THE THRILLERS OF IT ALL: Man From Reno, The Mafia Only Kills in Summer and A Wolf at the Door


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Warning: SPOILERS
man from renoMan From Reno is a new neo noir about a mystery writer who becomes involved in a real/reel life mystery. Not a particularly original idea, though I always found it a kind of fun one, and here the writers Dave Boyle (who also directed), Joel Clark and Michael Lerman do get a certain amount of satisfying mileage from it.
It starts out very strongly with Sheriff Paul Del Moral (Pepe Serna, one of those character actors who’s been around forever and been in just about everything) making his rounds in fog as thick as a fur coat (these scenes are especially well filmed and unnerving). He comes upon a car in the middle of the road with its trunk open. In going around it, he strikes a man with Asian features. But soon after taking the man to the hospital, the man disappears.

 

Meanwhile, in Japan, Aki (Ayako Fujitani of Tokyo! and a couple of Gamera movies—hey, we all had to start somewhere), the author of a long series of novels featuring Tokyo Inspector Takabe who uses Sherlock Holmesian methods of deduction to solve his crimes, has reached an existential crisis and just takes off for San Francisco without telling anyone (with the irony that her disappearance generates enough free publicity to send sales soaring more than they already were so her agent basically tells her to stay disappeared for a while).

 

There she meets a charming and handsome man, Akira (Kazuki Kitamura, the action star of such films as Kill Bill, Volumes I and II and the Raid 2) in her hotel. They sleep together and it looks like he’s moving in when he suddenly vanishes leaving a suitcase behind that has a head of lettuce in it.

 

The two through lines, as expected, slowly head toward each other until Aki and Paul meet.

 

There is much to like here. For a relatively low budget independent it has a certain self-confidence and is technically proficient (it’s often a lovely film to look at and it does take you off the beaten track in San Francisco). The acting is also solid. And the writers do a nice job of setting up the basic mystery.

 

At the same time, as the story makes its way forward, a certain lethargy tends to creep in, especially as the structure of the movie becomes, for me at least, a bit problematic.

 

It’s a rather complicated plot. Perhaps too complicated. By the time we get to the end, we have to have a series of expositional speeches, mainly by the Sheriff, to explain everything. It’s so complex, I had to take myself out of the film in order to try to follow what I’m being told. And even then, I’m not quite sure I got it right.

 

I think there are a couple of reasons for why the movie began slipping away from me. There are three central characters: Paul, Aki and Akira. And each of their through lines are driving the story. But it takes a rather long time for Paul and Aki to meet and takes even longer for Akira’s through line to show up.

 

The odd thing is, in the end, it’s actually Akira’s through line that is primarily driving the whole movie, but the through line is kept incredibly well hidden by the filmmakers and primarily happens off screen and has to be explained to the audience (it’s like if a movie about Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley had Ripley and his through line mainly happen off screen).

 

Instead we focus on some sort of smuggling scheme of rare turtles (perhaps a bit of a letdown, I mean, it’s no water rights in L.A.) which turns out not to be what the story is about. In fact, though it’s presented as a McGuffin, it’s actually a red herring. And for me, it just doesn’t quite work.

 

I also didn’t find the ending convincing. It requires Akira to take over the identity of a couple of people in order to not just stay hidden, but to make money and the movie doesn’t show us how he manages to do this. I mean, yeah, maybe it could work the way it’s done here, but I was left with an I’m from Missouri moment and felt I really needed to be shown how he does it in order to buy it.

 

But since so little time was devoted to Akira and instead focused on the turtle red herring, the movie doesn’t really have enough time to fully dramatize the resolution, most of which happens, like so much of the plot, off screen.

 

mafiaThe new Italian film The Mafia Only Kills in Summer, written by Michele Astori, Marco Marini and the single named Pif (who also directed and starred) is an odd juxtaposition of movies: it’s a rom com set against the rising terror and eventual downfall of the Mafia in Palermo from the 1970’s through the ’90’s.

 

In it, a young boy Arturo, falls for the new girl in class, Flora, but finds his efforts at wooing her constantly stymied by the Mafia in often very tangential ways. As he grows up, he finds his attempts to declare his love for her to fail over and over again. But as adults, they meet again, and maybe this time, the Mafia, instead of tearing them apart, might actually bring them together.

 

I don’t think this movie should work. It’s charming and sweet and quite beguiling, directed and written with quite a light touch, while at the same in the background, the true heroes of the story, the government officials who try to stop organized crime, are brutally murdered again and again.

 

Yet it does work. By the time it’s over, Pif’s conceit of having a comic love story set against such a brutal background actually wins you over until, at the end, you have a lump in your throat, not just at the love story ending, but at the tribute given for those who gave their lives to rid the city of its most nefarious scourge.

 

With Alex Bisconti as the young Arturo, and Pif, just a little too old perhaps, as the adult version; Ginevera Antona as the young Flora and Christiana Capotondi as her older counterpart. All give sweetly winning performances.

 

wolfLike Man From Reno, the new Argentine thriller, A Wolf at the Door, written and directed by Fernando Coimbra, starts out very promisingly. A little girl is kidnapped. But even though this is Brazil where abduction for money is more de jour than it should be, that can’t be the motive in this case since, for no other reason, the parents make little more than a working class wage.

 

So who took her and why?

 

It’s up to the intrepid police inspector to discover the truth as he interviews the parents, Silvia and Bernardo, as well as Bernardo’s lover, Rosa, and they tell him the story of their tangled relationships in lengthy flashbacks.

 

The story holds up well for awhile. One does want to know what is going on. And the acting is very strong, with Milhem Cortaz, Fabiula Nascimento and Leandra Leal fully committed to their parts of the central menage.

 

But it’s not long before something seems to start going wrong aesthetically. At one point the inspector, in interviewing the various players in the drama, says to a colleague that he’s supposed to be a detective, not a marriage counselor.

 

Which may sum up why the movie ultimately doesn’t work as it should. Instead of being a taut, focused thriller revolving around the abduction of a little girl, it becomes a rather overdrawn soap opera (though to be fair, it is at times, but only at times, a gut wrenching soaper, such as in a visit to an abortionist).

 

And it’s not long before this little girl, Bernardo and Silvia’s lovely daughter, becomes chopped liver. Just a device to explore the relationships of a group of not particularly likable characters.

 

In fact, the longer the flashbacks go on, and the less they have an immediate impact on the kidnapping itself, the more you swear the inspector must be sitting there, rolling his eyes, fidgeting with impatience, constantly telling the narrators, “Can you just please get on with it, can you just get to the point?”.

 

The whole thing leads to a horrifying ending. But it doesn’t quite have the effect I think the filmmaker wants. Instead of having an emotional reaction to the Medea like finale, I got angry at Coimbra for exploiting what happens to the little girl in order to get a reaction from us in the audience.

 

I’m sorry, but to me it was cheap and manipulative.

 

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