Barb & Star Go To Vista Del Mar

Barb & Star Go To Vista Del Mar is one of the strangest comedies I’ve seen.  Written by Kristin Wiig and Annie Mumolo, the movie feels like two SNL skits mashed together and then filled out with a lot of comedic bits that range from quirky to inspired to hallucinogenic.  I’m really curious as to what drug(s) Wiig and Mumolo were on while writing the script, because I find it difficult to believe they wrote it stone sober.

The titular characters are a couple of middle-aged single ladies from Nebraska, portrayed respectively by Mumolo and Wiig.  With their Fargo-esque accents, drab outfits and helmet hair, I’d be hard pressed to categorize their characterizations of typical Midwestern women as affectionate.  Personality-wise, they’re a couple of dim bulb oddballs with a penchant for talking, and talking, and talking some more about ridiculously trite subjects (people in the 1800s stunk!).

When their dream jobs at the local Jennifer furniture store come to an abrupt end, they take a vacation at Vista Del Mar to add some spark to their lives.  After arriving, they hook up with the hunky Edgar (Jamie Dornan), the henchman of the evil Sharon Fisherman (Wiig, in a dual role).  Fisherman, a villain who owes much to Dr. Evil of the Austin Powers movies, has sent Edgar to Vista Del Mar to help carry out her plot of revenge against the city that wronged her as a child.

Barb & Star is chockablock with gags (sight, visual and physical), and most of them land.  The movie has a busy feel to it, a result of trying to do too much.  As is typical for screwball comedies, the art is in separating the wheat from the chaff.  The script would have resulted in a shorter but much better movie.  For example, the entire Fisherman subplot never takes flight and should have been cut out entirely.  Additionally, Barb and Star should have been given some differentiating characteristics (think Lloyd and Harry in Dumb and Dumber).  As it stands, they are so similar as to be interchangeable, and their shtick becomes annoying at times.  Still, Barb & Star has enough inspired comedy (and weirdness) for me to recommend it.  You may suffer from mild brain damage from the experience, however.  Mildly recommended.

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The Empty Man

The “creepy cult” subgenre of horror movies has been having a renaissance lately.  Films like  Hereditary (2018) and Midsommer (2019), both directed by Ari Aster, have breathed new life into a very familiar template.  David Prior’s The Empty Man isn’t in the same league as those films, but is a very effective horror movie nonetheless.

The movie begins in 1995 with a group of clueless and entitled Americans hiking through Bhutan, where they stumble upon an ancient evil.  Flash-forward to Missouri in 2018, where James (James Badge Dale), a former detective, looks into the disappearance of his young neighbor Amanda (Sasha Frolova).  After her high school friends commit suicide, James visits an organization Amanda was familiar with, a Scientology stand-in named the Pontifex Institute.  The more James learns about the Institute, the more nefarious the organization appears to be.  Even more troubling is that the group appears to know all about him.

Writer-director Prior expertly combines the story’s many locations and disturbing visuals to build an overwhelming sense of dread.  The acting is mainly serviceable, the exception being the wonderfully loopy Stephen Root (Barry) as a Pontifex lecturer.  The Empty Man incorporates many horror movie themes, but is a creepy cult movie at its core.  It doesn’t tie things together as perfectly as the aforementioned films, but it’s a good creepy cult movie regardless.  Recommended.

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Nightmare Alley

Nightmare Alley is director Guillermo del Toro’s follow-up to his Academy Award winning film The Shape of Water.  That movie, a love letter to the monster movies of the fifties (particularly 1954’s The Creature from the Black Lagoon) was infused with modern themes of inclusion and acceptance, took home the Academy Award for Best Picture and Best Director.  Del Toro’s latest is a remake of the 1947 film directed by Edmung Goulding and starring Tyrone Power.  If you’re seen it before, this version will feel very familiar.  (If you haven’t, I recommend watching it either before or after you see the current version as a fun film study exercise. Trust me, you’ll be glad you did!)

The movie is a mildly entertaining diversion, made with the care, craftsmanship and weird sensibility typical of del Toro’s films (Hellraiser, Pan’s Labyrinth, Cronos).  Unlike his best work, the movie curiously fails to engage either the heart or the imagination.  Some of the blame can be leveled at Cooper’s lead performance as Stan, a drifter who latches onto a carnival and becomes a mentalist.  Fortunately, the movie has style to spare and several of the supporting performances (Toni Collette, Willem Dafoe, David Strathairn) are very good.  Ultimately, Nightmare Alley is still little more than an eye-catching curiosity of minor consequence.  But nobody does eye-catching curiosities like del Toro.  Mildly recommended.

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