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by Robert Horton

Contributor

‘The Patience Stone’: An Afghan Allegory of War

There is war, and there is war. The more intimate variety plays out against the global kind in The Patience Stone, a film with an unspecified location but a painfully recognizable set of conflicts.

On the smaller front, we find a wife and (unnamed) mother trying to keep it together in the midst of chaos. The family home is in a battle zone where Taliban-like fighters regularly rake through the neighborhood. What’s particularly alarming is that the woman’s husband—an older man she was forced to marry 10 years earlier—has been comatose for two weeks, having sustained an injury in the conflict. He might wake up; he might not. As she feeds him through a tube, she begins talking to him—an outpouring that becomes the movie’s dominant drama, dwarfing even the combat going on outside.

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‘Touchy Feely’: Lynn Shelton’s Low-Key Charmer

Rosemarie DeWitt’s masseuse has lost her gift

What compelling mysteries might be quietly thrumming inside the world of the dentist’s office? It is characteristic of the wistful, daydreamy universe of Lynn Shelton’s films that this unlikely question (has anyone outside the dental profession ever asked it?) makes up part of her latest project. Touchy Feely is the stubbornly—and, I think, wonderfully—low-key follow-up to Humpday and Your Sister’s Sister, the partly improvised comedies that put Shelton on the indie-movie map. This new one is again shot in Seattle, Shelton’s hometown. Two siblings experience unexplained eruptions in their professional skills: Massage therapist Abby (Rosemarie DeWitt, from Your Sister’s Sister) is suddenly repulsed by the touch of human skin, and dentist Paul (Josh Pais) develops magical healing powers that can cure his patients’ jaw problems.

These phenomena are suspiciously related to the everyday issues afflicting the two, as Abby has been dawdling over an invitation to move in with her boyfriend Jesse (Scoot McNairy), and Paul has passively allowed his practice to dwindle because of his super-awkward manner. Meanwhile, Paul’s college-age daughter Jenny (Ellen Page) is trapped in her job as a dental assistant, and carries around an unrequited crush on someone who probably won’t return the feeling.

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‘Paradise: Faith’: Piety and Punishment in Austria

Maria Hofstätter’s Anna Maria clings to order

The opening shot of Ulrich Seidl’s Paradise: Faith is both a character sketch and a warning. A woman enters a spartan room, partially disrobes, and kneels before the crucifix on the wall. She then whips herself across the back with a crude cat-o-nine-tails. At length. That’s the warning part: Seidl is serving notice that Paradise: Faith will be a test of endurance and not for the faint of heart. (The movie’s the middle installment of Seidl’s Paradise trilogy, bracketed by Paradise: Love—seen here in June—and Paradise: Hope; they are slightly but not significantly related.)

The woman is Anna Maria, played by the extremely brave Maria Hofstätter. After our startling opening glimpse, we see her as a neatly coiffed medical technician, beginning a staycation during which she’ll trudge though Vienna neighborhoods carrying a statue of the Virgin Mary and buttonholing strangers about joining the ranks of her extreme Catholic sect.

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‘Short Term’ takes engaging look at social workers

Brie Larson and Keith Stanfield

What plucky indie film will be this year’s Beasts of the Southern Wild? You know, the little movie that snags great reviews and a few Oscar nominations.

An early front-runner for that slot is Short Term 12, a thoroughly good-hearted and engagingly played drama. Writer-director Destin Daniel Cretton based his movie on his experiences working in a short-term care facility for displaced young people, and it’s got an accurate ring to its tiny details.

The film’s not about the troubled teenagers, but about the people who work at the place. Our main focus is Grace (Brie Larson), a veteran of this world, who has the firm-but-sympathetic approach down pat. So does her live-in partner, a sweet-natured guy named Mason (John Gallagher Jr.), who also works at the facility.

As they deal with their charges, we see scenes that cut deep — especially as concern a young woman (Kaitlyn Dever, from Justified) who can’t stop hurting herself, or a tormented young man (Keith Stanfield) who has only a week left before he leaves the home.

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‘Afternoon Delight’: Honey, I Hired a Stripper

Juno Temple (left) and Kathryn Hahn as mismatched housemates

The Starland Vocal Band is nowhere to be seen (or heard) in Afternoon Delight, so there’s another lost opportunity for the ’70s one-hit group to come back. This Afternoon Delight has more serious fish to fry, even if it’s full of strong comic actors. The movie is arranged around Kathryn Hahn, who—whether parachuting for the length of a story arc into ongoing series such as Parks and Recreation or cutting a bizarre path through Step Brothers—has been threatening to bring her particular brand of funny/weird to center stage for the best part of a decade.

