Puzzle

August 24, 2018 by  
Filed under Kiko, Reviews

Starring: Kelly Macdonald, Irrfan Khan, David Denman
Directed by: Marc Turtletaub (“Gods Behaving Badly”)
Written by: Oren Moverman (“The Messenger”) and Polly Mann (debut)

The metaphor might be the most obvious of the year – a housewife and mother has to find a way to piece herself back together and obtain happiness via jigsaw puzzles — but “Puzzle,” like the hobby itself, is a comforting escape.

A remake of a 2010 Argentine film of the same name, “Puzzle” is a quiet and heartwarming drama starring Scottish actress Kelly Macdonald (“No Country for Old Men”) as Agnes, the aforementioned wife and doting homemaker to her blue-collar husband and pair of teenage sons.

Agnes loves her family, but something is missing — something she can’t get from grocery shopping or Bible studying or recipe collecting. She is unfulfilled and wants to do something that will make her feel accomplished. She experiences this unfamiliar sensation when she receives a jigsaw puzzle for her birthday and realizes she’s a natural at putting it together. Traveling by train from her home in Connecticut to New York City to buy another, she is swept into the world of jigsaw puzzles when she meets Robert (Irrfan Khan), a lonely hobbyist looking for a new puzzle partner for an upcoming competition.

Of course, jigsaw puzzle competitions, or puzzles in general – as exciting as that sounds as a movie plot – isn’t the real reason Agnes and Robert connect. This isn’t a film like “Searching for Bobby Fischer” or “Akeelah and the Bee” where audiences are going to witness a competitor’s skill level rise as he or she prepares for a final, nail-biting tournament. No, “Puzzle” is about what is essential for Agnes’s growth as a person, which includes Robert’s passion for puzzles and his belief that Agnes can evolve into the independent woman she wants to become.

Replace puzzles with just about any other activity you can think of — bread making, swing dancing, bird watching — and you’ll likely have the same film as long as Macdonald and Khan are at the center of the narrative. Macdonald’s performance is intimate and subtle, lending itself perfectly to her restrained character. Khan, once again, is a master of monologue (“Life of Pi” and the third season of HBO’s “In Treatment” are great examples of this). Paired together, they form a beautiful platonic relationship that flourishes for nearly the duration of the film.

Sadly, Oscar-nominated screenwriter Oren Moverman (“The Messenger”) and first-time screenwriter Polly Mann, decide to bow to convention and make Agnes and Robert more than just friends by the third act. It’s a disappointing decision, but one that happens after we’ve already come to admire how their interaction with one another has expanded their outlook on life. “Puzzle” might be missing a few pieces, but it’s still a pretty picture.

Jena Malone – Time Out of Mind

October 12, 2015 by  
Filed under Interviews

Next year will mark the 20th anniversary for actress Jena Malone (“Inherent Vice,” “The Hunger Games – Mockingjay”) working in the film industry. She’s only 31, but Malone got her start in the business as a pre-teen, most notably when she was cast as a young Jodie Foster in the 1997 sci-fi film “Contact.” Since then, Malone’s filmography has been one that any former child actor could only dream of. From the 2001 indie cult favorite “Donnie Darko” to the 2007 drama “Into the Wild” directed by Sean Penn to Paul Thomas Anderson’s Oscar nominated 2014 film “Inherent Vice,” Malone says she loves doing it all.

In her latest project, “Time Out of Mind,” Malone plays Maggie, the estranged daughter of a homeless man (Richard Gere) who is trying to form some kind of relationship with her despite the fact she wants nothing to do with him. “Time Out of Mind” has been praised for the guerilla style filmmaking director Oren Moverman instituted during production. During scenes where Gere is on the streets of Manhattan and interacting with New Yorkers, people never realize it is Gere playing the role of a homeless man, which brings an authenticity to the picture.

During our interview, Malone and I talked about the homeless population and how she feels knowing people living on the streets are usually brushed aside by society. We also talked about her passions as an actress, what other art forms she loves, and why she still considers herself a child.

Talk about working with director Oren Moverman for the second time in your career. Of course, you starred in his film “The Messenger” in 2009. What was it about him that made you want to return to one of his sets?

When you ask an actor, “What’s your favorite script you’ve read,” a lot of them would say one of his scripts. A lot of his scripts were always around in Hollywood. He was on the tip of everyone’s tongue for quite sometime. He was writing these incredible character-driven pieces that were so simple and mind-blowing. When I did get an opportunity to sit down with him and work with him on “The Messenger” it was a gift. He’s got such a beautiful vision and a wide-open, vast heart. He’s interested in exploring hard-to-understand parts of our human nature, which I think is really courageous.

