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Man From Reno
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by Jay Seaver

"A vacation mystery which could go better."
3 stars

SCREENED AT FANTASTIC FEST 2014: There's a moment at the end of a lot of the really good "Coen-like" movies (a description unfair to everyone involved, but one people use) where someone sits down, has a long sigh, and considers just what all this insanity means, inviting the audience to do the same. I don't know if "Man from Reno" quite has that moment, and it's kind of missed. There's still quite a bit to like about this little mystery even without that moment, and maybe it works well enough without it.

We approach the mystery from two directions. First, Paul Del Moral (Pepe Serna), the sheriff of a county just outside San Francisco, finds an abandoned car on an extremely foggy night - and then finds the driver when an Asian man jumps out in front of the officer's car. In the city itself, Japanese mystery writer Aki (Ayako Fujitani) has bailed on a book junket back home to visit friends, also meeting fellow tourist Akira Suzuki (Kazuki Kitamura) in the hotel lobby. But what about the other people lurking in the background?

There are a lot of characters beyond that, from Aki's college friends to Paul's daughter, and their investigations wind up leading to some peculiar areas, although it's often the sort of situation that seems innocently baffling on its face rather than kinky or threatening. Given that there isn't much initial indication of where things are going, it's hard to say that the movie drifts particularly far from its initial destination, but it certainly feels like it does.

That's actually a good thing for this particular movie, as appropriation and malleability are major themes of the story. Even more than is typically the case in mystery stories, characters are frequently not who they appear to be, with even protagonists harboring secrets of that type. Impressively, for all that director Dave Boyle and his co-writers Joel Clark and Michael Lerman are playing with a lot of misdirection here, it shakes out in reasonably clear fashion as the movie makes its way to the finish.

It's also got a pair of amiable folks in the front. Ayako Fujitani is playing it kind of low-key as Aki much of the time, but she knows when to bring a lively curiosity to the part when it's required and a weariness that doesn't overwhelm at others - Aki does Sherlock Holmes tricks when meeting people, and it's a neat way to see her creating a little distance. Pepe Serna at times seems like a guy who has talked his way into a better role than he usually gets, making Del Moral outgoing where Aki is pulled back, but he's able to project the idea of someone you can trust imiplicitly in the middle of a deception-laden movie. Kazuki Kitamura makes Akira an enjoyably charming blank so that the audience can see why Aki might be interested in getting at his background.

The themes of the mystery play out at what may be too regular a pace, which makes the end a bit deflating. It's a mix of continued mystery and certainty that doesn't always sit well, and while that's probably more honest than a pat whodunit finale - or even a wise moment of reflection - it does rather lead to a movie that inspires respectful acknowledgment rather than love.

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originally posted: 09/26/14 01:14:25
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 Los Angeles Film Festival For more in the 2014 Los Angeles Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 Fantastic Fest For more in the 2014 Fantastic Fest series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 Hawaii International Film Festival For more in the 2014 Hawaii International Film Festival series, click here.

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