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

Dumplin’


Beauty isn’t always just skin-deep.

(2018) Dramedy (NetflixDanielle MacDonald, Jennifer Aniston, Odeya Rush, Maddie Baillio, Bex Taylor-Klaus, Luke Benward, Georgie Flores, Dove Cameron, Harold Perrineau, Kathy Najimy, Ginger Minj, Hillary Begley, Sam Pancake, Dan Finnerty, Molly McNearney, Tian Richards, Ryan Dinning, Andrew Fletcher, Oscar Gale, Ariana Guerra, Julia Denton, Kaye Singleton. Directed by Anne Fletcher

 

I have to admit, I didn’t have high hope for this Netflix film. For one thing, it’s adapted from a Young Adult novel, a genre that doesn’t exactly scream sophistication. For another thing, the plot sounded pretty pedestrian – and spoiler alert, it is.

And yet, I wound up pleasantly surprised. Danielle MacDonald (Patti Cake$) stars as Willowdean Dickson, a plus-sized gal whose mom Rosie (Aniston) was once a Miss Teen Bluebonnet back in ’91 which is where she pretty much peaked. Rosie runs that same pageant now, the oldest one in Texas. Willowdean, who she called Dumplin’ as a child (a nickname that Willowdean hates with a passion) was essentially raised by her Aunt Lucy (Begley), a fellow plus-sized gal who worships at the altar of Dolly Parton (a religion that Willowdean now shares, along with her bestest friend Ellen (Rush). But Lucy has passed away, forcing Rosie and Willowdean to have to rely on each other, which simply isn’t something they’re used to.

Fed up with feeling alienated because of her size, Willowdean decides to enter the pageant herself, despite the obvious fact that she doesn’t conform to the body type that most pageant girls tend to have. Inspired by her example, Ellen also enlists along with fellow plus-sizer Millie (Baillio) and militant punk feminist Hannah (Taylor-Klaus). The four girls intend to make a statement by virtue of being on the inside, although what exactly they expect to accomplish is a mystery, including Willowdean herself.

The movie is actually pretty warm-hearted and sweet-natured. Willowdean is aided in her subversive act by a group of Dolly Parton female impersonators; she also is dealing with the affections of teen hottie Bo (Benward) with whom Willowdean works at a local diner. It is telling, however, that there is no real villain here; even Rosie basically loves her daughter and wants the best for her. It’s just that Rosie can’t get past Willowdean’s size, nor the notion that fat people can actually be happy.

The movie works well because it takes basic teenage girl issues and tackles them head-on, handling the subject with a rare sensitivity and without taking the temptation to make Willowdean an object of ridicule. She may be full of insecurities – what teenage girl isn’t? – but at the end of the day, Willowdean was taught well by her aunt to love herself for who she is and not because of who she could potentially be.

And I would be remiss if I didn’t say that the real highlight here is MacDonald, who in two short years became a very respected actress who rather than using her size as comic fodder, instead embraces it and allows others to embrace it with her. I’m not kidding when I say that Danielle MacDonald has the talent to become an important actress over the next couple of decades or so, so long as she steers away from movies that use her size as a weapon to heap score on the plus-sized people of the world.

REASONS TO SEE: Surprisingly effective and just offbeat enough to be interesting. MacDonald is absolutely delightful here.
REASONS TO AVOID: Has a few young adult movie tropes.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild profanity, body shaming and sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although Dolly Parton herself doesn’t appear in the film, she did write and record several new songs for it.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/18/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 85% positive reviews, Metacritic: 53/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Little Miss Sunshine
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Bumblebee

Hell Fest


Seeing a guy in a hoodie and a mask carrying a knife is never a good thing.

(2018) Horror (CBS) Reign Edwards, Bex Taylor-Klaus, Tony Todd, Amy Forsyth, Michael Tourek, Courtney Dietz, Christian James, Matt Mercurio, Elle Graham, Benjamin Weaver, Mason Pike, Roby Attal, Brooke Jaye Taylor, Stephen Conroy, Markus Silbiger, Ashley Ueker, Quandae Stewart, Alicia Rosato, Kimberly Battista. Directed by Gregory Plotkin

Let’s face it; getting scared is fun. It makes our hearts beat faster, our adrenalin spike and our breath quicken. For young men, it gives us a chance to be protective of our dates who might even be suitably grateful afterwards. It’s why we go to horror movies and why we go to haunted attractions.

Natalie (Forsyth) has returned home from school. Her best friend Brooke (Edwards) is happy to see her – Brooke’s roommate Taylor (Taylor-Klaus) not so much. But young Gavin (Attal) really wants to see Natalie after a summer flirtation. So much so that he’s gotten VIP passes to Hell Fest for the three girls as well as the boyfriends of Brooke and Taylor. Hell Fest is one of the biggest haunted attractions here is, a traveling amusement park with horror-themed rides and mazes. It’s a big deal every time it shows up. Brooke and Taylor are very psyched for it; Natalie is less enthusiastic, not being terribly fond of being scared.

The real difference at this particular edition of Hell Fest is that there is an actual psycho among the costumed actors who can dispatch young girls in full view of the patrons – it’s all part of the show, right? – with nobody being the wiser. He’s done it before, as we see in a prologue.

So when a terrified girl who knows that fantasy has crossed the line into reality begs Natalie to save her from The Other (Conroy), as the killer is known as here. Laconically, Natalie tells the masked figure “Do it. That’s why we’re here – to be scared.” And so the killer obliges. And now he has a new target to chase around the park.

I suppose the concept of having an actual killer hiding in plain sight in a haunted amusement park has some merit, although something similar was attempted earlier this year in the independent Blood Fest – which was actually much better than this although as my British friends might say, that film was also daftier. The other main difference is that while that film was obviously made by people who not only believed in what they were doing, they were having a great time doing it. This movie appears to have been approached with all the joy and enthusiasm of a high school student approaching a term paper on Pilgrim’s Progress.

It’s not that Hell Fest is a bad movie; it’s not. It’s just not a good one. It shows little imagination or passion in any aspect, from the writing to the acting to the directing. Only the production design seems to have been approached with any sort of zeal. There are no real sore spots anywhere; neither are there any real bright spots (again, other than the production design).

The characters are literally just cookie cutters without depth and all ready to be ground into crumbs. The inevitable string of murders is neither imaginative nor particularly frightening. They’re just…there, like a misunderstanding in a rom-com. The last thing you want from a horror movie is a feeling of meh. Even a bad horror movie has its merits; there is nobody who itches to see a mediocre scary movie. That’s really what you have here; the horror equivalent of Wonder bread slathered with mayonnaise and American cheese. Horror fans deserve better. Heck, all of us deserve better. Natalie herself said “We’re here to get scared.” It’s a shame the folks who made her film didn’t listen to her.

REASONS TO GO: It’s not really bad in any category.
REASONS TO STAY: It’s not really good in any category either.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of violence, some gore, a bit of profanity and some sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Many of the scare characters walking around the park during the beginning of the film are actually employed by the Netherworld haunted attraction in Atlanta, one of the top ten in the country.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/30/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 40% positive reviews. Metacritic: 25/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Blood Fest
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Six Days of Darkness concludes