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

Gleason


Steve Gleason and son.

Steve Gleason and son.

(2016) Documentary (Open Road/Amazon) Steve Gleason, Michel Varisco-Gleason, Mike Gleason, Ryan Gootee, Scott Fujita, Mike McKenzie, Kurt Warner, Drew Brees, Jesse Jackson, John Elway, Rivers Gleason, Kyle Gleason, Gail Gleason, Mike McCready, Eddie Vedder, Blair Casey, Stephen Kantrow, Paul Varisco Jr., Paul Varisco Sr., Vinnie Varisco, Kevin Dedmon, Jim Eutizzi. Directed by Clay Tweel

 

Steve Gleason was a football player. Although a star linebacker in high school and again at Washington State, he was considered undersized and the NFL essentially turned their back on him. Unwilling to give up, he went to the Indianapolis Colts’ training camp only to be let go. Then, he joined the practice squad of the New Orleans Saints and there was something about the way he played, the way he left it all out on the field on every single play that impressed the Saints coaching staff. They signed him up and he played in NOLA for seven years as a part of the special teams unit, which takes the field for kickoffs and punts.

As a Saint, he was responsible for one of the most memorable moments in team history. On September 25, 2006, the Saints took the field at the Louisiana Superdome for the first time in 21 months after Hurricane Katrina devastated the city, the stadium and the team. In the first quarter with their opponents the Atlanta Falcons punting, Gleason broke through and blocked the punt which was recovered in the end zone by teammate Curtis Deloatch for a touchdown. The play brought the stadium to its feet and the city to its knees in joy. It was a symbol that not only were the Saints back, so was the city of New Orleans. They would go on to have the best season in team history to that point.

Although Gleason retired the season before his team won the Super Bowl, the respect his teammates and the organization had for him was such that he was given a Super Bowl ring but that was shortly after the devastating news that he had been afflicted by Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), more popularly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease because it was this that felled the Yankees slugger. Six weeks after the diagnosis, his wife Michel discovered she was pregnant.

Knowing that by the time his child was cognitive it was extremely unlikely he would be able to communicate as ALS attacks the neurons that control the involuntary muscular system, affecting the ability to move, speak, eat and eventually, breathe. He decided to make a series of video blogs for his child, a son named Rivers who would be born in October 2011. He would try to give his son advice about life, death, the difference between right and wrong and the importance of never giving up – things important to him but also things any father would want to pass on to their son.

]Using this footage as a backbone, documentarian Clay Tweel (Make Believe and Finders Keepers) was given extraordinary access, documenting the ex-football player’s physical progression as he is ravaged by the disease, as well as the toll it takes on his family. Wife Michel is forced to be caregiver to Steve while also being a new mom; eventually the strain overwhelms her and they add a neighbor (and self-described “hero worshipper”) Ryan Gootee to do the heavy lifting. His indefatigable attitude mirrors that of Steve himself at times.

And don’t get me wrong, Tweel absolutely refuses to paint the ex-Saint as a saint. There are times that he is literally howling in anguish at the betrayal of his body (even simple bodily functions become logistical nightmares). There are particularly heart-wrenching moments when Steve confronts his dad Mike, a genial guy but a rock-ribbed Christian whose beliefs are very much different than his son’s; in fact, Mike as a strict enough parent that his son had some resentments that percolate and bubble over while we watch (perhaps feeling a bit like voyeurs as we do) and one where he and his wife have a late night argument when she is clearly exhausted.

Gleason also is dedicated to his foundation, Team Gleason which not only helps fund ALS research but also provides the technology to ALS sufferers who can’t afford it to have more productive, fulfilling lives as well as providing “bucket list” items that patients are on a sort of deadline for; think of it as a Make-a-Wish Foundation for ALS patients making sure that they get what they need and what falls through the cracks of their insurance and government assistance. In fact, Gleason’s foundation spearheaded legislative efforts to help ALS patients get the technology they need covered under insurance and Medicare. It’s a worthy and noble cause but Gleason’s devotion to the foundation sometimes seems to supersede his dedication to his family, which disturbs Michel no end.

This is a movie that touches the human spirit and makes one proud of the species, something awfully difficult to do sometimes when all you see on the news are terrorist attacks, political hackery and mass shootings by disturbed loners with AR-15s. While I get that some critics will grouse about this being manipulative, holy crap if a story like Gleason’s can’t get to you emotionally, you really have to be something of a sociopath. Of course it’s manipulative. EVERY story is. That’s the nature of stories, particularly the true ones and this one is almost mythic in some ways when it comes to the courage and drive to live that Gleason displays and the support his family and community gives him. Personally, I thought Tweel gave a very balanced presentation of Gleason’s story, but if I’m to be manipulated, this is the way I want it to be done. At least it is emotion genuinely earned, as is the respect you’ll feel for the Gleason family and their supporters.

REASONS TO GO: There are few films that are this inspiring and uplifting. It never pulls its punches, showing Gleason’s vulnerabilities and at times, failings. Tweel keeps the talking head footage to a minimum. Cinema verité at it’s very finest.
REASONS TO STAY: At times, the film may end up being a bit too emotionally raw for some viewers.
FAMILY VALUES: There is enough foul language to net this an “R” rating.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although Gleason played seven years in the NFL, he was never drafted – he signed on with the Saints as a free agent. However, he was drafted by the short-lived XFL’s Birmingham Thunderbolts as the 191st player picked in their one and only draft in 2001.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/30/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 96% positive reviews. Metacritic: 80/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Pride of the Yankees
FINAL RATING: 10/10
NEXT: Florence Foster Jenkins