Movie Review ~ Blackbird (2020)


The Facts
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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.

The Silver Bullet ~ Crimson Peak

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Synopsis: In the aftermath of a family tragedy, an aspiring author is torn between love for her childhood friend and the temptation of a mysterious outsider. Trying to escape the ghosts of her past, she is swept away to a house that breathes, bleeds…and remembers.

Release Date: October 16, 2015

Thoughts: There are very few directors out there that I can say I have trust in and Guillermo del Toro is right at the top of the list.  Sure, his last effort was Pacific Rim a bomb-tastic and bombastic spectacle of effects and overly dramatic performances…but it still possessed a style all its own.  Our first, um, peek at del Toro’s gothic horror film Crimson Peak gave me the kind of warm feeling in my belly usually reserved for holiday festivities and anytime I catch Grease 2 on television.  Modern audiences aren’t exactly clamoring for a Victorian set haunted house flick but they could be in for the fright of their lives if the finished product lives up to this impressive teaser.  Featuring hot commodities like Jessica Chastain (A Most Violent Year), Tom Hiddleston (Thor), and Mia Wasikowska (Stoker) my interest is most definitely piqued.

The Silver Bullet ~ Maps to the Stars

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Synopsis: A tour into the heart of a Hollywood family chasing celebrity, one another and the relentless ghosts of their pasts.

Release Date: TBA 2014

Thoughts: How it is possible that Julianne Moore hasn’t taken home an Oscar yet?  Though rewarded with a handful of nominations over the years, she’s lost out on all of the big wins and I think it’s time we fixed that, don’t you?  Director David Cronenberg (The Dead Zone) does too and he’s offered Moore a real barnstormer of a role as a self-absorbed actress with a shot at the big time.  Moore (Carrie) took home the Best Actress award at the Cannes Film Festival and if early buzz it to be believed, we’ll see a lot more of the flame haired star when awards season rolls around in a few months.  Co-starring John Cusack (The Raven), Robert Pattinson (The Rover), Sarah Gadon (Enemy, What If), Mia Wasikowska (Stoker) the movie itself looks like your typical Cronenberg head trip…but more always helps things come into focus.

Movie Review ~ Only Lovers Left Alive

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The Facts
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Synopsis: A depressed musician reunites with his lover, though their romance – which has already endured several centuries – is disrupted by the arrival of uncontrollable younger sister

Stars: Tilda Swinton, Tom Hiddleston, Mia Wasikowska, John Hurt, Anton Yelchin, Jeffrey Wright

Director: Jim Jarmusch

Rated: R

Running Length: 123 minutes

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review: I feel like at this point in my movie viewing (and reviewing) career I should be much more familiar than I am with writer/director Jim Jarmusch. Responsible for a respectable amount of moody movies in the 80’s and 90’s, looking over his roster of work I realize that Only Lovers Left Alive is the just the second Jarmusch film I’ve seen with 2005’s Broken Flowers being the other. I’m not sure if I’m going to run right out and snap up movies like Night on Earth, Stranger Than Paradise, or Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai but based on the somber vampire flick he’s delivered here, it’s clear I need to do my homework.

Though the romantic vampire genre may have (fingers crossed!) finally run its course, Jarmusch nicely sidesteps the baring of fangs and avoids awkward kink in favor of character driven work that produces a curiously entertaining, unconventional entry in the bloodsucking oeuvre. Instead of Twilight’s Edward and Bella pawing over each other in a hazy meadow, we have Adam (Tom Hiddleston, Thor, Thor 2: The Dark World) and Eve (Tilda Swinton, The Grand Budapest Hotel) spending the first part of the film continents apart until Eve travels from exotic Tangiers to dilapidated Detroit for a reunion with her eternal flame. Like the impressively designed but fairly dated The Hunger from 1983, Only Lovers Left Alive is less about finding love than it is about what happens to a couple that have lived through many lives together.

Of course, into every vampiric life a little rain must fall and before Adam and Eve can really get down to business another creature of the night appears: Eve’s troubled sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska, Stoker). This family reunion doesn’t bring the kind of over-the-top fireworks seen in August: Osage County but the danger is very real as Ava’s free-wheeling lifestyle threatens to upend any brief bliss Adam and Eve are seeking.

