Movie Review by Joan Ellis –


A fine cast can enliven a dull story and dull cast can kill a good one. When outstanding actors land in a sharply original story, the results can be explosive. That happens in Puzzle. Don’t miss it.

The movie opens on Agnes (Kelly Macdonald) as she is swamped by domesticity while cleaning the family house and preparing a delicious birthday dinner. She then summons her husband Louie (David Denman) and their children. But wait, whose birthday is it? It’s hers. That is precisely how director Marc Turtletaub tells us in one quick scene that Agnes does all the work for the family without anyone else lifting a hand.

But here’s what creeps up on us very gently. Agnes is not resentful. It’s her work. Louie loves his family and his home and when he comes home from working in his auto shop, he is thoroughly happy to be with the people he loves. Acceptance by all is the atmosphere.

When Agnes starts assembling the pieces of a birthday present puzzle, we realize we are watching a woman discover that her brain can see the whole in a pile of pieces. We all know instantly that she has found something she must follow. Off she goes to New York City – where she has never been – to a serious puzzle store to begin to learn about her new world.

While there she sees an ad from a gifted puzzle man who needs a partner for a championship. She replies, meets Robert (Irrfan Khan) who is stunned by her ability and invites her to join him. In any other movie we would expect to see any number of plot twists involving resentment, jealousy, affairs and the like, but this isn’t that kind of story. For a long while the two new partners prepare for the championship. This is about two oddly gifted people who grow close on the oddest of paths.

The movie is so full of genuine, unspoken emotion, of kind people oddly matched, of two destined to be together – or are they? In this family full of respect and love for each other, none of the ordinary plot twists unfold. By the time we have learned not to expect the obvious, we are enveloped in the fascination of watching Agnes deal with her genius as she steps into a bigger world.

The team that built this piece of art includes director of photography Chris Norr, writers Oren Moverman and Natalia Smirnoff (original story), director Marc Turtletaub and the cast who understood the quality of their undertaking. Kelly MacDonald should be honored for responding with such subtlety to the whole of the film that she carries. And Irrfan Khan gets an equal bow for his ability and extraordinary restraint as her puzzle partner. The story becomes Agnes’ search for who she really is. Because of the quality of acting, directing, writing, and lighting on all levels, ordinary superlatives do no justice to Puzzle, a movie that is a work of art.

Film Critic: Joan Ellis
Film Title: Puzzle
Word Count: 499
Running Time: 1:43
Rating: R
Date: August 11th, 2018

This review was posted on August 11, 2018, in Drama.

Leave No Trace

Movie Review by Joan Ellis –

Leave No Trace

Leave No Trace takes its gentle time to become one of the year’s finest movies. Debra Granik directed and co-wrote (with Anne Rossellini) a script that is free of conventional plot twists. Result? The emotions generated by the story sink quietly and deeply into the audience. Who can ask for more?

A quick summary. Will (Ben Foster) suffers from PTSD as a result of service in Iraq. He and his thirteen-year-old daughter Tom (Thomasin McKenzie) live in an Oregon forest where they keep the tools of their living under piles of brush. When the park authorities turn them over to the kindly social service people, silent Will can take just so much of the ordinary world before telling Tom to pack up for another new beginning in the forest. Watch the effect of the noise of the machinery on this damaged man when he is assigned to work on a Christmas tree farm.

A silent, damaged father and the bright, loving daughter who accepts his problems and still loves him is the base. What does this movie avoid that would be done by conventional filmmakers?

It gives us no villains to distract us from the central dilemma. Everyone is kind. Father Will may have taken his daughter’s youth but she is strong because of it and she appreciates and learns from the kind people they meet along the way. The fact that there are no crises, villains, or sub-plots to distract us leaves the atmosphere calm and open for the deep emotion generated by father and daughter. In a symbolic moment, a dog that might have become a comfort for daughter Tom simply passes quietly through its moment. No clichés here.

Writer/director Granik uses nothing to distract us from the questioning growing in this young girl. Early on, she is her father’s student in the ways of the forest. As she meets just a few people from the real world along the way, she catches quick glimpses of how they live. People, school, music, and dancing are absent even though her father’s teaching has her above her academic grade level. We are watching a quiet exploration of human need.

The plot of this movie is irrelevant. What it gives us is a long unfolding of an emotionally wounded father who takes the finest care of his daughter in the forest. As she begins to envy a few things about life outside their world that has few people, we know she is academically and emotionally ready to step into a bigger world.

Ben Foster delivers a fine, though nearly silent portrait of the damaged father who does all he can to raise his daughter. But this movie belongs to two people: Writer/Director Debra Granik who made art of a story with a string of subtleties that leads us to an emotionally deep place. With little dialogue, Thomasin McKensie creates a wise young girl who silences an audience in appreciation of her quiet, superb performance. Her quiet performance is riveting.

Film Critic: JOAN ELLIS
Film Title : Leave No Trace
Word Count: 500
Running Time: 1:49
Rating: PG
Date: July 22, 2018

This review was posted on July 28, 2018, in Drama.