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Disney+ Review: Black Beauty

November 27, 2020

By John Corrado

★★½ (out of 4)

Anna Sewell’s 1877 novel Black Beauty, which was written from the perspective of a horse and had an animal rights message that was revelatory for its time, is one of the biggest selling books of all time and has been adapted for the screen a number of times over the past century.

Now the story has gotten a “reimagining” in the form of the new Disney+ film Black Beauty, which updates the setting to modern day America and changes key details, including switching the gender of its title character from male to female and adding a human female protagonist.

Black Beauty (given voice by Kate Winslet, who narrates the film) is a wild mustang who is separated from her mother and sent to live at Birtwick Stables, where the head trainer John Manly (Iain Glen) tries unsuccessfully to tame her.

When John’s teenaged niece, Jo Green (Mackenzie Foy), comes to live with him after her parents die, the grieving teenager starts to form a bond with the restless horse. Jo breaks through to Beauty in a way that no one else can, and as Beauty changes owners over the course of the story, it’s the hope that they will one day be reunited that allows her to carry on through trying times.

Written and directed by Ashley Avis, who also edited the film, Black Beauty is a pretty loose adaptation of the classic book, using Sewell’s original text as more of a blueprint than anything else. The results are mixed, with the ambitious book having been turned into a more straight-forward and clichéd story about a girl and her horse. As such, the original story’s pointed message about animal cruelty feels somewhat muted here, with Avis staging the dramatic beats of the film in a way that often feels like items being checked off on a list.

If there’s one area in which this new film version of Black Beauty consistently feels lacking, it’s in terms of character development. Jo is more of a trope than anything else, and the supporting characters are all one-note and barely even register. The dialogue also sounds pretty rudimentary and underwritten. With that said, Black Beauty is not an unappealing film to watch, and it does boast some attractive imagery courtesy of cinematographer David Procter.

Avis also stages a few magical moments in Central Park at Christmas time in the film’s last act, which suggest a more sombre, wordless beauty that she might have been wise to tap into more. While Black Beauty is by no means a great adaptation of the book, it’s a nice enough film on its own terms, and I think those who are inclined to watch it on Disney+, namely horse enthusiasts who are likely on the younger side, will find much to enjoy.

Black Beauty is now available to stream exclusively on Disney+.

Review: Stardust

November 27, 2020

By John Corrado

★★ (out of 4)

Do you want to watch a David Bowie biopic where “Space Oddity” is talked about but never actually heard? That’s the question I kept asking myself while watching Stardust, a movie that is ostensibly about the legendary rock star but doesn’t actually feature any of his music.

Considering that the majority of people flocking to see a Bowie biopic will be doing so for his music, it’s a curious choice to even attempt to make a film about him without first securing the rights to his songs. Then again, Stardust is a very curious film, and one that raises a lot of questions.

Directed by Gabriel Range, who co-wrote the screenplay with Christopher Bell, Stardust raises eyebrows right from the start, with a title card informing us that the story has been somewhat fictionalized. The film simply never really comes together, not least of which as a biography of its central subject. Because without the music to back it up, the film feels mostly inert, struggling to work as either a biopic or as a piece of fan-made entertainment.

The film stars Johnny Flynn in the role of David Bowie, and focuses on the English musician’s first trip across the pond in 1971 to promote his album The Man Who Sold the World in America. Bowie has already scored radio play with the song “Space Oddity,” but the album itself has tanked and his record label is struggling with how to market him to mainstream listeners in the United States, who are used to British exports being more like The Beatles.

The record label has failed to secure him the proper work visa, in a sign of how little faith they have in him, meaning that he isn’t legally allowed to perform in the country. He becomes the charge of a man named Ron Oberman (Marc Maron), an eager publicist from Mercury Records. Oberman does his best to book him a series of private gigs at conferences, and tries to get him an interview with Rolling Stone, but Bowie grows frustrated with being misunderstood by American reporters and audiences.

Instead of being a jukebox musical like Bohemian Rhapsody or Rocketman, Stardust is more of a stripped down character drama, showing Bowie, who would come to be known for his outlandish personas, while he was still in the process of figuring himself out. In theory, this approach could have been interesting, a way of stripping away much of what we know about an artist to allow us to focus on other aspects of their life and who they were as a person.

But we get the distinct sense throughout Stardust that they simply couldn’t get the royalties to Bowie’s music, and without it, the film falls flat. Yes, Bowie was a persona, a stage name adopted by David Jones, but to really understand who he was, we need to be hearing his music and seeing him perform. The film introduces us to its version of Bowie as a nervous, cross-dressing man being questioned at the airport in the opening scene, but we are never really shown the juxtaposition of how he would come alive on stage.

There are flashes of intrigue, but Stardust also doesn’t really go deep enough into Bowie’s psyche to make it all that interesting as a character study. The film’s strongest narrative through-line comes from Bowie’s older half-brother, Terry Burns (Derek Moran), who is struggling with mental illness that David is terrified to inherit. On the other hand, a subplot with David’s pregnant wife Angie (Jena Malone) back in England feels underdeveloped to the point that it probably could have been left out entirely, with Malone feeling tragically underused.

The film is vaguely about the creation of Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust persona, who we do see emerge in the final reel, but it feels strange to see a facsimile of Bowie performing with other music playing on the soundtrack. Yes, it all comes back to the music, because without it, Stardust barely even registers as being about David Bowie. Flynn does do a pretty good job in the leading role, but he never becomes completely recognizable as Bowie either, and could have just as easily been portraying a fictional musician as well.

Flynn and Maron do deliver decent performances, and there are some pretty good scenes where it’s just the two of them discussing music, suggesting that Range probably could have left names out of this and turned it into an alright musical drama about fictional characters instead. But, as a whole, Stardust can’t help but feel like a missed opportunity. For a film about an artist as daring as Bowie, it feels stilted, and without his songs, it never really comes alive. You could no doubt craft a compelling film out of Bowie’s life story, think something akin to Rocketman, but Stardust isn’t that film.

Stardust is being released in selected theatres and on demand today. It’s being distributed in Canada by Elevation Pictures.

Blu-ray Review: Sonic the Hedgehog: Limited Collector’s Edition

November 24, 2020

By John Corrado

The video game adaptation Sonic the Hedgehog feels like one of those movies that keeps popping back up. To recap, it was initially supposed to be released in theatres last November, before public outcry over the look of Sonic in the trailer led the studio to delay it by several months to change the design of the character.

It was finally released in theatres in February of this year, only to have its run cut short a month later when COVID-19 forced cinemas to shut their doors, sending it to an early digital release. The film was released on Blu-ray back in May, and now Paramount is reissuing it again on Blu-ray in a new Limited Collector’s Edition.

What’s different or special about this new edition, you might ask? Well, as it turns out, not that much. This release simply updates the cover art for a solo image of Sonic against a yellow background, and swaps out the physical comic book that the first release shipped with for a set of four double sided cardstock mini-posters, about the size and weight of postcards, that are tucked into the case.

Any prospective buyers should know that literally everything else about this new release remains the same as before, so I guess whether or not you think it’s worth double dipping all depends on how much of a collector you are. The film itself remains an amusing and slightly better than expected family action comedy, and you can read my full thoughts on it in my original review here.

Bonus Features (Blu-ray):

The set also comes with a regular DVD and digital copy of the film, as well as the exact same bonuses that were included on the original Blu-ray release, which I reviewed here. They are as follows.

