Nostalgia, Annihilation, Game Night
In a signature piece from the middle of his career, George Carlin used to talk about the value we place on personal possessions—collectively, our “stuff.” “That’s all you need in life,” he reasoned, “a little place for your stuff. A house is just a pile of stuff with a cover on it.” By the end of the routine, of course, he has repeated the word “stuff” so many times that it becomes meaningless, which was probably the point to begin with.
If Carlin were still alive, it would be fun to take him to a screening of the new film Nostalgia, a rambling essay in dramatic form about the importance we attach to objects, just to get his reaction. One suspects that he would be so torn between agreement and dismissing it that his head would explode.
Directed by Mark Pellington from a script he wrote with Alex Ross Perry, Nostalgia follows a chain of characters forced to assess their stuff. Bruce Dern plays an elderly widower whose granddaughter sends an insurance assessor (John Ortiz) to his ill-maintained apartment to suss out whether he has anything of value on hand. The assessor goes on to visit an elderly woman (Ellen Burstyn) whose house has burned down, leaving her with only a few items to remind her of her late husband. Annoyed by what she sees as the grasping of her son (Nick Offerman), she takes her valuables to a Las Vegas specialist in collectables (Jon Hamm). After their business, he pays a trip to his home town to deal with the house his parents have just vacated prior to retirement in Florida. His sister (Catherine Keener) disagrees about his perspective on their stuff, only to be forced to reassess her own life when an unexpected tragedy occurs.
That’s what happens from beginning to end, but it’s less a plot than it is a structure for people to reflect and argue about the significance they place in objects that have no meaning to other people (or, in the case of a family heirloom that commands a surprising price on the collectables market, a wholly unrelated meaning). The biggest dividing line isn’t between those who have more and those who don’t, but between the old an the young, exacerbated by technology that encourages us to own fewer physical artifacts like records and books.
While most everyone will be able to identify with at least some of the arguments on hand, the ideas are on the whole less compelling than the skill with which the cast delivers them. On paper, the idea of an old lady grieving at the loss of her house in a fire sounds like a quicksand pit of sentimentality, but Burstyn brings it fully to life. (Pellington’s previous film, 2017’s The Last Word, was another showcase for an actress in her 80s, Shirley MacLaine.)
Nostalgia is likely to strike a lot of viewers as being precious to the point of twee. The score, full of piano arpeggios and mournful cello lines, seems inspired by Philip Glass’s music for The Hours, another ensemble piece that moved some viewers and annoyed others. Those who buy a ticket are advised to approach it in a contemplative state of mind.
If David Cronenberg, the master of biological horror, had been inspired by Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, he might have made a film like Annihilation, which arrived in theaters last week as part of an indifferent release by Paramount after selling the international rights to the film to Netflix. Given that overseas markets are where films like this make most of their money, that’s a huge vote of no confidence. The film has been finished and awaiting release for nearly a year, but test screenings indicated to the studio guys that it was too smart for the audiences they’re looking for.
They’re probably right, but you have to long for the days when Hollywood would take a chance on a movie that a capable and visionary filmmaker gave them. Alex Garland spent the early part of his career writing sci-fi films like Sunshine and 28 Days Later before moving to the director’s chair in 2016 with the indie hit Ex Machina.
Working here with a bigger (if not blockbuster-sized) budget, Garland takes on the topic of what extraterrestrial life might be life with an imagination you seldom get in sci-fi cinema. Natalie Portman stars as a cellular biologist who joins a team of scientists sent by the military to investigate what they are calling “the shimmer,” a region in the southeastern US that is bound by unusual lights. From within that area, no communications have been possible, and no team sent into it has emerged. And it’s growing.
From there, the less you know the better, other than that Garland spent his production funds wisely with a crew that was capable of bringing to life a unique vision. The movie may be cerebral, but it also packs a gut punch: There’s a bear that is the stuff of nightmares. Garland may not have answers for the questions that interest him, but that’s never been a bad thing in science fiction.
An action comedy about a trio of suburban couples (headed by Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams) whose weekly game night turns into something deadly, Game Night takes an awfully long time to get rolling. At least the first third of the film is nothing but drab exposition and characterization. And while the final result isn’t likely to be on anyone’s list of the year’s best films, it has enough well-executed bits to make you hope that filmmakers John Francis Daley (once a cast member of Freaks and Geeks) and Jonathan Goldstein keep honing their craft.