Tuesday, November 17, 2020

Lady Friends in the British Isles: Ammonite & Wolfwalkers

Some days, an afternoon at the cinema resolves itself into a themed double feature whether you want it to or not. Yeah, they're intended for different audiences and there's only this very surface-level similarity, but you can't not see it.

Anyway, it was a quiet day at the theater. I'm pretty sure that I was the only person in both shows, and I only saw one or two other patrons while I was there. This is probably a good thing - it means that Boston-area folks are taking things seriously, even on what I mentioned was a pretty darn good movie weekend on Friday. The danger of movie theaters may be exaggerated, especially with concessions not being served, but I know that very few people are in the same situation I am (working from home with nobody sharing my space, happy to walk a few miles to avoid the subway). There aren't enough of us to sustain theaters and I wonder to what extent Landmark is being kept relatively-afloat by private rentals. It certainly can't be enough that I can have personal screenings for $14 a pop on the weekend.

Given that, this image from theater #8 amused me:

For this screen, second-row center is where it's at; I want my vision filled and don't want to be off-center if I can help it, and the front row is too close even with recliners. The bullseye was taped off, though, so I went for the front row. I find it sort of hilarious that the situation means I have the theater to myself and I can't use the best seat.

Anyway, I liked Ammonite well enough and loved Wolfwalkers, and I really hope that it's not exclusive to AppleTV+ for very long. It feels like a perfect niece present and I'd hate for it to completely disappear behind the gates of a relatively small streaming service, especially since I have been waiting years for Cartoon Saloon to make a movie with the sort of girl heroes that my nieces love. That it not only comes out in the middle of a pandemic, but it's also set to disappear into Apple's walled garden as soon as its small North American theatrical release finishes, is some monkey's paw garbage.

Ammonite

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 15 November 2020 in Landmark Kendall Square #6 (first-run, DCP)

The opening scene of Ammonite - a woman on her knees doing scut work being rudely brushed aside so that men can do something which involves erasing the important contribution of a woman - isn't the movie in miniature, thankfully, but that just makes one wonder why it's so prominent. The film is instead a small love story where the tension is the point, one that would probably impress a bit more if it hadn't appeared in such relatively close proximity to Portrait of a Lady on Fire, which shares more or less the same structure.

This one also offers a woman, Mary Anning (Kate Winslet), who is very good at what she does, who is hired not just in her official capacity but to serve as a companion of sorts. Though Roderick Murchison (James McArdle) is an admirer of the Lyme-based fossil-hunter's findings, he is planning an expedition to the continent which his wife Charlotte (Saoirse Ronan) is clearly not up for. Could Mary keep an eye on her? When it turns out that Charlotte has rather more than "light melancholia", and it has been exacerbated by the water therapy that was in vogue in the 1840s, Mary and her mother Molly (Gemma Jones) wind up taking Charlotte into their tiny home, and their proximity soon reveals attraction.

It's a bit of a plodding film at times, a romance that is often mincingly tentative, with Mary and Charlotte spending a lot of time circling each other. It makes sense; being gay in this particular time and place would mean making absolutely certain that the other person reciprocates your interest and is willing to respond in kind. Writer/director Francis Lee has hit upon a nifty way of illustrating this in Mary's work of finding the ordinary-looking rocks that may have something different inside and carefully bringing that out, but he seldom dives into it. That's too bad, because the process of it would be fascinating to see and it would maybe give this love affair some structure and individuality rather than the way it often feels like Charlotte is willing to fall for anybody who treats her kindly while Mary holds back because she can't be sure and doesn't want to test the waters.

Fortunately, the film has Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan, who are both good at delivering just what it needs. Winslet gives Mary the proper working-class combination of earthiness and intellect while Roman delivers a sort of innocent insulation from that, but they spark against each other in a way that crosses that boundary without making that big a deal of it. We could maybe do to learn a bit more about each of them, but we don't really need to with what we're given. There are some nice performances around them that do good work in sharpening who Mary is in particular - Gemma Jones's hardened mother, Fiona Shaw's one-time lover, Alec Secareanu as a doctor whose attraction is not going to get anywhere - and it might be nice if there was a bit more of that on the other side; James McArdle never seems wrong as Charlotte's husband, but her world never seems as precise as Mary's.