Commentary by director Jeff Fowler and the voice of Sonic, Ben Schwartz

Around the World in 80 Seconds (1 minute, 48 seconds)

Deleted Scenes (13 minutes, 23 seconds)

Introduction by Director Jeff Fowler (28 seconds)

Original Opening (3 minutes, 32 seconds)

Super Observant Carl (2 minutes, 29 seconds)

Baby Sonic (3 minutes, 46 seconds)

Tom and Sonic Have a Chat (1 minute, 44 seconds)

Rachel and Wade Plan a Date (1 minute, 22 seconds)

Blooper Reel (2 minutes, 13 seconds)

“Speed Me Up” Music Video featuring Wiz Khalifa, Ty Dolla $ign, Lil Yachty and Sueco the Child (3 minutes, 43 seconds)

For the Love of Sonic (4 minutes, 0 seconds)

Building Robotinik With Jim Carrey (4 minutes, 2 seconds)

The Blue Blur: Origins of Sonic (6 minutes, 21 seconds)

Sonic On Set (3 minutes, 27 seconds)

Sonic the Hedgehog: Limited Collector’s Edition is a Paramount Home Entertainment release. It’s 98 minutes and rated PG.

Street Date: November 24th, 2020

Blu-ray Review: Train to Busan Presents: Peninsula

November 24, 2020

By John Corrado

★★½ (out of 4)

The 2016 South Korean zombie movie Train to Busan is an incredible exercise in genre cinema, a tight, suspenseful thrill ride that unfolds mostly on a train and almost entirely in real time. Seriously, it’s a great action film, and one that I would highly recommend.

Now, director Yeon Sang-ho has returned with a sequel, titled Train to Busan Presents: Peninsula. That title alone tells you something crucial about this followup to his 2016 film; this isn’t a direct sequel, as much as it is another film set in the same world. But like a lot of sequels, Peninsula struggles to fully live up to its predecessor, despite often being perfectly fine in its own right.

The film begins directly following the events of the first one, with South Korea in the midst of being decimated by the zombie apocalypse. Marine Captain Jung-seok (Gang Dong-won) is driving his family to a ship that will take them to safety. He passes a young mother, Min-jung (Lee Jung-hyun), begging for help. Jung-seok declines, but take note, as she will become a key character later on. A tense opening sequence follows in the cabin of the ship, and Peninsula then jumps ahead a full four years.

Jung-seok is now settled in Hong Kong with his brother-in-law Chul-min (Kim Do-yoon), still feeling guilt over what happened on that ship. Jung-seok and Chul-min are then hired by Chinese mafia to return to the Korean Peninsula and retrieve a truck filled with millions of dollars. It’s here that Jung-seok re-encounters the mother that he left on the side of the road, who has become a survivalist with her two daughters (Lee Re and Lee Ye-won), while Chul-min gets caught up with a militia group running an underground fight club pitting humans against zombies

None of this really connects back to the first film, and in terms of being a sequel, Peninsula is essentially just an action movie with a completely new cast of characters that happens to be set in the same universe as Train to Busan. Where as the first film felt very contained, this one expands the world, offering more exposition about the scale and nature of the zombie outbreak, with a slightly longer timeframe and more characters and subplots to keep track of.

Filmmaker Yeon Sang-ho does still stage some solid action set-pieces throughout Peninsula, including that aforementioned sequence on the ship, which is maybe the best scene in the movie. There are also some exciting car chases, including a wild one involving Min-jung’s daughters that strains credibility but sure is fun to watch. But the film also starts to feel somewhat derivative after a while, and never really establishes a strong enough emotional connection to its characters.

I actually watched Train to Busan for the first time last week, right before putting on this sequel for review, and I think I might have enjoyed this one more if I hadn’t literally just watched the original right before it, with barely an hour between them. One of the most noticeable aesthetic differences between the two is that the first took place mostly in broad daylight, where as this one unfolds predominantly at night, giving it a dark and grimy post-apocalyptic look.

The first film had better defined characters, a more focused story, a superior sense of suspense, and a much stronger emotional pull. This one feels more like a typical zombie action movie. It’s still a pretty good one, mind you, and I do think that Peninsula is worth a look for fans of Train to Busan, but it also lacks much of the spark that made the original stand out.

