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Monster Hunt 2

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“In another country, with another name, maybe things are different, maybe they’re the same.” -Brian Eno, “Mother Eye Whale-less”

As of this writing, the affable Chinese blockbuster fantasy “Monster Hunt 2″ has demolished opening day records in its native country: $97 million today alone. (1) This comes two weeks after the film’s pre-sales reportedly hit $11 million. (2) It’s also roughly two years after the release of the first “Monster Hunt,” another family-friendly action-comedy that follows cuddly computer-generated monsters as they frolic about their forest home, and chase live-action Chinese and Hong Kong comedians and marquee stars. 

“Monster Hunt 2″ is a lot more where that busy, good-natured mess came from. It just happens to be raking in enough money to give “Black Panther” some decent international competition this weekend. The target audience for “Monster Hunt 2″ knows very well what the film is, and probably whether or not they’re going to enjoy the film. Everyone else probably hasn’t even heard the film’s title mentioned in passing. 

Which is strange because, in this country, most discussions about popular foreign films begin with a tacit conflation of the film’s inherent merits, and its cultural footprint. If it’s bad, but big, it has a far greater chance of being treated as an event than if it’s good, but small. 

Then again, “Monster Hunt 2″ isn’t being actively promoted to Western audiences, not to anyone beyond its established Chinese-American audience anyway. Why should they? The Chinese box office is still poised to overtake the waning American market some time very soon. And “Monster Hunt 2″ probably won’t change your mind about Chinese, or Asian pop culture. It’s not a cultural ambassador, but rather the kind of crowd-pleaser that a snotty American distributor probably would have deemed to be “too regional” for a mass audience ten or twenty years ago. The kind of movie that might not have even been released in a few theaters nation-wide, as it is today. The kind that sells out a 3:30pm show on opening day at Manhattan’s AMC Empire 25, the bed-bug-plagued multiplex that has become many Asian film buffs last year-round bastion for popular Chinese, Korean, Indian, and sometimes Japanese films.

Still: all this fuss for a cutesy kid’s film? Pretty much, yeah.

“Monster Hunt 2″ is charming enough on a scene-to-scene basis that its success is worth noting. Director Raman Hui (co-director of “Shrek the Third“) and screenwriter Alan Yuen peddle kid-friendly conservative values: The nuclear family is sacred! Not all authority figures are bad! Money can’t replace good relationships! And they do so with a smile, and a lot of goofy, but pleasant jokes. Many scenes revolve around happily-married, monster-hunting couple Huo Xiaolan (Bai Baihe) and Song Tianyin (Jing Boran) as they attempt to re-unite with Wuba, their lovable adopted squid-monster baby. Xiaolan and Tianyin are just one of a handful of interested parties who are looking for Wuba, including cocky gambler Tu (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai) and his chubby monster companion Ben-Ben. Tu inevitably learns from Xiaolan and Tianyin’s example, and realizes that the money he needs to dig himself out of his massive personal debt can’t make him happy in the same way that a good relationship can.

As you may have guessed by now, “Monster Hunt 2″ is an entry in the burgeoning sub-genre of fluffy, innocuous kiddie blockbusters. A small, but noteworthy amount of charm sets this disposable bauble apart from other films that have came before it. For starters: Wuba is genuinely cute. He coos and giggles with enough abandon that you want to half-struggle, and half-embrace him every time he’s on screen (and that is often). Baihe and Boran also have low-key on-screen chemistry, and they earn belly laughs just by bickering like a much older, married couple. Like when she jokingly dismisses him by saying he should stick to giving birth to monsters (as he did in “Monster Hunt”). Or when he teases her for shamelessly flirting with a weapon-smith (“I can see you haven’t washed your hair in two months. You must be the kind of man who focuses on the big picture!”). 

Even Leung, perhaps best known to American audiences for his smoldering dramatic role in “In the Mood for Love,” also does a fine job with the goofy material at his disposal. His mugging is never distractingly excessive, nor too light to be notable: the man is clearly committed to his silly part, as we see every time he sweats, and cajoles his way out of trouble. Wuba and his friends are also notably more charismatic than they were in the first “Monster Hunt,” possibly because more money was invested in their design, and development.

