Review: ‘Ride the Eagle,’ starring Jake Johnson, D’Arcy Carden, J.K. Simmons and Susan Sarandon

August 3, 2021

by Carla Hay

Jake Johnson in “Ride the Eagle” (Photo courtesy of Decal)

“Ride the Eagle”

Directed by Trent O’Donnell

Culture Representation: Taking place in California’s Yosemite area and briefly in Los Angeles, the comedy/drama “Ride the Eagle” features a nearly all-white cast of characters (with one Latino and one African American) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A bachelor in his 40s travels to his estranged late mother’s remote house in the Yosemite forest, which he will inherit on the condition that he complete a set of tasks that she has left for him at the house.

Culture Audience: “Ride the Eagle” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching low-budget movies that skillfully blend adult-oriented comedy with heartfelt sentiment.

Susan Sarandon in “Ride the Eagle” (Photo courtesy of Decal)

“Ride the Eagle” presents a charming mix of sweet drama and salty comedy in this story that covers the gamut of reconnecting with the past, appreciating the present, and moving forward from regrets in the future. It’s the type of independent film that proves that you don’t need a big budget or a large cast to have an impactful and entertaining movie. Thanks to admirable acting and the movie’s unfussy tone, a variety of viewers will find it easy to connect with “Ride the Eagle.”

“Ride the Eagle” is the feature-film directorial debut of Trent O’Donnell, whose background has mainly been in directing episodes of comedy TV series, including the 2011-2018 sitcom “New Girl.” O’Donnell co-wrote the “Ride the Eagle” screenplay with “New Girl” co-star Jake Johnson, and they are two of the movie’s producers. Having worked together on “New Girl” seems to have greatly benefited how O’Donnell and Johnson wrote the screenplay, which has a naturalistic flow that doesn’t feel like it was “written by committee.”

In “Ride the Eagle,” Johnson portrays Leif Reinhold, a Los Angeles bachelor musician in his 40s who gets some unexpected news in the beginning of the story. His mother’s longtime friend Missy (played by Cleo King) has shown up at his place to tell him that Leif’s estranged mother Suzanne “Honey” Reinhold (played by Susan Sarandon) has died of cancer. Honey abandoned Leif when he was a child, in order to live a free-spirited hippie lifestyle, and he hasn’t been in contact with her for years.

It’s never revealed in the story who raised Leif (his father is not mentioned), but what’s abundantly clear is that Leif considers his mother to be essentially a stranger. When he gets the news of her death, he doesn’t feel happy or sad. He says several times in the movie that he doesn’t feel much of anything at all about his mother being dead. Leif doesn’t seem to have any other relatives, since no family member except his mother is mentioned in the movie.

Missy has also gone to Leif’s home to tell him that Honey left her cabin-styled house in the remote Yosemite forest for Leif to inherit. There’s only one condition: Leif has to complete a set of tasks that Honey left for him on a list at the house. If he doesn’t complete the tasks, then the house will be sold and the proceeds will go to the charity of Honey’s choice.

Leif doesn’t feel emotionally attached to the house, but he’s intrigued enough to go there to see what the tasks are. His current living situation is also less-than-ideal. He’s been living in a makeshift guest house in his band manager’s backyard. Leif is a loner, and his closest companion is his black Labrador Retriever named Nora.

Before he can go on this trip, Leif has to ask permission from his erratic manager Gorka (played by Luis Fernandez-Gil) to take a day or two off from band rehearsals. There’s a somewhat funny segment where Gorka gets irritated that Leif has woken him up to have this conversation. Leif tells Gorka why he’s taking the trip, Gorka gives Leif the go-ahead, and Gorka assures Leif that he will tell the rest of the band why Leif will be unavailable for the next few days.

Viewers might wonder why Leif (who is a percussionist) doesn’t tell the band himself. But there are hints throughout the movie that Leif is the type of person who doesn’t communicate well if it means he can avoid uncomfortable conversations. Leif’s band members are not seen or heard in the movie, but it’s revealed in he story that Leif is 20 years older than the rest of the people in the band.

With Nora as his travel companion, Leif heads north to Yosemite to check out the house that he might inherit. When he gets inside, he starts looking in the kitchen cabinets and finds them filled with jars of marijuana and other plant-based drugs. Leif doesn’t look too surprised. His mother Honey was a painter, and there are several of her paintings hanging on the house’s walls.