Is there a different dynamic on set with a director you’ve worked with before?

Absolutely. You already have a shorthand with them and know what to expect. You also already trust the person. It’s easier to dive in even deeper. It takes a while to gain trust and then to gain a language with the director. So, the fact we could just dive right in without a lot of discussion really was invaluable.

What did you find interesting about your character Maggie?

I think it’s something every woman can relate to – the relationship with her father and the expectation that you have of parents being the caretakers. Sometimes you become the caretaker. There is a sort of anger and estrangement that can happen. Maggie is a young woman who is trying to find her own voice, which sometimes means you have to break down the voices of your parents.

Was the father-daughter dynamic you had with Richard Gere in this film something you had ever experienced as an actress before?

Not really. I feel like this was kind of a new thing for me.

It reminded me a little bit of the relationship between Mickey Rourke and Evan Rachel Wood’s characters in “The Wrestler.” Have you heard that comparison yet?

I haven’t, but I also know that it was about an estranged relationship. I haven’t seen it. I want to see that film.

“Time Out of Mind” and another one of your films, “The Soloist,” are very different, but they do share a similarity in that both lead actors, Richard Gere and Jamie Foxx, played homeless men who have been tossed aside by society. This film isn’t based on a real person like “The Soloist,” but I’m wondering if you allow yourself to think about the people who are in these kinds of situation in real life? Are they on your mind at all when you’re making a movie like this?

Well, for “Time Out of Mind” I really didn’t want to do any research about that because where [Maggie] is coming from is like where the audience is coming from, which is very much a place of judgment. As much as you can care about someone, she just didn’t want anything to do with [her father]. I really wanted to keep that, which I think is a very human thing. We don’t want to see what we don’t understand. We don’t want to take on what hurts us.

Were you able to talk to Richard or Oren at all about their experiences doing their own research on the film? I know they met with a lot of homeless people to understand what they were going through on the streets.

Yeah, they did quite a bunch. I didn’t talk to them too much beforehand, but after we finished the film they told me all of these incredible stories. How they were able to make this film is a story in itself – being able to shoot in places where a lot of people didn’t know it was Richard Gere on the street. Someone was giving him money and giving him an apple and they were actually shooting the movie. What they did was extensive, exhausting research to make it real and actually seeing what happens when a man gets estranged from society.

It’s amazing to me that no one looked at him long enough to realize who he was. Do you think that says anything about the society we live in today and how we brush aside the less fortunate and don’t want to recognize they are there?

Yeah, I mean, homelessness sort of becomes this black hole of humanity. We no longer see it. There’s nothing to see. We judge it and just let it be. I think that’s the worst thing you can do to any human is not know anything about them.

Do you feel this film has a message about the homeless population or do you see it more as a character study on one man who may or may not represent others who are in his situation?

I don’t think it’s trying to talk about homelessness in this grand, sweeping, cure-it-all, fix-it-all type of thing. I think it’s saying that these are humans that have lost their way and have found themselves in these situations. It’s something that we can’t stop seeing. We can’t keep looking away.

What kind of mindset do you have to be in to work with someone like Richard Gere? You’ve worked with some very talented leading men over the years. What was it specifically that connected you to him?

I think he’s a great actor. I think when I found out he was taking on this role I really respected him even more. It’s a thankless part. It’s a very hard character to get into, particularly because of how he’s been viewed in his career. I think it was a bold and a quality move.

I read this film was a passion project of his and that he’s really been wanting to play this role for a long time. Have you experienced that kind of role yet in your career – something you feel passionate about and would do anything to make it happen, but hasn’t materialized yet?

There’s been a couple. I’ve really been trying to make this film about [Southern gothic writer] Carson McCullers for a while now (“Lonely Hunter”). For me, each film is a passion project. It’s kind of the only reason why I’m still doing it after so long. Some projects just take longer. Some are just harder to make.

Next year you’ll be celebrating 20 years in the film industry. After all these years, what excites you the most about acting? It is working with geniuses like Paul Thomas Anderson or making indie films or getting cast in blockbusters like “The Hunger Games” and “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice?”

It’s all the same. It’s about wanting to work with incredible visionaries and wanting to build things I’ve never built before. I’m just trying to push myself and get lost in it more than I’m getting found. The older that I get, that’s more of what I want.

Along with acting, you’re a musician and a photographer. Do you envision acting always being a part of your life or do you think there will come a time when you want to focus on your other artistic abilities and talents?

Well, I think I’ll probably be in the storytelling business until the day I die. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do. It’s something that fascinates me. Whether it’s through music or photography or writing, they’re all different forms of narrative. I feel like they are all similar things.

Are you able to take criticism about things that come from you as an individual artist like music and photography more than you might if a film critic doesn’t like a movie you were in?

I think it would be harder. I think I am totally OK with criticism in film, but I’m still learning. I’m still kind of a child in the other narratives.

Is there something as a musician and photographer that you might want people to see out of you that maybe doesn’t come across to them when they see you act?

I’ve never thought of it like that. I think maybe within music and photography I get to do my own form of directing. It’s all coming from me and I get to figure out the aesthetics and the narrative and how it’s seen and what is heard. If anything, I think [music and photography] would be coming more deeply from me instead of maybe a film where I’m just a part of it.

 

Love & Mercy

March 15, 2015 by  
Filed under Kiko, Reviews

Starring: Paul Dano, John Cusack, Elizabeth Banks
Directed by: Bill Pohlad (“Old Explorers”)
Written by: Oren Moverman (“The Messenger”) and Michael A. Lerner (“August Eighth”)

It may not be the most in-depth biopic on the life and legend of Beach Boys singer/songwriter Brian Wilson, but there’s something to be said for the success the film has in condensing two decades of musical passion and personal trials into two hours of poignant drama all anchored by a pair of performances that interchange with remarkable fluidity and appreciation for the story being told.

For those moviegoers who are not familiar with the American rock ‘n’ roll band The Beach Boys, who started off in the 1960s making surfing-themed music before Wilson changed their course by expanding on their sound and writing songs with more meaning, “Love & Mercy” starts in their early years and switches back and forth between Wilson leading the band to its pinnacle to his continuous battle with mental illness in the 1980s.

As a young Wilson, Paul Dano (“There Will Be Blood”) gives an inspiring performance as we watch him express himself though his experimental methods in the studio despite others questioning his choices. Those studios scenes, especially the ones where Wilson is working on the hit song “God Only Knows,” are telling of the kind of musician Wilson was known to be – impressive, ambitious, and progressive. Dano commands the screen when he has to and purposefully shrinks when the script asks him to allow his personal demons to control him.

This ties in well to the latter part of Wilson’s life when John Cusack (“Grace is Gone”) comes in as the well-worn musician who has found some kind of comfort in letting others dictate what he does and how he does it. Paul Giamatti (“Cinderella Man”) plays Dr. Eugene Landy, Wilson’s hotheaded psychotherapist who manipulates Wilson into believing he has his mental health in his best interest. There to save Wilson is Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks), who would later become his second wife, a car saleswoman who helps him stand up for himself and make his own decisions. Cusack is touching as an older, broken Wilson and Giamatti and Banks bring out the best and worst in the character on an emotional level.

“Love & Mercy” isn’t a movie about the music Wilson makes, but instead about the man behind the musical talent. It might have been interesting to allow the script to develop in a way that illustrated where in the industry the Beach Boys stood (the Beatles are mentioned as a band they wanted to top), but nothing in the way of music history is explained much. While some might argue the jumping between decades is a debatable storytelling device, it felt necessary to understand how much Wilson changed (and in some cases stayed the same) over the years. Credit screenwriters Oren Moverman and Michael A. Lerner for letting the story breathe between all the time changes. “Love & Mercy” captures a compassionate narrative you don’t have to dig too deep to find.

Love and Mercy was seen at the 2015 SXSW Film Festival.

Rampart

April 8, 2012 by  
Filed under Cody, Reviews

Starring: Woody Harrelson, Ned Beatty, Ben Foster
Directed by: Oren Moverman (“The Messenger”)
Written by: Oren Moverman (“The Messenger”) and James Ellroy (“Street Kings”)

As Helen (Brie Larson) unleashes a litany of loathsome characteristics about her father Officer Dave Brown (Woody Harrelson), it’s clear that her opinion is something that has been building up for a while. She tells him he’s a racist, a bigot, a sexist, a womanizer, a chauvinist, a misanthrope and homophobic. Brown’s reaction? A smirk, and a simple reply of, “How long did it take you to rehearse that?” Incredibly enough, all of those descriptors are accurate, as Harrelson handily takes on a challenging role in “Rampart,” an intense character study of a corrupt LAPD cop.

