What to Watch: "Downton Abbey" & "Men"

Plus further suggestions for weekend streaming

What to Watch: "Downton Abbey" & "Men"

The Nut Graf: “Downton Abbey: A New Era” (in theaters, **1/2 stars out of ****) You can take the Crawleys out of England but can you take the England out of the Crawleys? And why would you want to? “Men” (in theaters, *** stars out of ****) is the latest unsettling fever dream of misogyny’s discontents from the gifted Alex Garland (“Ex Machina”).

Gotta catch ’em all: “Downton Abbey: A New Era”

I rather enjoy it when the two major movies opening on a given weekend are so diametrically opposed in intent and execution as to effectively cancel each other out. Everyone who wants a warm, pleasant, toothless bath in nostalgia for a time and place none of us lived in (and may not have actually existed), stand over here in this line for “Downton Abbey: A New Era.” All those seeking an unnerving high-end horror allegory about the psychological exhaustion that comes with being a woman, queue over here for “Men.” Do theaters showing both movies run the risk of unraveling in space-time? All the two have in common is real-estate porn. But maybe that’s enough.

The new “Downton Abbey” film movie eventually won me over, but I went kicking and screaming. I’ve always found the series the silliest of shows, classist milksop for US audiences who miss having a household staff of 20 and tenant farmers who know their place. The fact that actor Hugh Bonneville, who plays Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham, has complained of being repeatedly mistaken for an actual titled peer whenever he visits America is even funnier; if you have a British accent in this country, of course you’re a Member of the House of Lords or second cousin to the Queen. The TV series lost me at the end of Season 3 when they killed off Matthew Crawley minutes after his wife had given birth because Dan Stevens wanted a movie career. (Which has turned out to be a mixed bag so far but at least has given us “Eurovision Song Contest” and “I’m Your Man.”) But the movies keep sucking me in: I’m torn between sinking into the cozy bonhomie of the “Downton” universe – where even a righteously angry Irish socialist like Tom Branson is absorbed and neutered – and wanting to dynamite the place down to the foundations.

“Is that a peasant in the topiary?”

The opening scenes of “A New Era” are dreadful, the assembled cast trotted out one by one, upstairs and downstairs, and forced to bring us up to date with some of the most piebald expository dialogue I’ve heard outside a middle-school play. But then the two-pronged plot machine kicks in. On one prong is the villa in the South of France that has been unexpectedly left to Maggie Smith’s aged Dowager Countess by a recently deceased ex-beau. The wife of said beau (French screen legend Nathalie Baye) is not at all happy, but her son (Jonathan Zaccaï) seems oddly open to the idea and invites the Crawleys for an extended visit. So half the family and their servants troop off to the Continent while Lady Mary Crawley (Michelle Dockery) stays behind to deal with the other plot development, a film crew that wants to use the Abbey as a set for a Hollywood movie.

The time period is the mid-1920s, so it’s a silent picture just as talkies are coming in and it turns out that the lead actress (Laura Haddock) is a nasty piece of work with a voice like an industrial tin-shredder and that’s a problem when they decide to turn it into a talking picture halfway through but maybe there’s someone on the grounds who could dub a rich British accent for the star and, yes, you and I liked this much, much better when it was called “Singin’ In the Rain.” But you go along because screenwriter Julian Fellowes (who has made a career and a fortune selling this tosh) provides complications and satisfying closure for every last one of the characters, even the annoying ones like Molesley (Kevin Doyle, center below), a butler so jittery and hapless that no one wants him for their own – and yet, he hangs around, season after season, movie after movie.

Still, I wanted someone to throw a punch every now and then. Or actually have the extramarital affair that is dangled before one major character. (No sex, please, they’re Crawleys.) Even the Dowager Countess, that epitome of entitled, who-gives-a-flying-finial rudeness, has been softened and sweetened this time around, for reasons that eventually become clear. If you ask me, that’s a criminal waste of Maggie Smith, and it needs to be investigated. At the very least, sit the offending parties down for a viewing of “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.”

Otherwise, if you’re here for the production values, know that “Downton Abbey: A New Era” doesn’t just wallow shamelessly in estate porn but also villa porn, yacht porn, and Roaring Twenties fashion porn. The theaters showing this should come with fainting couches.

The house in “Men” is not a vast abbey but a rambling old country home, well-appointed and welcoming, with an AGA in the kitchen and musty corners to explore. The kind of place a young woman like Harper (Jessie Buckley, above) would snap up if she found it on AirBnB, especially if she’s running from a recent trauma involving an abusive husband (Paapa Essiedu). The house’s owner, Geoffrey (Rory Kinnear), is an awkward, ingratiating fellow, but he leaves Harper to her own devices, exploring the rural village and its surrounding countryside. Only gradually do she and we sense that something is out of kilter in this verdant corner of England, that its roots go back to pre-civilization and that its branches extend across all levels of society.

That makes the movie sound like an oozy, gory creature feature, and in the final scenes it becomes just that, to its detriment. But writer-director Alex Garland is after something eerier and more allusive – a horror movie of toxic male neediness. Garland made “Ex Machina” (2014), with Alicia Vikander as a cyborg who coolly undoes her own maker (Oscar Isaac), and he followed that up with “Annihilation” (2018), an underrated Kubrick-style freak-out about a team of women scientists investigating an alien “zone” that has appeared on Earth. He’s an absurdly gifted and intelligent filmmaker, and that makes “Men” a rapt, suspenseful watch even as its ultimate meaning feels both glib and underdeveloped.

Buckley, herself a shape-shifting talent who knows what to do with ambiguity (see “I’m Thinking of Ending Things”), is very appealing, terrified and tough in equal measure as Harper is visited by a variety of local characters: a slippery-handed vicar, a creepy young boy with the face of a man (above), a yob from down th’ pub, a policeman who questions her accusations, and – by far the most unsettling of all – a wanderer in the woods who’s either a homeless mental patient or the Green Man of pre-Christian paganism. That every one of these men is played by Kinnear, made-up, digitally altered, or otherwise reconfigured, only adds to the nightmare queasiness of the film.

“Men” starts with both feet in realism and gradually steps farther and farther away; it’s a film heavy with dream-logic and mythology. Too heavy? Perhaps. But I imagine many women, if not all, have had a day, or a week, or a year of feeling that every man they meet looks at them with eyes teetering between insecurity and fury, waiting for one wrong word to go medieval. The movie’s a broad brush wielded by a visionary.

Quick picks if you’re desperate for a weekend movie on demand:

On Netflix: “Private Life” (2018) – A sweetly bedraggled bad-idea comedy about a pair of Lower Manhattan churchmice (Paul Giamatti and Kathryn Hahn) seeking an egg donor in a distant family member. Written and directed by Tamara Jenkins (“The Savages”) with a wry and delicate touch.

On Amazon Prime: “Robot and Frank” (2012) – Frank Langella has never had enough lead roles, so this sneaky little indie is a find, a charmer with an edge about an aging misanthrope whose son buys him a robot assistant that may come in handy for late-life larceny.

On HBO Max: “I ❤️ Huckabees” (2004) – Back when it came out, I gave David O. Russell’s messy metaphysical farce the full four stars while the critic for the Boston Herald gave it zero; a local theater posted both reviews and dared audiences to make up their own minds. Let’s just say it’s hard to feel indifferent about a movie that casts Dustin Hoffman and Lily Tomlin as existential detectives and Mark Wahlberg as a fireman who rides his bicycle to fires. I say it’s the first all-star Zen koan: “How am I not myself?”

On Paramount+: “Annihilation” (2018) — That Alex Garland movie I mentioned above? It’s available for VOD rental on most platforms but streaming for free on Paramount+. The old scientific-team-goes-up-against-an-alien-intelligence storyline is given a twist with a strong female cast that includes Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, and Tessa Thompson.

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