Movie Review ~ Pieces of a Woman

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The Facts
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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.

31 Days to Scare ~ Winchester: The House That Ghosts Built (Trailer)

Synopsis: Inspired by true events. On an isolated stretch of land 50 miles outside of San Francisco sits the most haunted house in the world. Built by Sarah Winchester, heiress to the Winchester fortune, it is a house that knows no end, an asylum for hundreds of vengeful ghosts, and the most terrifying among them have a score to settle with the Winchesters…

Release Date: February 2, 2018

Thoughts: There’s truly nothing like a Dame to give some extra class to what could wind up being another ordinary haunted house flick. The first trailer for Winchester: The House That Ghosts Built is surely edited to provide audiences a loud and jarring viewing with cliché scares and ominous warnings.  Often, this is a sign that there’s not much to the film overall but gosh, I dunno, something about the participation of Helen Mirren (Woman in Gold) just tells me there’s a corker of a movie waiting for us in 2018.  Directed by The Spierig Brothers (soon to have their Jigsaw unleashed on moviegoers and who were behind the excellent but little seen Predestination) and co-starring Jason Clarke (The Great Gatsby) and Sarah Snook (The Dressmaker), it’s time we had a darn good haunted house movie.  Let this one be more original than its trailer suggests!

Movie Review ~ The Dressmaker

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A glamorous woman returns to her small town in rural Australia. With her sewing machine and haute couture style, she transforms the women and exacts sweet revenge on those who did her wrong.

Stars: Kate Winslet, Liam Hemsworth, Hugo Weaving, Sarah Snook, Judy Davis, Caroline Goodall

Director: Jocelyn Moorhouse

Rated: R

Running Length: 119 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: Watching The Dressmaker made me think back to a different time…not just the time when the haute couture fashions on display were commonplace but just a hop and a skip back to the mid 90s. That’s when there was a big influx of films imported from down under, mostly wacky comedies like Muriel’s Wedding and The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and dramas such as Shine. There’s just some particular Australian sensibility that plays like a genre unto itself, a fearlessness to sketch outsider characters that don’t have to be sympathetic or hyper-broad to engage us.

I’d almost forgotten about The Dressmaker, having posted my thoughts on its preview over a year ago. When its October 2015 release date passed, I all but put it out of my mind…save for a nagging worry in wondering why it didn’t open stateside as planned. Either I had the dates wrong or the pushback was deliberate because there’s certainly nothing wrong with this dark dramedy that scored a record 13 nominations at the Australian Oscars (that’s 1 more than Mad Max: Fury Road received, by the by).

The rural Australian outback is likened to our Old West and that ties in nicely with The Dressmaker’s operatic overtones. While it’s not an outright Western and there’s no horses, spittoons, or cowboy hats on display the film is very much in that vein, delighting in its revenge tale and maximizing the mystery surrounding a woman returning to town with a score to settle.

Arriving without notice in her one horse town in the dead of night, Tilly’s (Kate Winslet, Labor Day) first line, “I’m back you bastards.”, is delivered through an exhale of crisp cigarette smoke. It’s clear something bad happened here and through a series of flashbacks Tilly’s history with the town and its secrets comes to light. But first…there’s work to be done.

Her first stop is to the ramshackle house on the hill where her aged mother lives. Not recognizing her glamorous daughter at first (and continuing to deny knowing her long after she connects the dots), Molly (Judy Davis) gets scrubbed up and her clap trap home receives a good cleaning. The town is full of gossips, busybodies, crooked councilmen, and an array of other tightly wired curiosities…none of which are the least bit happy to see Tilly’s return. The only folk showing some interest is Teddy (Liam Hemsworth, The Expendables 2, dreamy to look at but at least a decade too young to play Winslet’s peer) and the cross-dressing town sergeant (Hugo Weaving, Cloud Atlas) who gets the first big laugh of the film with an unexpected exclamation.

Though they still prefer to keep her at a distance, Tilly’s transformative way with a needle and thread revitalizes the fickle women of the town who are willing to let bygones be bygones as long as they look good doing it. The past comes back to haunt them all, though, when old scars are opened and fresh wounds revealed, culminating in an unusually satisfying finale that successfully ties off a whole host of loose ends.

