by Alan Yudman


A bell chimes, the music swells and eventually a drone camera flies over the familiar manor. It’s at that point less than 5 minutes into the movie that I knew I was going to adore DOWNTON ABBEY.


This is an entire movie of fan service. Nearly every character from the show’s 6 seasons who didn’t die in a war, from eclampsia or in a car wreck returns just as you remember them. The Dowager Countess and Isobel, Robert and Cora, Ladies Mary and Edith, Tom Branson, the downstairs staff… are all back though some have more to do than others. No Lily James as Lady Rose (guess she couldn’t make it back from America. That’s what happened, right?)


The story revolves around a visit from King George V and Queen Mary. That is the through line upon which other plots are hung. The preparations, the visit itself and a ball at Princess Mary’s castle nearby are just background for everything else. As a result, there is no real story arc other than pulling off the Royal visit. But that’s ok. Because all anyone wants to see is our favorite characters doing that with which we are familiar. Tom Branson has more nobility than any nobleman. Lady Mary has a killer bob and worries about the future of Downton. Lady Edith pushes away from tradition and yearns for a more modern existence. And most joyously, Violet trades quips with Cousin Isobel. I was there for all of it.


The downstairs staff has to deal with the truly horrible members of the Royal household. The King’s Page of the Backstairs, the head housekeeper and an assistant seamstress are simply awful. They dismiss the staff as incapable of serving the King and Queen and the Crawley family as insignificant leaders of a minor house. That unites the staff (lead by Mr. and Mrs. Bates and over the objections of Carson) in hatching a scheme to take back their house and their dignity. Mr. Carson returns to take over Butler duties for a seemingly overwhelmed Barrow. Barrow, feeling shoved aside, takes up with an assistant royal valet. Daisy remains a revolutionary who wants to grow beyond her role as assistant cook.


I know. That’s a lot. And I am barely scratching the surface. The whole movie feels like it could have been another couple of episodes to open a seventh season that never came. That’s smart if you just want to please fans. And DOWNTON ABBEY is all about pleasing fans. Julian Fellowes keeps it simple. He stays faithful to each character and doesn’t invent some elaborate story that would have felt out of place. So, if you were expecting some grand political statements that portend a future that includes Brexit and the irrelevancy of the Royal Family, well you don’t know Downton.


You may be asking, why make a movie and not just another short season? Only Lord Fellowes (yes, he’s a member of Parliament) can answer that, but here’s a few guesses. They couldn’t get the cast to commit to another full season. The show started feeling tired toward the end. I still loved it, but it was starting to crumble around the edges like an ignored estate. A new platform means the opportunity to make piles of money. While all that may be true, here’s my number one reason. This all just felt grander on the big screen. The cinematography was spectacular. Downton never looked better or more regal than it does here. High sweeping drone shots of Highclere Castle set against the English countryside are enough to make an Anglophile swoon. The music is bigger. The familiar theme from the TV show was played mostly on a piano. Here employing a full orchestra makes John Lunn’s score feel immense and powerful. Fellowes’ screenplay is perfectly familiar.


Maybe there are too many subplots… I lost track at about the “F” plot… but it is far from annoying and I loved nearly every minute. One quibble is with the plot that sees Barrow going to an underground gay club in York and being arrested. In case you forgot, being gay in the United Kingdom was a crime well into the 1970’s. It sort of worked until nearly the end of that thread which felt a little preachy and eye-rolly.


DOWNTON ABBEY is far from a perfect movie. I doubt it will win any awards. But it felt like lighting a fire in the drawing room and curling up with a familiar book while your family is gathered around you. It’s comfort food. And we could all use a little comfort food these days.



by Alan Yudman


Here is a pro tip for anyone who reads reviews before going to see a movie. Don’t.

Sometimes I find it difficult to follow my own advice. Such was the case with HUSTLERS. I heard the buzz, read a couple of reviews and was ready to see the best movie of my life. Ok, I’m exaggerating. But the buzz on this film was incredible. The movie, not so incredible. Yes, I feel like I was Hustled.


Don’t get me wrong, this is a very enjoyable movie. But it is a flawed one. Depending on how you want to look at it, it’s either a revenge movie with the dancers getting back at the Wall Street hustlers who swindled people during the 2008 crash or a psychological drama about how a vulnerable person can be manipulated by a psychopath. Here’s a spoiler… it’s both.


