Thursday, May 19, 2022

Meet the haves of stuffy 'Downton' and have-nots of warm-hearted 'Valet'

Just about all of the usual suspects return in the sequel, "Downton Abbey: A New Era," with silent movies and a villa on the French Riviera chief among the show-and-tell talking points, not to mention a plot as crowded as the poster at right would indicate.

It's no, uh, "Masterpiece," but legitimate fans of the long-running PBS-TV series surely will enjoy how the film gives everyone a chance to contribute in their own special if predictable ways.

"Downton" creator/screenwriter Julian Fellowes ("Gosford Park") and director Simon Curtis ("My Week With Marilyn") bookend these proceedings with a wedding and a funeral. In between, those richly famous Crawley Family dynamics -- still overseen by Countess/matriarch Violet (as always, so smartly portrayed by truly Grand Dame Maggie Smith) -- include a few period-piece swoons and some inevitable redemption to smooth over any potential cracks.

Violet herself is inheriting the aforementioned and fabulously picturesqe villa, which has been willed to her by a wealthy former suitor. That means tongues start wagging, too, when part of the clan heads to France to discuss closing arrangements. Meanwhile, the rest stay home to deal with a film crew using their estate for a location shoot beset with numerous problems.

Perhaps worst among them is a pretty, petty actress (the fine Laura Haddock), whose difficulties with the spoken word seem borrowed from the memorable struggles of Jean Hagen in the '50s "Singin' in the Rain." Don't worry, though, it's the formidable Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) and two wait-staff cuties (Joanne Frogatt and Sophie McSharra) who might come up with solutions. Otherwise, Dominic West, as the star of the movie within the movie, also contributes mightily.

Rated "PG" by MPAA: suggestive references, language and thematic elements; 2:05; $ $ $ out of $5

Ironically, it's truly seeing how the other half lives in a generally Hollywood-neglected part of Los Angeles that becomes one of the movie charms of "The Valet" (starting Friday only on Hulu).

The mild-mannered Antonio (lovingly played by Eugenio Derbez, the choir director in the Oscar-winning "CODA") unassumingly rides his wobbly old bike to park cars at a swanky Beverly Hills hotel each morning and back to his Hispanic neighborhood off Pico Boulevard, near fabled MacArthur Park, every night. But who knew an accident on the way home would get the guy involved with paparazzi ("Hey, I don't even like to be in family photos," he says) and, more significantly, one of the world's most glamorous movie stars (the terrific Samara Weaving).

The silly story comes from a 2006 French film ("La Doublure"), re-imagined here for American audiences by a couple of writers, Bob Fisher ("Wedding Crashers") and Rob Greenberg (TV's "Frasier"), with some classic successes on their busy resumes. Still, it's the way they let Antonio and Weaving's Olivia spark a friendship and deal with the valet's loving, immigrant family that often makes their screenplay shine. 

The engaging ensemble includes scene-stealing Carmen Salinas (in the last role before her December passing), as Antonio's outspoken live-in mother. Naturally, she doesn't speak English but nevertheless enjoys a full-on fling with the Korean landlord (Ji Yong Lee). Since neither undertands what the other is saying, Mom explains (through subtitles), "we speak a deeper language."

So does their movie, which at times is as meaningful about good things happening to decent people as it is funny. Kudos, Hulu, for picking it up. 

Rated "PG-13" by MPAA: sexual content, some strong language and brief drug material; 1:57; $ $ $ 1/2 out of $5

(Also opening in theaters Friday is the Sundance hit "Emergency,," which will start streaming, too, May 27 on Prime Video; the horror-laden "Men," and the political documentary "2000 Mules." The animated "Chip 'n Dale: Rescue Rangers" streams exclusively on Disney+).

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