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


WORDS ON BATHROOM WALLS (2020)

August 20, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. Very little outside ‘the norm’ is required for teenagers to ostracize one of their own. Sometimes it’s a haircut or a brand of shoes, or even some other minor detail that sets them apart. But when it’s a mental illness, the tribe can be merciless. Director Thor Freudenthal (DIARY OF A WIMPY KID, 2010) takes on Julia Walton’s 2017 novel, with a screenplay from Nick Naveda. The film features two rising young stars and addresses some of the challenges brought on by the uncertainties associated with a mental illness.

Charlie Plummer (so terrific in LEAN ON PETE, 2018) stars as Adam, a high school senior who has dealt with the challenges of undiagnosed mental health issues since he was quite young. His father abandoned the family years ago, and Adam’s devoted mother (Molly Parker, “House of Cards”) is not only patient and loving, but also committed to researching any possible treatment that would lead Adam to a better life. On the other hand, Adam and his mother’s new live-in lover Paul (Walton Goggins) don’t exactly see eye-to-eye on things, leading to more anxiety for Adam.

In an interesting and unique approach, director Freudenthal allows us to not only hear the voices Adam hears, but also see the hallucinations and visions he sees – three of whom are Rebecca (AnnaSophia Robb, THE WAY WAY BACK), a sweet, hippie-ish optimist; The Bodyguard (Lobo Sebastian), a cigar-chomping, bat swinging he-man; and Joaquin (Devon Bostick), an inappropriately horny ‘best friend from a 90’s move.” On top of that, there is a black mist that periodically manifests, enveloping Adam and bringing on crippling fear and isolation. After a years-long stream of drug therapy, Adam is pronounced “treatment resistant” and diagnosed as schizophrenic. Adam’s only mind-calming escape is when he’s cooking. He knows his way around the kitchen and his goal is to attend Culinary School after graduation.

One day, Adam has a psychotic break during Chemistry class. He gets expelled, which jeopardizes his Culinary School dream. His mother gets him admitted to a Catholic School run by Sister Catherine (Beth Grant) at the same time he is accepted into an experimental drug trial. He’s allowed to stay in school as long as he takes his meds and maintains his grades. It’s here where he meets the dynamic Maya (Taylor Russell, WAVES, 2019). Maya is smart and ambitious and proud, and the two quickly form a bond – an interesting bond between two smart high school kids carrying their own burdens and holding their own secrets.

Sister Catherine is balancing the specific needs of Adam with her responsibility to the school, and then there is also prom and graduation to deal with. With the new drug, the voices and visions disappear, but Adam has some issues with the side effects. A desperate plea for help from Father Patrick (Andy Garcia), the school priest, provides a boost as Adam tells him, “It’s nice to be listened to and not just observed.” That line provides significant insight into what it’s like to have this affliction, and that’s really where the movie excels … putting us in the shoes of a schizophrenic and allowing us to experience the good and bad moments. What can Adam trust? His eyes? His ears? His mind?

Adam and Maya are both trying to figure out who they are, at the same time learning what it really means to love someone. Adam refers to his illness as his “burgeoning insanity”, and in fact, schizophrenia does have a history of accelerating over time once it strikes a young person. The movie succeeds in taking away some of the mystique of mental illness, by making it approachable and something we want to better understand. There is a visual reference to Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” that might be a bit too “nail on the head”, but Freudenthal’s movie is profound and features two very talented young actors. The humanity beneath the surface of those society would rather pretend don’t exist is effectively compared to those stricken with cancer … those we would do anything for. I watched this film back-to-back with another teen-drama-romance new release entitled CHEMICAL HEARTS, and it’s extremely rare to find two such thought-provoking films centered on a pair of high school students … but quite a treat (although I believe all 4 actors are long past high school age).

Being released on August 21, 2020 in THEATERS ONLY

watch the (entirely too long) trailer:


AMERICAN PASTORAL (2016)

October 20, 2016

american-pastoral Greetings again from the darkness. Tackling one of the great American novels is a difficult challenge for even the most seasoned film directors … and a dubious undertaking (at best) for a first-timer. Philip Roth won a Pulitzer Prize for his 1997 novel “American Pastoral”, and there have been rumblings of a Hollywood production for more than a decade. It’s somewhat surprising that the screen version is directed by first time director Ewan McGregor … with the Scottish actor also taking on the lead role of local Jersey boy and sports hero Seymour “Swede” Levov.

The story examines the cracks behind the façade of a seemingly perfect family … the sports hero marrying the beauty queen. Of course, there is always more going on within a family than most care to admit (at least that was the case in the days prior to Facebook). There’s an early scene where Swede has introduced Dawn (Jennifer Connelly) to his father (Peter Riegert), and the philosophical and religious differences perfectly capture the changing times and mores from one generation to the next. Never has this been more true than the late 1960’s and early 1970’s … political and social upheaval were daily occurrences – and sometimes quite violent.

The first half of the movie is exceptionally well done and captures the essence of why the second half feels like a total decimation of everything Swede thought he had. He and Dawn’s daughter Merry is beautiful and feisty and stutters … something that only enhances the anger she expresses and anguish she causes for her parents. Her innocent questions as a young child evolve into radical political beliefs and affiliations as she grows up.

Merry (ironically named) is by far the most interesting character in the story, but with the focus on Swede, Dakota Fanning only has brief moments that are worthy of her talent, and Dawn has only a few emotional moments that allow Ms. Connelly to flash the acting depth she hasn’t shown in years. So much time and attention is devoted to Swede that the second half is a bit of a letdown and leaves too many details and questions unanswered.

John Romano’s (The Lincoln Lawyer) adaptation of the American classic took a different direction than we might have preferred, but it’s a thankless job since so many have considered this as unfilmable. McGregor shows a good eye as a director, though it’s obvious this material needed a more experienced filmmaker at the helm. The great Alexandre Desplat provides a classy score … the piano pieces are especially well suited. Supporting work is solid from David Strathairn as narrator Nathan Zuckerman, Rupert Evans as Swede’s brother, Molly Parker as Merry’s therapist, Uzo Aduba as Swede’s employee, and Valorie Curry as a misguided revolutionary. It’s a reminder that family dynamics may be the most complex organism, and when blended with the volatile times of the Vietnam War, a generational gap should be expected … even if it’s difficult and emotional to accept.

watch the trailer: