By David Elliott
Flix Nosh is a personal movie menu, fresh each Friday.
APPETIZER: Reviews of Puzzle and Skate Kitchen
I’ve always liked Scottish actor Kelly Macdonald
(Gosford Park, No Country for Old Men, Nanny McPhee, a Harry Potter). She is lovely without pushing it, and her docile, pensive sweetness has an aura of secrets that could become interesting. But those qualities never spark much life in what should be a showcase for her, Puzzle, which is fairly closely based on the 2009 Argentine film Rompecabezas. Macdonald plays a devoutly Catholic American housewife who is drudge, cook, cleaner and all-purpose nanny for her two near-grown, restlessly rooted sons and husband Louie, a financially insecure garage mechanic.
Bright but soul-dampened, gently generous and often exhausted, Agnes is pushing 40 when she discovers her gift for the rapid assembly of jigsaw puzzles. In a braver era, this might have led her to join the secret brains at Bletchley Park and undermine Hitler. Instead she sneaks off like a daring church mouse to a puzzle shop in New York. Soon she’s the puzzle competition partner of a semi-retired, rich inventor from abroad, Robert (Irrfan Khan), who is vaguely sexy and solemnly wry. Their board results are very attractive, but there is no dramatic tension sizzling in watching Robert (and the faster, intuitive Agnes) tightly join 500 or more pieces of cut cardboard.
As directed by Marc Turtletaub (Little Miss Sunshine), too many elements remain rather murky. Family drama simmers, like a sitcom teapot. Louie loves Agnes in his complacent Daddy Bear way. She mostly loves him, but a puzzled piece of her is tempted by Robert, who seems to love … love? Oddly, the most detailed piece is Louie, who looks and talks like a less neurotic Vincent D’Onofrio. He also: a. snores a lot (Agnes listens), b. loves cheese, c. expects his meals on time pronto, d. finds little quality time for the boys, and e. despite all that, is not so much a loser as a cheeseball with a beer gut. Quietly ticking way, dear Agnes edges towards assertive choices, although the final resolution is feminist in a very 1958 way.
Sorry, Agnes, but the great puzzle lady in movies remains Susan (Dorothy Comingore), bored wife in Citizen Kane. When old Mr. Kane (Orson Welles) finds her scanning yet another puzzle in the lonely expanse of Xanadu, he quips “How do you know you haven’t done it before?” She pings him right back: “Makes a whole lot more sense than collecting statues.” Of course, that movie is itself a vivid jigsaw puzzle. Puzzle, by contrast, has missing pieces.
Last week The Cakemaker! This week Skate Kitchen! But Crystal Moselle’s Skate Kitchen is not a culinary occasion. Moselle previously made documentaries, including one about six New York City brothers, The Wolfpack. Her first dramatic feature fuses acted storylines and digitally vivid reality sequences of young women in a street-skating group, Skate Kitchen. Their swerves, glides, jumps and speed-zips capture, with documentary verve, the passion of adolescence. Like any true teen scene, it’s a way of life.
The movie’s heart, along with ground-level Manhattan, is Rachelle Vinberg as Camille. A shy proto-woman from a Long Island suburb and a busted family, Camille meets the fierce, yappy Kitchen rollers at a skate park in Chinatown. After a dangerous accident she becomes a force in motion, despite her glasses and a pensive, observing reticence that the others find mysterious. Moselle mostly keeps the camera on Vinberg, whose instinctual acting (and improvising) anchors and resonates what could have been just another video blast of adrenaline. Camille, skittish about her options (including sexual), never entirely integrates into what a boy calls the “rowdy-ass girl crew.”
Vinberg gets wonderful support from Ardelia Lovelace as a slender black girl who generously welcomes Camille, Nina Moran as a funny lesbian tomboy whose skater name is Kurt, and Jaden Smith (Will Smith’s son) as a wary, sensitive guy who (like boyish Rocket in City of God) sees street photography as his ticket upward. Moselle includes some filler dialog and a few odd notes (like Camille’s rather late lessons in feminine hygiene). Still, the movie is alive, reviving some of the old urban voltage of Mean Streets and The Warriors. Rolling wild, the skaters relish the freedom of the city.
Memorable Fempowerment Movies
In order of arrival, plus directors: The Women (George Cukor 1939), Mildred Pierce (Michael Curtiz 1945), The Beguiled (Don Siegel 1971), Foxy Brown (Jack Hill 1974), Norma Rae (Martin Ritt 1979), 9 to 5 (Colin Higgins 1980), Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains (Lou Adler 1982), Deep in the Heart (Tony Garnett 1983), Mystic Pizza (Donald Petrie 1988), Gorillas in the Mist (Michael Apted 1988), Thelma and Louise (Ridley Scott 1991), A League of Their Own (Penny Marshall 1992), The Ballad of Little Jo (Maggie Mansfield 1992), Ruby in Paradise (Victor Nunez 1993), Jackie Brown (Quentin Tarantino 1997), Erin Brockovich (Steven Soderbergh 2000), Whale Rider (Niki Caro 2002), Bring It On (Peyton Reed 2002), Frida (Julie Taymor 2004), Offside (Jafar Panahi 2006), Dreamgirls (Bill Condon 2006), Wendy and Lucy (Kelly Reichardt 2008), Queen to Play (Caroline Bottaro 2009), In a World … (Lake Bell 2013), Ocean’s 8 (Gary Ross 2018) and Red Sparrow (Francis Lawrence, 2018).
WINE (Vin Orsonaire de Chateau Welles)
Orson is off this week, preparing his narration of Marcel Ophuls’s definitive six-hour documentary Orange Armageddon: The Rise and Fall of Donald Trump.
ENTRÉE (Starlight Rising)
“Every writer has a temperament of taste, and ‘each work entrusts the writer with the film it seeks’ (Borges). Taste is important, but if you are constantly polishing marble in your personal Parthenon, you become a frieze. I agree with novelist Ross Macdonald that ‘popular culture is not and need not be at odds with high culture, any more than the rhythms of walking ae at odds with the dance.’ So I walk along, and tap a little.” (From the Introduction of my book Starlight Rising: Acting Up in Movies, available from Amazon, Nook and Kindle.)
DESSERT (An Image)
A great movie image is more than a still, it’s a distillation.
Charlie Kane’s taste runs more to statuary than the puzzles assembled by wife Susan at Xanadu in Citizen Kane (RKO Pictures, 1941; director Orson Welles, cinematographer Gregg Toland).