Not long after he arrives at the house, the phone rings. The caller on the other line is a man who angrily asks Leif who he is but the caller won’t identify himself. Leif can barely say anything before the caller starts cussing out Leif and ends the phone call with this threat: “I’m coming for you, fuck boy!”

Leif is taken aback but not too rattled, because he thinks that the caller is probably one of his mother’s weird friends. The caller is later revealed to be someone named Carl (played by J.K. Simmons), who ends up stalking Leif. In the house’s living room, Leif finds folders containing the “to do” lists detailing the tasks that he has to complete. Next to these folders is a VHS tape containing messages to Leif from his mother, who wanted him to see these messages after she died.

The rest of the movie shows Leif going through the list of tasks and having some unexpected experiences along the way. One of the tasks is to take a kayak boat ride by himself, row across the lake, “feel the energy of the water,” and talk about his feelings about Honey’s death. Leif follows the instructions and says aloud: “I feel nothing. Sorry, but we didn’t know each other well enough.”

Another task is to go over to a nearby house while no one is there and leave a note in the back bedroom, and then exit immediately. No one seems to be home in the unlocked house, and Leif still feels uncomfortable being an intruder. He can’t resist the urge to read the note, which says: “Hey, dipshit. I owe you nothing, you rat fuck!”

Just as Leif is about to leave, something fairly predictable happens: He sees a man in a yellow puffer jacket (presumably someone who lives in the house) pass by in a nearby room. Leif manages to escape without getting caught, but viewers see that this mystery man has observed Leif running away from the house. It’s later revealed who this house resident is.

Another instruction for Leif is to contact any ex-love whom he thinks was “the one who got away” and make an apology to that person. Leif doesn’t think he’s ever had a “love of his life,” but the closest person who fits that description is an ex-girlfriend named Audrey (played by D’Arcy Carden), whom he dated for three years back in the early 2000s. Their phone conversation is funny and awkward.

At first, Audrey pretends that she doesn’t remember Leif, but then she lets him know that she’s just joking. It just so happens that Audrey is single too, having recently broken up with someone. And you know what that means: Audrey and Leif aren’t going to have just one phone conversation. However, she’s an eight-hour drive away, so there’s a long-distance issue if they have any type of reunion in person.

Some other things happen in the story (Nora goes missing, the angry caller comes looking for Leif), but there’s not a lot of contrived clutter. Slowly but surely, viewers see that Honey’s pre-recorded video messages and her instructions start to have an effect on Leif. The emotions he closed off from himself about his mother’s abandonment and why he and his mother never reconnected are feelings that he can no longer push aside or ignore during this experience.

All of the principal cast members bring memorable qualities to their roles. Sarandon and Simmons do versions of characters they’ve done on screen many times before (aging hippie for her, hot-tempered grouch for him), but they play these types so well that it looks very natural on screen. Carden’s Audrey character is sarcastically funny and emotionally intelligent in a way that a lot of female love interests are in indie dramedies like is one.

However, Johnson is front and center for the entire story, which wouldn’t work as well without his ability to have relatable humanity in his acting. “Ride the Eagle” succeeds not just because of the screenwriting and directing, but also because of Johnson’s appealing performance as a middle-aged man who has to deal with his wounded inner child. Leif is not an annoying man-child character that’s often found in comedic films because he’s mature enough to understand that people can cut themselves off from family members but can’t really escape from how those family members might have affected them.

Decal released “Ride the Eagle” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on July 30, 2021.

Review: ‘Blackbird’ (2020), starring Susan Sarandon, Kate Winslet, Mia Wasikowska, Sam Neill, Rainn Wilson, Lindsay Duncan, Bex Taylor-Klaus and Anson Boon

September 17, 2020

by Carla Hay

Rainn Wilson, Sam Neill, Bex Taylor-Klaus, Mia Wasikowska, Lindsay Duncan, Susan Sarandon and Anson Boon in “Blackbird” (Photo courtesy of Screen Media Films)

“Blackbird” (2020)

Directed by Roger Michell

Culture Representation: Taking place in the fictional city of Pontsmill, Connecticut, the dramatic film “Blackbird” features an all-white cast of characters representing the upper-middle class.

Culture Clash: Long-simmering resentments cause conflicts during a family gathering for a terminally ill woman who wants to die by euthanasia.

Culture Audience: “Blackbird” will appeal primarily to people who like well-acted dramas about family issues.

