Thursday, October 10, 2019

A look at the life of Roy Cohn

One of Trump’s so-called mentors did the groundwork for a ruthless brand of politics.
Roy Cohn remains best known as the power-crazed New York attorney who teamed with Senator Joseph McCarthy during the feverish Red Scare days of the 1950s.

Under the sway of intense anti-communism, Cohn managed to work his way into power circles that went well beyond what you might expect from a young lawyer. When FBI director J. Edgar Hoover recommended him to McCarthy, Cohn was only 24 but already had made a name for himself helping to prosecute Ethel and Julius Rosenberg for spying for the Soviet Union. Cohn’s role in that trial is a subject for books, so I’ll move on by noting that the passage of time hasn't made him look any better.

A closeted gay man, Cohn died of AIDs in 1986. He denied having the disease. Several years after his death, Cohn appeared as a venomous character in Tony Kushner’s landmark work, Angeles in America.

For all the damage he left in his wake, Cohn probably would be slipping into obscurity were it not for one thing: his relationship with Donald J. Trump, a name with which you're probably familiar.

Thorough and essential, the documentary Where's My Roy Cohn? takes its title from an article that appeared in the New York Times in 2018. At the time, Trump reportedly was fuming about then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions' decision to recuse himself from the ongoing Russia investigation. “Where’s my Roy Cohn?” asked a frustrated Trump, suggesting that he needed a high-caliber fixer to navigate Washington's choppier waters. Cohn knew how to set aside niceties and pretense, he went for the jugular.

The Cohn/Trump connection dates to the 1970s when the Justice Department accused Trump's company of housing discrimination. Handled by Cohn, the case was settled without an admission of guilt, an outcome that was considered a triumph of sorts for the Trump organization.

Don't get the wrong impression. Where's My Roy Cohn isn't entirely focused -- or even primarily focused -- on the Trump/Cohn relationship. Director Matt Tyrnauer tells the story of a young man from the Bronx who matured into a ruthless proponent of an approach that eschewed debates about the intricacies of legal opinion. Cohn knew how and to whom pressure should be applied.

If Cohn was Trump's mentor, his student seems to have mastered many of the teacher's rules of public conduct: Attack those who criticize and never apologize, among them.

Bold as he was, Cohn never admitted his homosexuality. In public, he had no qualms about expressing homophobic opinions. But rumors about his sexuality were already afloat in the 1950s, thanks to a story that emerged about Cohn and his friend G. David Schine, a young man who worked as an unpaid assistant to McCarthy during the Army-McCarthy hearings.

At the time, Cohn tried to obtain an instant commission in the Army for Schine, a handsome fellow for whom Cohn purportedly had more than a friendly interest.

The documentary makes use of interviews with journalists who covered Cohn, among them Ken Auletta of The New Yorker and Mike Wallace, an interviewer who knew how to go on the attack. You’ll also hear from Roger Stone, a political operative who specializes in opposition research and who learned from Cohn.

Stone, you'll recall, was arrested In January of 2019 in connection with the Mueller investigation. If you're interested in Stone, you may want to watch Get Me Roger Stone, a documentary that will school you in Stone's approach to political maneuvering. Warning: A double-bill of Where's My Roy Cohn and Get Me Roger Stone might produce a near-toxic dose of cynicism in even the most hard-bitten viewers.

Like many before and after him, Cohn beat the loyalty drum when it served him and he found his way into social circles that ranged from tycoons (Aristotle Onassis to name one) to crime figures such as Carmine Galante and John Gotti. He counted Barbara Walters as a pal.

No review can do justice to all the details of Cohn’s 59 years. The son of a doting Jewish mother, Cohn was super-bright and well-educated; yet, his behavior seemed to run counter to anything that might be called an "intellectual" approach.

Where’s My Roy Cohn shows us a man who made no apologies, but should have spent nearly most of his adult years choking on remorse generated by actions that seemed to spring from unprincipled ambition. What Cohn helped unleash has yet to disappear from American life -- and we're all worse off for it.*

*Interest in Roy Cohn seems to be gaining momentum. Bully, Coward, Victim: The Story of Roy Cohn, a documentary by Ivy Meerepol, granddaughter of the Rosenbergs, recently played The New York Film Festival. The HBO documentary is scheduled to air next year.




Thursday, October 3, 2019

Phoenix gets behind the make-up in 'Joker'

Dark, violent and brooding. Is this a comic-book movie or a shrieking cry for help?

Set in a decaying, rot-infested Gotham City, the Joker attempts to show what happens when society’s “invisibles” are pushed to the breaking point. Kicking fanboy comic-book nostalgia to the curb, Joker brings us face-to-face with the madness that festers beneath the surface of a corrupted society. If Joker were to have a subtitle, it might be: Joker: Portrait of a Serial Killer.

But wait. Am I talking about Joker, the villain who Batman has been fighting for years and who previously has been played by Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger and who now falls into the hands of Joaquin Phoenix? I am.

Joker, which marches to one of the year's most ominous drumbeats, was directed by Todd Phillips, whose resume includes such raucous comedies as Old School and the Hangover movies. Who knew that Phillips had this kind of haunting, violent and grime-encrusted effort in him?

But then Phillips never worked with Phoenix before and Phoenix, in many ways, is the movie — with everything else working to support the insanity, insecurity, and terror of an incomparable and frightening performance. I don't think it's stretching the point to say that Phoenix and Phillips have used comic book characters to create an anti-comic-book movie.

Having lost considerable weight to play the Joker — a.k.a., Arthur Fleck — Phoenix borders on the skeletal; he’s portraying a man who’s virtually disappearing. His occupation (clown for hire) puts him behind a mask that, at least initially, doesn’t liberate him but pushes him further into anonymity while also subjecting him to any number of cruel derisions.

Everything about Arthur screams misfit, including a disorder that causes him to burst into choking, maniacal fits of laughter that can appear indistinguishable from crying jags and which have no relation to anything that's happening to Arthur at the moment.

Mugged and severely beaten early on, Arthur is prey awaiting rebirth as predator. It’s not an easy transition for Arthur, who previously was institutionalized and who now lives with his mother (Frances Conroy) in a shabby Gotham apartment building, which he reaches by ascending a steep flight of punishing stairs.

Imprisoned in a child-like state, Arthur only escapes his loneliness when he’s violent. Arthur cares for his diminished mother, even washing her hair as he sits tubside over her nakedness. Hardly good preparation for developing mature relations with women.

I have no idea whether Phillips and Phoenix set out to make this kind of movie or whether it evolved as they began to work together. If the latter, they trusted their instincts and built everything around Phoenix's performance from Mark Friedberg's dystopian production design to Hildur Guðnadóttir’s musical score, which emerges from the screen like a moan, the sound of a soul being crushed.

Set in dingy apartments, dirty subway cars, and littered streets, Joker becomes a vivid, night-crawler of a movie in which its comic-book roots are only half-heartedly acknowledged, and perhaps didn't need to be there at all.

The movie introduces us to young Bruce Wayne, who, of course, will grow up to be Batman. Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen) is an imperious tycoon with contempt for the masses he proposes to save by becoming the city's mayor. He calls them "clowns."

All of this produces a movie that’s compelling in ways that challenge convention while also drawing on the movie past, most notably Martin Scorsese’s King of Comedy. Not only has Robert De Niro, the star of King of Comedy, been cast as a talk-show host, but Arthur aspires to be a standup comedian, a pursuit for which he has no aptitude. He scrawls his idea of jokes into a notebook full of incoherent scribblings, hardly a manifesto.

Yet, when Arthur turns to violence — he shoots three drunken Wall Street types in a subway melee — his actions give rise to a social movement in which protesters don clown masks and shout down those who are rich enough to immunize themselves against the city’s rot.

The irony flows easily because Arthur has no interest in politics. He doesn’t want to change the social order; he wants to be seen, to bask in the limelight of an existence that's finally acknowledged and even celebrated. And, yes, Phoenix's performance also generates pity for this misbegotten figure.

Joker harbors one glaring false note. Arthur tries to form a relationship with a single mother (Zazie Beetz) whose attraction to Arthur challenges credibility. Arthur is too weird for this or any other relationship. Is Beetz's character's attraction to Arthur akin to the concern one might feel for an abused child? Whatever it is, it doesn’t ring true.

You probably know that Joker already has generated controversy. It won the top prize at the recently concluded Venice Film Festival but has been criticized for being too violent, for having the potential to cause violence and for encouraging facile enmity toward achievement and wealth.

On violence: Yes, the movie’s violent and, yes, it contains hints of brutal aggression toward its audience. It’s as if Phillips and Phoenix, with no small amount of defiance, want to challenge audiences to examine their love of villains and their taste for blood. They’re asking what happens if we strip away comic-book protections and show the real thing?

As a result, Joker brings its violence closer to us than most horror movies. Unlike in It Chapter Two, for example, evil isn’t something that recurs in 10-year intervals with supernatural assists; it’s lodged in the twisted psyche of the guy in the apartment next door. It's Taxi Driver's Travis Bickel reborn into a normless world.

Are the movie’s jabs at elitism and wealth justified or simplistic? Simplistic, of course, but don’t misunderstand. Joker isn’t a movie that's likely to inspire profound thoughts or discussions about its deeper meanings; it seems to want what its main character wants for himself, an inescapable and independent existence.

When Arthur fully emerges as Joker, he dances down those same steps that he climbed every day as he headed for his lonesome retreat. It’s a wild, uninhibited release of energy played against Gary Glitter's Rock and Roll, Part 2 -- and it's coming from a figure in clown make-up with a blood-red rictus drawn on his gaunt face.

That moment and others like it -- particularly when Phoenix incorporates dance into Joker's repertoire -- stand as unnerving bits of performance art: frightening, dangerous and eerie. It’s mad anarchy unleashed: terrifying and, in one harrowing moment, in charge. If that doesn't rattle you, I don't know what would.

Eddie Murphy's 'Dolemite is My Name'

There's nothing particularly novel about Dolemite is My Name, Eddie Murphy's unabashed tribute to Rudy Ray Moore, a real-life comedian in the 1970s tried to make a splash with his own version of a Blaxploitation film.

Before his foray into the film world, Moore invented a character called Dolemite, a fast-talker who dressed like a pimp, sported a globe-sized Afro wig, and used a cane as a prop.

In Moore, Murphy finds a character whose "crazy" ambition (Moore financed Dolemite with borrowed money) can't mask the fact that he’s basically a good guy. And Murphy gets laughs in ways that incorporate his fondness for the bygone era that produced such movies as Shaft and Super Fly.

Early on, Moore — who gets the idea for his act by talking to a homeless man with a gift for turning a phrase — works the Chitlin Circuit. He connects with audiences through what might be considered an early version of rap. He's finds his niche.

Craig Brewer (Hustle & Flow) directs as Murphy generously allows his supporting cast to share the limelight. Da'Vine Joy Randolph plays Lady Reed, a woman who Moore helps discover her own comic chops. Wesley Snipes seems to be having a great time as a marginally successful Hollywood type who finds himself directing Moore’s no-budget film.

Keegan Michael-Key portrays the movie's writer, a guy who thinks he has written a socially significant screenplay. Craig Robinson and Mike Epps sign on as part of Moore's crew.

Snoop Dogg does cameo duty as Murphy walks down the pop-cultural memory lane of his youth and also reminds us that there was a time when nothing could validate a show-business career like a movie. Murphy, who hasn't made a movie in a while but whose career needs no validation, holds the screen with ease, even though Dolemite operates mostly at B-movie levels.

Dolemite opens in limited markets Oct. 4 and will be available on Netflix starting Oct. 25. I’m sorry that the movie won't be playing in theaters everywhere because Murphy has made a film that only can benefit from being seen with an audience that's looking for a good time.

Thursday, September 26, 2019

Zellweger does justice to ‘Judy’

Judy isn't great, but Zellweger's performance carries the show.
Judy, a drama about the final months of Judy Garland's all-too-brief life, turns the iconic entertainer into a kind of prisoner of her pubic image. Garland's life fell prey to studio tyrants, drugs, bad marriages, and her own need to connect with audiences. Judy already is being hailed as an Oscar showcase for a transformed Renee Zellweger. Fair enough. Judy derives most of its power from Zellweger's performance.

Based on End of the Rainbow, a musical play by Peter Quilter, Judy survives a series of sometimes wooden flashbacks and an overly familiar story arc to reach an emotional conclusion that pays tribute to Garland's enormous capacity to entertain while recognizing the deep sadness that could pervade her life.

I don't think it qualifies as a spoiler to tell you that the movie's finale involves a deeply felt rendition of Garland's signature tune, Over the Rainbow. If you don't see that coming when the movie enters its third -- and best act -- you probably need to see more movies.

Set mostly in 1968, the story places Garland in a swirl of trouble, notably a battle with former husband Sid Luft (Rufus Sewell) over custody of their two children. Garland loved her kids but she couldn't give them the stability they needed.

Problems constantly threat to drag Garland down. Broke and hardly in demand, Garland takes a job in London to play the Talk of the Town nightclub. Not surprisingly, her appearance is marked by difficulties: She refuses to rehearse; she drinks too much; she can't sleep; she barely makes it to performances on time, and in the middle of all that, she decides to marry Mickey Deans (Finn Wittrock), her fifth and last husband.

It's obvious to us, if not to the love-starved Garland, that the marriage will be brief and bad.

In London, Rosalyn Wilder (Jessie Buckley) receives a tough assignment; she's supposed to look after Garland, who misses few opportunities to test Rosalyn's ample patience. As the impresario who brings Garland to London, Michael Gambon is given little to do aside from looking dyspeptic and skeptical. Underutilizing Gambon must always be regarded as a mistake.

In the flashbacks to her MGM days and The Wizard of Oz, Garland (Darci Shaw) finds herself in painful encounters with the tyrannical Louis B. Mayer (Richard Cordery), the mogul who controlled her with threats and humiliation. Garland eventually claimed that Mayer groped her, as well, something the movie hints at.

An effort to acknowledge Garland's importance in gay culture feels both necessary and yet forced. Andy Nyman and Daniel Cerqueira play a gay couple who meet Garland when she's leaving Talk of the Town after a performance. They wind up taking her to their apartment. She's lonely and their company proves welcome.

The two fans also figure in the movie's appropriately sentimental ending, which suggests that the only true love Garland ever experienced (aside from that of her children) was given by audiences.

Aided by prosthetics including a false nose, Zellweger's performance gathers the necessary force. A collection of tics, outbursts, displays of sincerity and vulnerability create a character who spent a lifetime taking morning pick-me-up drugs that she would counter with late-night sleeping pills.

The mannerisms that Zellweger employs make sense; they become Garland's mannerisms; her sometimes sharp motions suggest a person buffeted by ferocious gusts of inner turbulence.

Director Rupert Goold makes the most of Zellweger's transformation and the movie also benefits from the fact that Zellweger does her own singing. She's not Garland, but Zellweger works hard to sell Garland numbers such as Get Happy and puts brassy, entertaining showmanship into the musical numbers that she performs.

Make-up and singing aside, Zellweger hits home when it counts. When Garland calls young Lorna Luft (Bella Ramsey) from a London phone booth, Zellweger joins Garland's vulnerability to a level of self-realization that's heartbreaking.

Maybe this small and sometimes limited movie was inevitable. The figure of Garland was destined to dwarf any story about her and that happens here. Judy stands as a portrait of Garland at the end of a rainbow, one in which the promised pot of gold wound up being empty. You wonder whether the woman who had played Dorothy Gale, a character who awakened the dreams of so many, had lost the capacity to wish for herself.


Intriguing setup, limited payoff

Peter Sarsgaard headlines a story about a man who's obsessed with sound.

I’ve always been interested in obsessive characters who operate within a narrow range of behavior. In The Sound of Silence, we find one such character, a New York City man who calls himself a house tuner. Peter Lucien (Peter Sarsgaard) examines homes and tries to find the noise responsible for debilitations such as insomnia and depression.

A good night’s sleep might depend on something as simple as junking an old toaster and purchasing a newer model.

When he's not working with clients, Peter embarks on a far more ambitious project. Armed with tuning forks, he travels around the city to create a sound map. He's obsessed with searching for patterns. He's looking to see how sound shapes the lives of residents of a particular area.

Contrary to what you might expect, there’s nothing obviously freakish about Peter. He dresses neatly, treats his clients with respect and seems devoted to helping people.

Director Michael Tyburski brings a lonely woman (Rashida Jones) into the mix. Newly single, Jones's character asks Peter to help her deal with her insomnia.

Does she want something more from him? If so, is Peter capable of giving her more or is he too wrapped up in his pursuit of sonic revelations?

Tyburski widens the movie’s scope with other developments: At one point, Peter is courted by a tech firm that tries to convince people it can help bring harmony to their lives. He also struggles to find acceptance in the academic world, where he hopes the purity of his ambitions will earn him respect.

Despite a smart start, Tyburski and screenwriter Ben Nabors aren’t able to develop their movie into something rich and satisfying. Like the sound of the tuning forks Peter uses, the drama in The Sound of Silence starts strong and then fades out.

‘Dick Long’ harbors a bizarre secret

Two Alabama dimwits find themselves at the center of a comedy with a very weird twist.
Three Alabama dimwits are supposed to be rehearsing with their band, the oddly named Pink Freud. The rehearsal might be an occasion for the men to drink and smoke pot, but there's something more afoot. These good ole boys decide that it's time to "get weird."

It takes quite a while to learn what director Daniel Scheinert means by getting weird and when you find out, you may greet the newly acquired knowledge with a mixture of revulsion and disbelief.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

The Death of Dick Long serves up a low-life comedy about backward folks who reside in a small Alabama town.

As a result of that night of partying, one of them turns up dead, even though his buddies dump him (literally) at the doorstep of the local hospital. One the man's surviving pals is Zeke (Michael Abbott Jr.), a shaggy looking fellow with a wife and a daughter.

Zeke's running buddy Earl (Andre Hyland) seems detached from most everything, greeting just about any situation with a shrug as he vapes and blows out thick clouds of smoke. Perhaps intentionally, Zeke sports a haircut that evokes memories of Jim Carrey in Dumb and Dumber.

Scheinert treats the residents of this small town in a relaxed manner that allows them to make fun of themselves as the hapless Zeke and Earl try to cover their tracks to avoid being accused of murdering their friend.

But wait. A physician at the local hospital (Roy wood Jr.) has discovered something odd: The deceased man (Dick Long of the title) died from rectal hemorrhaging. Weirdness looms.

As his life falls apart, an increasingly nervous Zeke tries to deal with his wife (Virginia Newcomb), making up stories to ward off her suspicions.

At the same time, the local police chief (Janelle Cochrane) and her deputy (Sarah Baker) enter the story. They want to find out what happened to poor Dick Long.

No fair saying more, but know that the movie's big reveal is so off-putting and bizarre it challenges an audience to stay with these benighted characters as Scheinert begins to introduce a few serious touches to an otherwise wacky concoction that provides laughs while its characters squirm.

Abbott and Hyland make a good comic duo, but The Death of Dick Long eventually becomes a kind of kinky version of Dumb and Dumber. There are chuckles along the way but it's difficult not to wonder whether Scheinert wasn't trying too hard to sing in the weirdest possible key. The movie's big twist really is twisted.

Friday, September 20, 2019

'Ad Astra' proves weirdly involving

Brad Pitt travels deep into space -- both inner and outer.

Director James Gray's Ad Astra qualifies as a true oddity, a movie that manages to be both interesting and not entirely successful at the same time. Gray, who has made movies such as The Lost City of Z, Little Odessa and We Own the Night, this time dreams really big, setting his story amid the deep emptiness of space.

As astronaut Roy McBride, Brad Pitt takes a journey to Neptune where he must, roughly in this order, find the father who left him so that he could galavant around the galaxy, stop a powerful electric surge that has sent lethal shock waves to Earth, and, perhaps most importantly, commune with his emotionally wounded inner self so that he might finally be able to connect with someone else.

Pitt provides an offscreen narration in which he reveals Roy's thoughts, which come across as a dissertation on isolation; Roy tells us he's cut off from everyone. He does, however, sometimes confide with an unseen psychologist (an off-screen voice) who conducts a series of psychological evaluations. Roy generally passes -- although you might be tempted to think his answers feel a little too practiced, the speech of someone who's unable to connect his emotions to his thoughts.

The best parts of Ad Astra involve the set pieces that Gray stages with excitement and surprise: These include Roy's free-fall from an antenna that has been constructed at the atmosphere's outer limits, a chase sequence involving rovers on the surface of the moon, and a mission in which Roy and a colleague answer a distress call from a crippled vehicle.

En route to Neptune, Roy makes stops on the moon and on Mars. On Mars, he learns more about his father's fate from Helen Lantos (Ruth Negga), the woman who manages the space outpost.

Along the way, Gray offers commentary on the commercialism of humanity's great adventure. The moon, for example, boasts a dreary mall. No wonder Roy's outlook feels mired in futility: He does his duty; he's calm; his pulse never rises above 80 beats per minute; he screws up relationships; he makes mistakes; he's miserable.

Liv Tyler, who I believe never speaks, is used to suggest Roy's failures with women, but she's more like a vapor than a physical presence in the movie.

You should know that Roy's father -- presumed dead for years but possibly still alive on a spacecraft that floats above Neptune -- is played by Tommy Lee Jones, a bit of casting that tells us that Roy's journey to find his rogue dad needs a lalapalooza of a payoff. It's the dynamic Francis Ford Coppola set up in Apocalypse Now when he sent Martin Sheen up a river in search of Captain Kurtz.

It takes guts for a filmmaker to give his film such singular focus; we're being set up to be blown away should Roy and his father ever meet. If we're not ... well ... let's just say, it's not a good thing.

I'm simplifying Roy's story for the sake of brevity, but -- in the end -- it doesn't prove especially complex. The movie's message (it has one) puts an aphoristic gloss on its promise of something vast, cosmic and mysteriously profound. We're set up to expect Kubrick and Gray gives us daddy issues.

Still, I found myself breathing the thin air Gray creates and moving along with a movie that takes us on a trip that's weirdly arresting -- at least most of the time. Hey, as we're always being told; it's not the destination but the journey that matters.

Gray splays Roy's inner voyage across vast spaces, turning his movie into a metaphor with mythic and psychological overtones centering on absentee fathers (take that where you will) and what it means to be a man. You'll have lots of opportunities to study Pitt's face, as Roy burrows deep into his own psyche. Pitt pulls it off.

I can't say too much more without spoilers, but it's possible that Gray may have made a space adventure that can be read as a critique of every other space adventure, as well as of our desire to watch them. This is either brave or a little crazy -- or some mixture of both.

All I can say is that when I emerged from the auditorium where I saw Ad Astra, the lights in the corridor seemed to emit an eerie glow. Ad Astra teeters on the brink of something awe-inspiring without quite falling over. Can a movie be "nearly" visionary?



Thursday, September 19, 2019

'Downton Abbey,' a royal serving for fans

The popular series results in a big-screen effort that doesn’t make for a great movie but gives fans their money's worth.

In its final going, Downton Abbey —- the big-screen version of a six-season PBS smash-- began to feel like a six-season feature, at least it did for me. I'm saying the movie felt long. But, and it’s a major "but," Downton Abbey wasn't made for me. I'm a series slacker who only recently caught up with the first season in preparation for seeing the new movie. I owe my wife, an avid Downton enthusiast, for filling me in on the major plot points of ensuing seasons.

