REVIEW: “Blackbird” (2020)

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Director Roger Michell explores terminal illness and family dysfunction in his new drama “Blackbird”, an adaptation of a 2014 Danish film titled “Silent Heart”. Michell brings together a notable cast to tell the story of a family matriarch choosing to end her life rather than succumb to the degenerating effects of ALS. From that alone you can tell “Blackbird” is dealing with some weighty themes.

Screen vet Susan Sarandon plays ALS sufferer Lily, the matriarch of a progressive and (we quickly learn) rather distant family. She and her doctor husband Paul (Sam Neill) live in a posh Connecticut seaside estate which is the setting for the entire story. With her ALS already taking away the use of her right arm and her prognosis progressively grim, Lily decides to end her life, determined to go out on her own terms and with her family’s blessing.

Her final wish is to have a weekend get-together with her family. Certainly not your run-of-the-mill trip back to see the folks. The first to arrive is the stuffy, controlling older daughter Jennifer (Kate Winslet), her dutiful husband Michael (Rainn Wilson), and their moody son Jonathan (Anson Boon). Their flighty younger daughter Anna (Mia Wasikowska) arrives later along with her on-again/off-again flame Chris (Bex Taylor-Klaus). Joining them all is Lily’s long-time best friend Elizabeth (Lindsay Duncan). Everyone knows what’s about to happen and they all attempt to put on a good face. But as films like this have shown, old baggage always finds its way into the story.

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Photo Courtesy of Screen Media Films

By the way, when it comes to old baggage, everyone brings some. And I do mean everyone. Screenwriter Christian Torpe (who also wrote “Silent Heart”) starts with the illusion that everything’s alright, a little tense but okay. Then the grudges, hard feelings, and pent-up anger begin to fester, threatening to derail Lily’s carefully planned weekend. Once the first shot is fired, a near steady hail of barbs, insults, and cuts follow. And again, no one is excluded. Everyone ends up with some secret to reveal or some family axe to grind. It gets a little ridiculous, almost resembling a dark comedy spoof although one we’ve seen several times before.

Yet there are moments where Michell’s deliberately light touch brings some welcomed levity. Sarandon’s straight-shooting, no-nonsense approach to Lily opens the door for some sharp comical quips amid all the seriousness. And Wilson, though playing a dramatic role, is naturally funny. His character’s wealth of useless knowledge works well as a reoccurring joke. The rest of the cast is (as you would expect) rock-solid and collectively they carry the bulk of the load. You could argue the script depends a little too much on its stars. At the same time they do bring heart to their broad range of roles. And when the family chaos kicks in high gear threatening to sink the story, it’s the well acted characters who keep it afloat. “Blackbird” opens this Friday.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

3-5-stars

REVIEW: “Boys State” (2020)

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Despite knowing of it my entire life, I was amazed to find out how little I knew about Boys and Girls State. Founded in 1935 and 1937, these leadership and citizenship programs are held each summer in nearly every state across America. For a week high school students participate in the formation of city, county, and state governments similar in function to the U.S. systems. They are broken up into two parties who then elect their leaders and develop their party platform from scratch. It all culminates in the election of one student to the highest office of governor. It’s really quite fascinating.

The Sundance hit “Boys State” gives a eye-opening look inside the program. In the film documentarians Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss follow the roughly 1,000 boys who attended the 2018 Boys State in Texas. They concentrate mostly on a handful of ambitious teens from very different backgrounds who arrive in Austin and are immediately baptized into the intense and hyper-competitive political event. The boys are assigned to either the Federalist or Nationalist party. They pick the office they want to run for and then begin creating policy and organizing their campaigns.

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Photo Courtesy of Apple TV+

But the most compelling thing about the documentary is how effectively McBaine and Moss show Boys State as a microcosm of modern-day politics. It takes no time exposing how quickly partisanship takes hold and how fast the love of power and position can lead to moral compromise. Through the boys and the preconceived notions they bring, we witness how deeply the flaws of our current political philosophies are carved into the minds of our youth. And oh how quickly independent thought is tossed aside while attempts at working together and meeting people in the middle are shown to be futile and unfruitful.

Of course “Boys State” does have its own biases and it reaches a point where it begins pointedly shaping its heroes and villains. The movie sets up a boy named Steven as its veritable ‘good-guy’ – a friendly, good-natured young man who is mature beyond his years. He’s the son of a once undocumented Mexican immigrant and is truly inspired to serve his country. But in reality even he is playing the game – an ardent Bernie Sanders supporter moving to the middle to secure some red state conservative votes during his run for governor. It emphasizes what another boy sadly and succinctly reveals, “Sometimes you can’t win on what you believe in your heart.”

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Photo Courtesy of Apple TV+

Your response to “Boys State” may be influenced by your own political sway or personal party allegiance. By the end some will be left feeling inspired and optimistic while others are likely to feel discouraged and even more cynical than before. Whether intentional or not, in that sense the movie even uses the audience’s response as indicative of how bitterly divided our country is at the moment.

For me the most disheartening thing about “Boys State” is that most of what we see mirrors our existing political climate rather than give hope that change will come with the next generation. And how sad it is to see young people already compromising their convictions and ideals for political gain. On the positive side it’s good to see intelligent young men with such ambition and drive. If only they had a more respectable political model to follow. “Boys State” is now available on Apple TV+.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars

 

REVIEW: “Bill & Ted Face the Music” (2020)

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Prior to its first trailer, if you had told me there would be a sequel to the Bill & Ted movies in the year 2020 I would probably put a wager on it (and I’m not a betting man). Yet here we are with a brand new follow-up to the pair’s “Excellent Adventure” (1989) and “Bogus Journey” (1991). Some key names and familiar faces return most notably the two most excellent stars – Alex Winter as William S. “Bill” Preston, Esq. and Keanu Reeves as Theodore “Ted” Logan (insert air guitar here).

The first two Bill & Ted movies were very much simple and utterly absurd buddy comedies that had no allusions of being anything other than what they were. So expectations for the third film were pretty easy to keep in check. “Bill & Ted Face the Music” really only needed to do one thing to be a success – tap into the same frothy yet utterly charming nuttiness of its predecessors. Will it play well for younger audiences with no attachments to the original films? It’s hard to say. But for the rest of us there is just enough smile-inducing silliness and nostalgic allure to make Bill & Ted’s latest time-hopping romp worthwhile.

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Photo Courtesy of Orion Pictures

The lovable Wyld Stallyns have seen their rock-and-roll stock plummet. Bill & Ted’s once beloved band has gone from selling out big arenas to playing Elk’s Lodges on $2 Taco Night. But it barely phases the ever-content and perpetually optimistic best friends who push forward, still trying to write the song that will unite the world. How’s that for persistence?

In the meantime both are now married to their former girlfriends and 15th-century princesses from the previous films (Jayma Mays plays Bill’s wife Joanna, Erinn Hayes plays Ted’s wife Elizabeth). And both have teenage daughters with striking resemblances to their fathers, Wilhelmina “Billie” Logan (Brigette Lundy-Paine) and Theodora “Thea” Preston (Samara Weaving).

While Bill and Ted’s friendship is stronger than ever, the inseparable bosom buddies can’t see the strain it’s having on their marriages. To add another kink, Kelly (Kristen Schaal), the daughter of their old friend from the future Rufus (played in the earlier films by the late George Carlin), arrives in her time-traveling egg to inform Bill and Ted that they have been summoned by the Great Leader (Holland Taylor). And when the Great Leader summons you know things must be serious.

Kelly takes them to the future where they are told they have only 78 minutes to finally discover their song that will unite the world. Why? Who the heck knows? These movies have always pulled their ‘rules’ out of thin air. And who really cares when you’re given such delightfully corny lines like “The song is a nexus point that brings humanity into rhythm and harmony” and that without the song “reality will collapse and time and space will cease to exist“. Those are all the ‘rules’ I need.

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Photo Courtesy of Orion Pictures

Of course more time-bopping ensues as Bill & Ted reunite with their magic phone booth and travel to the future hoping to find their all-important song. Meanwhile Billie and Thea convince Kelly to take them to the past, searching different time periods in order to assemble the greatest band in history to help play their fathers’ song. Again, the goofiness of it all will be too much for some people to handle, but director Dean Parisot along with his cast and crew fully embrace it. If they hadn’t, this would have been a disaster.

“Face the Music” is a bit of a miracle. The screenwriters for the original films Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon started working on this script a decade ago. It took several drafts to get the story right and just as much effort to find funding. Yet here we are, with one of the most unlikeliest of sequels. One that surprisingly feels right at home with its 30-year-old forerunners. There are a few awkward moments where the dialogue clangs and the now 55-year-old actors can’t always muster the same youthful silliness to make every scene work. But Reeves and Winter put a lot of heart into Bill & Ted. They love these characters and we can tell. Did we really ‘need’ another movie? Not really. Am I glad we got one? “Totally dude”. By the way, stay till the end. There is a post-credits scene that is…how shall I put it…most triumphant. “Bill & Ted Face the Music” is out today in theaters and on VOD.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

3-5-stars

REVIEW: “The Birdcatcher” (2020)

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Director Ross Clarke’s World War II era drama “The Birdcatcher” is built on a tough-to-sell premise that needs practically all of its creative parts to work perfectly. Unfortunately they don’t all quite gel leaving us with a movie full of good intentions but shaky execution and storytelling that’s never as convincing as it needs to be.

Set in 1942, the movie centers around a 20-ish young lady named Esther (Sarah-Sofie Boussnina), the daughter of a Jewish barber in Trondheim, Norway with aspirations of going to America and becoming a movie star. She’s a sweet, starry-eyed dreamer who like many has her innocence stripped away by the Nazi occupation. During a Jewish roundup Esther is separated from her parents but manages to escape into the snowy hills.

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Photo Courtesy of Gravitas Ventures

A lost, hungry, and freezing Esther runs into a sympathetic disabled teen named Aksel (Arthur Hakalahti). He’s the son of a brutish, Nazi-sympathizing farmer Johann (Jakob Cedergren) and obedient but secretive mother Anna (Laura Birn). Aksel hides Esther in the loft of their barn out of his parents’ sight, sneaking her food and taking a liking to her. Meanwhile his father frequently entertains and kisses up to a Nazi officer named Herman played by August Diehl (so good in last year’s “A Hidden Life”).

Knowing she’ll eventually be discovered, a resourceful Esther cuts off her hair and poses as a wandering lost boy named Ola. In a particularly ridiculous sequence Esther/Ola is caught by Herman who takes her to the family’s farm and encourages Johann to take her/him on as a farmhand. What could go wrong, right? Esther ends up tangled in a festering family drama that sends the story toward its inevitable climax.

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Photo Courtesy of Gravitas Ventures

Despite the sincere feeling behind it, “The Birdcatcher” is simply too hard to buy into. There’s no doubting that true stories similar to this actually exist and that realization give the film some weight. But it’s hampered by some needless clutter such as Aksel’s drunken abusive uncle (Johannes Kuhnke) and a poorly defined forbidden romance that may be a romance or may be something else (I still don’t know for certain).

Yet strangely despite its frustrations “The Birdcatcher” has an earnestness about it that makes it easy to digest. Much of it comes through Boussnina’s sensitive and committed lead performance. There’s also a touching epilogue that effectively knocks home the themes of empathy, compassion, and forgiveness. It doesn’t save the movie from it’s flaws, but it does stress the sincerity of its convictions. “The Birdcatcher” is now available on VOD.

VERDICT – 2.5 STARS

2-5-stars

REVIEW: “Blow the Man Down” (2020)

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Bridget Savage Cole and Danielle Krudy’s black comedy/thriller “Blow the Man Down” debuted a year ago at the Tribeca Film Festival. It took a while but this slyly biting and ever so slightly offbeat neo-noir has finally received its proper debut (thanks to Amazon Studios). It’s a movie full of surprises and made by a fresh filmmaking duo with a deft handling of both style and story.

In the seaside fishing village of East Cove, Maine sisters Priscilla (Sophie Lowe) and Mary Beth (Morgan Saylor) mourn the recent death of their mother. After the funeral Priscilla plans on running the family fish market and living in the house where they grew up. Mary Beth, bitter about having to leave college to help care for her mother, is already planning her way out of the town she despises.

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Photo Courtesy Amazon Studios

The siblings learn their mother left them with a lot of debt meaning they could potentially lose the house. It leads to a heated argument that sends Mary Beth storming off to the local tavern. Once there she starts tossing back drinks with an unsavory type named Gorski (Ebon Moss-Bachrach). The two get drunk and she not-so-wisely agrees to drive him to his house just outside of town. An attempted assault, a harpoon to the neck, and a brick bash to the head leaves Gorski dead and Mary Beth in a panic.

You could say that what follows is a shining example of how not to cover up a crime. Mary Beth rushes home to Priscilla and tells her what happened. Uncertain whether she acted in haste or in self-defense, the sisters decide not to call the police and go back to Gorski’s place to clean up the mess. As for disposing of the body, let’s just say Cole and Krudy give us a grisly yet darkly funny sequence that had me thinking “Fargo” but with a stout feminine kick.

But there is another layer to the story altogether. Gorski’s disappearance cracks the door to East Cove’s deep dark past. It turns out Priscilla and Mary Beth’s mother was the linchpin holding the town’s matriarchal rule together. So with her gone, old wounds fester between a brothel owner named Enid (played with a devilish wit by Margo Martindale) and three busybody widows (June Squibb, Annette O’Toole, Marceline Hugot). All are connected by the sordid town secrets and each has their own self-interests and motivations.

