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


THE DRESSMAKER (2016, Australia)

September 29, 2016

dressmaker Greetings again from the darkness. Sometimes we just have to give thanks (and credit) to a filmmaker for boldly stepping out of the Hollywood box and delivering a cinematic experience that is creative, interesting and downright unusual. Such is the case with director Jocelyn Moorhouse and her first film since A Thousand Acres (1997).

We know immediately that we are in for something a bit different. A1950’s era bus rolls down the dusty road and stops in a desolate little Aussie town with only a handful of store fronts. Western-style music accompanies Kate Winslet as she steps off the bus brandishing a Singer sewing machine rather than a Winchester or Colt. She lights up a cigarette, squints out from under her hat, and utters one of the more memorable first lines of any movie. We are hooked. (You had me at “bastards”)

What follows is based on Rosalie Ham’s best-selling novel with a screenplay from the director and PJ Hogan (Muriel’s Wedding, 1997), and features a most remarkable blend of slapstick comedy, dark humor, tragedy, romance, mystery, and revenge. At times the film has a Coen Brothers or Wes Anderson feel, while at various other moments it recalls the Keystone Cops, Chocolat, a spaghetti western and a spoof of … well it’s difficult to say whether it’s a spoof or homage to numerous genres.

Ms. Winslet is in full lead mode as Tilly … the local girl who was accused of murder at age ten and banished from her mother and hometown. After 25 years, Tilly returns to Dungatar in an attempt to reconnect with her mom, gain a bit of revenge on the petty townfolks, and remember that fateful day that has been blocked from her memory. The tool of her trade is a sewing machine (and at times a golf club) and Tilly has the magic touch to transform the local ladies into more attractive and confident versions of themselves. She wields her Singer with every bit of danger as Blondie (Clint Eastwood) did with his revolver in The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.

Judy Davis (A Passage to India) is fantastic (worthy of an Oscar nom) as Tilly’s mother “Mad” Molly. In a role that would have been pure caricature in different hands (Maggie Smith), Ms. Davis provides a depth and humanity to a role that is truly the heart of the film. Also excellent is Hugo Weaving as the local Police Sergeant who has his own secret quirks and guilty conscience, and is one of the first to appreciate the talents Tilly brings to the small town. Liam Hemsworth spends the movie grinning and gazing in the role of arm candy Teddy – one easily recognizable as the female role in most movies (those not directed by a woman). The deep cast always features Sarah Snook as Gertrude and Kerry Fox as the villainous school marm Beulah (replete with devilish hairdo).

While the story itself is relatively predictable, it’s the manner in which scenes are staged that makes this such a pleasure. The offbeat combination of desolate Aussie town and near cartoon characters are set against the colorful and textured world of highly fashionable clothes, wicked twists, twisted humor, reconciliation and tragedy – many scenes combining more than a couple of these.

Marion Boyce and Margot Wilson deserve special attention for costume design, as the costumes themselves play as characters to contrast the local atmosphere. It’s startling to realize that such a coherent story utilizes such topics as domestic violence, spousal rape, misogyny, cross-dressing, murder, perjury, blackmail, Billie Holliday, South Pacific, cannabis brownies, and Sunset Boulevard in such creative ways. Though many critics will not agree, Ms. Moorhouse has delivered an entertaining and accessible movie despite its complexity with multiple subplots and various undertones. Let’s hope she doesn’t wait 20 years for her next film project.

watch the trailer: