Downton Abbey//Season 4//Episode Six

Written by Julian Fellowes
Directed by Philip John
Originally aired October 27, 2013 (ITV)
Rebroadcast February 2, 2013 (PBS)

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You know that moment in every horror movie where the girl who ends up being the only survivor is alone somewhere and there’s that really creepy point of view shot of her? It shifts around in the bushes, kind of out of sight but not really. And then there’s a dramatic cut and for just a moment you think she’s a goner. Then it turns out to be the creepy boyfriend of her best friend who’s good looking but knows it. He’s always the first to disappear so no one thinks too much of it. After this moment passes, the girl almost always responds that she wasn’t scared just startled. This textbook exchange goes a long way toward explaining how I feel about the twists in Downton Abbey. Though they are predictable in almost every way they are still engaging as a dramatic exercise, a routine that defines the rhythm of the series. Making up for lost time, Episode Six gets a lot of things right including an array of surprises that begin as a bit of harmless, indulgent fun on the part of one of the series’ most contemptibly loveable characters. This episode delves into issues of race and class, committing itself with careful seriousness to both. Though it is never far from gross over simplification, Downton succeeds in giving these topics a sense of personality that empowers rather overshadows them. Continue reading

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Only God Forgives (2013)

Written & Directed by Nicholas Winding Refn

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I’ve spent a lot of time in the past year watching short films made by high school students. As a generalization they tend to fall into two camps: lark and homage. The larks are easy enough to identify. They’re sloppy, earnest and regularly joyous exercises in self-expression. The homages are generally blatant rip offs from young cinephiles eager to demonstrate how well they use their Netflix account. The trouble isn’t that these films are pretentious; there are plenty of movies made by grown adults that are too. The bigger issue is how these young artists confuse being informed by certain directors with simply stealing their artistic vision. I met a young filmmaker who ended his movie with a character saying, “Long live the new flesh.” When I insinuated that I recognized the 80s body horror film he derived the line from, he responded, “Well, that’s what Tarantino does.” I bring all this up for two reasons. The first is that, like it’s predecessor Drive, Nicholas Winding Refn’s latest film, Only God Forgives, is dedicated to the divisive avant-garde filmmaker Alejandro Jodobrowsky. The second is that watching Only God Forgives regularly feels like watching a high schooler’s interpretation of a Nicholas Winding Refn film. Continue reading

Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (2013)

Written & Directed by David Lowery

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If you were to exclusively and thoroughly engaged with a strain of American films from 1970s it’s possible that you’d come to the conclusion that modern filmmaking was less about telling conventionally dramatic stories than about creating and sustaining atmosphere. Ain’t Them Bodies Saints director David Lowery is not the first American filmmaker to borrow the visual rhythm and tempo of Terrence Malick, not to mention his fascination with the American landscape. Last year, Jeff Nichols added to his increasingly impressive resume the magical Mud, treating audiences to a fable-like exploration of his home state of Arkansas. The year prior, Beasts of the Southern Wild imagined the ragged beauty of a post-apocalyptic bayou and its rambunctious, DIY survivors. Leaning heavily on the pastoral beauty of Days of Heaven (1978) while lightly applying some of the fatalism of Bad Lands (1973), Ain’t Them Bodies Saints wants very much to be significant. So much so that it sacrifices many opportunities for the drama necessary to be meaningful. Continue reading

Downton Abbey//Season 4//Episode Five

Written by Julian Fellowes
Directed by Philip John
Originally aired October 20, 2013 (ITV)
Rebroadcast January 26, 2013 (PBS)

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Episode Five finds Downton Abbey in emotional limbo. There’s a heavy sense of atmospheric hangover from the first half of the season. Yet, despite the “resolution” of the series’ latest major conflict, little is done to shift the overall tone. Having resorted with greater frequency than ever to forays into London and lavish parties brimming with potential intrigue, when left to its own devices Downton suffers from an inexplicable unwillingness to set up future conflict, preferring to resolve things within the body of each episode. There is very little at stake here and thus very little reason to invest energy into what trifling drama there is. The midpoint of any season is difficult to maneuver as things shift from ramping up to winding down. Unfortunately this episode of Downton, with its characteristic languid pace, hangs limply like a windless sail. Continue reading