Blackbird (2019)


Taking comfort at twilight.

(2019) Drama (Screen MediaKate Winslet, Susan Sarandon, Mia Wasikowska, Sam Neill, Rainn Wilson, Lindsay Duncan, Bex Taylor-Klaus, Anson Boon. Directed by Roger Mitchell

 

Most of us fear dying. We are dragged towards it, kicking and screaming, not wanting to go gentle into that dark night. Some of us, conversely, embrace it, death being a comforting alternative to a life of pain and humiliation.
That’s what Lily (Sarandon) is faced with, entering the final stages of ALS, popularly known as “Lou Gehrig’s Disease.” She is already having difficulty doing ordinary things, having lost the use of one arm and nearly unable to walk. She is looking at a future of breathing on a ventilator, being fed intravenously and unable to speak. This is not a future she wishes to endure. She wants to exert the last little bit of control she has over life – she wants to end it while she is still able.

This is a decision that she has debated with her family – her husband Paul (Neill), a doctor who has managed to purchase the fatal cocktail that will send her into sleep one last time; her eldest daughter Jennifer (Winslet) who inherited her mother’s control-freak nature without inheriting her warmth; younger daughter Anna (Wasikowska), the family black sheep, whose on-again off-again paramour Chris (Taylor-Klaus) is apparently on-again with her and has accompanied her to Lily and Paul’s extravagant beach house in the Hamptons. So, too has Jennifer’s husband Michael (Wilson), a reciter of minutiae so irritating that Anna has dubbed him “Mr. Dull,” and their son Jonathan (Boon), who has clearly spent a lifetime not living up to his mother’s expectations. Then there’s also Liz (Duncan), Lily’s long-time best friend (dating back at least until college) whose presence Jennifer deeply resents.

Lily clearly expects a sweet send-off, in the bosom of a loving family ready to send her off with love and joy, but she apparently hasn’t met her own children. Anna is so self-absorbed that she threatens to put a stop to Lily’s plans in order to get to know her mother better before she goes; Jennifer can’t help but criticize every little detail in everyone else and she and Anna are at each other’s throats. Paul takes the high road, but he simply wants peace and knows he’s not going to get it, particularly when a late revelation calls into question everything.

The film has an understandably elegiac tone, borrowed from the Danish film it is remade from (Silent Heart) whose screenwriter Christian Torpe also penned the English-language version. Even the warm tones of Mike Eley’s cinematography doesn’t disguise that we are observing a life in winter, awaiting its end. Then again, this isn’t a movie about death so much as it is about the dynamics of family. This is a family that has had a comfortable life, but has profited little by it.

The attraction here is the cast, and they don’t disappoint. Sarandon has played the dying mom before (Stepmom) and experienced pro that she is, refuses to turn her illness into Camille-like histrionics. She is making her best effort to die with dignity, but she is flinty enough to call her family down to breakfast by grumping “Get down here – I’m going to die today!” Winslet plays a character that is recognizably Lily’s daughter – strong, strong-willed, and yes, a control freak, but she chooses to exercise it by tearing down.

Neill has been one of my favorite actors over the years and his quiet dignity makes his part all the more poignant. Wasikowska, Duncan and Taylor-Klaus manage to hold their own against the Oscar-winning leads and Wilson does a surprisingly good job in a rare straight dramatic role for him. Boon, a relative newcomer, also is impressive in his scenes as the straight-shooting grandson.

This is hard to watch at times in the sense of dealing with a loved one. I found myself wondering if I would be as sanguine if it was my mother who was purporting to end her own life with dignity. I’d like to think I’d support her decision if she felt it was the right thing, but I can’t help wondering if I would handle the situation gracefully. Chances are, not.

This is a movie that inspires reflection, and that is definitely not a bad thing. That said, it isn’t always an easy watch and requires much of its viewer. Also, not a bad thing, but it can be more than the average viewer might be willing to give. Still in all, it is worth the effort to watch if for no other reason for the stellar performances of its cast.

REASONS TO SEE: Some wonderful performances from Sarandon, Winslet and Neill. Lovely cinematography. The family dynamic is the focus of the film.
REASONS TO AVOID: Kind of a downer.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, some brief sexual material, drug use and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The producers initially wanted Diane Keaton in the role for Lily, but eventually Sarandon was cast.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/18/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 67% positive reviews. Metacritic: 54/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Here Awhile
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
A Life of Endless Summers: The Bruce Brown Story

Rudo Y Cursi


Rudo Y Cursi

Hee Haw was never like this.

(Sony Classics) Gael Garcia Bernal, Diego Luna, Guillermo Fracella, Dolores Heredia, Adriana Paz, Jessica Mas, Salvador Zerboni. Directed by Carlos Cuaron

When you have nothing, it follows you have nothing to lose. That’s not the way life really works, however – there is always something to lose.

Tato (Bernal) and Beto (Luna) Verdusco are a pair of brothers living in the small impoverished Mexican village of Tlachatlan, whose economy revolves mainly around the banana plantation. Their mother has had a succession of husbands, each one a loser in some way shape or form. Tato dreams of becoming rich and famous as a singer; Beto is more of a realist, having a wife (Paz) and child that he must support, which he is content to do as the assistant to the assistant foreman on the banana plantation.

They are both gifted soccer players and play on the local team on weekends. One fateful day, the expensive sports car of Batuta (Fracella), the best talent scout in Mexican soccer, breaks down in Tlachatlan on the day of a local game. Unable to get the local repair shop to move faster than the average snail, Batuta and the first in a series of gorgeous girlfriends decide to watch the game to alleviate the boredom.

He’s pleasantly surprised at the play of the brothers, each of whom has the talent to be a big star in the Mexican First Division of soccer. Unfortunately, Batuta can only take one of the brothers with him. As to which one he brings with him, it all boils down to a penalty kick.

It turns out the lucky brother is Tato, a forward with a scoring touch, leaving Beto angry and frustrated – pro soccer had been his dream, not Tato’s and Beto can’t help feeling cheated  by life. His wife Tona (Paz) is trying to help make ends meet by becoming a salesperson for a dietary supplement whose befits are murky at best. However, eventually when a club needs a goaltender, Batuta is able to bring Beto up for his own shot at the brass ring.

Both boys want to build a beachside home for their mother, but a is usually the case when those in abject poverty come into wealth, the money gets squandered, Beto on high stakes poker games, Tato on Maya (Mas), the beautiful supermodel and television personality that Tato is dating.

The two brothers wind up on rival teams, each brother having been given a nickname – Tato is Cursi (which can be translated as corny) and Beto is Rudo, which critics have translated as tough; that’s not quite the case. The word in Spanish implies a certain lack of manners or temprament. It’s not quite “Rude” which you might think it is, but it’s pretty close.

Over the past decade, Mexican cinema has really started to take off thanks to directors like Cuaron, whose brother directed the stunning Y Tu Mama Tambien (which Carlos wrote and Luna and Bernal starred in). Rather than playing rich kids exploring rural Mexico as was the case in the prior film, this time Bernal and Luna – who are actual childhood friends, part of the reason that their chemistry works so well together – are from a rural background, exploring the bright lights of the big city.

While soccer is a central theme to the movie, it remains a bit of a metaphor. The Beautiful Game is a ticket out of poverty, just as pro sports are here in the States. There, as here, there is a mystique to the lifestyle of the pro athlete. The fans in Mexico are a bit more rabid than you can imagine, however. For example, when Cursi goes on an extended scoring slump, he is given death threats by zealous fans – just before they ask him for his autograph.

Luna and Bernal have an uncommon chemistry that only comes from being close friends for a good long time. They have an easygoing rapport that descends into verbal shorthand from time to time; like any pair of brothers, their fights are more vicious than those between strangers and yet when push comes to shove, they are there for each other.

There is a lot of quirky humor here. When Cursi gets the big singing break he’s looking for, he chooses to do a norteno version of Cheap Trick’s “I Want You to Want Me” which would lead anyone to tell him not to quit his day job. The music video he makes for his song borders on the surreal.

Like most good cinema, there’s an element of the morality play here but the filmmakers choose not to hit you over the head with it. The movie pokes gentle fun at obsessions and dreams, and on the difference between the rural and the urban. The humor breaks down in places and descends from zaniness into silliness (the difference between the two is subtle yet profound), but has its heart in the right place. This is the kind of movie that could only be made in Mexico and it captures the sensibility and humor that seems to be in the DNA of the Mexican people.

WHY RENT THIS: A slice of Mexican life, well directed and with a wry sense of humor that permeates it like a good mole sauce.  

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Descends into silliness in some places.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a good deal of foul language as well as some sexuality and drug use. Not that your kids are itching to see subtitled films, but you should probably think twice before showing it to them – this isn’t Goal.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: All the soccer teams and their players that appear in the movie are fictional, although some of the action is filmed in actual Mexican Division I soccer stadiums.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a karaoke version of Cursi’s hit single on the Blu-Ray edition if you want to sing along.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Life is Hot in Cracktown

Seven Pounds


Seven Pounds

An idyllic picnic with Rosario Dawson, Will Smith and behemoth.

