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 ~ Little Joe

The Facts:

Synopsis: A plant breeder at a corporation engaged in developing new species takes one home as a gift for her teenage son and finds her newest creation blossoming into something sinister.

Stars: Emily Beecham, Ben Whishaw, Kerry Fox, Kit Connor, Phénix Brossard, Leanne Best, Lindsay Duncan

Director: Jessica Hausner

Rated: R

Running Length: 105 minutes

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review:  Though I was a pretty good gardener when I was growing up, try as I might I just cannot keep a plant alive in my apartment.  Perhaps it’s because we don’t have control over the heat and being on the top floor it tends to rise, making our place nice and toasty during the winter but a steam box during the summer.  Normally, this would be good for plant growing but the Midwest greens that I’ve been trying to keep alive these past years have just not taken to any kind of tending I’ve tried.  I swear they should put up a warning sign about me at my local flower shop, barring any future plant sales.

Watching a movie like Little Joe, it makes me glad my green thumb has turned a rosy shade of pink.  This paranoid sci-fi yarn is a neat little corker that premiered at the Cannes Film Festival this year and walked away with a major prize.  It was nominated for the Palme d’Or (that went to the excellent Parasite) but did manage to snag Best Actress for its star Emily Beecham.  I saw Little Joe without knowing the breadth of its Cannes reach and, in a way, I’m happy I did because I was able to judge the movie and the performance on my own without having that “awards prestige” applying undue influence.

Single mother Alice (Beecham, Hail, Caesar!) has a job as a high-tech botanist working to create a new species of plant designed to induce happiness in all that come in close contact.  Her company is pushing their scientific groups to meet a deadline so they can introduce their line of flora at a convention that’s rapidly approaching.  With a competitive edge developing between the plant breeders, Alice and her colleague Chris (Ben Whishaw, Skyfall) may have used some questionable methods in their sequencing but with the results so positive, what’s the harm?  Dubbing their flower Little Joe after Alice’s son (Kit Connor, Rocketman), the cherry-red flower is indeed alluring and has a strange affect on those that spend an extended amount of time with it.

When Alice breaks protocol and brings a Little Joe home to give to her son, she notices changes in the relationship they used to share.  What was once an open and friendly bond has now turned secretive and harsh, with Joe spending more time with friends he introduces to Little Joe and excluding Alice from his conversations.  At the same time, a co-worker of Alice’s (Kerry Fox, The Dressmaker) starts to put together that the plant is the cause of shifts in personalities, first in the devoted dog she brings into the laboratory and then in the people she works with daily.  Unable to see the connection on the outset, Alice brings her initial fears about Joe’s behavior to her therapist (a serene Lindsay Duncan, About Time) who suggests the paranoia may be linked to a past event Alice has tried to put behind her.  The longer Alice waits to take action, though, the less people she’ll have to trust because Little Joe has a secret…and perhaps even a plan to keep anyone quiet who threatens to expose its endgame.

I can say Little Joe reminded me of Invasion of the Body Snatchers and it not be too much of a spoiler, because it’s not that kind of a movie.  This isn’t that same type of alien horror film but something manufactured by humans that just happens to bite back.  Director Jessica Hausner co-wrote the script with Géraldine Bajard and she’s definitely on to something with her tale of mass-produced happiness that turns deadly. You can easily draw lines between the flower and modern technology.  Could be a stretch but sub out Little Joe for a cell phone or any other kind of tech gadget and see if that doesn’t fall in line with the feeling of exclusion Alice falls into when her son and co-workers turn their backs on her.

If only Hausner had found a way to round out the movie with something a little more interesting.  I kept waiting for the film to take a left turn and get out of the sane lane but it seemed stubbornly stuck in its course forward and that’s disappointing.  Right up until the end, I was almost begging for something other than what was happening to happen just so I could give the movie a higher final score – there just had to be some other way to put a button on this story than what was presented here.  It’s a fault in storytelling that became a flat note to end what was otherwise a strong showing.

That’s especially sad because Beecham is so very good as the increasingly addled Alice.  When the film begins she’s cool as a cucumber, with her Dorothy Hamill haircut and slightly out of date clothing.  (Though the movie is ostensibly set in modern times it looks to the ‘80s and late ‘70s for style inspirations)  Giving strong Nicole Kidman vibes, Beecham earns that Best Actress award from the Cannes jury by metering out her unraveling in small ways and never giving over to the huffy puffy hysteria the situation might bring other actresses to.  Instead, her reactions are muted shock and an almost instant realization of her part in the problem at hand, never being able to fully absolve herself of what she did to bring about the events of what transpire.  Which, come to think of it, may inform the ending that I so desperately didn’t like.  In supporting roles, Whishaw is nebbishly fine pining for Alice but it’s Fox who steals the show as an already tightly wound woman who has her coils curled further when she becomes the only voice of reason.

