Review: Blackbird — Movies for the Rest of Us with Bill Newcott


⭐ ⭐ ⭐

Run Time: 1 hour 37 minutes

Rating: R

Stars: Susan Sarandon, Sam Neill, Kate Winslet, Mia Wasikowska, Rainn Wilson, Lindsay Duncan

Writer: Christian Thorpe

Director: Roger Michell

In Theaters

Blackbird, the story of a terminally ill woman (Susan Sarandon) summoning her family for one last weekend together, doesn’t take us anywhere we haven’t been before — but with a cast that boasts 12 Oscar, 13 Golden Globe and 5 Emmy nominations among them, it’s one first-class ride.

Matriarch Lily (Sarandon) is suffering from one of those undisclosed movie illness that is progressively but rapidly weakening her body. Right now she’s having trouble walking and one arm is useless, but as more than one character observes, “She’s not so bad.” Lily is bad enough, however, that she and her physician hubby Paul (Sam Neill, whose piercing eyes nearly match Sarandon’s in laser-like intensity) have decided she should end it all now, while she can still lift her own glass of hemlock (actually, phenobarbital).

But first, of course, there must be a final, not-so-fun family weekend at Lily and Paul’s plush seaside home — for all movies about life and death must take place by the water.

The kids arrive one by one. Here comes Jennifer (Kate Winslet), the “good” girl who has spent her entire life desperately trying to measure up to her mother’s expectations — and projecting those same unreasonable goals onto her son Jonathan (Anson Boon). Jennifer has a nebbish husband (The Office’s Rainn Wilson) who is a font of historical and scientific trivia but clueless when it comes to making actual human connections.

Next comes Anna (Mia Wasikowska) with her girlfriend Chris (Bex Taylor-Klaus) in tow. Anna is immediately confronted with questions about why she almost never has contact with the rest of the family. Don’t worry — we’ll get the answer soon enough.

And finally there’s Liz (Lindsay Duncan), Lily and Paul’s oldest and closest friend. Just how close? Patience. That particularly juicy reveal will have to wait until just before Lily’s fatal gulp.

For reasons known only to Lily, the weekend must include a non-chronological celebration of Christmas, complete with presents and a freshly chopped-down Christmas tree. Unfortunately, Lily’s Christmas soon devolves into a high-stakes version of Frank Costanza’s Festivus — with an emphasis on the traditional Airing of Grievances.

Director Roger Michell (Notting Hill, Hyde Park on the Hudson) is just the guy to corral all this histrionic star power. He gives each cast member ample time to strut their stuff in the service of a cluttered script that bristles with long-simmering family conflicts — all standing patiently in line, waiting to be tackled one-by-one as the film’s brisk hour-and-a-half proceeds apace.

In lesser hands, Blackbird (the meaning of the title is, to my knowledge, never really addressed) would rank little higher than your standard issue high-calorie, low-protein Hallmark Channel movie. But the entire cast hurls itself into this sentimental stew with such abandon you come away from Lily’s farewell party unexpectedly sated.

Just don’t drink the digestif.

Featured image: Rainn Wilson as Michael, Sam Neill as Paul, Bex Taylor-Klaus as Chris, Mia Wasikowska as Anna, Lindsay Duncan as Liz, Susan Sarandon as Lily, and Anson Boon as Jonathan. Blackbird arrives in theaters and on demand on September 18, 2020 from Screen Media. (Photo by Parisa Taghizadeh, Courtesy of Screen Media)

The Rocky Horror Picture Show: Still Doing the Time Warp 45 Years Later

Having performed in both the touring and London productions of Hair in the early 1970s, Richard O’Brien combined his love of science fiction, horror, and comic books with his stage background into writing the musical The Rocky Horror Show. The play rapidly grew in popularity, moving from theatre to bigger theatre in England. When the opportunity came to take the tale to the screen in 1975, little did anyone involved know that their film would still be playing around the world 45 years later. I would like, if I may, to take you on a strange journey . . . this is the story of The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

O’Brien was born in England in 1942 and moved to New Zealand with his family in the 1950s. After college, he went back to England in 1964 and began working on stage and in film. O’Brien played both an Apostle and Leper in the London production of Jesus Christ Superstar; the director who cast him was Jim Sharman. Sharman would cast him again, and O’Brien shared his idea for They Came from Denton High, a musical send-up of the things that he loved, like 1950s science-fiction movies. Sharman came on board as director and gave O’Brien the idea for a new name: The Rocky Horror Show. In June 1973, the show kicked off at London’s Theatre Upstairs; it quickly became a hit, moving to bigger venues until making it to the U.K’s equivalent of Broadway, the West End.

