Despite the undeniable oddity of covering a film festival remotely, TIFF 2020 has been relatively strong, premiering at least three films I think are truly great (“Nomadland,” “David Byrne’s American Utopia,” and “Wolfwalkers”) and a handful of other very strong entries (“No Ordinary Man,” “Ammonite,” “MLK/FBI”). Of course, for every film festival highlight, there’s a lowlight. Often more than one. And it’s sheer coincidence that today’s dispatch includes three films that reached for something but fell short. One will be a part of the awards season conversation for the next eight months (yes, it’s going to be that long with the delayed Academy Year ... sorry) while another marks a notable disappointment from a typically consistent filmmaker. All three left me frustrated.
Let’s start with the one that already has awards buzz, Kata Wéber & Kornél Mundruczó’s “Pieces of a Woman,” which won its lead actress Vanessa Kirby the Volpi Cup for Best Actress at Venice last week and was picked up by Netflix for worldwide distribution. Made by real-life partners—Wéber is credited with writing and Mundruczo with directing but the credits list it as a film “by” both of them—“Pieces of a Woman” has the feeling of something deeply personal. It's about dealing with unimaginable pain and grief, and what those things can do to people. Despite the rawness of emotion in “Pieces of a Woman,” it comes apart after a bravura opening 30-minute sequence and devolves into an increasingly frustrating melodrama that seems to literally fight against the talented cast trying to breathe some humanity and vulnerability into it. Everyone here is good to great, but what should be a character piece becomes a showcase for elevated acting and melodramatic moments before bafflingly closing as a courtroom drama. There are so many elements here that work, but it’s aggravating to see how much they fail to come together.
Martha Weiss (Kirby) is very pregnant. She’s headed home after a work party to celebrate her maternity leave and her construction worker partner Sean (Shia LaBeouf) is just as excited for the birth of their daughter. After a brief set-up, Mundruczo stages one of the most daring sequences of his career, or any film this year really, a real-time birth of a child in an unbroken shot. We watch as Martha goes into labor, her water breaking in the kitchen. The first sign of trouble is that their midwife is in the middle of another birth, so a backup comes to their Boston home in the form of Eve Woodward (Molly Parker). Still, Eve seems to know what she’s doing and the birthing process seems natural. Until it doesn’t. With an unbroken shot that barely stops moving as it swoops its way around this trio of people on a day they'll never forget, “Pieces of a Woman” is almost worth seeing just for the filmmaking and performances in this sequence.
Because, sadly, what happens next just never lives up to the truth of that first 30 minutes. For the most part, “Pieces of a Woman” is about how people deal with grief. Martha seems cold at first, less emotional about considering donating their baby’s body to science than Sean. And she pulls away from her mother Elizabeth (Ellen Burstyn) instead of realizing she’s grieving too. Most of “Pieces” is about Martha navigating her grief, and how that pushes some people in her life away from her. Sadly, it’s also kind of a legal drama as an old friend and attorney named Suzanne (Sarah Snook) leads the prosecution of Eve. I’ll never understand how a movie that is at its strongest in the intimacy of a couple and family ends in the coldness of a courtroom.
Kirby is good, but most of the praise she's earning and will earn will be for that first sequence and some emotional moments at the end. For the most part, I’m not sure the filmmakers or her know exactly what to do with Martha through the midsection of the film. She becomes a cipher for the sake of the plot instead of something organic. I found LaBeouf’s performance more genuine, someone grasping and struggling through daily life after everything in the world broke for him. Burstyn is a living legend, no doubt, but she’s given an emotional monologue in the back half of the film that is just atrocious, the kind of thing that movies that make fun of Oscar bait would include. The fact that she makes it even tolerable is a sign of her talent.
The writing here just doesn’t work. It’s as if the collaborators knew how they wanted to open their film—showing audiences something we really haven’t seen before in a personal, intimate way. And then what? The rest of the film struggles to find a tone or depth, despite solid choices by the cast throughout.
Another film that struggles with tone is J. Blakeson’s black comedy “I Care a Lot,” which reaches for something like Elmore Leonard or Carl Hiaasen and comes up short. A great ensemble keeps parts of it humming and there are some interesting ideas here about the systemic failures of our society, but the tone and pacing are off throughout and it features a rare misfire in its lead performance from an actress I typically love.
Said actress is Rosamund Pike, who leans into her “Gone Girl” persona with an ice-cold protagonist who introduces herself to us as “a f**king lioness.” Marla Grayson is a legal criminal. She is as bad as a crime lord, but she does it in plain sight. Her racket is taking advantage of the elderly, using a network of doctors and nursing homeowners to make her the ward for people who don’t have family or resources. And then she drains the life savings and very existence of her wards. She is as morally bankrupt as they come, but she would argue she’s just taking advantage of a system like so many businesswomen in this world. Then she tries to essentially “kidnap” the wrong person.
Marla and her girlfriend/partner Fran (Eiza González) are told by their doctor colleague Karen (Alicia Witt) that one of her patients is showing early signs of dementia. Karen calls her a “cherry” because she has absolutely no family and is relatively young. Marla could drain her for years. And so they convince the court to make Jennifer Peterson (Dianne Wiest) a ward of the state, shuffling her off to a facility in a series of scenes that will make people very uncomfortable. Jennifer is drugged, her phone is stolen, and she’s basically made a prisoner. And then Marla learns that Jennifer may not be who seemed at first.
It turns out that Jennifer has some very powerful connections, including a terrifying crime lord named Roman Lunyov (an effective Peter Dinklage), who demands that she be released. They start with legal routes, sending a suave attorney named Dean Ericson (Chris Messina) to clean up the mess. And then they get rougher. “I Care a Lot” goes from an acerbic comedy about a broken system to something closer to a thriller as Roman learns that Marla is not going to be intimidated. No one takes anything from her. Ever.
Pike was clearly a tempting choice for such a potentially fun role, but she and Blakeson never figured this character out. At first, Pike goes way too broad, emphasizing every line with a sly smile that feels like someone doing a parody of Amy Dunne. She settles into the role, most notably in a movie-stealing office scene with Messina, but the problems with her character work their way through the whole film, one that’s constantly struggling with inconsistent pace and tone. Way too long at 118 minutes, too much of “I Care a Lot” needed a tighter edit, and it all rises to a final act in which I realized, sorry, that I didn’t care at all.
A similar apathy washed over me while I was watching “Summer of ’85,” a stunningly inert movie from a filmmaker whose work usually vibrates with passion. I honestly find how François Ozon, the director of “Swimming Pool” and “8 Women,” made such a flat film with this subject matter to be one the year's biggest cinematic mysteries. Ozon struggles to find something that interests him in this story of young love turned tragic, a movie that will draw comparisons to “Call Me By Your Name,” but that never conveys its own passion or emotion to the audience. It's a strange misfire from the director.
Using the young adult novel Dance on My Grave as an inspiration, “Summer of ‘85” is the story of two young men who meet in Normandy one summer. Alexis (Félix Lefebvre) is sailing one day when a storm sneaks up on him, capsizing his boat. A charismatic David (Benjamin Voisin) comes to the rescue and basically takes Alexis home. The pair draws closer, starting a formative physical relationship. However, all of this is tinged with inevitable tragedy because Ozon employs a flashback structure in which Alexis struggles with the death of David, which he tells us was by his own hand.
The structure of “Summer of ‘85” is designed to amplify tension and turn the film into a mystery of sorts as to how or why Alexis would kill David, but it has the opposite impact, bouncing us back and forth in time in a way that makes the film distant and cold. It doesn’t help that neither young performer is particularly good. The only reason to visit this “Summer” is for the gorgeous scenery. It’s just always a bit sad when the backdrop is more memorable than what happens in front of it.