(Columbia) Will Smith, Rosario Dawson, Woody Harrelson, Michael Ealy, Barry Pepper, Elpidia Carillo, Robinne Lee, Joe Nunez, Bill Smitrovich. Directed by Gabrielle Muccino

We all must shoulder the burden of the responsibility for our own actions. When those actions lead to terrible consequences, we might come to the conclusion that those consequences deserve terrible responsibilities.

Ben Thomas (Smith) is an IRS agent who, on first glance, isn’t a terribly nice guy. He badgers a blind customer service operator named Ezra (Harrelson) on the phone to the point of cruelty. He is curt, grumpy and often condescending to people. His relationship with his brother (Ealy) has gone into the dumpster, which mystifies the brother; why does Ben want to keep his family at arm’s length that way?

Ben does a lot of things that don’t make a lot of sense. He is investigating the finances of a nursing home operator, and then punches him in order to get an elderly woman her bath. He follows Ezra into a bar, striking up a civil conversation with him. He inserts himself into the lives of people with health and relationship problems, and seems to be falling for one of them, a beautiful woman with a heart that is slowly ticking down to its last beat named Emily Posa (Dawson). His best friend Dan (Pepper) owes him a favor, one that Dan is reluctant to repay but that Ben insists that he does. He apparently owns a beautiful multi-million dollar beach house but has checked into a seedy motel. You find yourself wondering why Ben does the things he does.

To tell you too much about the plot would be to ruin the movie for you. Suffice to say that Ben has plenty of reasons for doing the things he does and that his master plan, hinted at throughout the movie, resolves itself in the final minutes of the film.

For Will Smith, this is one of the finest performances of his career. Reunited with director Muccino, who got another great performance out of Smith in The Pursuit of Happyness, Smith plays a character that is deeply wounded, highly intelligent, highly driven and very compassionate, sometimes all at once. He can snap and snarl in one moment and be pulling weeds and fixing an antique printing press in the next. He has an engineering degree from MIT, but has the charisma to be a motivational speaker. There are a lot of layers to this character and Smith brings them all together in one believable package. Of course, Smith is so likable an actor that he can make his audience relate to him and root for him even when he is being unlikable. Not many can pull that off.

Dawson, his love interest in Men in Black II, returns to fill the same role here and she also does some of her finest work. She plays a woman living with a death sentence, knowing that the odds are long that she’ll be able to survive long enough to get a heart transplant from a donor with the same rare blood type as she has. She manages to remain upbeat most of the time, although she has her moments of despair. She is articulate, creative and beautiful, in nearly every way the perfect woman which makes Ben’s reluctance to let her in all the more puzzling until the final reel.

This is not always an easy movie to watch – there are some scenes in which raw emotions are laid bare, and others in which there are some very disturbing images. Much of this movie is about redemption although not in the way we usually think about it. Again, I’m being deliberately vague not to ruin the power that the movie has.

There are a few plot points that require us to be a little more trusting of the writers than perhaps we should be – some of the plot points wrap up certain elements neatly but defy logic when examined closely. We have to assume that Ben did the research to justify his actions before carrying them out, otherwise some of his attempts to help people may have turned bad in the long run.

Be that as it may, this is a movie that makes you think about how far you would go to make amends for your actions. I have an inkling of the burden Ben Thomas lives with because I was involved with a similar incident to the one that sends Ben on his journey, and in all honesty I had many of the same impulses he did, although not the resources to carry them out. I do, however, understand what guilt can do to a person – and perhaps that’s why I loved this movie as much as I did. It’s outstanding, with a performance by Will Smith that by itself is worth checking the movie out for, but it’s the themes of the movie that kept it in my memory long after the film was over.

WHY RENT THIS: A serious and sober look at how men deal with trauma, responsibility and loss. Smith is fabulous in the role.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The last scene is a little treacly, and some of the plot points require a whole lot of suspension of disbelief.

FAMILY VALUES: The content is definitely on the adult side so you may want to watch this with your smaller kids. There are a couple of disturbing scenes and a little bit of sexuality as well.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Travel Inn that Ben Thomas stays in during the movie is the same one used in the movie Memento.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There are featurettes on box jellyfish and on antique printing presses like the one Ben refurbishes for Emily.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

TOMORROW: Hotel for Dogs

The Stone Angel


The Stone Angel

Ellen Burstyn is still a powerful actress, even in her sunset years.

