By Susan Granger
Special to WestportNow
If you’re an avid fan of PBS’ dramatic series “Downton Abbey,” you’ll relish the big-screen version. If you aren’t, you’ll probably wonder who these people are and why the audience adores them.
Conceived by Julian Fellowes, the 52-episode TV series spanned a 14-year period from 1912 to 1926, set in the titular 300-room British country house (Highclere Castle) that was magnificently landscaped in the 18th century by Capability Brown.
It’s now a year later in the home of aristocratic Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville), his American heiress wife Cora (Elizabeth McGovern), their eldest daughter Mary (Michelle Dockery), her beleaguered sister Edith (Laura Carmichael), and their Irish Republican, widowed brother-in-law Tom Branson (Allen Leech).
The extended Crawley family includes the acerbic Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith) and her equally tart nemesis, Isobel Merton (Penelope Wilton).
They’re tended by a battalion of devoted servants: retired Head Butler Carson (Jim Carter), new Head Butler Barrow (Robert James-Collier), Ladies’ Maid Anna (Joanne Froggatt), Valet Bates (Brendan Coyle) Housekeeper Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan), Footman Molesley (Kevin Doyle), Cook Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nicol) and her assistant Daisy (Sophie McShera), among others.
Everyone’s atwitter when the Royal Mail arrives, announcing that King George V and Queen Mary (grandparents of Elizabeth II) will arrive for an overnight visit, involving a luncheon, parade and formal dinner.
Traveling with them to Yorkshire are Lord Grantham’s estranged cousin, enigmatic Lady Maud Bagshaw (Imelda Staunton), and her devoted maid, Lucy (Tuppence Middleton), inciting an inheritance battle.
Working with screenwriter Julian Fellowes, director Michael Engler manages to give everyone his/her own mini-crisis and catharsis, involving proper manners and utmost civility, drawing on the trials and tribulations of England’s inherent class system, which exists despite anti-monarchist grumbles.
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Downton Abbey” is an elegant, endearing 8, totally satisfying for those who have embraced this charming cast of characters.
Written and directed by her best friend/former roommate Paul Downs Colaizzo, “Brittany Runs a Marathon” is the true-life saga of Brittany O’Neill who went from self-proclaimed mess to enthusiastic marathoner.
Living on the Upper West Side, tart, self-deprecating, 27-year-old Brittany (Jillian Bell) stands 5-feet-6, weighs 227 pounds, smokes a pack-and-a-half of Marlboro Lights every day, carries six figures worth of student loan debt and is inclined to engage in toxic relationships.
Despite that, she’s always up for a good time. While visiting a new doctor in an attempt to get an Adderall prescription, Brittany is told she needs to lose 45 pounds. “That’s the weight of a Siberian husky!” she replies.
But when her neighbor Catherine (Michaela Watkins) invites her to join a runners’ group, she befriends equally-out-of-shape Seth (Micah Stock), starting with the goal of running a mile. But soon one mile becomes more as Brittany becomes more self-confident.
Eventually, she’s determined to run the grueling 26.2 miles of the New York Marathon. Accompanying her physical transformation is an emotional one, as Brittany views healthier relationships, including new roommate Jern (Utkarsh Ambudkar).
Her commitment and achievement are admirable but, unfortunately, somewhere along the way, Brittany loses her sense of humor. And far too much time is spent at the Marathon, which Colizzo filmed in 2017, working with the New York Road Runners, hosts of the annual event.
But this is a perfect showcase for “SNL’s” Jillian Bell. “When I read the script, I laughed and cried,” Bell recalls. “I’m terrified but I don’t want anyone else to play it, because I love her and I know her and I’ve been her.”
On the Granger Gauge, “Brittany Runs a Marathon” is a steadfast 7 — about turning your life around.
When sleaze is not considered sleaze, it’s coupled with sisterhood. That’s the premise of Lorena Scafaria’s flesh & feminism “Hustlers,” revolving around sex workers in a New York strip club.
Inspired by a 2015 New York Magazine article by Jessica Pressler, their story is revealed from the perspective of Destiny (Constance Wu), recalling it to a journalist (Julia Stiles).
Raised by her grandmother in Queens, Destiny has a high school GED and no skills. So she dons a G-string and glitter pumps to lap dance a strip club where she’s dazzled by Ramona (Jennifer Lopez), who takes Destiny as her protégé — enveloping her in a fur coat one wintry night.
First, Destiny must learn pole dancing, which Ramona demonstrates with stamina and skill. “Doesn’t money make you horny?” Lopez purrs amid the neon fantasy. Then there’s 2008’s stock market crash, and Wall Street spenders are more difficult to fleece.
That’s when Ramona and Destiny recruit Annabelle (Lili Reinhart) and Mercedes (Keke Palmer) to seduce gullible, hardy-partying guys into the strip club where they slip knockout drops into their drinks in order to empty their wallets and max out their credit cards.
An entire scene is devoted to how — with girlish glee — they cook up the MDMA-ketamine concoction they use on their marks. “Just a sprinkle,” Ramona instructs them.
Rather than cast moral judgment on their actions, writer/director Scafaria celebrates their female empowerment, relishing their solidarity and loyalty to one another. Plus, there’s the big-screen debut of former Bronx stripper Cardi B, along with Lizzo and Usher cameos.
Eventually, the NYPD catches onto their con, and the four women are charged with grand larceny, forgery, conspiracy, and assault. Since they serve little or no jail time, Ramona’s concludes: “This whole country is a strip club. You got people tossing the money and people doing the dance.” At least it’s a step up from “Showgirls” (1995).
On the Granger Gauge, “Hustlers” is a spiky-sly 6, a stripper scam.
(Editor’s Note: Westport resident Susan Granger grew up in Hollywood, studied journalism with Pierre Salinger at Mills College, and graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with highest honors in journalism. In addition to writing for newspapers and magazines, she has been on radio/television as an anchorwoman and movie/drama critic for many years. See her reviews at www.susangranger.com.)