All of which to say: “Monster Hunt 2″ isn’t a game-changer, and it doesn’t have to be. The independence of the mainland Chinese audience is quickly becoming self-evident. Soon, China’s box office will play a larger deciding role in American blockbusters successes. And there won’t be a reciprocal component to that. A film that many of you won’t have the chance to see in theaters is about to bust open a major market like an over-stuffed piggy bank. And its success will be largely covered in trend-pieces that consider its worthiness in abstracted terms of timing, marketing strategy, and general audience appeal. 

Still: “Monster Hunt 2″ is equally charming, sweet, slight, and unmemorable. It will also make truck-loads of money, and inspire at least one more sequel. But by now, you either already knew that, or simply don’t care. There’s no such thing as critic-proof movies, just films that we don’t care enough about to consider.

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Early Man

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The hero of “Early Man” is a caveman named Dug. If you smiled while reading that, this is definitely your kind of movie—the kind where you think, “Surely they wouldn’t make a joke that basic” right before the movie makes it, then follows up with an implied soft-shoe routine, a “ta-dah!” and outstretched hands. 

Director Nick Park, the mind behind Wallace and Gromit, treats this stop-animated film about Stone Age people battling Bronze Age people as a pretext for roughly ninety minutes of alternately cornball and shameless bits. These are interspersed with conversations between a dumb character and a character designed as “the smart one” only because he’s not quite as dimwitted as the person he’s talking to. There are really only two kinds of characters in “Early Man,” innocent fools and smug twits who will eventually get their comeuppance. The story is mostly a pretext for gags, as well as for impressive bits of comedy staging by Park, who takes a solo directing credit on a feature for the first time here. Park and his screenwriters, Merling Crossingham and Will Becker, seem to be channeling the likes of The Three Stooges, Abbott and Costello, and Mel Brooks: heroes of comedy so primordial that their official portraits should be cave paintings. 

The movie never lives up to its magnificently silly opening sequence, which re-creates the extinction of the dinosaurs. Park’s camera slowly dollies back from a raging volcanic eruption to reveal a classic tableau of a triceratops battling a Tyrannosaurus rex, followed by assorted configurations of humans battling each other (one bloke appears tries to chew another’s bare foot as if it were a meatball hero). The subsequent discovery of the meteorite’s remains in a crater leads, inevitably, to the invention of football, or as we Yanks call it, soccer: a cave person tries to pick up the smoldering rock, which is shaped like a regulation size 5 ball right down to the hexagonal patterning. But the ball is red-hot, so the cave person drops it, and another one stupidly picks it up and drops it, too, and it rolls to the feet of a third cave person, who yelps at having his feet burned and kicks it it away. And that’s how “Early Man” becomes a sports movie. 

The story kicks in sometime later on the evolutionary calendar. The descendants of early humans, represented by the goodhearted but dim Dug (voiced by Eddie Redmayne) and the equally goodhearted but even dimmer tribal leader Bobnar (Timothy Spall), are threatened by the army of a nearby Bronze Age society, which barges into the tribe’s peaceful, forested valley atop armored mammoths and lays claim to the area’s bronze deposits. Dug gets captured and ends up in the town, where he becomes smitten with a pan-seller named Goona (Maisie Williams) and winds up an arena where the main spectacle is football. And it’s here that Dug gets the bright idea of challenging the champion local team, Real Bronze, to a match. The winner gets possession of the valley and its bronze deposits. 

The bad guys’ leader, Lord North (Tom Hiddleston), thinks this is a great idea. His team are professionals and not only is Dug an amateur, but a chowderhead to boot, and there’s no indication that his people even know what football is, let alone know how to play it. The first training session is a near-disaster. When he tells his fellow tribespeople that they have to attack the ball, they take him literally, and they seem baffled and annoyed when he explains that football is a foot-driven game, and that you can only use your hands for playing goalie, throwing the ball in from out-of-bounds, and signaling, and not for, say, punching someone in the face and picking up the ball while they’re unconscious. Goona turns out to be an exceptional football player who was forbidden from competing against the arena’s men. She’s eager to bring her skill set to bear on training Dug’s team, and pretty soon Lord North starts to feel pressure from Queen Oofeefa (Miram Margoyles), who makes it clear that she expects a decisive victory. 

