Skip to main content

Lift your head and fight for yourself, for God's sakes! Go out there and face that woman.

Pieces of a Woman 
(2020)

(SPOILERS) Convincing suffering is a tried-and-tested way to win Oscar attention, if not necessarily to win the Oscar. You have to be careful not to overdo it. Don’t seem too eager for that statuette, or perform too shamelessly en route. Pieces of a Woman had Oscar portents in its favour owing to a half-hour opening section that sets a mood of virtuous realism and honesty in its treatment of expectation for and subsequent loss of a child, so providing the necessary “authentic” backbone once the more Hollywood flourishes, those really designed to grab the voters’ votes, set in.

I should be fair minded to director Kornél Mundruczó and writer Kata Wéber, who based Pieces of a Woman on their play and evidently approached the project from their own experiences of loss and grieving. Raw experiences don’t always make for the most effective dramatisations, however, particularly once they have been fed through the meat grinder of invention and artifice required by the typical movie. The opening single-take section follows the homebirth of Martha (Vanessa Kirby) and Sean (Shia LeBeouf) as assisted by midwife Eva (Molly Parker). It’s this that represents the picture’s major talking point, dedicated to mapping out the events that lead to the baby being pronounced dead. The sequence is scrupulously diligent. Albeit, I’m less convinced of its merit as a piece of drama, which only reveals itself in the final few minutes.

Nevertheless, it has set the critics wowing and ah-ing as intended, so the rest of the movie is able to lapse into something more familiar and characteristic of character-driven indie fare. Martha and Sean become distanced from each other, the former withdrawing and the latter taking up his drug regimen again (ideal for LaBoeuf). Meanwhile, Martha’s mother Elizabeth (Ellen Burstyn) throws her matriarchal weight around, pressing for Eva’s prosecution. Burstyn at least brings some firepower to the material, but she’s unable to overcome the problem that every wheel set in motion after the opening is a predictable one, so serving to undercut its “statement” that this would avoid easy options and subplots. Why, not only does Sean resume his habit, but he also starts banging the prosecuting attorney (Sarah Snook)! And then, Elizabeth pays him off to leave for Seattle.

I have to admit, I never believe LaBoeuf is a real person. In anything. This isn’t because he’s unable to sustain his roles dramatically, but rather because he brings an insurmountable amount of baggage to anything he plays. He’s the dingbat who wants to be a De Niro. Obviously, De Niro is also a dingbat, but… At any rate, the more Sean behaves like an asshole, the more believable LaBoeuf is as Sean, but you’re never less than achingly conscious of his suffocating method posturing.

Kirby’s good, but is she Best Actress Oscar good? Well, she definitely gets my vote over Viola Davis’ prize ham. Kirby’s is a frequently interior performance, set off by several grandstanding moments, and she sustains both extremes with due conviction. Rather undone by the contrived courtroom finale, though (yes, Pieces of a Woman remembers it needs a dramatic showdown at the end, even though we’ve had barely a whiff of Eva in the meantime). There are some interesting but overcooked attempts to reflect the subjectivity of that night’s experiences, before Martha stops off to look at photos taken during the birth; she returns to the courtroom newly determined, and in an “I’m going to allow this” moment worthy of Glab in Futurama, the judge lets her deliver an impassioned (Oscar-worthy) exoneration of any intentional malpractice on Eva’s part.

There’s a slightly pat undercurrent in respect of her relationship with Elizabeth here too, since it is Elizabeth who has pressed that Martha should “Go out there and face that woman” in court (having already asserted that, if Martha had done things her mother’s way – had a hospital birth – the baby would still be alive, leading to a “This is how we get Burstyn to sign on” speech concerning her poor mother’s experiences). Martha duly shows herself in court, and if she doesn’t do things Elizabeth’s way, it’s nevertheless evident that her way of “facing that woman” has earned her mom’s respect.

I’m not entirely convinced the interrogation of midwifery here – what there is of it – is as fair minded as the makers would probably like to think. It is, after all, focussing on a homebirth that ends in bereavement, so it is loaded as a warning and cautionary to any prospective mother who might assume avoiding hospitals is preferable. Better not to chance calling that ambulance at all, right? Elizabeth also objects to Elizabeth’s plans to donate her baby’s body to science; if the makers don’t come out and say it, then implicitly, since Elizabeth is against it, it must be a good thing. I’m sure Mundruczó and Wéber would get the Rockefeller Founation seal of approval for their fine work here.

Burstyn expectedly slam dunks it. Snook plays someone a bit above it all, so par for the course for her. Likewise, Benny Safdie essays someone irritating. Howard Shore overdoes the emotive cues. Pieces of a Woman is one of those actor-friendly vehicles unlikely to gain much traction, even if by some unlikely chance Kirby walks away with the honours on Oscar night (see also Judy, Still Alice, Blue Jasmine, The Reader and most famously – or not – Blue Sky). For all its attempts at honesty, it’s that bit too calculated, yet not calculated enough to achieve truly across-the-board favour.


Popular posts from this blog

Ziggy smokes a lot of weed.

Moonfall (2022) (SPOILERS) For a while there, it looked as if Moonfall , the latest and least-welcomed – so it seems – piece of apocalyptic programming from Roland Emmerich, might be sending mixed messages. Fortunately, we need not have feared, as it turns out to be the same pedigree of disaster porn we’ve come to expect from the director, one of the Elite’s most dutiful mass-entertainment stooges, even if his lustre has rather dimmed since the glory days of 2012.

The Illumi-what-i?

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (2022) (SPOILERS) In which Sam Raimi proves that he can stand proudly with the best – or worst – of them as a good little foot soldier of the woke apocalypse. You’d expect the wilfully anarchic – and Republican – Raimi to choke on the woke, but instead, he’s sucked it up, grinned and bore it. Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is so slavishly a production-line Marvel movie, both in plotting and character, and in nu-Feige progressive sensibilities, there was no chance of Sam staggering out from beneath its suffocating demands with anything more than a few scraps of stylistic flourish intact.

What’s so bad about being small? You’re not going to be small forever.

Innerspace (1987) There’s no doubt that Innerspace is a flawed movie. Joe Dante finds himself pulling in different directions, his instincts for comic subversion tempered by the need to play the romance plot straight. He tacitly acknowledges this on the DVD commentary for the film, where he notes Pauline Kael’s criticism that he was attempting to make a mainstream movie; and he was. But, as ever with Dante, it never quite turns out that way. Whereas his kids’ movies treat their protagonists earnestly, this doesn’t come so naturally with adults. I’m a bona fide devotee of Innerspace , but I can’t help but be conscious of its problems. For the most part Dante papers over the cracks; the movie hits certain keynotes of standard Hollywood prescription scripting. But his sensibility inevitably suffuses it. That, and human cartoon Martin Short (an ideal “leading man” for the director) ensure what is, at first glance just another “ Steven Spielberg Presents ” sci-fi/fantas

All I saw was an old man with a funky hand, that’s all I saw.

The Blob (1988) (SPOILERS) The 1980s effects-laden remake of a ’50s B-movie that couldn’t. That is, couldn’t persuade an audience to see it and couldn’t muster critical acclaim. The Fly was a hit. The Thing wasn’t, but its reputation has since soared. Like Invaders from Mars , no such fate awaited The Blob , despite effects that, in many respects, are comparable in quality to the John Carpenter classic – and are certainly indebted to Rob Bottin for bodily grue – and surehanded direction from Chuck Russell. I suspect the reason is simply this: it lacks that extra layer that would ensure longevity.

Are you telling me that I should take my daughter to a witch doctor?

The Exorcist (1973) (SPOILERS) Vast swathes have been written on The Exorcist , duly reflective of its cultural impact. In a significant respect, it’s the first blockbuster – forget Jaws – and also the first of a new kind of special-effects movie. It provoked controversy across all levels of the socio-political spectrum, for explicit content and religious content, both hailed and denounced for the same. William Friedkin, director of William Peter Blatty’s screenplay based on Blatty’s 1971 novel, would have us believe The Exorcist is “ a film about the mystery of faith ”, but it’s evidently much more – and less – than that. There’s a strong argument to be made that movies having the kind of seismic shock on the landscape this one did aren’t simply designed to provoke rumination (or exultation); they’re there to profoundly influence society, even if largely by osmosis, and when one looks at this picture’s architects, such an assessment only gains in credibility.

