In Theaters

Getting the word out about what’s really going on can be quite a challenge, especially when those in the know may try to conceal the truth, soft-peddle its implications or spin it to their personal advantage. Overcoming that takes a writer-investigator who’s willing to dig deep and to keep from caving in to pressure to doctor the information to fulfill a particular agenda. It also helps to inject a little humor to attract and keep the audience’s attention. So it was for a crafty reporter who managed to pull off all of the foregoing, a career chronicled in the enlightening and entertaining new documentary, “Raise Hell: The Life & Times of Molly Ivins” (web site, trailer).

Even in the heyday of newspapers, it was a rather rare feat for journalists in that medium to attain national acclaim. But one who achieved that – and did so by creating a readily distinguishable persona for herself – was Molly Ivins (1944-2007). The outspoken, salty-tongued reporter who channeled those qualities into her work managed to steadily rise up through the ranks of her field. She became a print icon who not only had avid readers, but, more precisely, a constituency, one that hung on her wisecracks and her pearl-handled wisdom.

So what made Molly so charismatic? In essence, readers knew who she was and where she was coming from. She carefully crafted a writing style that set her apart from many of her peers (often penning her stories in first person, for example, a practice generally considered a journalistic no-no), covering topics with her acerbic wit and mastering the art of being able to knock down sacred cows, particularly in the political establishment. But, more than that, she created a distinctive, readily identifiable image for herself, one of a seemingly oxymoronic nature – that of a hard-drinking, pickup-driving Texas liberal.

At the risk of overgeneralizing, as contradictory as that label might seem, Molly embraced it to set her apart from the more “conventional” liberal stereotype. By coming across as a typical, tough-talking Texas girl who just happened to adhere to left-leaning sentiments, she won over the hearts and minds of many who may not have otherwise given her the time of day. To readers, she came across more like “one of us” than those who put on airs in making their views known.

Salty-tongued Texas journalist Molly Ivins made quite a name for herself with her wisecracking writing and hard-partying way of life as seen in the candid new documentary, “Raise Hell: The Life & Times of Molly Ivins.” Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

Molly’s worldview came out of her upbringing. She indeed loved being from the Lone Star State, but she also questioned the staunchly conservative values that seemed everywhere around her, especially in her family life. Having been born the daughter of “General Jim” Ivins, a strict, authoritarian oil and gas company executive, she was routinely subjected to his rigid right-wing ideologies, ideas that riled her into vociferously expressing her polar opposite viewpoints. This independent streak soon led to study at a prestigious Houston college prep school and then enrollment at the respected liberal arts institution, Smith College, a course of study that included a year abroad in Paris. Through her studies, she developed an aptitude for writing, the springboard for her career.

After graduating from Smith and earning a master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University, Molly launched her life as a writer and reporter by working for The Houston Chronicle and The Minneapolis Tribune. But Molly truly cut her teeth as a journalist by covering Texas politics (most notably the state legislature) for The Texas Observer. Through her reporting of that esteemed yet often-farcical institution, she sharpened her sense for spotting and calling out corruption, self-interest and downright political idiocy. She was off and running.

After leaving the Observer, Molly took her talents to The New York Times, which hired her because of a concern that the paper’s writing style had grown too staid and bland. Ivins was brought aboard to shake things up, but, once there, she was regularly hemmed in by the button-down culture of the Times, preventing her from doing what she was brought on board to do. After a comical falling out with Times editor Abe Rosenthal, Molly packed her bags and returned to Texas, taking a job as columnist for The Dallas Times Herald. Ivins held that job for 10 years, receiving two Pulitzer Prize nominations, before moving on to The Fort Worth Star-Telegram, where she worked until becoming an independent syndicated columnist and published author.

Covering the circus that often is the Texas state legislature, reporter Molly Ivins brought wit and wisdom to her readers as chronicled in director Janice Engel’s smart new documentary, “Raise Hell: The Life & Times of Molly Ivins.” Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

Along the way, Molly became quite acquainted with many of journalism’s elite and with many prominent politicians, both in Texas and nationally. Among those she befriended was Texas Gov. Ann Richards (D), the rollicking keynote speaker at the 1988 Democratic National Convention. Richards and Ivins were kindred spirits cut from the same cloth, especially when it came to their hard-partying ways, a habit that eventually led to both of them seeking assistance for substance abuse.

While Richards recovered from her condition, Ivins, unfortunately, struggled with it. She had convinced herself that alcohol was so much a part of her work and her image that she had difficulty giving it up. She often used drinking as a tool for getting stories out of sources, her ability to hold vast quantities of liquor often enabling her to hold her own during drawn-out tippling sessions with the good ole boys of Texas politics. But, unfortunately, it went beyond that, so much so that, when she went for one of her job interviews, she took her own six-pack with her.

Somehow, though, Molly managed to hold it together well enough as a functional alcoholic to have a storied and successful career. That career, though, ran into a brick wall when she was diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer in 1999. Molly fought the illness for nearly seven years, even drawing upon her signature sarcasm when discussing her circumstances (she named her breast tumor “Newt” in honor of House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R), one of her least favorite politicians). In the end, the disease overpowered the tough-talking Texan, but, in this ordeal, as in the rest of her life and career, she fought the good fight – and nobody could credibly say otherwise.

Though brought aboard to shake things up at the staid New York Times, rambunctious journalist Molly Ivins often ran afoul of the paper’s button down culture as explained in the new documentary, “Raise Hell: The Life & Times of Molly Ivins.” Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

Over time, Molly could clearly see the nature of her mission in life, and the more practiced she became at it, the more it became entrenched in her thoughts, acts and deeds. And the more she worked at honing this calling, the more effective she became at it. None of that would have been possible, however, without her beliefs in herself and her ability to carry out this task. Key among the beliefs that enabled her to function so effectively was an absolute fearlessness toward the work she undertook, an outlook she developed under the thumb of her authoritarian father and the state culture under which she grew up. In Texas, where machismo reigns supreme, Ivins refused to be steamrolled by the strong-arm, testosterone-laden attitudes of those who sought to control everything by serving self-interests first and pushing aside anyone unwilling to play their game. Molly hung tough with those seeking to control the agendas and wasn’t afraid to expose their foibles when they reared their ridiculous and ugly heads, something she uncovered quite often. That gave her the confidence to proceed with her mission, while simultaneously reinforcing her beliefs in her ability to do so.

This, in turn, allowed Molly to have the courage to be herself, no matter how much her views and outlooks deviated from expected norms. Ivins never hesitated to speak her mind, both in person and in print, despite being part of a liberal minority in an otherwise-conservative state. She championed the causes of civil liberties and helping the downtrodden on both the state and national level, especially when initiatives in these areas were threatened by the tactics of the privileged looking out for themselves. While Republicans were her usual targets in these regards, she was also willing to take on those who claimed to be the friends of the underprivileged, such as she did in 1996, when she criticized President Bill Clinton’s (D) welfare reform plan.

In leveling her criticisms, Molly made frequent use of her signature weapon – humor. She believed it to be a unifying force, one that could uncannily draw smiles from both supporters and opponents of her viewpoint. She was expert at landing zingers, especially against pompous, blowhard politicians, a skill that would allow her to benignly but effectively shine a bright light on blatant boondoggles and rampant incompetence. And, in many instances, her one-liners worked wonders, exposing the fools for who they really were, even if her efforts were linked to circumstances that were ultimately no laughing matters.

Another of Molly’s formidable tools was her ability to successfully size up situations for what they were, often allowing her to see things that others would miss. For example, given her extensive experience in covering the backslapping, smoke-filled room dealings of Texas-style politics, she became concerned when Gov. George W. Bush (R) announced his candidacy for President in 2000. She feared that, if Bush were to be elected, it would initiate a roll-out of Lone Star-style politics on a national scale, a prediction that many now contend came true and set a new standard, a legacy that we’re now left to wrestle with. Indeed, for what it’s worth, Molly’s intuition allowed her to see the future.