There’s nothing here you haven’t seen in other sports films and faux-prehistoric adventures. What makes “Early Man” enjoyable is the way Park and his writers detail the heroes’ good-natured oafishness and the bad guys’ snooty arrogance (they speak with wildly exaggerated Franch Ok-santz-suh) and embellish primordial cliches with “Flintstones”-style design touches, including baby crocodiles that serve as clothespins for laundry lines, scarab beetles that double as beard trimmers, and “message birds” that repeat whatever the sender told them, including bits that the sender would prefer that the receiver didn’t hear. No joke is so silly that it can’t be mounted with exuberance by Park and company. Encountering sliced bread for the first time in the Bronze Age town, a Stone Ager exclaims, “Sliced bread! That’s the best thing since … well, ever!” When Lord Nooth’s infantry takes over the valley, he orders his men to “Start mining ore!” “Or what?” an underling asks.

You know full well whether or not you’re the audience for this film. Consider yourself either warned or enabled.

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Irreplaceable You

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When Abbie, who thinks she is pregnant due to the bloating in her belly, instead gets a diagnosis of Stage 4 cancer, her reaction is stunned shock, followed by a quip to her fiance, “At least we won’t have to pay for college.” He replies, “Unless it’s a really smart tumor.” There’s a pause and he murmurs, “Too soon.” “Irreplaceable You,” written by actress Bess Wohl and directed by Stephanie Laing, is filled with dialogue like that, self-conscious “quips” meant to be witty gallows’ humor, an adorable spin on denial. Grief does not look a certain way (and the expectation it should does a lot of damage to those going through it), but the language here is off-putting, skipping off a too-beautiful and insistently color-corrected surface. The dialogue creates an arch and artificial mood, never sounding like real talk despite the clearly talented actors (Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Michiel Huisman) playing the roles. The film itself seems to be in denial about its own story.

The “adorable” quality starts early when it shows how Abbie and Sam met. They were eight years old on a field trip to an aquarium, and when the tour guide describes how the monogamous deep-sea angler fish bites its chosen mate, young Abbie leans over and bites Sam. They have been together ever since in an uninterrupted continuum of monogamous coupledom. Her cancer diagnosis is the first event to tarnish their eternal intimacy. Adding to the sense of unreality, the couple live in a gigantic sun-drenched loft in New York, which looks interior-decorated by a professional. Abbie doesn’t know how to cook a chicken. They eat takeout. Why, then, do they have an industrial sized kitchen, the walls lined with professional-grade cookware? (The tendency to put New York film characters into completely unrealistic apartments is so common as to be mundane, and when a film accepts the space challenges most New Yorkers live with—even New Yorkers with good jobs—it’s such a welcome breath of reality.) “Irreplaceable You” gives cancer the most glamorous backdrop possible.

Abbie’s reaction to her diagnosis is to search for a new mate for Sam, someone who can take care of him when she’s gone, who can make sure he doesn’t wear mismatched socks. She creates an online profile for him and interviews potential candidates. She never seems sick, despite the seriousness of her diagnosis. She throws up from her treatment once. She’s not exhausted or in pain. Nothing changes in her physically. Maybe it’s unreasonable to be annoyed by this, but if you’ve experienced the death of a loved one from cancer, you know how bad it can get, how extreme the challenges can be. In “Irreplaceable You”, cancer is used mostly as a plot point to get the story started. Abbie’s cancer diagnosis is implicit as opposed to explicit, and there is no sense over the course of the film—with one or two exceptions—that the cancer is having any effect on her at all. This is a huge missed opportunity.

The cancer support group Abbie attends is filled with characters played by heavy-hitting actors, many of whom far surpass both Abbie and Sam in interest. These scenes generate real sparks. There’s Steve Coogan, as the group leader, who insists the crocheting he makes them do is “not a metaphor.” Kate McKinnon plays a woman in such denial about her diagnosis she insists, with bright manic eyes, that she’s “blessed.” Her positive attitude drives everyone crazy. She vibrates with a tragic intensity missing from the rest of the film. Christopher Walken plays Myron, a man with a terminal diagnosis, who befriends Abbie. They spend time together. Their friendship is a huge aspect of the film. Myron is mainly there to be a sounding board for Abbie’s “project” to marry Sam off. He thinks she’s insane and tells her she is displaying signs of “anticipatory grief,” an insightful comment.

There are some good scenes between Abbie and her mother (the wonderful Tamara Tunie), where Abbie pushes her mother away, resenting the worried interference. There are some good scenes between Myron and Abbie, especially when Myron opens up about his own marriage. Walken’s line readings are so his own the language takes wing for the first time. “Ugly. Purple. Couch,” he says. “My wife put it in the living room and I was angry for two years.” He brings with him the world-weary gravitas of a man who has seen it all, who still enjoys the simple things, who will miss his wife (Jacki Weaver), will even miss the ugly. purple. couch.

In an episode of the television series “thirtysomething,” during the arc where Nancy (Patricia Wettig) develops cancer, Nancy spends more time with a new friend from her support group than she does with her family. This causes extreme tension with her husband who wants to soak up as much time with her as possible. But the people in Nancy’s support group are the only ones who understand—and are not afraid of—what she is going through. These kinds of in-depth, difficult explorations are beyond “Irreplaceable You”‘s capabilities. There’s real poignancy in Myron’s character and in Kate McKinnon’s character. Abbie’s journey—from denial to acceptance—is important, but it’s wrapped up in a package that wants to be charming, wants to be inspirational from the first frame with its posthumous voiceover and swelling music.

I’m being hard on the film. It is not without its charms. But “Irreplaceable You” pays a price for prioritizing charm. The emotional process of accepting death—for those suffering and for those who will be left behind—is exacerbated by changes in the body, the impossibility of pain management, the medical bills, the sense survivors have of their loved one moving far away, even before death, into a realm where no one else can follow, the tide going out slowly, excruciatingly. Even though “Irreplaceable You” tries to avoid this reality, it shows up anyway. It’s there in Kate McKinnon’s desperate gleam of gaiety, in Christopher Walken’s exhausted acceptance, in Tamara Tunie’s sadness hidden behind a chipper competent surface. These all feel like emissaries from the real world. Too bad the main narrative doesn’t take place in the real world at all.

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The Party

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Sally Potter is a filmmaker who deserves to be more decisively seen and heard. I’m not one for avidly going to bat for socially-purposeful art, but I dare say that Potter, whose films have long addressed gender identity, political commitment, feminism, capitalism, and other concerns is absolutely, in the parlance of the times, one of the Filmmakers We Need Now.

And so here she is, with a new and very powerful film, one which begins with a rage-filled Kristen Scott-Thomas opening, from the inside, a house’s front door (with an ornate brass lion’s head knocker) and pointing a gun at the camera, which is, we infer, adopting a guest’s-eye view.

Some party! The credits proceed with gentle accompaniment of a guitar (played by the great musician Fred Frith, a frequent Potter collaborator) striking the uplifting tones of the William Blake hymn “Jerusalem” which extols a particular ideal for “England’s green and pleasant land.” Scott-Thomas’ character, Janet, is a progressive idealist turned successful politician, and the title party, a small affair, is meant to celebrate her promotion in the British government. Her partner, Bill (Timothy Spall) sits in the living room and spins immaculate vinyl on an immaculate sound system while Janet, still relegated to conventional female host roles cooks—and fends off texts from a romantic admirer who is obviously not Bill. The first arrivals are April (Patricia Clarkson) and her boyfriend Gottfried (Bruno Ganz), an aroma therapist (he calls himself a “healer”) from whom, she almost immediately announces, she is separating. Bill offers Gottfried some wine, and Gottfried cheerfully says, “Actually I’m not drinking alcohol at the moment.” Upon hearing this, poor Bill looks as if Gottfried had just murdered his best friend. Gottfried takes it as a joke when Bill says, “I’m Bill, or at least I used to be,” but we will discover that he’s not kidding.

Clarkson’s April is the real pistol of the group, so to speak. “I expect the worst of everyone in the name of reason,” she pronounces at one point. She expresses snide disapproval of the incoming guests. There’s Martha (Cherry Jones), whose partner, Jenny (Emily Mortimer) soon follows to inform her that they are expecting. And not one kid, but triplets. Arriving soon after is Cillian Murphy’s Tom, one half of a seemingly universally admired power couple, the female half of which is mysteriously missing. Speaking of pistols, Tom is carrying a real one, and regularly snorting up powders in the bathroom, the better to psych himself into using it, one supposes, but the only thing it really does is make him sweat a lot. As sarcastic bon mots are traded, political observations made, and personal revelations dropped, whatever is in the kitchen’s oven begins to burn, escalating tensions.

This is a beautifully conceived and executed chamber comedy/drama with tragedy at its core. Potter’s characters are committed to a better world even as they make their own modes of living completely dysfunctional. The convoluted relationship knots that bind these characters are in some respects hangovers from the counterculture, but Potter isn’t doing anything so facile as renouncing the counterculture’s politics. Instead, “The Party” is a fierce, trenchant look at how prevailing social mores coopt political commitment when we’re not even looking. And once Bill tells why he “used to be,” the movie’s debates and squabbles move into territories of existential dread.

As serious as things get, “The Party” never stops being funny, sometimes terribly so. “I believe in truth and reconciliation. Truth and reconciliation” says a broken-down Janet near the end, right before biting into her own wrist. Shot in a velvety widescreen black-and-white, performed with utmost commitment by its unimpeachable cast, it’s by my lights the first must-see movie of 2018. 

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Samson

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“Samson,” the latest cinematic incarnation of the famous Biblical story, is a film that frankly wants to come across as a tribute to the big religious epics that Hollywood cranked out during the ‘50s and ‘60s. Personally, I have always had a soft spot for such films, partly for the cheerfully shameless manner in which they blend the key elements of sex, sin and salvation, and partly for the moments of genuine power and grace that would occasionally shine through the luridness. The problem with “Samson” is that while it cannot be faulted for its sincerity, it can be faulted for its sluggish pacing, inconsistent performances and lack of cinematic style that gives the proceedings a tacky feel throughout.

Set in Gaza circa 1170 BC, the film opens with the Hebrews enslaved by the Philistines, led by the vile King Balek (Billy Zane … yes, Billy Zane) and his even more monstrous son Rallah (Jackson Rathbone). The Jews do have an ace in their pocket in the form of Samson (Taylor James), who was the product of a miraculous birth that foretold that he would one day lead his people to freedom with the aid of his gift of superhuman strength. However, Samson is not so sure about all of that—he has pledged to follow a pious life (one that forbids drinking alcohol, touching the dead or cutting his hair) in thanks for his God-granted gifts but thinks that there must be a more peaceful way for his people to deal with their oppressors. This attitude does not endear him to his mother and father (Lindsay Wagner and Rutger Hauer) and they are even less thrilled when he announces his attentions to marry the beautiful Philistine Taren (Frances Sholto-Douglas). Unfortunately, Rallah has by now recognized Samson to be the warrior destined to overthrow the Philistines and decides to wreak havoc at the wedding, leading to Samson finally calling on his powers and single-handedly delivering a beatdown of hundreds of Philistine soldiers armed with nothing but the jawbone of a donkey.

The story picks up “Many Years Later,” and we learn that the now-extremely-hirsute Samson has accepted his position as the leader of the community, though he would still prefer to make a deal with King Balek than start a war. When his attempt at negotiation fails and leaves him on the run, he is rescued by Philistine Delilah (Caitlin Leahy), who offers to hide him. (“I have a house in the Valley of Zurich.”) What Samson doesn’t realize is that she is doing the bidding of Rallah, who wants her to deploy her seductive wiles in order to ferret out Samson’s key weakness so that Rallah can finally conquer his enemy once and for all. From this point, most of you can probably fill in the blanks as to what happens next. If you don’t know the story, be prepared for any number of surprises.

“Samson” was produced by Pure Flix, an outfit that has had great success in recent years making and marketing a string of faith-based hits like “The Case for Christ” and the “God’s Not Dead” trilogy. With “Samson,” they have gone a different route by eschewing their template of modern-day parables made with a strangely adversarial tone (one pretty much suggesting that anyone not precisely in line with their way of thinking was instantly doomed to damnation) for a period tale and a more open and accommodating approach that welcomes outsiders instead of castigating them. That change alone makes “Samson” somewhat easier to sit through than its predecessors, at least for the non-faith-based crowd, but does not make up for the fact that it is pretty shaky in a number of other areas. To put it as delicately as possible, director Bruce MacDonald is no Cecil B. DeMille and his attempts to match the grandeur of Biblical epics of old mostly end up falling flat. There is zero dramatic tension to be had at any point and the presumably low budget is felt throughout in things ranging from the obviously fake beards worn by some characters to symbolize the passage of time to the equally chintzy special effects on display throughout. The big acton beats are uniformly awful—the battle in which Samson defeats hundreds of soldiers is staged so goofily (including lots of slow motion) that it almost looks like the Mel Brooks version of such a scene and don’t get me started on the unintentionally hilarious staging of the scene where Samson wrestles a lion.

As Samson, James more or less looks the part but too often comes across like a sullen bore in his attempts to show the character’s sense of inner turmoil between living the life foretold for him and his desire to make his own way. Playing Delilah, Leahy will not make anyone forget Hedy Lamarr (or even Elizabeth Hurley, who played the part in a 1996 TV movie) anytime with her bland take on the role and the minuscule number of sparks that she strikes with James. On the other end of the spectrum, Rathbone is clearly trying for a sort of knowing campiness with his over-the-top work as Rallah but the results are more cringe-worthy than entertaining. Among the more familiar faces on display, Lindsay Wagner and Rutger Hauer have precious little to do as Samson’s parents while Billy Zane turns out to be the best thing in the film by contributing a performance that seems to have been inspired by, of all things, Marlon Brando’s portrayal of Kurtz in “Apocalypse Now”—he is ridiculous, no doubt, but at least in his case, it is a fun type of ridiculousness.

Will “Samson” satisfy the faith-based audience that is clearly its key demographic? Perhaps, assuming that all they want is a simple retelling of a familiar story that doesn’t threaten by bringing anything new to the table. Those whose concerns are more cinematic than ecclesiastic, on the other hand, will find it to be a sincerely made but largely uninteresting and sadly cut-rate take on the tale. Whatever artistic sins the DeMille may have committed, it at least deigned to be interesting enough to hold the attention of devout and secular audiences alike. This one, on the other hand, is such a drag that viewers of all faiths will find themselves wishing that Delilah and her scissors could have somehow found her way into the editing bay and done everyone a favor.

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Nostalgia

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The characters and settings change but the tone remains the same throughout “Nostalgia”—and it is relentlessly somber.

A strong cast giving their all—including Jon Hamm, Ellen Burstyn, Bruce Dern, Catherine Keener and Amber Tamblyn—can’t do much with such heavy-handed, self-serious material. We are expected to dig deep with these people not long after they’ve been introduced to us, but the emotional response the film seeks is rarely earned.

Director Mark Pellington—whose eclectic career ranges from thrillers like “The Mothman Prophecies” to the “U2 3D” concert film to the overly wacky Shirley MacLaine comedy “The Last Word”—explores the significance we place on items from the past to transport us to a particular time or connect us with beloved people. He has said he was inspired to ponder notions of memory and grief in the years following the deaths of both his wife and mother in the mid-2000s. Sadly, what he’s come up with feels like a never-ending dirge.

Pellington is working from an uncharacteristically sentimental screenplay from Alex Ross Perry, known for his biting, incisive and often merciless portrayals of human nature in the independent films he’s written and directed himself, including “The Color Wheel” and “Queen of Earth.” (His latest, which also happens to be opening this month—“Golden Exits”—also features a central character who’s an archivist sorting through the letters, photographs and documents of his late father-in-law’s life.)

Their themes are certainly universal, though. In the process of moving, reorganizing or struggling through the aftermath of our own loved ones’ deaths, who among us hasn’t found a box full of old letters and pictures and gotten sucked down a rabbit hole of laughter and tears? Every once in a while, Pellington hits his target in terms of conveying that sensation with accuracy and insight. But mostly, those moments are lost within the nap-inducing slog that is the film as a whole.

Mercifully, a few scenes crackle with life—particularly the ones featuring Hamm and Keener as siblings who still bicker and tease each other as if they were teenagers. Annalise Basso also brings some much-needed vibrancy as Keener’s college-bound daughter and the voice of reason, who points out that all this stuff is just stuff and it’s not worth agonizing over, especially when so much can be found or stored online now.

But first, we start with Dern’s character: a cantankerous widower named Ronnie who’s unwilling to part with the many items he’s kept crammed into his cramped Los Angeles home over the years. John Ortiz plays a saintly and sympathetic insurance assessor named Daniel who pays him a visit to see whether anything might be of value. He’s there at the request of Ronnie’s pregnant granddaughter (Tamblyn), who’s growing increasingly frustrated with his stubbornness from the comfort of her suburban sprawl.

Then we follow Daniel to the scorched remains of a house owned by Burstyn’s character, a widow named Helen. As Daniel and Helen wander through the ashes and rubble of the place she and her husband called home for 30 years, Helen describes to him the importance of the one item she thought to grab as she was fleeing the flames: a baseball signed by Ted Williams, which has been in her husband’s family for generations.

Then we follow Helen to Las Vegas, where she meets up with a sports memorabilia dealer named Will (Hamm) who can give her an estimate as to the ball’s worth. Will is working through his own grief and loss, of course: the end of his marriage, which has left him in an emotional purgatory nine years later.

But then we follow Will, who must reach back even further into the past when he returns to his abandoned childhood home. There, he and his sister, Donna (Keener), have the task of cleaning out the giant house with its neglected grounds in order to sell it, now that their parents have downsized to a condo in Florida. While he’s there, a tragedy devastates the family and presents yet another sad opportunity to reminisce.

Every stop along the way in this anthology, “Nostalgia” presents a character with an opportunity to rhapsodize about…well, nostalgia. It happens over and over again, and it is not subtle. Everything grinds to a halt for the speechifying—not that the pacing was terribly zippy to begin with—in a way that’s so stilted and self-conscious, it suggests that the material might have been better suited for the stage.

The earnestness of the characters’ platitudes is undoubtedly well-intentioned. From time to time, it may even be cathartic. But it’s also rarely as profound as it aims to be.

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Western

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Despite what the title might suggest, “Western” is not a traditional oater by any stretch of the imagination. Instead, German director Valeska Grisebach, making her first film since 2006’s “Longing,” uses a number of narrative tropes and bits of iconography that will be familiar to fans of the genre to present viewers with a modern-day meditation on subjects ranging from toxic masculinity to the tensions and occasional triumphs that can arise when two disparate cultures are thrown together. The result is a slow burn of a drama with a restrained tone that may put off some viewers, but which will captivate those who responded to its low-key wavelength.

As the film opens, a group of German workers have been sent off to a remote area of the Bulgarian countryside near the border with Greece, in order to begin construction of a hydroelectric power plant. Consciously or not, many of them adopting an immediate sense of superiority towards what they presume to be the backwards area of the world that they are bringing into the modern world with their technological know-how—their sense of superiority coming through in acts ranging from posting a German flag over their worksite as though they were some kind of conqueror to the way in which one of them harasses a trio of local women swimming nearby. If one were to call them out on these micro-aggressions, they would almost certainly claim that they meant nothing by them, but they appear to be largely incapable of realizing how badly they are coming off to the locals.

The exception in the crew is Meinhard (Meinhard Nuemann), a recent addition who keeps largely to himself and does not join in with the horseplay of the others, much to the consternation of his co-workers, especially the increasingly hot-headed Vincent (Reinhardt Wetrek), the one doing the harassing of the swimmers. One day, while off on his own, Meinhard comes across a white horse in a field and rides it into the nearby town, ostensibly to buy some cigarettes but presumably also to encounter the locals without having his fellow workers escalate tensions through their boorishness. Things get off to an uncomfortable start when a woman in the store refuses to do business with him because of his German heritage but Meinhard simply rolls with it rather than ramps things up. He eventually befriends a number of the townspeople, chiefly Adrian (Syuleyman Alilov Letifov), the area’s powerful stone merchant and owner of the horse, and his nephew, Walko. As the plant construction drags on, Meinhard makes more frequent journeys into the town and while he and the townspeople do not share a common language, they take the time to find a way to communicate with each other through simple phrases and gestures and through their sometimes awkward conversations, we begin to get a better sense of who the seemingly mysterious Meinhard is (we discover that he is a former Legionnaire and that he had a brother who is now deceased) and that these locals, rather than his countrymen back at the site, are providing him with the sense of community that has been absent from his life for far too long.

Although “Western” may sound slightly formulaic regarding its basic plotting, Grisebach finds an approach to the material that eschews melodrama for a more naturalistic approach—ranging from a visual style that observes most of the action from a certain remove and without flashy camera moves or rapid-fire editing to a screenplay said to have been largely improvised. On the one hand, the film’s extremely relaxed pace and lack of an overt dramatic arc for Meinhard will probably end up frustrating some viewers who may find it to be a little too meandering for its own good. At the same time, Grisebach does an excellent job of showing the loner Meinhard as he begins his initially tentative attempts to communicate with the villagers and unexpectedly finds common ground with them. She also does a good job of quietly developing the tensions between Meinhard and both his fellow crewmen and the villagers who are less than thrilled to have a German in their midst so that there is an additional level of potential menace throughout that is always threatening to boil over into something more. The look of the film is also quite striking at times in the way that it observes the events in a restrained and realistic manner that makes us feel as though we are observing real life while at the same time occasionally weaving in shots deliberately evoking the Western genre ranging from the loner riding into town on horseback to visual quotes from classics like “My Darling Clementine.”

