All posts by One Guys Opinion

Dr. Frank Swietek is Associate Professor of History at the University of Dallas, where he is regarded as a particularly tough grader. He has been the film critic of the University News since 1988, and has discussed movies on air at KRLD-AM (Dallas) and KOMO-AM (Seattle). He is also the Founding President of the Dallas-Fort Worth Film Critics' Association, a group of print and broadcast journalists covering film in the Metroplex area, and was a charter member of the Society of Texas Film Critics. Dr. Swietek is a member of the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS). He was instrumental in the creation of the Lone Star Awards, which, through the efforts of the Dallas-Fort Worth Regional Film Commission, give recognition annually to the best feature films and television programs produced in Texas.

PIECES OF A WOMAN

Producers: Ashley Levinson, Aaron Ryder and Kevin Turen   Director: Kornél Mundruczó   Screenplay: Kata Wéber   Cast: Vanessa Kirby, Shia LaBeouf, Molly Parker, Ellen Burstyn, Sarah Snook, Iliza Shlesinger, Benny Safdie, Frank Schorpion and Jimmie Fails   Distributor: Netflix

Grade: C+

There’s so much that’s excellent in this English-language debut from Hungarian director  Kornél Mundruczó (“White Dog”) that the missteps are all the more regrettable.

The plot, though emotionally complex, is actually quite a simple one in narrative terms.  A Boston couple—prim businesswoman Martha (Vanessa Kirby) and rugged construction worker Sean (Shia LaBeouf)—are expecting their first child, and have decided on a home birth.  When the night arrives, however, the midwife with whom they’ve been working is attending to another client, and sends a replacement—Eva (Molly Parker).  Things go awry, and the infant survives only briefly; paramedics who have been summoned cannot save her.

The tragedy places strains on the relationship between the devastated Martha and Sean, who agrees with his mother-in-law Elizabeth (Ellen Burstyn) that they should proceed with a civil suit against Eva despite the fact that the two have never gotten along.  Martha’s sister Anita (Ilisa Shlesinger) and her boyfriend Chris (Benny Safdie) are sucked into the unhealthy dynamic.  Suzanne (Sarah Snook), a lawyer, is hired.  Things culminate—except for a misguided postscript—at Eva’s trial, which has become the focus of public anger over her supposed incompetence.

By far the most compelling part of the film comes at the start with the extraordinarily powerful birthing sequence, a brilliantly choreographed scene shot with a tensely moving camera by cinematographer Benjamin Loeb, which is so gut-wrenching that makes everything that follows, however fraught, feel anticlimactic.

That doesn’t mean that the rest of the film lacks dramatic incident.  A bitter confrontation between Martha and her mother, for example, gives Elizabeth an impassioned diatribe about why her own past impels her to be so adamant now that Burstyn delivers with all the thrust one expects of her.  And throughout Kirby, not only in her exchanges with Burstyn and LaBeouf but in quieter moments as well, brings nuance and resonance to her character.

But elsewhere the makers’ skill falters.  A subplot about Sean’s involvement with Suzanne comes off as not just implausible but crass.  The punctuation of episodes with shots of the bridge Sean and his co-workers are building, showing the completion of the structure over the course of the year covered by the film, seems like a hollow symbol of “building bridges” between warring people, expressed in the too-easy culmination of Eva’s trial.  And what to make of that weird coda, which inhabits an emotional world totally at odds with what’s preceded?

One must admire the work of Mundruczó and Loeb, as well as editor David Jacobs, who adds to the hazy, sometime hallucinogenic ambience; and one has to feel for production designer Sylvain Lemaitre, who must convince us that locations in Montreal and Norway are actually in Boston.  Howard Shore’s elegiac score is also notable, as are the performances by the supporting cast, especially Burstyn and Parker.  (Only LaBeouf is somewhat stymied by a character whose background is never sufficiently explored—one wonders how Sean and Martha ever got together in the first place.)

In the end, though, “Pieces of a Woman” seems an apt title for a film that has moments of searing power, but never quite comes together into a persuasive whole. 

BLOODY HELL

Producer: Joshua Paul and Brett Thornquest   Director: Alister Grierson   Screenplay: Robert Benjamin   Cast: Ben O’Toole, Meg Fraser, Caroline Craig, Matthew Sunderland, Travis Jeffery, Jack Finsterer, David Hill, Caleb Enoka, Joshua Brennan, Ashlee Lollback and Sophia Emberson-Bain   Distributor: The Horror Collective

Grade: C+

It’s difficult for a horror comedy to keep up its energy level for the duration, and while “Bloody Hell” doesn’t escape some doldrums, its snarky attitude and gleeful ghoulishness, especially in the final reel, will probably satisfy those with a hankering for the genre.

The central character is Rex (Ben O’Toole, giving a virtuoso performance) whom we meet as he stands in line at a bank, patiently arranging to chat up Maddy (Ashlee Lollback), the clerk who’s he’s sweet on.  Unfortunately their conversation is interrupted by a masked gang of robbers, and as he cowers behind a desk, his volatile alter-ego eggs him on to take forceful action.  He does, without restraint; and though many who watch the security footage see him as a hero, the way in which he ends the robbery (which we see later in the picture, in flashback) sends hi o prison.

Upon his release years later, Rex finds himself unable to escape the badgering of the press and public, so he flees in Finland, where he’s kidnapped by what turns out to be a peculiar family, a father (Matthew Sunderland) and mother (Caroline Craig), their nervous son (Travis Jeffery) and a stern uncle (Jack Finsterer).  As it turns out, there’s another son, called Pati (Caleb Enoka), whom they have to care for in a very particular way.

Rex finds himself hanging from the ceiling in the family’s basement.  And the lower part of his left leg has been sawed off.  Naturally his alter-ego encourages him to try to escape his bonds, but the situation seems hopeless—until Olli (David Hill), the youngest son of the clan, and his winsome sister Alia (Meg Fraser), who’s assigned to watch over the kid, come to visit the basement.  Rex takes advantage of their naiveté to free himself.

But that’s only the beginning of what Rex must do to save himself—and the lovely Alia.  There is a gory confrontation with the family, whose unholy service to Pati must be conclusively ended.  None of it is pretty.  And, of course, there are concluding twists that things are not really over.

The concluding carnage will certainly meet the expectations of those who yearn for such stuff, and the bank robbery scenes, so often flashed back to, should remind action fans of Tarantino and his many imitators.  The snarky repartee of Rex’s motor-mouth alter-ego will also be embraced by Tarantino-ites. 

But to tell the truth, it gets exhausting after a while, especially in the prolonged scenes of Rex’s basement bondage, which seem to go on forever despite the editing efforts of screenwriter Robert Benjamin and director Alister Grierson.  Otherwise Grierson’s helming keeps things moving reasonably well and Benjamin’s expository dialogue is adequate to its purpose.  Michael Rumpf’s production design, Berad Shield’s cinematography and Brian Cachia’s score are better than average for this sort of movie.

O’Toole absolutely dominates the proceedings as the literally two-faced Rex, but the rest of the rest of the cast play along with the morbid material. 

The movie actually ends with one of its better jokes, when the credits announce that it’s “Finnished.”  But in the end “Bloody Hell” winds up as just a campier take-off on “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” that only fitfully achieves the intensity of Tobe Hooper’s classic. 

Still, it may be enough of a gore-fest for hard-core fans.