Bonus Features (Blu-ray):

The Blu-ray set comes with a regular DVD of the film, along with a selection of brief featurettes (which combine clips from a junket-style interview with director Yeon and cast members Lee Jung-hyun and Lee Re playing over scenes from the film) and a pair of trailers. These are the same sort of bonuses that are found on most Well Go USA releases, and per usual are all set to play consecutively.

Making Of and Interviews (8 minutes, 47 seconds)

The Sequel (1 minute, 43 seconds)

The Action (2 minutes, 31 seconds)

The Director (1 minute, 29 seconds)

The Characters (3 minutes, 4 seconds)

Teaser (1 minute, 35 seconds)

Trailer (1 minute, 55 seconds)

Train to Busan Presents: Peninsula is a Well Go USA release. It’s 116 minutes and not rated.

Street Date: November 24th, 2020

VOD Review: Fatman

November 24, 2020

By John Corrado

★★½ (out of 4)

Written and directed by filmmaking brothers Eshom and Ian Nelms, the offbeat Christmas movie Fatman is one of those films that many will watch based on the absurdity of its premise alone, which was revealed in a pretty wild trailer.

What is the premise, you might ask? Well, to start, Fatman casts Mel Gibson as a grizzled, world-weary Chris Cringle who spends as much time honing his survivalist skills as he does making people merry. That should give you a pretty good idea of what to expect from this dark action comedy.

Losing money on the whole toy operation, with the declining behaviour of the world’s children putting more and more of them on the naughty list, Chris and his wife (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) are forced to enter into a contract with the United States military in order to keep themselves afloat.

The decision to repurpose their Elf workforce into weapons manufacturers comes after a particularly rough Christmas when more coal is delivered than ever. One of the recipients of a lump of coal is Billy Wenan (Chance Hurstfield), a spoiled rich kid who lashes out after receiving second place at the school science fair. Demanding Santa’s head, Billy hires a hitman credited as “Skinny Man” (Walton Goggins), a deranged adult who still holds a grudge against the big guy after receiving coal as a kid, to take him out.

Sounds bonkers, right? Well, it is, but Fatman is also one of those films that doesn’t quite live up to the absurdity of its premise. For starters, the film struggles at times to nail down the right tone. It’s never as overtly comedic as something like Bad Santa, nor is it as dark and twisted as Rare Exports. It’s more gritty than goofy, but also not serious enough to really work as a thriller, which can make it feel stuck in a strange sort of limbo.

While Fatman is never quite as much fun as you want it to be, it’s still mildly entertaining, and does deliver some enjoyable moments along the way. The film is at its best when embracing its campy, B-movie roots, building towards a decently staged shoot ’em up finale that allows Gibson and Goggins to go head to head. Gibson’s take on a disgruntled Santa Claus is amusing to watch, and Goggins chews up the scenery with his over the top performance. If any of this piques your interest, then give Fatman a watch, but temper expectations accordingly.

Fatman is being released today on a variety of digital and VOD platforms. It’s being distributed in Canada by VVS Films.

VOD Review: Team Marco

November 20, 2020

By John Corrado

★★½ (out of 4)

A grandfather and grandson bond over bocce in Team Marco, a simple but charming family movie that is being released digitally this week and serves as a fine viewing option for families looking for something made outside the studio system.

The lead character is Marco (Owen Vaccaro), an adolescent kid who is glued to his iPad. When we first meet him in the opening scene, he is in the backseat of a limo being taken to his grandma’s funeral, and barely even looking up from the tablet, much to the annoyance of his Nonno (Anthony Patellis).

When Nonno, an Italian-American man in his mid-70s who is still as spirited as ever, accidentally sets fire to his kitchen and is left without a home, his daughter Anna (Anastasia Ganias) invites him to live with her and Marco. At first, Marco is horrified at having to share his room, and doesn’t welcome the distraction from his video games.