The film is based on a 2015 article by Jessica Pressler for The Cut, “The Hustlers at Scores”. It’s the true story of how these dancers ran up hundreds of thousands of dollars in charges on clients’ credit cards after slipping each of them a mickey. Lopez’s Ramona is the leader of the crew and takes Constance Wu’s Destiny into her fur coat and under her wing. Ramona is the

Queen Bee of this hive. She is the best dancer, the most in demand by guys and she knows how to use her gifts to make money. She just takes it to the next level with her scheme to rip off the guys. Destiiny appears to be inexperienced and desperate to learn the tricks of the trade from Ramona. And it all works great. The girls are making money like crazy until they are finally caught and arrested.


The reviews have lauded Lopez’s performance. Mostly that’s deserved. She is tough and uncompromising. But she is also a bit of a manipulative psychopath. She wants to make money, to make the guys “pay” at all costs. She doesn’t see how they are becoming vulnerable. And when Destiny questions her leadership she tosses her aside. Wu’s character has an arc. Lopez’s has a purpose. Ramona is the real villain of this story. She takes advantage of Destiny’s vulnerability for her own gain. She hustles her. How Wu works through that is the heart of this story.


There are a lot of noteworthy performances. Keke Palmer and Lili Reinhart are great as members of the crew. Cardi B and Lizzo have fun, yet small parts as strippers in the club.


Lorene Scafaria does a fine job as both director and screenwriter. She really nailed the atmosphere of a gentleman’s club. The women are portrayed as strong and powerful, not just nude playthings for the men. The scheme is fun and funny. You find yourself rooting for the crew as they target each guy and take them for all they can.


The psychological drama is disturbing as Destiny falls deeper into the web spun by Ramona. I actually enjoyed that part of the film more than the “hustle”. That is where Wu shines. She is vulnerable even when she is trying to project power and strength. Wu always looks to Lopez for approval until she is pushed aside for a newer model. Then she is desperate to figure out why and what happened. But Wu also sees what is happening because Lopez is hiring dicey characters it makes the crew vulnerable. It all comes crashing down when they are arrested in a sting that comes to fruition because of one of those dicey hires. And despite all that, Wu still seeks approval and the friendship of Lopez. It is a tough and vulnerable performance and Wu’s star continues to shine bright.


The theme of the hustle is threaded throughout the story. The dancers are hustling the guys. Ramona is hustling Destiny. And Destiny is hustling the journalist who is interviewing her (a very small but important role for Julia Stiles). Is it all a metaphor for America? Ramona as much says so in one scene. If it is, that is a pathetic commentary on society.





CITY ON A HILLBy Alan Yudman


Showtime’s CITY ON A HILL is a lot. A lot of story, a lot of corruption, a lot of cast and a lot of “chowdah”. Set in Boston in the late 1980’s, the show features a corrupt FBI Agent (Kevin Bacon), and an ambitious and idealistic young prosecutor (Aldis Hodge) who team up with the goal of getting rid of corruption in Boston. Then there is a crew of robbers who are ripping off armored cars lead by Frankie Ryan (Jonathan Tucker) who is trying to keep his family together while “taking care of it”(his signature response when a problem arises).


The Matt Damon/Ben Affleck produced show is well acted and has a lot of potential for exploring the DEPARTED/BLACK MASS territory in more depth. But instead of going deep on a couple of storylines, the show casts a wide net. At times it feels a mile wide and an inch deep.  The cast is enormous and talented. In addition to Bacon, Hodge and Tucker there are (deep breath).. Jill Hennessy, Mark O’Brien, Lauren E. Banks, Kevin Dunn, Amanda Clayton, Sarah Shahi, Jere Shea, Cathy Moriarty, James Remar. All have significant roles, so as you can see if you have that many mouths to feed someone will go hungry. In this case it’s the audience.


Surrounding the main plot of the heist and investigation are Bacon’s family drama, Hodge’s wife’s career, and Tucker’s family drama. And there are subplots piled on subplots. It never gets confusing because nothing is explored in any depth. For example, Tucker’s oldest daughter has obviously witnessed some type of trauma that is giving her nightmares. We sort of find out what it’s connected to but never explicitly learn what happened. Hennessy is Bacon’s aggrieved and tormented wife who has to deal with his attitude and infidelity. We find out she’s been abused as a child, but so late in the series it’s treated more as a bombshell than a piece of a larger story. Shahi is a state police detective who references her Persian heritage and how she tries to pass as one of Boston’s Aqua Netted natives. She has a wonderfully honest and well-acted scene where she admits she’ll never be one of “them”. But once that threat is pulled, it is cut and disposed of. Plus, that stated goal at the beginning of the series, cleaning up the corrupt Boston and Suffolk County system, is never really explored or fulfilled.


Those are just a few examples. What keeps this from being an unwatchable mess are Bacon and Hodge (and in a smaller role, Shahi). Their working tension and scheming behind each other’s backs is the heart of the series. Bacon puts on his tough FBI agent façade but is tormented by his mother-in-law and his reputation. He buries himself in cocaine and drowns his sorrows in booze. He is a bastard and hard to like. Hodge’s ambition is thwarted by Bacon’s hubris and his own idealism. But he plays the calm, calculating prosecutor very well.


If Showtime decides on a second season for CITY ON A HILL, here’s hoping they decide to drop some of the B, C and D plots and give more time and depth to whatever the main story will be. Thatwould be bet ter for the actors and the audience.


by Alan Yudman

Swipe up. Double tap. Swipe up. Double tap. If you have ever opened Instagram on your phone you recognize those gestures. Browsing through the people you follow looking at food, selfies, vacation venues and booping the noses of dogs. Apparently it can also be quite a dark place. A place where lonely people live through the experiences of others or only know what is cool because an “influencer” tells them so. While that’s not especially healthy, INGRID GOES WEST takes it to the next level.

The damaged psyche of Aubrey Plaza’s Ingrid is apparent from the first scene where we see her sweating and crying in a car while looking at her Instagram friend Cindy’s feed and doing the “swipe, double tap”. And the crazy is confirmed when she barges into Cindy’s wedding to mace her and call her a bitch for not inviting her.

It is both a critique and affirmation of our culture, where social media is great for making connections but all too often replaces human interaction. If your mental state is fragile enough, as Ingrid’s is, you can believe a like is an opening to deeper understanding. Ingrid stares at her phone her thumb swiping, desperate for her new “friend” Taylor (Elizabeth Olsen) to like a comment Ingrid made on a post. When she not only likes it but comments back, Ingrid takes this as an invitation to move to California so they can be friends.

Ingrid appears to crave connections like this because she is alone in the world. Her mother has died and left her enough money to make the move to Venice. She “accidentally” runs into Taylor, she gets her hair done like hers, she buys the same clutch as Taylor because that is the way they can be alike. The crazy keeps ramping up. Stealing Taylor’s dog and returning it to seem like a hero and deepen their connection. Buying a piece of art by Taylor’s husband. Ingrid continues to spiral down a rabbit hole that is filled with killer bunnies.

But, the film also points out how Taylor is a phony. Her husband reveals that books she posts about are really his favorites. Taylor was just a nerdy young woman before she started down her own rabbit hole of phony. So who is sicker? The person living the lie or the person trying to adopt the life of that person. A question you, or your psychotherapist will have to figure out.

The movie works because of Plaza and Olsen. While you recognize Plaza’s crazy, you feel more sorry for her than scared of her. She does things with her eyes and smile that any fan of PARKS AND RECREATION will recognize. Plaza can make crazy seem endearing. Olsen has a chameleon-like ability to fully become the person she portrays whether it’s Taylor or the Red Witch in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The only real “fun” performance is from O’Shea Jackson, Jr. who plays Ingrid’s landlord/love interest.

INGRID GOES WEST hits some very dark themes. But there is a twist at the end which seems to torpedo the whole message the filmmakers (Director and Co-writer Matt Spicer and writer David Branson Smith) had been telegraphing the whole movie. It’s almost like they couldn’t fully commit to a dark ending that the story seems to demand. Even so, INGRID GOES WEST says something that people need to hear and should make you think twice the next time you mindlessly pick up your phone to Tweet or Insta (god I hate that term). Don’t pick up the phone. Go and interact with real people. If you don’t you could be Ingrid.