Kate Winslet and Mia Wasikowska in “Blackbird” (Photo courtesy of Screen Media Films)

Should people with a terminal disease decide when and how they want to die? It’s an ethical dilemma that has already been decided by Lily Walker, the matriarch of a well-to-do American family. Lily has multiple sclerosis and she wants her doctor husband Paul to give her a lethal dose of medication before her health further declines. The dramatic film “Blackbird” (directed by Roger Michell) is about the family gathering at Lily and Paul’s beach house in the final days that Lily has decided that she’s going to live.

“Blackbird” is a remake of the 2014 Danish film “Silent Heart,” which was written by Christian Torpe, who adapted the movie from his “Silent Heart” novel. Torpe also wrote the screenplay for “Blackbird,” which is a random title for the movie since there’s no blackbird or reference to a blackbird in the story. What’s more important is that it’s a solidly written, well-acted story that isn’t really Oscar-worthy, but it will tug at people’s heartstrings and trigger emotions because there are moments that might remind viewers of their own families.

In “Blackbird” (which takes place in the fictional city of Pontsmill, Connecticut), Lily (played by Susan Sarandon) has already come to terms with how she wants to die. Her attitude, while not exactly jubilant, is rather matter-of-fact and often jokingly sarcastic about her impending death. Lily’s husband Paul (played by Sam Neill) is trying to go about life as “normally” as possible while trying not to let it show too much how much of a heavy emotional burden he has to administer the lethal dose of medication that has been ordered specifically for the euthanasia.

Lily wants to die on her own terms because she’s losing the use of her muscles, while her medical diagnosis is that it will only be a matter of months when she will have to use a feeding tube to eat. The beginning of the movie shows members of Lily and Paul’s immediately family, as well as Lily’s longtime British best friend Liz (played by Lindsay Duncan), gathering at Lily and Paul’s home to say their goodbyes.

The family members who have gathered for this bittersweet reunion include Lily and Paul’s two daughters who are total opposites. Elder daughter Jennifer, or Jen (played by Kate Winslet), is a judgmental control freak who likes her life to be well-planned and orderly—and it bothers her if other people’s lives aren’t in order too. Younger daughter Anna (played by Mia Wasikowska) has a very messy life, including jumping around from job to job and being treated for bipolar disorder. It should come as no surprise that Jen and Anna don’t get along very well and have been estranged for years.

Trying not to get in the middle of this sibling feud are their respective love partners: Jen’s mild-mannered and nerdy husband Michael (played Rainn Wilson) and Anna’s on-again/off-again partner Chris (played by Bex Taylor-Klaus), who appears to be nonbinary. (Taylor-Klaus is nonbinary in real life.) Also at this family reunion is Jen and Michael’s teenage son Jonathan (played by Anson Boon), who’s going through that teenage phase where he’s easily embarrassed and irritated by things his parents say and do. Jonathan (who is about 16 or 17 years old) is a well-behaved, academically talented student, but he wants to be an actor, which is a career choice that he knows his parents won’t like.

The movie does not show how Lily and Paul told their loved ones the news about Lily’s planned euthanasia, but by the time the group has gathered at the house, they all know about it, except for Jonathan. Paul eventually takes Jonathan aside for a private talk to break the news to him. Jonathan is shocked, but he’s willing to accept whatever Lily wants because he loves and respects his grandmother. In fact, Lily is the first person in the family whom Jonathan tells that he wants to be an actor. She encourages him to pursue this goal.

But since this is a drama about a family reunion, it isn’t long before the family friction starts. Jen and Anna haven’t seen each other in some years. While they’re alone together, Jen expresses disappointment that Anna wasn’t at their father’s birthday and at Jonathan’s school recital, even though Jen sent several reminders. Anna said she was too busy and really wanted to be there. However, it’s pretty obvious to observant viewers from Anna’s tone of voice and body language that Anna has been avoiding family gatherings because she doesn’t want to be around Jen.

Jen isn’t shy about expressing her disapproval of Anna being unable to settle on a professional career. (It’s not really stated what Jen does with her life, which makes her morally superior attitude even more insufferable.) When she asks Anna how her dance program is going, Anna tells Jen that she’s dropped out of the program. Jen then scolds Anna for not completing the program, as well as Anna giving up on past attempts to train for jobs in yoga therapy, acupuncture and quilting. These were programs that their parents paid for, so Jen tries to make Anna feel guilty by implying that her parents are wasting their money on Anna.

Jen then proceeds to annoy Anna even more when she admonishes Anna for bringing Chris to this intimate and sensitive family reunion, because Jen had asked Anna not to invite Chris. Anna tells Jen that if Jen can bring her husband Michael to this reunion, then Anna can bring Chris. Anna angrily says to Jen, “Chris happens to my husband.” Jen replies, “Are you sure you’re even gay?”

Jen’s apparent homophobia isn’t the only reason why she doesn’t approve of Anna and Chris’ relationship. Anna and Chris (who are dating but don’t live together) have had a rocky romance, and Jen thinks Chris is a lower-class person who isn’t a good fit for their family. Unfortunately, as Jen is telling Anna about how Chris isn’t worthy of being part of their family, Chris walks into the room and overhears this part of the conversation, and then walks out of the room embarrassed.

And as if Jen couldn’t be more condescending and insulting, she tells Anna: “Can you give Mom this whole weekend and not have it revolve around you, Anna?” At this point, Anna has had enough of Jen’s lectures and explodes: “Can you quit being a fucking bitch?”

Of course, there are more arguments that take place, as is typical for movies about family reunions. Most of the conflicts revolve around Anna and Jen. Anna confides in Chris that she secretly plans to prevent Lily’s euthanasia by calling 911 to report a suicide attempt. Why? Because Anna doesn’t want Lily to die and she wants to spend more time with her mother to make up for time that they spent apart.

And since this is a movie about family reunions, it has the usual trope about secrets being revealed. One thing that’s not a secret is that Liz used to date Paul, before Paul ever met Lily. What is a secret, which Liz and Lily (who used to be free-spirited hippies) discuss while they walk on the beach together, is that back in the early ’70s, they made a drunken attempt to become lesbian lovers, but it didn’t work out. They have a laugh about it all these years later.

The family has gathered in November, close to Thanksgiving, but one of Lily’s last wishes is that they have their Christmas celebration early. She asks Paul to make the Christmas dinner and Michael to go outside and cut down a small tree that will be used for Christmas decorations. This family dinner, where Lily gives everyone a personal gift from her, is one of the best scenes in the movie. Sensitive viewers should have tissues on hand for this tearjerking moment.

With this high caliber of talent in the cast, it’s no surprise that the acting in the movie is top-notch. It’s a story that could easily be adapted into a play, since most of the action takes place inside the house. The beach setting (the movie was actually filmed in Chichester, England, not Connecticut) is lovely, but it’s not very essential to the story.

As good as the acting is in the movie, “Blackbird” doesn’t quite have what it takes to be a movie worthy of a lot of prestigious awards. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the movie, but so much of the “family reunion when someone is dying” aspect has been done before in a familiar manner in other movies, that there’s nothing extraordinary about the way that “Blackbird” tells this type of story. It’s not exactly like a formulaic “disease of the week TV movie,” but the character development is lacking in some ways.

The men in the movie are written as incomplete sketches who mostly react to what the strong-willed women in the family (Lily and Jen) want. Paul essentially admits that he’s just carrying out Lily’s demands, when he tells Liz in a private conversation that people who decide to die by euthanasia are rarely insane or depressed, but they are “deeply controlling.” Jonathan isn’t quite a man yet, but his personality is also fairly generic. He shows typical signs of teen rebellion to both of his parents, but he’s willing to please his beloved grandmother Lily.

The conflicts between Jen and Anna suck up a lot of the emotions in the story, which leaves little room for viewers to really get to know Paul and Michael and what they are feeling. Anna and Jen’s love/hate relationship with each other often leaves Chris feeling like a helpless outsider, since Chris has been dating Anna off and on for about three years, and the issues between Anna and Jen have been going on much longer than that. Lily’s unconditional acceptance of Chris goes a long way in how Jen eventually warms up to Chris. There’s a very good scene that Chris and Jen have together where they confront the awkward family tension that has existed between them.

“Blackbird” isn’t a perfect film, but it realistically raises issues that will make people think about what they would do if someone in their family chose euthanasia as a way to die. How much time would be enough time to prepare the family? What grudges can or can’t be resolved before the loved one dies? And what if someone in the family objects to the euthanasia and wants to stop it, even if it means getting family members into legal trouble? There are no easy answers to these questions, but “Blackbird” is a compelling look at how a fictional family deals with these very real and emotionally complicated dilemmas.

Screen Media Films, in association with Fathom Events, released “Blackbird” in select U.S. cinemas for two nights of previews on September 14 and September 15, 2020. The movie expands to more U.S. cinemas and is available on VOD on September 18, 2020.

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