Indie Focus: Grief and resilience in ‘Pieces of a Woman’
Hello! I’m Mark Olsen. Welcome to another edition of your regular field guide to a world of Only Good Movies.
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This is our first newsletter of 2021, and it has already been quite a year.
The events of this past week surpass any thoughts on movies at the moment. I feel I have likely said this before, but there is no one better at sorting through the cultural confusion of a moment like Wednesday than Times TV critic Lorraine Ali. As she wrote, “Wednesday’s violent attack cannot be seen as yet another preparatory ‘stress test’ for democracy. It was the real thing. We, as a nation, are not immune to the crises in which we are so often intervening overseas, parachuting in to save the day — and frequently mucking things up further by trying … we should never again assume we’ll be saved from the fate of nations that have fallen victim to tyrants by mere privilege alone.”
Mary McNamara wrote about the week’s events as well. “Ignorance, misunderstanding, claims of party divisions are no longer applicable — the division is not about big government versus small, it’s about democratic government versus dictatorship. This is not about the grievances, real and imagined, of small-town America or the danger of elitist bubbles, real and imagined, of coastal cities. This is about people who believe America won’t be great again until representative democracy is not just suppressed through racist voter restrictions and regional gerrymandering but completely destroyed.”
And Carolina Miranda had these sharp thoughts on the Capitol building itself: “The Capitol is indeed a symbol of democracy — a troubled one, but an evolving one. One whose narratives are not yet fully written. That will be up to us.”
There was nevertheless other news as well. Over the holidays, filmmaker Joan Micklin Silver died at age 85. Silver was the groundbreaking director of movies such as “Hester Street,” “Between the Lines,” “Chilly Scenes of Winter” and “Crossing Delancey.” In 1991, while speaking to an audience at the American Film Institute, she said, “Be tenacious. Be strong. Be courageous. What can I say? Keep it up. You have to learn to take rejection. You have to learn to believe in yourself.”
The first episode of “The Envelope” podcast of the new year features my conversation with Kemp Powers, who wrote the screen adaption of his own play “One Night in Miami …” and co-wrote and co-directed the new Pixar animated film “Soul.” As Powers said of this rather remarkable moment of having two films out at the same time, “That wasn’t the plan. The world we’re living in has plans of its own.”
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‘Pieces of a Woman’
Directed by Kornél Mundruczó from a screenplay by Kata Weber, “Pieces of a Woman” is an exploration of one woman (Vanessa Kirby) working through the grief of losing a baby in childbirth. The movie starts with an extended single-take sequence of a home birth gone wrong — depicted with startling momentum — and gets more intense. Kirby won the prize for best actress when the film premiered at the Venice Film Festival, and the cast also includes Ellen Burstyn, Shia LaBeouf, Molly Parker and Sarah Snook. The film is streaming on Netflix.
If Burstyn were to be nominated for an Oscar, at 88 years old, she would become the oldest actor ever nominated by eight days. “I really want that, I must say,” she told Gary Goldstein for The Times. “I think that’s a badge of something. Of longevity, certainly!”
Reviewing the film for The Times, Justin Chang wrote about the supporting characters orbiting Kirby. “Arrestingly showy though they can be, these performances never threaten to eclipse or overwhelm Kirby’s concentration. While this remarkable actor can unleash hell with the best of them, her most eloquent gestures here are her quietest, whether she’s staring distractedly into the middle distance or deflecting her mom’s affectionate gesture, as if it were a slap in the face. Kirby’s authority is commanding, even unassailable: At times Martha seems at odds with not only her loved ones but with the very movie she’s in, firmly steering it away from the courtroom drama, or even the portrait of a relationship’s bitter end, that it seems on the verge of becoming. She keeps you off balance right through the dreamlike close, a final scene — brave, misguided or both — that suggests nothing is ever truly final.”
In a review for rogerebert.com, Monica Castillo wrote, “Kirby has to navigate her character through every parent’s waking nightmare, which she does impressively. As Martha, Kirby shifts from catatonic to chaotic, becoming just as destructive as her partner without feeling like a cliché. She’s angry at Sean, her co-workers, her family — especially her mom, Elizabeth (Ellen Burstyn), who talks about her loss as if it were a personal failure and chides Martha for not actively pressing charges against the midwife. It’s a tension that leads to the best scene of the movie, a showdown between mother and daughter, both grieving and each with entirely different ideas on how to move forward. It’s a moment so electric, it makes the marital drama feel like window dressing.”
For Vanity Fair, Katie Rich wrote, “‘Pieces of a Woman’ tends to tell instead of show, with Elizabeth admitting to Sean that she never liked him before we’ve really gotten a grasp on their relationship, or Sean escalating a fight into name-calling that feels out of character. It makes the excruciating childbirth sequence stand out all the more, as Benjamin Loeb’s camera swoops past Parker’s worried eyes, LaBeouf’s tightly coiled body language, or Kirby’s throat letting out the guttural moans of a woman who thinks the labor is going to be the most painful part. That long, beautiful, heartbreaking scene finds bracing cinematic language for a process that is so often euphemized — until the tragic conclusion, it is a remarkably realistic childbirth for a narrative film, in all its gross wonder. It is a relief when the scene ends, but also a bit of a shame, watching that lightning bolt recede into a more modest flicker.”
Directed by Phyllida Lloyd from a screenplay by Malcolm Campbell and Clare Dunne, “Herself” tells the story of a woman (Dunne) in Dublin trying to rebuild her life for her and her daughters after leaving an abusive husband. Having premiered at last year’s Sundance Film Festival, it is streaming on Amazon Prime Video.
For The Times, Robert Abele wrote, “Lloyd, directing her first film since telling a most opposite tale in ‘The Iron Lady’ — that of a powerful woman (Meryl Streep’s Oscar-winning Margaret Thatcher) on the wane — is very much in sync with the plucky empowerment saga Dunne wants to tell and embody. (It’s collaborative synchronicity born from the pair’s work together in theater.) Yet that silver-lining nature is also what keeps ‘Herself’ from entirely distinguishing itself, too often leaving an admittedly powerful story about female fortitude to rely on schematics and clichés instead of the accumulated impact of its many well-played human details.”
For the Washington Post, Ann Hornaday wrote, “A colorful cast of friends and friends-of-friends helps to make ‘Herself’ not just a celebration of one woman’s determination, but of community — a portrait that feels like a let’s-put-on-a-show fantasy grounded in the social principles of Ken Loach. It’s a not always a convincing combination but, in Dunne’s capable hands, it’s a fetching and absorbing one.”
Directed by Bryan Fogel, “The Dissident” is a documentary on Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi Arabian journalist who was murdered in Turkey in 2018. Featuring interviews with Khashoggi’s fiancée, Hatice Cengiz, and others, the film is something of a real-life international espionage thriller. The movie is available on video on demand.
Stuart Miller wrote about the movie for The Times, talking to Fogel about the path that took him from his Academy Award-winning debut documentary “Icarus” to this new film. The filmmaker said, “Winning the Oscar, I felt an obligation to make more stories that would have an impact on society.”
In a review for The Times, Robert Abele wrote, “Some of Fogel’s techniques speak more to the slick state of advocacy docs these days than to what would most effectively tell the story, from the overworked score and editing to some regrettable computer animation that briefly feels like one has entered a video game simulation. Tyranny and its effects are no video game, but ‘The Dissident’ overall retains the impact of its alarming narrative, never more so than when we’re reminded of how much support President Trump gave MBS despite his own intelligence agencies’ conclusion that the crown prince ordered the hit on Khashoggi. One can only hope the future won’t see a preference for arms deals over principles of human decency.”
Reviewing the movie for the New York Times, Devika Girish wrote, “All of this material is so chilling and effective on its own that the movie’s emphatic music and computer-generated graphics — which include a Twitter battle pictured as a showdown between 3-D flies and bees — can feel like overkill. But these flourishes serve the film’s ultimate objective: to impress acutely upon us the injustice of a world where money and geopolitics supersede human rights.”
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