What the film "The Last Black Man in San Francisco" lacks in writing and actually story and character development, it makes up for in look and feel. Well, not really because, sadly, its shortcomings are what is noticed early into the movie, and the last thing you remember as you walk out the theater. The film, directed and co-written by Joe Talbot, centers around a twenty-something-year-old Black lead character, Jimmy Fails, played by actor Jimmy Fails, who yearns to move back into his childhood house, a once grand Victorian in a historic neighborhood of San Francisco. Sadly, he and his family have long been displaced from the house and hood, replaced by more affluent white people who for some unexplained reason never manage to maintain the house or yard. While Jimmy’s father is apparently in a sort of group home or low income housing complex in a seedy part of the City, his aunt resides way out in another, more rural part of the Bay Area, Jimmy crashes with his friend, Jonathan (Montgomery Allen), a wanna-be artist and writer, and his friend’s blind father (Danny Glover) in the East Bay. Several dudes from the hood are permanent fixtures on Jonathan’s street, arguing, rapping and taunting Jimmy and Jonathan whenever they walk by. To the two of them, the group is an anomaly. They are too busy watching their movements and perplexed by their speech to really notice the insults they are constantly hurly their way. It’s as if they want to be like them or be apart of their clique, dysfunctional as it may be. Instinctively, they know with their sensitive, quiet, artistic demeanor, they would never be accepted or understood by the group. So instead, they quietly walk by them, looking and usually avoiding confrontations.
As close as Jimmy is to Jonathan, and as much as he appreciates a place to sleep, Jimmy is overwhelmed with nostalgia for what he considers his house, its history, and the city. He doesn’t want to live any place else. It is that obsession that drives Jimmy to regularly stop by there while the owners are out, peering into the windows, sweeping the steps or painting the trim while Jonathan is on the lookout for the couple that could return any minute. And they often do, with a vengeance. The wife is constantly furious with Jimmy, insisting he get off their property and threatening to call the police, while the husband is more compassionate, imploring for her to calm down. Eventually, the couple lose the house themselves due to family issues, vacating while things are in litigation. Jimmy seizes the opportunity to break in and squat until he can figure out a way to raise money to purchase it. A prospect doomed to failure given he barely works and is obviously financially strapped. If only principal, passion and persistence paved the way to ownership in America. In an effort to help Jimmy, Jonathan gleans information from a real estate agent who seemingly befriended them earlier, a slick yuppie character who is only loyal to his next big score. The information Jonathan retrieves is less about the logistics of possibly acquiring the house, and more about the true history of its ownership and Jimmy’s family. Therin lies the twist.
The movie implies that it’s about gentrification and racism, and it does touch on those themes, but it’s really more about a sad, neglected and technically homeless young man who is stuck in the past concerning his family and understandably frustrated with the transformation of his hometown. Jimmy is the best neighbor anyone could have in any city, but he is without house, home and city. His plight represents that of millions of others, but it sadly is not truly explored. I wanted this to have a stronger defined theme of gentrification and its impact on the usual minority victims of it. San Francisco, like New York, is the epitome of a city that has become accessible only to the rich. It once thrived in ethnic and economic diversity, now it is overwhelmingly home to the rich, young and white, thanks in large part to the tech industry.
While Jimmy and Jonathan are affable characters and they are lovingly and effectively portrayed by two impressive actors worthy of notice, the story from a writing perspective is undeniably lacking. It’s a movie giving the appearance of something special and begging to be more, but falling short. The pacing is achingly slow, without purpose, and the length is too long for its shortcomings. That being said, it is a respectable debut feature film project for director, Talbot who is a longtime friend of and collaborator with Falis. The standout aspect of the film is its look. If you only see the film for its cinematography, that would be understandable, encouraged, and you would not be disappointed. With stunningly gorgeous shots, Adam Newport-Berra greatly elevates what would otherwise be a mediocre movie.
What the Spanish family drama/suspense thriller “Everybody Knows” may lack in twists and intrigue, it makes up for in performances and appeal from the three principal actors, Penelope Cruz, Javier Bardem and Ricardo Darin. This is not to say, the film and its story itself are not good. In fact, If you’re in the mood for a family drama, with a decent side of suspense, then this may actually hit the spot, especially given that there is the usual dearth of worthwhile movies this time of year. The first quarter of the film sets a happy, celebratory tone as Laura (Cruz) and her two children who live in Argentina, return to her hometown, a village outside Madrid for a family wedding. The film’s opening and cast of characters are established with scenes of the Cruz and her kids lamenting the father’s absence from the trip. He supposedly couldn’t join them do to work commitments. The scenes continue with family and friends exchanging warm welcomes full of adoration and hugs, then it’s off to the wedding. After the ceremony, the guests spill out of the church and into the center of town on a beautiful sun-soaked afternoon where the celebrating begins. Refreshingly, although they enlist the help of amateur photographers with drone access, there are no cell phone selfies dominating this or any scene. It’s a small town, with a time-gone-by feel in which everyone knows each other, raise a glass to toast, or gives a glance of judgement. From the town square, the dancing, eating and drinking carry on into the family house and yard that is roomy and charming; old and rustic. It is full of love and laughter. Lights are hung throughout the yard, and all the guests participate, including Laura’s teen daughter, Irene. Without being caught, she and her boyfriend are drinking and smoking too. As the partying goes into the wee hours of the night, the merriment quickly turns to panic and grief when Laura discovers that a sleeping, sickly Irene has been kidnapped.
Leading the charge in the search is family friend Paco, played fiercely and by Bardem. Once Laura’s husband, Alejandro (Darin) arrives from Argentina, the movie embodies a new rhythm and issues beyond Irene’s disappearance are unearthed. Together, they and the family decide to succumb to the kidnapper’s demands and not involve the police or community. As they enlist the help of private investigator and hunt for clues and motives, and Laura becomes more desperate, another mystery begins to unravel regarding a deep family secret and former lovers. Soon the family crumbles under the pressure as does Paco’s wife and marriage. As a result many arguments, confrontations and accusations ensue, seemingly turning the focus of the film from the kidnapping to family dynamics. Questions are raised as to why Paco is willing to sell off his business to provide the ransom. It turns out that Laura and Alejandro’s closely guarded secret is not such secret … everybody knows.
Writer/director Asghar Farhadi makes good use of small spaces and family relations. He’s clearly what is often referred to as “an actor’s director,” pulling out authentic performances from all. Cruz and her two onscreen sisters are more than credible as siblings, and Ramon Barea as the family patriarch who is not aging well, full of resentment and not afraid to express it. Pacing can be key, and mixing genres such as this, can be tricky. Although some scenes get dangerously too close to crossing the line into melodrama, for the most part, he manages to reign things in while also managing to give a nod to contemporary political stigmas regarding immigrants, and moral dilemmas, unresolved though the latter may be. Farhadi shares much of the credit for all of the above to real-life married couple Cruz and Bardem, and Darin as Cruz’s onscreen husband. They are all passionate actors that play well off of each other. Any one of them alone would be worth the price of admission, but all three together make for a cinematic treat.
Writer/Director: Asghar Farhadi
Stars: Penelope Cruz, Javier Bardem, Ricardo Darin
Runtime: 133 min
MPAA Rating: R
The photo above captures my personal picks for the Best Of/ Top 10 of 2018 (in order by preference) Not included at the time of the original selection is "Cold War" from Poland by director Pawel Pawlikowski. This was viewed only very recently and not only do I think it is one of the best of last year, I believe it will prove to be one of the best films of the last decade. If I had to take one of the films above out to replace with "Cold War," it would be "Green Book."
1) ROMA by Alfonso Curan - A loving homage to the director's childhood in Mexico, this is a beautiful and evocative as filmmaking gets. What does not get said in dialogue, is conveyed in facial expressions, images and deeply felt moods. Cuarón has successfully captured a sense of time and place resulting in a film that is as gorgeous as it is poignant, making it a cinematic experience not to be missed. Read my full review in an earlier post in this section.
2) VICE by Adam McKay - Wielding his distinct style, McKay delivers his best movie to date. Whether you are pro Dick Cheney or anti Cheney, there is so much to be learned from this film of the post 9-11/Bush era. Few, if any others, could entertain, while educating on such dense subject matters of politics, war, and a power hungry, unlikable character in the form of Cheney. McKay does so, and then some. Go to my earlier post for a full review of this film.
3) BLACKkKLANSMAN by Spike Lee- It's been awhile, but I knew Spike had another great one in him, and this is it. This is as fun as it is intense as Lee brings the wild true story of Ron Stalworth, the first Black police officer for the Colorado Springs police department to the big screen. Stalworth actually infiltrated the local chapter of the KKK, with the help of a Jewish colleague.
4) THE FAVOURITE - Full review here: http://www.paulafarmer.com/film-blog/the-favourite-review
5) WIDOWS - Full review here: http://www.paulafarmer.com/film-blog/widows-film-review
6) BLACK PANTHER - It's a superhero movie that's super fun and full of heart. With its first ever all-Black cast in such a type of movie, it set standards and broke records. It's also probably the only time you'll see a Marvel film on my list, so you know it's got to be special. Wakanda Forever!
7) A QUIET PLACE - This was more of a suspense thriller than horror, but either way, it was doing something very unique. Set in a world that is reeling from an invasion of unseen monsters that attack sounds, so quiet is imperative for survival for the featured family of five. Nepotism aside, Emily Blunt proves superbly cast as the onscreen wife and mom to this quietly tortured clan. Her facial expressions and body language spoke volumes.
8) IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK by Barry Jenkins - A passionate adaptation of a beloved James Baldwin novel portrays the story of an optimistic young woman from Harlem in the 70s who is determined to prove her fiancee's innocence before giving birth to their unborn child. The couple's world is shaken to its core when Alfonzo is falsely accused and convicted of a crime. Their love story prior to his arrest is genuine and consuming. While in prison, their love is tested, but remains strong and determined. The pacing is slow and languid, and the cinematography takes centerstage, with lush colors and picturesque shots in every scene. While the story and characters of BEALE STREET did not grab and haunt me as Mr. Jenkins' first film, MOONLIGHT did, it is beautiful and poetic, with an undeniable appeal.
9) ISLE OF DOGS by Wes Anderson - From the exceedingly passionate, clever and quirky mind of the director who brought us THE FANTASTIC MR. FOX, comes the even better and quirkier ISLE OF DOGS. A canine epidemic has hit a city in Japan, emboldening the cat-loving mayor to banish all the dogs to an island of trash. When a boy, Atari, is determined to find his dog Spot, a heart-warming and fun adventure ensues. Not only is this Mr. Anderson's best animated films, it's one of his best movies ever! It has fantastic, unforgettable characters, a wonderful story, with massive entertainment value, and all wrapped up in his trademark look, pacing and style.
10) GREEN BOOK by Peter Farrelly - Yep, this is another story of unlikely friendships, with the inter-racial twist, but it is based on true events, and is charming, with exceptional performances from the two leads. Tony, the Italian bouncer from Queens is hired to escort Black pianist Dr. Don Shirley on his musical tour to the racist South in the 60s. The two couldn't be more opposite and uncomfortable as their road trip commences, but along the way, they learn to appreciate their differences and love each other's company. Oscar bait for sure (which is why I hope it doesn't win), but charming and entertaining as well.
Honorable Mention -
1) BLINDSPOTTING - A unique character-driven film, with a social commentary from a fresh perspective
2) GAME NIGHT - Best comedy of the year! I laughed my ass off and so will you.
3) RBG documentary
In the Hands of Director Adam McKay,
You'll Learn, You'll Laugh, You'll Get Mad
With his new film, writer/director Adam Mckay has carved out a distinct and enviable style, and solidified A-list status for himself. Although “Vice,” starring Christian Bale as Dick Cheney, Amy Adams as Lynn Cheney and Steve Carrel as Donald Rumsfeld, is by no means some typical Oscar bait film, it is very much poised for Oscar gold. He came close with his last critically acclaimed film, The Big Short, which was also excellent, but this should secure even more attention and more awards, including quite possibly, the most coveted. Also, like “The Big Short,” he’s tackling a topic that for some could have been daunting and heady, yet he makes it appealing and accessible. He takes the most mundane and dense subject matters and makes them relatable and enjoyable. On the surface, “Vice” is a character study movie, portraying the former vice president’s claim to fame, rise to power and insatiable appetite to control, but it is about so much more. What it may lack in delivering the most infamous VP’s humanity, it makes up for in style and substance in other forms. It successfully depicts one of the most volatile political times in recent history, casting a cinematic net over the post 911, George W. Bush era, and then some, including shedding light current politics in the wake of the Cheney era.
Although this a wide net, with much going on personally for Cheney and politically in general, and with what could have been an endless cast of characters, McKay manages to stay focused, with the point of view coming from a most unexpected narrator. He orchestrates it all masterfully, with perfect pitch and pacing. Also in true McKay form he educates as much as he entertains and he goes boldly where many dare not tread. Who would have ever thought a movie about the financial crash of 2008 could have been fun, but yet with The Big Short, he packed them in and we all came out with some clarification on the subject and laughing hysterically. Even more so with “Vice” - we learn about the man, the politics, the issues. Whether you love Cheney (is that possible?) or hate him (remember Darth Vadar comparisons?), there is an opportunity to learn and laugh. It’s not all shits and giggles though because there are scenes that can trigger collective negative memories and illicit rage while all under the umbrella of entertainment.
But enough about McKay and his seemingly endless reservoir of talent, let’s examine the other notable draw here: Casting and performances. Superb casting and transformative performances. Do not think Alec Baldwin as Donald Trump or Tina Fey as Sarah Palin on Saturday Night Live. As good as they are, they are admittedly caricatures. In Vice, these are laudable portrayals, subtle and nuanced. Over the years much has been made of Bale’s ability to morph into a character, with notable sacrifices, such as reducing half his body weight for the 2004 film “The Machinist.” In “Vice,” he did the opposite, gaining a significant amount of weight to convincingly capture the physicality of Cheney. Beyond what he brought to the role, physically, he is at the top of his game in every other way. He’s believable as the young, down on his luck drunkard putting up lines for the electric company in Wyoming, as well as the starry eyed political intern hanging on Rumsfeld’s every word. As Cheney the character ages, growing in size and power, Bale shines. So too does his supporting cast, including Sam Rockwell as Bush W. Most might find that interesting or odd casting, but per usual, Rockwell gives a fantastic performance, deftly combining restraint, believability and whimsy. There are a few smaller roles, but equally impressive, such as Tyler Perry as Colin Powell, Allison Pill as Cheney’s daughter.
“Vice” is part character study, part political thriller, and all entertaining as well as undeniably intriguing and insightful. Whether you’re Republican or Democrat; conservative, liberal or politically indifferent, you’ll appreciate “Vice” ... Okay, okay, everyone can appreciate and enjoy it, but the Cheney hating liberals will probably have a little more fun.
Director: Adam McKay
Writer: Adam McKay
Stars: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Steve Carell, Sam Rockwell
MPAA Rating: R
Runtime: 132 min.
An Endearing Experience Going Down Memory Lane with Alfonso Cuarón
There may be a temptation to hold off viewing “Roma” for when it becomes available for streaming on Netflix soon after its limited theatrical release, but this is one movie best seen on the BIG SCREEN. A similar statement could be said for all of Oscar winning director Alfonso Cuarón’s (“Gravity” and “Y Tu Mama Tambien”) films because the look of his projects are as noteworthy as any other aspects, if not more so. He is a filmmaker in the true sense of the word! In the case of “Roma,” the black and white cinematography is utterly captivating and wonderfully takes center stage while offering a respectful nod to Fellini.
Set in 1970 in Cuarón’s homeland of Mexico, specifically a section of Mexico City, the film is a loving homage to his childhood home, his community and his family, made up of a stay-at-home mother, a father who is a doctor, a maternal grandmother, four small children and the family’s domestic help. The thinly veiled story is from the perspective of the family’s housekeeper, Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), a young, hardworking kind soul who notices everything, cares for everyone, but judges no one. The audience is with her as she rises before anyone else in the wee hours of the morning and prepares breakfast. The camera follows her throughout the execution of her other household tasks, such as hanging clothes up to dry on the line, and cleaning up after the family dogs left to their own devices too often in the home’s courtyard. Cleo puts the kids to bed, wakes them in the morning and accompanies them to school each day. She empathizes with the mother as she is crushed by her husband’s decision to walk away from the family, leaving them with little money to maintain their somewhat affluent lifestyle.
In between caring for the family, Cleo endures her own personal drama of falling in love and suffering loss. The dialogue is sparse, the story line is minimal, yet this film seems to convey volumes. It manages to be intimate while also epic; simple, yet complex; covering multiple classes of people, social issues and political upheaval, and all while navigating various physical landscapes. We’re taken from urban centers to country ranches and costal towns. There are experiences of poverty and wealth, and the tension of Mexico’s class divides. Throughout, the photography, shot by Cuarón himself, sweeps you up and envelopes you, adding a sense of emotional richness and texture, and although the characters are purposely not completely drawn, they feel authentic. Underscoring the film’s authenticity, and like a breath of fresh air, is the use of non-professional actors in key roles, not least of which is Aparicio herself. “Roma” is her debut, having come straight from teaching pre-school to Curan’s set. In all, Cuarón has successfully captured a sense of time and place resulting in a film that is as gorgeous as it is poignant, making it a cinematic experience not to be missed. “Roma” is slated to get only a brief theatrical release before being made available on Netflix.
A Period Comedy with A Bite
If you’ve never had the pleasure of seeing Olivia Colman (“Broadchurch,” “The Night Manager” TV mini series) perform before, there’s no better way to be introduced to her than through the new movie, “The Favourite.” In it, she’s part of a strong threesome that includes Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz. Colman definitely holds her own, if not a bonafide scene stealer as a mentally unstable and physically frail Queen Anne during 18th century England. This is a dark comedy romp of a film by director Yorgos Lanthimos (“The Lobster”) revolving around two power hungry women vying for the queen’s favor. Lady Sarah, played by Weisz, has long been Anne’s closest advisor and friend, with benefits. She relishes in running the show as Anne defers to her on most weighty matters of rule. If any men in power want to sway Anne on political matters, they know they have to get through Sarah first, for better or worse.
Sarah’s position seems secure until her distant cousin, Abigail from the poor part of the family, comes knocking on the palace door begging for a job. Since Abigail seems lowly and weak, Sarah does not see her as a threat, and takes pity, assigning her a position as one of many servants. It doesn’t take long before Abigail sets her sights higher and weasels her way up the palace ladder, garnering the attention of the queen while Sarah is not looking. Once Sarah feels threatened, it is too late because Abigail has secured a higher role, possibly pushing her cousin completely out of the picture. As such, the palace wars ensue to the utter pleasure of the queen.
The film starts out innocent and slyly enough, but the pacing and cruelties ramp up with every twist and turn. You may come into the film with one set of expectations - a light, fun comedy - but halfway through, you’ll find yourself in a completely different movie. And that is not necessarily a bad thing. “The Favourite” is an excellent example of dark comedy done well. In some ways it’s fun and frivolous, in other ways it’s disturbing and sinister. The characters are an unexpected treat, and in the hands of Stone, Weisz and especially Colman, they excel. That, coupled with being a period piece, it’s a delightful twist on more traditional movies of its genre(s). For a unique cinematic experience, take a ride on the darker side.
Director: Yorgos Lanthimos
Writers: Deborah Davis, Tony McNamara
Stars: Olivia Colman, Emma Stone, Rachel Weisz
Country: Ireland / UK / USA
MPAA Rating: R
Runtime: 119 min.
Steve McQueen’s Delivers in His Hotly Anticipated Follow-Up to 12 Years a Slave
One of the highlights of the Mill Valley Film Festival 2018, and a sure-to-be-hit of the upcoming movie season - as in race for the Oscars - is “Widows,” a heist suspense movie starring Viola Davis. In fact, to leave this just at a description as “suspense” is an understatement. This is better described as a palm sweating, edge-of-your-seat, entertaining thriller that you will probably view more than once. Although many movies of the genre can tend to be fun, but unexceptional, what sets “Widows” apart from its predecessors is its unique script, a fantastic ensemble cast, with a badass group of women at its core, and all headed up by critically acclaimed director, Steve McQueen (“Hunger” and “12 Years a Slave”). None would have suspected McQueen’s follow-up to his Academy Award “Best Picture” winning 2013 drama “12 Years a Slave” would have been a contemporary heist, but then again no one should associate McQueen with predictability. He is a visionary, and he clearly has no intentions of being boxed into anyone’s expectations but his own. Like "12 Years," this movie is adapted from a book. McQueen collaborated with Gillian Flynn (“Gone Girl” and “Sharper Objects”) to breathe new life into Lynda La Plante’s British novel of the same name.
Audiences are launched into the film with a bang, as multiple characters are in the midst of a high-stakes robbery, with Harry Rawlings, played by the formidable Liam Neeson at the helm. Set in Chicago and while implementing a two million dollar job with his team, things take a literally explosive and tragic turn, leaving all involved dead. Harry is survived by his wife Veronica (Viola Davis), and by all accounts as seen in numerous flashback scenes, they had been very much in love despite their many years together and having suffered an earlier loss of their teen son. It also seems evident early on that Veronica had been unaware of Harry’s life of crime. Soon after his death, though, she is faced with Harry’s sordid past and pressed to make good on his debts. Reeling from her loss while seeing no way to accumulate the necessary funds in the short time given, she devices a heist plan of her own and enlists (or pressures) the other women who also lost their spouses in the earlier ill fated robbery. Reluctant though they may be, the group, made up of Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki and Carrie Coon, attempt to pull off their late husband’s last planned score. Along the way, thugs are unleashed and dirty politicians uncovered, while issues of race, gender and social injustice are integrated. Lending to the film’s atmosphere and rounding out the core cast, is an equally impressive supporting cast including Colin Farrell, Daniel Kaluuya, Cynthia Erivo and Robert Duvall.
Warning: If you’re expecting some glossy transition of the band of merry widows, from hating each other, being down and out and looking and dressing a certain way, to love and roses, with all forgiven and sleek fashion at the forefront, you’ll be disappointed. This is not “The Devil Wears Prada” or “Oceans 8”. This is raw, gritty, at times violent, and welcomingly complex. Strap in this holiday season and enjoy the ride.
A Love Letter to Us; A Tribute to Her
She was charming, effervescent, genuine and downright funny. Those are just a few adjectives that describe beloved comedienne and actress, Gilda Radner. So, of course someone would eventually make a documentary or film about her! Why did it take so long to chronicle the life and times of the leading lady of sketch comedy? I’m not sure, but maybe it’s all about timing, place and access. Or maybe it has something to do with unearthing rare footage and never before heard audio tapes. Either way, we can be glad documentary filmmaker Lisa D’Apolito did so. Gilda catapulted onto the comedy scene and into our hearts when she made up part of the original cast of Saturday Night Live in 1975. That ensemble included the likes of John Belushi, Dan Akroyd, Jane Curtain, Garret Morris and Chevy Chase. Even with heavyweight talent such as that, some of whom went on to become legends in the industry, no one’s light shined quite as brightly as Radner’s. That unique talent and universal appeal is but one aspect of the recently release documentary, LOVE, GILDA, which profiles the performer’s career and life. For those of who grew up with Rosanne Rosannadanna and Lisa Loopner, you’ll appreciate the trek down memory lane, but there’s insight into Gilda beyond the wacky characters.
Using Radner’s own writings from her diary, and her own voice from recently released audiotapes, the film is often from the subject’s perspective. Woven in with her voice, is a smathering of contemporary comedic actors obviously inspired by Radner. Having the likes of Amy Pohler, Melissa McCarthy and Bill Hader, reading Gilda’s words is sweet and effective, without being drawn out or heavy handed. Additionally, director, D’Apolito, accessed rare video footage from almost every aspect of Gilda’s life, including childhood. The film chronicles her life from her formidable years growing up in Detroit with a close family in which her relationship with her grandmother was key, and her father’s death at a young age, was devastating. Audiences always knew the rail thin Gilda, but she actually was a chubby kid, an issue that seemed to bother her mother more than herself. Gilda was seemingly always full of delight and gusto, and even more so once she hit her later teen years. It was then that the pounds came off, she went to college, developing an taste for performing and for boyfriends, of which she had many.
Being the life of the party was a role she would carry throughout her life, charming the best of them, and bowling everyone with her untapped talent and boundless energy. It is that, along with a natural comedic talent, that captured the attention of SNL creator Loren Michaels. He discusses his impressions of Gilda and why she was selected her as the first cast member of the iconic series. Not surprising, her life, loves and career were full of ups and downs, and D’Apolito is unflinching in her exploration of it all. Despite Gilda’s eventual wealth, fame and men, she also was a workaholic, struggled with eating disorders, became burnt out and disillusioned with her career. A first, short-lived marriage led to her famed relationship with Gene Wilder during the height of his career and the second phase of hers. Although their relationship and eventual marriage was cut short by her untimely death in 1989, it was the stuff of Hollywood legends. The specialness of their love that captured our attention, and the tragedy of her battle with and loss to cancer, make up the second half of the film. It is through the never-before-seen video footage that we get a window into their strong bond, her medical process and struggles, and her will to come back to her career and life and win. Her insatiable appetite for life, for love and to entertain permeates the documentary and prove to be the best of her story going beyond her her wacky characters and left for us in this touching film tribute.
Director: Lisa Dapolito (as Lisa D'Apolito)
Stars: Andrew Alexander, Anne Beatts, Chevy Chase
Country: Canada / US
MPAA Rating: None
Run Time: 88 min.
The trailer and premise of the movie Puzzle might lead potential audiences to think this is a typical, predictable romantic tale of an unlikely and forbidden pairing, but Puzzle, a feature directorial debut for Marc Turtletaub who is known for producing Little Miss Sunshine and Loving is neither typical or predictable. It is, however, simple, nuanced, with just the right amount of romance. It is a gentle character study of Agnes, an achingly shy woman who in her early 40s is, unbeknownst to herself, at a crossroads in life. She’s a wife to Louie - a hard working, blue collar mechanic who loves his simple life and routines- and mother to two older teen sons. One is college bound and thinks more highly of himself than he should while the other more elder son, is overlooked, feeling trapped in dead end job working alongside his father.
The opening scene carefully sets the stage of this quiet housewife who has been content to put her family’s wants and needs above her own. Agnes tends to a family birthday gathering at their modest Upstate New York house in which she alone acts as cook, caterer and cleaner. All would appear normal except that she is actually the guest of honor, adorning her own cake and interacting with no one. Louie loves Agnes and depends on her greatly. He isn’t cruel, but he is selfish and neglectful. His expectations for Agnes are simple but firm to maintain the status quo of housework, grocery shopping and occasional accounting for the family business. They both assume she wants the same until one fateful day, Agnes samples one of her birthday gifts of a 1,000 piece puzzle. Finishing in record time, this ignites a passion and reveals a skill she never knew existed. It also unleashes a series of disruptions in the family’s routine. Soon, and with much trepidation, she embarks down a path of unchartered territory that includes covert weekly trips to Manhattan and partnering with Robert, a competitive puzzler.
While Robert, portrayed soulfully by Irrfan Khan, is independently wealthy and recently divorced, is impressed with Agnes’ natural talent and intrigued by her sanguine demeanor, he is kept at arms length. Despite that, he is determined to charm and befriend her, and when the international puzzle championship. Although all of the above creates change in Agnes, making her take stock of her life and future, it does so very quietly and subtly. As was the case with characters and situations in Loving, Turtletaub treads lightly, crafting his protagonist through the lens of loving observation. Kelly Macdonald is perfectly cast as Agnes. The same quiet confidence she has brought to other notable supporting roles such as No Country for Old Men and Gosford Park, comes through superbly in this rare leading role. She’s taking what could be a cliche character and making her complex.
The film’s metaphor is obvious- in mastering the art of puzzling Agnes is putting the pieces together of what could be her new life. Despite the heavy handed metaphor use, the not as obvious journey getting there is sweet and worthwhile. In Agnes’ seemingly insignificant world, she’s making a stand and claiming a victory ... piece by piece.
Director: Marc Turtletaub
Writers: Polly Mann, Oren Moverman
Stars: Kelly Macdonald, Irrfan Khan, David Denman
MPAA Rating: R
Runtime: 103 min
Photos courtesy of Magnolia Pictures
Long before she became the pop icon and darling of millennials that she is and known as the Notorious RBG, Ruth Bader Ginsberg was quietly creating a legal legacy and effecting change. At 84 she is a living legend as a pioneer for women and minorities rights. Not only is she one of the few women who have ever been appointed to the Supreme Court, she is also one of the most blatantly liberal and vocal justices, taking her descents to an art form. Despite her impressive resume and interesting life, her journey to the high court has never been exhaustively documented with a definitive biography. With the recent release of the documentary, “RBG”, by directors Betsy West and Julie Cohen, that’s all changed.
Bypassing traditional documentary feature methods of incorporating a heavy handed use of talking heads or linear story telling, the filmmakers present an engaging, exhaustive profile piece, with affection and humor. This is a complex character that on one hand works until the wee hours of the night, but on the other, is passionate about attending the opera while also having a great sense of humor about herself and new celebrity persona. She’s a pint size dynamo that does exhaustive regular gym workouts putting those half her age to shame. The filmmakers successfully portray all sides of their subject. They deftly combine Ginsburg’s personal and professional life through the perspective of key relationships, like her late husband and her granddaughter who recently graduated from law school, along with touchstone cases that make up her career. While promoting the film in San Francisco, I got the opportunity to discuss the project with West and Cohen. Here is some of our conversation.
PF: How did you come to the conclusion that this was the project you wanted to take on, and did you know from the start that you would get the necessary access?
Cohen: No to the second question! We decided to make a film of this subject matter based on things we had done in the past. Betsy and I had each interviewed Justice Ginsburg for separate projects in 2011 and 2013. Soon after, Ginsburg’s star was on the rise on the internet, becoming Notorious RBG. That led us to think that there ought to be a documentary about Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and why not us?
West: Regarding access - In January 2015, we wrote her a letter explaining our desire to do a documentary about her life. We quickly got a response, basically saying, “Not yet.” Initially we were discouraged, but then realized that she didn’t say no or never, so we started talking to a few of her colleagues and friends. Then we wrote her again, with a different request, saying we’d still like to do the documentary but we don’t have to talk to you right away. We also submitted to her a list of who we’d like to interview for now, making it comprehensive and serious. We got an answer back from her, saying, “I wouldn’t be ready for two years.”
From there, Ms. Ginsburg made several interview suggestions, leading West and Cohen to believe that on some level, she was on board. That led to the filmmakers securing producing partner CNN Film. From there, they began to shoot interviews and other footage for the project. At that point they even received lists of Ginsburg’s appearance schedule from her staff.
PF: Did the unusual shooting schedule you ended up having, as in not getting access to your subject right away, informing the style you took of weaving in her significant cases, etc.?
Cohen: Absolutely. We had the thought all along that we wanted to make this a combination of her legal legacy, which involved getting into some real nitty gritty of some cases she argued and won, but also show who she is as a woman and a human being. We wanted to learn about her childhood and her extraordinary marriage, one of the great feminist love stories of all time.
PF: Given her age, it seems a bit unusual that she would decide to do the documentary, but put you off for two years. Did you ever find out why Ginsburg initially preferred to hold off participating in the project?
West: We never found out definitively, but speculated that it was her way of gauge how serious we were about the endeavor. It helped us because although two years seemed like a long time, we did so much work before we interviewed her, that by the time we actually talked to her we had a rough cut. It turned out to be excellent to do it the way we did.
As Ginsburg nears the end of her career and life, many wonder if the liberal justice considered retiring while President Obama was in office. The filmmakers never specifically addressed that in film, they speculate the issue based on other topics Ginsburg discussed.
Cohen: Ginsburg said that she philosophically disagrees with the idea that a supreme court Justice should leave with the party of the president that put them in there. She believes this is a lifetime appointment and that she should do it as long as she’s capable.
West: There’s also a personal component of this where Ginsburg loves working. It’s hard for her to envision what her life would be if she wasn’t throwing her time into what is now the main love of her life, especially since Marty is gone.
PF: Did anything about her surprise you or especially delight you?
Cohen: One surprise was her reaction to the whole late-in-life celebrity that she’s attained. Not that she’s become a social media maven. She’s not initiating anything, but she’s tickled by it and is embracing it. We showed her the SNL parody of herself, which she had never seen, and once she realized what it was, she couldn’t stop laughing.
In addition to portraying Ginsburg’s love for the law and legal institutions, it lovingly highlights the personal relationships that brought so much purpose to her life. She and Justice Antonin Scalia could not have been more different from a legal perspective, but thrived as friends, sharing a love for the opera. Her late husband, Marty who was known for his outgoing personality and fun sense of humor, was a constant source of
joy and support.
West: The friendship of Ginsburg and Scalia is a great example of two people with very different philosophical differences who respected each other and were able to talk in a civil manner about those differences within the context of our democracy. It’s a testament to both of them and should be something that we all aspire to.
Throughout, the filmmakers carefully craft elements of their subject’s personal life, personality, along with Ginsburg’s professional agenda.
Cohen: There are two legacies. One is enshrining a whole rule of law where the genders are equal under the 14th Amendment. For example, as an attorney, it was her legal strategy and ultimately decision she made in the U.S. vs Virginia Military Institute case, really made that happen. That’s in the law now because of her. Then there’s a current legacy presented by her current descents. How that will impact future laws is yet to be seen.
“RBG” is a unique and enjoyable character exploration in part because who Ginsburg is, but also how the filmmakers approached and present the film. With it, Cohen and West have created a well rounded portrait of someone who is undeniably an important historical figure, but also very much alive and present who oddly enough is coming into her greatest fame at the age of 84.