There’s a potent cautionary tale in that. Ivins sought to send us messages to heed, and their importance is just as significant now as they were at the time she penned them. Many of the issues that she tried to warn us about were in their early stages and have grown more acute since then. We’d be wise to consider going back and reading (or re-reading) what she wrote to sharpen our own insights into what’s happening – and what could happen if we ignore her warnings.

This frank, no-holds-barred look at the life of one of the most celebrated straight-shooting professionals in her field provides a rip-roaring look at her career, filled with ample wit and wisdom typical of her signature style. Through an excellent compilation of archive footage and interviews with those who knew her and valued her work, such as journalists Dan Rather and Rachel Maddow, director Janice Engel’s offering provides viewers with an insightful inside look at Molly’s professional and personal life, as well as the legacy she left behind. This film reminds us what journalism can – and should – be, a profession that these days is only a shadow of its former self. Let’s hope this picture helps to inspire the would-be Mollys out there who want to become what she was.

In an age when the powers that be are striving to stifle dissent, it’s more important than ever to raise a little hell when called for. Molly Ivins recognized the importance of that and employed the tactic whenever appropriate, even under prevailing circumstances that were more relaxed than they are now. Given what we’re increasingly up against, we should take her message to heart. So get ready to beat those drums – and laugh our way through it.

A complete review is available by clicking here.

Assembling the Pieces of Our Lives

Many of us look at our lives and see them as complete – only to discover not long thereafter that they’re not. Pieces may seem missing or out of place, realizations that we might view as frustrating, mystifying or even troubling. We could be tempted to ignore those shortcomings, hoping they’ll go away or resolve themselves on their own, but those “solutions” seldom work out as hoped for. It’s times like that when we must make a concerted effort to determine what’s gone awry and take steps to make repairs, a process detailed in the thoughtful domestic drama, “Puzzle” (web site, trailer), now available on DVD and streaming services.

Middle-aged homemaker Agnes (Kelly Macdonald) is something of a walking anachronism. The forty-something wife and mother leads a modest existence that resembles something more out of the 1950s than the present day. She lives a quiet, traditional life in an immigrant community of Yonkers, having never ventured far from home (even to nearby New York) nor taken the time to pursue any interests of her own. Instead, she’s dutifully fulfilled the obligations of housewife, caretaker and humble parishioner, spending virtually all of her days cooking, cleaning and, like the good Catholic girl she was raised, helping out at the church. She even does all the preparations for her own birthday party, fixated more on the needs of her guests than enjoying herself.

Having long lived a secluded life in Yonkers, middle-aged housewife Agnes (Kelly Macdonald, center) discovers a big wide world while on a trip to nearby New York in the nuanced domestic drama, “Puzzle,” available on DVD and streaming services. Photo by Linda Kallerus, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

Agnes’s biggest obligation, though, is taking care of the men in her family, her husband, Louie (David Denman), and two teenage sons, Gabe (Austin Abrams) and Ziggy (Bubba Weiler). It’s a continuation of a tradition that began with looking after her widowed father, setting a pattern that has persisted unquestioningly into adulthood. To be sure, Agnes’s guys take good care of her, especially Louie, who is a devoted, loving protector, albeit a bit oblivious to recognizing and addressing her needs.

However, as Gabe and Ziggy approach their own adulthood, Agnes is facing the impending empty nest stage and begins to wonder about her life. Has she gotten everything out of it that she wants? And what will she do for her future if the role she has traditionally played changes? That’s hard to say, because even Agnes doesn’t have ready answers to these questions, having never taken the time to ponder these notions, let alone given herself permission to find out what pleases her.

The men in the life of a middle-aged housewife – husband Louie (David Denman, center) and teenage sons Ziggy (Bubba Weiler, left) and Gabe (Austin Abrams, right) – are virtually her entire world, as seen in director Mark Turtletaub’s “Puzzle,” now available on DVD and streaming services. Photo by Linda Kallerus, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

That changes, though, when she opens her birthday presents. Agnes receives a jigsaw puzzle as a gift, and she’s captivated by it. She relishes the process of assembling the pieces to create a completed picture, especially when she discovers she’s quite good at it – not to mention fast. Simple as it might seem, Agnes suddenly has a new passion, and this time she decides to pursue it, even if somewhat discreetly. Given how she’s lived most of her life, she seems to feel a need to keep it under wraps, especially when it impacts her obligations to her family.

After assembling the puzzle she received as a gift, Agnes craves more. She ventures into New York to visit the store from which her gift was purchased, and she’s like a kid in a candy shop, picking up several new puzzles. While there, she also spots a notice about a competitive puzzler who’s seeking a partner to collaborate for a doubles tournament. Agnes takes the contact information and pursues the opportunity, a decision that’s very much out of character but that she nevertheless acts on, following her impulses with little hesitation.

Before long, Agnes meets her prospective puzzling partner, Robert (Irrfan Khan), a wealthy, divorced, bored, semiretired inventor. Her initial visit to his well-appointed New York townhouse is somewhat awkward, but there’s a definite, if uncomfortable, chemistry between the two of them. Puzzling may be the interest they share overtly, but there’s clearly more going on between them underneath the surface.

Middle-aged and long-sheltered housewife Agnes (Kelly Macdonald, left) discovers a new personal passion as a competitive jigsaw puzzler with her tournament partner, Robert (Irrfan Khan, right), as seen in the heartfelt domestic drama, “Puzzle.” Photo by Linda Kallerus, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

In his own way, Robert wants to help Agnes liberate the pent-up passion for living that she’s been suppressing for so many years. He’s aware that she has much to offer others, but he’s anxious to see her devote more of her energies to fulfilling her own wants and needs. It’s as if he sees her as a volcano on the verge of erupting if only she’ll allow herself to do so.

At the same time, Agnes seeks to help Robert re-engage with the world, coaxing him to emerge from the reclusive existence he’s slipped into in the wake of his divorce. She tries to show him that there’s more to life than just assembling puzzles, the only activity in which he seems to show any interest. Until now, he’s had little incentive to change, given that the ample financial resources he amassed from his technological expertise have enabled this comfortable, if isolated, lifestyle. She believes he has much more to offer the world, including in the career he’s allowed to atrophy, if only he’ll apply his talents as he once did.

As the relationship develops, it begins to involve more than just assembling puzzles. But, metaphorically speaking, this is a fitting backdrop as Agnes and Robert struggle to see how the pieces of their connection fit together. In addition to sorting out their joint dealings, they each have their own individual considerations to address. For instance, Agnes has the future of her marriage to consider. She truly loves Louie, but she can’t help but wonder whether his limited view of their relationship and his inattentiveness to her needs are enough for her now that she’s begun to broaden her horizons. She wrestles with what to do, keeping her thoughts and feelings contained and even going so far as to make up stories about how she’s spending time that she’s having trouble accounting for.

Louie (David Denman), a hard-working and protective but sometimes-oblivious husband, becomes bewildered about the state of his marriage when his long-predictable wife begins behaving in ways out of character as seen in “Puzzle,” now available on DVD and streaming services. Photo by Linda Kallerus, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

So how will it all shake out? That’s what remains to be seen. Given everything that’s going on with Agnes, Robert and Louie, there are multiple directions in which matters can unfold. It all depends on what each of the principals want for themselves.

For example, as Agnes opens up to possibilities she hadn’t previously considered, her existence provides her with options for experience and enjoyment that previously weren’t available to her. Similarly, as Robert chooses to reconnect with aspects of life other than his puzzles, he rejuvenates his enthusiasm for living, re-engaging with other elements of his existence, more so than he has done so for quite some time. And, as Louie begins to see his relationship with Agnes change, he realizes the need to become more cognizant of how he relates to her and how to address her wants and needs. None of this occurs instantaneously; it’s a gradual process but one that’s deliberate and aimed at bringing new meaning into their lives.

