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By Anne Brodie Julian Fellowes, the creative force behind Downton Abbey travels to 1882 New York to reveal the lives of its uber-wealthy – the robber barons, train kings and builders of the mid to late 19th century, the founders of American business and shapers of the country’s infrastructure as it stands today. The Gilded Age paints a portrait of the early American entrepreneurs and their blustering, bold, risk-taking, adventurous, capitalistic endeavours and Fellowes spares no nuance or glaring negative traits of the monied and the nouveau riche, the aspiring, the faded rich, the spectrum of behaviours as rich as oil (which came later and further south). The economic changes of the time helped blast American society into the very rich, the middle class and the poor as we see in the microcosm of an exclusive residential street in Manhattan. And the poor are seen in a more sympathetic light. Penniless country girl Marian (Louisa Jacobson) Brook’s father has died, so she journeys to live with her old-money aunts Agnes van Rhijn (Christine Baranski) and Ada Brook (Cynthia Nixon), serious shakers in the NY social elite. She appears at their home with an aspiring young Black writer Peggy Scott (Denée Benton) who has come to the Big City to write. She with Marion and her aunts and witnesses intense rivalry with the exceptionally wealthy railroad tycoon George Russell (Morgan Spector) and his wife Bertha Russell (Carrie Coon) in their garish house across the street. The Russells are social climbers of the most desperate sort. Bertha will stop at nothing to impress and begins a campaign of aggression to force her way into elite society. What Fellowes appears to have observed is that aggression is the American way, compared to the denizens of Downton Abbey. As a result, The Gilded Age is less comfy, less lived in, and egalitarian, and in fact, it’s opposite, at times a caricature of the Ugly American trope. Quite the statement. The nine-part series also stars Taissa Farmiga, Audra McDonald, Blake Ritson, Jeanne Tripplehorn, Simon Jones, Harry Richardson, Thomas Cocquerel and Jack Gilpin. Crave Jan 24.

BritBox‘s heartbreaking film Help follows a newly minted Liverpool PSW in her first care home job during the pandemic. Killing Eve’s Jodie Comer is Sarah wants to succeed in it as her life’s at a standstill. The care home like all the others was stopped short by COVID 19 and scrambles to save their residents with no real information, no PPE and no vaccines. Profoundly sad yet galvanizing, we see her step up and eventually take control of the home as staff and residents become sicker and drop out or die. Comer’s phenomenal as a sudden soldier who won’t give in to pressure as she figures out how to move forward with her beloved residents, including Stephen Graham’s mentally challenged Tony and others, played some of Britain’s top actors. Much as it sounds like a downer it’s more akin to an emotional thriller. Sarah must isolate, feed, bathe, protect and care for her people and make decisions normally made by the staff leaders who are no longer able to. Kudos to Comer in this ferocious portrayal and to the filmmakers for presenting a dire look at social and medical systems in crisis and the lion hearts of front-line workers. Staggering fact-based stuff! Also stars Ian Hart, Cathy Tyson, Lesley Sharp, Sue Johnston and David Hayman.

Netflix debuts the final season of Ricky Gervais’ brainy, dryly funny After Life and it’s like we never left. The intrusive mailman, the tombstone bench friend, the dog that loves Tony the mournful malcontent, his weirdo colleagues at the newspaper and everyday life that feels so empty without his late wife. Gervais returns to familiar territory just as Tony wishes to – wherein his late wife is alive, laughing with him, challenging him, loving him. Her death altered his worldview entirely and a nascent romance with Emma (Ashley Jensen) his late father’s care home nurse may never build steam due to his sadness. However, lighthearted moments interviewing swingers, the fat guy banned from all the all-you-can-eat places, and his blazing, hilarious bitterness lightens the load. At its core, given Tony’s state, After Life is morose, no getting around it. And yet, he speaks what we think. In the final episode, Tony befriends a young cancer patient and decides not to take the vaccine. In his sadness, he realizes that kindness and making people feel good are superpowers. He thanks friends, brings people together, his mind begins to rest and he finds grace. Gervais tells Radio times the series “isn’t a study in loss – it’s grumpy old-man sitcom inspired by cancel culture.” And much more.

Royall Tyler’s 1787 play The Contrast, the first professionally produced stage play in America finally gets its film closeup, a rom-com of manners circa 2022. Was much salvaged from the dusty original for a Very New Generation, does it hold to the spirit of original? Who knows, but it’s an interesting idea. Grammy award-winning singer Joy Villa is Maria Van Rough, and she’s about to marry Dimple, a smooth-talking player who casts his eye around at the wedding planner, bridesmaids and her female friends. Maria expresses her doubts to her father who pushes her to move forward with the wedding; Dimple is a good business and social match for the family. The wedding party gathers at the Royall Inn where much happens in the next 24 hours. Maria’s bridesmaid’s handsome brother shows up and there is immediate electricity, and a debt collector shows up and is attracted to Dimple, to demand money. Missed communications, fluid identities, gut feelings and romantic ones where they weren’t intended and anything goes. As romcoms go, its surprise is revelations that 18th-century social patterns still hold today. Co-stars Lee Donoghue, Jermain Hollman, and Deanna Rashell and directed by Sean Dube and Presley Paras. On TVOD.

Missed the whole thing the first time around in 1983 but I am so down for Fraggle Rock: Back to theRock, a joyous, celebration of life starring the Muppet-like creatures the Fraggles and Doozers, voiced by Patti LaBelle, Cynthia Erivo, Daveed Diggs, Ed Helms, Kenan Thompson, and featuring the Foo Fighters. Made in Toronto as was the original series, it’s a much-needed shot in the arm of optimism, civility and pure fun. Apple TV+ invites us underground to sing, problem solve and maybe go into space. The citizens think big thoughts, use their vocabulary skills and go beyond the call of duty to, for one thing, retrieve Uncle Travelling Matt’s backpack hanging precariously in the Crevasse of Solitude. A group effort does the trick, and they swim, do 5B bellyflops and play hilarious games like broken telephone. There are other connected universes, a garage located through a hole in one of the caves where a woman is doing some carpentry work with her dog, there’s a Hobbit-like settlement where Trashy lives through another hole and of course, outer space. Plus, musical numbers and catchy songs – this is great stuff not just for kids. My nephew loved the original series, he considered it cool, underground and pure escape from the harsh life of being a six-year-old!

Canada’s Academy Awards’ Best International Feature Film entry, Ivan Grbovic’s Drunken Birds is available to rent at TIFF’s digital Set in a vineyard in Quebec where migrant workers from Mexico come for seasonal work harvesting and pressing grapes, it shows the facade of brotherhood and equality that masks the mistrust between workers and owners. But we begin in Mexico, where Willy a drug-cartel worker runs afoul of his boss and escapes with his lover, the boss’ wife Marlene to Canada. He believes she is in hiding in Montreal, not far from the vineyard. Beautiful cinematography captures nature – and man’s nature – precisely and takes its time, allowing us to live in that vineyard, the forest, and sit next to Willy. Early scenes inside the cartel boss’ extravagant and abandoned home, the white tiger, massive artworks and nouveau riche touches are heady and ultra-tacky in comparison to the natural world of the vineyard. One night, the vintners throw a party for the workers and we learn our hero and the wife had an affair she’s keen to resume. Her daughter is also involved with the workers. Visually, atmospherically powerful, Drunken Birds is very much of places as well as people. Watch for a Formula One car to intrude on Willy’s solitude as he searches Montreal for Marlene. Much to see. Stars Jorge Antonio Guerrero, Hélène Florent, and Claude Legault.

Also at Fran Kranz’ Mass, with seasoned actors Ann Dowd, Martha Plimpton, Jason Isaacs and Reed Birney, is a sublime, mournful elegy, compressed and powerful, two hours of human interaction following an all too familiar tragedy. Two couples meet in a church space to grapple with an awful event and try to make sense of it. Gail (Plimpton) and Jay (Jason Isaacs) arrive first and nervously await Linda (Dowd) and Richard (Birney). They’re taken to a room where church staff has been careful to place a box of tissues inconspicuously, a little food and water. The parents get by staff that walking on eggshells and sit down to … what? We don’t know what happens to a person when their son shoots up his school or your son is shot dead by another student. These are their parents. It’s folly to make presumptions, as they try to understand, agonize, cry out, pull back and grasp at straws to continue the hard conversation. In the hands of these great character actors, it feels real and startling and painful.

If you haven’t seen Belfast there is still time before the awards are announced. Kenneth Branagh’s black and white meditation on his childhood growing up during the “troubles”, the violent and deadly war between the Protestants and the Roman Catholics that plagued Northern Ireland for generations. Branagh’s memories are not negative, he had a joyful boyhood as he and his friends and his loving parents as they skirted the fighting and witnessed bombings in the streets. He is Buddy, nine years old, played by tiny phenom Jude Hill; his parents are Jamie Dornan and Catriona Balfe, with Ciaran Hinds in a fabulous performance as his grandfather. The army arrives as the families carry on, watching Star Trek, listening to fire and brimstone from the priest, missing father who is working in the UK. That may be their ticket out, but the mother refuses to leave that generational street. Dense with memory, love and nostalgia, contrasting the senseless hatred that constantly erupts in the streets. Branagh dedicates the film – “for the ones who stayed”. At this writing, Belfast is the top contender after The Power of the Dog for the big prizes. It’s streaming all over the place.



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