Movie Review ~ Blackbird (2020)


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A terminally ill mother invites her family to their country house for one final gathering, but tensions quickly boil over between her two daughters.

Stars: Susan Sarandon, Kate Winslet, Mia Wasikowska, Sam Neill, Rainn Wilson, Bex Taylor-Klaus, Anson Boon, Lindsay Duncan

Director: Roger Michell

Rated: R

Running Length: 97 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  Back in 1995, I remember reading an article where Susan Sarandon was promoting the movie Safe Passage and casually lamenting the fact that she’d been moved into the “mother” category of the casting sheet.  Let’s not forget that by then she was a four-time Oscar nominee and had yet to star in Dead Man Walking, the 1996 film that would finally nab her that long-overdue trophy for Best Actress…but she wasn’t that off the mark.  Though she’d played mothers onscreen before, Safe Passage represented the first of a number of films over the next two decades where she played a particular kind of movie-mom: the self-sacrificing matriarch that would do pretty much anything for her children.  It’s a role that, even though she may have rallied against it internally, she managed to portray with nuance and keep these women interesting and varied in some way from project to project.

Don’t feel bad if you’re unable to place Safe Passage.  Apart from Sarandon, despite boasting a notable cast it’s a pretty dreadful drama otherwise.  Sold as a possible awards contender, it barely received a release and whatever buzz had preceded it blew away quickly.  The same sort of situation has happened with Sarandon’s latest film Blackbird, a remake of the 2014 Danish film Silent Heart that’s been quite faithfully recreated by its original screenwriter Christian Torpe and directed by Roger Michell (Hyde Park on Hudson).  Here’s another film that curates a wonderful ensemble cast but actually knows how to use them in a meaningful way, wringing melodrama from such bountiful sources such as suicide (both assisted and self-inflicted), adultery, mental health, substance abuse, and that familiar font of pain…mother-daughter relationships.

Paul (Sam Neill, Peter Rabbit) and Lily (Sarandon, Jeff, Who Lives at Home) have invited their daughters and their respective families to their beach house for the weekend, after which the terminally ill Lily intends to end her life.  Lily is nearing the final stages of ALS and while she is still able to walk and present herself as functioning to a degree, it’s becoming evident that her decline is swiftly approaching. Eldest daughter Jennifer (Kate Winslet, Wonder Wheel) arrives first, accompanied by her husband Michael (Rainn Wilson, The Meg) and teenage son Jonathan (Anson Boon, Crawl) with younger sibling Anna (Mia Wasikowska, Stoker) and her girlfriend Chris (Bex Taylor-Klaus, Hell Fest) eventually joining once Anna has summoned the strength to face her family.  Family friend Liz (Lindsay Duncan, Little Joe) has also been invited, keeping up the long-standing tradition of the older single woman being present at many of the milestone moments throughout the years.

Awkwardly ignoring the elephant in the room, everyone but the gallows-humorous Lily sidesteps the reason for the weekend, preferring to treat the together time as a way to catch-up and eventually air some of the grievances that have been hanging over their heads. This mostly affects Jennifer and Anna who have never truly outgrown their sisterly bickering or issues they faced in their adult years when Jennifer was settling down and Anna was struggling with addiction and depression.  Over dinners and an impromptu early Christmas celebration, the group works out more than a few kinks in their dynamics that have been holding them all back from moving forward.  Emboldened by Lily’s seemingly fearless way of staring her impending death squarely in the eyes, the quieter family members find their voice to say what’s been on their mind…and register their pain in saying good-bye to their loved one.

It should go without saying that Blackbird is a tough watch but not necessarily a tough sit.  It’s runs a relatively brisk 97 minutes and while the situations are grim and the final stretch is particularly hard for the tender-hearted, the experience is preserved by the strong performances from the entire cast.  Though I wouldn’t say the roles are a huge stretch for anyone (because they’ve all played variations on these in some way before), all the actors bring an intense sincerity to the work that aligns with the dignity the right to die movement has been fighting for.  Those that oppose this choice will likely struggle with the film and its resolution but that shouldn’t deter one from absorbing a rather wonderful film.

The big thing that makes this movie a must in my book is to witness once again why Sarandon is one of the best actresses of her generation.  Though she’s become a bit of a Hollywood outsider for her outspoken participation in politics that some see as divisive, I had to put my own feelings aside and let her performance speak for itself.  I’ve seen some reviews from Blackbird’s early release at festival screenings rather lazily compare the role as bracingly similar to 1998’s Stepmom and while certain dots can be connected there’s a different light shining behind Sarandon’s eyes in this part.  Watch the entire movie that can be viewed on her face when her character drops a glass in front of her family and has to rely on someone else to pick up her mess.  Her struggle to maintain her composure is masked well…but not well enough for the audience to miss a crack of fear slip through.

If the film has a drawback, it’s that it’s one location setting lends a feeling of staginess that makes you feel often like you’re watching a filmed version of a play.  I had forgotten while watching the movie that it was a remake of a foreign film and spent much of the time convinced it was an adaptation of a stage piece.  I know there are certain limitations based on the scenario Torpe has created for this family but Michell is usually a more creative director with a better eye for movement than this.  I wished he’d have let the film feel less cramped and more free to move around, though perhaps that claustrophobia was intended as a way to put audiences in the same emotional pressure-cooker as the family.

Made several years ago and receiving a small release in the festival circuit in 2019 , Blackbird is just now getting a tiny official theatrical release during this pandemic.  Most people will thankfully discover this one in the comfort of their own homes, though, where they can take the time to go through this emotional journey with the family.  Overall, I think Blackbird works particularly well as an at-home watch more than as a theatrical endeavor because at least in my house it seemed to inspire some good conversation after the fact on Lily’s choice.  The movie, and Sarandon’s performance, are still on my mind several days later.