In the wake of the Rampart Scandal of police corruption in the LAPD seen in the late 90’s, “Rampart” follows veteran Officer Dave Brown through a series of scandals and destructive family issues. After an excessive beating of a man who crashes into his car is caught on tape, the corrupt cop finds himself the subject of an investigation. As things continue to get worse for hi, his already strained relationship with his family becomes worse and the future of his career comes into question as he refuses to tone down his violent and questionable policing methods.

Very early on in the film, it becomes clear that “Rampart” was intended to serve as a showcase for Harrelson’s acting, and he certainly delivers. It is a dynamic and committed performance that Harrelson attacks from the get-go by displaying violent tendencies and spewing racial slurs without thinking twice. Even further, Harrelson looks the part as he nails the cop demeanor perfectly and his emaciated facial features (Harrelson lost 30 pounds for the role) give the impression of a hardened and weathered officer. Harrelson is also able to show a wide emotional range in this film, especially as he becomes more tortured as the film progresses. While the rest of the supporting cast is filled with strong veteran actors, they merely float in and out of Harrelson’s world. The best of the supporting performances come from Robin Wright who plays love interest and attorney Linda Fentress and the previously mentioned Larson who plays his rebellious daughter.

Following up his critically acclaimed debut film, 2009’s “The Messenger,” director Oren Moverman returns with a series of perplexing decisions at the helm of “Rampart.” From beginning to end, there are a lot of technical aspects of the film that make it seem choppy and haphazardly put together. Many scenes end abruptly, cutting off randomly at unnatural stopping points in conversations. One scene in particular makes use of a slow, panoramic, and patchily pieced together series of shots of multiple people having a conversation that comes off far more distracting than stylish.

While the film is a very fascinating character study of a morally skewed cop, screenwriters Moverman and crime novelist James Ellroy (“LA Confidential”) tend to neglect the narrative angle of the screenplay. The events of the scandal that Brown finds himself embroiled in and his interactions with underdeveloped supporting characters often seem inconsequential and dull. As things escalate and spiral out of control for Officer Brown, it is the strength of Harrelson’s performance and not an investment in where the story is going that keeps “Rampart” engaging.

The Messenger

November 27, 2009 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Ben Foster, Woody Harrelson, Samantha Morton
Directed by: Oren Moverman (debut)
Written by: Oren Moverman (“I’m Not There”) and Alessandro Camon (“The Bandit K.”)

While films about the war in Iraq or issues associated with these events have not done well at the box office over the last few years (see “Lions for Lambs,” “The Lucky Ones,” “The Kingdom,” “In the Valley of Elah”), there are still many compelling stories that need to be heard.

Like the intense film “The Hurt Locker” from earlier this year, which follows the stressful experiences of an Army bomb squad, the intimate drama “The Messenger” is another of those rare narratives that will not be featured on the evening news anytime soon. Instead of taking audiences to the frontlines like in “The Hurt Locker,” “The Messenger” focuses on the painstaking mission of the soldiers who must notify the families when a loved one dies in combat.

In “The Messenger,” Ben Foster (“3:10 to Yuma”) plays Staff Sergeant Will Montgomery, a soldier three months away from completing his military service when he is assigned to join Captain Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson) on his Casualty Notification team and deliver the worse possible news anyone could imagine getting.

As Tony teaches Will the ropes in his new position (some rules include never making physical contact with family members, only notifying the next of kin, and avoiding phrases like “passed away”), Will is overwhelmed by the responsibility he has undertaken and the lives he is changing with the few professionally-reported but often aloof words he has memorized from the Army’s authorized script.

It’s not a stretch for Will to operate this way since he is mostly introverted himself (his only relationship is with a childhood friend who is now engaged). But after going on a notification mission, he begins to open up to Olivia Pitterson (Samantha Morton), a widow he recently informed of her husband’s death. Despite strict orders from Tony not to get involved in her life, Will can’t help but to feel a connection with her established only through tragic circumstances.

While Morton and Harrelson are top-notch with their performances, it the less-seasoned Foster who is unforgettable in the first lead role of his career. The powerful scenes director/co-writer Oren Moverman (“I’m Not There”) has crafted along with writing partner Alessandro Camon (“The Bandit K.”) always keep Foster’s Will on the brink of an emotional breakdown. It’s fascinating to watch Will fight through the grief and heart-wrenching moments of his job and form the close bond with both Olivia and Tony while they, too, serach for a way to confront with their own agony.

“The Messenger” isn’t just another story about Iraq. It literally brings the harsh realities of war to your front door. It’s up to audiences to take that step and invite the message in. While it may be difficult to witness, it really is a film every American should see.

Oren Moverman – The Messenger

November 27, 2009 by  
Filed under Interviews

Filmmaker Oren Moverman was never given a choice whether or not he wanted to join the Army in his home country of Israel back in the early 80s. Military service was mandatory at the age of 18.

“We had to serve – three years for men and two years for women,” Moverman, 43, told me during a phone interview. “It’s just the way it’s always been.”

His own experience in the armed forces and how it differs from the way the U.S. military works was one of the reasons Moverman co-wrote “The Messenger.” The film tells the story of two soldiers (Ben Foster and Woody Harrelson) whose job it is to notify families when a loved one has been killed.

Moverman, who has co-written such films as the Bob Dylan biopic “I’m Not There” and the 1940s-set drama “Married Life” – said it was fascinating to think about the small fraction of the U.S. population who ends up in the military and is ultimately asked to carry such an immense responsibility for the entire country.

“It was striking to me how much they have to sacrifice and endure in our name,” Moverman said. “Our intention was to shine a light on these people who have to live with the consequences of going to war. I was really drawn to these guys and wanted to tell their story in an intimate way.”

While doing research for the film and talking to real-life Casualty Notification officers, was it difficult to get them to open up since much of the film shows just how impersonal they have to be on the job?

It was not difficult. The Army supported the film so they gave us access to soldiers. Those who did Casualty Notification actually wanted to talk about it. Obviously it was difficult and emotional, but there is something about today’s soldiers and the way they communicate that really surprised me. They were really polite and professional about it. But they weren’t afraid to be emotional about it and really describe how they felt. We had tough guys that had been through wars and been though a lot of difficult situations and they tell you about Casualty Notification and how they’ve walked out of a house and poured their eyes out crying. No one pretended like this was something easy to do.

So, every scene where we see Woody and Ben’s characters notifying families, were those actual stories heard from soldiers?

Actually, no. The only one that was based on a true story was the last one in the grocery store when they sort of notify a couple by accident when they hear a name. Other than that, they all have elements of things that were told but none of them are specific to a certain family or person.

Was your research only with the soldiers who do this job or did you talk to some of the families who had lost loved ones in the war?

No, we stayed away from the families for various reasons. One was to respect their privacy. The movie was also not concentrating on the families but rather the people that were doing the notifications.

Do you feel like grief is a universal emotion? I mean, you have scenes where family members react in certain ways to the heartbreaking news, but you didn’t hear those experiences first hand from them.

Exactly. I do think grief is a universal emotion. I don’t think it’s a stretch for any of us to imagine how we would react. I don’t think anyone could ever anticipate it, but if you think of it from a creative point of view it’s very easy to tap into the emotions and the moments. I think even if this movie does have a military backdrop, there really is a universal story about loss and how someone can get back to life after suffering that kind of pain.

What was the mood like between takes since this is such an emotional story? How are you able to leave it on set and not take any of that home with you?

You definitely take it with you. On the set people really got along. It was a very calm and quiet set. In between takes there was a lot of intensity because we kept it tense. You do a take and you do it again and it’s very tough. People are going through very emotional situations. I would say there was a lot of crying and hugging on set, which is not a bad thing in life.

There wasn’t really a human element to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan until Barack Obama came into office. Little was said about soldiers dying. We never saw soldiers’ funerals. Now, things have changed. Is this something you feel the public needs to see?

Absolutely. I think the public needs to see it and needs to talk about it and not from any kind of political perspective. You get that from our movie. It’s not about the politics; it’s about the human cost. It’s not only human loss and human lives, it’s returning soldiers who have physical and mental problems. These guys are going to need help and support. It’s really the responsibility of society to take care of its warriors in the best way possible. I think too often in our history the people that had to deal with the consequences of war were neglected and not supported enough by the general population. I think it’s important to be honest and tell people about the stories that are going on over there. I think it would be a way to honor these guys.

The film talks a bit about how Casualty Notification has changed over the years from a simple telegram being sent out up through Vietnam to the more recent changes where a chaplain is even brought on visits to the family. Do you think this evolution is a change for the better?

The military deserves a lot of credit for taking this on and trying to figure out how to make it better because, clearly, this is not something you can make better. It’s a horrible thing that can happen to a family. It’s a harrowing situation to be in. I think it’s a difficult question to know the best way to do this, but I applaud the army for constantly updating [the system] and thinking about how they can make it a little bit more conducive for the people who have to deal with this.