With her impressive Australian accent, Winslet fits right in as a woman who sticks out. Her fair white skin is a perfect contrast to the weather beaten sun scorched faces of a past clan she’s left behind but can’t quite escape. Weaving and Caroline Goodall are lively while Sarah Snook (Jessabelle) transforms from an ugly duckling to a glamorous swan with a dark side. The movie truly belongs to Davis, though, in a performance that deserves major award recognition. Nailing each laugh and then some, she’s the one you’ll be watching whenever she’s onscreen.

If there’s fault here, it’s that director Jocelyn Moorhouse (adapting the screenplay from the novel by Rosalie Ham) lets the film go on longer than it has to. Reaching its first climax about 75 minutes in, there’s still 45 more minutes for the wheels to grind and sputter before finding some fire as it leads up to the finale. All in all, it’s a minor problem to have when the rest of the elements are so solid. The Dressmaker hasn’t arrived in the US with much fanfare but here’s hoping that, like it’s heroine, it sneaks up on audiences in most surprising ways.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Dressmaker

dressmaker

Synopsis: A glamorous woman returns to her small town in rural Australia. With her sewing machine and haute couture style, she transforms the women and exacts sweet revenge on those who did her wrong.

Release Date: October 29, 2015

Thoughts: Be warned, while I’ve yet to read Rosalie Ham’s novel on which this is based, this first look at The Dressmaker seems heavy on spoilers…a troubling pattern in previews lately.  If you’d rather wait for the finished product arriving on US shores in late 2015, you’ll be treated to a period drama set in the Australian outback starring Kate Winslet (Labor Day) as a woman returning home with a vengeance.  This seems more dark comedy than dark drama, a perfect fit for Winslet’s considerable talent.  Though I’m a bit leery that Jocelyn Moorhouse is at the helm having recently made it only halfway through her treacly 1995 misfire How to Make an American Quilt, I’m encouraged that the script comes courtesy of her husband, director P.J. Hogan who was responsible for the delightfully droll Muriel’s Wedding (and the less droll My Best Friend’s Wedding).  Still, any occasion for Winslet to appear onscreen is reason to celebrate, and she’s joined by Liam Hemsworth (The Expendables 2), Hugo Weaving (Cloud Atlas), an unrecognizable Judy Davis, and an actress everyone should be taking notice of…Sarah Snook (Jessabelle).

The Silver Bullet ~ Steve Jobs

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Synopsis: Set backstage at three iconic product launches and ending in 1998 with the unveiling of the iMac, the film takes us behind the scenes of the digital revolution to paint an intimate portrait of the brilliant man at its epicenter.

Release Date:  October 9, 2015

Thoughts: Less than two years after another biopic of the late Apple wunderkind was released, another look into the life of Steve Jobs is coming our way.  After the cool reception and workmanlike effort of Jobs, I was wondering if we actually needed another film on the same life so soon.  Turns out, we did.

The first trailer for Steve Jobs is out and looks like something to get, if not excited by, then overly interested in.  Directed by Danny Boyle (Trance) from a script penned by Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network), the film is comprised of just three scenes set at the unveiling of key products that Jobs had a hand in creating.  A bold structure to be sure but it’s different enough than the earlier film that any comparison will hopefully just be on who did the better interpretation of several key characters.  Though Leonardo DiCaprio (The Wolf of Wall Street) was set to reteam with his The Beach director Boyle, another film (Revenant) took him from the project.  Replacing him is Michael Fassbender (Prometheus) and he looks like a better fit anyway…and let’s not forget Kate Winslet (Divergent), Seth Rogen (The Guilt Trip), and Sorkin favorite Jeff Daniels (Arachnophobia) are part of the team as well.

The Silver Bullet ~ Jessabelle

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Synopsis: Returning to her childhood home in Louisiana to recuperate from a horrific car accident, Jessabelle comes face to face with a long-tormented spirit that has been seeking her return — and has no intention of letting her escape.

Release Date: August 29, 2014

Thoughts: Go ahead and roll your eyes at the trailer for this horror film set for a late summer 2014 release. Done? OK…well this one looks nice and spooky and I’m liking what the people at Blumhouse (The Purge, Insidious) are putting out: effective shockers that aren’t populated with huge casts or complicated locations. This bayou-set scare fest may not find itself on any list of classic horror but I’m always willing to give these films the benefit of the doubt thanks to a noble dedication to continuing to make audiences scream at those things that go bump in the night.