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.

The Silver Bullet ~ My Cousin Rachel (2017)

Synopsis: A young Englishman plots revenge against his mysterious, beautiful cousin, believing that she murdered his guardian. But his feelings become complicated as he finds himself falling under the beguiling spell of her charms.

Release Date: June 9, 2017

Thoughts: You know what this critic loves?  Gothic horror and Rachel Weisz.  So you’ll understand why this first look at My Cousin Rachel hit all the right notes for The MN Movie Man.  Adapted from Daphne du Maurier’s novel written in 1951, it has been brought to the screen before in 1952 and again in a BBC miniseries from 1983.  It’s plum June release hints that Fox Searchlight has a sleeper hit on their hands or at the very least an interesting alternative to the bombastic effects driven blockbusters it will be sharing cinemas with.   With The Birds and Rebecca we’ve seen that du Maurier’s tales of horror are slow burn affairs and this looks like another tightly wound exercise in restraint.  And then there’s Weisz (Youth) who stars alongside rising star Sam Claflin (Me Before You).  It’s sometimes hard to remember she’s an Oscar winner, even though she’s often the best thing about the films she’s in.  Here’s hoping the end result is as effective as this trailer is…now I’m off to catch up on my reading.

Movie Review ~ Hyde Park on Hudson

1

hyde_park_on_hudson

The Facts:

Synopsis: The story of the love affair between FDR and his distant cousin Margaret Stuckley, centered around the weekend in 1939 when the King and Queen of the United Kingdom visited upstate New York

Stars: Bill Murray, Laura Linney, Olivia Colman, Samuel West, Elizabeth Marvel, Elizabeth Wilson, Eleanor Bron, Olivia Williams

Director: Roger Michell

Rated: R

Running Length: 94 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:  When I was young, I used to take weekend visits to my grandparents in Preston MN and more often than not we would take what is known as a Sunday Drive.  This involved piling into some big Cadillac/Oldsmobile and just heading off in any given direction to see where the roads would take us.  A pleasant and quiet time with conversations that were soft and familiar, it wouldn’t be out of the question if you nodded off a bit.  Just as often you would perk up if something of interest flew by, your curiosity piqued.  Though you always knew the destination would lead you back to where you started, you ended up not minding that you took the time for the trip.

Hyde Park on Hudson is like those Sunday Drives of my youth.  It’s one of the thinnest slice of life tales you’re likely to come by this year, harmless and almost gone from your memory by the time you’ve reached your car.  Charting an affair between FDR (Murray) and his cousin, Daisy (Linney) around the time that the King and Queen of England made their first visit to the US, the film mostly sticks to its pre-destined path and offers little variance from its formulaic (if realistic) set-up.

The light-hearted, breezy trailer for the film belies its true dramatic thrust and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t happy that the film wasn’t played all for laughs.  Though the adulterous doings of the President and a family member (however distant) may cause you to wince a bit, director Michell (Notting Hill, Changing Lanes) and screenwriter Richard Nelson wisely steer clear of making that the true focus of the film.

The movie is most interesting in showing the relationships between FDR and the women in his life – Daisy, his mother (Wilson), his wife (Williams), and secretary Missy (Marvel).   These scenes work so well because Murray shows a totally different side to his acting as FDR.  I’ve long found Murray to be an aloof grump, thanks in no part to roles that only reinforce that feeling (though he was excellent in Moonrise Kingdom).  His FDR is a real career highlight and had the acting field not been so strong this year, he could have found himself with an Oscar nomination for his work.

The casting of Linney was a bit problematic – mostly because we’ve seen her do this work before in better films.  I’ve grown to like Linney less and less as the years go by, a talent that was once razor sharp feels a bit dull now and her Daisy is perhaps a bit too naïve, too forgiving for the thick skinned Linney to play convincingly.  Actually, I couldn’t get Laura Dern out of my mind when I was watching the film…she may have been a better choice.

Williams, Wilson, and especially Marvel do nice work in their supporting roles but its West and Colman as the visiting royalty that walk away with the movie.  Though they are playing characters familiar to movie goers (Colin Firth and Helena Bonham Carter recently played them in The Kings Speech), they make their own mark on the Royals who are visiting the US in a thinly veiled plea for help with the impending war.

West and Murray share one of the best scenes of 2012 as they talk about the impairments both suffer (a stutter for the King and polio for the President) and how it affects the way the public and their wives see them.  It’s a dynamic scene that both actors play pitch perfectly with Murray delivering my favorite two lines spoken in a movie this year: “What stutter?”

I only wish there were more scenes like that in the movie.  Even at a relatively short 94 minutes, I felt the film dragged on in its own reverie a bit too much.  Cinematographer Lol Crawley does excellent work in filming what Production Designer Simon Bowles has cooked up in his period settings.  Also nice was a unique score by Jeremy Sams that captured the feel of the time and also the mood of the scenes.

Inexplicably rated R for an implied sex scene, Hyde Park on Hudson isn’t destined for the history books nor should it be.  It’s a nicely formed small bite of a film that gets its job done and nothing more.  I’d recommend it as a choice for a leisurely Sunday diversion.