Friday, August 24, 2018

Of Puppets And Puzzles

These two vastly different movies open today at multiplexes (and some art houses in PUZZLE’s case) near us all:


(Dir. Brian Henson, 2018) 

This movie, directed by a son of Jim Henson no less, about felt getting filthy, is getting savaged by critics but it’s not really that bad. It’s a premise that’s not exactly new – i.e. underneath the warm and fuzzy front is the sleazy, foul mouthed, and raunchy side of show biz * – but it has its moments largely due to its cast made up of Melissa McCarthy, puppeteer Bill Barretta, Joel McCale, Maya Rudolph, and Elizabeth Banks.

The plot revolves around the serial killings of a ‘80s TV show, The Happytime Gang, which Barretta voicing the burnt out private detective Phil Phillips is partnered with McCarthy as Detective Connie Edwards to investigate.

Now it’s a pretty standard film noir-ish scenario which isn’t very interesting on its own, but it moves along briskly aided by a bunch of crude sight gags and tossed off one-liners. 

There are good some good ideas batted about such as the bigotry that puppets face from humans but it really doesnt do much with that, and I wish the material was more inspired than jokes like the “asshole says ‘what?’” running gag that was old when it was used in WAYNE’S WORLD two decades ago, but for a throwaway comedy in these dog days of summer, I’ve seen a lot worse.

* Some folks are crying that this movie is a rip-off of Peter Jasckson’s MEET THE FEEBLES, which incidentally is on YouTube in its entirety right now. You
’re welcome.

And now for something completely different:

PUZZLE (Dir. Marc Turtletaub, 2018) 

Kelly Macdonald (TRAINSPOTTING, GOSFORD PARK, NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, Boardwalk Empire, among numerous other notable credits) is superb in this story of a lonely woman finding her niche by putting together jigsaw puzzles with an eccentric Indian inventor (Irrfan Khan *).

Macdonald portrays Agnes, an awkward Connecticut housewife, with two college aged sons (Bubba Weiler and Austin Abrams), and a mechanic husband (David Denham, best known as Roy, Pam’s ex-fiancé on The Office US), who is given a 1000-piece puzzle of a world map for her birthday, and finds that she has a skill for putting it together quickly.

Agnes visits a puzzle shop in New York to buy more puzzles and sees a flier that says “Champion desperately seeking puzzle partner.” She takes home the number in one of the film’s most charming moments she texts “Hi. My name is Agnes. I think I might be good at this. Puzzles I mean.” Her nervousness is priceless here as it’s her first text ever as she was just given an iPhone by her son for her birthday.

Agnes soon meets up with Robert (Khan), who lives in a spacious apartment in the city, and they pull their puzzle-making talents together for a shot in a competition. Agnes keeps that she’s going to work on puzzles with Robert secret from her husband, telling him she’s going to help her Aunt who broke her leg a few times a week. As one might guess, a romance develops between Agnes and Robert, whose poetic philosophy regarding puzzles makes Agnes swoon (hey, it won me over too), but it’s handled with such poignant precision that nothing cringe-worthy happens.

PUZZLE is a quiet, lovely film with a gentle, thoughtful screenplay by Oren Moverman (JESUS’ SON, I’M NOT THERE, LOVE AND MERCY). Macdonald, who should really be a household name, puts is a highly affecting performance in service of an ultimately uplifting story in which all the pieces fit together perfectly (the movie is called PUZZLE so, of course, I’m gonna work in a line like that).

So the bottom line on these two new movies is that unless you’re looking for cheap laughs, skip the filthy puppets and seek out PUZZLE. I bet you’ll be glad you did.

* Khan is also an actor who should be a household name - he's done many films for Bollywood, Britain, and Hollywood including roles in SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE, THE DARJEELING LIMITED, LIFE OF PI, and JURASSIC WORLD. A film that I highly recommend of his is THE LUNCHBOX (read my review).

More later...

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