Quick takes on 5 films

Pieces of a Woman is one of those movies where all the right parts just don’t come together quite right. It’s about a married couple preparing to have a home birth for their first child. It has been a normal pregnancy, and all is going according to plan until the big night, when their planned midwife is already busy at another birth. Another midwife, Eva, is sent over to deliver Sean and Martha’s baby. Things are going well until, suddenly, they aren’t. During a check of the baby’s heart rate, Eva notices it is very slow. They hurriedly deliver the baby, and for the first couple moments, all seems fine. The baby gives a little cry and everyone takes a sigh of relief; then the baby quiets, takes a couple raspy breaths, and starts turning blue. The film jumps ahead a bit, and Martha and Sean are each dealing with the loss in their own way – Sean through anger and wanting to blame someone, and Martha through isolation and wanting to move on. Eva is being publicly vilified and is getting ready to be tried in the baby’s death. As Sean and Martha grow further and further apart, we see more into their psyche and how each is coping with the loss. Sounds like it should be great right? For some reason it never connected with me. The characters seem hollow and one-dimensional, and I wasn’t a fan of the direction, purposefully keeping the camera away from the action at times in an “artsy” way that does nothing for the characters’ developments. The talented cast (Vanessa Kirby, Shia LaBeouf, Molly Parker, Ellen Burstyn) give it their all, but it doesn’t build to the heights that it should. ★★

Clare Dunne might not have the name recognition of Vanessa Kirby, but she gives a powerhouse performance in Herself. She plays Sandra, a woman who, in the beginning of the film, is violently attacked by her husband Gary. Obviously this has been going on for awhile, as Sandra had prepared her oldest daughter (only 7 or 8 years old) with a code word, with which she was to run to the local store to call the police. They don’t get there fast enough, and Sandra is beat up pretty badly, leaving her with permanent nerve damage in her wrist. In the next scene, Sandra and Gary are divorced and have a custody agreement, where he has limited weekends with his two girls. Sandra is scraping by, living in public housing and working two jobs: cleaning a bar and cleaning/caretaking for a doctor, Peggy, who is rehabbing a hip injury. Peggy and Sandra are close and Peggy helps her any way she can, including offering her a way out of her situation. When Sandra hears about a man who shows how a house can be built on just $35k, she borrows money from the state and Peggy offers her a plot of land to build it on. Relying on volunteers to get the house to come together, things are looking up until Gary decides to sue for full custody of the girls. Much better depth than the previous film, and Dunne’s performance is top-notch. Sandra is a woman who is struggling with PTSD, who has lived without hope for so long that she doesn’t know what happiness is when it finds her, and Dunne oozes that fear and trepidation in every scene. The story is nothing new, but the film does nice things with the material. ★★★

The Truth centers on the strained relationship between mother Fabienne (Catherine Deneuve) and daughter Lumir (Juliette Binoche). A French film (though there’s quite a bit of English, with Lumir’s American husband Hank along for the ride, played by Ethan Hawke), it focuses on the healing in the family, if that healing can ever be complete. Fabienne is an acclaimed French actress, and she’s always put her career and her craft first. She was never a good mother to Lumir, nor a good partner to any of the men in her life over the decades, always cheating on them or throwing them out. She’s been cast in a new science-fiction film; the film-within-a-film is about a mother who has a life-threatening illness, so she goes to live “in space” where time is slow, giving her more time to see her daughter Amy grow up. Fabienne plays a 73-year-old Amy, while her mother is played by rising star Manon, who the critics love and who has been called “the new Sarah,” Sarah being an actress whose rocket career was cut short many years ago to an early death. As the film goes along, we learn Sarah had a connection to Fabienne and Lumir, and we also see the parallels between the sci-fi film Fabienne is acting in with her own personal life, with Manon’s character only stopping in infrequently as Amy’s life jumps ahead years at a time with little contact with her mom. Whether Fabienne can see those connections, or if her ego will even allow herself to see them, you’ll have to watch and see. It’s a very nice picture; I don’t think it is stellar, but the performances in it most definitely are. Heavy hitters Deneuve and Binoche are worth the price of admission, and seeing their “dance” around each other, poking and prodding, saying things without really saying them, etc. Will this picture appeal to the general public? Probably not. But if you want to see pure acting as good as you’ll find, definitely worth a viewing. ★★★½

One Night in Miami is renowned actress Regina King’s directorial debut, a fictionalized telling of a night on February 25, 1964, which saw 4 famous men meet in a hotel room and the discussions they had (the night really happened, but what was discussed is anyone’s guess). Cassius Clay has just beaten Sonny Liston to become the new heavyweight champion in boxing, and is about to announce to the world his conversion to Islam; Malcolm X is his advisor and mentor; Jim Brown is the best football player alive and starting to get into the movie business as well; and Sam Cooke is one of the best selling recording artists of the day. They spend the evening discussing many things: politics, wealth, fame, and most importantly, the plight of African-Americans in the 1960s. Obviously there are wildly different perspectives among the four friends. Malcolm derides Sam for catering his songs to a white consumer, and thinks he should use his platform and wealth (he’s by far the richest of the 4) to draw more attention to racial injustices, but Sam sees his work as good, creating a level playing field more subversively. Jim knows his popularity ends at the edge of the football field, and he isn’t welcome in the home of some of his biggest “fans.” Cassius publicly displays the ego and bravado that would make him famous as Muhammad Ali, but the movie also depicts his self doubt behind the scenes. It is a tremendous film, showcasing that while we’ve come a long way since 1964, there’s still so much that hasn’t changed enough. The acting is superb from all 4 leads (Eli Goree, Kingsley Ben-Adir, Aldis Hodge, and Leslie Odom Jr), and King’s direction is stable and controlled. The film glosses over some unpopular elements, for example downplaying Malcolm X’s calls for violence at the time, but his less controversial arguments are no less meaningful. Fantastic stuff. ★★★★½

I’m a bit conflicted with Calm With Horses (titled The Shadow of Violence inside the USA). It’s about a man named Douglas who works as an enforcer for a petty drug lord, Hector Devers. Called “the arm” because he was a boxer in his younger days, Douglas has no problem mercilessly beating up people who don’t pay on time, but he draws the line at killing; he lost control in a boxing match years ago and killed his adversary, leading to his quitting of the sport and a promise to himself to never kill again. That promise is put to the test when an old man in the drug gang, Fannigan, gets drunk one night and rapes Hector’s niece. Hector sends Douglas over to rough Fannigan up pretty badly, but the girl’s father, Paudi, wants more than just a beating. Paudi convinces his brother Hector to have Douglas finish the job, but Douglas lets Fannigan go. In the background, Douglas is struggling with being an absent father to a 5 year old, Jack, who suffers from severe autism, to the point that he is nonverbal. As Douglas opens up to emotions he’s bottled up for years, he realizes he can no longer live the life he’s been running. There’s some subtle but strong acting from Cosmo Jarvis as Douglas, and his “handler” Dympna is the always great Barry Keoghan (of Dunkirk and The Killing of a Sacred Deer fame), but there’s some serious lulls in the story, which is strange for a fairly violent crime drama. Those quiet moments are supposed to be for reflection in the characters, but it feels forced and is not allowed to grow naturally. Don’t get me wrong, there are some really great moments in here to delve into, but you can definitely tell it is from a young director (it is the debut feature from Nick Rowland) who is still honing his craft. ★★★

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