2018 Summer Movie Review: Puzzle

 

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Agnes (Kelly Macdonald) becomes Robert’s (Irffan Khan) new jigsaw puzzle partner in the Sundance hit Puzzle. (Source: Philly.com)

Scottish actress Kelly Macdonald has come a long way from playing the lover to Ewan McGregor’s Renton in Danny Boyle’s 1996 film Trainspotting. With about 50 acting credits to her name, she often plays the role of the mother or wife. While everyone can recognize her voice as Merida in PIXAR’s Brave, her impressive resume includes Gosford Park, Finding Neverland, Nanny McPhee, the Oscar-winning No Country for Old Men, and the HBO series Boardwalk Empire.

In Puzzle, in which it premiered at Sundance in January, the charming actress is back playing the role of the mother and wife. This time, she takes center stage! Under the direction of Marc Turtletaub (producer of Little Miss Sunshine and Loving) and written by Oren Moverman (whose screenplay for Love and Mercy is one of the best of this decade), this delightful little film will definitely earn attention from those who want to take a breather from those blockbusters.

A remake of Rompecabezas, the 2010 film from Argentina, Macdonald plays Agnes, a housewife living in the Connecticut suburbs with her selfish husband Louie (David Denman) and two teenage sons–Gabe (Austin Abrams, Paper Towns and Brad’s Status) and Ziggy (Bubba Weiler)–who are unsure about their futures. Every day, she works around the house. In the opening scene, she sets up her own birthday party–from putting up decorations to baking her own cake). She mysteriously gets a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle as one of her gifts. One day, alone, she decides to work on the puzzle. Normally, it would take days to finish a 1,000-piece puzzle. For Agnes, she finishes it in a matter of hours.

After learning about a puzzle store in New York City, she heads on the train to the big city to buy more jigsaw puzzles. There, she sees an ad from the wealthy Robert (Irrfan Khan, Life of Pi), who’s looking for a puzzling partner for an upcoming tournament in Atlantic City. When these two strangers meet for the first time, Robert is impressed by Agnes’ given talent. The more they learn about one another, they begin to place the pieces to their lives.

Of course, the jigsaw puzzles play out as a recurring metaphor for self-discovery. Turtletaub and Moverman both put it together beautifully. This is certainly Macdonald’s finest moment. She plays the mother who loves her family, but is clearly living in the past. She wants to escape her rough lifestyle to pursue her dream in solving jigsaw puzzles. When she meets Robert, they both realize they have more in common than they would expect. For Robert (wondrously played by Khan), an immigrant from India who becomes a world-class inventor, he is so excited to meet Agnes. We see the two evolve into something special. Agnes’ independence and Robert’s warm, subtle humor are what makes Puzzle shine. As Robert says, in one scene, “When you finish a puzzle, you know you have made all the right choices.”

The movie is far from perfect. While it drags at times, Denman’s Louie is viewed more as a father prototype, who works at a local car garage and loves to go fishing. Some viewers might be disappointed due to the lack of montages of Agnes and Robert placing the puzzle pieces together. Puzzle is a subtle, feel-good movie showcasing a slice of life. It’s nothing entirely special and it doesn’t end summer with a bang, but I’m glad I went to see this.

3/4

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2018 Summer Movie Review: BlacKkKlansman

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Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) and Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) are assigned to infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan in Spike Lee’s new joint, BlacKkKlansman. (Source: Vox)

Hearing the story about a black cop infiltrating the Ku Klux Klan in the 1970s sounds too good to be true. No one can direct a movie like that than Spike Lee, whose 1989 controversial film Do the Right Thing became his first monster hit. It showcases the racial tensions during a stifling summer day in Brooklyn. The tone shifts almost seamlessly–from straight-up hilarious to unflinchingly powerful. The situations the characters get into couldn’t be more relevant than in today’s society.

Over the course of 30 years, he directed what many people consider to be some of his greatest films–He Got Game, 25th Hour, and the brilliant heist film Inside Man–as well as some failures–Miracle at St. Anna, Chi-Raq, and the remake of Oldboy. Spike joins with three other writers and producer Jordan Peele (Get Out) to create BlacKkKlansman, another film relevant to current events.

The year is 1972. Ron Stallworth (John David Washington, the son of Denzel) becomes the first African-American detective for the Colorado Springs Police Department. He begins to work in the filing cabinet upon hire, in which he finds boring. Until, one day, he gives a call to the local Ku Klux Klan, led by David Duke (Topher Grace), after finding an ad in the newspaper convincing readers to join. He poses as a white racist, due to the dismay of his co-workers. He joins with with the more experienced Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), who is Jewish. Together, they decide to take down the KKK.

Never have I seen a movie this year that would make me laugh so hard one minute, and send chills down my spine the next (once the movie was over, everybody left the theater speechless). Spike shifts the tone–from humorous to dramatic–constantly throughout. His unique visual style and phenomenal soundtrack–ranging from James Brown to Emerson, Lake and Palmer–come to excellent use in a setting like this.

Washington couldn’t have been a better choice to play Stallworth, the humble, smart, doesn’t-take-shits-from-anybody police detective, sporting the short afro and ‘70s-era attire. He takes a lot of risk during his investigation, he would get into trouble every step of the way, even if he told his new girlfriend Patrice (Laura Harrier) about the whole situation. He and Driver work off each other so well together when they infiltrate the Klan, with Driver’s Flip posing as Stallworth. Grace, who looks so much like the actual David Duke, showcases his typical offbeat personality while delivering a performance that will grow on people for days after seeing it.

BlacKkKlansman may not win everyone over. This is one of those movies, however, where it’s going to spark discussion for many years to come. It’s funny, powerful, haunting, and timely. It definitely deserves a lot of attention during Oscar season. Well done, Spike!

4/4

2018 Summer Movie Review: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

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Juliet (Lily James) and Dawsey (Michiel Huisman) walk on the beach getting to know each other’s story in The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. (Source: Irish News)

After its premiere in the UK back in April, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society received a warm reception throughout Europe, Australia and New Zealand. That’s due to its charming, old-fashioned portrayal of how a tiny English island suffered so much during World War II. The residents are given a new light when a stranger arrives.

Four months later, it finally graces the small screens in the U.S., where everyone can enjoy the heartwarming tale in the comfort of their own home after browsing endlessly on Netflix. Director Mike Newell (Four Weddings and a Funeral, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire) provides more than a typical history lesson.

Based on the best-selling novel of the same name, the movie is set in 1946. It has barely been a year since World War II ended. London is feeling optimistic about the future. For author Juliet Ashton (Lily James), smelling fresh paint on doors suggests a new start. She’s trying to get another big break after writing humorous columns about life during the war. One day, she receives a letter from a farmer named Dawsey Adams (Michiel Huisman, Game of Thrones), a resident of Guernsey, an English island on the Normandy coast.

While her publisher Sidney Stark (a deadpan Matthew Goode) suggests her to write about literature, Juliet sets sail to the tiny island after becoming so intrigued by learning about a secret book club developed when Guernsey was occupied by Nazi Germany as a way to avoid curfew (the movie opens up in 1941, where the members are caught by the Nazis, and must come up with an excuse). She receives a warm welcome by the group, and they tell their stories about the island and the disappearance of its founder Elizabeth McKenna (Jessica Brown Findlay, Downton Abbey), in which the residents refuse to speak about.

The German-occupation of Guernsey (and Jersey) has rarely been depicted in film. Newell and three screenwriters including Kevin Hood (Becoming Jane) do such a wonderful job providing a fictional yet authentic interpretation of the events that unfold, carefully bouncing back and forth between 1941 and 1946. With Zac Nicholson’s gorgeous cinematography, the Devon coast Guernsey is used as the backdrop for Guernsey, which he tries to avoid it looking like a travelogue.

Fresh from showing her inner Meryl Streep in Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, Lily James is no stranger to period pieces. From Downton Abbey to Pride and Prejudice and Zombies to War and Peace to Darkest Hour, she has a long career ahead of her. Again, she proves she’s more than a pretty face. She delivers another delightful performance as Juliet, who understands how much the Guernsey residents have suffered over the years. Because of this, she’s also getting over a tragedy of her own. She leads a gifted cast of colorful characters including Tom Courtenay as postman Eben Ramsey; famous for his cooking his bland potato peel pie, Katherine Parkinson as gin-maker Isola Pribbey, and Penelope Wilton (another Downton Abbey alum) as Amelia Maugery, who gather around in a circle laughing, reading, and discussing primarily the books of Jane Austen and the Brontës. They reluctantly accept Juliet’s offer to write a book about them. “Our Friday-night book club became a refuge to us,” Dawsey says in a letter to Juliet. “A private freedom to feel the world growing darker all around you, but you only need a candle to see new worlds unfold. That is what we found in our society.”

While it might drag every now and then, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (“Crikey, that’s quite a mouthful,” says Sidney) tells a fascinating story about something I knew very little of. Book fanatics and history buffs will most certainly get something out of it. This romance contains enough mystery to carry through. The best Netflix original film of the summer!

3.5/4

2018 Summer Movie Review: Eighth Grade

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Kayla (Elsie Fisher) struggles to get herself out there in Bo Burnham’s impressive directorial debut Eight Grade. (Source: AZ Central)

Famous for making funny songs on YouTube and short video bits on Vine, 27-year-old goofball comedian Bo Burnham put together probably the best stand-up special of the century with Netflix’s Make Happy. Not only was it funny, it also had a poignancy I never expected from a stand-up special. He illustrated his points through music (pre-recorded and live). For instance, he did his own take on today’s country music in a typical country singer’s voice and points out their cliches. The lyrics couldn’t have been more accurate.

He is this generation’s national treasure!

Premiering early this year at Sundance, Eighth Grade marks Burnham’s directorial debut. It captures the awkward stage of adolescence seen through the eyes of a middle-school girl. There is no other movie that feels more authentic and heartbreaking than this movie.

Set during the last week of middle school, Kayla Day (Elsie Fisher) is a shy and quiet 13-year-old who spends most of her time on her iPhone or making inspirational videos on YouTube that receive little or no attention at all. The opening scene (reminiscent to the beginning of Annie Hall) involves her talking about how “being yourself” can be very difficult. As she rambles on, we see the camera zoom out until she says her signature sign-off, “Gucci!”

Because she spends more time on social media than in the outside world, Kayla struggles to make friends with her classmates and become part of their conversations. When she lives her single father Mark (Josh Hamilton)–the mother left the picture a long time ago–she is confined in her own little world even sitting at the table while her dinner is getting cold. The audience sees Kayla survive her week leading to graduation and hopefully develop a relationship on her crush Aidan (Luke Prael, resembling Timothée Chalamet).

Seeing this movie, I could easily relate to what Kayla has gone through. I was shy and quiet who would get picked on by my peers to no end. The only escape from the real world was from either Facebook or uploading movie reviews on YouTube (which gained more attention than I thought). However, I managed to have some great friends throughout middle school.

15-year-old Fisher couldn’t be more perfect as the upcoming high-school freshman trying to gain self-confidence, no matter how many failed attempts she tries to put herself out there. In an early scene, she gets invited to a pool party, hosted by the popular student Kennedy (Catherine Oliviere). Once she enters her house in a green one-piece swimsuit, she stares outside the window watching the other kids having a good time. For poor Kayla, however, she feels isolated from the group. She soon takes a deep breath and, in one long shot, we follow her into the pool.

There isn’t a movie that came out this year like Eighth Grade. Burnham brings enough humor and sorrow through his razor-sharp screenplay and wonderful direction. The scene at the campfire where Kayla’s dad tells her she is proud of her is hard not to fight back tears. While the movie is rated R for “language and some sexual material”, the MPAA suggests children under 17 to be accompanied by an adult. This is a perfect film for teenagers! I hope Bo Burnham makes more realistic and funny films in the future. One of the year’s best American movies!

4/4