Movie Review ~ Crawl


The Facts
:

Synopsis: While attempting to save her father during a hurricane, a young woman finds herself trapped in a flooding house and must fight for her life against alligators.

Stars: Kaya Scodelario, Barry Pepper, Ross Anderson, Anson Boon, Morfydd Clark

Director: Alexandre Aja

Rated: R

Running Length: 87 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review: If there’s one thing that will give me the honest-to-goodness willies, it’s an alligator. I don’t care if they are on TV pestering golfers just trying to play through, lounging on the side of the highway on the Florida interstate, or six feet away behind glass in a zoo. I do not like them. I can vividly remember my father making the mistake of renting the VHS of the 1980 classic creature feature Alligator (where oh where is the remastered BluRay of that gem?) which kept me out of swimming pools for months. While other creepy monsters of the deep have had their fair share of D-grade movies, somehow the alligator and its fellow archosaur, the crocodile, have had a better run of decent films than most. Aside from Alligator, there’s Rogue, Lake Placid, Black Water, and Primeval. Heck, even the Arnold Schwarzenegger actioner Eraser has a memorable crocodile encounter.

So you can understand my excitement and a little bit of fear when I heard that Crawl was making its way into theaters. The logline alone, girl is trapped inside flooding house with alligators during a hurricane, was enough to entice even the most exasperated horror junkie, burned too often by SyFy originals and direct to Redbox gunk featuring killer piranhas and beastly barracudas. I kept tabs on the movie during its production and while a trailer seemed to give away key moments, I held out hope it was a return to the kind of fun monster movie we used to get served up regularly by movie studios.

It’s usually never a good sign when a major movie studio like Paramount decides not to screen their film for critics in advance and that’s what happened with Crawl. While it often can hold off negative press for a stinker (like the recent garbage remake of Child’s Play) it can also stymie a film that might be better than its genre suggests. Opening the film the week after Spider-Man: Far From Home and before The Lion King roars into theaters, there was a small gap in July when there was no competition and that’s where Paramount opted to release the film without much fanfare.

What a huge mistake.

Paramount, who often screens gigantic duds without a care in the world, kept the downright tasty Crawl under wraps and away from the eyes of critics for no good reason and that’s only to their detriment. A very fine creature feature produced on a low budget that feels like a high-end affair, it’s short and scary and delivers in every way a movie like this should. All the beats are hit, all the bites are taken. This is the movie jolt this sleepy summer has needed and it’s come from the least expected place.

Hurricane Wendy is coming on strong along the Florida coast and college co-ed Haley (Kaya Scodelario, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales) can’t reach her father Dave (Barry Pepper, Monster Trucks) who lives near the eye of the storm. Against the advice of her sister (Morfydd Clark, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies) and local law enforcement, Haley makes her way through rough weather to the beach house to make sure her father is OK. Finding the house abandoned, upon further investigation she finds her father in the muddy subbasement with a nasty injury. However, before she’s able to get him out and avoid being stranded in the storm her exit is cut-off by a gigantic alligator that has found its way into the basement through an overflow pipe…and it’s not about to let its dinner just walk away.

So begins a fight for survival as Haley and Dave fend off the rising waters in their flooding house while evading an ever-growing number of alligators that begin to swarm around their neighborhood. Screenwriters Michael and Shawn Rasmussen devise some fairly ingenious ways of keeping the father and daughter believably stranded in the basement while also credibly showing their attempts at escape. In so many of these movies the characters suddenly lose all brain cells (if they had any to begin with) once they are put into a predicament but here both call upon their own convenient strengths to get them out of this ‘gator jam.

In the past, director Alexandre Aja hasn’t been the most subtle of horror directors. Beginning with the stomach-churning Haute Tension in 2003 and following it up with gross-outs like Mirrors and remakes of The Hills Have Eyes, Maniac, and the blood frenzy of Piranha 3D, he doesn’t exactly do soft horror so I was worried Crawl would be an unnecessary gore fest. Surprisingly, Aja is the most restrained he’s been ever, nicely dialing back the carnage and reserving it for when its most effective. Keeping it contained like that makes the moments when the alligators do strike have a far greater impact. The attacks, on poor souls that find themselves in close proximity to Haley and her father, are vicious and not unnecessarily prolonged.

I’d love to see some a behind the scenes making of documentary on Crawl to see how they utilized their sets and incorporated those with green screen because it’s a nearly seamless blend. Filmed in Serbia (yeah, Serbia), the movie largely takes place on that one labyrinthine basement set but does frequently switch to the rising waters outside where the alligators lurk and can swim freely. The gators themselves are an impressive mix of CGI and animatronic creations, far better than they should be considering the budget. Put it this way, I was in a movie seat that reclined and 98% of the time the alligators looked real enough to make me raise my legs up even higher.

Shortly after seeing Crawl I was speaking to someone about how much the movie frightened me and they asked me why this scared me so much when I routinely watch movies like The Conjuring, The Autopsy of Jane Doe, Alien, Annabelle Comes Home, etc. Well, there’s a huge difference between those and Crawl. Crawl is a movie, like Jaws, that feels like it could maybe possible sometime somehow happen. And it’s why I’ll never live in Florida. Or by a beach. Or go into a basement. You, however, should make your way to your local theater and catch this one…if only to support these kinds of films and encourage studios like Paramount to make more of the same quality.