Hahn is allowed to make her mark, and then some, in Afternoon Delight. She plays Rachel, a stay-at-home mom whose disenchanted life is shaken by her encounter with an exotic dancer, McKenna (Juno Temple), during an evening when she and husband Jeff (Josh Radnor, from How I Met Your Mother) double-date with friends at a strip club. (Couples in movies have been known to do this.) McKenna is soon staying at Rachel and Jeff’s place, an awkward situation complicated by McKenna’s sideline as a prostitute. Writer/director Jill Soloway would have us believe that Rachel’s mid-life crisis might accommodate all this and more, and maybe in a better movie it could. Soloway does her best to remind us we’re not watching a pure comedy, as she regularly includes scenes of idle boredom and cringeworthy behavior.

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‘Thérèse’: Audrey Tautou Turns to Crime

AudreyTautou as scheming bride

Back in the first dewy shine of Amélie (2001), I would not have anticipated beginning a review with the words “Audrey Tautou is frankly too old to [fill in the blank].” But the years pass. And so: Audrey Tautou is too old to play the early scenes here as a teenage bride in 1920s France. Thankfully, the movie advances in time, and the still-youthful Tautou (she’s 37) very effectively brings her eerie presence to bear on an enigmatic, controlled, supremely rational character. In this adaptation of the 1927 novel Thérèse Desqueyroux by the subsequently Nobel Prize-winning François Mauriac, Thérèse is very far from an old-fashioned lady of literature. She enters into marriage with the practical and uncharismatic Bernard (Gilles Lellouche); their families own vast swaths of adjoining pine forests, and their union will create a profitable dynasty. Poker-faced Thérèse seems all right with this, although she becomes troubled by news that Bernard’s sister (Anaïs Demoustier)—her lifelong bestie—has launched a torrid affair with a callow-yet-hunky young man. This is a prelude to the section that occupies much of the film, as Thérèse ponders the exact dosage of her husband’s anemia medicine, which contains arsenic. He trusts her to keep track of how much he’s ingested, and she begins to measure her future in spoonfuls of the stuff.

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‘The Grandmaster’: Wong Kar-wai’s Kung Fu Fantasia

His grace is a weapon for Tony Leung

The housekeeping part first: A film by a major international director is being released in the U.S. in a version that strongly differs from its original cut. We are told that scissor-happy producer Harvey Weinstein is not behind this particular reduction; Wong Kar-wai himself has fiddled with The Grandmaster, already having crafted different cuts of his film for the Asian and European markets.

That’s their story, and maybe it’s true. It would be consistent with Wong’s tendency to fuss over his projects—he’s on record as saying that if it weren’t for the deadlines imposed by major film festivals, he might never finish his movies. Whatever peculiar cultural emphasis the U.S. cut of The Grandmaster has, it is one odd picture, with too much kung fu for discriminating arthouse audiences and too many dreamy pauses for the grindhouse crowd.

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‘Austenland’: Keri Russell Is Trapped in a Theme Park

Keri Russell is cast as a blank

The premise sounds ripe for Christopher Guest: Let’s follow a naive young woman on her dream vacation to an immersive, role-playing theme park that brings alive the world of Jane Austen novels. Here be proud young men, haughty dowagers, and drawing rooms with tea—a Comic-Con for BBC addicts. But Guest isn’t doing this kind of projects anymore, and the actual execution of Austenland falls along much more conventional lines. Our heroine is Jane (the role’s a blank, but Keri Russell does her best with it), whose life-size cardboard cut-out of Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy just isn’t enough to fill her Pride and Prejudice fantasy. She arrives at Austenland at the same time as a rich lady called Elizabeth Charming—the visitors all have vaguely Austenish names—played by the irrepressible Jennifer Coolidge, a veteran of Guest’s comedy troupe. I am grateful nobody repressed Coolidge, because her blowsy vocal delivery and unfiltered one-liners give Austenland its main source of oomph.

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‘Closed Circuit’: Rebecca Hall Deserves Better

Rebecca Hall is bound for better pictures than this

Woefully ill-equipped to compete with breaking news about Edward Snowden and Chelsea (née Bradley) Manning, Closed Circuit seems especially tired right now. Even if it functions for a while as a serviceable paranoid thriller, its premise is far too generic to compare with current headlines. Even the title’s misleading: This isn’t so much about the surveillance state as about government overreach for the sake of old-fashioned backside-covering.

The legalistic scenario rarely rises above the level of a British TV movie. We’re in the aftermath of a terrorist bombing in London, for which a single alleged Islamic radical is held for trial.

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‘Museum Hours’: Looking for Connection in Austria

Mary Margaret O’Hara’s visitor learns how to look

All those nudes hanging on the walls of museums. All those clothed people standing around staring. Wouldn’t it be interesting if the spectators were naked as they looked upon the ample flesh hanging coyly on the walls?

Maybe you’ve had that daydream while wandering through a room of unabashed Titians. So, apparently, has writer/director Jem Cohen, whose Museum Hours contains such a scene, amusingly staged. The remainder of the film is quite chaste, as Cohen takes a wisp of plot and arranges it around two lonely strangers who meet at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, a stately repository of art.

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‘Ain’t Them Bodies Saints’: Imitation of Malick

There are many things to admire about Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, from its controlled mood to its fine cast to its folkie-fiddle musical score. A great deal of care, and a lot of affection for movie history, went into this low-key Sundance success. So why am I unconvinced? Maybe everything’s just a little too right, a little too calculated in writer-director David Lowery’s neo-Western-noir. This movie always knows exactly what it’s doing, and that gets a little suffocating.

Ruth (Rooney Mara) reads her letters from the jailhouse

The ingenious opening reels introduce us to a desperate couple, Ruth (Rooney Mara) and Bob (Casey Affleck). Their criminal history is mostly left offscreen, but we witness a showdown with Texas cops that results in Bob taking the blame for a shot fired by the pregnant Ruth. Bob is hustled off to the pokey and four years pass, but the bullet remains lodged in the storyline: Small-town policeman Patrick (Ben Foster), the very officer wounded by Ruth’s gun, is now hanging around her and the baby.

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‘When Comedy Went to School’: Journey to the Borscht Belt

Sid Caesar, with fiancée Florence Levy, during his Catskills prime

If the name Shecky Greene does not ring a bell, you might not be the target audience for this new documentary. But there was once a time when someone with this unlikely name roamed the Earth, and this film chronicles the prehistoric, pre-TV age in which such comedians flourished. The doc proposes New York’s Catskill Mountains as the cradle of a couple of generations of comedy, and it is hard to argue with the assertion. A vast parade of stand-up comics, mostly Jewish, passed through the vacation resorts of the Borscht Belt, as the circuit was called. During the mid-20th century, the Catskills hummed with holiday-makers seeking escape from New York, in search of all-you-can-eat buffets and the latest variation on the mother-in-law joke.

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‘Prince Avalanche’: What’s With the Mustache, Paul Rudd?

Painting the road again: Emile Hirsch (left) and Paul Rudd

What makes Prince Avalanche a summer movie? Maybe it’s the aimlessness of its wandering story line, even more than the literal backdrop for the thing: two guys on a summer job sprucing up a lonely road in West Texas. A recent fire has burned the surrounding countryside, which gives the setting a pleasant, haven’t-quite-seen-this-before-in-a-movie quality.

The guys are Alvin (Paul Rudd) and Lance (Emile Hirsch), and they really don’t get on. Alvin wears a mustache of self-satisfaction, as befits a man with a secure collection of platitudes and a condescending air to match. Lance is the brother of Alvin’s girlfriend (Seattle’s own Lynn Shelton, heard only on the phone), and Alvin tries manfully to impose his standards of behavior on his younger cohort. They putter along the blasted landscape, painting new yellow lines on the road and arguing about what constitutes mature behavior.

It’s to director David Gordon Green’s credit that the eventual revelation that Alvin’s life is not as together as he’d like to think is treated not as gotcha irony but as a natural piece of confused masculine existence.

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‘The Wall’: An Eerie Austrian Immersion in Nature

Martina Gedeck’s heroine is trapped in a bubble

Everybody bumps into an existential block now and again. They just don’t generally experience the literal THUNK encountered by the protagonist of The Wall. The unnamed character, played by Martina Gedeck, wakes up in her friends’ Alpine hunting cabin, only to discover the friends still absent from a hike the previous day. Accompanied by their dog, she walks along a pretty lakeside road and abruptly face-plants into a transparent, all-encompassing force field. She can’t go farther.

Don’t expect a sci-fi explanation for her roadblock. What we have here instead is pure, abject isolation, as Gedeck discovers her enclosed world includes a large swath of nature, a bevy of animals, but no other humans—and no way out. After her initial adjustment, she learns how to manage her food supply, hunt for deer, and shed her fierce I-ness in favor of a newly conscious connection to the world. If that description makes the movie’s theme sound as transparent as the all-encompassing wall, fair enough—but the execution is suitably lyrical.

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‘Persistence of Vision’: The Obsessive Animator Richard Williams

A still from Richard Williams’ uncompleted opus

Don’t make a masterpiece. Or at least don’t set out to make a masterpiece. That’s one of the lessons of this compulsively watchable documentary about celebrated animator Richard Williams and how he never finished his designated magnum opus.

Williams is a Canadian, now 80, who ran a profitable animation studio in London for decades. Expert at turning out brilliant short films and TV commercials, Williams began on his real work—the labor of love that all the other stuff was paying for—in the early ’60s. His original concept for the feature involved tales of the folkloric Middle Eastern character Nasrudin; and although the concept veered away from that character, the colorful Arabian Nights theme persisted throughout the decades. Yes, decades: The project lost backers, missed deadlines, underwent rewrites, and outlived some of its original animators.

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