It's a muddiness that often works to the film's advantage - everything that steers things to Mary's more hardscrabble world rather than the more thoroughly-chronicled intrigues of those in the upper class lets Lee get closer to the raw emotions of these women and how being circumspect is hard and painful - but just as often makes any joy the pair are deriving from their pairing hard to discern. The sex scenes in particular are often more primal release than something happening between two individuals (which, admittedly, does give Ronan a big "oh, so this is how good that's supposed to feel" moment without using those or any words) and the film is otherwise more comfortable in showing the depth of the pair's affection through potential separation rather than how they are together.

There's a coda that hints at a more individual romance which draws on their differences in age, class, and experience, and I suspect I won't be totally alone at getting to the end of Ammonite and wishing I could have seen that story. It's not that movie, and while it's good to have a movie that looks at the board uncertainty as much as the specific, it does make things slow going at times.

Also at eFilmCritic

Wolfwalkers

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 15 November 2020 in Landmark Kendall Square #8 (first-run, DCP)

The pace of animated film production means that, so long as their work is staggered properly, I can probably get away with calling two or three people the best purveyors of animation out there without it looking too much like I'm being overly enthused about whatever I've seen last. Tomm Moore and the rest of the team at Cartoon Saloon in Kilkenney, Ireland are in that group, and Wolfwalkers may be their best movie yet, a kid-friendly adventure that hits familiar notes but never misses.

The film is set in 1650, when Kilkenney was a walled city expanding its farmlands to keep up with its growth, displacing wolves as it cut down forest. The Lord Protector (voice of Simon McBurney) has hired English hunter William Goodfellowe (voice of Sean Bean) to deal with the wolves, and daughter Robyn (Honor Kneafsey) is eager to help. In doing so, she chases her pet falcon Merlin into the woods where she discovers Mebh Óg MacTíre (voice of Eva Whittaker), a "Wolfwalker" her own age who lives in the woods and has access to wild magics, most notably the ability to manifest as a wolf when she sleeps. Mebh's mother has been looking for a place to relocate their pack, but she has been gone a long time, her sleeping body inert.

Those in the audience older than Robyn and Mebh (pronounced like "Maeve") will likely find that much of the story hits familiar beats, but this isn't a mark against it; screenwriter Will Collins (working from a story by directors Moore & Ross Stewart and Jericca Cleland) takes care to earn the story's next steps without crossing a line from challenging to cruelty. It's familiar, but more because the writers are following what kids and adults would do in this sort of situation rather than trying to fit a framework. They're canny about setting it at a point where magic seems possible but naturally imbuing it with material that feels contemporary, from bullying to the long and contentious relationship between Ireland and England to fanaticism to environmental impact, all of it interconnected. The story is simple but the background is rich and relatable to its viewers.

And, of course, it's gorgeous, and the different ways in which it looks fantastic are worth considering. There's the conventional ones, where action-packed animation is smooth and not overwhelming, or how it will occasionally pause for an especially great image. The character designs are shapes that kids can draw themselves but which still manage to be expressive, able to use things like the complementary curves on Robyn and William's heads without it being too cutesy or switch styles to quickly show the power of a wolf's senses and other magic. On top of that, there are numerous moments in this film where they buck conventional practice in deliberate, striking fashion - where so much of even hand-drawn animation is concerned with realism, these filmmakers will just as often use the medieval Irish art as a guide, and the effect is often amazing, as when a flattened style makes Kilkenney look as massive as any modern city without it becoming anachronistic, or where they go even further and just get rid of conventional perspective because something else works better. It's downright beautiful to look at while still feeling alive, such that the film seldom narrates something other filmmakers might, because the visual tells you enough.

On top of that, its two young heroines are delightful, an odd couple whose pairing has a genuine edge to it in their early encounters though they nevertheless quickly become fast friends. The animators give them contrasting shapes and different body language that translates surprisingly well to that of wolves, and the voiceover work by young actresses Honor Keafsey and Eva Whittaker is really quite excellent, whether it's how the two girls play off each other, how Mebh's bluster occasionally cracks, or Robyn imitating her father. In the middle of all that, the filmmakers are able to give some attention to how William, the bravest man Robyn can imagine, is scared all the time in a way that seems far more raw than is usual, with Sean Bean absolutely nailing the line where it all comes out, without taking away from how this is the girls' story.

A few heavy-handed pushes near the end aside, this film does everything right, moving at the sort of steady pace a younger viewer can follow without ever seeming hobbled. It's an exciting story that works as a couple hours' adventure and is packed with enough mythology, history, and art to start a curious child down any number of paths and one which encourages young girls to see and do what's right even when well-meaning adults say otherwise. I love it and hope my nieces do as well.

Also at eFilmCritic

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