January 27, 2018

SHOWBUZZDAILY Sundance Film Festival Reviews: “Damsel” & “Puzzle”


DAMSEL (no distrib):  A hipster representation of comedy rather than anything comic itself.  Written and directed by David and Nathan Zellner, whose previous work includes the similarly film festival-targeted Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter (they also appear in the film, David in a leading role), Damsel initially presents itself as the tall tale of Samuel Alabaster (Robert Pattinson), who turns up in an indeterminate Old West town with a dwarf horse and the professed intention of proposing to his love Penelope (Mia Wasikowska), gathering a local parson (David Zellner) to accompany him.  No one and nothing as it as seems, in a variety of random ways that begin with a reveal that Penelope may need to be rescued from a kidnapper (or not).  The Zellners invoke any number of western tropes in order to undermine them, but with no clear purpose, even a satiric one.  Damsel could be seen as slightly feminist, in that Penelope is the only one on screen who seems to have any functioning brain cells, but mostly it comes off as arbitrary for the sake of arbitrariness, composed of scenes that go on painfully long (the film itself is a lengthy 113 minutes) until they reach abrupt reversals.  Pattinson probably welcomed the chance to subvert his own romantic lead image, and Wasikowska gets to be the one semi-level-headed person on screen, but none of that makes Damsel worth experiencing.  By the time it’s over, the audience are the ones who need rescuing.

PUZZLE (Sony Classics):  Mark Turtletaub’s film seems strangely determined to be less enjoyable than its seemingly irresistible premise would suggest:  Agnes (Kelly Macdonald), a disaffected middle-aged housewife, discovers that she has a innate genius for jigsaw puzzles, and she teams up with Robert (Irrfan Khan), a wealthy and lovelorn Indian inventor, to secretly enter the world of competitive jigsaw contests, leading a double life so her faily won’t find out.  Far from the eccentrically empowering comedy that one might reasonably expect, Puzzle is traditional Sundance, a sober and low-key piece about dysfunction and quiet misery.  That all sounds bad, but actually Puzzle is quite high-quality for the most part, beautifully acted, and sensitively written by Oren Moverman (adapted from a 2010 Argentine film), with lots of well-realized moments between the characters and even a few laughs.  It’s frustrating, though, because an original and enticing idea is put to service for very familiar indie movie ends.  Agnes’s husband Louie (David Denman), although drawn and played with compassion, checks off every obvious box of the Insensitive Jerk, and while her sons are more sympathetically presented, they don’t have much substance either.  There was a terrific movie to be made here, one that included Agnes’s journey of self-realization but also found space for the potentially fascinating world of jigsaw mastery, but that’s not the film Turtletaub and his collaborators decided to make.  It’s wonderful to see Macdonald at the center of the movie, and her scenes with Khan are triumphs of strange chemistry.  Puzzle, though, puts its pieces together in a way that doesn’t match the picture on its box.


About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."