AT LAST!  The juvenile, CGI-infested, big screen parade of sequels and blockbuster money grabs masquerading as movies have released their chokehold on the marketplace– and the real movie season has begun! FALL brings serious, smart, entertaining, varied, challenging adult fare to movie theaters and I look forward to stimulating viewing instead of sinking into a stupor watching yet another too-cute-for-its-own good animated fairy tale or the umpteenth installment of Spiderman’s origin story. Am I cranky? Absolutely.  But I’m feeling better as I look out at what’s playing now, some great, some missing the mark, but all of it at least attempting more than a car chase and comic book heroics.

LINDA RONSTADT: THE SOUND OF MY VOICE: You must see this is enormously entertaining and enlightening documentary that let’s us listen at length to one of the most beautiful and versatile voices of the last 50+ years, and see Linda Ronstadt for who she is: among the most multifaceted, vocally gifted and brilliantly musical singers who ever sang a note, right up there with Whitney, Barbra, and Celine for pure technical prowess. The film charts her vocal history back through a deep musical lineage beginning with her Mexican roots in Tucson Arizona.  She began singing Mexican canciones as a young girl, and followed her considerable musical appetites and artistic inclinations wherever they took her, often against the advice of industry bigwigs who said she’d ruin her career.

She sang the hell out of folk, country rock, pop, big band American standards, Mexican Mariachi, and a Gilbert and Sullivan Operetta on Broadway. She was the first to simultaneously top the Pop, Country, and R & B charts, producing 11 Platinum albums and winning 10 Grammy awards. That she cut such a broad swath across a staggering range of musical styles, speaks to the openness and breadth of her humanity. Her democratic musical tastes were but an extension of her openness to people, disparate cultures and the art that came from them. Ronstadt in interview is revealed as a woman of uncommon wisdom and self-possession,  comfortable in her own skin, whose quiet confidence led her to create a career built on honest artistic choices and an open mind and heart.  She was a champion of human rights offstage, while onstage she was a pioneering woman fronting all-male bands in giant arenas in a music industry which remains male-dominated.

Wisely the film lets us revel in the sound of that lustrous voice, soaring rich and sweet on the ballads, raw and sexy on the R & B and uptempo pop tunes, cool and smooth on jazz-inflected standards, and climbing octaves toward a lilting soprano as easy as skipping stones across a crystal clear lake.  That her voice has been silenced by illness which has forced her to stop performing is a cruel blow– and we see her handle it with mind-boggling aplomb. Her voice speaks for itself, as do musical giants like Dolly Parton Bonnie Raitt,  and Jackson Browne who remain in awe of the sound of her voice.

DOWNTON ABBEY: OK. It’s a soap opera for Anglophiles (which I unabashedly am). Julian Fellowes’ popular PBS series about a family of aristocratic Brits and their servants at the family estate at the turn of the last century has successfully made the leap to the big screen! The tone, look, music, and cast remain gloriously intact. The movie has re-assembled its splendid cast of Crawleys and company from Dame Maggie Smith’s caustically quipping Dowager Countess Aunt Violet, to the equally daunting butler in charge Mr. Carson elegantly played by Jim Carter. The screenplay kickstarts the action by throwing in an impending visit by the King and Queen; it’s all an excuse to luxuriate in this world, delve into its beloved characters’ schemes and dreams–and there is much afoot: political danger, sexual shenanigans, rekindled romance, family feuds, simmering secrets, and a battle of wits amongst the royal household twits who attempt a take over of Downton’s tried, true, and talented staff. HAH. They’re in over their heads…!

Ultimately, though, the biggest star is DOWNTON itself.  My friend Marcia whose birthday celebration included our taking in an early opening day matinee, said it best: “It’s all about DOWNTON.” Yes! Beneath all the action is the idea of Downton. Its meaning, history, traditions, and the beauty of that stately manse housing a universe of vivid characters, their rituals, quirks, and values. There is a tinge of nostalgia that clings to every nook and cranny as we follow the thread of its legacy through the inevitable passage of time. May Downton continue to thrive in Mr. Fellowes imagination and lead him to conjure up yet another gilded installment on the big screen.

HUSTLERS: The opening sequence which features a skimpily clad Jennifer Lopez wrapping herself effortlessly upside down and  around a pole has no doubt already sent many to the box office and perhaps more to the gym. J-Lo may also just pole dance her way to an Oscar in this based-on-a-true story about a group of female strip club “dancers” in the year 2007 who take advantage of their wealthy clientele by drugging them, then running up their credit cards. $50,000 for a steak dinner with all the trimmings you say?  The ladies are counting on the fact that the next morning these swingers aren’t going to admit they blacked out, were cheating on their wives, or carousing in less than seemly environs, especially when they’re rich enough to quietly suck it up and move on.

Lopez indeed gives a believable, subtle performance as Ramona a talented but jaded woman whose illusions have been replaced by a corrupt entrepreneurial spirit, turning the tables on the sketchy Wall Street types who are about to sink the economy in the looming housing crisis. Ramona becomes a mentor of sorts to Constance Wu as newcomer Destiny whose life extends well beyond the confines of her night shift to the care of a young daughter and grandmother. Keke Palmer and Lili Reinhart fill out the fiscally frisky foursome.  Cardi B and Lizzo are onscreen just enough to add humor and texture.

The script written and directed by Lorene Scafaria fleshes out the characters well beyond their physical requirements, honors the grit and stamina it takes to do what they do, and gets to the moral ambiguity of the situation. Yes, their enterprise is criminal, but in a rigged system in which these women alway finds themselves at the bottom of the heap, we cut them some slack. More to the point, Scafaria shows us that a culture which rewards short-term gratification in the form of sex and money is itself a hustle, and men and women are both on a slippery slope.