(Vivendi) Ellen Burstyn, Ellen Page, Cole Hauser, Wings Hauser, Dylan Baker, Christine Horne, Kevin Zegers, Sheila McCarthy, Devon Bostick. Directed by Kari Skogland

Regret is a powerful thing. It can color your perceptions and order your actions. The longer you hold onto it, the stronger it can get until it completely takes you over.

Hagar Shipley (Burstyn) thinks she’s going for a Sunday drive with her son Marvin (Baker) and his wife Doris (McCarthy). However, it turns out that they are taking her to a nursing facility “just to see,” as Doris puts it. Hagar has been living with Marvin for some time and her needs and ailments are becoming too much for them to handle.

Hagar’s suspicions about the place are not allayed by the petunias at the entrance, nor the sight of senior citizens playing canasta like the living dead. She realizes deep down that sooner or later she’s going to end up if not in that specific home, in one a lot like it. Impulsively, she decides to steal away on one last adventure and winds up in a broken down old beach house, there to reminisce about the events of her life.

The daughter (Horne, playing Hagar as a young woman) of a prosperous Manitoba merchant, she marries Bram Shipley (Cole Hauser), a farmer her father deems beneath their station. He expresses his disapproval by leaving her out of his will, instead leaving all his riches to the city to build a park named after him. She responds by snippishly trampling the petunias planted there.

However, she has inherited more of her father’s attitudes than you might think, and she tends to rub Bram’s face in her family’s superior breeding, which leads to marital difficulties which in turn leads to Bram’s drinking problem. She tries to instill her attitudes into her sons John (Zegers) and Marvin (Bostick) with varying degrees of success. John (her favorite) breaks her heart by falling in love with a wild girl (Page) and marrying her against Hagar’s wishes. Hagar’s fiercely independent nature will carry her through, but it will also cause her a lion’s share of heartache before her time is through.

This is based on a novel by Canadian writer Margaret Laurence and has been a staple of Canadian high schools for the past 40 years. It is set on the sprawling prairies of the beautiful province of Manitoba, and that’s exactly where they filmed it. There are those who wonder how a seemingly empty vista of endless prairie can inspire such devotion and love in the people who live there, but those who see this movie will get a good chance to see precisely why that is.

I will admit to having a great fondness for Manitoba. My mom is from there and I have many relatives and friends who live there and whom I look forward to seeing every time I venture up there, but that isn’t all of it. There is something about the windswept prairies, the city of Winnipeg  and the small towns on the outskirts, the great farms of wheat, sunflowers and other crops, the grain elevators and silos rising like silent sentinels…it just speaks to me, perhaps from a deep genetic place. You should know about that affection before reading the rest of this; my review is certainly colored by it.

One of the movie’s bigger successes is in the casting. Burstyn takes on the role of the feisty Hagar with a certain amount of panache. She’s a consummate actress, an Oscar winner who knows when to go over the top and when to reel it in. She brings Hagar to life as a Canadian icon, a woman who chafes at the strictures of her role in her time and ultimately becomes her own woman, defying the stereotypes of the era.

Horne is almost the spitting image of Burstyn, and on top of that she can act, too. She makes the young Hagar shine almost as brightly as Burstyn’s older Hagar. The two performances mesh nicely, as does the father and son acting team of Wings and Cole Hauser, playing the older and younger Bram respectively.

However, while the movie was written in the early 60s, more contemporary novels by authors like Nicholas Sparks that share a similar storytelling style especially regarding the conceit of an older woman telling the story of her life as a young, spirited girl. Some may find this movie suffering in comparison to movies like The Notebook.

Even so, there is a lot to recommend this movie. I’m not as familiar with the source material that is the novel, but I’m told it is a sprawling, magnificent work, along the lines of Giant and Gone with the Wind. For my money, any movie that tells a compelling story, particularly when it is set in a land that I love as much as Manitoba and its people, is worth recommending.

WHY RENT THIS: Beautifully photographed and well acted. The casting director not only got some top-notch talent for this film, he managed to get people who resemble each other to play the lead roles at different times of their lives.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The movie suffers from Nicholas Sparks-itis; although the novel it is based on pre-dates Sparks, the presence of movies like The Notebook and Prince of Tides makes this one seem cliché.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some brief sexuality and a bit of rough language but otherwise suitable for any audience.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While looking over the call sheet, Burstyn discovered a long-lost relative who was working on the film.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: August