Tag Archives: Hollywood

Movie Review: Puzzle (2018)

3.5 Stars (out of 4)

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An innocuous gift makes a homemaker question her life in the insightful drama Puzzle.

We meet Agnes (Kelly Macdonald) as she’s fulfilling all of the duties of a party host: serving drinks, picking up the pieces of a broken plate, even taking the time to glue the pieces back together. It’s when she lights the candles on a birthday cake only to blow them out do we understand that this is her party, and she’s not able to enjoy it.

Agnes’s husband Louie (David Denman) and their young adult sons Ziggy (Bubba Weiler) and Gabe (Austin Abrams) take her efforts for granted, in part because she’s so good at running a household. She’s detail oriented and attuned to how long each task takes, starting the laundry before she runs to the grocery store so that it’s ready to go in the dryer as soon as she gets home, leaving just enough time to prepare dinner before the men in the family get home from work or school.

She finally loses track of time when she opens one of her birthday presents: a puzzle depicting a map of the world. Agnes flies through it, assembling the 1000-piece puzzle in hours (minutes, maybe) instead of the days it would take most people. She enjoys herself so much that she breaks up the puzzle and does it again, not realizing she’s forgotten to make dinner until Louie and Ziggy walk through the door.

Louie’s dismissal of puzzles as “childish” forces Agnes to pursue her hobby secretly. At a specialty shop in the city, she meets a man in search of a “puzzle partner”: Robert (Irrfan Khan), a wealthy divorcee who is as worldly and intelligent as Louie is parochial and incurious. Robert’s fascination with Agnes and his encouragement of her independence makes her realize how little attention she’s given to her own wants and needs since she became a wife and mother.

Even as a more equitable division of household chores has become normalized, women are still responsible for the majority of housework (even when they are the primary breadwinner). As such, the depiction of Agnes’s plight will resonate with a lot of women. In the immediate term, it’s easier for Agnes to do everything herself rather than ask Louie and Gabe to help (Ziggy sometimes offers), especially since they’d just feign ignorance rather than try. Clean clothes are made dirty again and dinner needs to be cooked every night — an endless loop of mundane tasks that allows precious little time to question one’s purpose in life.

Louie isn’t abusive or mean, but his vision of how life is supposed to be hinges on a wife who accepts her role in it. When Agnes does start to question her part, her rebellion is staged on a small scale. There’s little in Puzzle that could be described as explosive, but the film’s message is impactful nonetheless.

Driving that is a well-constructed script, written by Oren Moverman and Natalia Smirnoff, who wrote and directed the Argentine film of the same name upon which Puzzle is based. The dialogue is direct and memorable, particularly Robert’s explanation for why Agnes finds solving puzzles so satisfying: “When you complete a puzzle, when you finish it, you know that you have made all the right choices.”

The film’s performances are likewise strong, though Macdonald’s precise dialogue delivery comes off as bit affected and takes some getting used to. Khan at first seems to channel Jeff Goldblum, but quickly makes the role his own. Weiler’s turn as Agnes’s unexpected ally Ziggy is sweet.

Keeping a tight focus on one woman’s evolution helps Puzzle to illuminate a particular aspect of modern gender dynamics. It’s as thought-provoking as it is enjoyable to watch.

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Site News: March 17, 2015

I updated the My Other Sites section of links in the right sidebar to include a link to my page at Letterboxd. This is where I write brief thoughts on all the movies I see: Hollywood, Bollywood, and other international fare. My latest Letterboxd review is of Cinderella (which I really liked).

Movie Review: The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2013)

TheReluctantFundamentalist3.5 Stars (out of 4)

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Buy Mira Nair’s book on the making of the film at Amazon

The Reluctant Fundamentalist reminds us that the traumas of our personal lives don’t stop for global catastrophes. The movie’s title alone doesn’t tell the whole story. Radical Islam is just one facet of a compelling narrative about some of the major issues of the last twelve years.

The tale of modern times is told through the experiences of Changez Khan (Riz Ahmed). Now a professor in his native Pakistan, Changez is questioned by a journalist — Bobby (Liev Schreiber) — about the kidnapping of an American professor at the same university. Changez stalls in revealing details of the kidnapping to Bobby by explaining how his experiences shaped his conflicted view of America.

Eager to improve the declining fortunes of his artist parents — played by Om Puri and Shabana Azmi — Changez moves to America in the late 1990s to study business. He gets a job at a Bain Capital-type firm that specializes in making companies more profitable, usually by laying off employees. He falls in love with Erica (Kate Hudson), the artsy niece of the head of his firm.

The attacks of 9/11 happen while Changez is on assignment in the Philippines, and he returns to the U.S to find that the rules of society have changed for him. In the film’s most disturbing scene, the rest of his team members waltz through airport security while Changez is subjected to an invasive strip search solely because of his ethnicity. His relationship with Erica deteriorates, and Changez wonders if America is really where he belongs.

After playing a villain in Trishna, Ahmed shows his versatility in The Reluctant Fundamentalist. Ahmed makes Changez sympathetic and relatable as he navigates a society that isn’t the pure meritocracy he expected it to be. His best friend, Wainwright (Nelsen Ellis), is the only other member of a racial minority employed at their firm. Among whites — including his boss, played by Kiefer Sutherland, and even his girlfriend — Changez feels treated like a token and not a real person.

In addition to the presence of Bollywood veterans Puri and Azmi, fans of Hindi films will find a lot of thematically familiar material in The Reluctant Fundamentalist. Changez’s troubled romantic relationship with Erica suffers as much from an undercurrent of prejudice as it does from problems in Erica’s past. He likewise struggles with disappointing his parents, who aren’t impressed by his material ambitions, even when they benefit from them. With a runtime of 130 minutes and a leisurely approach to storytelling, the pace of the film will feel familiar to Bollywood fans as well.

Early in The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Changez tells Bobby that understanding only comes with patience. It’s a criticism of American mistakes in the country’s rush to deal with Islamic terrorism, but it is also good advice for how to watch the movie. Those willing to embrace the personal drama within the movie’s larger story about American interference in Pakistan will be rewarded.

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Movie Review: The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2012)

3 Stars (out of 4)

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Note: I’m deviating from Bollywood fare in order to review a British film set in India that features Hindi-film actors Lillete Dubey, Rajendra Gupta, and Sid Makkar.

Early in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, married couple Jean (Penelope Wilton) and Douglas (Bill Nighy) tour a retirement home. The apartment they tour features a wall-mounted emergency call button to be used in case one should fall and need assistance. Jean caustically notes that the button is handy if she should happen to accidentally fall right next to it, but not so much if she falls anywhere else in the room.

My parents recently moved into a retirement community with a similar setup. To access their emergency call button, one of them would have to fall and land wedged between the TV set and the wall. I’m as skeptical of their button’s usefulness as Jean is of hers.

That sense of pragmatism pervades a movie with a somewhat a fantastical premise: starting a new life of luxury in exotic India. A brochure promises opulent retirement living for British pensioners at The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel for the Elderly and Beautiful.

But it’s not a sense of adventure that leads the characters to move from England to India. For Jean,  Douglas, Evelyn (Judi Dench), and Muriel (Maggie Smith), it’s financial worries. For Graham (Tom Wilkinson), it’s a desire to right a youthful mistake. And Madge (Celia Imrie) and Norman (Ronald Pickup) want to improve their romantic prospects.

When the group arrives in India, they discover that the hotel is not as luxurious as promised. The brochure depicts the vision young owner Sonny (Dev Patel) has for his family’s property, not its current derelict state. The manner in which the retirees deal with their situation makes up the meat of the story.

As my parents, in-laws, and their friends approach (and, in some cases, surpass) age 70, they’ve all repeated the same refrain: “Getting old sucks.” The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is so effective because it acknowledges that reality. No matter how well you think you’ve prepared for your later years, there always seems to be something — money, health, or family troubles — that makes a difficult stage of life even more so.

Acknowledging this reality allows the funny parts of the film to be that much more humorous. And The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is a very funny movie.

Given the caliber of the cast, the performances are universally terrific, as each character adapts to the surroundings while addressing the issues that got him or her there in the first place. Penelope Wilton (Mrs. Crawley on Downton Abbey) is effective to an uncomfortable degree as Jean resists settling down in her unfamiliar new home.

Maggie Smith steals the show with her ludicrously inappropriate jabs, which are funny only because of how powerless she is. Awaiting her hip transplant in an Indian hospital, she reacts in shock to discover that her doctor is Indian. Predictably and appropriately, she takes strides to shed her prejudices over the course of the film.

Sonny’s storyline is the only aspect of the movie that doesn’t really work. Rather than intersecting his storyline with those of his tenants, his runs parallel to theirs. When new characters (e.g., his girlfriend and his disapproving mother) are introduced solely to augment Sonny’s story, it just highlights how separate that story is from the rest of the action.

That said, Dev Patel is very funny, and his storyline doesn’t detract much from what is overall a really enjoyable picture.

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Opening July 3: Kambakkht Ishq

This holiday weekend marks the long-awaited release of Kambakkht Ishq, a romantic comedy starring Akshay Kumar and Kareena Kapoor. The pair play a bickering stuntman and supermodel who try to break up a wedding. As with most Akshay Kumar movies, expect slapstick wackiness.

Of interest to American audiences are cameo appearances by actors Sylvester Stallone, Denise Richards and Brandon Routh. The majority of the movie was shot at Universal Studios in Hollywood, a first for Indian cinema.

Kambakkht Ishq will open in the Chicago area at the AMC Loews Pipers Alley 4 in Chicago, the Big Cinemas Golf Glen 5 in Niles, the AMC South Barrington 30 in South Barrington and the AMC Cantera 30 in Warrenville. The Cantera 30 is featuring a special midnight showing of Kambakkht Ishq on Thursday night (technically 12:01 a.m. Friday). Eros Entertainment’s website has a list of all theaters in the U.S. and Canada showing the movie, which has a listed runtime of 2 hrs 20 min.

Last week’s big Bollywood release, New York, made an impressive showing in U.S. theaters. It earned nearly $500,000, to finish in 16th place last weekend, with a better per-screen average than the debut of Cameron Diaz’s film My Sister’s Keeper.

New York is carrying over for a second week at the AMC Cantera 30, the AMC South Barrington 30, and the Big Cinemas Golf Glen 5. It’s definitely worth checking out; I gave it 3.5/4 stars in my review.

The other Indian movies playing in the Chicago area this weekend are all in Telugu, including Oy! at the Golf Glen 5, and Kick and Evaraina Epudaina at the Sathyam Cinemas in Downers Grove.

Hollywood Warns Bollywood

American production house Warner Bros has warned an unnamed Bollywood producer against remaking The Curious Case of Benjamin Button in Hindi. Vipul Shah’s upcoming Akshay Kumar movie, Action Replay, is supposedly a remake of the Oscar nominee. Warner Bros issued the warning in the form of a newspaper ad that didn’t name Shah directly.

With the ongoing strike in Bollywood, there are few Indian films playing in the Chicago area this weekend. 8×10 Tasveer is still playing at the AMC South Barrington 30 in South Barrington. Sathyam Cinemas in Downers Grove is showing the Tamil film Ayan and the Telugu film Billa.