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 ~ The Meg


The Facts
:

Synopsis: After escaping an attack by what he claims was a 70-foot shark, Jonas Taylor must confront his fears to save those trapped in a sunken submersible.

Stars: Jason Statham, Li Bingbing, Rainn Wilson, Ruby Rose, Winston Chao, Page Kennedy, Jessica McNamee, Ólafur Darri Ólafsson, Robert Taylor, Cliff Curtis, Sophia Shuya Cai, Masi Oka

Director: Jon Turteltaub

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 113 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: I like sharks.  I like movies.  I like shark movies.  From Jaws to The Shallows to 47 Meters Down, I’m a fan of anything featuring an underwater predator snacking on unsuspecting prey.  Even in lesser known entires like Bait or Shark Night 3D, there’s a certain amount of satisfied fun that comes with these creature features.  Of course, it helps I’m writing this review from the landlocked safety of Minnesota (aka Land of 10,000 Lakes) so these ocean tales of killer sharks don’t dredge up the same fear in me that might plague someone living near the open water.

Steve Alten’s 1997 “Meg: A Novel of Deep Terror” was tailor made for a screen adaptation.  After spending a solid 20 years in development hell and tossed around by several studios, directors, and stars, The Meg has finally surfaced.  Was it worth the wait?  Did director Jon Turtletaub (While You Were Sleeping) and star Jason Statham (Spy) strike the right balance of fun and fear that made Alten’s original novel (and multiple follow-ups) such a blast?   I can’t say for sure whether or not you’ll go for this sometimes scary, sometimes silly late summer adventure but for someone like me who has waited so long for this sizable shark soup it satisfies a hunger two decades in the making.

Not having read the book in a good decade, I picked up my tattered copy and skimmed the pages before heading out to the screening.  Alten’s no Hemmingway but he manages to take the reader along for a plausible (for 1997) ride to the depths of the ocean where a fish long thought extinct has been living undisturbed for thousands of years.  The screenplay from Dean Georgaris, Jon Hoeber (Battleship), Erich Hoeber (Red 2) retains elements and a few characters from the novel but alters the action for its star and international supporting cast.

At an underwater research facility in the South China Sea, scientists are using sophisticated underwater submersibles to dive deeper than any human has before.  They hope to prove the existence of another underwater ecosystem thousands of feet below sea level.  Their attempts at a scientific breakthrough instead release a gigantic Megaladon, a shark long since though extinct.  With little time to warn neighboring countries, the crew must track down the deadly shark before she gobbles up throngs of swimmers along the coast.

Reframing Statham’s character Jonas Taylor from a marine biologist to a grizzled deep sea rescue diver allows Statham to do away with the formality of a pretending he’s had a scientific education and clears the way to draw on his brawn to save the day.  Whereas the novel’s Jonas eventually comes into his own set of brass balls, Statham presents as a no-nonsense Hercules from the word go.  He’s nicely matched by Li Bingbing (Transformers: Age of Extinction) as Suyin, the plucky daughter of the head of research (Winston Chao, The Wedding Banquet) at the scientific laboratory involved with the discovery of the massive shark.  Suyin and Jonas parlay their growing (and nicely unforced) chemistry into believable teamwork as they work together to use their collective bravura to save the day.

While Statham and Bingbing are pleasing leads, Turtletaub has a bit of a mixed bag in the supporting characters.  There’s a whole lot of people popping up and sadly not all of them serve their purpose by becoming fish food by the time the credits roll.  Ruby Rose as a tough scientist and Sophia Shuya Cai as Suyin’s playful daughter fare best while Cliff Cutis (Whale Rider), Ólafur Darri Ólafsson (The Secret Life of Walter Mitty), and Page Kennedy do what they can with their stock character roles.  The biggest head-scratcher is Rainn Wilson (Cooties) as the egocentric money man behind the entire operation.  Wilson, best known for his brilliant work on The Office is truly miscast here, never funny enough to be comic relief or villainous enough to earn our bloodlust in rooting for him to get tenderized by the shark.

Ah…the shark.  You want to know about the shark, right?  It’s well documented that during the production of Jaws the mechanical shark was prone to breaking down, which gave director Steven Spielberg the challenge of showing less and implying more.  This lead to that movie becoming a classic but also meant for future genre movies using a practical creation was far more difficult than creating a sizable beast using special effects.  I’m fairly sure our titular monster is all CGI and aside from a few sketchy renderings it’s mostly a handsome bit of movie magic that blends seamlessly with the live action.  This leads to some ample scares (jolts more like it) and sustained bits of action, especially in the jam-packed final third of the film.

Where I found the film to be lacking were the moments when the shark wasn’t on screen.  That’s where the screenplay shows it’s flimsiness and resorts to some eye rolling dialogue clearly meant to be judicious exposition.  This being a film largely financed by international producers , there are specific moments that feel like cultural insertions (father-daughter bonds, noble deaths, etc) rather than plot points.  Still, even the dumbest sounding dialogue is delivered with a harmless earnestness that’s easy to forgive.

A pure popcorn extravaganza, The Meg swims ashore this August to take a bite out of the late summer box office and stands a good chance at doing well in the U.S. but even better in foreign markets.  Expect the movie to open big in Asia and take in enough money to generate a sequel – and if it’s handled with the same balance of camp and thrill, I’ll be first in line to see it.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Meg

Synopsis: When a submersible lies disabled at the bottom of the Mariana Trench, an expert deep sea diver is forced to confront his fears and risk everything on a single question: Could the Carcharadon Megalodon – the largest marine predator that ever existed – still be alive and on the hunt?

Release Date: August 10, 2018

Thoughts: This lover of all things (and movies) related to sharks has been waiting for The Meg for almost twenty years.  Based on Steve Alten’s silly but entertaining beach read MEG, the film rights were snapped up right away but the movie took forever to get off the ground due to its sizable budget.  Warner Brothers (the studio behind Deep Blue Sea, the last decent shark flick released theatrically) finally took the plunge, added a “The” to the title, reworked the plot, wisely partnered with an Asian studio to maximize international box office revenue, and in August we’ll see just how well it all  paid off.  This first look at The Meg has plenty of exciting images but also an unexpectedly comedic slant that I’m not quite sure about.  Based on the tongue-in-cheek feel, Jason Statham (Spy) could be a good fit for the leading man but it’s clear that while this one has Jaws in its veins its not angling to take itself too seriously.

The Silver Bullet ~ Cooties

cooties

Synopsis: A mysterious virus hits an isolated elementary school, transforming the kids into a feral swarm of mass savages. An unlikely hero must lead a motley band of teachers in the fight of their lives.

Release Date: September 18, 2015

Thoughts: Into every trailer binge a little questionable hilarity must fall and Cooties sure fits the bill as one of the more oddball coming attractions I’ve seen in some time. Not that it doesn’t look like a B-movie hoot because it does, even though I’ve a feeling I’ll hate myself later for saying so. Holed up in the teachers’ lounge avoiding a pack of infected children are the likes of Elijah Wood (The Wind Rises), Alison Pill (Snowpiercer), Leigh Whannell (Insidious), and Rainn Wilson. If played right, this could be a neat-o little camp fest. On the other hand, the film’s one joke could already be played out by the time you’re in your seat waiting for this one to begin. I dig the poster art above and am more than a little interested to see the kids go all Rabid Grannies on their teachers…so I’m in.