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BRIAN VINER: Puzzle is a real charmer

Puzzle (15) – Verdict: A real charmer

American Animals (15) – Verdict: Misjudged crime caper

The Miseducation of Cameron Post (15) – Verdict: Sensitive and touching

Sometimes a film is so quiet and uneventful, yet at the same time so full of tenderness and charm, that at the end you would stand up and cheer if such exhibitionism weren’t so utterly at odds with what you’ve just seen.

Instead you simply sit there, smile and maybe dab with a finger at the corner of your eye. Puzzle is such a film. It stars Kelly Macdonald, the wonderful Scottish actress whose ability to play a sweet, uncomplaining example of what the Americans call homemakers was recognised years ago by the Coen brothers.

Her performance as Carla Jean, the meek, loving, anxious wife of Josh Brolin’s ill-fated Llewelyn Moss in the Coens’ 2007 masterpiece No Country For Old Men was one of that great film’s many pleasures.

 

Puzzle is such a film. It stars Kelly Macdonald, the wonderful Scottish actress whose ability to play a sweet, uncomplaining example of what the Americans call homemakers was recognised years ago by the Coen brothers

But in Puzzle, Macdonald’s exquisite performance as an unassuming, unassertive, devoutly Catholic homemaker is the principal pleasure; all the picture’s other virtues radiate from it. She plays Agnes, who is both cherished by her blue-collar New England family and taken completely for granted.

At the start, someone is celebrating a birthday. Agnes carries a cake ceremoniously into the room, but in fact the birthday is hers. She has made the cake, bought the candles, lit them, and now she blows them out, a deeply reluctant object of attention.

Her purpose in life, other than to attend Bible meetings, is to care for her husband Louie (David Denman), who runs a car-repair workshop, and their two teenage sons, Ziggy (Bubba Weiler) and Gabe (Austin Abrams). She sees it that way, and so do they.

At first, her domestic drudgery and its drab backdrop, even the clothes she wears, suggest a period piece, a story of small-town America perhaps set in the early Fifties.

We only learn this is the present because one of Agnes’s gifts is a smartphone. She does not welcome it — ‘like carrying a little alien robot in your purse’, she says — but is delighted to receive a challenging 1,000-piece jigsaw, which she completes in no time, then breaks up and does again. It is a map of the world, an irony not lost on us, even if it is on her; Agnes is the daughter of Hungarian immigrants, but could hardly be less worldly.

The short train journey to New York counts as a daring adventure for Agnes. But she undertakes it, because only there, in a shop called Puzzle Mania, can she find more jigsaws like the one that she has just completed.

She also finds an advert, ‘Champion Desperately Seeking Puzzle Partner’, and digging even deeper into reserves of boldness she didn’t know she had, answers it.

This leads her to wealthy, lonely Robert, a man as urbane as she is provincial, played with quirky, beguiling charisma by Irrfan Khan. The unlikely duo start practising for a doubles competition in the National Jigsaw Puzzle Championships.

If they win, they will go on to the world championships in Belgium. They appear to have a chance, because Agnes in particular has a genius for competitive puzzling that leaves even Robert agog.

But what all this also means is that she must somehow explain to her husband why she’s no longer reliably at home every afternoon, preparing his dinner and darning his socks.

A lesser drama would make him a demanding brute. But Louie is a decent cove who adores his wife, albeit preferably on his own terms. She is his puzzle, and maybe that’s the significance of the film’s title, because actually jigsaws are an irrelevance, though a delightfully wholesome one.

Agnes could have demonstrated a rare talent for juggling or mental arithmetic and the one-line synopsis would still be the same: a middle-aged woman seeing beyond the narrow horizons life seemed to have mapped out for her.

Moreover, as she grows in confidence, she begins to take charge of the relationships with the men in her life — Louie, her boys, even Robert. She learns how to be assertive with more than just jigsaw pieces.

Of course, this kind of personal growth is not exactly original cinematic territory — in fact, Puzzle is directly inspired by a 2009 Argentinian movie. But nothing about it feels derivative or predictable. Hats off to first-time director Marc Turtletaub, who has made a really terrific job of shaping the screenplay, by Oren Moverman and Polly Mann, into a lovely, sensitive, moving film.

  The Miseducation of Cameron Post

The Miseducation Of Cameron Post also deals with the travails of a group of American youngsters, though they are hardly the architects of their own misery.

Cameron Post (the excellent Chloe Grace Moretz) plays a lesbian teenager packed off to a corrective religious school, named God’s Promise, so that she might be ‘cured’ of her same-sex attraction.

This isn’t 1893, incidentally, but 1993.

Desiree Akhavan’s film, based on Emily M. Danforth’s novel of the same name, has distinct echoes of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest.

In particular, Jennifer Ehle plays the principal, Dr Lydia Marsh, as a marginally more humane version of Nurse Ratched in Milos Forman’s 1975 classic.

She and her well-meaning brother Rick (John Gallagher Jr), who has himself had to overcome homosexual impulses, try to convince their young charges that, at their age, they are especially vulnerable to ‘evil’.

Happily, the film itself is a good deal less preachy than they are. It’s sensitive, touching and beautifully acted.

Barry Keoghan, the gifted, 25-year-old Irish actor whose own backstory is as dramatic as many films — he was 12 when his mother died of a heroin overdose and was raised in 13 foster homes — is deservedly moving centre-stage after a number of prominent supporting roles.

In American Animals, the true story of a precious-books heist, he excels as Spencer Reinhard, the middle-class college student who in 2004 hatched a plan to steal a near-priceless first edition of John James Audubon’s 19th-century study The Birds Of America, from the library at the bizarrely named Transylvania University in Kentucky.

It’s more a fantasy than an actual scheme, at least until Spencer joins forces with hot-headed Warren Lipka (Evan Peters), for whom a robbery offers the perfect respite from an unhappy home life.

Once they have recruited two more accomplices, they have the manpower, but not necessarily the nous, to carry out such an audacious theft.

First-time writer-director Bart Layton allows events to unfold with a distinctly comedic edge, referencing Reservoir Dogs and even Jaws, which makes his movie both extremely watchable and thoroughly disingenuous.

After all, the heist was not remotely funny for librarian Betty Jean Gooch (Ann Dowd), targeted by the gang of four for ‘neutralising’.

The actual miscreants pop up throughout with their chirpy, direct-to-camera reminiscences, further blurring the line between callous crime and comedy caper.

But if you don’t object to them being portrayed as engagingly hapless rather than deeply misguided, there is plenty here to enjoy, including a great soundtrack (The Doors, Small Faces, Ramones, Donovan).

Going Gaga over a stunning big screen debut

There has been the usual cocktail of treats and disappointments at the Venice Film Festival, the 75th edition of which finishes this weekend.

But in the years I have been coming to this venerable jamboree, I can’t recall a tumult of excitement quite like that which greeted Lady Gaga’s arrival on the red carpet.

So it was daring of first-time director Bradley Cooper to cast the pop superstar in his remake of A Star Is Born.

She had never acted in a feature film before, and it might have required a challenging leap of the imagination to believe in her as a rank unknown thrust abruptly into the limelight.

But she absolutely nails the role, manifestly drawing on her own early run-ins with both failure and fame.

Moreover, you can almost see the electrical sparks flying between her and Cooper, as the alcohol-sodden lover whose own musical career is gradually eclipsed by hers.

I was sceptical as to whether Lady Gaga could ever really belong in the lustrous company of Janet Gaynor, Judy Garland and Barbra Streisand, who all played the same part on the silver screen. But she does, unequivocally.

A Star Is Born is one of Venice’s out-of-competition films, but of those vying for the big prizes, I loved The Sisters Brothers, French director Jacques Audiard’s compelling and darkly comic take on Patrick deWitt’s novel.

Joaquin Phoenix and John C. Reilly play Charlie and Eli, sibling assassins in 1850s Oregon, sent by their sinister paymaster to kill a prospector called Hermann Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed), though not before he has divulged his secret for finding gold.

Jake Gyllenhaal also stars, as a detective hired to deliver Warm to the brothers, but it’s Reilly who steals the movie from the bigger names around him. He is simply wonderful as kind-hearted Eli, in a story that had me hooked from beginning to end.

Another pair of brothers, Joel and Ethan Coen, brought us The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs, also a Western, and also wonderful. It was conceived for Netflix as a TV series, which shows, because it is divided into six separate tales.

If you’re the sort of person who values a meaty novel over a really good collection of short stories, then you might object to the format. On the other hand, we get six bursts of Coen creativity for the price of one.

And the film starts gloriously, with Tim Blake Nelson as the titular Scruggs, a roving troubadour even quicker on the draw than he is with a lyric. If I had to pick a winner of the festival’s prestigious Golden Lion award, it would probably be Roma, Alfonso Cuaron’s overlong but captivating semi-autobiographical movie about a middle-class family and their loyal maid, set in Mexico City in 1970 and shot in black and white.

But I also loved First Man, the Neil Armstrong biopic, and The Favourite, set in the bawdy court of Queen Anne, both reviewed here last week.

And it was impossible not to admire 22 July, Paul Greengrass’s rather workaday but undeniably powerful drama about the 2011 massacre by Norwegian Right-wing extremist Anders Breivik.

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