A Misbehaving Blackbird

Gugu Mbatha-Raw in Misbehavior

September, even in this pandemic year, represents an interesting dichotomy in the film year. As news and breathless soundbites about new and exciting movies come from film festivals in Venice, Toronto and New York – the new movies becoming available are mostly mediocre. These are films stuffed with good intentions, socially relevant stories and celebrated actors. Yet something went amiss during the conception and/or production. So with little expectation I hit play on Misbehavior and Blackbird.

As usual my entry into these movies were the actresses. Susan Sarandon, Kate Winslet and Mia Wasikowska are in Blackbird. I knew it was a family drama about euthanasia so I thought at the very least I’d get these three actresses dealling with dramatic material and maybe there will be fireworks. There weren’t any but the film delivered on the rest.

Sarandon and Winslet in Blackbird

The story takes place over the last weekend in the life of a matriarch (Sarandon) suffering from a terminal illness. Along with her doctor husband (Sam Neil), she has decided to end her life so she gathered her daughters (Winslet and Wasikowska, their spouses (Rainn Wilson and Bex Taylor- Klaus respectively) her grandson (Anson Boon) and best friend (Lindsay Duncan). Confrontations ensue, secrets are revealed and the deep ties that bind family are supposed to get us to an emotional end.

Alas, because the script never goes anywhere unexpected and director Roger Michell shoots with minimal flair it was left to the actors to provide both the pathos and entertainment. Sarandon is commanding and understated playing this woman with a permanent look of resignation and wisdom. Winslet goes into the other direction deciding to give us a CHARACTER. Her imperious and never relaxed older sibling is a mixture of tics and rigid movements. The performance works in fits and starts and she fares better in the many showdowns between the sisters. That’s because Wasikowska is given a sketch of a character. All the cliches of the younger sister; she’s rebellious, lost, deals with substance abuse but all that doesn’t cohere into a recognizable human being stranding Wasikowska in the process. 

Winslet and Wasikowska in Blackbird

For a film dealing with such a weighty subject Blackbird is too slight to leave a mark. The script – credited to Christian Torpe – never tries to make any bold statements relying on a quiet slice of life familial narrative. That might be commendable though it also leads to a rather forgettable film.

Misbehavior is grander and more ambitious in its storytelling and thus more affecting. Set at the !970 Miss World competition in London, the film presents its story through the eyes of four real life characters. 

Knightley and Buckley at the center

First we have two contrasting views from white women fighting for women’s liberation. Sally Alexander (Keira Knightley)  who wants to make change by joining places of male power like academia. Then Jo Robinson (Jessie Buckley) who’s more radical and looking to dismantle all institutions. The contrast is built rather simply as these two women meet and join forces within the same activist group despite opposing tactics. Rebecca Frayn and Gaby Chiappe’s screenplay does not invent the wheel and the scenes where we get to know these two are familiar but also rather engaging. 

The third and perhaps most interesting point of view is introduced later in the film. Gugu Mbatha Raw plays Miss Grenada Jennifer Hosten who becomes the first Black winner of Miss World. The tension comes from Alexander and Robinson leading a disruption during the ceremony to protest how it objectifies women. Hosten and the first ever Black contestant from South Africa Pearl Janssen (Loreece Harrison) are trying to use the competition as a springboard to more opportunities and to inspire young Black girls everywhere. The best scenes are when the women talk to each other; Janssen and Hosten, Robinson and Alexander and finally Hosten and Alexander. It’s all earnest and heartfelt but the actresses bring a sensitivity and understanding that make these scenes touching. The film tries to balance their views and critique both the exploitation of beauty pageants and the sometimes bird view of white feminism. 

Knightley and Mbatha-Raw in Misbehavior

Under prosthetics Gregg Kinnear plays the host Bob Hope presenting the fourth and last point of view. While the filmmakers might have been trying to present the waning world of male entitlement and misogyny with this portrayal it doesn’t add anything insightful to the story. All it does is strand Lesley Manvile in a thankless as his nagging wife, Dolores Hope. I guess they needed to insert a real life famous figure. A more interesting perspective is that of Julia Morley (Keeley Hawes) the wife of the competition’s organizer who recognizes that they must change with the time or become obsolete. I wish the filmmakers beefed up that part instead.

Similar to other small slices of a well known life British movies like last year’s Judy – also with Buckley – Misbehavior is watchable thanks to the charming performances by its leading ladies. Like Blackbird it will be forgotten by next week.

Blackbird is available now in VOD and in select theaters. Misbehavior will be released on September 25.

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Cate Blanchett in ‘Hanna’

The costumes are green, the hair is red and Cate Blanchett is the Wicked Witch in Hanna (2011). Ostensibly a thriller about a teenage assassin, it reveals itself to be a fairytale with a modern twist. For this disscussion, Murtada welcomes back Gavin Mevius, co-host of The Mixed Reviews Podcast . logo-hanna Subscribe:  Apple Podcasts   /   Stitcher   /  Spotify  /   iHeart Follow along Hanna is streaming on HBO / HBO Max. What is the film about? From imdb: “A sixteen-year-old girl who was raised by her father to be the perfect assassin is dispatched on a mission across Europe, tracked by a ruthless intelligence agent and her operatives.” What year did it come out? April 2011. Who does Cate play? Marissa Wiegler; a CIA operative obsessed with find and killing Hanna. A modern version of The Wicked Witch of the West as evidenced by the almost all green wardrobe. How is Cate introduced?  13 minutes in. Waking up, teeth first. Box Office: Domestic = $40,259,119  Int’l = $23,522,959 Critical Response:           Metacritic : 65.              RT: 71.
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Cate Blanchett as the Wicked Wtch coming out of the wolf’s mouth
Topics discussed:
  • It’s a fairytale! Many allusions to that including at the beginning Hanna reading The Grimms Tales, calling Marissa “the witch,” different allusions in the dialogue e.g. “going to grandma’s house,”, a character named Mr. Grimm, the finale with Marissa literally coming out from the mouth of the big bad wolf.
  • Joe Wright – general discussion of his career. He made Pride and Prejudice, Atonement, and The Soloist before Hanna. Anna Karenina, Pan and Darkest Hour after. We discuss Anna Karenina (2012) at length which is streaming on Netflix.
  • Where does this belong in the pantheon of her villain roles which includes Indianna Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull  (2008), Cinderella (2015), Thor: Ragnarok (2017)?
  • Whatever happened to Eric Bana?
  • Saoirse Ronan – is she a Kate Winslet or a Cate Blanchett? She’s been compared to both.
  • Other castmembers: Jessica Barden is delicious. Did you notice Vicky Krieps (Phantom Thread) and Lady Mary from Downton Abbey?
  • Tom Hollander’s enforcer with his short shorts and skinhead sidekicks. Queer, problematic or both? 
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Cate Blanchett as Marissa Wiegler and Saoirse Ronan as Hanna
Costumes: They certainly hone on green as a color motif. Sleek corporate suits. Designed by Giorgio Armani, apparently. “Joe’s vision of Marissa as the Wicked Witch of the story meant that her colors would be red [for her hair] and green [in her attire],” says head costume designer Lucie Bates. Scenes we liked: Subway station fight with Bana and the goons. Hanna’s escape is exciting. Two weird scenes: Hanna afraid of appliances and the introduction of Tom Hollander at his club in Berlin.  Film within context of Cate’s career Filmed within the time she was running the Sydney Theater Company and wasn’t working much in movies. Between 2008 (Benjamin Button) and 2013 (Blue Jasmine) the time she ran STC she only made this film, Robin Hood (2010) and The Hobbit (2012). What reviews said of film / Cate:
“Blanchett is a riot as a Nordstrom-attired, Southern-drawled Brunhilde with scarlet helmet hair and aggressively white teeth, what ultimately makes her so harrowing—and so worthy of punishment—is her childlessness. “I made certain choices,” Marissa says, desperately justifying her careerism, before she buries a bullet in a womb-sanctified old matriarch. Hanna is the one that got away and a genetically enhanced reminder of the miserable fate that awaits the ambitious, the infertile, the dentally preoccupied.”Eric Hynes, The Village Voice.
“Ronan enters with a face nearly as blank as paper and devoid of obvious emotion, her eerie, translucent blue eyes here transformed into opaque pool. You assume or really just hope that those eyes will reveal exciting new depths or a secret of character. That they don’t reveal much is part of the big surprise as well as a liability in a movie that is by turns startling and generic, subtle and blunt, and consistently keeps you in its grip if not its heart.” Manohla Dargis, NY Times.
Press coverage other than reviews: NY Times Magazine interview: “People are always saying they loved me in ‘Titanic.” Promotional appearances:
Blanchett at the Oscars in 2011; a most funny moment
That  famous lilac Givenchy gown she wore to the Oscars was to promote Hanna, which led to the iconic moment captured above.
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