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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, August 24, 2018 - Volume 46 Issue 34
Movie Reviews
Arts & Entertainment
ALL STORIES
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Representation matters - 'Superstore' actor Nico Santos on getting to celebrate his sexuality and his culture in hit Rom-Com Crazy Rich Asians
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

CRAZY RICH ASIANS
Now playing


Nico Santos is having a moment. He's about to start filming the fourth season of the hit NBC sitcom 'Superstore,' his role as openly gay Asian-American employee Mateo Liwanag one of the more groundbreaking, and unheralded, characterizations currently to be found on network television.

Now Santos has a primary supporting role in Crazy Rich Asians, director Jon M. Chu's (Step Up 2: The Streets) hit adaptation of Kevin Kwan's best-selling novel. The charming romantic comedy follows Asian-American economics professor Rachel Chu (Constance Wu) as she journeys to Singapore with her charismatic boyfriend Nick Young (Henry Golding) only to discover he's the child of an exceedingly wealthy family lorded over by his ferociously domineering mother Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh). Soon Rachel finds herself at the center of a gigantic media circus as all of Singapore rushes to discover who it is who has stolen Nick's heart, all the while his mother keeps her knowing eye planted squarely upon the young woman as she tries to ascertain whether she'll be a suitable bride for her beloved son.

Santos plays Oliver T'sien, one of Nick's many cousins as well as someone Eleanor trusts to help ensure the Young family is seen in the best possible light. Openly gay and unapologetically flamboyant, in his limited screen time the actor is able to craft a three-dimensional character with far more depth and nuance than is initially expected. I had the pleasure of sitting down with Santos less than 24-hours before Crazy Rich Asians went into its record-breaking theatrical release and just a few days after the review embargo was lifted and critics started pumping out one ecstatically positive review after another. To say the actor was still excited and surprised by these reactions was a decided understatement.



'It is absolutely fantastic,' he happily proclaims. 'This past 10, 12 days have been completely emotional and overwhelming. I wanted to be a part of this movie in any way that I could; even if I was just an extra, I would have totally done this movie. But the fact that I get to be featured in this movie in such a wonderful character, and Oliver is just such a fun character, and I get to play another sort of great queer Asian character, I'm speechless. I never thought I would have a career like this where I get to play complex, three-dimensional queer Asian characters. I always thought that when I got into this business that I would have to either butch it up, which listen, I cannot do, or like play silly sidekick roles, and the fact that I'm now portraying two really great queer Asian characters is mind-blowing to me.

'And this movie! It is so surreal to be part of any movie; and being at the whole premiere thing was so crazy because I watched these events growing up, right? Movie premieres. Watching people walk the red carpet. And the fact that here I was walking that red carpet, not only for any movie, but for a movie that means so much for the culture, with all these other great Asian stars, all of this was very, very emotional. I've had several pinch-me moments all week. It's just been crazy.'

It's interesting that Santos brings up the fact that Oliver could have been relegated to being a background cartoon character, nothing more than a gay Asian stereotype utilized for cheap laughs and nothing more. But much like Mateo in 'Superstore,' thanks to solid direction, some sharp writing and his authentic, emotionally astute performance, this simply does not happen. Oliver might be a supporting character, but he's still a vital part of Rachel's journey, the significance of that not something the actor takes for granted.

'I was a little bit surprised,' Santos admits candidly. 'I guess that's also my knee-jerk reaction or my automatic thinking. You know, when you're a person of color or when you're queer in this industry, it's sort of automatic. You've been brainwashed to think, any role I get, or any role that I get to play or audition for are going to be these sorts of one-dimensional sidekick throwaway roles. Because we've all been lead to believe that that's our lot in life or our place in the industry.

'And so to be part of this project where that isn't the case? That's the great thing about doing this film. Everybody is Asian. That it kind of leveled out the playing field. We get to play these characters as three-dimensional, as complex and as complete human beings. It's so rare that we get that chance as people of color and as queer people. I was just really happy that the film turned out the way it did because it's just a certain privilege that my two queer Asian characters that are kind of like, I don't know, real. They're real. I don't take that fact lightly. I feel very lucky in my place in life right now.'

Making Oliver authentic started with the freedom director Jon M. Chu gave the actor to make the character his own. 'Jon really allowed me a lot of freedom with the portrayal of the character,' he explains. 'He wanted all of us [the cast] to be as comfortable in our character's skin as we could, so for me he didn't even really request that Oliver have a British accent. But to me, it was really important that I stayed close to the source material. I did want to portray Oliver with an accent because people of his status did - do - go to British boarding schools. Also, just the fact that Oliver is sort of like an outsider in his own family, I wanted him to sort of sound a little snobbier and posher than the rest of them because he's always putting on airs. He's a little pretentious.

'But we were all given a lot of freedom and that was the joy of working with Jon. He really places his trust in us and we did a lot of improvisation. Like Awkwafina and I. Those makeover scenes. He just let us go. He just let us do whatever we wanted. I'm just really happy about the process and that he placed his trust in us.'

The makeover montage in Crazy Rich Asians could have been a disaster. It could have been a cliché, an overly edited mess of schmaltzy excess and dubious stereotypes. Instead, it's a sweet, tenderly silly marvel of a sequence, Wu, Awkwafina and Santos having an obvious blast as they each work together in tandem to give this moment its energetic life.

'It's really about how well we all gelled off-screen,' says Santos nonchalantly. 'Everybody in this movie, who's involved in this movie, from the minute we met, we all really just bonded. I mean, not only did I bond with everybody, like all of us became one big happy family. So doing these scenes like the makeover, they came very naturally. The flow and the energy of it, everything just clicked. I honestly liked doing the makeover scene. I don't remember most of it because I was so jet-lagged, but it didn't matter because we were all just having so much fun. It makes a real difference when you are in a work environment or working on a set where you trust everybody, where you feel comfortable in front of everybody, and we were just able to breathe and sort of let go. I think that was the best part of being on the team.'

