BLACKBIRD – movie review

Screen Media
Reviewed for & linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Roger Michell
Screenwriter: Christian Torpe
Cast: Bex Taylor-Klaus, Sam Neill, Mia Wasikowska, Kate Winslet, Susan Sarandon, Rainn Wilson, Lindsay Duncan, Anson Boon
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 8/20/20
Opens: September 18, 2020


A blackbird is a symbol of intuition, wit and knowledge while on the other hand the bird which has sometimes scared people, can represent darkness. The latter symbol may be at work primarily in Roger Michell’s drama about family, euthanasia, and one major twist that occurs late in the drama—though audience members born under the intuition represented by the bird might guess what that may be. “Blackbird is in the hands of director Michell, whose “My Cousin Rachel” is a revenge drama that becomes complicated when the avenger falls under the charms of the beautiful woman he targets.

Still of Susan Sarandon and Kate Winslet in Blackbird (2019)

The only kind of revenge that we see in “Blackbird” could be that of a woman who is afflicted with the dread disease ALS (Lou Gehrig’s) raging against nature for giving her a plague that neither she nor anyone else deserves. But Lily (Susan Sarandon) has accepted her fate, and unwilling to die naturally—if you can call waiting until you can’t swallow can’t speak, can’t move your legs and arms and ultimately suffocate natural—she chooses suicide, or euthanasia. Such an exit is legal in only a few states but carried out only when a victim succeeds in jumping through hoops. She is married to Paul (Sam Neill), a doctor, able to acquire enough pentobarbital to kill half an army, as he puts it.

“Blackbird,” a remake of Bille August’s 2014 Danish picture “Silent Heart,” or “Stille hjerte,” closely follows that trajectory of three generations of a family who come together as a final sendoff to Lily. But this is not the lively affair that we see in the 1996 film “It’s My Party,” Randal Kleiser’s look at a mostly young family contingent joined together to say farewell to a man afflicted with AIDS who chooses to die on his own terms. In fact, for most of the story, we watch family and friends gather and socialize in the incredibly spacious and posh home (filmed by Mike Eley in West Sussex, England). The usual pleasantries take up too much time; the hugs, the aimless chit-chat. Still there are moments of grand humor, mostly centered on the Michael (Rainn Wilson), klutzy husband of Paul and Lily’s daughter Jennifer (Kate Winslet), a pedant whose wife criticizes his lack of emotions and who guesses that if she threw a glass of wine in his face, she would probably hear in what district the grapes were grown.

As you might expect, not everybody is cool with Lily’s plans, particularly Anna (Mia Waskowska), who has shown up with her girlfriend Chris (Bex Taylor-Klaus), and who is furious that her mother never took the time to get to know her. She asks Lily to delay the plan to allow the two of them to do just that. Not so Lily’s sister Jennifer, who insists that euthanasia is Lily’s decision. And in fact Lily, in the final moments, appears to demand that the guests assembled agree unanimously to her decision, the “jury” threatening to be hung by Anna.

Despite her small role Liz (Lindsay Duncan), Lily’s best friend who sometimes join her and Paul on vacations, plays a key role in the film’s best plot twist. Ultimately, though, “Blackbird” suffers from Sam Neill’s passivity and from Susan Sarandon’s phoning in her performance. Diane Keaton, originally selected to play the part, would have turned in acting better conveying Lily’s controlling decision.

97 minutes. © 2020 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – C
Acting – C+
Technical – B
Overall – C+


EXIT PLAN – movie review

EXIT PLAN (Selvmordsturisten)
Screen Media
Reviewed for & linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Jonas Alexander Arnby
Screenwriter: Rasmus Birch
Cast: Nickolaj Coster-Waldau, Kate Ashfield, Jan Bïjvoet, Tuva Novotny, Robert Aramayo
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 5/30/20
Opens: June 12, 2020

Exit Plan Poster

To paraphrase Winston Churchill’s comment about the Soviet Union, “Exit Plan” is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. Just when you think you’ve figured it out—is it a dream? A tumor-inspired hallucination? A strange, horrifying reality? Anything is possible in this Danish movie with English subtitles and some spoken English (Scandinavians are famous for fluency in English) but by the time the film is over, you’re not sure what happened. To its credit, this is a horror movie without the slashing, a psychological thriller without car chases or explosions. “Exit Plan” is a virtually a chamber piece whose focus is fixed on the principal character, who by his expressions tries to tell us in the audience what he’s thinking and feeling. He takes off his glasses and leans his head on the table. He stares at a loved on as if afraid to tell her what he’s feeling. He even smiles sometimes, which is not easy if you have a terminal, growing brain tumor that, as one knowledgeable person notes, might make you mistake your wife for a dog–not an entirely bad idea since you’ll probably give her some affection for a change.

