Harry owning a car nowadays. “Last time I was [in Malton] there were five cars parked in the market place, and another three drove past while I was waiting!”
* Edith and Mary’s squabbling is entertaining, but after their last bout of bickering Edith actually says to herself, “She who laughs last laughs longest.” If she had a moustache she’d twirl it.

Real history:
* Daisy talks about the Titanic disaster, which was 16 months ago fictionally speaking.

Upstairs, Downton: Rosamund is said to live in Eaton Square in London, which is just around the corner from 165 Eaton Place, where Upstairs Downstairs was set.

Maggie Smithism of the week: Violet’s rivalry with Isobel is just singing now. At the flower show, everyone praises Mr Molesley’s display. Violet pointedly says that, “Everyone is to be congratulated.”

Mary’s men: Robert has heard that Evelyn Napier – who we met in episode three – has given up any hope of marrying Mary and moved on to someone else. Cora suggests Sir Anthony Strallon, who’s about Robert’s age, but Mary continues to have warm chats with Matthew. However, he’s hurt when she flirts with Sir Anthony…

Review: The curse of this show’s format – lots of plots running over multiple episodes, but episodes being set months apart – is beginning to show. Stories have to stand still while the characters are not on screen. Gwen’s job hunt, the Mr Pamuk controversy, even Edith visiting local churches with Matthew – seemingly nothing has happened in these stories for months, yet these threads all get picked up again now. Admittedly, some are very touching – Anna and Bates share a conversation loaded with meaning without either actually saying they like each other, Sybil helping Gwen is fun, while Mary and Matthew are clearly made for each other.

Next episode…

Iron Man 2 (2010, Jon Favreau)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr) has outed himself as the famous Iron Man – but the US military want his secret technology, while an embittered rival wants revenge…

For most of its running time, Iron Man 2 is just as enjoyable – just as zippy and slick and witty – as the first movie. There are plenty of good gags, the storytelling is often slipping information in while we’re being entertained, and director Jon Favreau is having fun with some cinéma-vérité sequences. There’s an impressive balance of plot, character and comedy, and everything is crisply edited. It’s shame that it doesn’t stack up to a better movie. When the story starts, it’s six months since the events of the first film. Iron Man is now a superstar and we first see him skydiving into a showbiz event surrounded by fireworks and dancing girls. The whole sequence sings with razzmatazz and confidence. But you can also see the hubris: Tony is heading for a fall… We’re soon introduced to characters old and new. Gwyneth Paltrow is back as Pepper Potts and her scenes with Tony Stark are joyful; Paltrow and Downey Jr have terrific chemistry and a total command of overlapping dialogue. Tony’s pal Rhodey returns too (actor Terrence Howard has been replaced by Don Cheadle due to a contract dispute), as do Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson) and Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg). The latter two have bigger roles than in the first Iron Man adventure, because it’s now that the series story arc is powering up. And they’re not the only SHIELD agents we meet. Initially thought to be a PA called Natalie Rushman, Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff is actually a spy under orders from Fury. She later puts on a skin-tight outfit and beats up bad guys. Wowzers. The film’s main antagonists, meanwhile, are Justin Hammer and Ivan Vanko. The former is a Tony Stark wannabe, a flashy and cocky businessman who challenges Tony at a Senate hearing, and he’s played with energy and humour by Sam Rockwell. The latter – played by Mickey Rourke with lank hair, a toothpick in his mouth, lots of tats and a broken Russian drawl – is a former Soviet prisoner who has a grudge to settle. He first encounters Tony at a motor race. (It’s the Grand Prix de Monaco Historique – ABSOLUTELY NOT FORMULA 1, no, siree. Because they couldn’t get the rights.) After Stark and Vanko’s fight, the film takes a darker turn. The frivolity is replaced by Tony’s maudlin mood, brought on by Vanko’s challenge and Rhodey betraying him. And here, sadly, is where the problems begin. The film has a great eye for the absurd and surreal – check out the scene of Tony driving a convertible loaded down with the scale model of the Stark Expo, or the running gag about him not liking people handing him things, or the perpetual-motion gizmo on Pepper’s desk – but is less discretionary when it comes to plain silliness. It’s a lovely moment when Tony watches some old film footage of his late father (Tony Slattery from Mad Men). But the information Howard Stark is recording for his son to watch when grown up just beggars belief. It’s something to do with an unknown chemical element, which Tony is coincidentally looking for in the present, and Howard has built the clue to its discovery into the architecture of the venue for a 1974 trade exhibition. (Couldn’t he just have written it down?) This kind of convoluted plotting affects the shadowy character of Vanko too. He wants revenge on Tony for something Howard did to Vanko Snr, so spends a lot of time and energy building his own mechanical suit in order to go toe-to-toe with Iron Man. You wonder whether just shooting the often-at-public-events Tony Stark might not be easier. His plan also means the spine of this story is the same as the first film (rival builds his own suit to fight Iron Man). To be fair to Vanko, he does at first attempt to simply attack Tony. Tony manages to fight him off, thanks to an Iron Man suit he carries around in a suitcase, but this action sequence is oddly just one of two times the characters interact. After it, Tony thinks Vanko is dead until 88 minutes into the film, then their climactic battle is over in under two minutes. And that sums up the whole film: it promises a lot early on, but vaguely disappoints.

Seven Larry Kings out of 10

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Downton Abbey: series 1 episode 4

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SPOILER WARNING: Plot points will be revealed in this episode-by-episode discussion of ITV period drama Downton Abbey.

Written by Julian Fellowes and Shelagh Stephenson. Directed by Brian Kelly. Originally broadcast: 17 October 2010, ITV.

In the week of the Downton Fair, the family continue to explore whether Mary can inherit the estate… Meanwhile, Mrs Hughes meets an old friend, Mr Bates surprises Anna, and a new chauffeur causes a stir…

When is it set? A poster in the village tells us that Downton Fair starts on Thursday 29 May and lasts until Sunday. The episode begins the day before, the Wednesday. It’s 1913, so we’re already more than a year on from the first episode.

Where is it set? The village, where a fair is being held (complete with fortune teller, coconut shy, hoopla stall and helter skelter). The house and the estate. Crawley House. The hospital. Matthew’s office.

Debuts, deaths and guest stars:
* Tom Branson (Allen Leach) is the new chauffeur; the old one has retired to run a teashop. Branson is an Irishman with an interest in history and politics, and he’s soon questioning whether the aristocracy could do more for the needy than sending them unwanted clothes. Three days into the job he strikes up a conversation with Lady Sybil as he drives her around. (His addition to the cast means, of course, that there are now two regular characters called Thomas.)
* Joe Burns (Bill Fellows) is an old friend of Mrs Hughes who she meets at the fair. They were dating years earlier when she got a job at Downton, but then drifted apart. Now his wife has died, he asks Mrs Hughes to marry him, but she turns him down.

Best bits:
* Violet goes to see Matthew, hoping to talk him into using his legal expertise to break the entail (and therefore do himself out of the inheritance!).
* Just because it’ll rankle William, who fancies her, Thomas asks Daisy to the fair. “You bastard,” says Bates.
* Molesley has a rash on his hands, which Isobel diagnoses it as Erysipelas and prescribes nitrate of silver and tincture of steel. But then Violet smugly deduces that it’s actually a rue allergy, brought on by Molesley gardening without gloves. Violet actually laughs to herself as she walks out of the room.
* Mrs Patmore tries to hint that Thomas is not a good match for Daisy. “He’s not a ladies’ man,” she says. “I don’t know what you mean,” replies Daisy, so Mrs P gives up.
* Sybil – the rebellious member of the family – dresses for dinner in daringly modern pantaloons. Branson watches with approval through the window.