Part of that team was Michelle Yeoh, one of the iconic giants of Asian cinema. After all, this is a woman who stole an entire film from Jackie Chan in Supercop, at one point jumping a motorcycle onto the roof of a railcar while the train itself was speeding down the track. Couple that with memorable turns in films as diverse as The Heroic Trio, Tomorrow Never Dies, Wing Chun and the Oscar-winning classic Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, it's impossible not to think the actor was at least initially intimidated when he first stepped onto the set with the legendary movie star.

'It was definitely intimidating at first,' he admits, 'but she is the nicest, most gracious, most elegant woman I've ever met in my entire life. I've said this on several interviews, I want to be Michelle Yeoh when I grow up. She's just amazing. The way she carries herself. It's stunning!

'Did you see her on the red carpet for the premiere? I was like so blown away by the way she looked. She hadn't aged a day. That Armani gown she was wearing, her hair, she's like, not a real person. She's a real movie star. She's so crazy amazing.

'But she's also such a great person. She's so caring. I remember when we were filming the dumpling-making scene in the movie. She could tell I was a little bit nervous because I was acting alongside of her. She kind of just sort of whispered into my ear at one point and was like, just relax, just relax, you're going to be fine. You're doing great. I was like, oh my God! She didn't have to do that. But that's who she is. She's so caring and so gracious. Just an amazing human being.

'And she's so flawless in this movie! I love her in this movie so much. It's so refreshing to see her in this different light, seeing her so vulnerable in this movie. It broke my heart. She's such an amazing actress.'

As for himself, it isn't lost on Santos just how great a moment he is having right now. Starring in NBC's successful sitcom 'Superstar.' Playing such a vital and memorable supporting role in Crazy Rich Asians. Getting to celebrate his Asian heritage and his queer identity with such confident exuberance in both roles. The actor almost can't help but get emotional when he takes a step back and allows himself to look at the bigger picture.

'It feels incredible,' he states bluntly, choking back tears in the process. 'It feels unreal at the moment because I know we've been doing 'Superstore' for, let's see, we just started filming our fourth season, can you believe that? There's not a day that goes by where I really take a moment to sort of look around and catch myself asking, 'How did I end up here?' It's insane. Making it in this business is hard enough, but being able to represent the Asian and the queer community by portraying two roles that are complex queer Asian characters; people don't get to have that! People don't get that chance.

'After playing Mateo and after playing Oliver, I really feel like I don't have an interest in playing straight roles now. I feel like it's my duty to really seek out interesting queer Asian characters to be able to represent the community because you just don't see them. You just don't see them. I never saw myself growing up on screen. If I did, it was very stereotypical. Like I said earlier, sort of the one-dimensional throwaway roles, and it's been such a privilege just to play these two characters because I'm able to show the rest of the world that there's this wide spectrum to the queer community, that we're not all the same cookie-cutter type of gay person or Asian person or gay Asian person.

'I mean, this movie has everything. It's just a really great Rom-Com. You could really take this movie and be like 'Crazy Rich Latinos' or 'Crazy Rich Black People.' It's just a great Rom-Com in and of itself and it just happens to be about Asians. I'm so glad that we're getting this chance to make this movie. It's been 25 years since The Joy Luck Club, which just seems so wild to me.

'I know that there has been a little bit of criticism for our film, that this is a movie just about Singapore or sort of like it's perpetuating that wealthy superior minority myth. But the whole thing for me is I feel like rising tides lift all ships. This movie is going to be great for everybody. This movie is going to open up the floodgates for more stories to be told about LGBTQ people and about other Asian groups. With this movie I hope that we're finally able to tell the Taiwanese stories and the Korean stories and the Japanese stories because there's so much within the Asian community and within the queer community begging to be told. There are so many more stories that we could tell. This is just the beginning.'


First annual North Bend Film Festival preview
Programmer Jess Byers on pushing cinematic boundaries in the heart of the Pacific Northwest

by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

NORTH BEND FILM FESTIVAL
NORTH BEND THEATRE
August 23-26


In the shadow of Mount Rainier and deep in the heart of 'Twin Peaks' country, the first-ever North Bend Film Festival opened with the West Coast Premiere of Wanted director Timur Bekmambetov's experimental social media-based dramatic thriller Profile. It concludes this Sunday night, August 26, with another West Coast Premiere, this time British filmmaker John McPhail's lauded Christmas-themed, high school set zombie-apocalypse musical Anna and the Apocalypse. In between will be a weekend of wild cinematic events featuring shorts and features from around the globe along with a groundbreaking virtual reality experience, an outdoor hike to Rattlesnake Ridge and a 'Damn Fine Coffee' Hour for festival goers to congregate and discuss everything they've watched (as well as all they still hope to see). Also, there will be the requisite 'Twin Peaks' Tour departing the North Bend Theatre bright and early at 10am Saturday morning, host David Israel leading participants on a wild ride that will include many of these iconic hotspots brought to life in David Lynch and Mark Frost's iconic television series.

A member of the Ridley Scott Creative Group working on virtual reality and production projects, Jess Byers is a Northwest native who also happens to moonlight as a film festival programmer who most recently helped make the Brooklyn Horror Film Festival a reality while also assisting to set the lineups for both the Hamptons International Film Festival and Nantucket Film Festival. He's one of three programmers who helped bring the North Bend Film Festival to life. More importantly, he's the one who decided doing so would be a terrific idea. I had the pleasure to speak briefly with Byers about this year's festival, an event he hopes will become an annual tradition. Here are some of the highlights from our conversation:

Sara Michelle Fetters:Tell me a little bit about the impetus that got the North Bend Film Festival started this year. What was it that brought you all together to program this, work with the local community and make it a reality?

Jess Byers: So, we are a group, I guess a collective, of festival folks and production folks based all around the U.S. and Canada. A few of us launched a film festival in Brooklyn called the Brooklyn Horror Film Festival, and that was obviously mainly based around horror films. [laughs]

About a couple years ago, or a year-and-a-half ago or so, we were all just kind of sitting around and we were like, we would love to do a destination film festival. Where could we do that? Where has the best infrastructure for one? Those were the initial questions.

I'm actually from the Pacific Northwest and I was like, 'Guys, there's this amazing town. Google it.' I mean, North Bend has this amazing art-deco theater that the community supports. I knew we had to start talking to the people in the town and see if [a festival] could become a reality. That's sort of how it started. It sort of snowballed into what it is now, which is just terrific.

Sara Michelle Fetters:It's really great to have this kind of fun, fast film festival right in the shadow of Mount Rainier and right where 'Twin Peaks' is filmed.

Jess Byers: Exactly! That is exactly what I was thinking, too.

Sara Michelle Fetters:Did you find that this ambiance made it easier to draw films, to draw filmmakers and studios to want to be a part of your fledgling festival?

Jess Byers: I definitely think that that history of such memorable shooting locations ended up being a big draw for people that don't necessarily know Washington and all the Pacific Northwest has to offer. It certainly didn't hurt. [laughs]

Not to sound too political, but we sort of went on a listening tour of a sort around North Bend to scope out what people thought of our idea. We went around town and talked to the folks. We got a mixture of 'We love 'Twin Peaks' and 'We hate 'Twin Peaks',' which we kind of anticipated. But people honestly seemed really excited about the idea of a festival. It wasn't a tough sell at all.

Putting together this program, it was never our intention to create a David Lynch festival. Instead, it was like, why did this place inspire someone to come and shoot something so memorable Here? That was the central question. That's what we want to tap into. We sort of built this program around what those inspirations were, what the sort of mysticism of the town already had with Mount Si, Snoqualmie Falls, all of that. We built a program around that, one that sort of reflects that mentality of the town.

But we also wanted to plug into the larger cinema community that the Northwest has to offer. Case in point, we've always partnered with local queer organizations, and LGBT organizations, and I'm a queer person, and I was lucky enough to be able to partner this year with Three Dollar Bill Cinema on one feature screening and on one VR short. That was important to me. So they're coming on board, and that's really awesome, to be able to get into Seattle a little bit, only 40 minutes away, and try to work with the larger cinema community.

Sara Michelle Fetters:That's fantastic. So great to hear. When you were trying to figure out what to actually program for the festival, I think it's interesting that there's really only one overlap from the recent Seattle International Film Festival (the terrific My Name Is Myeisha), and the rest of these are all premieres of one sort or another, whether they be a Washington premiere or a Pacific Northwest premiere. And you've got some pretty big titles like the West Coast premiere of Sarah Plays a Werewolf.

What was the thought process as far as trying to piece together this schedule was concerned?

Jess Byers: Well, all of us have this interest in genre film in general. So, looking through other film festival programs, and whether they're your Sundances or Tribecas or Cannes, we were looking through those programs and looking for films that might not have been purchased right away and might not be the films that were in the dramatic competition section of those festivals. We were more concerned with looking at the films that were outside of that. What's coming from Sundance Next or some other sort of adjacent programs hoping to find films that we wanted to build an audience around.

Having that personal interest in those sorts of genre films, I think that that's how we were able to put together this program. Because we were reaching out to these films, and we were like, we're putting together a program where that's unlike any program in the country, and your film is perfect for it. It's fun because we get to work with a few programmers at other festivals behind the curtains that would have loved to program some of these films for their festivals but knew that they didn't have the audience for them. Because they were passing up these amazing titles we thought they would work perfectly for the audience that we're trying to cultivate. It's been fun.

Sara Michelle Fetters:Why Profile as the opening night film? What was it that attracted you to Timur Bekmambetov's film that made you think it would make a good opener?

Jess Byers: I don't want to speak totally on behalf of my fellow programmers, but I think all of us walking into this festival kind of sat around and were like, we want to program films that are pushing the boundaries of filmmaking. And that is a very broad spectrum, right? It could have to do with a certain type of coloring. It could have to do with a certain type of editing. It could mean just about anything. There aren't any boundaries.

With Profile, it obviously has this new way of showcasing a story. While other filmmakers are taking off with this type of format as well, which is great, I think what is especially enticing about this story justifies the techniques he utilizes to capture it is that the story he is telling is so authentically emotional. It's based in reality. This was really fascinating for us. I think that's why we felt like this would be a really great film to open with, because it's serious and I think people are going to walk out of the theater feeling like their eyes have been opened to a new type of filmmaking. A new type of filmmaking.

Sara Michelle Fetters:I gotta ask about how you managed to score Anna and the Apocalypse as your closing night film. I mean, that is such a buzzy title right now, and I can't tell you how many critics in our area are just going crazy wanting to go watch that one.

Jess Byers: Well, I'm not going to give too much away, but we are very close with the Fantastic Fest crowd, and also very close with people in the genre film industry. So we were very excited to get that one. That was one that was like, this is perfect. This is fun. It's lighter. It's a fun subject. I think that the audience is just going to love it.

Sara Michelle Fetters:It's only a few days, but there's still a lot to sift through for the average festivalgoer over these four days. For you, what are some of the under-the-radar programs or titles that you're really excited for people to get a chance to see?

Jess Byers: I actually work in virtual reality full-time in my day job, and I'm really excited about the virtual reality program we put together. The program is actually included for anyone who purchases a badge. And that's awesome.

I'm also really, really looking forward to Shirkers on Saturday night. I'm curious to see how audiences take to it. But it's just such a fascinating documentary study that's played some other film fests. It also has an online VOD debut in fall. But I think it's going to be a really cool one for people to see in a theater. I think they'll love it.

Sara Michelle Fetters:And I mean, again, you're in North Bend. It wouldn't be North Bend without this 'Twin Peaks' tour.

Jess Byers: We partnered with local tour runner David Israel who just knows his stuff. It's a perfect thing for us. Everyone wants to come out to North Bend and they want to see everything, especially everything 'Twin Peaks,' but we aren't from the area. I didn't grow up there. I grew up in the Pacific Northwest, but not in North Bend. So partnering with a preexisting tour was just the right thing to do. We wanted to reach out to a local organization and work with them, people who are used to doing this tour, who are very experienced with it, who live it day-to-day. And so this is something that I think is also going to be really cool for people to experience.

Sara Michelle Fetters:The Annabel Lee Immersive Experience, which I believe you were just talking about a little bit in regards to VR, that just sounds fascinating to me. And then, of course, you've also got that Rattlesnake Ridge wilderness hike.

Jess Byers: Pretty terrific, right?

So, Annabel Lee, that experience is very close to my heart. I programmed that one personally, and it is going to be done by a performer from Sleep No More. Annabel was in Sleep No More in New York for about eight years. If you're not familiar with it, that's the immersive show blueprint, or at least the foundation, for a lot of immersive shows that have been created since. So with her, Annabel Lee, it's a little complicated to explain, but basically, she's going to be meeting people in a virtual world called 'AltspaceVR.' It's this really cool platform where you can go in and meet other people and it's very 'Black Mirror;' very freaky but very cool.

Audience members will have the opportunity to actually go in and meet her, or her virtual avatar, in person. It's live theater and VR. After that they'll potentially have another experience, one that I'm not going to give too much away on. But it's going to be really cool. They're going to really love it.

Sara Michelle Fetters:And then the ridge hike?

Jess Byers: Well, as you know, I grew up in the Pacific Northwest, where Christmas, every day, you're getting up and you're going on a hike somewhere. Putting on your REI boots and whatnot. Working with North Bend, the town expressed to us that they really wanted to support our event. That they would love to have a member of the town be on the board. But what they're really trying to promote is outdoor recreation.

Now, that's a little bit of the opposite of being in a dark movie theater. [laughs] So what could we do to work something like that into the schedule? I think that having a hike was just a no-brainer. The Rattlesnake Ridge is a really fun hike. It's short, and I think that everyone's going to have a blast.

Sara Michelle Fetters:Is this a festival that you see continuing in the future? As you said, you program a number of cool film festivals around the country. But is this one that you can foresee maybe becoming an annual tradition in North Bend?

Jess Byers: Definitely. This one feels like my baby. We have to see how it goes, of course, but I think we're going to see this one explode. I'm not letting this festival go anywhere. I think it's going to evolve, for sure, but the bottom line is that the first year we wanted to present a program that pushes the limits of filmmaking, that pushes the limits of storytelling, and I think we've done that. This is something I can see evolving over time. So, yeah, I foresee this festival becoming an annual North Bend event.

Sara Michelle Fetters:You grew up in the Pacific Northwest. You know how much of a film-going community this region is. At the end of the day, what do you hope attendees take away from this experience? What do you want them to be talking about when this weekend concludes?

Jess Byers: I think that at the end of the day I really want people to feel like their creative juices are flowing. I think that every time someone makes a new film that pushes the boundaries of filmmaking, or pushes the boundaries of art, they need an audience to witness that, and they need an audience to participate as well. That's what this festival is all about. So I think that I really, really want people to walk away saying, 'I've never seen that before.' I want them to think that maybe what they saw was absolutely crazy. Maybe what they saw was nothing short of awesome. Most of all I want them to want to come back next year and bring back new people to experience all of this crazy awesomeness with them.


Kelly Macdonald pieces together a perfect performance in emotionally lithe Puzzle
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

PUZZLE
Now playing


It begins with a gift. For her birthday suburban housewife and mom Agnes (Kelly Macdonald) is given a 1,000 piece jigsaw puzzle, mainly because her husband Louie (David Denman) and children Gabe (Austin Abrams) and Ziggy (Bubba Weiler) can't think of anything better to give her. Turns out, she's got a knack for puzzling. In fact, completing puzzles, sometimes multiple times, becomes Agnes' passion, the pride she feels knowing she's the best at something planting a smile on her face and putting a spring in her step neither of which have been there for quite some time.

While out searching for more puzzles she makes the acquaintance of champion puzzler Robert (Irfan Khan). He introduces her to a whole new world of competitive puzzling, instilling in her the desire to join him as his partner in a pursuit of tournament jigsaw championships. Agnes begins to come into her own like she never has before, speaking her mind to her family and forcing them to recognize her intelligence and talent whether they want to or not. For maybe the first time in her life she knows she is capable of greatness. Whether or not she and Robert end up winning a trophy, Agnes knows she can demand more from life. More importantly, she's starting to piece together the confidence to be able to go out and get it all on her own.

A rare starring role for Macdonald, the emotionally lithe Puzzle is a fantastic showcase for the veteran character actress. She's dazzling as Agnes, underplaying her part magnificently, allowing all of the delicate nuances of Oren Moverman (Time Out of Mind, Love & Mercy) and Polly Mann's screenplay to come to heartbreakingly brittle life with astonishing ease. Macdonald walks through the film as if she were a caterpillar gently spinning her cocoon as she prepares to begin anew as a strong, powerfully assertive butterfly, the emotional complexities lurking at the heart of her performance simply incredible.

The rest of the movie is pretty darn good, too, director Marc Turtletaub (Gods Behaving Badly) handling things with a perceptive authority that rarely feels forced or heavy-handed. While the inherent melodrama lurking at the heart of the picture is obvious, and while not all of the pieces of this story fit nearly as well as the jigsaws Agnes and Robert put together so effortlessly, overall the emotions running through the center of this narrative are consistently pure. I found it impossible not to be caught up in this story, especially considering just how rare it is to see a film about a forty-something woman like this one told with such restraint and attention to detail.

I think what I like most about what Turtletaub, Moverman and Mann have done is that they subtly and slyly subvert convention. The actual puzzle tournaments, while important, aren't really what the movie is about. Those expecting some Hoosiers or Rocky-type moment of underdog euphoria have another thing coming their way. Instead, the filmmakers make certain that they are following Agnes from start to finish, reveling in her story as she learns to take charge of the moment while also coming to profound realizations in regards to her marriage to Louie. The stuff with the puzzles, it's almost a red herring, her ability to put them together with such precision and speed entirely secondary to the massive psychological transformation that takes place with every jigsaw piece she fits into its proper place.

It must be said that Robert's tale is entirely too obvious, and if not for Khan's immense talent the character could have flirted with becoming insufferable. There's a moment where he delivers a monologue that's frustratingly unnecessary, the character spelling out for Agnes a bunch of simple truths that she and the audience have already begun to figure out without him feeling the need to mansplain them for her. Yet the heartbreaking depth of Khan's introspective performance still resonates, the gifted actor manufacturing a three-dimensional portrait of romantic loss and personal tragedy that's breathtaking.

But this is Macdonald's film and she is outstanding. Whether discovering ways to intellectually blossom sitting alongside Khan or verbally jousting with newfound confidence with a dumbfounded Denman, the actress delivers one of the finest performances of her career. It's a show-stopping turn that ranks right up there with Charlize Theron (Tully), Chloë Grace Moretz (The Miseducation of Cameron Post), Matilda Lutz (Revenge), Emily Blunt (A Quiet Place), Toni Collette (Hereditary), Thomasin McKenzie (Leave No Trace), Andie MacDowell (Love After Love), Claire Foy (Unsane), Jennifer Lawrence (Red Sparrow), Juliette Binoche (Let the Sunshine In), Zoey Deutch (Flower) and Marine Vacth (Double Lover) as being one of 2018's best, Macdonald making Puzzle a heartfelt drama worth seeing all by herself.


Director Marc Turtletaub puts the dramatic pieces together with the emotionally perceptive Puzzle
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

PUZZLE
Now playing


Marc Turtletaub is a veteran, Academy Award-nominated producer known for shepherding films as diverse as Little Miss Sunshine, Loving, Sherrybaby, Safety Not Guaranteed, Sunshine Cleaning and Louder than Bombs across the finish line. He steps behind the camera as director for the second time with Sundance Film Festival sensation Puzzle, the story of forty-something housewife and mother Agnes (Kelly Macdonald) who discovers she has a knack for putting together jigsaw puzzles. While searching for new jigsaws to challenge herself with she makes the acquaintance of championship puzzler Robert (Irrfan Khan), the pair deciding to enter into a partnership in order to compete in an upcoming competition.

Based on the Spanish film Rompecabezas and featuring a screenplay written by Owen Moverman and Polly Mann, Puzzle is a masterfully multifaceted melodrama, a coming of age tale about a woman discovering who she is and what she wants from life right at the moment she's supposed to be on the wrong side of 40. Featuring a magnificent performance from veteran character actress Macdonald that might just be the best of her career, Turtletaub does a fine job of keeping the central narrative focused entirely on Agnes no matter what else might be happening. Perceptive and thought-provoking, this is a sublime dramatic achievement, one I'm quite likely to get a second, and maybe even a third, look at before the end of the year.

I had the pleasure to sit down with Turtletaub during his visit to the Emerald City in order to present his film to a sold-out audience during this past summer's Seattle International Film Festival. Here are some of the highlights from our all-too-brief conversation:

Sara Michelle Fetters:Were you familiar with the Spanish film Rompecabezas before you got involved here as director?

Marc Turtletaub: No. I wasn't. A friend sent the script for Puzzle to me after it had been adapted by Oren Moverman, but I had never seen the original. In fact, I intentionally didn't watch the original all the way through shooting through editing, and only when I finished the film did I say, 'Okay. I'll watch it.'

Sara Michelle Fetters:I want to ask you about your reaction to the film but I have to enquire about working with Moverman. He's such an acclaimed screenwriter and director in his own right. What was it about this script that got you excited and, at the same time, were you at all surprised he wasn't going to direct it himself?

Marc Turtletaub: I don't know that Oren ever thought about directing it. He adapted it, he and Polly Mann had worked [the script] long before I knew anything about it. We did some minor additional work on the screenplay after I received it, but I honestly don't think he ever intended to direct it. So I guess that's my way of saying I wasn't surprised.

What drew me to it? You know, great writing is great writing, and I never thought I would want to do a movie about a woman who gets involved in jigsaw puzzles, but the script really stirred something inside of me. Of course, the movie is not just about jigsaw puzzles, it's about Agnes and the relationships that she has. The writing was extraordinary. A story about a woman of a certain age is rare, especially for one who finds herself after the age of 40. I call [Puzzle] a coming of age story for a woman over the age of 40; I don't say that in front of Kelly because she's already giving me the eye when I say that. Truly, though, a story about a woman over the age of 40, who finds herself later in life, it's so rare. One this beautifully written? About how her change ripples through the whole family? That is even more rare. It was really lovely to read.

Sara Michelle Fetters:I love that you brought that up because that was actually one of the things I was going to talk to you about. To see cinematic stories about women over 40, one that doesn't deal with explosions or action or heists or something vaguely supernatural, it's obscenely rare.

Marc Turtletaub: I'm not sure in our society why that is. I'm always drawn to stories about people who find their authentic self, but I think there are so few of them about complex, interesting women. There are always plenty of roles for men over the age of 40. But to find one like this, which is so well wrought for a woman over 40, it is so rare. Even last year, Three Billboards was another drama primarily centered on a woman that was a very different story, and also really powerful. But those are few and far between.

Sara Michelle Fetters:Then there is that puzzle aspect.

Marc Turtletaub: There is indeed.

Sara Michelle Fetters:You movie is titled Puzzle.

Marc Turtletaub: It is.

Sara Michelle Fetters:It is about a woman who discovers she's exceptionally good at putting together jigsaw puzzles.

Marc Turtletaub: Right.

Sara Michelle Fetters:She's going to go to a puzzle championship. There's all of these things happening that have to do with the puzzles. The trailer is all about the puzzles.

Marc Turtletaub: I see where this is going. [laugh]

Sara Michelle Fetters:As you're watching the movie, though, you realize that these puzzles have just been a gigantic metaphor the whole time for what she's going through in her life and what she's discovering about herself. I don't want to call it a bait and switch, but in some ways it is almost as if you set up the film as this empowering kind of puzzle sports melodrama only to discover you've been watching a rather intimate relationship movie instead. As the director, how do you balance these various components so that audiences don't feel duped?

Marc Turtletaub: Great question. I don't think anyone has asked that before.

I personally didn't think of it as a bait and switch. The film is a character study and is about relationships. It's just that this woman finds she has an ability to do one thing and she follows the string of that talent from her little world in Bridgeport, Connecticut all the way into Grand Central Station. Suddenly her life begins to open up. Her eyes are opened.

For me, that's what the story's about. It's not a Rocky story for puzzlers. It just isn't. That's never what it was on the page. Then when we shot it, we didn't feel like we needed to put our emphasis on the actual tournament itself. Yes, it's a piece of this story, but what's really important is what's happening with Agnes, what's happening with her relationship to her family and what's going on with this new man that she's met.

Sara Michelle Fetters:We were joking a little earlier about Kelly Macdonald, but in all seriousness I think anyone who has followed her career even in passing would recognize just how talented she is. But she's stunning in this. It's so refreshing to see a veteran character actress like Kelly not only get a role like this one, but in the same breath knock it so clearly out of the park. For you, as the director and as a veteran producer, to see her so at the top of her game, I would imagine there were days on the set where you just had to be beaming watching her work.

Marc Turtletaub: It makes a director's job so much easier when you have someone like Kelly. I fell in love with her as an actress with a movie called The Girl in the Café, a small movie with Bill Nighy. I was like, who is this woman? She's extraordinary.

I honestly didn't remember her from Trainspotting. But you watch her in movies like No Country for Old Men and in 'Boardwalk Empire' you start to connect the dots and she's appeared in so many diverse roles. Like you said, she's one of our great talents. I have always wanted to work with Kelly, and when I read this script it was so obviously right for her. I was fortunate to get Kelly, and also Irrfan Khan, who is another one of our great actors.

Sara Michelle Fetters:No question. He is. And both actors have such amazing chemistry. When did you know their pairing was going to work?

Marc Turtletaub: You don't know beforehand. For one thing, Irrfan and I had only communicated over the Internet. He lives in India, in Mumbai, of course, so while we chatted and talked and messaged about the movie he and Kelly did not work together beforehand.

But I don't rehearse beforehand. I like to keep it alive and fresh. So we talk instead. I talk with the actors about the role, about key scenes. But Kelly and Irrfan were not in a room together but for a couple hours before we started filming. You have to trust in the quality of the performers and in the massive talent that they have. The results are on the screen.

Sara Michelle Fetters:I can see how that sort of approach could work really well as it pertains to material like this. Agnes and Robert's initial meeting is so spontaneous. If you had rehearsed it too much, if you had spent too much time working on it, you wouldn't feel that spontaneity. It wouldn't feel so natural.

Marc Turtletaub: Exactly. Smart. It's smart. That's what it is. The very first day working with Irrfan, I looked at the way he was playing Robert. It was so interesting. I never expected that that's how he would play the character. But that's his genius, and one of the real gifts of being a director is you have an idea of how something will play, and then once it's embodied by a wonderful actor, it suddenly has a life all of its own.

Sara Michelle Fetters:Both actors really do things here that I found continually surprising.

Marc Turtletaub: Nice! I'm glad you think that because it's true. It really is.

Sara Michelle Fetters:We would be remiss if we didn't talk about David Denman.

Marc Turtletaub: Thank you! It amazes me more people don't ask me about him, because he's great here as well. I love David.

Sara Michelle Fetters:That is a character that so easily could just drop into cliché or stereotype. He could have become a melodramatic drag on Agnes' journey. What was the process like for you all to make sure that did not happen with this character, so that we understood what Agnes was going through and why she would be feeling about this as she does? We don't hate David's character, which in many ways I find quite surprising when it comes to a story such as this one.

Marc Turtletaub: That's lovely. Well put. I never want to demonize anyone. Louie, David's character, is a product of the environment he grew up in. We know a little bit, we get hints about what his father was like, but it's - the way you avoid a cliché or a stick-figure character is to begin with the casting. When I met with David and talked with him about the role it was clear that neither one of us wanted to have the husband by the heavy. We wanted to have somebody who was challenging, yes, but at the same time you also needed to feel for him. It's like real life. The character becomes real and becomes alive. David did a beautiful job.

Sara Michelle Fetters:You have spent so much time behind the scenes as a high-profile producer of some pretty terrific films. Little Miss Sunshine. Loving. Safety Not Guaranteed. Jack Goes Boating. Sherrybaby. Not that I need to list the films you've worked on to you, but that's just a handful of the notable titles you've had a hand in seeing complete their productions and make their way into theatres.

While this isn't your first directorial outing, you've certainly spent more time as a producer than you have sitting behind a camera instruction actors and tossing back and forth ideas with the cinematographer. How do things change when you take off that producer hat and exchange it for a directorial one?

Marc Turtletaub: As a producer, there are all kinds of producers, but my producing partner, Peter Saraf and I, are creative producers. We're very much involved in every stage of the process. From finding the original idea or material or book, whatever that might be, and being there right through the editing process. So we're always very involved.

But the vision has to come from the director, and so you mediate your thoughts through the director. We've worked with a lot of great first-time directors. Safety Not Guaranteed with Colin Trevorrow is an example. Little Miss Sunshine with Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris is another. And we've worked with some who have far more experience, like in Loving with Jeff Nichols. A lot of the first time directors we play a much larger role in the casting and crewing, even in some of the editing process. But it's always the director's vision. Always.

When you direct yourself, you're on the line. For me, the biggest thing to learn was how to stay open to good ideas from everyone because there are so many people who are so smart on a movie set. From being around movies you tend to have very smart cinematographers, script supervisor and editors, all who also own the process. So you have to be open to listening to good ideas while not losing your vision of the movie. It's a tricky line to walk.

Sara Michelle Fetters:It seems to me that you are drawn to stories that ooze authenticity. Stories about the human experience.

Marc Turtletaub: Yes. Exactly.

Sara Michelle Fetters:Why is that? What is it about these stories that excite you?

Marc Turtletaub: It's what draws me, stories that are grounded. I just find those the most interesting. They seem to have the most depth for me. We've worked on stories, which are either life-affirming in some way, or life-revealing. These stories can go to a dark place, like Sherrybaby, with Maggie Gyllenhaal, which goes to a dark place, but it's always for a purpose. That movie, at the end of the day, it's about a woman who is not capable of love, who has had sex abuse in her family, and it's done in a really subtle way. We see all that was in her background. Then you realize that she can't raise a child unless she heals herself first. It was worth going to that dark place because there's ultimately something redeeming about it.

With these stories, I just follow in my heart. I follow in my instincts. But those are the kinds of stories that I grew up watching and that I love. Those are the stories that inspire me.

Sara Michelle Fetters:The other thing I've noticed, and Sherrybaby is a perfect example of this, as are Little Miss Sunshine and Loving, is that you are drawn to stories featuring strong, complicated women.

Marc Turtletaub: That's very true. I think that's because these stories are so underrepresented. I think I'm interested in strong people. When Kelly and I talked about [Puzzle], we both said we didn't want to dumb Agnes down. We want to make her bright as a character, but also unaware. Just like her husband, her life has been circumscribed by her family, her church, her friends and her husband's business. It's all very small. She doesn't know anything different.

But just because she doesn't know anything different, I still want to see the intelligence and the humor and the wit. It's in the script, but it's the way Kelly plays it. The way she described it initially, and how we talked about the character, Kelly said, 'I want to let that leak out.' What she meant by that was that intelligence and humor and wit, it's there, buried inside Agnes, and we get to see it little by little. But it's always been there.

Sara Michelle Fetters:I wanted to just circle back around to this, and now that we're running out of time this seems like the perfect moment. When you were finished with the film, what did you think when you watched the Spanish version?

Marc Turtletaub: It's different. Very different. And yet it's very good. It does its own thing. So I think it is very good in its own way. But I'm also really glad I didn't see it beforehand. I'm glad we made a point of making our own motion picture. I wouldn't have wanted it to cloud my process.

Sara Michelle Fetters:At the end of the day, what do you want people talking about as they exit the theatre? What do you hope is on an audience member's mind?

Marc Turtletaub: That's a great question. I try not to think about how people will react. I just hope that they're touched by the film, that they laugh because there's humor in it and they are moved by the drama. But that's one of the things that we couldn't anticipate is how people would be laughing out loud during the movie. We knew it was emotional and touching, that it was a great story about one woman's journey to find herself, but we were surprised to see how people appreciated the humor. I just hope people enjoy the movie and take what they can from it.

Sara Michelle Fetters:And will you direct again?

Marc Turtletaub: I hope to. I've been reading nonstop. I'm not going to write my next film, but I've been reading nonstop and looking for just that perfect project. Hopefully, I'll find it sometime soon.


Colorfully energetic Crazy Rich Asians a charming romantic comedy
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

CRAZY RICH ASIANS
Now playing


New Yorker Rachel Chu (Constance Wu), a respected economics professor, has been dating the dashing Nick Young (Henry Golding) for a little over a year. With his best friend Colin (Chris Pang) about to get married to his longtime sweetheart Araminta (Sonoya Mizuno) in Singapore, Nick asks Rachel to join him, thinking this will be a perfect time to introduce her to his family, especially his overprotective mother Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh). It will also be a great opportunity for her to reconnect with her former college roommate and friend Peik Lin Goh (Awkwafina) who currently lives in Singapore, the two of them having not seen one another in ages.

As this adventure begins, turns out Nick has been keeping a giant secret from Rachel. His family is one of the richest in the world and is treated like royalty in Singapore, making him one of the most eligible bachelors on the face of the planet. Rachel is being dropped right into the center of a cultural and familial maelstrom unlike any she's ever known before, and she's immediately taken aback when practically every person she encounters is either judging her for being too American, showing her fake kindness because they think doing so will appease Nick or outright attempting to bust up their relationship thinking that is what Eleanor wants them to do. Through it all, the young woman goes out of her way to remain true to the values her own mother instilled in her growing up, knowing that in the end remaining her own independent woman is more important than anything else.

Based on the best-selling novel by Kevin Kwan, Crazy Rich Asians is a throwback romantic comedy featuring an eclectic mix of veteran superstars, rising young talents and recognizable character actors, all of whom are at the top of their respective games as they work in melodious tandem to bring this story to life. Directed by Step Up 2: The Streets, G.I. Joe: Retaliation and Now You See Me 2 veteran Jon M. Chu and featuring a script written by Peter Chiarelli (The Proposal) and Adele Lim ('Life Unexpected'), the movie is a breezy good time overflowing in genuine heart and emotional vivacity. It's a heck of a lot of fun to watch, sending me out of the theatre with a spring to my step and a grin on my face neither of which vanished until a couple of days after the screening.

This is kind of surprising considering just how predictable everything honestly is. Having never read any of Kwan's books I can't say how closely Chiarelli and Lim's script sticks to the source material. What I can say is that this is as tried and true a romantic plot as any in the history of cinema. Rich man conceals his identity in order to win the love of an honest woman who loves him for who is and not because of his money, as scenarios go this isn't a fresh one. Recalling the likes of Pretty Woman, Coming to America and, forgive me for saying this, Fifty Shades of Grey, it's not like anything that happens will be startling to a single viewer sitting in the audience. This is a movie that does exactly what it sets out to do and does so in ways that are easy to anticipate, none of the plot's twists and turns coming close to resembling anything remotely resembling a surprise.

Thankfully, Chu and the screenwriters put the emphasis on the characters, most specifically Rachel Chu and Eleanor Young. They are opposite ends of the same spectrum, each a confident, intelligent woman driven to do what they think is best for their respective families as well as the people that they love yet doing so in ways that couldn't be more different. Wu and Yeoh play these two characters magnificently, each adding layers of complexity and introspective analysis that's superb. Golding is also wonderful, dashingly masculine in a Cary Grant meets Chow Yun-Fat sort of way that had me swooning in my theatre seat. There's also a wonderful supporting turn by Gemma Chan as Nick's favorite cousin Astrid Young Teo, the multifaceted specificity of her performance achieving a heartbreaking eloquence that rises far above the maudlin inanity of the melodrama her character is unfortunately forced to deal with.

An international icon whose memorable films include the likes of Supercop with Jackie Chan, The Heroic Trio with Anita Mui and Maggie Cheung, the James Bond thriller Tomorrow Never Dies, the martial arts classic Wing Chun and the Oscar-winning sensation Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Yeoh is mesmerizing, taking what could have been a cliché and stereotypical role and transforming it into something movingly authentic and emotionally pure. Eleanor easily could have been the villain. Instead, she's something far more important, this eagle-eyed mother making a number of decisions, both horrible and heartfelt, in regards to her son that somehow never end up feeling callous and cruel even if their impact upon Rachel is consistently debilitating. Yeoh navigates her way through things with a determined concentration that is thrilling, the actress refusing to apologize for her character's actions while at the same time making clear every move she makes come from a place of deep, unapologetic love for a son she only wants the best for.

The subplot involving Chan would be an aggressively insulting waste of time if not for her effectively passionate performance, and it's the best of the various side pieces of the narrative that have precious little to do with Rachel and Nick's romance or Eleanor's efforts to stop it in its tracks. Most of these extraneous plot strands sadly don't go anywhere of interest, rarely fleshing out their characters in ways that are noteworthy. All they really do is pad out the running time and take the focus away from Rachel and Nick, and I do wish the film would have just cut most of them out entirely instead of just letting them sit there aimlessly taking up precious narrative space.

Even so, the film's requisite makeover montage, anchored by Awkwafina and 'Superstore' star Nico Santos, portraying another of Nick's many cousins, vigorously mugging shamelessly for the camera while Wu gets to try on a series of fabulously creative ensembles, is a total hoot, while the wedding everyone is in Singapore to attend is itself an eye-popping marvel of visually imaginative excess that's downright spectacular. Cinematographer Vanja Cernjul (Violet & Daisy) shoots things with a colorful eye for detail, things achieving an almost Technicolor-like splendor that reminded me of Douglas Sirk classics like Written on the Wind and Magnificent Obsession.

A lot will be made about this being one of the few major Hollywood studio-produced films to ever receive a wide theatrical release and feature an exclusive all-Asian cast, the last motion picture to fit that description being Wayne Wang's adaptation of Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club released a quarter century ago in 1993. This is a discussion that needs to be had, and much like Wonder Woman, Coco, Black Panther and A Fantastic Woman have already shown, representation both in front of and behind the camera matters. Having a movie out in the multiplex that illustrates even a small piece of the abundant diversity of the human condition is worthy of applause, and no matter what its quality the fact Crazy Rich Asians even exists in the first place is still a step in the right direction. Thankfully, Chu's romantic comedy is a good one, and even with little nitpicks sprinkled here and there this remains one entertaining night out at the multiplex viewers of all stripes owe it to themselves to go out and see.


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