This is a star vehicle for Nikolai Coster-Waldau, who you’ll remember in the role of Jaime Lannister from “Game of Thrones.” He is directed in a sophomore feature by Jonas Alexander Arnby, whose previous movie, “When Animals Dream” finds 16-year old Marie living on a small island with her seriously ill mother and her father. When suddenly mysterious deaths happen and Marie can feel something strange happening to her body. You’ll see that the Copenhagen-born director is right in his métiér with this one.

Max Isaksen (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) learns that he has terminal brain cancer. To avoid a painful demise, he opts to travel by car and small plane to the frosty north (could be Denmark, Norway, Finland or Sweden), registering with the Hotel Aurora. The management therein provides assisted suicide fantasies allowing guests to have dream suicides, choosing the landscape, the method, the whole shebang. The trouble is that the Aurora is like the Roach Motel. You go in, but you can’t come out. Yep. Once you sign the register, you are not allowed to leave. In fact bolting is more difficult than breaking an apartment lease in New York.

While clad in pajamas, Max waits out the few days till his demise, chatting with one woman who will try to escape, but each time he has a talk back home with his wife Lærke (Tuva Novotny) he does not know how to raise the topic. Most of the time, director Arnby, using a script by Rasmus Birch, whose “Brotherhood” deals with Danish servicemen thrown together in a neo-Nazi group, tries to penetrate Max’s mind, his expertise being able to let us in the audience know what it’s like to be in an extreme existential crisis.

The pace is slow, picking up during the final fifteen minutes when Max decides whether he wants to go through with the plan or has cold feet. (When in one scene he falls through the ice, his extremities are literally freezing.) A good indie for a patient audience.

85 minutes. © 2020 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B-
Acting – B
Technical – A-
Overall – B

TAMMY’S ALWAYS DYING – movie review

Quiver Distribution
Reviewed for & linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Amy Jo Johnson
Screenwriter: Joanne Sarazen
Cast: Felicity Huffman, Anastasia Phillips, Clark Johnson, Lauren Holly
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 4/15/20
Opens: May 1, 2020

Sometimes when a little kid cries apparently for no reason, her mother will say, “You ought to be an actress—you cry so easily.” In a story written by Joanne Sarazen in her freshman feature and directed by Amy Jo Johnson, also her first full length narrative film, “Tammy’s Always Dying” finds a the title character’s only daughter Catherine (Anastasia Phillips) able to cry in front of a TV audience so successfully that she receives a new Toyota Camry. For many of us, anything below a Mercedes of a Beamer would be considered chump change, but to Catherine it’s a bigger prize than she had ever seen. Not that her mother Tammy (Felicity Huffman) is better off. Both mother and daughter are sad sacks, losers, the kinds of people who, if American not Canadian, might vote for Trump not realizing that nobody, not even a slick-talking pseudo-populist, could help such deadbeats.

From beginning to end, Tammy and Catherine MacDonald (strangely, in real life mother and daughter are only ten years apart) we can predict that the two are going nowhere in life, having missed any opportunity at the right time to advance a career or even consider such an unusual thing to strive for.

So we’re left with wondering: is there anything about these two women to make us care about them? Do we know anything about why mom is depressed to the point of regularly considering jumping from a bridge, or daughter so easily manipulated by her mother that she has little pleasurable to think about save a quicky against the wall with married Reggie (Aaron Ashmore)? At least she has one person who shows he cares about her, her gay boss in a seedy bar, Doug (Clark Johnson) who treats her occasionally to dinner and doesn’t mind when she sleeps past her alarm and shows up late.

We know nothing about them. No backstory to give clues to why chain-smoking Tammy is always depressed, why she confesses to Catherine that she always loved her but could never show it, and how Catherine winds up like the rotten apple that does not fall far from the tree.

When Dr. Miller (Ayesha Mansur Gonzalves), a poised, confident woman who is the exact opposite of the two women, diagnoses Tammy with Stage 4 cancer, Catherine moves in with her. Yet the younger woman nonetheless on why day shouts “Why don’t you die, already?” With that in mind, she asks to be a guest on a TV show featuring women who cry about their tragic lives, wins a place and is coached by its producer Ilana (Lauren Holly). She invents a tale that her mother had committed suicide, a death wish that could apply to Catherine as well as to Tammy.

From the opening scene, this movie looks like little more than a vanity format for Felicity Huffman, perhaps able to scrounge up an audience based on her recent conviction of trying to buy her daughter a place as a freshman in USC. Otherwise the two people who must carry the film are so empty, so irritating, that the project is difficult to sit through.

85 minutes. © 2020 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – C-
Acting – B
Technical – B
Overall – C

PHIL – movie review

Quiver Distribution
Reviewed for & linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Greg Kinnear
Screenwriter: Scott Mazur
Cast: Greg Kinnear, Jay Duplass, Robert Forster, Emily Mortier, Luke Wilson
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 6/21/19
Opens: July 5, 2019

Phil Movie Poster

Socrates said that the unexamined life is not worth living. Phil (Greg Kinnear) takes the philosopher at his word, deciding to examine his own life for the first time. This gets him into heaps of trouble but in the final analysis by the conclusion of the movie “Phil,” he has examined his life and finds it worth living. It was not always so. The title character opens up the movie climbing over the guard rails of a bridge (the movie was photographed by John Bailey in Vancouver, Canada, standing in for Portland, Oregon), deciding whether to end it all.

“Phil” is the directing debut of Greg Kinnear, coming across at least in the opening scenes as a vanity project as Kinnear has directed himself to be in almost every frame. The story picks up in tension, turning like so many theatrical comedies with serious overtones but with a satisfying finish.

In the story, Phil goes through the motions deliberately on auto-pilot since this is the way he suffers the emotional baggage of a depressed man. He has a dental practice and a daughter (April Cameron) who loves him, but since he is divorced he gets cannot see her as much as he would like. He has a brother, Malcolm (Jay Duplass) who cares about him. When Michael Fisk (Bradley Whitford) is in his dental chair, the patient comes across as a man who has everything, yet Fisk commits suicide by hanging himself, his limp body discovered by Phil who has stalked him for several days to get a take on why he is such a happy and fulfilled man. Phil is eager to know why such a person with a well-appointed house, a lovely wife Alicia (Emily Mortimoer), and stories of fun during vacations in Greece would do such a thing, so Phil pretends to be Fisk’s buddy Spiros from decades back, embedding himself in Alicia’s home and, while he’s at it, renovating the widow’s bathroom.

This is a small movie not without considerable sentiment, the broad comedy flowing into a philosophic consideration of life, examining but without solving one of philosophy’s fundamental questions: why are some people joyful, seemingly living and loving every moment, yet plagued underneath the surface emotions to be filled with anger at ourselves—which some psychologists believe to be the principal cause of depression. (We all know people who have it all are determined to kill themselves. Think of Carter Vanderbilt Cooper, Gloria Vanderbilt’s 23-year-old son, who commits suicide during a psychotic episode by jumping from the fourteenth floor of their Manhattan apartment.)

“Phil” maintains an appropriate balance between sentiment and seriousness coupled with broad comedy including Phil’s anxious attempts to maintain his fake identity by Greek-accenting his English, by dancing with a band of Greek-American men, and trying to answer one person, Jerome (Kurt Fuller), who asks him a question in Greek.

The writer, Stephen Mazur, is best known for scripting “Liar Liar,” a broad comedy featuring Jim Carrey in his best role, a lawyer who is unable to tell a lie (try to believe that). Emily Mortimer and Greg Kinnear enjoy their chemistry together until an unraveling of Phil’s fake identity inevitably takes place. You would have difficulty finding actors in Hollywood who radiate such nice-guy-ness as well as Greg Kinnear.

106 minutes. © 2019 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B
Acting – B
Technical – B
Overall – B