Movie Review ~ Pieces of a Woman

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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 ~ The Tax Collector


The Facts
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Synopsis: A “tax collector” for a crime lord finds his family’s safety compromised when his boss’s old rival shows up in LA and upends his business.

Stars: Bobby Soto, Cinthya Carmona, Shia LaBeouf, Jose Conejo Martin, Cheyenne Rae Hernandez, Lana Parrilla, Elpidia Carrillo, George Lopez, Jimmy Smits

Director: David Ayer

Rated: R

Running Length:

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review:  For a while there, it seemed like David Ayer was going to make a nice name for himself as the go-to guy for macho man filmmaking that had a rare crossover appeal to a larger audience.  Beginning as the screenwriter of U-571 and the original The Fast and The Furious before hitting the A-list scripting Denzel Washington’s Oscar-winning Training Day, Ayer directed two under the radar features before scoring big in 2012.  That’s the year End of Watch debuted and it gave Ayer the chance to marry his hard-nosed storylines with a superior ability for creating high tension sequences.   His follow-ups, both released in 2014, were was the lesser but still strong Arnold Schwarzenegger starrer Sabotage and Fury, the Brad Pitt tank film that should have garnered more acclaim than it did.

So you’d understand why it was with more than a modicum of excitement that I began to look forward to Ayer taking the reins of the newest DC Comics adaptation, Suicide Squad in 2018.  A darker version of The Avengers (another comic book team I had no real knowledge of before their big screen debut), this was a star-studded film set to be a franchise starting blockbuster.  Understanding what little I did about the Suicide Squad, it seemed like a perfect fit for Ayer’s grimier aesthetics which led to genuine interest that soon turned to fear when it was announced the film would be rated PG-13 instead of the assumed R.  When it was released, it was, as feared, a neutered piece of gaudy garbage that didn’t resemble anything Ayer had done before and what I’d hope he never do again.  Aside from 2017’s Bright, another critically lambasted film released on Netflix that still managed to get the service to sign Ayer to a sequel that’s in development (Suicide Squad was so bad Warner Brothers is already rebooting it as The Suicide Squad in 2021), the director has been largely silent since his Squad goals were squandered away.

I was hesitant at first to get my hopes up that Ayer’s latest feature would be the kind of true return to form the writer/director sorely needed to get himself back into the game.  After all, The Tax Collector sort of snuck up on everyone and is arriving in the middle of this pandemic crisis which hasn’t afforded it much in the way of publicity aside.  In fact, aside from a few mentions in the gossip blogs about co-star Shia LaBeouf getting a rather large tattoo on his chest in preparation for the film, I didn’t even know this movie existed before the link came my way to watch.  While it’s nice to report that his new film returns Ayer to a space that he feels more comfort in and characters that could almost in habit the same universe as those in his previous features, it’s ultimately a too-familiar retread that wallows in its gratuitous violence.

The urban streets of L.A. are the main stage of Ayer’s action in The Tax Collector, which focuses on David Cuevas (Bobby Soto, The Quarry) and his extended family and associates who are caught up in the violent sprawl of a criminal organization teetering on the brink of upheaval.   David and his partner Creeper (Le Beouf, The Peanut Butter Falcon) are responsible for making sure the streets gangs in their neighborhood are staying up to date on their “taxes” which are owed to Wizard, the jailed crime lord that keeps them safe.  Those that fail to pay or are delinquent have to answer to Creeper, a cauliflower-eared, easily-angered powder keg of a live wire that contrasts nicely with David’s more serene yet still serious de facto leader.

When Conejo, (Jose Conejo Martin) an enemy from Wizard’s past, returns and tests David’s allegiance, it sets off a series of bloody events which play out with frightening clarity under the cinematography of Salvatore Totino.  As Conejo continues to apply pressure to David and Creeper via various horrific methods, it forces the men into a corner where they’ll have to either join him or fight him and there can only be one survivor in the end.  No one is ever safe in Ayer’s films and The Tax Collector is no different; characters are brutally dispatched, many of whom would normally survive in typically Hollywood-happy style films.  For that, you have to admire Ayer’s willingness to buck trends but the film is so grotesquely violent that the longer the movie runs the less you want to watch because it becomes so unpleasant.

Part of me wonders if that’s sort of the point Ayer is trying to make.  Maybe that we care when certain characters die is a good thing because either he’s done his job or the actor has done their job…or both.  If you felt nothing toward the person and their part of the story, you would have little reaction to their fateful demise and while that may be letting Ayer’s bloodlust off with a slight tap on the wrist it’s an angle to at least be examined.  On the other hand, a movie that spirals into something as troubling as this does begins to work against itself by alienating its audience away, possibly inspiring them to stop watching all together.  No bones about it, this is a hard one to get through and you’ll have to gird your loins to maneuver through Ayer’s hellish final reel that pulls all the disgusting stops out and takes no prisoners.

Though LeBeouf is featured heavily in the trailer and marketing materials, he’s predominately a supporting character with the lead role tipping in favor of Soto.  Soto is cast well and while it takes him a bit to get going (same goes for the movie) by the time he’s educating a new gang leader on the procedure of what he does and what his expectations are, you’re bound to be paying attention.  His descent from provider/family man to man on a hell-bent mission is a believable journey and he draws energy from LeBeouf who also is largely on target as a right-hand man that’s OK with getting his hands dirty.  Though the role could be seen as problematic as the only white person in a cast of Latino/Latinx actors, he hasn’t been cast against race so that issue is moot.  (It should be noted that the infamous tattoo is seen for a split second…was it really worth it, Shia?) Newcomer Conejo Martin is totally terrifying as the demonic psychopath after David and his organization, as is Cheyenne Rae Hernandez as a female version of LeBeaouf’s character that works for the enemy.  The only actor that struggles to convince is Cinthya Carmona as David’s wife which is too bad because she’s such a pivotal role as the movie progresses.

Bound to be seen as another minor entry in Ayer’s directorial career, The Tax Collector at least earns him back some street cred that he lost when he made Suicide Squad.  I know much of the failure of that film was the result of the studio meddling with the final cut but you can’t completely excuse Ayer for how that turned out.  While this isn’t a great film or even a really good one if I’m being completely honest, there are enough intriguing pieces one can gather to make the viewing experience not a complete waste of time if you have the nerves to get through it.

Movie Review ~ The Peanut Butter Falcon


The Facts
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Synopsis: A young boy with Down Syndrome runs away to fulfill his dream of becoming a professional wrestler.

Stars: Dakota Johnson, Bruce Dern, Shia LaBeouf, Zack Gottsagen, John Hawkes, Thomas Haden Church, Jon Bernthal

Director: Tyler Nilson & Mike Schwartz

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 93 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: Coming off a summer chock full of movies that seemed to only love us for our money, it would be easy to approach The Peanut Butter Falcon with a tiny bit of wariness.  Is this character-driven drama really asking us to just sit back and enjoy ourselves?  Shouldn’t we be figuring out what supporting players will be getting their own franchise spin-off or deciding whether or not to stay until the lights come up in case we miss any post-credit stingers?  Don’t we need to steel ourselves to debate with our friends and followers the merits of how well the screenwriter and director have brought a beloved character from the page to the screen?  Not so fast.  It’s with a grateful heart I can say that originality and a tender spirit are the key ingredients in this sweet film that has no ulterior motives.

I have to admit, when I first heard of this film the title didn’t exactly set my world on fire because I couldn’t ever seem to remember if it was a kids movie or not.  I kept getting it confused with 1985’s The Peanut Butter Solution which, incidentally, was the first flick to include a Celine Dion song. Anyway, I hadn’t heard anything about The Peanut Butter Falcon because it largely flew under the radar on its way into theaters, buoyed by a strong performance at the 2019 South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin, TX.  I also should be up front and say I outright skipped several advanced screenings of it in favor of other more mainstream films but the good buzz on this kept coming back my way and so I turned a movie night with a friend into an opportunity to see what the low hum hype was all about.

Without a family to care for him, 22-year old Zack (Zack Gottsagen) lives in a North Carolina nursing home where he is looked after by Eleanor (Dakota Johnson, Suspiria) and shares a room with Carl (Bruce Dern, The Hateful Eight), a wily man over a half century older than he is.  Far too young to live the rest of his life surrounded by old people, Zack dreams of becoming a professional wrestler and train with his idol, the Salt Water Redneck (Thomas Haden Church, Hellboy).  Though a high functioning man with Down syndrome, Zack doesn’t have the resources to live on his own so, for the time, being he has to stay where he is.  After a botched escape attempt, Eleanor cracks down on Zack and finally puts bars on his window to prevent him from stealing away when no one is looking.

Nearby, local fisherman Tyler (Shia LeBeouf, Lawless) has gotten into trouble again for fishing without a license and winds up vandalizing the equipment of Duncan, a thorny shoreman (John Hawkes, Lincoln) that doesn’t forgive and forget.  Escaping in a boat and pursued through the marsh by the angry fisherman, Tyler discovers Zack has stowed away on his boat, having escaped from the retirement home in the middle of the night with a little help from Carl.  Though lone-wolf Tyler has plans to start over in Florida, he can’t leave Zack behind and finds some purpose and promise of redemption in helping him get to the wrestling school…even if it means a few extra days of avoiding potential violence from Duncan and his henchman.

Reviews have mentioned Tyler and Zack’s journey to the home of the Salt Water Redneck as a modern day Huckleberry Finn tale, something Mark Twain would have had great fun writing, and that comparison isn’t wholly off the mark.  Heck, at one point the two men even build a raft and sail down the river like the characters in Twain’s stories often did.  When Eleanor tracks them down and makes the duo a trio, it adds a new dimension to an already intriguing premise.  Along the way they meet a blind man of faith that affords the film some honest-to-goodness soul stirring passages and eventually come to their destination which might actually be the start of another journey altogether.

Writer/directors Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz have a little gem on their hands here and they’ve given it a fine polish.  While the story might feel the slightest bit warmed over treacle at times, there are enough moments that subvert the expected and yield something more interesting.  Though Johnson sinks believably into the role of an invested caregiver to Zack, the script wants her to take on another role for Tyler’s benefit that doesn’t feel as well-developed and certainly not as warranted.  Thus, Eleanor starts to feel shoe-horned into the latter half of the film, like Nilson and Scharwartz expanded the role once Johnson signed on.

The best parts of the movie are watching Gottsagen and LeBeouf converse and react off of each other.  I’m not sure how much of what is presented was the result of improv between the two or scripted developments but there’s a lightness and geniality to their quickly developed friendship that feels authentic.  LeBeouf, often given to going too far inward in his roles, is fairly fantastic here, haunted by memories of his late brother (Jon Berenthal, The Accountant) and clearly far adrift in his life.   Gottsagen, too, is an electric presence onscreen and by the time the movie reaches it’s apex we’ve fallen for his character so much that we want everything to go his way.  Separately, the actors are absorbing but together they are dynamite.

Though Nilson and Schwartz biff the ending a bit with some confusing narrative choices and a final shot that I outright disliked, what came before it was an incredibly winning and rewarding night at the movies.  It’s another film that, I feel, will play better at home because it feels like it wants to find a place in your heart.  With it’s rich soundtrack and down home charm, I can easily see why this understated film appealed to the crowds that flock to the Texas film fest and why it’s proving to be an appetizing alternative to audiences at the end of their summer blockbuster rope.

The Silver Bullet ~ Fury

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fury

Synopsis: April, 1945. As the Allies make their final push in the European Theatre, a battle-hardened army sergeant commands a Sherman tank and her five-man crew on a deadly mission behind enemy lines.

Release Date: October 17, 2014

Thoughts: I still stand by my claim that director David Ayer’s End of Watch was one of the truly underrated films of 2012 and though he didn’t quite continue that wave of success with Sabotage earlier this year I’m willing to forgive him if Fury lives up to expectations. Though star Brad Pitt (World War Z) is without question one of the top A-List stars Hollywood has to offer, his track record isn’t exactly spotless. The actor has had more than his fair share of out of the box failures but continues to earn points for not resting on his laurels. Fury seems like a film the star can be at home in and Ayer has placed several promising members of young Hollywood (like The Perks of Being a Wallflower’s Logan Lerman) alongside him. Let’s leave troubled Shia LeBeouf (Lawless) out of that equation, though.

Movie Review ~ The Company You Keep

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A former Weather Underground activist goes on the run from a journalist who has discovered his identity.

Stars: Shia LaBeouf, Robert Redford, Julie Christie, Richard Jenkins, Susan Sarandon, Stephen Root, Sam Elliott, Brendan Gleeson, Terrence Howard, Anna Kendrick, Jackie Evancho, Stanley Tucci, Brit Marling, Nick Nolte

Director: Robert Redford

Rated: R

Running Length: 121 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: The first of two movies that Robert Redford starred in in 2013 was this curious little project that Redford also sat comfortably in the director seat for.  Though the film came and went with very little fanfare, I’d expect some collateral buzz to be drummed up for it when Redford is (hopefully) nominated for an Oscar for his career-high work in All is Lost.

Redford has seen more action as a director lately and he seems to be enjoying this part of his career which appears to be having a slow moving but surefooted renaissance.  It’s known that Redford is picky about the material he’ll take on as an actor and perhaps more so with his directing work which makes The Company You Keep all the more puzzling because it’s one of those half-there efforts that no one seems particularly invested in.

Scanning the cast list I get the notion that Redford peppered his film with actors he’s long wanted to work with and vice versa.  Why else would some big name stars drop in for what amounts to glorified cameos in an independent picture?  I kept thinking that actors like Richard Jenkins (White House Down, Jack Reacher) were just stopping by for lunch in Sundance when Redford asked if they could film a quick scene before dessert was served.

When Redford’s activist past is exposed by an opportunistic journalist (Shia LaBeouf, Lawless), he goes on the run and works his way through people from his younger days he’s long forgotten and who would just as soon forget about him.  Even with their brief screen time Oscar winners Susan Sarandon (Jeff, Who Lives at Home, Robot & Frank) and Julie Christie are effective as two fellow radicals that re-enter Redford’s present in two very different ways.  And keep your eyes out for Brit Marling (The East), Stanley Tucci (Jack the Giant Slayer), Nick Nolte (Cape Fear, I Love Trouble), and Terrence Howard (Prisoners) in the aforementioned brief supporting turns.

An overlong film, The Company You Keep winds up feeling like the guest that won’t take the hint to go thanks to several false endings.  While it’s diligently made like most Redford films are, there’s an evident emptiness at the core that doesn’t give the film any lasting weight past the final credits — that’s a shame when you consider the might of the stars Redford has assembled.

I should add it also doesn’t help that Redford has cast LaBeouf who continues to be one of the more overrated yet increasingly disliked actors in Hollywood.  Known for badmouthing his costars and film projects, LaBeouf had an overdue denouement at the end of 2013 when it came out that one of his short films was plagiarized from preexisting work.  It’s hard to take him seriously as a flawed film persona because LaBeouf’s personal persona is so much worse.

That casting aside, there’s admittedly a level of sophisticated maturity that should prove interesting to the more astute viewer.  I absolutely suggest you see Redford’s solemn work in All is Lost before taking this one on (he’ll also appear in Captain America: The Winter Soldier) but if you’re a Redford devotee or a fan of the political dramas/thrillers of the late 70’s you may find something worth your time here.

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