Nonno’s arrival upends Marco’s plans to spend the summer getting to the hundredth level of Atomic Rick, a game that his absentee father (Louis Cancelmi) created. Nonno’s passion lies in the centuries old game of bocce, which he spends his mornings playing with a group of older Italian men. Perturbed by Marco’s tech obsessions and lack of friends, Nonno makes him a deal; he will let the boy play with his electronics uninterrupted, if Marco agrees to come play bocce with him and his friends.

The film serves as the feature directorial debut of Julio Vincent Gambuto and his Boro Five production company. It was independently financed, which is a rarity for a live action family film, and shot entirely on location on Staten Island, where the story takes place. The film even features three real members of the Staten Island Bocce Club in background roles. It was clearly a labour of love, and the biggest thing that can be said about Team Marco is that this is a very sweet-natured film that I found thoroughly pleasant to watch.

Sure, it’s kind of corny at times and some of the jokes are a bit stale, with the generational clash stuff between Nonno and Marco not understanding any of each other’s references feeling like it’s been done before. But by the end, Team Marco is also genuinely charming and sweet, offering a pretty valuable if somewhat obvious message about not being too focused on screens and actually living life.

Team Marco is now available to rent and buy on a variety of digital and VOD platforms. It’s being distributed in Canada by Vortex Media.

Disney+ Review: The LEGO Star Wars Holiday Special

November 17, 2020

By John Corrado

★★½ (out of 4)

Disney pays tribute to the infamous Star Wars Holiday Special in the LEGO Star Wars Holiday Special, which is premiering on Disney Plus today.

The original TV special, which aired in 1978 between the releases of the first Star Wars and Empire Strikes Back, was so widely panned that George Lucas never wanted it to see the light of day again. But it’s safe to say that the Star Wars Holiday Special has still achieved cult status over the years with hardcore fans of the series.

While never officially released, bootleg copies of it have long been floating around amongst fans, and have made their way to the internet. The special found Chewbacca returning to his home planet to celebrate Life Day with his family, and the fictional Wookie holiday provides the basis for this new animated special as well.

The LEGO Star Wars Holiday Special opens with Poe (Jake Green) making preparations for Life Day, as Rey (Helen Sadler) tries unsuccessfully to train Finn (Omar Miller) in the ways of the Jedi. Determined to become a better teacher, Rey stumbles upon a magical crystal that opens up portals and lets her visit different points in time. Rey’s time-hopping adventures make up the brunt of the special’s slapdash plot, with the crystal serving as a plot device that allows her to drop in on various characters and moments from throughout the series.

This includes everything from going back and watching Master Yoda (Tom Kane) train a young Luke Skywalker (Eric Bauza), to getting caught up with comedic versions of Darth Vader (Matt Sloan), Emperor Palpatine (Trevor Devall) and Kylo Ren (Matthew Wood), who all jostle for attention. This results in a steady stream of callbacks to all three trilogies (Original, Prequel and Sequel), as classic scenes get reimagined in brick form.

The special plays out with a jokey tone that lampoons various moments from the franchise and never takes itself too seriously. The animation itself is decent but unremarkable, and aside from returning cast members Anthony Daniels, Billy Dee Williams and Kelly Marie Tran (who reprise their roles as C-3PO, Lando Calrissian and Rose Tico), the voice cast is made up of impersonators who never quite sound like the characters they are playing. The 45 minute special is also somewhat poorly paced, with a madcap tone that offers no real breathing room.

While it’s too scattered and inconsistent to leave much of a mark, the LEGO Star Wars Holiday Special still offers a handful of amusing moments and references sprinkled throughout. There are also some cute antics with the Porgs, and even a Baby Yoda cameo. It’s fine enough for what it is, especially for younger viewers, but it won’t go down as a classic or gain the cult following of its predecessor.

The LEGO Star Wars Holiday Special is now available to stream exclusively on Disney+.

