Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan in Ammonite
If Portrait of a Lady on Fire
had not been released just last year, writer/director Francis Lee’s drama might have felt more revelatory—but it was, so it doesn’t. There are still pleasures to be found in the story based on real-life British paleontologist Mary Anning (Kate Winslet), who in this narrative circa the 1840s is scraping out a living running a gift shop with her mother (Gemma Jones) on the English coast. Into her life steps Roderick Murchison (James McArdle), a dilettante fossil hobbyist who first wants to learn from Mary, then leaves his ailing wife Charlotte (Saoirse Ronan) in her care when he travels abroad. A romance blossoms between the two women, and Lee doesn’t shy away from either the physicality of their relationship or the social structures locking women into specific roles. But while Winslet is terrific capturing Mary as a woman settled into resignation that her work is all she’ll ever have—the actor is always at her best when prickly—Ronan is given far too little to do to allow her character to evolve. Some thematic material here involving the perils of motherhood and wealth taking on the role of patriarchy provides fresh perspective, which only slips when Ammonite
otherwise feels too similar to Portrait
, and not in ways that favor it by comparison. Available Nov. 13 in theaters; Dec. 4 via VOD.
The Climb ***1/2
Discovering a fresh comedic sensibility is a particular pleasure—and even if it’s unevenly executed, this oddball chronicle of a dysfunctional friendship does offer something that feels fresh. Director/co-writer Michael Angelo Covino and co-writer Kyle Marvin co-star as Mike and Kyle, two buddies-since-high-school who find their relationship tested over the course of several years by romantic entanglements, betrayals and tragedies. The story is broken into seven fairly episodic chapters, with predictably varying results; the first, involving Mike and Kyle bicycling up a hill, might even be the strongest. But the characters—Kyle the earnest sadsack, and Mike the sketchy a-hole—hold things together, providing a solid portrait of bro-panionship that somehow continues to transcend the events that divide them. Covino feels a bit less sure of himself as a director than as a writer, using showy long takes and time-lapse dissolves that feel more like an effort to be taken seriously than something intrinsic to the moment. As a piece of writing, though, The Climb
keeps serving up laughs wrapped in a curiously affecting look at who you choose to rely on when everything else is chaos. Available Nov. 13 in theaters.
Come Away **
Marissa Kate Goodhill’s script attempts a meeting of two beloved pop-culture properties, and it should be a criminal offense to provide so little evidence that there was any point to doing so. In Victorian England, the Littleton family—wood craftsman Jack (David Oyelowo), his wife Rose (Angelina Jolie) and their children David (Reece Yates), Alice (Keira Chansa) and Peter (Jordan A. Nash)—are living a blissful rural existence, until a tragedy brings up demons from the past and sends the children deeper into their respective fantasy worlds. What follows liberally sprinkled elements from Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland throughout the narrative, though not in any cohesive thematic way á la Into the Woods
. It all feels terribly cynical, like a marketing hook for a movie that otherwise stood no shot of getting attention. Director Brenda Chapman (Pixar’s Brave
) creates appropriately lush textures and a few memorable individual images, even as the story keeps getting darker. And while children’s stories can often be at their most powerful in such darkness, Come Away
simply never pulls together an idea that seems to justify its grimmer detours, or why they had to pull poor Alice and Peter into the middle of it. Available Nov. 13 in theaters.
Plenty of movies have used the Great Depression as a backdrop, but there’s something particularly effective in the way director Miles Joris-Peyrafitte and screenwriter Nicolas Zwaart use it as a backdrop for a desperate need for escape. In 1935 Texas, 17-year-old Eugene Evans (Finn Cole) discovers fugitive bank robber Allison Wells (Margot Robbie) hiding out in the family barn—but instead of turning her in for a huge reward, decides to help her. The filmmakers do a terrific job of establishing their Dust Bowl setting, with characters keeping masks and goggles handy in anticipation of the next storm; that grim, gritty environment provides a perfect context for a youth infatuated with a mysterious woman and the alcoholic father who long ago fled to Mexico. Robbie and Cole both nail the complicated relationship at the film’s core, particularly in a single-take seduction scene that places a perfect focus on Eugene’s mix of fear and arousal. The third act threatens to become much more conventional as a lovers-on-the-run crime drama, but it ultimately finds the tragedy of its time period in what happens when hopelessness turns to desperation. Available Nov. 13 in theaters.
Marianne Jean-Baptiste and Mel Gibson in Fatman
Christmas-themed black comedy requires its own particular commitment to the bit, and while the writer/director team of Ian and Eshom Nelms don’t remotely hit every target they aim for, this is still too deeply weird an effort to ignore. The narrative focuses on three characters: Chris Cringle (Mel Gibson), grown deeply cynical about his Christmas mission; Billy (Chance Hurstfield), the sociopathic rich kid who wants Santa dead after getting coal as a gift; and the unnamed professional assassin (Walton Goggins) hired by Billy, and who has his own anti-Santa grudge. The Nelms have fun messing around with the Santa mythology—including turning him into a U.S. government contractor helping prop up the holiday-season economic engine—though some stuff with the elves feels fairly familiar. The best material focuses around the Santa obsession of the Goggins character, and the general sense of entitlement that turns Billy into a walking nightmare. There are sporadic attempts at dipping a toe in sentimentality, as Gibson tries to find a character hook in Santa himself needing to re-learn the True Meaning of Christmas, but mostly this is a movie content to wallow in the strange satisfaction of seeing the right jolly old elf defend his workshop with guns blazing. Available Nov. 13 in theaters; Nov. 24 on VOD.
A slasher thriller that’s also a body-swap comedy that’s also sporadically an attempt at social commentary, director Christopher Landon (Happy Death Day
) and screenwriter Michael Kennedy’s movie is solid enough at the first two that it’s acceptable when they misfire on the third. In the town of Blissfield, the infamous serial killer the Blissfield Butcher (Vince Vaughn) attempts to murder mousy high-school senior Millie Kessler (Kathryn Newton) with a supernatural knife, but instead winds up transferring their minds to the other’s body. What follows owes as much to Heathers
(including the notable use of “Que Será, Será”) as it does to Freaky Friday
, with high school queen bees and bullying jocks meeting their comeuppance in gruesome fashion. The tone remains light despite the graphic murders, mostly thanks to Vaughn and Newton both nailing their alternate personalities. It feels like Freaky
wants to dig deeper into the physicality of cruelty, as the Butcher deals with not having the physical power he’s used to and Millie can suddenly fight back against aggressors, but it ultimately gets muddled in a subplot about Millie’s family grieving over her dead father. Addressing gendered violence just isn’t a task this movie can pull off—and fortunately, it doesn’t really have to in order to work. Available Nov. 13 in theaters.
Hillbilly Elegy **
See feature review
. Available Nov. 11 in theaters; Nov. 24 via Netflix.
The longer you keep your main character’s emotional state inscrutable, the more precarious a position you place your narrative in, and writer/director Hong Khaou presents an intriguing idea for a narrative that feels too placid to connect. Kit (Henry Golding), a one-time Vietnamese refugee raised in England, returns to Saigon for the first time since his childhood to find a place where his parents’ ashes can be laid to rest. Along the way, he reconnects with a childhood friend (David Tran), and hooks up with American teacher Lewis (Parker Sawyers) via a dating app, and Khaou deals matter-of-factly with both Kit’s sexuality and his sense of cultural dislocation. But that’s ultimately the primary frustration with Monsoon
: Khaou deals with everything
matter-of-factly. While his preference for long takes provides a structural foundation for Kit’s emotional stasis, and Golding is solid enough at capturing his discomfort without signifying too much, this is a movie built on a character study where the character in question is perpetually closed off to us. Khaou occasionally finds a great hook for Kit’s state of flux—like a French tourist talking to him in slow, stilted English while assuming Kit’s nationality—but never provides the kind of payoff he’s making us wait for. Available Nov. 13 via SLFSatHome.org.
Queen of Hearts: Audrey Flack **1/2
Audrey Flack has clearly lived a fascinating life, both personally and professionally—but like so many documentaries about fascinating people, this one isn’t entirely sure how to organize all that stuff into a cohesive movie. Director Deborah Shaffer tracks the course of the visual artist’s career, from her student days at Cooper Union and Yale, through her initial associations with abstract impressionism, into her 1970s fame as a photorealist and her later years as a sculptor. And there’s plenty of drama in the obstacles Flack faced in her career, whether it was being a mother to a special-needs child, or the general climate facing women artists into the 1970s. That’s all solid material, given a boost by the then-87-year-old Flack’s own words and her perspective on the key events of her life, but it doesn’t all add up to story. The insight that’s gleaned here comes in snatches and fragments, in descriptions of her artistic process or the surprising influences of Catholic iconography on a Jewish woman, and every time it moves on it just feels like it’s because it’s now time to talk about the next thing. Lives are messy; a documentarian’s challenge is giving them a shape beyond dates on a timeline. Available Nov. 13 via SLFSatHome.org.