Worst bits:
* Joe asks Mrs Hughes what her plans for the future are. “Suppose if the family sell the estate,” he says. “Suppose there’s a tidal wave,” she scoffs. “Suppose we all die of the plague. Suppose there’s a war!” (Ha ha, a character in 1913 wondering if there’ll be a war.)
* Sybil says her corset is too tight and moans about having to wear one. It’s a metaphor for women’s rights, don’t you know.

Real history:
* Matthew mentions Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), a US president and the chief author of the Declaration of Independence.
* Branson and Sybil are both supporters of women’s rights. Emily Davison was killed the month after the events of this episode when she deliberately stepped out in front of a racehorse. Women over 30 weren’t given the franchise in the UK until 1918.

Upstairs, Downton: The subplot of Mrs Hughes being offered a life away from service but turning it down – partly through fear, partly because of loyalty – echoes Rose’s dilemma in a 1971 Upstairs, Downstairs episode called A Perfect Stranger, which coincidentally was also set in 1913.

Maggie Smithism of the week: In her chat with Matthew, Violet suddenly lurches violently in her seat. “Good heavens, what am I sitting on?” Matthew tells her it’s a swivel chair, which was invented by Thomas Jefferson. “Why does every day involve a fight with an American?” she laments.

Mary’s men: She’s now being noticeably kinder towards Matthew. While saying good night, they shake hands and hold on a beat too long… Robert later suggests she could marry Matthew and stay at Downton. She replies that she’d never marry someone she was told to. And she later breaks down in tears when she thinks her parents are happy that Matthew will inherit rather than her. Poor girl.

Doggie! Robert’s Lab follows him down the stairs as he and Mary chat about Matthew, then the two take it for a walk in the grounds. We still don’t know the dog’s name.

Review: After last episode’s Mr Pamuk hijinks, this one’s a bit of a holding episode. The central story is some more treading water about who’ll inherit the estate, but the subplots are more fun: Mrs Hughes and her secret, Anna and Bates’s burgeoning romance, William’s jealousy of Daisy and Barrow, Branson’s introduction and his wooing of Sybil, Matthew’s realisation that he wants a future at Downton, Gwen’s job interview… There’s a lot going on. 

Next episode…

Downton Abbey: series 1 episode 3

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SPOILER WARNING: Plot points will be revealed in this episode-by-episode discussion of ITV period drama Downton Abbey.

Written by Julian Fellowes. Directed by Ben Bolt. Originally broadcast: 10 October 2010, ITV.

A Turkish man called Kemal Pamuk comes to visit but events take a dark turn… Elsewhere, housemaid Gwen has secretly been training to be a secretary, Mr Bates buys a ‘limp corrector’, and Mrs Patmore’s eyesight is giving her trouble…

When is it set? During the hunt season. The presence of Mr Pamuk dates the episode’s events to between September 1912 and July 1913.

Where is it set? The local post office, Downton Abbey and the surrounding countryside, the village, a shop in a nearby town, and Crawley House.

Debuts, deaths and guest stars:
* Evelyn Napier (Brendan Patricks) was mentioned in the previous episode. He and Mary have been having a light flirtation, though her attentions are soon on…
* Mr Pamuk (Theo James) is a pretty-boy attaché at the Turkish embassy who comes to stay at Downton. Footman Thomas thinks his luck is in when Pamuk flirts with him, but it’s actually a rouse. Having conned Thomas into crossing a line, Pamuk then blackmails him into helping with a quest to bed Mary. The quest ends badly for Mr Pamuk…

Best bits:
* Cora forgetting that Evelyn’s mother has died and then asking others if they knew.
* The servants bashing away at the unfamiliar typewriter. Mr Carson acts like it’s the work of the devil.
* Mary in a corset. Wowzers.
* “Is that one mine?” Thomas asks Mr Carson when he claps eyes on Mr Pamuk.
* The entire Pamuk storyline, which treads a fine line between drama and spoof. The flirtation with Mary, the bedroom scene, and especially the shock twist are all very entertaining. “He’s dead,” a stunned Mary tells Anna. “I think he’s dead. No, I’m sure he’s dead.” (She’s basically shagged a man to death during her first ever sexual encounter.)

Worst bits:
* They’re still banging on about the bloody entail and who gets Downton and its wealth after Robert dies. He doesn’t seem to mind such a morbid topic being discussed.
* Exactly when has Gwen been secretly practicing with her noisy typewriter? She works long hours, hardly has any time off, and shares a bedroom.

Real history:
* Mr Pamuk is in Britain to take part in talks about creating an independent Albania. The London Conference of 1912-1913 saw Britain, France, Germany, Austria-Hungary, Russia and Italy discuss the issue from September 1912. A decision on borders was reached the following July.

Upstairs, Downton: In an Upstairs, Downstairs episode called Miss Forrest (1973) – which is set in 1912 – characters discuss whether the word ‘typewriter’ refers to the machine or the woman who uses it. No one in Downton Abbey is aware of this ambiguity.

Maggie Smithism of the week: Violet learns of Pamuk’s death and claims, “No Englishman would dream of dying in someone else’s house. Especially someone they didn’t even know!”

Mary’s men: Evelyn Napier, the son of Lord Brankstone, comes to stay. This pleases Mary initially, but he foolishly brings a friend with him. She assumes Mr Pamuk will be a “funny little foreigner with a toothy grin and hair reeking of pomade” – but he’s actually such a looker that she blushes. They’re soon flirting (neither Matthew nor Evelyn like this), then he kisses her passionately when they’re alone. She recoils, but he later brazenly walks into her room while she’s in bed. He seduces her… then dies during the act!

Doggie! The hunt has a posse of dogs running around all over the shop. But no sign of Robert’s lovely Lab.

Review: A dilemma for Downton Abbey viewers is how seriously to take it. The show is a drama, clearly. A strong cast make you believe in and care for the characters. But the storytelling can sometimes be ludicrous – and whether this puts you off or makes you chuckle will determine how much you enjoy the show. This episode has our first big WTF?! plot twist, and it almost becomes a comedy with farce-like scenes of Mary, Anna and Cora carrying a dead body down corridors so the corpse isn’t found in Mary’s bed. It’s outlandish and all the better for it – and like all good soap plots it generates more story for later down the line. Elsewhere, after last week’s know-your-place theme, Gwen’s wish to better herself is a nice change of pace. Sybil, the youngest and therefore most open-minded of the family, even eggs her on and offers to give her a reference. In fact, all three sisters get story this week: Edith makes a point of being friendly to Matthew, but is disappointed when he just asks her about Mary.

Next episode…

Downton Abbey: series 1 episode 2

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SPOILER WARNING: Plot points will be revealed in this episode-by-episode discussion of ITV period drama Downton Abbey.

Written by Julian Fellowes. Directed by Ben Bolt. Originally broadcast: 3 October 2010, ITV.

Matthew Crawley, now the heir to Downton, moves into the village with his mother, Isobel. While he struggles to adapt to a new way of life, she takes an interest in the local hospital. Elsewhere, Mr Carson has an unwelcome visitor…

When is it set? Mary says that Matthew and Isobel were strangers ‘a month ago’, so it’s no earlier than May 1912. Online sources say it’s September.

Where is it set? The big house, the dowager cottage, the estate and the village (which has a pub called The Dog and Duck). Crawley House is seen for the first time – it’s where Matthew and Isobel now live – as is Downton’s cottage hospital.

Debuts, deaths and guest stars:
* We meet Mr Molesley (Kevin Doyle) for the first time. He’s Matthew’s butler/valet and is clearly known to the servants at Downton. Distressingly for Molesley, though, Matthew doesn’t want a manservant.
* Dr Clarkson (David Robb) runs the local hospital, of which Lady Violet is the president. He butts heads with Isobel, who thinks she knows better when it comes to a severely ill patient.
* Charles Grigg (Nicky Henson) is an old friend of Mr Carson’s, who turns up unannounced trying to fleece money from him. They used to be in a music-hall double act called the Cheerful Charlies!
* Mr and Mrs Drake (Fergus O’Donnell and Cathy Sara). He’s a patient at the hospital suffering from dropsy; she’s his wife.

Best bits:
* Matthew is moaning about how the family will no doubt push one of the daughters onto him… when Mary swans in, looking very fetching in riding gear, and knocks him for six.
* Later, Robert is aghast that Matthew intends to have a day job.
* A stuffy dinner scene is intercut with the servants larking about downstairs.
* Daisy, who’s smitten with William, says he’s not like (the secretly gay) Thomas. “No, he’s not,” says Mrs Patmore, knowingly.

Worst bits:
* There’s more clunky, “As you know”-type dialogue to explain the entail, a complicated legal mechanism.
* Carson’s storyline is solved rather swiftly by Robert getting his chequebook out.

Real history:
* Robert refers to “Mr Lloyd-George’s new insurance measures”. David Lloyd-George, the Liberal Chancellor of the Exchequer, had overseen the 1911 National Insurance Act, one of the foundations of the UK welfare state.
* Isobel says she studied nursing during the Second Boer War (1899-1902).

Upstairs, Downton: A storyline showing an uncharacteristically comical side to the uptight butler can also be found in the 1972 Upstairs Downstairs episode Your Obedient Servant (in which Mr Hudson pretends to be a self-made man in order to impress his brother).

Maggie Smithism of the week: Friendly Isobel meets the dowager and asks what they should call each other. Violet replies haughtily: “Well, we could always start with Mrs Crawley and Lady Grantham.”

Mary’s men: She meets Matthew in this episode. It’s a deliberately arch meet-cute in which they clash (see Best Bits). Mary later tries to embarrass Matthew in front of the family, but he copes with it okay. That the two characters take against each other and represent such different worlds can only mean one thing, of course… However, there is the hint of another romance too. Edith finds a letter to her sister from a guy called Evelyn Napier.

Doggie! This is the first episode with a title sequence, the opening image of which is the Downton dog’s arse as he/she walks alongside Robert.

Review: It’s all about class snobbery, this one, both within the family and among the servants. Both sides of the divide have their doubts about Matthew’s credentials, for example. Middle-class Matthew doesn’t want a valet, insists on carrying his own bags, and hangs up his own coat – surely not the makings of a future earl! Here’s where the show’s small-C conservatism rears its head. The moral of this story is ‘everyone knows their place’. Lady’s maid O’Brien is reprimanded like a child in front of her colleagues; Molesley finds his worth in his subservient job; even Matthew learns to adapt to his new position. So if you’re looking for progressive politics, this ain’t the series for you. That aside, however, it continues to be breezy fun. The script contains a lot of short scenes so many characters and storylines are given time and space. This week, we even get a comedy subplot. Also worth mentioning is Kevin Doyle, who makes an immediate impression as the likeable, downtrodden Molesley.

Next episode here…

 

Downton Abbey: series 1 episode 1

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SPOILER WARNING: Plot points will be revealed in this episode-by-episode discussion of ITV period drama Downton Abbey.

Written by Julian Fellowes. Directed by Brian Percival. Originally broadcast: 26 September 2010, ITV.

In the series premiere, the aristocratic Crawley family are rocked by the deaths of their estate’s heirs… What will happen to the house and its resources? Meanwhile, a valet called John Bates struggles in his new job, and a duke comes to visit…

When is it set? A caption tells us that it’s April 1912. As the episode begins, the sinking of the Titanic has hit the newspapers, which would mean it’s probably Tuesday 16 April (the ship struck an iceberg in the early hours of the 15th). The episode takes place over several days or maybe weeks – enough time for memorial services to be arranged and attended, and for Mary to go through a period of mourning.