4K Ultra HD Review: It’s a Wonderful Life (Steelbook)

November 17, 2020

By John Corrado

One of my favourite movies of all time, and a perennial favourite that gets revisited every holiday season, is It’s a Wonderful Life. Frank Capra’s 1946 classic, about a suicidal man named George Bailey (James Stewart) who gets visited by an angel (Henry Travers) on Christmas Eve, is a film that always manages to captivate me whenever I watch it. Beautifully written, beautifully acted, and very moving, this is one of those films that has truly stood the test of time.

Now Paramount is releasing yet another edition of the film this week, with a brand new 4K Ultra HD combo pack that comes in a collectible Steelbook package. In terms of actual content, this is exactly the same as the 4K edition that was put out last year, including the original black and white version of the film in 4K, the colourized version on Blu-ray, and a code for a digital copy. What’s new and special about this edition is obviously the Steelbook packaging, which is quite appealing if you are a collector of unique physical media like I am.

I find the cover art itself on this release to be very attractive, from the blue background and classic illustration on the front panel, to the shiny red back panel which includes a quote (“Every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings”) over an image of Christmas bells. A full colour image from the film adorns the inside of the package when you open it up. The set also includes a foldout mini poster tucked into the tabs on the inside of the case, which is a fine little collector’s item as well. It’s altogether a very nice edition, and one that would make a great gift or display item.

Bonus Features (4K Ultra HD):

Restoring a Beloved Classic (13 minutes, 3 seconds)

Secrets from the Vault (22 minutes, 11 seconds)

It’s a Wonderful Wrap Party (8 minutes, 4 seconds)

It’s a Wonderful Life (Steelbook) is a Paramount Home Entertainment release. It’s 130 minutes and rated G.

Street Date: November 17th, 2020

Disney+ Review: Inside Pixar (Episodes 3, 4 & 5)

November 15, 2020

By John Corrado

★★★½ (out of 4)

The other day, I had a chance to review the first two episodes of Inside Pixar, the very good new docuseries on Disney Plus that introduces us to some of the individuals who help tell the stories we all know and love at Pixar Animation Studios.

The show is being presented in four collections grouped by theme, with five short episodes in each. Now that the complete first collection, Inspired, is available to stream, here are my thoughts on the next three episodes, which weren’t made available for me to review in advance.

The third episode in the series, (Inspired: Steven Hunter, For That Kid), focuses on Steven Hunter, the Canadian filmmaker behind the wonderful Pixar SparkShort Out, which is the studio’s first (and hopefully not the last) film to openly explore LGBTQ themes.

Born and raised in the small town of Chatham, Ontario, Hunter speaks candidly about growing up as a “gay nerd” in the 1980s, and how important it was for him to tell a coming out story in animated form, using a fantasy scenario to make it accessible. He talks about the process of developing the film as part of the studio’s SparkShorts program, a space for artists to experiment with different styles and telling new stories, as well as the ways that the story intersects with his own life. It’s a touching and nicely done companion piece to Out, which is also available to stream on Disney+.

The fourth episode, (Inspired: Jessica Heidt, Who Gets All the Lines?), introduces us to Jessica Heidt, a script supervisor at Pixar who noticed a pattern across the industry where the majority of films had more speaking roles for men than women. Striving for more gender balance in the studio’s films, Heidt helped develop software to map the speaking roles in scripts by gender, with the goal being something close to a fifty-fifty split like we have in real life.

One of the most interesting parts of the episode is seeing how she was able to implement these changes during the production Cars 3, working with the filmmakers to add more female supporting characters to the film. Heidt also admits though that this isn’t a hard and fast rule, and artists should still be free to tell stories in their own ways, with the software serving as a useful tool to get them thinking during the writing process about who gets lines. Notably, we are told that the upcoming Soul is about fifty-fifty in terms of speaking roles for male and female characters.

The fifth and final episode in this collection, (Inspired: Dan Scanlon, Where Ideas Come From), is all about the studio’s recent film Onward. Director Dan Scanlon talks openly about drawing upon his own experience of losing his father as baby, and how this shaped his relationship with his older brother, to tell the fantastical but grounded story of two elf brothers on a quest to see their deceased father one last time using magic.

Scanlon touches upon growing up as a very artsy kid who gained local fame in his hometown of Clawson, Michigan for his caricatures, as well as the lucky break that he received at Pixar when he was brought on to direct Monsters University. The episode serves as a heartfelt testament to the importance of opening yourself up and tapping into a very real and vulnerable place to find the story that matters most to you, and it really gives us a deeper appreciation of how personal a film Onward was for its director.

As I noted in my review of the first two episodes, Inside Pixar is a beautifully shot and beautifully edited series. This remains true of these three episodes as well. The entire Inspired collection is just under an hour long, and it offers a compelling introduction to five different individuals who are all doing great work at the studio, both in terms of telling stories and moving the needle in terms of representation.

Inside Pixar Collection 1: Inspired is now available to stream exclusively on Disney+.

Review: Ammonite

November 13, 2020

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

The greatest challenge facing writer/director Francis Lee’s Ammonite, which serves as a companion piece of sorts to his acclaimed romantic drama God’s Own Country, has nothing to do with the film itself, but rather has to do with unfair comparisons to the recent Portrait of a Lady on Fire.

No, Ammonite isn’t as good as Portrait of a Lady on Fire, and yes, to be fair, there are a fair number of similarities between the two films. Both are period pieces that take place by the sea, and both are love stories between two women who at first are forced to be together, but find close companionship with each other.

But if you can look beyond these comparisons, you will find that Ammonite is a worthwhile film in its own right. In fact, it’s very good, carried by a pair of excellent performances from the Oscar-winning actress Kate Winslet and the Oscar-nominated Saoirse Ronan, who are both captivating to watch.

The film is set in the 1840s, and is loosely based on the true story of self-taught paleontologist Mary Anning (Winslet). Mary lives in the small English town of Lyme Regis, and spends her days alone on the beach searching for fossils, which she sells to tourists at the small seaside shop that she operates with her elderly mother (Gemma Jones). But Mary’s routine is upended when a man named Roderick Murchison (James McArdle) comes into the shop.

Roderick is a fellow paleontologist who is curious to know more about her work, and he brings with him a wife, Charlotte (Ronan), whose quiet obedience around her husband suggests deep unhappiness in her marriage. Charlotte is said to be suffering from “melancholia,” and it’s been recommended that she take in the sea air in order to recover. When Roderick must leave town, he has a proposition for Mary; he will pay her to keep Charlotte in her care until she feels well enough to return home.

Mary is used to solitude, and at first she is bothered by having someone else tag along on her fossil-hunting expeditions, especially a society woman such as Charlotte, whose initial unease with spending the day in the mud and sand is palpable. But caring for Charlotte gives Mary a new sense of purpose, and the two gradually start to form a deeper, more physical relationship. Watching Winslet’s Mary soften up, as Ronan’s Charlotte starts to open up, is what gives the film much of its emotional pull.

Winslet’s performance is a quietly effective one. With minimal dialogue, she reveals much of Mary’s guarded nature through body language, and her subtle, understated work is rich with nuance. Ronan also shows a much quieter side of herself here, barely saying a word during her first few scenes. It’s a stark difference from the spirited performances she gave in films like Lady Bird and Little Women, and another compelling testament to her remarkable range as an actor. The two actors reveal a great, almost unspoken sense of chemistry together that becomes the film’s defining feature.

One of the most welcome aspects of Ammonite is that the film doesn’t devolve into melodrama. Lee instead opts to fashion the story into a naturalistic and patiently observed character drama, that feels like a female-led mirror image of his countryside gay romance God’s Own Country. The film is more focused on capturing quiet moments across its relaxed two hour running time than it is on delivering major plot developments, and it’s all the better for it. By the end, Ammonite reveals itself to be something quite lovely, closing on a tender and touching note.

Ammonite is opening in select theatres across Canada today, please check local listings. It’s being distributed in Canada by Elevation Pictures.

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