It’s a very languid film and Jarmusch doesn’t make any apologies for letting his characters wax poetic about the state of art/music/literature in today’s modern society. He even introduces a true-blue historical figure, Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy), still alive today thanks to a bite to the neck centuries earlier. Everyone in Jarmusch’s film seems too cool for school but not in the way that could have been aggravating or eye-roll inducing. My original feeling was that the film should have been called Hipster Vampire Namedroppers, a silly but pretty accurate way to succinctly describe the players.

Somber yet at times deeply funny, Only Lovers Left Alive is a nice antidote to several years of sappy films and television series that have made vampires more romantic leads than life draining villains. I’m not sure Jarmusch’s take will please everyone but there’s something interesting going on here seasoned moviegoers may want to investigate. Just make sure to bone up on your beatnik poets and existential artists so you can nod in agreement when Jarmusch makes an obscure reference.

Movie Review ~ Stoker

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The Facts:

Synopsis: After India’s father dies, her Uncle Charlie, who she never knew existed, comes to live with her and her unstable mother. She comes to suspect this mysterious, charming man has ulterior motives and becomes increasingly infatuated with him.

Stars: Mia Wasikowska, Matthew Goode, Dermot Mulroney, Jacki Weaver, Nicole Kidman

Director: Park Chan-wook

Rated: R

Running Length: 98 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review:  It’s rather interesting that the American film debut of Korean director Park Chan-Wook (Oldboy) would be a film that’s so European in its composition.  On the other hand, Chan-Wook is known for his rich visuals that tie into a narrative structure so it could just have been his destiny to be matched up with the script for Stoker, a corker of a thriller that makes no apologies for favoring style over substance.

That’s not to say that Prison Break star Wentworth Miller’s script doesn’t have a lot going for it; the tale of a fractured family with several skeletons in its closet provides some nice opportunities for its cast to go the distance while gleefully coloring outside the lines of character development.  Still, stepping back from my initial reaction to the film I must admit that the overall plot developments do feel very mannered and ordinary.  There’s nothing in the story department that hasn’t been done before in any number of potboiler films concerning unknown relatives with hidden agendas.

What I keep going back to with fondness is the way the film has a devil-may-care attitude as it plays tricks with our perception of what’s really going on.  That’s mostly thanks to Chan-Wook’s constantly moving camera and his clever employment of old-hat film techniques like freeze frames and close-ups. From frame one its clear the movie is ready for action and maintains that level of awareness throughout.

A movie so heavy on technique would only be moderately interesting without an equally dynamic cast to use it on.  Wasikowska plays dour like the best of ‘em and here she’s a sour puss child mourning her deceased father and avoiding her chilly mother (Kidman) at all costs.  Though the preview implies Kidman’s character is a bit shadier, it’s not a spoiler to reveal that this lady is more nuanced than that.  Goode is a UK actor that doesn’t rely on his All American looks to sell his All American Uncle who shows up and moves in before his brother’s body is cold.  Oscar nominee Weaver (Silver Linings Playbook) pops in for a curious cameo as a Stoker aunt, Alden Ehrenreich (Beautiful Creatures) is a school acquaintance of Wasikowska, and Phyllis Somerville gets some solid (if brief) mileage as a sage housekeeper.

Soon, Wasikowska and Goode are finding a familial bond exists between them like Wasikowska had with her father…something that begins to drive a wedge further between mother and daughter.  Kidman is rarely without a glass of wine in her hand or glaze over her eyes and I was reminded of the mother in Lolita…so clueless as to what was happening around her.  It’s too late to go back once some truths are finally revealed and more than a few bodies start to pile up around the estate house where the movie runs its course.

The way I see it, Stoker could have gone one of two ways: it could have been an overheated gothic melodrama or a simmering fever dream of excess.  Thankfully it’s the latter and fans of stylishly made thrillers should get a kick out of Stoker’s richly weird performances that balance nicely with its cruel violence.  I can see where the film may be too stylized for some, but give this one strong consideration if you respond well to confidently made films.