So, if you have a severe case of Downtonitis — stop here. Go see the movie. You will happily reacquaint yourself with most of the series’ characters and you’ll be able to indulge in the luxuriance of the fabled estate that imposes itself on the Yorkshire countryside.

If you love period-piece pleasures, Downton Abbey provides the season's most reliable overdose.

As you probably know, Downton Abbey also provides a home for bickering, scheming aristocrats who employ a cadre of bickering, scheming servants — almost all of whom are deeply committed to maintaining the estate and everything for which it stands.

Best not to think too deeply about what that estate stands for, notably class division and political stagnation that even the show’s creator, Julian Fellowes, can't present without showing a few cracks.

On TV, characters married downward or upward. The movie includes an assassination attempt and a bit of talk about British/Irish tensions. Mostly, though, characters ponder whether it's worth sacrificing personal fulfillment on the altar of propriety. Most vote for the propriety of the prevailing order.

Now because the movie is a mere 122 minutes long, not all the characters are given the kind of attention they received during six seasons. For some, it must have taken longer to don their costumes —- corsets for women, starched fronts for men — than to learn their lines.

Still, it can be rewarding simply to immerse in the carefully appointed aristocratic theme park that director Michael Engler and his production team create and, let’s be honest, celebrate. And, to be even fairer, I’ll say that Downton Abbey arrives on the big screen without too many visible signs of strain for having made the transition.

So what’s new about any of this? Well, there’s an episode in which a slightly more agreeable Thomas Barrow (Robert James-Collier), the gay footman promoted to the post of chief butler, openly and almost disastrously explores his gayness.

A fresh battle over inherited wealth breaks out, allowing cousin Maud Bagshaw (Imelda Staunton) and her maid Lucy (Tuppence Middleton) to arrive at Downton. Did I mention that the whole business centers on a visit from the King and Queen (Simon Jones and Geraldine James) that throws the entire Crawley household into a tizzy?

The pending arrival of royalty prompts Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) to bring retired head butler, a.k.a., Mr. Carson (Jim Carter), back to Downton so that he can enforce the standards to which he has dedicated his life.

The royal visit seems more important to the servants than those who dwell upstairs. They help is gravely offended when told that the royal party travels with its own staff and that the services of the locals will not be required or, worse, desired. What? Miss an opportunity to grovel at the feet of monarchs? Disasters don’t get much bigger, do they?

To heighten the snootiness brought by a team of royal servants, a traveling French chef (Philippe Spall) has been added, much to the dismay of down-to-earth Downton chef (Lesley Nicol).

The royal visit also provides a reason to introduce Princess Mary (Kate Phillips), daughter of the King and Queen. She's having marital difficulties and provides a reason for the story to take a brief side trip.

Written by Fellowes, the movie employs a farcical twist to deal with tensions between dueling groups of servants. It might be said that on-screen, Downton Abbey is more reliant on plot twists than on the kind of character issues the series more freely could explore.

I know. You’ve been waiting for me to say something about Maggie Smith. She's onboard of course as the imperious Violet Crawley, self-described as the old lady who frightens everyone, a role that she relishes. Smith fires a fair number of caustic darts and, in this telling, becomes part of a comic duo in which Isobel Merton (Penelope Wilton) plays counterpoint by insisting on empathy over insult.

I was a little disappointed that Lady Mary didn’t have more to do, that her sister, Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael) has lost some of her edginess, having settled into something approximating happiness and that Cora Crawley (Elizabeth McGovern), the American-born mistress of the manor, had no crucial scenes.

You'll notice that I've omitted some characters but going any further risks turning this review into a scorecard -- if I haven't done that already.

If you have Downtonitis and you’ve read this far, you’ll be happy to know that I’m nearly finished.

Part reunion and part lovefest, Downton Abbey's reliance on the affection its audience brings to the theater struck me as near-total. I'd guess that Fellowes and his cohorts have done nothing that's likely to diminish the devotion of Downton fans. I wonder, though, whether those who've never seen a Downton episode will feel quite so welcome in the Crawley household -- or whether they'll even feel as if they've been invited.


Bob's Cinema Diary: 9/20/19 -- Fantastic Fungi and Running with the Devil

If you watch a lot of movies, your consciousness often inevitably fragments to the breaking point. It’s possible, in the span of two films, to go from the generally overlooked world of fungi (yes, you read that right) to the massively over-observed (at least in movies) world of cocaine smuggling. I’m talking about Louie Schwartzberg’s documentary Fantastic Fungi and director Jason Cabell’s Running With The Devil, films that have no business being mentioned in the same breath, which is why I couldn't resist putting them together.

Let’s start with the healthy side of the ledger and a confession. What I know about mushrooms (magic or otherwise) is precisely nothing -- and, at the moment, I'm not especially fond of them. Mushrooms have mounted a late-summer invasion of my lawn, and some of them are not pleasing to the eye, protruding from the earth in a form that resembles a rotting phallus.

Of course, I’m not giving mushrooms their due -- as those who spend their time studying them, appreciating them and sometimes eating them would attest.

Narrated by Brie Larson (who occasionally speaks for the usually silent mushrooms), Fantastic Fungi includes commentary from authors such as Michael Pollan and Andrew Weil. It also focuses on the work of Paul Stamets, a mycologist who has made mushrooms his life and who runs a business cultivating, finding and selling all manner of mushrooms, which evidently come in an astonishing variety, 1.5 million species worth. Judging by the movie, it might be wise to think of Stamets as a human ambassador to the fungi world.

The movie is designed to provide information about the essential role that mycelium, part of a fungus, plays in keeping the planet balanced. Mycelium helps the earth digest decaying, carbon-based matter, keeping the earth’s life cycle — birth/decay/death/more birth —- humming.

Schwartzberg offers time-lapse views of mushroom growth and introduces us to the staggering array of mushrooms that grow in the earth’s forests. He also includes commentary from psychologists who suggest that ingesting certain kinds of mushrooms in controlled dosages can play an important role in coping with depression and dealing with other psychiatric issues.

In short, we may not be paying enough attention to the psilocybin mushroom, which can take us on a trip without having to go through airport security. The documentary shows psilocybin being taken in pill form under supervised conditions.

A bit of a commercial for mushrooms, Fantastic Fungi nonetheless should please those who ascribe to the idea, as the film does, that nature is intelligent.

Now, for a different drug:

In the age of opioids, a movie about the cocaine trade immediately and perhaps inevitably feels passe.

Running With the Devil functions as a kind of primer about how cocaine moves from Columbia to the US market, increasing in price with each step of its illicit journey. A strong cast — led by Nicolas Cage and Laurence Fishburne — can’t do much to elevate a by-the-numbers movie steeped in the violence and debauchery surrounding the drug trade.

The characters who populate Running With the Devil all have generic names. Cage, for example, portrays The Cook, a pizza chef who supplements his income in the cocaine trade -- or maybe it's the other way around. Fishburne portrays a character called The Man, an ambitious participant in the trade who’s gotten too deeply involved in sampling the merchandise and cavorting with hookers. Barry Pepper plays The Boss, a character who needs no further explanation. Cole Hauser appears as The Executioner. Can you guess his occupation? I thought you might.

The movie eventually finds Cage and Fishburne hiking through the North American wilderness en route to their final destination.

A mostly male production, Running With the Devil does include one major female character. Leslie Bibb portrays the DEA agent who’s trying to stop the drug trade.

With big money involved betrayals can’t be far behind and the screenplay, also by Cabell, has them.

Hints of Tarantino blow through a story which includes a surprise ending that you should see coming. Looking bookish and scholarly, Cage puts on an all-business front, with traces of madness, of course. His performance contrasts to Fishburne’s display of wanton carelessness.

I can't recall seeing Fishburne play a character such as this, but Running With the Devil stumbles as it laboriously works its way through the familiar piles of white-powder crime.