PIECES OF A WOMAN (2020)

December 29, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. It happens sometimes, but rarely. A single sequence in a film is so profound or unusual or artistic or affecting, that it alone makes the film worth watching. Such is the case with the labor-birth-midwife scene in this film from real life partners, Hungarian director Kornel Mundruczo and writer Kata Weber. Much of it is an extended single continuous shot, and it occurs within the first half hour.

The only set up we get is that the husband, Sean (Shia LaBeouf) is on the construction crew building a new bridge, and that his wife Martha (Vanessa Kirby) is extremely pregnant on her final day of work before maternity leave. A strained relationship with Martha’s mother is evident as she buys the couple a minivan. At home, the couple seems excited about the upcoming arrival of their first baby. When her water breaks, they are initially upset that their midwife can’t make it for a home delivery, but soon enough, Eva (Molly Parker), shows up as a replacement and takes charge. The remarkable sequence is filmed in tight shots that add to the tension and come across as ultra-realistic as Ms. Kirby’s strenuous performance.

The rest of the film follows the differing ways the couple, especially Martha, deals with the crushing emotional pain and unfathomable grief that comes with losing a child. It’s the kind of tragedy that can tear apart a relationship and change, if not destroy, a person. Martha becomes isolated as she tries to make sense of something where logic doesn’t apply. Sean is unable to connect with her, but falls into her mother’s camp of seeking to avenge the pain. Oscar winner Ellen Burstyn plays Martha’s domineering mother, and she is determined to make the midwife pay through jail time.

The rest of the film can’t match that birth sequence for tension, but the cast is superb in capturing the various faces of grief. Ms. Kirby is a revelation and she immerses herself in the role – something frequent movie watchers will immediately recognize. Whether she’s huffing with labor pains, sniffing apples in a grocery store, or floating through days and nights in a state of numbness, we feel every bit of what she’s processing. LaBeouf handles the initial pain very well, but he’s let down by the script through the balance of the story. Ms. Burstyn and Ms. Kirby each get another chance to shine as they face off at a family dinner in Act 3. Supporting work comes from Benny Safdie (actor-director known for co-directing offbeat films with his brother Josh), Iliza Schlesinger as Martha’s sister, and Sarah Snook as the prosecuting attorney (and family member).

Scandal surrounds the project, not because of anything that happened during production, but instead due to the accusations Shia LaBeouf is facing from a former girlfriend. Separating the accusations from the performance is a choice each viewer will have to make on their own, and it can be noted that he, while a significant player in the story, is not the main focus. Chapter headings by month are used to assist us with knowing how much time has passed, and the under-construction bridge from the first scene acts as a metaphor in the film’s final scene as the new reality is faced. Despite being a tough watch at times, and having a first act that sets an unsustainable bar, there is a lot to admire about the film. Martin Scorsese is listed as an Executive Producer and 3-time Oscar winner Howard Shore delivers a nice score. Living with loss is never easy, and at times seems impossible.

In theaters December 30, 2020 and on Netflix January 7, 2021

WATCH THE TRAILER


UNCUT GEMS (2019)

December 23, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. It’s debatable whether this movie should be labeled an indie crime thriller or a ‘Scared Straight’ session for gambling addicts. Benny Safdie and Josh Safdie are filmmaking brothers who seem to specialize in adding a frenetic pace to the lives of characters who consistently make bad decisions. Their excellent 2017 film GOOD TIME (starring Robert Pattinson) set the tone for their latest, featuring an Adam Sandler performance unlike anything we’ve previously seen from him.

After a brief prologue at an Ethiopian mine, we are dropped right into Howard’s world. Well, more specifically, we find ourselves on the camera end of Howard Ratner’s colonoscopy, while also seeing the vibrant glow of the rare opal extracted from that opening mine. Remarkably, the colonoscopy may be Howard’s (and our) most relaxing moment of the movie. The character of Howard is based on a guy the Safdie brothers’ dad worked for in the Diamond District when they were growing up. He’s played here by Mr. Sandler, who delivers a performance so memorable that we now can’t imagine anyone else in the role.

Here is what we learn about Howard: he’s arrogant and foolish and energetic and hopeful. He lives life on the edge … or perhaps he’s already tipped. He’s a Jewish jeweler based in inner-city Manhattan, and as the film begins, he owes a lot of money to someone who has hired goons to collect. Howard has an irascible wife Dinah (Idina Menzel, Elsa’s voice in FROZEN) who is fed up with his antics … one of which is his employee/mistress Julia (newcomer Julia Fox). Howard has an insatiable gambling addiction and he’s always on the brink of a life-changing big score or a colossal failure that could cost him everything. He’s a hustler who has to move faster each day to prevent the collapse of his house of cards: sports bets, pawns, loans, lies, and empty promises.

So if you think you now have a feel for this, I can assure you that you are mistaken. The frenetic pace is relentless to watch. We kind of like Howard, but yet, we want nothing to do with him. His latest scheme involves the expectation that the rare opal will solve his many financial woes. In the meantime, his business associate Demany (LaKeith Stanfield) brings him a high profile client … NBA player Kevin Garnett. The film looks and feels like a gritty 1970’s flick, but it’s based during the 2012 Eastern Conference Finals, and Garnett plays himself (and quite well). Garnett borrows the opal for good luck and that’s when all ‘heck’ breaks loose. Also in play here is Howard’s rotten brother-in-law (Eric Begosian), to whom he also owes money. Adding even more NYC flavor are Judd Hirsch, John Amos, and sports radio host Mike Francesca, as Howard’s bookie.

Daniel Lopatin (aka Oneohtrix Point Never) provides an electronic score that helps ensure we are never comfortable watching what is unfolding, and cinematographer Darius Khondji (EVITA) keeps his camera in constant motion – just like the characters. Production Designer Sam Lisenco creates Howard’s world through the jewelry shop, the house, the apartment, and especially that back office. Set Decorator Kendall Anderson wins a place in my heart for the Pete Maravich poster.

The Safdie brothers co-wrote the script with their editor Ronald Bronstein (who also worked on GOOD TIME), and afterwards you’ll find yourself going back through all the poor choices made by most every character. The brilliantly sustained level of uneasiness includes a segment featuring The Weeknd, and one revolving around a school play for Howard’s daughter. The Safdie style is present throughout, and most conversations are loud and heated and threatening. If you are the type that needs at least one likable character, or a serene environment, or respectful adult conversation, you are out of luck here. Howard is an exhausting character in an exhausting story within an exhausting movie … just as it was intended.

watch the RED BAND trailer (PROFANITY WARNING):

 

 


GOOD TIME (2017)

August 24, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. The Drifters and later George Benson sang “the neon lights are bright on Broadway”. Well, we aren’t on Broadway, and though they aren’t bright, the neon lights are ever present and crucial to the tone of the latest from brothers and co-directors Benny Safdie and Josh Safdie.

Robert Pattinson stars as Constantine “Connie” Nikas, and turns in a performance unlike anything we have previously seen from him. Connie is protective of his brother Nick (played by director Benny Safdie), and he’s also a grungy unhinged bank robber. He doesn’t look like a man with a plan, but fortunately, Connie is a smooth talker who thinks ‘quick on his feet’. We say fortunately, because he is barraged with an endless stream of danger, catastrophes and near traumatic events as the story progresses.

A botched bank robbery separates the brothers and sends Nick to jail and Connie on the lam. Co-writers Ronald Bronstein and Josh Safdie seemingly take immense pleasure in launching Connie off-the-rails has he desperately attempts to avoid capture while simultaneously figuring out how to spring brother Nick. With a frenetic pace that escalates Griffin Dunne’s misery in AFTER HOURS, Connie’s escapades have him crossing paths with his girlfriend played by Jennifer Jason Leigh (wish she had more screen time), a psychiatrist played by Peter Verby, a new anxious-to-help acquaintance in Taliah Webster, an accidental partner-in-crime played by Buddy Duress, an amusement park security guard played by Barkhad Abdi (“Look at me!”), and a brutish thug played by hip-hop artist Necro.

The pounding, pulsating techno/synth music perfectly complements the unusual tone (almost noirish, and bordering on comedic), feverish pace, and fascinating visuals throughout this hyper-kinetic frenzied trip. Some viewers will be turned off quickly, and those that stick with it will be rewarded with an entertaining crime thriller featuring Pattinson’s best performance to date.

watch the trailer: