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.

Watch the trailer


CAPTAIN FANTASTIC (2016)

July 15, 2016

capt fantastic Greetings again from the darkness. There seems to be no end to the theories on how to be an effective parent and raise kids who are productive, well-adjusted and successful.  Writer/director Matt Ross offers up a creative, entertaining and thought-provoking story of one family’s unconventional approach in a world that seems to expect and accept only the conventional.

We are first introduced to Ben (Viggo Mortensen) and his six kids as they are stalking a deer while deep in the Pacific Northwest forest … only this isn’t your buddy’s weekend deer hunting trip. Each family member is covered head-to-toe in mud and other means of camouflage, and the oldest son Bodevan (George MacKay) takes the lead with his knife in what is presented as a rite of passage into manhood.

The family carries out a daily ritual that includes extreme physical conditioning, lessons on survival and living off the land, and advanced education that includes reading such diverse material as Dostoevsky and Lolita. Each evening is capped off with an impromptu musical jam. It’s evident that self-sufficiency, intelligence and family loyalty are crucial to Ben’s approach … an approach that is challenged when circumstances require the family board their Partridge Family bus (named Steve) and take a cross-country road trip into a civilization that doesn’t know what to make of them (and vice-versa).

The film is jam-packed with social commentary on education, parenting, societal norms, societal influences, and even grief. Who gets to decide what is best for a family or what’s the best method for education? Sometimes the dysfunctional family isn’t so easy to identify. Director Ross proves this in a gem of a dinner table scene as Ben and the kids visit Kathryn Hahn, Steve Zahn and their two sons in suburbia.

In addition to the terrific performance by up-and-comer George MacKay, the other actors playing the kids are all very strong and believable: Samantha Isler as Kieyler, Annalise Basso as Vespyr, Nicholas Hamilton as Rellian, Shree Crooks as Zaja, and Charlie Shotwell as Nai. Screen vets Frank Langella and Ann Dowd bring presence to the role of their grandparents and provide the greatest contrast to the off-the-grid existence of the kids.

Viggo Mortensen truly shines here and gives a performance full of grace and depth as he displays many emotions (some of which aren’t so pleasant). He even goes full-Viggo for one of the film’s many humorous moments … though the comedy is balanced by plenty of full scale drama. His best work comes in the scenes when he begins to question that there may be some flaws in his plan … the moments of self-realization are stunning.

Many will note some similarities between this film and Little Miss Sunshine (2006), though this one carries quite a bit more heft. It’s beautifully photographed by cinematographer Stephane Fontaine (A Prophet, Rust and Bone) and captures the danger and solitude of the forest, while also capturing the more personal family dynamics. It’s a film that should generate plenty of discussion, and one of the questions is … will Noam Chomsky Day ever match Festivus in popularity?

watch the trailer: