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 ~ Words on Bathroom Walls


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A teenager coping with paranoid schizophrenia hopes his new experimental drug treatment will help him navigate high school and the outside world.

Stars: Charlie Plummer, Taylor Russell, Molly Parker, Walton Goggins, AnnaSophia Robb, Beth Grant,  Andy García,

Director: Thor Freudenthal

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 111 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:  History has not been kind to mental illness or those that have struggled with it and that’s largely due to a lack of information.  We are often scared of what we don’t know or don’t understand.  So many of the disorders that are now easily diagnosed were previously unidentifiable to those outside of a certain circle of doctors and researchers.  Many suffered and were shut away in asylums when they could have received treatment and its with the advancement of science, medications, and plain old discussion that have helped to bring some normalcy to what is often not perceived as typical normal behavior.

There’s a certain trepidation I have when I hear a movie dealing with teen mental illness is coming out because I don’t want it to be given a glossy veneer nor do I want it to be a doom and gloom scare affair.  There needs to be a nice balance that encourages those who may be dealing with a condition to speak to someone without fear of being mocked or made to feel less-than.  I wasn’t familiar with Julia Walton’s 2017 novel Words on Bathroom Walls that screenwriter Nick Naveda has adapted into the new feature film but went in knowing it was going to be tackling a big issue in the area of mental health: schizophrenia.  A number of movies have played the “voices in my head” episodes of psychosis for laughs or as plot devices that further elements of a larger idea but here was a film whose main character spends nearly the entire film finding ways to cope with competing personalities that only he can hear and see.

High school is already a hormone-laced, emotionally confusing time for the average teenager but senior Adam Petrazelli (Charlie Plummer, All the Money in the World) is also dealing with the presence of three distinct personalities that began as voices in his head and now pop up regularly.  Hippie Rebecca (AnnaSophia Robb, The Way, Way Back) appeals to Adam’s more serene side while horndog Joaquin (Devon Bostick, Tuscaloosa) hangs around waiting for the excitement to begin.  It’s when The Bodyguard (Lobo Sebastian, The Mule) gets riled up that things go south though because that signals an episode Adam won’t be able to control is about to take over.  Manifesting in the filmworld as black tendrils of smoke or another CGI effect of questionable quality that interferes with Adam’s ability to go about his day, these episodes make an already demanding schedule that much more difficult.

After losing it and injuring a student at his last school, Adam transfers to a parochial academy for his final year in the hopes of getting his diploma and staring culinary school and starting his dream career as a chef.  His single mom Beth (Molly Parker, The 9th Life of Louis Drax) wants that for him too, but has her reservations after numerous medical trials have failed to stop his manic episodes from happening.  It’s during this time he meets the clever Maya (Taylor Russell, Waves, Escape Room), a fellow senior who, in addition to a nice side business of selling papers and other assorted contraband to her wealthy classmates, is the valedictorian of their class.  Initially resistant to her efforts to peel off his guarded layers for fear she’d uncover his secret, it’s when he finds out certain truths about her own life that he changes direction and opens his heart to her in the process.  With a new man (Walton Goggins, Them That Follow) in his mom’s life and a stern nun (Beth Grant, Flatliners) keeping an eye on him at school, Adam starts a final trial of an experimental drug which silences the voices but may have other consequences that could make the trade-off not worth it in the end.

Director Thor Freudenthal’s feature film representation has largely been in movies aimed at younger audiences (though his television work is definitely more on the violent/dramatic adult side) so he clearly has an established comfort level working with young actors but this represents a real step up in the maturity level.  It did take a bit for the movie to hook me, though, but I attribute that to an ungainly first act that had trouble finding it’s focus and staying in one place for too long.  It’s all exposition to get us to that first meeting between Maya and Adam and that’s when Freudenthal strikes some serious gold.  If Plummer is a convincing, if a bit overly earnest lead, when sharing scenes with Parker and Goggins, he’s made exponentially better when paired with Russell’s sensitive and intuitive classmate and potential love interest.  As she’s done with her galvanizing performance in Waves and even in cheesy schlock like Escape Room, Russell makes bold choices that are often unexpected, never uninteresting.  I also quite liked Parker, an actress that seems to have continued to work steadily in well-reviewed but easy to forget roles…she just needs that one key movie to get her to that next level.  I can’t forget to mention Andy Garcia (Jennifer 8) as a priest Adam has a convivial relationship with where matters of faith don’t enter in.  Garcia’s brief supporting performance is, ahem, spirited and memorable.

Running far too long and clocking in at nearly two hours, I’m still not sure I came out the other side more well-educated to the chronic illness but I found myself watching in appreciation for the frankness in the way the movie handles the final act.  It’s definitely following a long-standing formula set by the high-school movie gods in which normal societal rules don’t apply if you just have to stand up and make a speech, but Words on Bathroom Walls winds up translating from the walls of literature to the screen with a comfort and a qualified quality.  Like another emotional YA film releasing today, Chemical Hearts, it stands in solidarity with those that might need extra support for reasons we may not totally understand.

The Silver Bullet ~ The 9th Life of Louis Drax

-The-9th-Life-Of-Louis-Drax-Poster-the-ninth-life-of-louis-drax-39726647-486-720

Synopsis: A psychologist begins working with a young boy who has suffered a near-fatal fall and finds himself drawn into a mystery that tests the boundaries of fantasy and reality.

Release Date: September 2, 2016

Thoughts: French director Alexandre Aja is known for his more, ahem, extreme work (High Tension, Mirrors, Piranha 3D, Horns), so I was more than a little surprised his name was attached to this big-screen adaptation of Liz Jensen’s 2005 novel.  I mean, there doesn’t seem to be any opportunity for characters to be dispatched of in a most grisly fashion but perhaps The 9th Life of Louis Drax is an attempt to show Aja’s softer side.  Focused on a comatose boy and the secret as to why he’s in his current state, this September release might be a nice return for the carefully constructed mystery genre that’s been dormant for far too long in my book.  Starring Jamie Dornan (Fifty Shades of Grey), Sarah Gadon (Dracula Untold), Aaron Paul (Need for Speed), Barbara Hershey (Insidious: Chapter 2), and Oliver Platt (Flatliners), if Aja can withhold the bloodletting and let the story take center stage he may just have a winner on his hands.