Film Reviews For The Cine-Literate

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A new character-driven charmer has come to city screens. “Puzzle” is a modest story of self-discovery whose origin is not literary but rather based on another movie script. Its achievements, too, are relatively modest, except for a superb lead performance from an actor too little known: Scottish actress Kelly Macdonald.

“Puzzle” introduces us to the circumscribed life of Agnes (Macdonald), dutiful wife of burly auto mechanic Louie (David Denham) and mom of two mature boys, living in the house of her widowed father where she grew up in Bridgeport, Connecticut. The film opens with a sequence devoid of dialogue in which Agnes takes on every menial task for a family party in a setting that appears to be the mid-1950’s. Only well in do we realize that the party is for her own 40th birthday and the time is contemporary, since one son gives her an iPhone as a present. Another gift is a jigsaw puzzle, which she accepts placidly. Once alone, working the puzzle, she solves it readily. It is the first time she experiences the heady thrill of being very good at something.

A visit to a puzzle shop leads to her answering a request (while learning how to manipulate her iPhone) for teaming up with another puzzler for competitions. Thus, Agnes anxiously goes to the Manhattan townhouse of Robert (Irrfan Khan), a wealthy, one-time inventor. Robert immediately recognizes her talent and recruits her as his partner for an upcoming national jigsaw tournament. Though still mired in her routine life, Agnes now has an outlet to a wider world (about which her family knows nothing). The stimulus of puzzling and conversing with sophisticated, enigmatic Robert finds her both discovering new aspects of herself and taking on a new assertiveness in dealing with the men in her family. Though Louie and sons are puzzled by and critical of her newfound boldness, she gently defies them and enters the national jigsaw contest to test her mettle—and perhaps to change her future.

Kelly Macdonald first drew cinematic attention as a young woman in British pictures like “Trainspotting” (1996) and “Gosford Park” (2001). Since, she has made an impression in a great variety of films and TV shows on both sides of the pond, perhaps most notably in “No Country for Old Men” (2007) and the HBO series “Boardwalk Empire” (2010-14). In “Puzzle,” she is pretty much the whole show, appearing in virtually every scene, and pulling off the transformation of the timid drudge to a self-confident woman while still maintaining a modest demeanor and quiet tone (delivered in an excellent American accent). Her standing up to her husband and family is the more touching for being measured, never agitated. She a mouse that finds her roar.

Marc Turtletaub, a longtime Hollywood producer, here directs for the first time from a script by Polly Mann and Oren Moverman (“Love and Mercy”), who adapted the story from an Argentine film of 2009 called “Rompecabezas” (which means “puzzle” in Spanish). The script and production, according to Turtletaub, tried to avoid making Agnes a totally browbeaten, pathetic creature and to likewise avoid making Louie a one-note slob: to depict a mundane but naturalistic family. All the actors do fine work in this context, especially Denham, who portrays a decent if rough guy who truly loves his wife but wants comfortable, predictable patterns in his life. Irrfan Khan (“The Lunchbox”), grand, imposing and imperious in voice, contrasts in every way from the vulnerable Agnes, but he makes his infatuation with her believable.

(The film is rated “R” and runs 102 minutes.)

Kelly Macdonald on “Puzzle”

Kelly Macdonald, along with her director Marc Turtletaub, appeared in Washington in mid-July for a preview screening of “Puzzle” and took questions about their new film.

Macdonald opened by saying that the script for the film “bowled me over,” in part because so much of her character was portrayed without dialogue. The biggest thing she realized about her character in the opening scenes was that she “was completely invisible—she’s not there!” She said she prepared in part by watching a lot of silent films to study how to put muteness into action and even looked for ways “to get rid of some dialogue” to further ground her performance of Agnes. (In an aside, Turtletaub said he purposely aimed to have Macdonald “fade into the wallpaper patterned on her old dresses to seem old-fashioned”).

For the family scenes, Macdonald said she and the rest of the cast “just hung out” in a house in Yonkers, New York, for six weeks. They did not rehearse. “You have to become friendly quickly,” she remarked “to establish a rapport.” Much of that team building came from “spending time in the back garden (of the location house) in lawn chairs—good ones—bought from Costco.” Asked about how she achieved a viable American accent, the Scottish actress—who normally possesses a lovely brogue—said “having a good dialogue coach on set.”

Macdonald knew nothing of the competitive puzzling scene when she came into the film but developed her own routine to appear to be a competent solver and “that came to have a reverberating effect” on her performance. She found the Agnes character “lovely” and her development a pleasure to take on. “We don’t know how her journey ends,” Macdonald noted, “but she needs to go on a personal journey.”

