For those rare times when you’re NOT doomscrolling or staring blankly out the window wondering how we got here, we present a selection of worthwhile viewing on the screen of your choice:
“I’m Your Woman”: I’ve not had the pleasure of watching star Rachel Bresnahan’s award-winning work in “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” but this firecracker of a film has me convinced she’s the real deal. By the same token, I haven’t seen any of director Julia Hart’s previous features, but with this effort she has accomplished the seemingly impossible by making a slick, entertaining, action-packed, character-driven flick that subverts genre paradigms without hitting its audience over the head with its social conscience. Impressive.
The genre in question is the 1970s crime drama, and Bresnahan plays the ‘crook’s girlfriend’ character typically relegated to the sidelines in such films. When we meet her, Jean (Bresnahan) is aware that when Eddie (Bill Heck) spends his nights out, he’s not exactly volunteering at the local homeless shelter. So, when he brings home a baby, with no explanation where he got it, and presents it to her, she barely bats an eye before naming it Harry.
Shortly thereafter, Jean is awakened one night by one of Eddie’s compatriots. Things have gone awry, and soon she’s on the lam with the baby, accompanied by Cal (Arinzé Kene), another of Eddie’s colleagues she hasn’t previously met. From there, the pair play hide-and-seek with vengeful killers, from a suburban (supposedly) safe house to a mountain cabin, before eventually taking matters into their own hands.
The movie’s period feel is cinematically, if not perfectly, authentic, and centering the narrative on Jean is an effective script-flipping that emphasizes how even the memorable characters played by Edie Falco in “The Sopranos” or Lorraine Bracco in “Goodfellas” were still relegated to the sidelines of their male-dominated stories. The fact that Cal is Black adds another layer of commentary to the film, especially in a scene where Jean and Cal are confronted late at night on the side of a road by a white police officer. But these moments never feel tacked-on or didactic—they naturally flow from character and environment.
Hart, whose husband Jordan Horowitz co-wrote and co-produced with her, doesn’t skimp on the directorial flourishes, either. The action scenes are memorably intense. One sequence involving an active shooter in a crowded nightclub should almost come with a trigger warning, considering how chaotically immersive it is. Another breathes new life into what could have been a by-the-numbers urban car chase.
“I’m Your Woman” certainly would have benefitted from the theatrical experience, but it also could have gotten lost in the shuffle if forced to compete against typical multiplex fare. It’s not self-consciously arty enough to become a critical darling and it’s not broadly pitched enough to be a box-office smash. With luck, audiences will have a chance to discover this more than impressive movie in due time online. (Amazon Prime) (Trailer)
“Pieces of a Woman”: Speaking of noteworthy movies with distractingly bland titles that include the word “woman,” this harrowing domestic drama should be in the conversation when Oscar nominations are announced on March 15 (the ceremony itself will take place on April 25), at least for the bravura performance by Vanessa Kirby in her first leading film role. Previously, she’s best been known for playing Princess Margaret in the first two seasons of “The Crown,” but she’s light years away from that world here.
Of course, this film has been, unfortunately, getting more attention for the fact that Shia LaBeouf co-stars as Kirby’s character’s husband than for Kirby’s fine work. LaBeouf has been credibly accused of horrific, abusive behavior and sued for sexual battery and assault by his ex-girlfriend, the musician known as FKA twigs. Netflix has removed LaBeouf’s name from its “For Your Consideration” ads and other marketing materials. But it would be a shame if his behavior distracted from director Kornél Mundruczó’s impressive English-language debut.
The first half-hour of “Pieces of a Woman” ranks among the most grueling sequences in modern cinema. Martha (Kirby) and Sean (LaBeouf) are about to welcome their first child, and have opted for a home birth. When their regular midwife is unable to attend, a substitute (Molly Parker) arrives, and eventually things go tragically awry. Anyone who has experienced similar trauma couldn’t be blamed for wanting to skip ahead to the remainder of the film, which chronicles the fallout from this event and its effect on Martha and Sean’s relationship. Martha’s mother (American treasure Ellen Burstyn, hair as perfect and spirit as strong as ever at the ripe age of 88) pushes for the prosecution of the hapless midwife, while Sean relapses into substance abuse and succumbs to impotent male rage.
Martha, for her part, seems numbed by an inability to process her loss. This is where Kirby truly shines, conveying the fragility beneath Martha’s steely exterior. The screenplay is by Kata Wéber, Mundruczó’s frequent collaborator and romantic partner, and was inspired in part by the couple’s own experience losing a baby. This likely accounts for the emotional nakedness and sense of intimate detail in the movie, aspects that make it more than a bit disappointing when the third act morphs into a courtroom drama that fails to reach a satisfying emotional resolution. For most of its running time, however, this is a compelling experience, enhanced by the skillful use of extended takes by its director—that opening sequence is essentially a single, twenty-minute shot.
That balletic, unmoored camera is a frequent tool for Mundruczó, at least based on the two other films of his I’ve seen, both made in his native Hungary. One was 2014’s canine allegory “White God,” and the other was 2017’s “Jupiter’s Moon,” which is currently streaming on the MUBI subscription service. “Jupiter’s Moon” is, like “White God,” a fascinating, flawed allegory about intolerance. In it, a Syrian migrant named Aryan (Zsombor Jéger) who is apprehended and shot while trying to enter Hungary emerges from the experience with the supernatural ability to levitate and heal. A cynical doctor (Merab Ninidze) tries to exploit Aryan’s newfound skills for his own financial and personal benefit. Despite a certain heavy-handedness, it’s worth a watch at least for those multi-minute tracking shots and for convincing performances by the leads. (“Pieces of a Woman” is on Netflix (trailer); “Jupiter’s Moon” is on MUBI (trailer).)
“The Ghost of Peter Sellers”: Speaking of Hungarian-born filmmakers, in 1972 director Peter Medak, fresh off the success of “The Ruling Class,” was lured to Cyprus to shoot a pirate comedy starring Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan. The result was “Ghost in the Noonday Sun,” and if you’ve never heard of it that’s because, after a shoot that was, shall we say, troubled, the movie was essentially shelved by its studio and remains basically unseeable today. (Although, of course, Portland’s Movie Madness has a VHS copy available for rental!)
Forty years later, Medak returned to the site of this cinematic crime for this documentary, which gives him a chance to exorcise some ghosts, namely that of Sellers, whose erratic, borderline-criminal behavior was the primary reason for the production’s chaos and failure (although Medak’s inexperience may have run a close second). The result is a minor treat for film history buffs, and a must-see for Sellers completists. The story it tells of 1970s moviemaking hubris is not a new one, however, and one wonders if every so-called film maudit will eventually be deemed worthy of its own cultish documentary. If so, it’ll only really be worth it when we get the definitive take on the making of Jerry Lewis’ “The Day the Clown Cried.” (Criterion Channel, which is also showing an array of Sellers’ better-known, and doubtlessly better, films)
“Frantz Fanon: Black Skin, White Mask”: This documentary portrait by British director Isaac Julien (“Looking for Langston”) provides a timely refresher on the anticolonial, antiracist writer whose life and work were cut tragically short. Born and raised on the French island colony of Martinique, Fanon trained as a psychologist and was strongly influenced by the time he spent working in a clinic in Algeria during that nation’s war of independence against France. Despite Fanon’s death from leukemia at only 36, his work on the consciousness of oppressed populations has been influential to future generations of antiracist leaders including Steven Biko and Malcolm X. Julien’s profile includes reminiscences from many of Fanon’s colleagues and brief dramatic reenactments of key moments in his life. As America continues to struggle to reorient itself toward a more equitable treatment of its colonized and oppressed peoples, this film can serve as an effective introduction. (Criterion Channel)
“Sudden Fear”: Despite being restored and re-released several years back, this 1952 thriller remains under-appreciated among the vast oeuvre of Joan Crawford. It was made when she was past the peak of her fame, but her talent continues to shine, at 47, as a playwright who falls in love with and marries a younger, handsome actor (Jack Palance). Initially invigorated by his attentions, Crawford soon descends into desperation when the always disruptive femme fatale Gloria Grahame enters the picture. The movie earned four Academy Award nominations, including Crawford’s third and final one for Best Actress. It’s now be re-released on Blu-ray, and its gets a mention here for the informative and coherent audio commentary track by historian Jeremy Arnold, which lays out the independently-made movie’s fascinating production history. (Blu-ray release from Cohen Home Video, available for rent at Movie Madness)