Lou Adler was already a big name in American music when he saw Rocky in London. Adler had produced Carole King’s Tapestry, the Monterey Pop Festival, and six hits for The Mamas and The Papas, including “California Dreamin’.” He bought the U.S. theatrical rights, taking the show to the Roxy in L.A. Soon after, Michael White, who had produced the London shows, Adler, O’Brien, and Sharman were collaborating on a film version. Adler and White produced with Sharman directing and co-writing the screen adaptation with O’Brien.

The trailer for The Rocky Horror Picture Show (Uploaded to YouTube by 20th Century Studios)

In terms of casting, several members of the London cast made the jump to screen. Tim Curry (Dr. Frank-N-Furter), O’Brien (Riff Raff), Patricia Quinn (Magenta), and “Little Nell” Campbell (Columbia) had all been in productions in England. The ostensible lead roles of Brad and Janet were trickier, as studio 20th Century Fox wanted American actors in the parts; those ended up being filled by Barry Bostwick and Susan Sarandon. Charles Gray, a two-time Bond villain, played the criminologist/narrator and Jonathan Adams was cast as Dr. Scott. Marvin Lee Aday, better known as Meat Loaf, was a veteran of Broadway’s Hair and had played Eddie in the L.A. cast; he reprised Eddie for the movie, two years before the release of his massively successful Bat Out of Hell album. Background character Betty Munroe (whose wedding Brad and Janet attend early in the film) was played by Hilary Labow, which was the screen name of Hilary Farr, known today as the designer on the long-running renovation series Love It or List It.

Much of the Gothy, classic horror mood of the film came from the location at Oakley Court. The estate had been used in several Hammer Studios films, including The Brides of Dracula and The Plague of the Zombies. In Sharman’s direction, you can occasionally note some of the same wide angles and sudden zooms prevalent in Hammer features, which were meant to echo styles prevalent in the genre. Richard Hartley produced the soundtrack and handled musical arrangements on the songs that O’Brien had written. The soundtrack lists 21 official numbers, although “Once in a While” came from a deleted scene and “Super Heroes” was only seen in the U.K. until the eventual video release.

A portion of “Sweet Transvestite” from The Rocky Horror Picture Show (Uploaded to YouTube by Movieclips)

The film opened 45 years ago this week in London, with the U.S. opening a few weeks later. It was not an immediate success. Outside of L.A., it was quickly pulled from theatres. Tim Deegan, a Fox executive, suggested an alternative strategy; figuring that the film might do well on the midnight circuit, as John Waters films had, Deegan got the ball rolling in New York. The Waverly Theater became ground zero for a cult phenomenon, fostering audience participation in the form of recited remarks and props. Audience members began coming to the show in costume, and screenings started to have live casts that would act out the film as it ran on the screen. Within a couple of years, the movie had become a legit cult sensation and defined the notion of the “Midnight Movie.”

The movie has actually never closed, making it the longest-running release in the history of film. Some fans and film history buffs were concerned about the status of the film when the Walt Disney Company finished its acquisition of 20th Century Fox in 2019. However, even though Disney “vaulted” a number of Fox titles, they were conscious of Rocky’s status and fandom and decided to keep it in release so that the screenings would go on.

A portion of “Hot Patootie Bless My Soul” from The Rocky Horror Picture Show (Uploaded to YouTube by Movieclips)

So, just what has made it endure? At the top, the music is insanely catchy, particularly “The Time Warp.” The notion of attending a movie as a sort of costume party is fun, and the props and interaction make it a shared experience that you can join in over and over. But a deeper undercurrent is that Rocky Horror celebrates the outsider. It’s been embraced by the LGBTQ+ community, theater kids, punks, goths, comic book fans, horror and science fiction fans who get the in-jokes, and more, all of whom find connection to the film. Its influence has reverberated through the years, turning up in sitcoms like The Drew Carey Show or a 2010 episode of Glee or in films like The Perks of Being a Wallflower or Fox’s 2016 TV remake. It has endured for four-and-a-half decades, and there’s no sign that it will go away anytime soon. One supposes that it’s comforting to know that as much as some cult phenoms come and go, there will always be a light over at the Frankenstein place.

Featured image: UA Cinema Merced. The Rocky Horror Picture Show, opening night, January of 1978.
(Photo by Robin Adams, General Manager, UA Cinema, Merced California, 1978.
This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.; Wikimedia Commons)