Worth seeing on the big screen if only to see the glorious cinematography from Martin Gschlacht (Goodnight Mommy) of all those dramatic crimson petals set against the sterile confines of a lab setting, Little Joe blooms early but wilts under pressure of an ending that’s too pat.  I wonder if Hausner had anything else in mind to bring the movie to a close of if this is what she planned all along, it’s hard to imagine a concept so slow burning for 95 minutes would just throw in the towel so easily in the last ten minutes.  Still, I would recommend this based on those 95 minutes because they’re well done.  It’s a perfect selection for those that miss the paranoid thrillers so popular in the ‘70s and audiences that appreciate their sci-fi horror on the reserved side.

Movie Review ~ About Time

about_time

The Facts:

Synopsis: At the age of 21, Tim discovers he can travel in time and change what happens and has happened in his own life. His decision to make his world a better place by getting a girlfriend turns out not to be as easy as you might think.

Stars: Domhnall Gleeson, Rachel McAdams, Bill Nighy, Tom Hollander, Margot Robbie, Lydia Wilson, Lindsay Duncan

Director: Richard Curtis

Rated: R

Running Length: 123 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: The majority of the films that writer/director Richard Curtis has been involved with have required a few viewings before I was able to make up my mind whether I liked them or not.  As the writer of Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill, and both movies in the Bridget Jones franchise Curtis displayed a cheeky and very British charm that he extended into his directorial debut: Love, Actually.  For his third (and reportedly final) time sitting in the director’s chair, he’s delivered one of his most well-rounded and deeply felt flights of fancy.

I get the feeling that About Time is the product of two ideas that wound up being molded into one crisp film, the romance angle is something that Curtis could probably do in his sleep but it’s the time-travel element that makes the movie truly unique.  In adding in that fantasy element, Curtis has allowed the film to break free of the romance flick clichés and chart its own path, becoming less about finding true love but in valuing the love right in front of us.

Love-lorn Tim (Domhnall Gleeson, Anna Karenina) narrates the film from a time and place we’re not quite sure of, he clearly knows how this will all end but doesn’t hint at what’s to unspool over the next two hours.  We meet his family, eccentric in their own right but not quite as daffy as some of the other loons Curtis has scripted through the years.  Dad (Bill Nighy, The World’s End), Mom (Lindsay Duncan), sis Kit Kat (Lydia Wilson) and Uncle D (Richard Cordery) all live in blissful harmony in a home nestled by the sea outside of London.

When Tim’s dad spills a family secret (all of the men in the family have the ability to travel through time) Tim does what any young man would…uses it to manipulate a situation to impress girls.  Setting his sights first on a visiting friend of his sister’s (Margot Robbie, The Wolf of Wall Street), he learns over one lazy summer that maybe not even time travel could solve some of his woes.

Though the film is billed as a love story between Tim and American Mary (Rachel McAdams, The Vow, Passion), there’s a lot more to recommend as the movie twists and turns down its path showing the consequences of Tim’s actions or lack thereof.  Though leaping through time has its advantages, there are drawbacks that will alter the course of Tim’s life and everyone he loves…leading to a three hanky finale that brims with the situational warmth that Curtis wields so slyly.  The film crept up on me to be quite touching, and I predict many audiences will feel the same way.

Gleeson is a wonderful, affable lead that provides exactly the kind of shaggy dog charisma the role would have been lacking without.  He even brings out the best in McAdams who can sometimes feel like she’s giving a McPerformance – that is, something highly processed and not all together good for you.  Her defenses are down here and she’s grounded nicely by her costar and the convincing screenplay.  Nighy is always up for a devil-may-care performance but he tightens up his usual loosey goosey act to surprisingly affecting results.  As is the norm, Curtis has a knack for his strong casting of not only the leads but his various supporting roles.  Whether they are onscreen for the whole movie or just a passerby, there’s always an interesting face you want to know more about.

Fans of romantic dramadies would be advised to make the time to catch this in the theater because there’s a certain warmth that lends itself well to seeing the movie on the big screen.  Even if these types of films normally aren’t your bag, About Time is a worthwhile watch thanks to a script with real heart and performances to match.