(August 2018)

Left to right: Kelly Macdonald as Agnes and Irrfan Khan as Robert.
Photo by Linda Kallerus, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Eighth Grade

Kayla Day (Elsie Fisher) is 13 and in her last week of eighth grade and looking forward—with trepidation—to high school in her benign suburb. The year has been hard on the naturally shy kid (who doesn’t have a mom in her life), as she struggles to find herself. Generally addicted, like many of her peers, to her electronic devices, she tries to salve her ego with her own webcast, stumbling to express mini-profundities—like “being yourself”--in a delivery littered with “ya knows” and “likes” to a audience of which she knows nothing.

Kayla also desperately wants to be cool but can’t, like, seem to achieve it. She’s embarrassed at a pool party, which she is attending only through the beneficence of a popular girl’s mother. While there, she can only attract the attention of a nerdy boy, Gabe (Jake Ryan), pays some attention to her. Connecting with others is essential to her, but she has little knack for it. She tries to play up to more worldly girls and, a bit desperately, researches sex acts in an attempt to interest vapid boys. At the year-end school assembly, her mortification is complete by being named “Most Quiet” student in the school.

Her semi-clueless single dad Mark (Josh Hamilton) loves her and tries to buck Kayla up, but it’s hard when he can’t enter her well of isolation or reach her through the fog of social media (she’s obliviously on her phone at dinner). She has a small breakthrough when a high school shadow program matches her with the Olivia (Emily Robinson), a lively teen who becomes a mentor to her, but another encounter on a drive with an older boy (Daniel Zolghadri) turns ugly when he suggests a sordid “truth or dare” exchange. Kayla’s review of her earlier sixth-grade time capsule causes her to reject her past and try to look forward with some measure of confidence.

“Eighth Grade” stands or falls on the performance of 15-year-old Elsie Fisher (an actor since she was five). Well, in her case, she stands tall--at probably 5’ 3.” Maybe she is just playing herself, a prototype American teenager, but she makes the character of Kayla her own, appearing in virtually every scene. Her round face of acceptance, lightly sprinkled with adolescent zits, and her moony eyes seem just right for this puzzled, poignant young girl, as is her placid, hesitant voice searching for affirmation from everyone, someone. She is moody and muddled but still emits small bursts of courage in trying to grow up enough for the next stage of her life.

Writer/director Bo Burnham makes his feature film debut with “Eighth Grade” and reveals tremendous promise with this achievement. Burnham, though now all of 27, appears to have total recall of middle school and its multifarious humiliations. He had success early as a YouTube entertainer in his teens, writing and performing satirical gigs in his house, then moving on to stand-up comedy. He began a film career of his own with performances in films like last year’s “The Big Sick.” His penetrating dive into the mind of an anxious but endearing young woman makes “Eighth Grade” a template for today’s teens and a wonder for filmgoers.

(The film is rated “R” and runs 94 minutes.)

(July 2018)

Elise Fisher studies her screen in "Eighth Grade"
Photo by Linda Kallerus, courtesy of A24 Pictures.

Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot

Director Gus Van Sant has crafted an immense variety of films in the last 30 years, from small indies to major studio properties. In his latest, “Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot,” he is back in mainstream Hollywood with a gutsy biopic based on the life of edgy cartoonist John Callahan, an unrepentant drunk and ne’er-do-well whose life turned around at 21 when he became a paraplegic after a vicious car crash.

Callahan (Joaquin Phoenix), a drinker since he was 13, is a bum and a slob when he hitches up at a bar with the loudmouth Dexter (Jack Black) on a colossal bender in his hometown of Portland. He ends up in the hospital after a car accident that leaves him barely alive and without feeling in his lower body (while Dexter escapes unhurt). Upon his release, he only reluctantly enters treatment, but with encouragement from girlfriend Annu (Rooney Mara), whom he met in the hospital, he begins attending AA-sponsored group therapy at the home of Donnie (Jonah Hill), a group leader who becomes his sponsor. Ornery and eccentric, John defies treatment by continuing to drink and to live riskily—as when he speeds around in his wheelchair—and to offend his fellow group members, a most disparate lot.

Uncertain how to adapt to his disability, Callahan stumbles upon a gift for drawing nervy, impudent cartoons that get ready laughs, and he ultimately gets published locally. He thus achieves a discipline he has never known and finds romance with Annu, gains a bevy of new friends, and is even able to track down and forgive the obnoxious Dexter, who was responsible for his crash. His work gains a national following and a richer life.

Callahan’s real-life story is made-to-order for Joaquin Phoenix. The much in-demand actor, though rarely sympathetic on screen, has shone great range in the last 25 years, playing both clueless types (as in “To Die For,” his first work with Van Sant, and “The Master”), as well as nasty swine (“The Gladiator” and “The Immigrant”). Yet he has been perhaps most commonly cast as a very flawed, if semi-aware, wastrel, one given to rough living and raw emotions (e.g., the recent “Irrational Man” and “Inherent Vice”). In “Don’t Worry,” Phoenix finds a persona that suits these traits, a profligate whose life is completely upended and yet ends up making effective comic use of his own crushing disability. Phoenix is both convincing as the inveterate drunk as well as the artist redeemed through his snarky sensibility. The only dissident note to his characterization is a misbegotten orange wig.

Phoenix is nicely seconded in “Don’t Worry” by Jonah Hill as Donnie, a soft-spoken and enigmatic trust-fund boy who mixes his Liberace ways with some surprising spine to keep his charges on the right track, a track he himself, as an alcoholic, tries to maintain with increasing difficulty. His Donnie is hard to read, a bit mysterious, but an intriguing contrast to the crass Callahan.

(The film is rated “R” for language and sexual situations and runs 113 minutes.)

(July 2018)

Joaquin Phoenix stars as John Callahan in "Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot."
Photo by Scott Patrick Green, courtesy of Amazon Studios.

Leave No Trace

Eight years ago, writer/director Debra Granik gained recognition with her first feature “Winter’s Bone” (2010), which was set among the marginalized folks of the Ozarks and made a star of Jennifer Lawrence. Granik has now completed her second fiction film, which shares with “Winter’s Bone” a stern outdoor setting and a central role for a promising young actress. And, while the new picture plays in a softer, quieter mode, the director has produced another winner.

Widower Will (Ben Foster) and his 13-year-old daughter, Tom (newcomer Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie), have lived undetected for years in Forest Park, a woods on the edge of Portland, Oregon. Their shelter consists of crude tarps and wet sleeping bags, their food is variable and often raw, but their bond is strong. There are hints about his troubled past in the military, but we gain little backstory. Tom’s world is utterly defined by her father, she never having known her mother. They dip into the outside world occasionally for food and supplies, but Will distrusts civilization and fiercely treasures his independent life, a value he projects on to his daughter. Yet their situation is illegal--trespassing on public land—and local police ultimately find and uproot them before turning them over to a local social service agency.

They must adapt to their new surroundings in a modest trailer, and though Tom is intrigued by their new setting and Will is offered a job, he still finds this more settled life confining. His frustration leads him to escape that community to return with Tom to the wilderness. But their situation, in a forest at higher altitude, is even more forbidding than before and leads to a serious accident. Helped by medical personnel, they are eventually taken in by a woman running a van and RV park for a motley collection of independent forest dwellers. It is here where Tom’s new sense of community is fostered and her relationship to her father finally tested. As she asserts near the end of the picture: “The same thing that is wrong with you isn’t wrong with me.”

The screenplay is by Granik and Anne Rosellini (co-writer of “Winter’s Bone”) and was adapted from Peter Rock's novel “My Abandonment.” It adopts the first-person perspective of the novel, taking Tom’s point of view, but without a narrative over voice, and that presentation from the child’s viewpoint—we see almost everything through Tom’s eyes--provides a large part of the film’s power. Thus, Will is seen from the outside, a man hard to read or comprehend, while we come to realize that Tom’s life in a community with others may offer promise of a different future.

The demeanor of “Leave No Trace” recalls Granik’s earlier film: rugged and palpably real locales populated by utterly believable actors. The cast simply inhabits their roles, such as the sympathetic social worker (Dana Millican), and the welcoming RV manager (Dale Dickey), who proves a kind of stand-in grandmother. Ben Foster’s Will is appropriately terse and tense, a tortured soul taking on the skittish life of the animals he lives among. Yet, even with his grimness and insecurity, you sense his love for Tom.

Young McKenzie is the revelation here. Aged 17 when the film was made, she comes from an acting family in her native New Zealand (her mom is a film actress), and this is her first starring role and the first time she has worked out of her country. Her presence, as a soft-spoken but ever aware young woman, captivates, with a wonderful mix of plain-faced naiveté and burgeoning curiosity. Granik has found just the right visage and voice to adorn another melancholic but worthy effort.

(The film is rated "PG" and runs 109 minutes.)

(July 2018)

Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie (left) and Ben Foster in “Leave No Trace,” a Bleeker Street Release
Photo Credit: Scott Green/Bleeker Street.