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Oscar Front Runners Come to Virginia

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It’s fitting that the 2018 Virginia Film Festival closed with The Front Runner, the Gary Hart biopic starring Hugh Jackman. Unlike in the past, when the fest mostly offered dark horses that came up short in the Oscar race (e.g. last year’s Downsizing and Hostiles), the VFF served up a number of leading Academy Awards contenders.

The opening-night attraction, Green Book, seems destined to earn Best Actor nods for Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen. They’re note-perfect as Dr. Don Shirley, an African-American pianist, and Tony Lip, his Italian-American driver on a concert tour through the Deep South in 1962. It’s Driving Miss Daisy in reverse, and while it’s not the most sophisticated take on race in America, it’s hugely entertaining and could go a long way in the Best Picture category.  Peter Farrelly, best known for making lowbrow comedies like There’s Something About Mary and Dumb and Dumber with his brother Bobby, might win a spot in the Best Director ranks, although he’s less likely to take home the statuette than two other filmmakers whose new work was shown at VAFF.

One is Yorgos Lanthimos, whose period comedy The Favourite I reviewed favorably when it played at the New York Film Festival. The other is Roma, whose true star is director Alfonso Cuarón. The autobiographical drama is drawn on his memories of growing up in Mexico City in the early ’70s and being raised by a nanny (played here by Yalitza Aparicio, a lock for a Best Actress nom). Shot in gorgeous black-and-white and deliberately paced, it’s a film that grows on you gradually and builds to a powerful impact. It faces some challenges commercially — including the fact that it’s a foreign-language film and will open only in limited theaters before streaming on Netflix — but it figures to be a major player on Oscar night.

So, too, will be Willem Dafoe, whose performance as Vincent Van Gogh in At Eternity’s Gate could bring him the Oscar he deserved last year for The Florida Project. Artist-turned-director Julian Schnabel’s film can be like watching paint dry at times, but Dafoe’s work is indelible. It even earned unmitigated praise from Christoph Waltz, who sat for a typically prickly but fascinating Q&A with Rain Man and Breaking Bad producer Mark Johnson, a UVA grad and the chairman of VAFF’s advisory board. Waltz amusingly refused to answer questions about what it felt like to win two Oscars, what it was like working with Quentin Tarantino on  Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained, and why he’s so good at playing charming but evil villains.

VAFF also screened a number of high-quality documentaries, including Charlottesville, a devastating examination of the deadly violence that broke out during the alt-right’s rally in August 2017. It was all the more disturbing to view only blocks away from the location where the anti-white supremacist protestor Heather Heyer was killed. An enlightening look at the cultural forces that led to this tragedy was provided by Divide and Conquer: The Roger Ailes Story, Alexis Bloom’s film about the rise and fall of Fox News Channel founder Roger Ailes. He emerges as compelling and complicated of a character as I’ve seen in any scripted film this year.

I wasn’t able to stay long enough to see The Front Runner or If Beale Street Could Talk, director Barry Jenkins’ follow-up to his Oscar-winning Moonlight. But I left the 2018 Virginia Film Festival excited for next year’s Academy Awards — and VAFF.

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Why “Boy” #WontBeErased at the Oscars

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The timing wasn’t lost on me that I caught a screening of Boy Erased on the same day the hashtag #WontBeErased went viral in response to the Trump administration’s attempt to define gender as immutable and determined at birth by genitalia. Writer-director Joel Edgerton’s quietly moving adaptation of Garrard Conley’s memoir about his experience in a gay-conversion program may technically be defined as a period piece — the events depicted took place in the early 2000s — but it couldn’t be timelier.

That could help Boy Erased become a major Oscar contender. At the very least, Edgerton’s fellow Aussies Russell Crowe and Nicole Kidman seem like locks for supporting nods. As the parents of the title character (renamed Jared and played by Lucas Hedges), Crowe and Kidman give flesh and blood to figures who could have been cardboard stereotypes: a Baptist minister/car salesman and his traditionalist wife. Even though they place their son in an environment that could be psychologically and physically harmful, the film doesn’t demonize them. They’re flawed people, doing the best they can, and their depiction is a powerful lesson in humanism.

In addition to his duties behind the camera, which he executes with impressive skill — the film is a leap forward from his feature directorial debut, the 2015 thriller The Gift — Edgerton plays the program’s leader. He shows great restraint in not turning this guy into a mustache-twirling villain, even after the depths to which he will sink are revealed. Edgerton seems a more likely candidate for the Best Adapted Screenplay and Director races, but he could join Crowe in the supporting actor category as well.

Hedges’ performance may be judged too low-key to merit a Best Actor nod (plus, he could be competing against himself as Julia Roberts’ opioid-addicted son in Ben is Back). But he scored a supporting nomination for a similarly underplayed turn in 2016’s Manchester by the Sea, so I wouldn’t count him out yet.

Boy Erased opens on Nov. 2, just five days before the midterm elections that will affect the rights of LGBTQ people. I hope it reaches people in red and blue states alike. Unlike too many current politicians. this film isn’t just preaching to the choir.

 

Halloween & Suspiria: The Horror, The Horror

halloween-movie-suspiria-michael-myers-dakota-johnson-1130791-1280x0Horror films, like comedies, don’t necessarily age well. What was scary 40 years ago might seem tame or even silly by today’s gory standards. An exception to that rule is John Carpenter’s 1978 classic Halloween — I recently wrote an oral history of the film for The New York Times, timed to coincide with director David Gordon Green’s sequel, and rewatching it over and over to research the piece, it never failed to terrify me. The simplicity and precision of Carpenter’s approach and the care with which he and co-writer Debra Hill developed the characters so you actually care about them stands the test of time, as does Carpenter’s simple yet deeply unsettling score.

I also watched, for the first time, director Dario Argento’s 1977 cult favorite Suspiria in preparation to see the remake by Call Me By Your Name filmmaker Luca Guadagnino. And I’m sorry to say the original, seen through 2018 eyes, seems horrible in all of the worst ways: campy, overdone, fake-looking and most of all, not scary.

So I had very different hopes going in to the new versions of Halloween and Suspiria, and in both cases, my expectations were upended. The new Halloween is a self-referential homage to the original, slavishly recreating signature shots, but it’s too meta to be be truly scary and too mindlessly violent to work as a lark.

What’s good about the new Halloween is what’s good about the old Halloween — namely, Jamie Lee Curtis, who’s only grown fiercer as she’s transformed from a feisty, virginal babysitter to a vengeful, gun-toting grandmother; the relentless yet somehow graceful character of Michael Myers (originally played by Nick Castle, who makes a cameo in the 2018 version), the bogeyman who can’t be stopped; and Carpenter’s score, which recurs thoughout the reboot.

What’s not so good about the new Halloween is almost everything else. Judy Greer is a likable performer but feels miscast as Curtis’ skeptical daughter, and Andi Matichek is a non-entity as Curtis’ granddaughter. The murders are often random and therefore meaningless, as if Green and co-writers Danny McBride and Jeff Fradley were worried the audience would get bored unless Michael slayed someone every five minutes or so. And the ending is a shrug, as opposed to the original’s haunting coda.

The new Suspiria, on the other hand, improves on its predecessor in almost every way except for one very important one. Aside from the basic premise — a young American dancer joins a troupe in Germany that’s thought to house a coven of witches — there’s almost nothing carried over from Argento’s incarnation. Except, that is, Jessica Harper, whose performance in the lead back in 1977 is the sole element that remains in any way modern and believable. She returns in a small but pivotal role late in the 2018 Suspiria, but her part has been taken over by Dakota Johnson.

That’s a disastrous casting decision. Guadagnino worked with Johnson previously on one of my least favorite films of recent years, A Bigger Splash, and he appears to sense some depth in her which is not apparent to me. She was fine as a sitcom lead on Fox’s too-short-lived Ben and Kate, but making three Fifty Shades of Grey films seems to have ruined her as an actress. She’s terminally insipid — and not a great dancer, to boot. Many of her scenes appear to have been done by body doubles. If Johnson were an amazing acting talent, that would be understandable, but she’s not.

Tilda Swinton, by contrast, acts circles around Johnson in a dual role as her devilish dance teacher and — under heavy prosthetics and the pseudonym of Lutz Ebersdorf — a male psychiatrist who suspects supernatural doings at the dance academy. It’s a gimmick, yes, but one that works brilliantly. Depending on Academy rules, Swinton could become the first performer nominated for best supporting actress and actor.

Guadagnino’s Suspiria is overlong (more than two-and-a-half hours, compared to Argento’s 98 minutes) and self-indulgent, but it builds to a truly mesmerizing climax unlike anything I’ve ever seen on film. I was left shaken, which what a horror film should do. The new Halloween, sadly, just made me numb. In short, it’s a cheap trick, whereas Suspiria 2018 is an unexpected treat.

My Own Private High Anxiety

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The author in high school, 1983

“It must be hell inside this guy’s head.” That’s what one of the commenters wrote in response to my recent post Five Reasons ‘A Star is Born’ Sucks. And you know what? She’s right. Not about A Star is Born — it does suck (in my opinion, with which you’re free to disagree). But it is sometimes hell inside my head, and on this, World Mental Health Day… I know, there’s a day for everything these days, but this one seems worthwhile… I think it’s time to give you a peek inside my infernal noggin.

I’ve dealt with mental-health issues my entire life: anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, OCD, however you want to diagnose it. When I was in Kindergarten, I cried so much because I missed my mom and I had such a mad crush on my teacher (who now lives next door to my father, but that’s another story) that they sent me to see the school psychologist. I didn’t know he was a psychologist. To me, he was just Mr. Sargent.

He was my own personal Mister Rogers. Mr. Sargent had a puppet — a dolphin named Duso — and I was encouraged to share my feelings with this felt Flipper. I did, and I stopped crying. Thank you, Mr. Sargent, and Duso, wherever you are.

(I just now learned that Duso was part of a program called Developing an Understanding of Self and Others that later riled conservative parents in Lake County, Florida, among other places. The magic of Google! )

Through school, I used my anxiety to fuel my overachievement. I always got good grades, but I often felt bad about myself. I looked to others  — especially girlfriends — to make me feel better about myself. When those relationships inevitably ended, I’d be crushed and go into deep depressions. After one particularly painful breakup,  I felt suicidal and spent a month in a mental hospital over Winter break in Charlottesville.

The staff didn’t know what to do with me. The rest of the patients were locals (all the students were home for the holidays), and my problems were different from theirs. I’d try to talk to my fellow residents, but the conversations went like this.

RED SHIFFLETTE (note: this is a pseudonym for another patient) Why are you in here?

ME: I have problems with women.

RED: Oh. You mean, you hit ’em?

ME: No, I just don’t understand them.

Red walks away.

I didn’t talk much in group therapy, and there wasn’t much time for individual therapy, so it was judged that I was not progressing. The doctors diagnosed me with manic depression (even though I’d never felt manic), put me on Lithium and sent me home.

The drug zoned me out. I took a semester off, moved back in with my parents and worked in a record store, shuffling up and down the aisles like an extra from Night of the Living Dead.

I started seeing a psychiatrist for weekly talk therapy and medication monitoring, and he concluded I had been misdiagnosed and tapered me off the Lithium. That made me feel more like myself again — my depressed, anxious self — and as a talk therapist, he left something to be desired. One of our sessions went like this:

DR. BALLOON (again, a pseudonym) So, what seems to be the problem?

ME: I don’t understand women.

DR. BALLOON: Yeah, they’ve got it easy. The pressure is all on us men. Women just have to lie back and enjoy it.

I walk away.

I went back to school and finished, then moved to New York City and had to face my greatest fear: being alone. I’d always lived with someone — my parents, my roommates, my girlfriends — and I never felt safe without somebody else in the house. I traced this fear back to my childhood epilepsy.

I’d had seizures in the middle of the night starting in elementary school. I only had a few before my parents took me to a neurologist who put me on Dilantin, which controlled them. But I was always terrified another one was going to strike, and what would I do if I were all alone with no one to soothe me?

As epileptic seizures go, mine were pretty mild: petit mal, as they were called. I was never in danger of choking on my tongue, but the sensation of waking up from a dead sleep and realizing my brain was not communicating with the rest of my body is the most frightening experience I’ve ever endured. “MOVE!” my brain would tell my arm. It wouldn’t move. “KICK!” my brain would tell my leg. It wouldn’t kick. I felt a sensation like the pins and needles you get when a limb falls asleep, but over my entire body. It lasted for a few minutes, which felt like a few hours, and then subsided.

I felt a deep sense of shame about the seizures. I didn’t want anyone to know I had them. My parents worried about me having a seizure when they weren’t there to comfort me through it, so I wasn’t allowed to sleep over at friends’ houses or go away to camp. When I was in high school, a bully who sat behind me in Spanish class peeked at my medical records in the school nurse’s office and threatened to expose me as an epileptic. I spent the rest of the year with a feeling of dread in my stomach.

My response to this fear of sleeping alone was to jump into relationships with women, whether they were right for me or not, just so that I’d have someone there to take care of me in case I needed it. Even after I outgrew my childhood epilepsy and my EEGs came back clear, the phobia was deep-seated. So I got married too young, and to the wrong person. And that only led to more anxiety and depression.

These days, I’m doing pretty well. I underwent years of intensive psychotherapy with one of the best doctors in Manhattan, and I’m on meds that seems to be working. I’ve been happily divorced for more than a dozen years, I’ve got a couple of great kids, and I love my work. I get paid to watch movies and TV shows and write about them and interview the people who make them. What’s not to love?

But I still struggle with moodswings, although there have been many more highs than lows lately. At least the highs feel good when I’m having them, and my mania manifests itself in relatively harmless ways: I buy way too may Pez dispensers, say. I still have my lows, too, but they’re not as low as they used to be.

And every now and then when I feel out of control, I ask myself: What would Duso do?

Five Reasons Why “A Star is Born” Sucks

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I wanted to like A Star is Born. I loved the trailer and raved about it in my New York Times column. Then I saw the movie, and it’s the worst piece of wet kitsch I’ve endured since The Greatest Showman. (If you loved The Greatest Showman, you can stop reading now, because you probably loved A Star is Born, too.)

How did I hate A Star is Born? With every fiber of my being. Let me count the ways.

Bradley Cooper doesn’t know the difference between acting and impersonating. The best performance is A Star is Born, paws down, is given by Bradley Cooper’s real-life dog, Charlie, who plays his character’s dog, Charlie. I didn’t doubt for a second that Charlie was a dog. I didn’t believe for a second, on the other hand, that Bradley Cooper was an alcoholic, drug-addicted, grizzled country singer. He seemed like he was doing an impression of a country singer — specifically, Kris Kristofferson, who played the same role in the 1976 version of this Hollywood chestnut — with a little bit of Jeff Bridges in Crazy Heart thrown in, and a whole lot of Sam Elliott, who plays his brother. The fact that Cooper’s character, Jackson, admits he stole his brother’s voice doesn’t make it any less an act of dramatic theft.

Lady Gaga is ga-gorgeous from the get-go. Yet the whole movie rests on the fact that no one has noticed how beautiful her character, Ally, is until Jackson comes along because everyone’s always told her she’s got a big nose. (Was this left over from the script for the Barbra Streisand version? Now that’s a magnificent schnoz!) Jackson’s fixation on Ally’s facial features grows creepy: He peels off her fake eyebrows; he wishes there were a big billboard of her nose; he has an odd habit of smearing cream pies all over her face. This is romantic?

The dialogue is way too on the nose. And not in just the nasal-fixation scenes. The script, co-written by Cooper, telegraphs its lines. When Ally resists a producer who’s  trying to turn her from a fresh-faced singer-songwriter into, well, a Lady Gaga-like diva, she declares, “I am what I am!” That’s not screenwriting; that’s Popeye.

The music isn’t exactly “Evergreen.” Her rendition of “La Vie En Rose” aside (I’m pretty sure that wasn’t written for this movie), none of Lady Gaga’s songs are one-millionth as catchy as such pieces or pure pop perfection as “Bad Romance” or “Poker Face.” The best song in the movie contains the line, “We’re far from the shallow now.” Oh no, I’d say you’re deep in the shallow now. Why couldn’t they hire Paul Williams to write new songs like he did for the Streisand version? Mr. Williams is alive and well; I recently talked to him on the phone. His music is ageless and evergreen; the new score is dated and stale.

Andrew Dice Clay and Dave Chappelle are wasted, and that’s no joke. I could’ve watched a whole movie about Clay’s character — Ally’s frustrated-crooner dad — and his fellow limo-driver pals, played by such great character actors as Barry Shabaka Henley and Michael Harney.  And Chappelle is reduced to playing the poor-but-happy childhood pal who helps Jackson rediscover his soul by sitting him down for a home-cooked meal. It’s the kind of demeaning trope he used to spoof so mercilessly on Chappelle’s Show. Maybe Dave’s been hanging out with John Mayer too much lately?

A star may have been born, but I was just bored. Late in the film, Jackson reveals that he tried to hang himself with a belt when he was 13 years old and failed. I found myself wishing he had succeeded — it would’ve saved him, and me, a lot of misery.

NYFF: My Favourites and Least Favourite

 

We’re one week into the 2018 New York Film Festival, and I’ve already seen two of this year’s best movies — as well as an early contender for one of the worst.

Let’s begin at the beginning, with the Opening Night feature, Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Favourite. I’m not gonna lie:  I hated the beginning of this movie, as the Greek director of The Lobster and The Killing of a Sacred Deer overused fish-eye lenses to create a sense of surrealism around the tale of Queen Anne (Olivia Colman, an unquestionable Oscar favorite), an overgrown, temper tantrum-throwing baby of a ruler — sound familiar? But as the film unspooled, and ladies in waiting Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone engaged in a cutthroat competition to win the monarch’s favor, the story grew on me. Lanthimos strikes me as a Stanley Kubrick acolyte, (you could certainly do worse for a cinematic  idol), and The Favourite is his Barry Lyndon. All in all, a strong start to the Festival.

Now let’s move on to two films that give me life — and hope for the future of cinema. Tamara Jenkins’ Private Life is an exquisitely observed portrait of a modern-day NYC couple struggling to conceive a child. Paul Giamatti is, as almost always, note-perfect as the husband, and Kathryn Hahn (whom I don’t always enjoy) matches him beat for beat, as does Molly Shannon, another performer who sometimes grates on me but is well-cast as a buttinsky best friend here. Jenkins doesn’t make movies often — this is only the third she’s directed in 20 years, after Slums of Beverly Hills and The Savages — but when she does, they’re achingly autobiographical gems.

With Wildlife, cowriter-director Paul Dano proves that he’s just as gifted as a filmmaker as he is an actor. Based on Richard Ford’s 1990 novel, this painstakingly precise drama follows a sensitive 14-year-old (Ed Oxenbuild, a remarkable young Aussie) witnessing the dissolution of his parents’ marriage in 1960 Montana. Carey Mulligan will no doubt be an Oscar contender for her fiery turn, reminiscent of Jessica Lange in 1994’s Blue Sky, as a housewife desperate to reinvent herself sexually after her unemployed husband (Jake Gyllenhaal, excellent as ever) leaves home to fight a forest fire. With Bill Camp, who’s been my favorite character actor ever since he played Dano’s cruel dad in Love & Mercy, rounding out the ensemble as Mulligan’s gimpy lover, this is the best-acted film I’ve seen this year. And Dano — who co-wrote the script with real-life love Zoe Kazan — has a filmmaker’s natural eye. He must’ve paid close attention to Paul Thomas Anderson on the set of There Will Be Blood.

On the documentary front, Errol Morris’ American Dharma is a disappointingly unfocused portrait of Steve Bannon. The often-reliable director of The Thin Blue Line and The Fog of War tries to examine the Breitbart/Trump firebrand’s twisted psychology through discussions of his favorite movies — black-and-white war films like 12 O’Clock High and Paths of Glory and Westerns like The Searchers and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. But due to a lack of context, the gimmick doesn’t work, aside from an insightful section in which Bannon revealingly compares himself to Orson Welles’ Falstaff in Chimes at Midnight.

Welles is all over this year’s festival, with the debut of his finally-finished film The Other Side of the Wind, a fascinatingly muddled mess, and They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead, an entertaining documentary by documentarian du jour Morgan Neville (Won’t You Be My Neighbor?) about the chaotic making of Wind. My advice: See the documentary first, as I did, or else Wind will make almost no sense — although the performances by John Huston as a Welles-ian filmmaker fighting to remain relevant in the New Hollywood of the ’70s and Peter Bogdanovich as…. well, basically, Peter Bogdanovich (he replaced Rich Little in the role!) are enjoyable.

Which brings us to the festival’s nadir, at least so far: The Coen Brothers’ disastrously awful The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. A sextet of Western shorts written over the last 25 years and stuck in the siblings’ bottom drawer, the stories should’ve stayed there. The tone is all over the map. It opens with a gory, goofy — call it “gorfy” — segment in which Tim Blake Nelson’s title character croons cowboy tunes and shoots various people dead. Then James Franco stars in another lighthearted vignette about an outlaw who escapes a hangman’s noose, until he doesn’t. Suddenly, the movie turns alternately somber and grotesque with prolonged segments wasting Tom Waits as a gold prospector; Liam Neeson as a traveling showman who exploits an armless, legless actor (Harry Melling); and a brutally overlong romance involving a damsel in distress (Zoe Kazan). The anthology is finally wrapped up with a stagecoach ride that goes nowhere, through no fault of the thoroughbred actors: Saul Rubinek, Tyne Daly, Brendan Gleeson, Jefferson Mays and a scene-stealing Chelcie Ross as a talkative trapper. Because someone dies in each of the six segments, the Coens — or was it Film Festival director Kent Jones? — tried to claim that the theme of mortality ties together these six disconnected chapters, but I’m not buying it. I’m also disturbed by the Coens’ depiction of Native Americans as faceless savages.

The Coens haven’t made a good movie since their last Western, 2010’s True Grit, and Buster Scruggs — which the brothers admitted is wildly mistitled, since Scruggs dies early  — may well be their worst film ever. Its only competition is a film with a title that could’ve more accurately applied to Buster Scruggs: Intolerable Cruelty.

The Best Movie I’ve Seen in 2018 (So Far)

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Oftentimes the films that sound like the absolute worst on paper turn out to be the best on screen. If you had told me at this time last year that my favorite movie of 2017 — and the winner of Best Picture at the Oscars — was a Cold War-era romance between a mute cleaning woman and a fish-man — I would’ve said that makes as much sense as the title The Shape of Water.

It may sound puzzling, but my favorite movie I’ve seen in 2018 so far is about a mousy housewife who discovers she has genius-level skills at putting together jigsaw puzzles and sees the pieces of her life falling into an exhilarating new place as a result. I know, I know, it sounds awful, but trust me on this one: Puzzle is a masterpiece.

Adapted by one of the world’s most underrated filmmakers, Oren Moverman, along with Polly Mann, from 2010’s Argentine movie Rompecabezas, Puzzle stars Kelly Macdonald, whom I had the privilege of interviewing along with director Marc Turteltaub and producer Wren Arthur after a recent SAG-AFTRA Foundation screening of the film.The Glaswegian actress has brought a captivating presence to Trainspotting, No Country for Old Men, Gosford Park and Boardwalk Empire, but nothing prepared me for the powerful subtlety of her performance here.

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Macdonald says and does relatively little in many of her scenes, yet a deeply moving drama plays out across her face; she would’ve been a great silent-film actress. She’s matched in quality by Irrfan Khan (Slumdog Millionaire) as a slyly seductive divorced inventor who becomes her puzzle-competition partner and David Denman (aka Roy, Pam’s first fiancé on The Office) as her lunkheaded-mechanic husband.

The beauty of Puzzle comes not just from its luminous visuals and hypnotic score but from the empathy it shows for each of its characters, including the very different sons of Macdonald’s and Denman’s characters, played by Austin Abrams and Bubba Weiler. One’s a smart-ass college-bound kid who wants to take a gap year and travel in Tibet; the other’s a frustrated wannabe chef forced to work at his father’s garage.

The characters in Puzzle sometimes make morally questionable decisions, but there are no heroes or villains here. Like puzzle pieces, everyone has their own unique shape. Kind of like the shape of water, you might say.  But when you put them all together, they create a picture more breathtakingly beautiful than the sum of its parts.