What begins as a competitive puzzling partnership takes unexpected turns over time as collaborators Robert (Irrfan Khan, left) and Agnes (Kelly Macdonald, right) discover in the nuanced domestic drama, “Puzzle.” Photo by Linda Kallerus, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

In each of these cases, the characters change their outlooks by disposing of what no longer serves them. For instance, Agnes comes to realize that she needs more out of life than simply attending to the well-being of the men in her life, that she requires personal fulfillment that has been stifled for decades, something that her passion for puzzles helps to illuminate. Robert, meanwhile, understands that he can no longer continue to hide in the comforts of his townhouse, alone and without meaningful connection to others and to a purposeful calling in life. And Louie sees that, if wants his marriage to continue, he must do more for Agnes than just provide the means for giving her a roof over her head and putting food on her plate; he must be more perceptive about her wants and needs and then take action to attend to them, an effort that requires him to believe that simply bringing home the bacon is not enough to make his marriage work.

To instigate this process, a catalytic spark is required. As the film illustrates, puzzles provide a fitting metaphor by urging the principals to see how the pieces of their transforming lives fit together. The puzzle assembly process symbolically prompts Agnes and Robert to take a different view of their lives, providing them with new perspectives of their existence. And this works not only for completing the pictures of their finished puzzles, but also for composing the picture of their lives.

Admittedly, this process may require some trial and error to sort things out. Given that these characters have long lived rather limited forms of existence, they may well be uncomfortable stepping into unfamiliar territory, unsure of what suits them or even what they want. This process might also involve the practice of learning various life lessons, something that may not work out perfectly on the first attempt (or even multiple attempts). However, since this is part and parcel of our personal growth and development, this is not unexpected. We’d be wise to simply embrace this as an integral aspect of our evolution, one that we should hope will ultimately lead to greater degrees of awareness and enlightenment. Where Agnes, Robert and Louie are concerned, we can only hope that they find their way, that they discover lives that bring them the satisfaction and fulfillment they seek – something to which we should all aspire.

Life’s pieces don’t always fit together as well as we’d like, and “Puzzle” shows us just that, albeit a little too well at times. Based on the 2009 Argentinean film “Rompecabezas” (“Puzzle”), this feature successfully incorporates all the elements of a realistic, superbly nuanced picture, especially when it comes to reflecting the story’s central theme. However, director Mark Turtletaub’s offering could nevertheless use a little more narrative “glue” to hold the pieces together more effectively. At the same time, though, the heartfelt performances of Macdonald, Denman and Khan truly make this offering worth watching, but don’t be surprised if you sometimes find yourself just as frustrated as the characters themselves.

To say that life is sometimes “puzzling” is indeed an understatement. We may wonder why events transpire as they do, often leaving us with questions that seem unanswerable. But, with a little effort on our part, that need not be the case. By taking the time to assess our beliefs – both for what they are and for what we would like them to be – we can begin to put the pieces together to fashion a clear picture, one that we can hope is beautiful – and to our liking.

A complete review is available by clicking here.

New ‘Normal’ Is Here

In 2017, filmmaker Renée Scheltema showed us how the world was changing. However, the degree of that shift was likely more radical than most of us realized, a change capable of leaving us open to a very rude awakening – and much sooner than thought. That was the message of the director’s documentary, “Normal Is Over,” which has now been released in an updated version, “Normal Is Over 1.1,” now available on iTunes, Amazon, Vimeo and Google Play.

The documentary follows Scheltema as she examines humanity’s wisest responses to climate change, species extinction, resource depletion, and the widening gap between rich and poor. The film connects the dots and looks at the financial and economical paradigm underlying our planetary problems, while offering various solutions to reverse the path of global decline. Viewers are whisked away on a multinational voyage, meeting not only prominent experts, but also everyday citizens who concentrate on such matters as organic agriculture, the banning of plastic, saving species, ecological economics, sustainable architecture and renewable energy. While this film is intended to challenge viewers on many different levels, it also offers hope.

For a more in-depth look at the original film, click here and scroll down to the second item. To hear an interview with the director on Mission Unstoppable radio, click here. And, to see the trailer for the new version, click here.

Look for Me on the Red Carpet!

It’s that time of year again – the 55th annual Chicago International Film Festival! The event, scheduled for October 16-27, will take place at the AMC River East 21 Theaters, with a few special screenings booked at other locations. As usual, I will be attending a variety of screenings, so, if you’re in Chicago during the 12-day event, look me up, and enjoy the show!

Copyright © 2019, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.