Tag Archives: C

THE WAKE OF LIGHT

Producer: Renji Philip   Director: Renji Philip   Screenplay: Renji Philip   Cast: Rome Brooks, Matt Bush, William Morton, Tyler Steelman, Sandra Seeling, Paula Rhodes, Avery Quinn Moss and Lincoln Bodin    Distributor: Axispacific Filmworks

Grade: C-

Renji Philip’s film—slender in both running-time and emotional weight—carries a note of thanks to Werner Herzog in the credits, but what the renowned director might have had to do with encouraging its auteur is unclear.  In any event “The Wake of Light” comes off as a slight, affected quasi-romance with a message of redemption at its core.  (It opens, one should note, with a Scriptural quotation, and includes a sequence of its protagonist visiting a church, but whether one should call it “faith-based,” except in a very muted sense, is questionable.)

The central character is Mary (Rome Brooks), a twenty-something resident of a small town (the film was shot around Sutter Creek, California).  She lives in a remote house on the outskirts of town with her father (William Morton); he’s a widower, partially incapacitated by a stroke, whom she has taken care of for years.  (There are recurrent gauzy flashbacks to the time when, as a child played by Avery Quinn Moss, she found him lying in a field.) 

They live mostly on her father’s disability income, it seems, but Mary also makes a bit of money by selling bottles of water from their backyard pump in town.  It’s while on her rounds that she meets Cole (Matt Bush), an amiable fellow from Virginia on a trip to Sand Flats in Utah whose car has broken down outside of town. A chipper, endlessly chatty guy who says “Cool” and “Awesome” a lot, he buys a bottle of water from Mary and says it’s the best he’s ever tasted.

That’s the beginning of a brief encounter in which she shows him the well, brings him over for dinner, introduces him to her dad’s pet rabbit, and invites him to sit with her and her father in law chairs to watch the sunset.  She also takes him on a hike to visit her favorite spot in the wilderness.

But though he eventually asks her to come away with him, she refuses.  He accuses her of using her father as an excuse for not moving ahead with her life (a fact her father, suddenly able or willing to speak, seconds) and leaves, only to come back later; he can’t stay, though, because—as we learn—there’s something he’s running away from back home.  Apparently this has been a journey of discovery for both, although in the end Mary remains where she started, enjoying an impromptu Fourth of July meal with her father and their neighbors, little Russell (Tyler Steelman) and his mom Laura (Sandra Seeling).  If this is meant to add a note of newfound independence to the mix, that’s not made clear.

Though at under eighty minutes “The Wake of Light” barely constitutes a feature, it’s terribly padded—mostly with elongated montages in which Mary and Cole talk comfortably with one another; of course we don’t hear what they’re saying, because the soundtrack instead gives us reams of sappy music composed by Josh Mancell, filled with tinkling piano riffs by Josh Kramer—an all-too common dodge to avoid writing meaningful dialogue.

The performances by Brooks and Bush are wildly different; she’s moody and quiet, he’s a bundle of phony enthusiasm.  The only other actor of consequence is Morton, who mostly lumbers about in a bathrobe, though tyke Steelman is irritatingly energetic (he’s apparently meant to be somewhere on the spectrum).  Rainer Lipski’s camerawork has a tendency to strain for a ruggedly painterly look, while Matthew Diezel’s editing is slack. 

One imagines that Philip hopes that his film will seem quietly profound.  But it only feels uncomfortably pretentious. 

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.