Where is it set? Downton Abbey, a stately home in Yorkshire (in real life it’s Highclere Castle in Hampshire). The dowager cottage where Violet lives. The post office and churchyard in the local village of Downton (in real life: Bampton in Oxfordshire). We start with Mr Bates on a train thundering through Yorkshire. We end in Matthew and Isobel’s house in Manchester.

Debuts, deaths and guest stars: Being the first episode, there are loads of regular and recurring characters being introduced. In order of first appearance:
* John Bates (Brendan Coyle), who arrives at Downton to start his new job as valet. He has a limp from his time fighting in Africa.
* Daisy (Sophie McShera), the dopey kitchen maid.
* Gwen (Rose Leslie), a housemaid.
* Anna (Joanne Froggatt), the head housemaid who’s kind towards Mr Bates.
* Mrs Patmore (Lesley Nicol), the cook.
* Thomas Barrow (Rob James-Collier), the head footman who resents Bates getting the valet’s job so plots to undermine him. He’s secretly gay.
* William Mason (Thomas Howes), a footman.
* Mrs Hughes (Phyllis Logan), the housekeeper.
* Mr Carson (Jim Carter), the butler.
* Lady Mary Crawley (Michelle Dockery), the family’s eldest daughter. As the Crawleys have no son, it’s up to her to marry well in order to secure the estate’s future.
* Miss O’Brien (Siobhan Finneran), a lady’s maid with a spiteful streak.
* Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham (Hugh Boneville), the man of the house.
* Lady Edith Crawley (Laura Carmichael), the family’s middle sister.
* Lady Sybil Crawley (Jessica Brown Findlay), the youngest sister.
* Cora Crawley, Countess of Grantham (Elizabeth McGovern), Robert’s Amercican wife who he married 24 years earlier for her money – but they soon fell in love.
* Violet Crawley, Dowager Countess of Grantham (Maggie Smith), Robert’s acerbic mother.
* George Murray (Jonathan Coy), the family solicitor.
* Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens), Robert’s cousin and a lawyer in Manchester. The Titanic deaths mean he’s now the heir to Downton and its wealth, despite not knowing his relations.
* Isobel Crawley (Penelope Wilton), Matthew’s mother.

Best bits:
* Early Steadicam shots give us a sense of the geography of Downton Abbey’s ground floor. They also show how well-drilled the servants are at opening up the house.
* Thomas sarcastically refers to Mr Bates, who has a limp, as Long John Silver.

Worst bits:
* The expositionary dialogue! Watch actors try to make information about a complex legal mechanism seem like naturalistic conversation!
* We also get the cliché of characters saying they thought the Titanic was unsinkable, which is presumably true to life but still sounds written.

Real history:
* Robert and Cora mention knowing some of the real-life Titanic passengers: businessman John Jacob Astor (1864-1912), his second wife Madeleine (1893-1940), and Noël Leslie, Countess of Rothes (1878-1956).
* Robert knows Bates because the latter was his batman during the Second Boer War (1899-1902).
* Violet mentions that her home was designed by Sir Christopher Wren (1632-1723).

Upstairs, Downton: Given the similar settings and situations, it was inevitable that this show would cover similar ground as period drama Upstairs Downstairs (1971-75, ITV). ‘Updown’ had also used the sinking of the Titanic for a storyline, for example, while both shows have a fussy butler, a cook frustrated by her simple kitchen maid, a gay footman, and a family with a moral father figure and bickering siblings… Thomas’s subplot with the visiting Duke of Crowborough vaguely echoes the 1971 Updown episode A Suitable Marriage. Meanwhile, electricity has just been installed at Downton; the 1972 Updown episode Your Obediant Servant, which is set in 1909, had the same thing happen at 165 Eaton Place. A very noticeable *difference* is that, while the shows’ families are roughly the same size, the staff at Downton is considerably bigger.

Maggie Smithism of the week: When Cora asks if she and natural enemy Violet are to be friends, Violet replies coolly, “We are to be allies, my dear, which can be a good deal more effective.”

Mary’s men: Robert’s eldest daughter was engaged to Patrick Crawley, her cousin and one of the victims of the Titanic disaster. But it seems it was just to be a marriage of convenience in order to keep Downton and its wealth in the family. She’s certainly not that upset at his passing (her sister Edith, who was in love with Patrick, is much more cut up). Mary later gets all a-flutter when the dashing Duke of Crowborough comes to visit and flirts with her. But he then privately tells Robert that he’s not interested in her. In a later scene with footman Thomas we understand why…

Doggie! Robert’s faithful Labrador is seen a few times, including when we first spy Robert, though he or she has not been named yet.

Review: This 65-minute opener introduces a large cast – eight family members, 10 servants – but almost all of them make an impression and have moments to shine. (William the footman, maid Gwen and youngest daughter Sybil are perhaps the only ones to miss out.) Downton Abbey is a soap opera, really, so needs a large and dynamic group of characters, and the relationships and subplots being established here are more about questions than answers. We get unrequited romances, sibling rivalries, antagonisms, secrets and lies, and a series of shit-stirring characters: Thomas, O’Brien, even Mary. Of course, it’s also a soap with astonishing production values. There’s a real polish to the filmmaking. Rumours have the show’s budget as being £1 million per episode, and the locations, sets, period costumes, props, set dressings and lighting schemes are all wonderful. They more than make up for the occasionally creaky dialogue. A good start.

Next episode here…

 

Predators (2010, Nimród Antal)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Eight strangers are transported to an alien planet to be the prey in a hunting ritual…

The cast: The characters are all human killers who’ve been kidnapped so the predators can hunt them. Royce, a former special-forces solider, is played by Adrien Brody. It’s an effective bit of casting against type: the usually soft Brody has fun going all gravely voiced and macho. Alice Braga plays the dour Isabelle, an Israeli sniper. Topher Grace gets both comedy and sinister stuff to do as Edwin, who seems to be a coward but is then revealed to be the most fucked-up of them all. Elsewhere, there’s Stans (Walton Goggins), a prisoner who boasts about “raping bitches”; Nikolai (Oleg Taktarov), a Russian heavy; Hanzo (Louis Ozawa Changchien), a mostly mute Yakuza; Mombassa (Mahershalalhasbaz ‘Mahershala’ Ali), a mercenary from Sierra Leone; and Cuchillo (Danny Trejo), a Mexican drug-cartel enforcer. As with Alien vs Predator, Arnold Schwarzenegger was asked to cameo as Dutch from Predator, but it didn’t happen. Presumably because he was Governor of California at the time.

The best bit: There’s a nice twist when Royce comes face to face with a predator. He thinks he’s a goner, but then the creatures removes his mask to reveals he’s actually a human in disguise. Noland (Laurence Fishbourne) has been trapped on the planet for so long that he’s gone a bit loopy. But he’s able to impart some fun exposition before being killed.

Review: Robert Rodriguez (Desperado, From Dusk Till Dawn, Sin City) had been touting to make this film since the early 90s, though when it finally got green-lit he moved to a producing role and hired another director. Nimród Antal does a decent job. The script might be a vague retelling of the original Predator story (tough guys in jungle get picked off one-by-one), but there are a few nice twists to the formula and the whole film is suitably atmospheric. We learn about the characters through behaviour as well as dialogue, and there are some flashes of humour. So while they’re stereotypes, they’re still more complex than the people in, say, Alien vs Predator. They’re also very far from being nice, which makes them more interesting and the story more unpredictable. And in terms of the movie’s look, long-lens shots make the jungle – actually in Hawaii – seem otherworldly, dangerous and threatening. On the whole, an enjoyable enough film. Nothing extraordinary, but better than I was expecting.

Seven spinal columns out of 10

Next time: Ridley Scott directs an Alien prequel? What could go wrong?!