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 “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 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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A brilliant directorial debut by Rebecca Hall, featuring exceptional performances by Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga. Highly recommended! Continue reading Passing
Part rom-com, part Ghostbusters sequel, the combination works, although I liked the former more than the later. The cast is extremely likeable and makes this somewhat unwieldy mashup entertaining. Mildly recommended. Continue reading Ghostbusters: Afterlife
Benedict Cumberbatch stars in The Power of the Dog, directed by Academy Award-winning director Jane Campion, and her first feature film in twelve years. The movie presents itself as a Western, but it’s actually a bleak character study set in a Western context. Filled with impressive camera work and interesting performances, The Power of the Dog spends far too much time documenting the misanthropy of its central character Phil, a hard-driving cattle rancher who is not what he seems. Cumberbatch’s acting definitely earns our attention, but his character’s underlying mystery is telegraphed early on. The movie’s primary concern is to make the audience uncomfortable watching Phil make the lives of the other characters miserable. Ultimately, it tests our patience and concludes with an intriguing payoff that almost makes it all worthwhile, but not quite. Not recommended.
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Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast is a gem of a movie and easily one of the best movies I’ve seen in 2021. An autobiographical take on his own childhood, the movie focuses on the last year Buddy (Branagh’s stand-in) and his family lived in Belfast, Ireland before financial troubles and The Troubles forced them to relocate to Manchester.
Belfast is a beautiful movie, perfectly shot in gorgeous black-and-white. Yes, B&W is the go-to way to depict the past (see: Mank, Roma, The Lighthouse). Unlike other films, where B&W seems more like a gimmick, each scene in Belfast takes on a storybook quality that invites you in instead of drawing attention to itself. The acting is exceptional throughout, featuring touching performances by Caitriona Balfe as Ma and Jamie Dornan as Pa. Judi Dench and Ciarán Hinds round out the exceptional supporting cast as Granny and Pop. Their scenes together, where Pop’s Irish Wisdom meets its match in Granny’s acerbic wit, are priceless. Branagh struck gold in casting Jude Hill as Buddy, an unknown before this movie but likely a rising star from here on out.
If I could only use one word to describe Belfast, it would be affection. Branagh, and by extension Buddy, clearly loves everything about this period of his life: his family and friends, the neighborhood and its streets, even the thick clouds that fill the sky. Branagh’s story is a sentimental one, but it’s emotions are earned honestly. The script is pitch perfect, with every conversation feeling real and lived-in. There are moments of Irish wit, but that comes with the territory. (The movie is incredibly funny throughout.)
Belfast represents Branagh’s most personal directorial effort yet. In a career that started with much fanfare, only to dovetail into more workaday projects (Thor, Cinderella, Artemis Fowl), this movie represents more than a return to form. It’s an elevation of his art to an entirely new level. Highly recommended.
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If you prefer my quick take, which is free of spoilers, please click here.
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Hot on the heels of his buzzy hit Baby Driver, Edgar Wright returns with Last Night in Soho, a movie that serves as both a Sixties tribute as well as a cautionary tale for those who view the past through rose colored glasses.
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This review expands on my previous quick take. Spoilers abound.
Continue reading “Spencer (Extended Take)”