I work for the guys that pay me to watch the guys that pay you. And then there are, I imagine, some guys that are paid to watch me.

The Day of the Dolphin (1973) (SPOILERS) Perhaps the most bizarre thing out of all the bizarre things about The Day of the Dolphin is that one of its posters scrupulously sets out its entire dastardly plot, something the movie itself doesn’t outline until fifteen minutes before the end. Mike Nichols reputedly made this – formerly earmarked for Roman Polanski, Jack Nicholson and Sharon Tate, although I’m dubious a specific link can be construed between its conspiracy content and the Manson murders - to fulfil a contract with The Graduate producer Joseph Levine. It would explain the, for him, atypical science-fiction element, something he seems as comfortable with as having a hairy Jack leaping about the place in Wolf .

You ever heard the saying, “Don’t rob the bank across from the diner that has the best donuts in three counties”?

2 Guns (2013) (SPOILERS) Denzel Washington is such a reliable performer, that it can get a bit boring. You end up knowing every gesture or inflection in advance, whether he’s playing a good guy or a bad guy. And his films are generally at least half decent, so you end up seeing them. Even in Flight (or perhaps especially in Flight ; just watch him chugging down that vodka) where he’s giving it his Oscar-nominatable best, he seems too familiar. I think it may be because he’s an actor who is more effective the less he does. In 2 Guns he’s not doing less, but sometimes it seems like it. That’s because the last person I’d ever expect blows him off the screen; Mark Wahlberg.

This risotto is shmackin’, dude.

Stranger Things Season 4: Part I (SPOILERS) I haven’t had cause, or the urge, to revisit earlier seasons of Stranger Things , but I’m fairly certain my (relatively) positive takes on the first two sequel seasons would adjust down somewhat if I did (a Soviet base under Hawkins? DUMB soft disclosure or not, it’s pretty dumb). In my Season Three review, I called the show “ Netflix’s best-packaged junk food. It knows not to outstay its welcome, doesn’t cause bloat and is disposable in mostly good ways ” I fairly certain the Duffer’s weren’t reading, but it’s as if they decided, as a rebuke, that bloat was the only way to go for Season Four. Hence episodes approaching (or exceeding) twice the standard length. So while the other points – that it wouldn’t stray from its cosy identity and seasons tend to merge in the memory – hold fast, you can feel the ambition of an expansive canvas faltering at the hurdle of Stranger Things ’ essential, curated, nostalgia-appeal inconsequentiality.

That, my lad, was a dragon.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013) (SPOILERS) It’s alarming how quickly Peter Jackson sabotaged all the goodwill he amassed in the wake of The Lord of the Rings trilogy. A guy who started out directing deliciously deranged homemade horror movies ended up taking home the Oscar for a fantasy movie, of all genres. And then he blew it. He went from a filmmaker whose naysayers were the exception to one whose remaining cheerleaders are considered slightly maladjusted. The Desolation of Smaug recovers some of the territory Jackson has lost over the last decade, but he may be too far-gone to ever regain his crown. Perhaps in years to come The Lord of the Rings trilogy will be seen as an aberration in his filmography. There’s a cartoonishness to the gleeful, twisted anarchy on display in his earlierr work that may be more attuned to the less verimilitudinous aspects of King Kong and The Hobbit s. The exceptions are his female-centric character dramas, Heavenly Creat

Gizmo caca!

Gremlins (1984) I didn’t get to see Gremlins at the cinema. I wanted to, as I had worked myself into a state of great anticipation. There was a six-month gap between its (unseasonal) US release and arrival in the UK, so I had plenty of time to devour clips of cute Gizmo on Film ’84 (the only reason ever to catch Barry Norman was a tantalising glimpse of a much awaited movie, rather than his drab, colourless, reviews) and Gremlins trading cards that came with bubble gum attached (or was it the other way round?). But Gremlins ’ immediate fate for many an eager youngster in Britain was sealed when, after much deliberation, the BBFC granted it a 15 certificate. I had just turned 12, and at that time an attempt to sneak in to see it wouldn’t even have crossed my mind. I’d just have to wait for the video. I didn’t realise it then (because I didn’t know who he was as a filmmaker), but Joe Dante’s irrepressible anarchic wit would have a far stronger effect on me than the un