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Indie Focus: Excavating romance in ‘Ammonite’

Hello! I’m Mark Olsen. Welcome to another edition of your regular field guide to a world of Only Good Movies.

Believe it or not, it’s awards season. What exactly that is going to feel like in a post-pandemic world is still fully to be determined, but with the Gotham Awards nominations this week we have our first idea of what that might be. And frankly, this group of nominees at least looks pretty much like what it might have in a non-disrupted year.

The Times’ Michael Ordoña covered the nominations, with the big headline being that for the first time all five films nominated for best feature — Kitty Green’s “The Assistant,” Kelly Reichardt’s “First Cow,” Eliza Hittman’s “Never Rarely Sometimes Always,” Chloé Zhao’s “Nomadland” and Natalie Erika James’ “Relic” — were directed by women.

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Reichardt’s “First Cow” led the field with four nominations. Other notable nominations included the late Chadwick Boseman for lead actor in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” Jude Law and Carrie Coon for their performances in “The Nest” and recognition in multiple categories for “Miss Juneteenth,” “Never Rarely Sometimes Always,” “Nomadland” and “The-Forty-Year-Old Version.”

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‘Ammonite’

Written and directed by Francis Lee, “Ammonite” stars Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan as Mary Anning and Charlotte Murchison, two real-life women in mid-1800s England, but imagines a passionate romance between them. Anning, a noted paleontologist, reluctantly aids Murchison in recovering from grief and illness but soon discovers a strong connection between them. The film has been unexpectedly divisive with critics, with some enraptured by its careful gestures, while others find its restraint chilly and uninviting. Released by Neon, the film is at the Vineland Drive-in and in theaters now where they are open and will be on VOD on Dec. 4.

For The Times, Justin Chang declared Winslet’s performance her “finest screen acting since ‘Mildred Pierce,’ in which she played another working-class heroine who refused to let anyone else dictate terms.” This film, he wrote, ultimately is “less a sweeping, transcendent tale of forbidden love than a wrenching portrait of self-enforced solitude, of a woman who has spent much of her life finding fulfillment in the inanimate. That’s not to suggest that Mary’s relics are devoid of meaning; far from it. The work that we do, the trinkets and treasures that we hold dear, can become important repositories of memory, feeling, data and history. A fossil is a record of death. Like a lot of other things — a clasping of hands, a dip in the surf, a lover’s embrace — it can also be evidence of a life well lived.”

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For the New York Times, Jeannette Catsoulis wrote, “The movie needs Winslet and Ronan’s skills, their ability to semaphore more with sliding glances and tiny gestures than many actors manage with pages of dialogue. There’s pleasure in deciphering these signals; and after watching the film’s surprisingly wrenching final moments, I expect that Lee will always be a filmmaker who asks us to look that little bit closer and work that little bit harder for our rewards.”

For the Washington Post, Ann Hornaday wrote, “Like the artifacts Anning digs up and dusts off, ‘Ammonite’ possesses a singular beauty, one that reflects her own obstinate refusal to please. In tone, pacing and focus it stays true to its principles of making the audience meet it more than halfway. Those who do will be rewarded by fine performances from Winslet and Ronan, who develop a credible chemistry despite the fact that it’s probably hokum. Lee might think that confecting a sexual relationship between the two makes their story transgressive, but what would have been genuinely revolutionary would have been to honor the record of Anning’s story, including her intrepid curiosity, the workings of her scientific mind, her independence and, yes, her friendships, whether they involved romance or not.”

For Vanity Fair, Richard Lawson wrote, “These last moments with Anning and Murchison are haunting — they linger after the movie has ended, and they hover over the memory of the rest of the film. Couldn’t there have been such artful illustration of likely doomed longing elsewhere in ‘Ammonite?’ Must everything else have been so rigid and exactingly stark? Whatever the truth of Anning and Murchison’s time in Dorset together was, ‘Ammonite’ could have done whatever it wanted. It chooses instead to do close to nothing, and leaves us, quite like its central pair, helplessly grasping for more.”

Saoirse Ronan and Kate Winslet in the movie "Ammonite."
(Agatha A. Nitecka / Neon)
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‘The Climb’

Directed by Michael Angelo Covino, the comedy-drama “The Climb” was written by Covino with Kyle Marvin, and the pair star as two friends whose relationship weathers ups and downs, betrayal and reconciliation. Released by Sony Pictures Classics, the movie is at the Vineland Drive-In and in theaters where they are open.

Marvin and Covino spoke with Amy Kaufman about the challenge of finally releasing a movie that first premiered a year and a half ago at Cannes. “We were on this real upswing with this film. We had this big splash at Cannes, and it was like, ‘Everything is great! The release is gonna be amazing!’ And then the rug was sort of pulled out from under us,” Covino said. “We’re sitting here in limbo, but we’re kind of learning to cope, which has been a lovely, humbling experience with our first film.”

Reviewing the film for The Times, Carlos Aguilar wrote, “Mike and Kyle are counterparts of an imperfect whole, soulmates in crushing defeat and small triumphs. They know each other’s emotional cadence and pedal in tandem on the fortuitous bends of adult existence. No training wheels can prevent the shattering falls of divorce, grief and identity crises, but the pair can always rescue one another to keep on riding. There’s no hurdle too major, no incline too steep for the duo’s fervent endearment. What they have is messy but unconditional, thus real and everlasting.”

For the New York Times, A.O. Scott wrote, “Don’t be fooled by the signs of cinematic sophistication: the kinetic Steadicam shots; the numbered chapters; the semi-surreal quasi-musical numbers; the French movie one of the characters goes to see by himself. Rather than ascending to new heights of bromance, ‘The Climb’ coasts down into the barren flatlands of masculine self-pity.”

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For the Guardian, Cath Clarke wrote, “Tragedy and slapstick run through the film and it is very funny … ‘The Climb’ charts the ups and downs of Kyle and Mike’s toxic friendship over a dozen years or so — and I can’t think of a film about male friends told with such microscopic attention to detail.”

Michael Angelo Covino, left, and Kyle Marvin for "The Climb" during Cannes 2019.
(Stephanie Cornfield / For The Times)

‘Freaky’

Directed by Christopher Landon from a screenplay by Landon and Michael Kennedy, the horror-comedy “Freaky” puts a new spin on the body-swap movie. A serial killer (Vince Vaughn) and a high school senior (Kathryn Newton) switch bodies after he attacks her with a magical dagger, and then he uses his new persona to murder his way through her classmates. Released by Universal Pictures, the movie is in theaters where they are open.

Josh Rottenberg spoke to Vaughn, who said of his gender-swapping role, “It scared me a little at first. But I felt like, ‘Well, that’s probably good.’ I’d sort of been wanting to do stuff where I feel a little like your feet can’t touch the bottom.”

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For The Times, Noel Murray wrote, “The big comic gimmick here is the physical presence of the beefy Vaughn, who for long stretches of ‘Freaky’ gets to pretend he’s a teenage girl. To the actor’s credit, he doesn’t overplay it. He mainly makes Millie into someone very aware of her feelings — whether she’s taking giddy delight in urinating as a man or taking advantage of being incognito to have a heart-to-heart conversation with her mother.”

For Vulture, Alison Willmore wrote, “By mashing its serial-killer story together with another well-established narrative device, the body-swap comedy, it gives itself a set of clashing expectations to work with and subvert. ‘Freaky’ whiplashes between the high concept and the sincerely heartfelt, constantly on the verge of rattling off the rails but never quite losing tonal control. It’s not an especially scary movie, but it sure is a good time.”

For Tribune News Service, Katie Walsh wrote, “Kennedy and Landon have cooked up a gender-bending twist on the classic slasher with flourishes of social commentary that make ‘Freaky’ resonate far beyond its novelty. There’s some surface-level discussion about bodies and power, but it’s the imagery in this gender-flipped genre that speaks louder. When the blonde ponytailed Millie wields a blood-spattered chainsaw, the frisson of recognition reverberates all the way back to 1974, Tobe Hooper’s ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.’ In ‘Freaky,’ Landon and Kennedy create an anarchic space of gender and sexuality, where men can be vulnerable and girls can be feared. How liberating, and how fun. The possibilities are endless.”

Vince Vaughn and Kathryn Newton in "Freaky."
(Brian Douglas / Universal Pictures)
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