If You’re Ready to Change the Channel – Movies!
Does the dystopian present have you longing for the less disturbing reality of, say, a monster movie? Thank God for movies – ninety minutes or so to help you remember that there is goodness in the world. Not everything opening this week is exceptional, but it’s all better than reality.
Pieces of a Woman
by George Wolf
Pieces of a Woman opens with a crew working on bridge construction. It closes with that new bridge standing strong after many months of work. And in between, the film gracefully navigates how one woman learns to rise above some deeply troubled waters.
Vanessa Kirby is devastatingly good as Martha, a pregnant Bostonian who settles in with her partner Sean (Shia LaBeouf, a bit too showy) for the home birthing experience they have planned since day one.
What they didn’t plan on was backup midwife Eva (a terrific Molly Parker) having to take the lead when their original choice is tied up with another longer-than-expected delivery. And when events turn tragic, Martha and Sean are hit with waves of grief while family, friends, and lawyers search for blame and restitution.
Director Kornél Mundruczó wields a camera that meanders to great effect, utilizing slow, extended takes and Benjamin Loeb’s dazzling cinematography to completely immerse us in Martha’s emotional upheaval. Mundruczó teams again with screenwriter Kata Wéber (White God, Jupiter’s Moon) for a gentle journey toward one woman’s healing, where the clear metaphors (the bridge, Martha’s fixation on apples) and moody score (credit composer Howard Shore) ultimately land with more sincerity than force.
And what a vessel the filmmakers have in Kirby, who stakes her claim as a talent full of staggering depth. From the robotic, soul-deadening way Martha responds to condolences, to her final defiance against her tone-deaf mother (a blistering Ellen Burstyn), Kirby delivers every note of Martha’s arc with a humanity that is achingly real.
This is a film that delivers just what the title promises: one woman, shattered into pieces, grasping for the chance to heal in her own way, on her own terms. And even in its most uncomfortable moments, Pieces of a Woman doesn’t blink.
That, and Kirby, make it hard to look away.
The Reason I Jump
Streaming from the virtual screening rooms of Drexel Theatre and Gateway Film Center
by George Wolf
Ten years ago, a Japanese teenager wrote a book that quickly became regarded as “an envoy from another world.”
With The Reason I Jump, 13 year-old Naoki Higashida expressed in poetic detail how a nonverbal autistic child sees the world.
In short, it’s “details first…then the whole thing.”
For the film adaptation, veteran documentarian Jerry Rothwell gently weaves narrated passages from the book around visits with a handful of other mostly nonverbal autistic teens from around the globe.
The wonderful cinematography from Ruben Woodin Deschamps is a perfect vessel to unveil the beautifully undiscovered country the film explores. These teens are talented, intelligent and expressive, longing for friendships that only require “peace from the world.”
And more than anything, they want to change the perception of autism by joining the conversations they’ve long been the subject of. The Reason I Jump is a touching introduction into how much we can learn by listening to them.
If Not Now, When?
On Apple TV
by Hope Madden
Meagan Good and Tamara Bass have essentially grown up before our eyes. Mainly taking supporting roles in films and TV, the veterans have been fairly consistent presences since the Nineties.
For their latest, they create their own roles and their own stories. If Not Now, When?—written by Bass and co-directed by the duo—chronicles the lives of four high school besties facing their thirties and wondering what went wrong.
Good and Bass co-star as, respectively, a professional facing her addiction problem and a nurse unwilling to hope for a family of her own. They’re joined by Mekia Cox as a football star’s unhappily pregnant wife, and, most impressively, Meagan Holder as a mother torn between family and ambition.
The four have a fairly solid chemistry, with Holder bringing a mellow, peacemaker vibe that diffuses much of the melodrama the film flirts with. A solid supporting cast—Edwin Hodge is especially strong as a love interest—help give each character’s personal story some needed depth and interest.
Bass’s script is too often superficial, creating moments for each star to shine, but those moments invariably feel unearned. Without weightier or more believable interior lives and conflicts, flashes of heartbreak or breakthrough come off as little more than fodder for an acting reel. They rarely feel like honest moments in a character’s life.
If Not Now, When? does a lot right, too. The pacing of each character’s arc is different, so the excitement and poignant moments are staggered—more like real life. We don’t all hit our own personal highs and lows simultaneously (thank God), and neither should these characters. The cadence not only lends some needed authenticity, but it gives the film a slight irregularity in its structure, which keeps it from feeling formulaic or predictable.
In keeping with that thread of authenticity, Bass wisely avoids closing each individual story with tidy precision. Will she or won’t she? And how will that turn out for her? The questions are rarely answered with any real finality, and that emphasizes the film’s point, which is not how each one is doing individually. Bass and Good are more interested in exploring how they do together.
Shadow in the Cloud
by Hope Madden
Sometimes, you’re just in the mood for a B movie, especially if it’s a creature feature.
Extra points if it’s a feminist take on a misogynist’s story.
Shadow in the Clouds co-writer Max Landis has been accused of sexual misconduct and/or outright assault by eight different women. And while it’s tough to stomach any ticket purchase benefitting him, the truth is that co-writer/director Roseanne Liang’s film has stylized fun in depantsing exactly the kind of weak, entitled, insecure crybaby that makes you think of Max Landis.
If you’ve seen the New Zealander’s 2017 horror short Do No Harm, you’ll recognize Liang’s writing here.
The film tags along on a non-combat WWII military flight out of New Zealand. With seconds to spare, an unexpected female flight officer named Maude Garrett (Chloe Grace Moretz) boards the flight carrying a duffel bag with confidential contents.
The rowdy, boorish, some would say violently sexist crew quickly stashes Maude – sans duffel – in the gun turret until take off.
This is a brilliant move, cinematically. It creates immediate, palpable tension because she is locked into a tiny cell dangling from a moving airplane and dependent upon the good nature of the mainly bad natured men above.
It also allows Moretz and Liang the opportunity to introduce any number of terrifying elements out there in the clouds.
But mainly, it gives Moretz the chance to own the film for a while, and she does. Together filmmaker and lead slyly reveal more about Maude, ratcheting tensions and thrills as they do. Liang leans into budgetary constraints, developing a cheesy retro vibe while finding appealing ways to introduce different characters.
In many respects, the writing is the weakness. Too often scenes devolve into obvious but inauthentic ways to further the plot. Still, a lot tends to be forgivable in an openly, charmingly B movie.
If the style doesn’t engage you immediately, abandon all hope. The film builds on style, repaying your attention with increasingly insane action ending in a climax where one fight, one monster stands in for every belittling, dangerous, violent, controlling obstacle Maude has ever faced.
You can picture Max Landis if you like.
Shadow in the Cloud is a ludicrous, over-the-top action horror. It knows what it is and it delivers on its promises.
Read more from George and Hope on twitter @maddwolf and listen to their weekly movie review podcast, THE SCREENING ROOM.