Tag Archives: Ellen Burstyn

Troubled Water

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 it 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.

Wagging the Dog

Wiener-Dog

by George Wolf

So Todd Solondz’s new film is called Wiener-Dog?

Is this a sequel to Welcome to the Dollhouse? Do we catch up with Dawn Wiener and see how her life has turned out?

Well, no, and…sort of.

Dawn (now played by Greta Gerwig) is just one of the perfectly odd owners of the titular dachshund. From an introverted boy, to Dawn, to a young brother and sister, to a sad sack film school professor (Danny DeVito), and finally to a sick old woman (Ellen Burstyn), the sweet pooch connects vignettes full of Solondz’s bleak, darkly comic worldview.

During the film school segment, DeVito’s Professor Schmerz speaks wistfully of wanting to write his great screenplay, one full of memories, pain, and dreams. And, he says, “I wanted it to be funny.”

That sounds an awful lot like Solondz refusing to apologize for his challenging approach, and good for him. Wiener-Dog is funny, sometimes very funny, and early on you wonder if this film might herald a more hopeful, optimistic Todd.

No, same Todd. Ruminations on death and regret permeate each segment, punctuated by painfully harsh situations and coal black, wince-inducing humor. As the incredibly sweet wiener-dog moves from owner to owner, Solondz reminds us to appreciate all the souls (pets included) that come in and out of our lives, and the effect they each have on our mutually shared journey…because, you know, we’re all headed for the same fate anyway.

Solondz is not for every appetite, but his vision is unique, and this may actually be his most accessible film to date.  With its old school intermission and two musical odes to a canine hero, Wiener-Dog feels almost light-hearted…until it brings you back to a universe full of comic despair.

So enjoy, and good luck getting “The Ballad of Wiener-Dog” out of your head.

Verdict-3-5-Stars

 

 





Halloween Calendar, Day 31: The Exorcist

 

The Exorcist (1973)

The Exorcist gets a bad rap for being too Catholic, too traditional, anti-feminist. I read an account from a self-proclaimed Satanist who disliked it because the devil would never be so easily foiled. But for evocative, nerve jangling, demonic horror, you will not find better.

Director William Friedkin’s career is spotted with tepid-to-awful films, but when he cranks out a good one, look out. Hot on the heels of the verite action of his Oscar-winning The French Connection – a film that subverted expectations by casting seriously flawed heroes who don’t manage to resolve the film’s conflict – he made an abrupt left with this one.

Slow-moving, richly textured, gorgeously and thoughtfully framed, The Exorcist follows a very black and white, good versus evil conflict: Father Merrin V Satan for the soul of an innocent child.

But thanks to an intricate and nuanced screenplay adapted by William Peter Blatty from his own novel, the film boasts any number of flawed characters struggling to find faith and to do what’s right in this situation. And thanks to Friedkin’s immaculate filming, we are entranced by early wide shots of a golden Middle East, then brought closer to watch people running here and there on the Georgetown campus or on the streets of NYC.

Then we pull in a bit more: interiors of Chris MacNeil’s (Ellen Burstyn) place on location, the hospital where Fr. Karras’s mother is surrounded by forgotten souls, the labs and conference rooms where an impotent medical community fails to cure poor Regan (Linda Blair).

Then even closer, in the bedroom, where you can see Regan’s breath in the chilly air, and examine the flesh rotting off her young face. Here, in the intimacy, there’s no escaping that voice, toying with everyone with such vulgarity.

The voice belongs to Mercedes McCambridge, and she may have been the casting director’s greatest triumph. Of course, Jason Miller as poor, wounded Fr. Damien Karras could not have been better. Indeed, he, Burstyn and young Linda Blair were all nominated for Oscars.

So was Friedkin, the director who balanced every scene to expose its divinity and warts, and to quietly build tension. When he was good and ready, he let that tension burst into explosions of terrifying mayhem that became a blueprint for dozens of films throughout the Seventies and marked a lasting icon for the genre.

Remember the stories of moviegoers fleeing the theatre, or fainting in the aisles midway through this film? It seemed like hype then, but watch it today, experience the power the film still has, and you can only imagine how little the poor folks of the early 1970s were prepared.

Even after all this time, The Exorcist is a flat-out masterpiece.