Films I Neglected To Review: Opie-Um Of The Masses
By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 11/12/20 10:12:40
Please enjoy short reviews of "Ammonite," "Chick Fight," "The Climb," "Come Away," "Echo Boomers," "Fatman," "Freaky," “Hillbilly Elegy,” “I Am Greta" and "Maybe Next Year."
As the historical romantic drama "Ammonite" begins in 1840, Mary Anning (Kate Winslet), a self-taught British paleontologist whose career never took off as she was forbidden a place in the scientific community at the time because of her gender, has been reduced to living in a drab town off the coast of Southern England where she scours the rocky beaches for fossils she can sell to tourists in order to support herself and her widowed mother (Gemma Jones). One day, she is visited by Roderick Murchison (James McArdle), a rich tourist who is an admirer of Mary's work. Roderick is accompanied by his melancholic wife, Charlotte (Saorise Ronan), and when it is time for him to go, he hits upon the idea of leaving Charlotte behind in Mary's care for the next month or so. This is the last thing that either of them want but Mary needs the money and agrees to look after Charlotte. At first, things are chilly between them--Charlotte has little interest in rocks and Mary has little interest in Charlotte--but after Charlotte takes ill and is nursed back to health by Mary, a bond begins to grow between them that eventually erupts into passion one night, one that brings a temporary sense of joy to both of them that is inevitably tempered by the fact that their time together will be brief at best. (Although Mary and Charlotte were real-life people who knew each other, it should be noted that there is nothing to suggest that their relationship was at all sexual.)
"Ammonite" has one enormous disadvantage working against it that is not of its own making--the fact that it comes on the heels of last year's "Portrait of a Lady on Fire," a film that told a quite similar story, featured a similar period setting and locale and was acclaimed the world over as one of 2019's very best films. That said, even if you are someone able to put the earlier film out of your mind before seeing this one--which will be hard since there are several scenes that feel like mirror images of what come before--"Ammonite" would not improve that much in the mind because its bigger flaws are all its own. Although the film is ostensibly about great yet ultimately doomed passions--both the one that develops between Mary and Charlotte and the one that Mary has for her work--writer-director Francis Lee never manages to evoke any of his own. This is a strangely chilly and remote film that is so removed from any genuine emotion that it feels as if it was generated by a computer program still in the beta phase. The mood is oppressively dour throughout, the screenplay is filled with too many overtly symbolic visuals and examples of on-the-nose dialogue and even the sex scenes have a pro forma feel to them that suggests obligation rather than passion. Winslet and Ronan are two of the finest actresses working today but while both of them are as good as can be expected here, not even their combined efforts can help turn the tide against the drably oppressive nature of the enterprise. The hell of it is that the real Mary Anning was fascinating enough in her own right to deserve a movie that focuses on her actual accomplishments, rather than one that pushes them to the side to make room for a highly speculative romance that reduces her to drably symbolic terms. With any luck, maybe someone will see "Ammonite," come away from it as disappointed as I was and go on to one day make that very movie themselves.
Although the premise might suggest otherwise, "Chick Fight" is not a female-driven variation of the lacerating social satire “Fight Club.” That is too bad because a.) that is not necessarily a bad idea for a film and b.) as it turns out, that is one more good idea than the actual film possesses. Anna (Malin Akerman) is on a downward spiral--over the course of one day, the anniversary of the death of her beloved mother, she loses both her car and business--and sees no immediate way of figuring out how to get her life back together. To help, her sassy best friend (Dulce Sloan) takes her to a top-secret underground fight club populated entirely by women. Not only that, it turns out that Anna’s late mom actually started the club as an offshoot of her work as a therapist to allow her clients a place to work out their aggressions and take control of their lives. After some initial trepidations and bouts of unconsciousness, Anna begins to take to the program and when a young upstart (Bella Thorne) plots to take over the club and pursue a more aggressive agenda, she acquires the inevitable over-the-hill alcoholic trainer (played just as inevitably by Alec Baldwin) in order to uphold her mother's heretofore unknown legacy and learn how to become a more self-assured and fulfilled person, at least between the concussions. Maybe if the film had been written and/or directed by women, that might have given the material some kind of genuine insight but in the hands of writer Joseph Downey and director Paul Leyden, the whole thing is just an increasingly inconsequential mess in which the only moments that inspire actual laughter are the ones striving for poignance and meaning. None of the performers are able to do much of anything with the material that they are working with and by the time it all finally lumbers to its conclusion, there will be very few people who actually give a damn about any of it. Trust me, you will be much better served by throwing in the towel on "Chick Fight" and seeking out the wonderful and infinitely more insightful "Girlfight" instead.
I have seen countless buddy movies over the years--some very good and some very bad--but I can definitively say that I have never seen one quite as peculiar, albeit in a good way, as "The Climb," a film that is certain to divide audiences between those who will find it hilariously funny and those who will find it absolutely excruciating. The buddies in question here are Kyle (Kyle Marvin) and Mike (Michael Angelo Covino) and when we first see them, they are biking through the French countryside when Mike chooses that moment to tell Kyle that he has been sleeping with his friend's fiancee (Judith Godreche). Despite the betrayal, the two continue to be part of each others lives and each scene in the film charts the various ups and downs in their relationship, which come to a head when the now messed-up Mike reunites with the newly engaged Kyle, only to be coaxed by Kyle's family, who do not like his fiancee (Gayle Rankin), to try and break the couple up. How things proceed from this point is something that I will leave for you to discover on your own. What I can tell you is that while I confess that it took me quite a while to get into the film's oddball spirit, I eventually found myself convulsing over its dryer-than-dry sense of humor displayed by Covino and Marvin's screenplay (with Covino also serving as director)--the closest thing I can compare it to is the early films of Albert Brooks--while being equally impressed with its formal achievements--while the visual style of most comedies tends to be rudimentary at best, this film presents itself as a series of long unbroken shots that pull off the considerable double achievement of being technically dazzling and fitting for the narrative at hand. Once again, I must stress that "The Climb" is not for everyone and those who do not find themselves sparking to it will almost certainly not only find it not funny but find themselves questioning the sanity of those who do. On the other hand, if you find yourself on its wavelength, there is an excellent chance that you may find it to be one of the funniest movies of the year.
At first glance, "Come Away" seems as if it is going to be one of those crazily ambitious children's films like "The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T" or "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory" that are simply too offbeat to connect with audiences when they first came out, only to become cult favorites a couple of decades down the line. The conceit of the film is to ask and then answer the speculative question "What would happen if Peter Pan and Alice (of Wonderland fame) were actually brother and sister whose reactions to a family tragedy sent them off on their well-chronicled respective paths?" Well, the film does answer that question, I suppose, but at no point does it ever make the case for it being one worth exploring in the first place. At first, the childhoods of Peter (Jordan A. Nash) and Alice (Keira Chansa) are delightful as they romp around with older brother David (Reece Yates) indulging in elaborate fantasy play under the watch of their indulgent parents (Angelina Jolie and David Oyelowo). Alas, after David is killed in an awful accident, Mom and Dad begin to fall apart and Peter and Alice set off on an adventure to help save the family from ruin and along the way find themselves forced to choose between living in the real world or embracing a life of more fantastical notions.
As I said earlier, "Come Away" is certainly ambitious but the ambition is so curiously misapplied that most people sitting through it will spend most of their mental energy trying to figure out who it was aimed for in the first place. The story is way too somber for young viewers, way too juvenile in tone for older audiences and is such a jumble of tangled plot threads that you get the sense that it may have started out as a far more complex screenplay that got whittled down to its barest essentials at the last second before the commencement of filming. (That might explain why well-known actors like Michael Caine, Derek Jacobi and Gugu Mbatha-Raw turn up briefly in roles that barely even qualify as cameos.) Nash and Chansa are reasonably engaging as the two young leads but Jolie and Oyelowo are given little to do other than stare happily or sadly at the kids, depending on the mood of the scene. Making her live-action directorial debut, animation legend Brenda Chapman does offer up some arresting visuals here and there but cannot make much sense of Marissa Kate Goodhill's screenplay, especially during the extremely messy and sometimes incoherent final act. "Come Away" is definitely a curiosity, I suppose, but it is one that really needed to be a lot curiouser in the end.
"Echo Boomers" purports to be inspired by a true story but I have a sneaky suspicion that this claim is as much of a load of utter bullshit as every other aspect of this spectacularly obnoxious movie. Set in 2013, it begins as young dullard Lance (Patrick Schwarzenegger), who has struggled to find his dream job in the art world thanks to the economy and whatnot, arrives in Chicago at the behest of his cousin Jack (Gilles Geary) with the vague promise of a job "in acquisitions." What Jack fails to mention until the last possible second is that the actual job entails donning a mask from Silver Shamrock's "Purge" line and joining a group of similarly disaffected young people as they break into high-rent homes in order to steal valuables at the behest of fence Mel (Michael Shannon), who then sells them overseas for a huge profit, and vandalize everything else they can find. The leader of the gang, Ellis (Alex Pettyfer), insists that they do this less for the money than to make a political statement about their economic disenfranchisement and the crushing debt that they have been left with by earlier generations. For a while, Lance goes along with this line of thinking but slowly becomes disenchanted when the gang becomes consumed with greed and infighting than in the kind of emotional purity that can only be found by vindictively trashing a small child's bedroom. It all leads to the usual array of betrayals and double-crosses but since there is never a time when we care about any of the characters embroiled in them--even the ostensibly sympathetic Lance starts off as an impossibly naive twerp before quickly turning into as much of a self-entitled jerk as his pals--their conflicts fail to add up to much of anything else either. Other than that, Seth Savoy's feature directorial debut (he also co-wrote the screenplay with Kevin Bernhardt and Jason Miller) is overly stylized but ultimately hollow claptrap that, for all of its pseudo-radical posturing, is as square and mundane as an episode of "Hunter" and not even the consummate scene-stealer Shannon can make much of the material he is working with here, though his appearances are the closest it ever gets to being watchable. A prime contender for the title of this generation's "Amongst Friends," "Echo Boomers" is a film so lousy that it just might give millennials a bad name.
"Fatman" is one of those films where it appears that so much energy went into creating its wild and attention-getting premise that there was hardly any left to make said premise work in a satisfying manner. Up at the North Pole, Santa Claus, a.k.a. Chris Cringle, is a real person whose entire organization is subsidized by the United States government as a way of helping to spur the economy thanks to the good will that he generates. Alas, the increasingly pessimistic Chris has been leaving more lumps of coal than usual to badly behaved kids and as a result, the government is reducing its subsidy. However, they do make him an offer to help make up the financial shortfall by retraining his elves so that they can spend a couple of months fulfilling a contract to build military hardware. Meanwhile, the spoiled rotten and generally awful Billy (Chance Hurstfield), one of the recipients of a piece of coal, is so irate that he calls upon the Santa-obsessed hit man (Walton Goggins) he has on retainer (we have already seen him deployed to threaten a classmate of Billy's who had the temerity to beat him at a science fair) to not only kill Chris but bring back a souvenir--after informing Billy that bringing back a severed head would be a tad complicated, he agrees to go with the famous red coat. Oh yeah, I almost forgot--Chris is played by none other than Mel Gibson in all his bitter, foul-mouthed glory.
So yeah, "Fatman" is essentially a one-joke film but as such things go, it is a reasonably promising one that offers up any number of possible avenues for wicked satire involving everything from the military mindset to the ruthless exploitation of the Christmas spirit. The problem is that a film like this needs to find and establish just the right tone from the outset and Eshom and Ian Nelms, whose previous effort as a writer-director duo was the intriguing mystery thriller "Small Town Crime," never quite manage to find it. They employ a weirdly flat approach that is presumably attempting to be deadpan but which comes closer to being somnambulistic instead. The other problem is that the two competing storylines do not mesh--Chris dealing with the government and the pressures of the real world is the more promising of the two but every time something starts to get going on that end, the film hops over to the infinitely less interesting material with the hitman and when the two finally meet, any satirical point the Nelms may be making is thrown out in a violent climax that plays more like an extended homage to the "Night the Reindeer Died" bit from "Scrooged," a much more successful attempt at blending dark satirical comedy with the holidays. The one element of "Fatman" that does work, presumably to the dismay of certain moviegoers, is the performance by Gibson. While the notion of casting the infamously volatile actor as Santa may have begun as a joke, he certainly commits to the part while demonstrating that he has not lost any of the burning charisma that helped to make him a star in the first place. Having Gibson playing Santa is the best idea that "Fatman" has--it is just too bad that nothing else in the film quite lives up to it.
Having previously found success by taking the basic premise of the fantasy-comedy favorite "Groundhog Day" and fusing it to the framework of a gory slasher movie with the "Happy Death Day" movies, director/co-writer Christopher Landon tries to make lightning strike again with "Freaky," a film that not only could be fully summed up by describing it as being "Freaky Friday" with a body count, I would almost be willing to bet that very description was deployed at some point when Landon was pitching it to Blumhouse. As the film opens, the seemingly bucolic town of Blissfield is under siege from a serial killer known as the Blissfield Butcher (Vince Vaughn) who gruesomely dispatches four dumb and horny teens in the pre-credits sequence and soon eventually begins pursuing school wallflower Millie (Kathryn Newton). Trapping her on an empty football field after the big homecoming game, the Butcher stabs Millie in the shoulder with a mystical Aztec dagger he has acquired, a move that winds up causing them to transfer bodies. With only 24 hours until the switch becomes permanent, Millie, in the Butcher’s body, has to convince friends Josh (Misha Osherovich) and Nyla (Celeste O’Connor) and not-so-secret crush Booker (Uriah Shelton) that it is really her and get them to help get back into her body before time is up. As for the Butcher, he discovers that hiding in the body of a teenage girl offers up intriguing possibilities for creating bloody mayhem among the less appealing members of the student body.
The concept of "Freaky" is undeniably appealing and it is therefore a bit odd that Landon and co-writer Michael Kennedy don't do more with it than they have here. Although some of the kills on display demonstrate a certain ingenuity (and are gory enough to earn the film its "R" rating and then some), the story as a whole lacks the necessary inspiration as it becomes bogged down in too many self-conscious acknowledgements of familiar horror tropes, too many life lessons and a seriously crummy finale--watching it, you get the sense that the screenplay might have worked better with either one more or one less rewrite. However, in much the same way that the "Happy Death Day" films were elevated by the spectacular central performances delivered by Jessica Rothe, "Freaky" is similarly rescued by the equally inspired turns by its two stars. Vaughn, in fact, turns in one of the very best performances of his career as he convincingly suggests that there is indeed an awkward teenage girl trying to operate the hulking body she is now inhabiting and even finds surprising moments of grace and emotion in scenes that could have gone so wrong in so many ways. As for Newton, while it is slightly difficult to accept her as the shy school nerd in the early going, she does an equally good job of suggesting a homicidal maniac inhabiting the kind of body that he would normally be filleting under normal circumstances. "Freaky" is undeniably silly and uneven and the ending feels like a deleted sequence that accidentally got appended to the final cut. Nevertheless, the considerable efforts by Vaughn and Newton are just enough to drag it over the finish line and make it worth checking out.
Every Oscar season sees the arrival of a couple of movies that have so obviously created for no other reason than to clean up on the award circuit that the desire winds up overwhelming the proceedings to an almost embarrassing degree. This year’s prime example of shameless Oscar bait appears to be "Hillbilly Elegy," Ron Howard's gruesomely misguided adaptation of J.D. Vance's 2017 memoir that yearns to be a tribute to the resilience of rural working class Americans in the face of countless social and economic hurdles but ends up coming across as little more than an overblown piece of penury porn. As the film opens, J.D. (Gabriel Basso) has long escaped his rural Ohio upbringing and is now studying at Yale Law but still feels hints of inferiority due to his hardscrabble upbringing--he cannot properly pronounce "syrup" and needs to call his girlfriend (Frieda Pinto) for help when he attends a fancy dinner and doesn't know what all those extra forks are for. That all changes when he gets a call from his sister, Lindsay (Haley Bennett), telling him that their troubled mother, Bev (Amy Adams), is in the hospital after overdosing on heroin. Returning home, JD struggles to find a place to put the recalcitrant Bev and still make it back to school in time for an interview for an important internship. While searching for a place and learning just how low Bev has sunk in his absence, he flashes back to his childhood when Bev was caught in a spiral of addiction, poverty and bad choices in men that threatened to drag him (played in these scenes by Owen Aztalos) until he was taken in by his grandmother Mamaw (Glenn Close), an indomitable spirit who suffered plenty of miseries of her own and is determined not to let J.D. go the way of his mother.
When "Hillbilly Elegy" was published in 2017, it was slammed by many for indulging in the same hackneyed stereotypes about rural America that it was theoretically designed to deflate and for reducing the impact of social, political and economic factors in order to favor a more inspirational up-from-the-bootstraps narrative of triumphing. In bringing the book to the screen, Howard, who got his start acting in a show with a slightly more positive take on rural American life, and screenwriter Vanessa Taylor have decided to double down on the stereotypes and caricatures that offer no real illumination or insight into the characters or their circumstances but which offer co-stars Close and Adams plenty of opportunities to chew the scenery in the hopes of finally ending their respective long Oscar droughts. Both of them are so much better as actresses than the material that they are working with here that it is almost painful to see them hamming things up to the degree that they do here--Close has a would-be inspirational monologue about the Terminator that is embarrassing beyond belief while Adams yells, screams, weeps and practically froths at the mouth in a bid for attention almost as shameless as the ones performed by her character. (Meanwhile, Bennett is pretty much wasted throughout in a nothing part that makes virtually no use of her own prodigious talents.) Less nutritious than the fried baloney sandwich that is still revered by the ostensibly more sophisticated J.D. and just as difficult to swallow, "Hillbilly Elegy" is a load of condescending crap that likes to think that it is saying touching and profound things about the human condition but which lacks the level of piercing insight that one can usually find in the average episode of "Green Acres."
The efforts of teenage activist Greta Thunberg to call attention to the increasingly imminent perils of climate change have made her an incredibly polarizing figure--she has inspired thousand and thousands of people around the world, many of them as young as her, to also take up the cause and also inspired an equal amount of scorn and condescension from people who see her only as a puppet being used by others and who often have cruel things to say about her Asperger's condition. Now a documentary on Thunberg and her work, Nathan Grossman's "I Am Greta," has arrived and it is also likely to sharply divide viewers as well. Having taken an interest in Thunberg's crusade during the earliest days of the school strikes that first gained attention to her cause, Grossman has amassed an amazing amount of footage chronicling her journey from those first steps to spreading the word throughout Europe to addressing the United Nations in New York (a trip that she famously made by sailboat) as well as enough offstage moments to show that she is indeed a smart and aware person who is clearly nobody’s puppet. On the other hand, Grossman spends so much time focusing on Thunberg that he gives fairly short shrift to climate change itself and it is put together in a slick and non-confrontational manner that goes so far out of its way to avoid bringing up any potentially troubling subjects that there are times when it strays dangerously close to puffery. The end result is a perfectly satisfactory primer on Thunberg and her cause whose biggest failing is that it is not nearly as substantial or significant as its subject.
If you think that Nathan Grossman was extraordinarily lucky for having the foresight to begin following Greta Thunberg before she became an international icon, consider the case of Kyle Thrash and his film "Maybe Next Year." The intention of the film was to explore the dedicated fan base of the Philadelphia Eagles, a team that had never managed to win the Super Bowl, by following four particular fans--a man who used his retirement money to build a full-scale sports bar at his house to watch the games with his friends, a woman who passionately declaims her love for and frustration with the team on a local sports talk radio show, a man dealing with the last stages of his superfan father's battle with cancer and a young man who combats his feelings of loneliness with brash YouTube videos in which he vents about the team--over the course of one complete season. By sheer luck, that season (Spoiler Alert) turned out to be 2017, which ended with the Eagles not only winning the Super Bowl but soundly defeating the hated New England Patriots, who beat them in their previous appearance a few years earlier. From a filmmaking perspective, the film isn't much to write home about but what is interesting about it is the way that Thrash accurately captures the ups and downs of a sports season through the eyes of dedicated fans who have seen defeat far too often but are still able to believe that triumph is just around the corner--any fan of a team that has gone too long without a championship will be able to instantly relate to what is shown here. At the same time, the film is not simply an unapologetic wet kiss to fan bases as he also presents moments showing the dark side of fandom, most notably one in which a costumed Atlanta Falcons fan is being harassed on the street by Eagles fans after his team narrowly loses to their. Entertaining, insightful and surprisingly emotional at times, "Maybe Next Year" at times feels like a real-life version of "Silver Linings Playbook" and should strike a chord with all sports fans, regardless of their team preference.