Movie Review ~ Pieces of a Woman

1


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A heartbreaking home birth leaves a woman grappling with the profound emotional fallout, isolated from her partner and family by a chasm of grief.

Stars: Vanessa Kirby, Shia LaBeouf, Ellen Burstyn, Molly Parker, Sarah Snook, Iliza Shlesinger, Benny Safdie, Jimmie Fails

Director: Kornél Mundruczó

Rated: R

Running Length: 127 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  Most of the time, I enjoy going in blind to movies and not knowing quite what I’m getting myself into.  It helps keep the experience fresh and expectations at a minimum, allowing the movie to stand on its own two feet and make the best impression based on my gut reaction to it.  There are times, however, when being tipped off to something that may be hard to watch is welcome and the older I get the more I appreciate these small hints to buckle up and prepare.  While not delving into full spoiler territory, I often will let you, dear reader, in on these moments as well because I know that many of you find value in these ‘heads up’ warnings so you can decide on your own if the movie is right for you as a whole or if it’s just one section you need to grapple with.  There is power in decision making…and it’s only a movie, after all.

Chances are, if you’re keeping any kind of track on the film world these days (and at this point who isn’t starved for any kind of soapy awards talk) you’ve heard Pieces of a Woman mentioned and its harrowing opening.  Prior the title even being shown, there’s a solid thirty minutes of prologue featuring a traumatic home birth that is shot in excruciatingly real detail, casting the viewer as a voyeur on an event that will change the lives of a young couple and their midwife forever.  It’s agonizing to watch but brilliantly performed by star Vanessa Kirby (Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw) along with Shia LeBeouf as her husband and the wonderful Molly Parker playing a substitute midwife called on to fill in at the last minute.  Though its meant to look like one shot, I’m not entirely convinced it was done in one take…but it’s impressive nonetheless the way it all unfolds in a short span of time.

Adapting their multi-media stage production first produced in Poland, director Kornél Mundruczó and writer Kata Wéber translate the work to the screen with a fierce intensity in these opening moments, creating a scene we can’t look away from even though we know what’s coming.  Though we get the briefest glimpse of what their life is before that fateful evening (she has some vague office job, he’s a blue collar construction worker in the middle of a bridge build, both feel the judgmental weight of her wealthy mother who holds money over them as means of control), it’s that one night that comes to define them for the rest of the movie.  I suppose that that’s why the film is never as successful after those first thirty minutes, despite Kirby’s supersonic performance throughout and Ellen Burstyn’s (Lucy in the Sky) dynamic turn as her brittle mother facing her own shortcomings through her daughter’s personal loss.

I wish I could tell you more about Pieces of a Woman but there’s just not that much to it after it comes out guns a blazing.  It’s a lengthy film, though, and Mundruczó and Wéber disappointingly fill the majority of it with the standard themes of a marriage falling apart before our eyes.  A union unraveling after the loss of a child isn’t all that uncommon in film so there has to be some kind of hook to it that sets it apart but there’s not enough meat to go around for everyone, especially with an actor like LeBeouf circling the herd and hungry.  While he manages to inch back into good graces with illuminating turns in films like The Peanut Butter Falcon, LeBeouf’s acting is becoming more troublesome to watch.  Though he’s cast as a bit of a louse who apparently got his crap together with help from his wife, it’s unsettling in light of recent events in the actor’s personal life to see him get aggressive with Kirby’s character, not that she intimidates easily.

In all honesty, the film works best when it’s solely following Kirby and cuts out LeBeouf completely.  Her journey throughout the film is the most intriguing and special, anyway.  Everyone expects Kirby’s character Martha to grieve in a particular way and when she doesn’t, treats her like she’s doing it wrong…which only infuriates her more.  It all comes to a head in a grand scene between mother and daughter that is bound to net both Kirby and Burstyn well-deserved Oscar nominations when the time comes around.  Until this point in her career, Kirby has played second (or third) fiddle in her projects but she’s in first position here and commands the screen at all times.  She’s closely followed by Burstyn who, after all these years in the business, still finds a way to create a character that may have limited screen time but has a backstory that could fill volumes.

Aside from those leads, Mundruczó has shown a curiously strong instinct for casting.  Comedian Iliza Shlesinger (The Opening Act) is primarily known for her raunchy specials but plays it straight and looks remarkably like Kirby…I 100% believed they were sisters and Burstyn’s adult children.  Uncut Gems co-director/writer Bennie Safdie takes a turn in front of the camera as Kirby’s brother-in-law and the director does quite nicely with his role.  There’s not a lot for the usually dependable Sarah Snook (The Dressmaker) to do but as a family member/lawyer, she still gets a prime opportunity to get entangled in the family drama in more ways than one.  In her short time on camera, Parker (Words on Bathroom Walls) has to make a big enough impression so that we remember key pieces of info for later on in the movie when she becomes a focus of a public witch hunt.  While it leads to the film’s least realistic yet strangely satisfying sequence, it does get the three most interesting actors (Kirby, Parker, and Burstyn) very nearly in the same shot.

With 2020 turning out the way that it has, it’s nice to continue to celebrate strong female roles like the ones delivered by Kirby and Burstyn but I can understand if Pieces of a Woman is too much for some to take on.  Between the pain of watching the opening sequence unfold, especially for those that have suffered the loss of a child, and any unease that could be triggered by watching LeBeouf considering some unpleasant allegations leveled against him recently by his ex-girlfriend, this has a lot of reasons why it would be a challenge to queue up to.  I’d encourage you to consider it though, because Kirby’s performance is pretty amazing and the more I sit with Burstyn’s the more I’m convinced it’s one of her greatest onscreen roles.  If only the film were more about them…and shorter.  Much shorter.

Movie Review ~ Uncut Gems


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A charismatic jeweler makes a high-stakes bet that could lead to the windfall of a lifetime. In a precarious high-wire act, he must balance business, family and adversaries on all sides in pursuit of the ultimate win.

Stars: Adam Sandler, Julia Fox, Idina Menzel, Lakeith Stanfield, Judd Hirsch, Eric Bogosian

Director: Benny Safdie, Joshua Safdie

Rated: R

Running Length: 135 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  I feel like I usually start some of these review posts with “I was too old for” or “This was before my time” but today I get to say that I’m the perfect age to remember when Adam Sandler rose from a popular utility player on Saturday Night Live to a blockbuster movie star.  Happening almost by chance if you really think about it, his dimbulb comedies that played on his goofball charms became quotable and rewatchable fluff that made Sandler millions but didn’t exactly endear him to critics.  Audiences and studio heads loved him but his movies became 90 minutes to fear for reviewers as the years went on.  Truth be told, the quality took a nosedive as well the more Sandler looped in (and relied on) his stable of friends.

Efforts to go straight netted good feedback, like 2002’s Punch Drunk Love and, to a lesser extent 2004’s Spanglish.  In these films it was evident that when Sandler took himself seriously there was something more to him than silly Cajun accents and arrested development man-child characters.  Yet he always fell back on these easy riffs, making it difficult to figure out what he really wanted to do with his career.  A recent multi-million dollar deal with Netflix gave him freedom to create his own projects and the results…haven’t been spectacular.  Only a slight caper comedy, Murder Mystery earlier in 2019, had some spring to its step and that was largely due to costar Jennifer Aniston dragging Sandler along.

So why are we back at the tail end of 2019 again talking about Sandler?  Well, after gaining considerable attention for his work in 2017’s serio-comic The Meyerowitz Stories with director Noah Baumbach (Marriage Story), he’s teamed up with another buzzy director (actually directors) for Uncut Gems and not only has it brought Sandler the best notices of his career but it might just earn him an Oscar nomination.  He’s already picked up numerous critical acclaim, a few early awards, and a handful of nominations in upcoming ceremonies but the real test will be if Academy voters can look past the dreck he’s participated in and appreciate what he’s put into his performance here.

Howard Ratner (Sandler, Blended) is in trouble.  It’s 2012 and he’s in debt up to his ears.  Borrowing money from one person to pay another, his life is in a constant state of motion of over the counter offers and drop in deals where his bad investments and gambling has put a target on his back.  Operating as a jeweler in the Diamond District of New York City, he thinks his luck is about to change with his acquisition of an uncut opal just arrived from Africa he plans to put up for auction.  Unable to resist showing off his nest egg, when an recruiter (Lakeith Stanfield, Knives Out) Howard pays under-the-table snags basketball superstar Kevin Garnett (playing himself, admirably) and brings him by to look at some merchandise, Howard lets the opal out of his sight…and that’s when things start to go downhill rapidly.

Balancing an estranged wife (Idina Menzel, Frozen II) and a mistress (Julia Fox) with her own eccentricities and complications, Howard spends the next days tracking his opal while staying ahead of a swarm of the NY loan shark underbelly that have come to collect.  His brother-in-law (Eric Bogosian, The Stuff) and his henchmen are ones he’s most wary of, for good reason, and a tense family dinner masks the deadly animosity present between the two men.  As the auction draws near and Howard continues to make wrong turns that get him deeper into the dirt, can he right his sinking ship without taking others down with him?

Written and directed by brothers Benny and Joshua Safdie, I suspect audiences will respond to Uncut Gems the way they viewed most of Sandler’s earlier comedies, with a mixture of exasperation and exhilaration…but for different reasons.  This is 135 minutes of stress for Howard and, in effect, the viewer as we are sitting right on his shoulder throughout.  With an almost voyeuristic nature, we watch as Howard interacts with all manner of people that work around the Diamond District.  I’m not sure, but I’d bet many of the people appearing in these scenes actually worked in the stores where the scenes were filmed.  There’s an authenticity to the dialogue (it has to have taken the prize for most uses of f**k in 2019) that almost instantly lends credibility to the film and Sandler in particular.

As indicated by the advance notices, Sandler is remarkable.  Though playing a character hard to root for because you see him making the wrong turn five blocks ahead of the street sign, there’s a charisma he lends Howard where you can’t totally write him off.  A scene late in the film where he explains himself exposes a openness that doesn’t soften him so much as documents the path some vulnerable people take when their self-destruction goes unnoticed for too long.  There’s a burden this character carries from the moment we meet him, you can almost see it weighing him down the minute he appears on screen and Sandler keeps that sense of needing to unload right through to the end.  It’s real follow through and a mature performance from someone that has peddled so long in immaturity.

In addition to Sandler, there’s several supporting performances of note.  I wasn’t familiar with Fox before this film but you can bet she’ll be turning up on Hollywood’s radar after enough people have seen this.  Taking what could have been a thankless cliché riddled role and making it far more complex, Fox might first seem intrusive to the proceedings in the first hour (which is intentional, I think) but hold fast, the wait for her usefulness is worth it.  On the other side of the wedding ring, Menzel is dynamite as Howard’s annoyed wife who can’t wait to divorce her cheating husband and just wishes she could tell more people about it.  Known more for her stage work and voicing the Frozen films, Menzel impresses big time in her first substantial dramatic role in front of the camera.

I don’t think Sandler will have a problem getting critics to see his performance in Uncut Gems but I’m wondering if his longtime fans will turn out to see him put his ribald routine to the side, at least for the moment. (His next film is titled the not-promising Hubie Halloween and is directed by Steven Brill who has been behind the camera for numerous Sandler gigs).  He’s amassed a new generation of fans via Netflix, hopefully they’re willing to follow him into this new-ish territory and my wish for Sandler is that he sees how green the grass is on the serious side of the street.  Even if he makes a movie like Uncut Gems for every two dumb comedies he makes, I think we’ll have made some progress.