Then Playing — Pieces of a Woman; 9to5: The Story of a Movement; The Witches of the Orient

Pieces of a Woman (Kornél Mundruczó, 2020). Pieces of Woman is meant to be a real gut punch of drama. It depicts the repercussions on a marriage when a home birth ends in tragedy. Martha (Vanessa Kirby) is Martha, a professional woman from a well-off family, and her partner is Sean (Shia LaBeouf), a more working-class person who harbors mild, welling resentments over his outsider place in Martha’s broader life. Director Kornél Mundruczó and writer Kata Wéber created the story out of their own pain (they worked through the hurt of a miscarriage together) and yet the story is full of cliches and dramatic shams, including a courtroom scene that could join the ranks of worst of its kind in cinema history, and that’s a mighty competitive field. Kirby is a powerhouse in the heavy moments built into the role (her Oscar nomination is completely understandable). The obstacles of the narrative prevent her from building a full character, though. In opting for bludgeoning grimness over emotional nuance, the filmmakers create a work that feels devastatingly false at nearly every turn.

9to5: The Story of a Movement (Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar, 2019). Documentary filmmakers Julia Reichert return to their speciality of capturing labor movements in all their messy glory by tracing the evolution of the 9to5 organization. Started in the early nineteen-seventies, the group, populated and led by women, brought union power to office workers at a time when they were a rapidly growing part of the workforce but still not treated with respect. The movement was a major inspiration for the 1980 comedy Nine to Five (Jane Fonda is interviewed here, proving as sharp and charming as ever) and that is used as a major promotional hook for the documentary, but it’s properly just a blip in the story. The real-life figures are far more fascinating. Reichert and Bognar assemble vintage footage and current interviews to create a compelling film that offers a valuable reminder that people assembling to demand better for themselves can prevail.

The Witches of the Orient (Julien Faraut, 2021). This sports documentary tells the story of Japanese women’s volleyball team in the nineteen-sixties that had a streak of dominance otherwise unheard of outside of the realm of novelty basketball. Their power on the court was so total that certain competitors bestowed them with a nickname that suggested only witchcraft for account for it. The history is inspiring, and the filmmaking is spotty. Despite ample archival footage and access to the reminiscences of players on the team, director Julien Faraut brings too much fuss to the film, employing weird experimental passages with echoing audio and an over reliance on anime adventures of volleyball heroes. When he gets out the way and shows the players playing, as with a passage highlighting the gold-medal game of the 1964 Olympics, The Witches of the Orient is at its strongest.

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