What really helps to sell the documentary-like stylings of “Western” is Grisebach’s decision to, as she did with “Longing,” employ non-professional actors in the roles. As anyone who saw “The 15:17 to Paris” can attest, the casting of non-professionals is a risky proposition that can have disastrous results if those chosen cannot hold viewer interest for a couple of hours. That is not the case here as the people cast by Grisebach fit nicely into their roles without ever betraying their amateur status. Chief among them is Neumann, an auto worker by trade who commands the screen in a manner that reminded me a bit of the great Sam Elliott (and not just because the two have similarly glorious mustaches)—even when he is just standing there quietly observing what is going on around him (which is often), he holds your attention in a manner that puts most full-time actors to shame. I have no idea if he plans to continue with acting or not but based on his work as the beating heart that brings “Western” beautifully to life, he has the goods to give up the day job and pursue it with results hopefully as strong as those that he demonstrates here.

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Looking Glass

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The great actor Nicolas Cage has, one could say, officially entered the phase of his career in which observers are consistently on the lookout for a “return to form.” The upcoming “Mandy,” a new film by the distinctive young director Panos Cosmatos, and starring Cage, wowed more than a few critics at Sundance. Unfortunately, that is not the 2018 Nicolas Cage movie I am reviewing right now.

“Looking Glass” opens with driver’s seat views of roads and credits in red type and a typeface that will look familiar to fans of David Lynch’s “Wild at Heart” and “Lost Highway.” “Heart,” of course, starred Cage way back in the day, when his eccentrically expressive behavioral tics seemed perfectly suited to a Lynchian world. The director of this film, Tim Hunter, was making a mark in the mid-eighties; his wonderful “River’s Edge” mixed a mode of teen realism that recalled early Jonathan Kaplan with a sense of dread that could be well cited as Lynchian. Add to that the fact that Hunter went on to be one of the better non-Lynch directors of the first iteration of the TV series “Twin Peaks.” One can’t be blamed for hoping that this combination of talents at this time might combust into something interesting.

Cage and Robin Tunney play a married couple, Ray and Maggie, who, in response to a family tragedy, are pulling a geographical. In the Arizona desert (the film was shot in the vicinity of Fredonia in that state) they buy a motel, replete with old-school neon. As they set up shop, strangely unable to scare up the fellow from whom they bought the place, Ben discovers a “Private” office whose door is chained and bolted. There’s no key on his own chain for the lock, so off to the hardware story he goes. Once inside, he makes a scintillating discovery: a ceiling-height tunnel big enough for him to crawl through, and to peep on the clients in a particular room. This revelation leads Ben to ignore the better angels of his nature, and soon enough he is practically drooling, watching lesbian S&M play even as he chastises a trucker client for claiming the prostitutes he brings to his own (the trucker’s, that is) room are his, um, daughters.

Things heat up when one of the women Ben has been peeping on turn up dead. Also dead: a pig that some malevolent pranksters have tossed into the motel’s swimming pool. The fellows who run the gas station across the street from the motel, including one standard-issue creepily-skinny guy played by Jason K. Wixom, cast a cold eye on the often abrupt and rude Ben. A cop with a needling sense of humor (Marc Blucas) starts sniffing around. This does not do wonders for Ray and Maggie’s marriage, and in one blow-out scene, all is revealed: dead child, infidelity, substance abuse. Lot of issues.

Tunney does fine with the material, which, as scripted by Jerry Rapp and Matthew Wilder, is not inordinately inspired. Cage, on the other hand, sporting a fake beard that looks like something you might craft with that Wooly Willy magnet toy, here seems to confuse underplaying with flatness. The plot’s central mystery suffers from “Body Double” syndrome in that the movie has so few characters that the villain’s reveal can only elicit a shrug. Director Hunter, whom I infer from the trades took over from originally scheduled director Dori Oskowitz, still has an eye for telling and discomforting detail, as in the visibly dirty soles of the feet of one of the murder victims as she’s being dragged from a room. But these occasional frissons can’t save “Looking Glass” from tepidity.

 

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