AMMONITE (2020)

November 12, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. “Peanuts” creator Charles Schulz injected “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown” (1966) with downtrodden Charlie repeating the line, “I got a rock” after each house on the trick or treat trail. It was funny because no one would rather have a rock than candy, right? Well, maybe no one except Mary Anning, the 19th century English fossil collector and paleontologist whose story is at the core of writer-director Francis Lee’s (GOD’S OWN COUNTRY, 2017) new film. His latest film has received some backlash due to the fictionalized approach it takes with her personal life.

Oscar winner (plus 6 other nominations) Kate Winslet stars as Mary Anning, and we first find with her living a quiet life of near solitude in Lyme Regis, a sea side town in West Dorset, England. Having never received her deserved recognition from the scientific community for her discoveries, Mary cares for her mother (Gemma Jones, who also played Winslet’s mother in SENSE AND SENSIBILITY, 1995), an elderly woman burdened with having watched 8 of her 10 children die before her. They eke out a living peddling the stones Mary finds and polishes to tourists. Mary rarely speaks and her face shows the wear and tear of a mostly joyless life.

One day, Rodrick Murchison (James McArdle, MARY QUEEN OF SCOTS, 2018) drops into the shop. As a fellow scientist, he is aware of and interested in Mary’s work. He condescendingly introduces his wife Charlotte (4 time Oscar nominee Saoirse Ronan) as suffering from “melancholia”. When Charlotte falls ill, Rodrick asks Mary to look after her while he continues his travels. Dr. Lieberson (Alec Secareneau, AMULET, 2020) examines Charlotte and recommends rest and sea air. He also takes notice of Mary, an occurrence to which she pays little mind.

The contrast between Charlotte and Mary is not limited to age and class. They aren’t particularly fond of each other initially, though Mary slowly nurses her back to health. The two ladies finally connect over a heavy rock half-buried in sea wall sediment. The evolution of their relationship is slow, but thanks to the two outstanding actors, it’s quite something to watch. Ms. Winslet is particularly affecting as the woman beaten down by life and reluctant to allow any glimmer of hope. We see this in her interaction with neighbor Elizabeth Philpot (Fiona Shaw), a woman with whom there was a previous bond. The old saying goes, “opposites attract”, and here the two opposites, Mary and Charlotte, bring out the best in each other.

The skilled actors never allow the film to slide into melodrama, and instead offer two occasions where unbridled emotion jump off the screen. A passionate and liberating love scene is the first, and then a later re-connection provides the second. Mostly, Mary forces herself to conceal her rare happiness – we wonder if this is due to her belief it won’t last, or if it’s because she feels unworthy. Either way, it’s quite something to watch Ms. Winslet allows us to sense what’s she’s experiencing inside.

Music from Voker Bertelmann and Dustin O’Halloran never overpowers the moment, and the extremely talented cinematographer Stephane Fontaine works his magic. His previous work includes: JACKIE (2016), ELLE (2016), CAPTAIN FANTASTIC (2016), RUST AND BONE (2012), A PROPHET (2009), all beautifully filmed. Filmmaker Lee’s controversial dramatic license with the relationship is apparently done to better explain Mary Anning’s life, and it’s likely the first film where new acquaintances connect in a deep way thanks to the unearthing of a unique rock. Filming took place in Lyme Regis, the actual town where Mary Anning collected fossils in the 1800’s.

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KINDRED (2020)

November 5, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. It’s the first feature film for writer-director Joe Marcantonio and his co-writer Jason McColgan, which might explain why the film starts strong before faltering, mostly salvaged by three strong performances. Eighteen months into their relationship, veterinarian Ben (Edward Holcroft, KINGSMAN: THE SECRET SERVICE, 2014) and Charlotte (Tamara Lawrance) break the news to his mother that they are moving from England to Australia. Mum is none too pleased, as she expects her son to carry on the legacy of nine generations that have lived in the now dilapidated (and isolated) family estate.

Ben’s overbearing mother is Margaret (Fiona Shaw, Petunia in the Harry Potter movies) and she lives in the drafty mansion with Ben’s step-brother Thomas (Jack Lowden, TOMMY’S HONOUR, 2016), who seems more man-servant than son to Margaret. Charlotte soon discovers she’s pregnant, and while Ben is thrilled, she is unsure whether she even wants to keep the baby. Her own mother’s history plays a significant role in her uncertainty. A freak on-the-job accident kills Ben, and Charlotte soon finds herself … um … a guest of Margaret and Thomas. She’s the type of guest that’s not allowed to leave or make phone calls. Yep, she’s being held captive under the guise of this being in the best interest of her baby.

While Margaret is straight-forward vile and ignoble towards Charlotte, Thomas is more difficult to read … albeit no less off-center. Clearly both have a vision for where this is all headed. Margaret spills hers in a terrific scene where she lets her guard down with Charlotte, while Thomas is perfectly creepy and overuses the “making a quiche” punchline. For her part, Charlotte frequently passes out and has recurring dreams featuring birds/ravens/crows … and as fans of horror can tell you, that’s never a good sign. Has Charlotte been drugged or is she being gaslighted by Margaret and Thomas?

Director Marcantonio has delivered a psychological thriller that’s more frustrating than haunting. It has vibes of the classic ROSEMARY’S BABY (1968) sans Satan, but of course, is not at that level – although we do get the chilling doctor played here by Anton Lesser. Charlotte is the proverbial trapped damsel, but the film falls into a pattern of ‘escape-capture-repeat’. It also attempts to use music, but the combination of Debussy’s “Claire de Lune”, Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1, and the long-time standard “Dream a Little Dream of Me”, reaches overload. The Production Design from Derek Wallace and Set Decoration by John Neligan are top notch, but in the end, the frustration we feel overrides any creep factor or strong performance. It’s a near miss.

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TELL IT TO THE BEES (2019)

May 2, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Secrets and lies become a tangled web of messiness that impacts lives and relationships in this story adapted from Fiona Shaw’s 2009 novel. Annabel Jankel (known for her music videos and as a creator of Max Headroom) directs the script from sisters Henrietta and Jessica Ashworth, and we learn that this rural community in 1952 Scotland is filled with judgmental and close-minded folks unable to accept that some don’t live and love according to society’s general rules of the time.

Holliday Grainger (“The Borgias”) stars as Lydia, mother to young Charlie (Gregor Selkirk), and the two have recently been abandoned by husband -father Robert (Emun Elliott). Charlie is a sensitive boy – in touch with nature, and observant to his mother’s emotional strains. After a schoolyard scuffle, Charlie is treated by the town’s new doctor, Dr. Markham (Anna Paquin, “True Blood”), who not only treats his bruises, but also teaches him about the bees and hives in her garden. She lets him know that telling your secrets to the bees keeps them from flying away.

Dr. Markham has returned to the community where she grew up, and the rumors of her teenage years have not faded. Her father recently passed and she has returned to her roots to take his place as the local doctor. When Lydia gets sacked at the factory where she works (by Kate Dickie’s Pam, her spinster sister-in-law/supervisor), Dr. Markham hires Lydia as a housekeeper and invites her and Charlie to move into the house left to her by her father.

“This town is too small for secrets” is not simply a line of dialogue, but easily could have been the title of the films. As Charlie tells his secrets to the bees, Lydia and Dr. Markham grow closer … creating confusion for Charlie, challenges for the two women, and disgust within the community. Robert is a brut of a man, and threatens Lydia in every way a simple man might. There is also a subplot around Lydia’s younger sister-in-law Annie (Lauren Lyle), who is pregnant from a secretive interracial relationship. What follows is a vicious response from the close-minded folks previously mentioned.

An older Charlie is our narrator, and most of the story is told from his point of view. Secrets kept by children are contrasted by those of adults, and it’s clear that both cause harm. The first part of the movie is beautifully filmed, though the story structure wobbles a bit in the second half. There are many fascinating close-ups of bees and hives, although a mystical/supernatural sequence is difficult to buy. Excellent acting is on display throughout, especially by young Gregor Selkirk and Ms. Grainger, whose face the camera loves. The film is quite tastefully done, and focused as much on the small-minded town folks reaction as the blossoming relationship between the two leads. A stronger third act would have elevated the film, though the first half hour is well done.

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THE TREE OF LIFE

June 9, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. Rare are the times that I find myself lacking words to express my opinion on a movie just watched. But writer/director Terrence Malick does not play fair. First of all, what director makes only five films in 40 years? Who makes a film about CREATION, life, evolution, spirituality, death and existence? What director seems to thrive when no real story is needed to make his points? Which director can so mess with the viewer’s head through visual artistry never before seen on screen? The answer to these questions, of course, is Terrence Malick. And I hold him responsible the fact that I remain in somewhat of a semi-conscious fog four days after watching his latest masterpiece.

 Any attempt to explain this film would be futile. It is so ripe for interpretation and quite a personal, intimate journey for any viewer who will open themselves up to the experience. What I can tell you is that much of the film is focused on a typical family living in small town rural Texas in the early 1950’s. Brad Pitt plays Mr. O’Brien, the stern disciplinarian father and husband to Jessica Chastain‘s much softer Mrs. O’Brien.

Near the beginning of the film, we get Mrs. O’Brien as narrator explaining that when she was a child, the nuns informed that in life one must choose between Nature and Grace. Nature being the real time of real life, whereas Grace is the more spiritual approach. Clearly, Mr. O’Brien has chosen Nature, while his wife embodies Grace. Watching their three boys evolve in this household is quite a cinematical treat – and is done with so little dialogue, it’s almost shocking to the senses.

 One of the many things that jumped out at me was the set and production design of Jack Fisk. Mr. Fisk is a frequent collaborator with Mr. Malick and is also the husband of Sissy Spacek, who starred in Malick’s first knockout film Badlands. Unlike many films, I did not have the feeling I was watching a movie about the 50’s. Instead, the look is directly IN the 50’s … slamming screen doors, tree houses, and family supper time! But don’t think for a moment that this is a story about the O’Brien’s and their sons. This family is merely Malick’s vessel for showing the earthly connections between the universe and each of the particles within. If you think this sounds a bit pretentious, you should know that Mr. Malick graduated from Harvard with a philosophy degree, became a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, and a professor at MIT. This is a thinking man and an artist.

 Actually I would describe the experience as viewing an art exhibit and listening to poetry. Even the use of Smetana’s The Moldau River is an example of music melding into film. It really sweeps over and through you, and takes you on a trip of introspection. So many human emotions are touched – the need to be loved, appreciated and respected. We see the oldest O’Brien son later in life. Sean Penn plays him as a very successful middle aged adult who still struggles with the death of a brother and communication skills learned from his childhood. This is an odd sequence but provided to give balance to the flurry of emotions the younger boy survives.

This was the 2011 Cannes Film Festival Palm d’Or winner and that means little if you don’t let go as you walk into the theatre. It’s a contemplative journey that you can either take part in or fight. My advice is to open up and let this beautiful impression of all life take your mind places it may have never been before.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are ready and willing for an emotional and intellectual and spiritual journey that will have you contemplating life for many days after you leave the theatre.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you found The Hangover Part II to be too heavily intellectualized for your movie tastes.