Eventually the two story threads weave together to form a prickly, suspenseful mystery told through a myriad of fun and fleshed-out characters. The best may be Martindale’s Enid who operates like an organized crime boss, running her operation in plain sight but with enough clout to get away with it. Packing more snarl than smile, Enid defends her enterprise while at the same time showing the emotional toll it has taken on her. She’s a complex character and far more than some one-note villain.

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Photo Courtesy of Amazon Studios

I can’t talk about this film without spending a few lines on its style and setting. Cole and Krudy had me onboard from the very start. The movie opens to the sound of a shanty being sung by a grizzled fisherman and his salty-dog chorus. It’s amusing, subtly haunting, and adds to the New England coastal flavor. They pop up a few more times in brief smile-inducing musical interludes. And then you have the atmosphere and vivid sense of place the directing duo and their DP Todd Banhazl are able to create. You can almost smell the scent of raw fish or feel the chill of the icy sea breeze.

Cole and Krudy don’t stop there. They add more to their mystery by throwing several other ingredients into the pot: a missing knife, a second body, a young by-the-book police officer (Will Brittain) and a disgruntled call girl (Gayle Rankin). It doesn’t all flesh out perfectly but the twists keep you guessing and the film really sticks its finish. Ultimately it feels heavily inspired by the Coen brothers especially in its melding of crime and humor. But its flipping of genre roles and the female-driven story gives it its own welcomed identity. It also introduces us to two exciting new filmmakers who already show a tremendous understanding of their craft. “Blow the Man Down” is now streaming on Amazon Prime.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars

REVIEW: “Becky” (2020)

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If co-directors Jonathan Milott and Cary Murnion had the goal of making an unorthodox action-thriller full of crazy B-movie gore and with an undeniable “Die Hard” vibe that sees a 13-year-old girl as their John McClane, well…mission accomplished. “Becky” checks all of those boxes, sometimes repeatedly just for good measure. It may sound wacky (and it kinda is) but it’s really well made and sports one particularly surprising performance.

The film begins with a young girl named Becky Hooper (Lulu Wilson) answering questions from a sheriff and a social worker. Clearly something bad has happened and Becky is at its center. Hop back two weeks earlier where the film craftily intercuts two storylines happening simultaneously. One sets up Becky’s story while the other introduces the film’s main antagonist, a vile neo-Nazi named Dominick (Kevin James).

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Photo Courtesy of Quiver Digital

Obviously the casting choice that sticks out is James. His transformation from funny man to cold-blooded white supremacist is astonishingly good. James is a menacing presence, giving us a character tattooed with swastikas and Nazi SS bolts, and with a chilling disregard for human life. He and four of his acolytes break out of a prison transport and within seconds cement themselves as dangerous and deadly killers.

At the same time Becky is struggling. Her pent-up anger over her mother’s death to cancer has led to her lashing out at school and at her father Jeff. He’s played by a sorely miscast Joel McHale whose seemingly perpetual grin has you waiting for punch line at the end of his every line of dialogue. Daddy and daughter set out for the family lake house to spend the weekend. Once there Jeff informs Becky that he is planning to marry his new girlfriend Kayla (Amanda Brugel). It’s hard to tell whether he is incredibly naive or incredibly stupid, but his news (predictably) goes over with his daughter like a lead balloon.

As you can probably guess, the two stories intersect when Dominick and his crew show up at the lake house. Turns out there is a key buried in a crawlspace under the house marked by a symbol matching one of Dom’s tattoos. The key becomes a cleverly utilized McGuffin that does a lot of essential tablesetting. Jeff doesn’t know anything about it. Becky ends up with it. Dominick will do anything to get it.

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Photo Courtesy of Quiver Digital

Family drama and home invasion thriller is just a part of the genre blend we get. “Becky” is just as much a revenge-fueled splatter film as the 13-year-old protagonist unleashes her sorrow and rage in a number of grisly, blood-soaked ways. Some of the violence is shocking, some of it is uncomfortable, some of it is laced with humor. But it works both metaphorically and as an old-school action gore-fest.

Milott and Murnion do some really interesting things with their camera while at the same time steadily building tension. While James may be the show stealer, Lulu Wilson is vital and makes for a strong, sympathetic rooting interest. She’s intense, troubled, and seemingly on her own (in more ways than one). While a bit outlandish at times, both she and the script (penned by Nick Morris, Lane and Ruckus Skye) handle things smartly and make the story surprisingly believable. And their little John McClane makes Bruce Willis looks like a choir boy. So be prepared.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars