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Films I Neglected To Review: That's What They Want You To Think.
by Peter Sobczynski

Please enjoy short reviews of "Barb & Star Go to Vista Del Mar," "Land," "The Mauratanian," "To All The Boys: Always and Forever," "The World to Come" and the new Criterion Collection edition of the 1974 conspiracy thriller classic "The Parallax View."

Watching "Barb & Star Go To Vista Del Mar," I got the sense that "Bridesmaids" co-creators Annie Mumolo and Kristen Wiig had been waiting for years to see a sequel to "Romy & Michelle's High School Reunion" that would visit that daffy duo in their middle-aged years and finally decided to more or less do it themselves by co-writing and co-starring in a project of their own along those lines. Having recently lost their husbands, job and even their membership in their small Nebraska town's Talking Club (possibly because their exaggerated accents seem straight outta "Fargo"), lifelong friends Barb (Mumolo) and Star (Wiig) decide that the only way to get out of their rut is to leave town for the very first time and visit the vacation paradise that is Vista Del Mar, Florida, Unfortunately, their arrival coincides with the plans of a pale-skinned madwoman (Wiig again, this time in makeup seemingly inspired by Marlon Brando in "The Island of Dr. Moreau") who is planning to avenge a childhood hut on Vista Del Mar by unleashing a horde of genetically modified and highly lethal mosquitos upon the populace. Aiding in her plot is lovesick assistant Edgar (Jamie Dornan) and when he ends up getting involved with both Barb and Star, it not only threatens their friendship but gets them pulled into the deadly plot, forcing them to put their differences aside in order to try to save the day.

"Barb & Star" is the kind of singularly bizarro film that studios sometimes allow hot comedic talents to pursue--if they catch on with the public and become the next "Ace Ventura," great and if not, they have usually been produced cheaply enough to ensure that no one gets hurt too badly. Of course, this means that for everything to work, one has to be on the exact same comedic wavelength as the film or the results are going to come across as pretty dire. In the past, I have enjoyed some of these weirdo films--I am one of those who considers "Cabin Boy" to be some kind of masterpiece--but this one never clicked for a moment for me. Mumolo and Wiig are clearly having fun as they goof their way through their increasingly ludicrous plot but I just never found the hijinks to be remotely amusing, not even the strange celebrity cameos that I will leave for you to discover. The only member of the cast who comes close to be funny is Dornan, who clearly relishes the opportunity to goof on the brooding hunk persona he developed as the result of the "Fifty Shades" films. And yet, even though I didnít laugh at all while watching it, I didn't come away from it with the kind of loathing that I might feel after, say, a standard-issue slovenly Adam Sandler yukfest. Unlike those films, which practically shove their contempt for audiences into the camera for all to see, "Barb & Sue" is content to cheerfully goof off for those who do align with its crackpot comic vision and even though I clearly wasn't among them, I came away from it genuinely wishing that I liked it more than I actually did

With the new drama "Land," actress Robin Wright makes her feature directorial debut in which she plays Edee, a woman who is still grieving an almost unimaginable loss. Unable to connect with anyone or anything, she impulsively throws away her phone, buys a few supplies and takes up residence in an extremely remote cabin in the Rockies without telling anyone of her whereabouts. Not an outdoorswoman by any means, this decision lands her at the brink of deathís door until she is found and nursed back to health by a hunter (Demian Bichir) who promises to keep her secret and to avoid bringing her news of the outside world. Nevertheless, the two strike up a friendship that allows Edee to slowly begin to embrace life once again and finally come to terms with her life-altering tragedy. The good news about the film is that the performances by Wright and Bichir are strong and engaging and the cinematography by Bobby Bukowski is appropriately breathtaking. The bad news is that I simply never bought any of it for a single moment--nothing about the characters or situations created by screenwriters Jesse Chatham and Erin Dignam ever rings true and because of that, the big emotional beats never quite come off. As a director, Wright shows some promise--she handles the actors well and it is often quite lovely from a visual perspective--and it will be interesting to see what she can accomplish with a stronger and more plausible screenplay..

Based on his 2015 memoir "Guantanamo Diary," "The Mauritanian" tells the harrowing story of Mohamedou Ould Slahi, a young man who was captured in his home country of Mauritania in the wake of 9/11, ostensibly because of his involvement with Al Qaeda (during the time when they were U.S. allies), and sent to the infamous Guantanamo Bay detention camp, where he languished for years without ever being formally charged with anything. Several years into his incarceration, his plight reaches the ears of crusading criminal defense lawyer Nancy Hollander and she, along with legal aide Teri Duncan (Shailene Woodley(, decides to take on his case. Eager to sentence Slahi to death for his alleged crimes, the U.S. military brings in Stu Couch (Benedict Cumberbatch), who lost one of his best friends on 9/11, to try the case. While Slahi continues to languish in prison without going crazy along the way, both Hollander and Couch start digging into the case and make shocking discoveries about the often-horrifying lengths that the U.S. government went to in order to extract "confessions" from him, eventually getting one when they threatened to have his mother imprisoned in Guantanamo so that she could be raped and killed.

"The Mauritanian" is a strange film because while it tells a story that is filled with great anger and sorrow at the horrors that Slahi was forced to endure at the hands of the U.S. military and is filled with actors who are more than capable of conveying those emotions in a direct and convincing manner, the resulting film is nevertheless an oddly flat work that feels more like an exercise than a genuinely gripping narrative. A good chunk of the problem is clearly the result of the odd decision to tell its story by switching back and forth between three separate narrative threads--Hollander, Couch and, oh yeah, Slahi--and delaying all of the big reveals for as long as possible. While this approach probably made the film easier to get produced--by eschewing a purely linear approach, it allows the characters played by the more bankable likes of Foster, Woodley and Cumberbatch to enter the proceedings than they might have others--it defuses whatever dramatic charge it might be building with each switchover and after a while, it almost feels as if Slahi has been reduced to being little more than a supporting player in what is, after all, his story. The result is a theoretically angry movie whose righteous sense of rage and passion has been rendered inert (even the scenes where we finally bear witness to the array of tortures Slahi endured have a strangely muted feel to them) and not even the performances from the cast (all of whom are good, though Cumberbatch's southern accent is a bit iffy at times) can help make up the difference. Although clearly made with the best of intentions, "The Mauritanian" just never quite figures out how to transform them into compelling cinema.

In "To All the Boys: Always and Forever," the conclusion of the trilogy of hit YA adaptations that began with "To All the Boys I've Loved Before" (2018) and continued with "P.S.I Still Love You" (2020), heroine Lara Jean (Lana Condor) seems to have everything going her way during her senior year of high school--her dad (John Corbett) is getting remarried, her relationship with boyfriend Peter (Noah Centineo) is going strong and the two lovebirds are planning to go to school together at Stanford in the fall. Alas, a big hiccup comes when Lara Jean doesn't actually get in to Stanford (donít worry--safety school Berkeley is a yes) and when a class trip reveals the glories of NYU (another safety that says yes), she finds herself torn between being near her handsome-but-sexless young lad or going across the country to a school that better suits her own needs and wants. The main problem with this film is the same one that plagued its predecessor (both were shot at the same time, I understand)--having won over the guy of her dreams in the first film, Lara Jean satisfied all of her characterís needs, at leas from a dramatic standpoint, and the attempts to stretch the story out further seem driven more by market concerns than by the organic needs of the story. As a result, the conflicts come across as thin and hollow (especially since the film stretches them out to nearly two hours) and not even the still-considerable charm and presence of Condor can quite overcome the fact that the story is a.) a bore and b.) beneath the character that we have come to know and love as her entire existence now seems to revolve around her relationship with Peter. On some basic level, I suppose that fans of the earlier films will enjoy this one as well but my guess is that by this point, most of them will find themselves feeling like Lara Jean (no to mention Condor herself) at the end--happy, satisfied but definitely ready to move on to bigger and better things.

The love that dares not speak its name hits the frontier in "The World to Come," a period romantic drama from Mona Fastvold centered on Abigail (Katherine Waterston), a young woman still trying to recover from a great personal tragedy while toiling away in the rural upstate New York farm where she lives with her uncommunicative husband, Dyer (Casey Affleck). Through her journals, she yearns for a life with more excitement and her wishes appear to be answered with the arrival of Tallie (Vanessa Kirby) and her loutish husband Finney (Christopher Abbott) The two become fast friends--and more--but their relationship begins to put a strain on both of their marriages with heartbreaking results. There is nothing here that you haven't seen before--in many ways, it feels like a rural "Ammonite"--and the decision to have all of the characters speak in the florid manner of Rooster Cogburn doesn't help matters much. All of the actors are fine (although Abbott really needs to find a role where he doesnít play a self-absorbed jerk) but the screenplay is so stiff and ritualized that it never gives them the chance to breathe and become convincing characters.

The 1970s were a bit of a Golden Age for cinematic conspiracy thrillers but few would reach the dizzying artistic heights of "The Parallax View," Alan J. Pakula's waking nightmare of a film that took the paranoia inspired by the combination of Vietnam, Watergate and numerous assassinations and remixed them into a narrative that might have previously been dismissed as wildly outlandish but which came across as all too plausible when it was released in 1974. Three years after the assassination of a leading presidential candidate--one popularly ascribed as being the work of a lone killer--a news reporter (Paula Prentiss) contacts an ex-lover, journalist Joe Frady (Warren Beatty) claiming that the high number of witnesses to the killing who have been mysteriously killed suggests that there was more to the initial crime after all. Frady dismisses her claims but when she herself turns up dead soon afterwards, he begins to look into the case himself and, following a threat on his own life, makes a discovery that suggests that the seemingly ordinary Parallax Corporation is actually a group charged with recruiting and grooming potential political assassinations. As Frady goes deeper and deeper into the rabbit hole, Pakula (whose career would include such other paranoia-fueled works as "Klute," "All the President's Men," "Rollover," "Presumed Innocent" and "The Pelican Brief") keeps the increasingly labyrinthine plotting from getting bogged down in confusion while tightening the screws for viewers with a visual scheme that often puts its hero at enough of a distance to suggest that he is indeed being watched wherever he goes as a way of adding to the unease that permeates every scene. Beatty, who has never quite gotten the respect that he deserves as an actor, turns in one of his very best performances and the supporting cast is filled with strong turns from the likes of Hume Cronyn, William Daniels and Kenneth Mars. Once you have recovered from the film's gut punch of a conclusion, the long overdue special edition Blu-Ray from the Criterion Collection offers a nice array of supplemental features, including an introduction from filmmaker Alex Cox, archival interviews with Pakula from 1974 and 1995 and a program on cinematographer Gordon Willis, whose contributions here are extraordinary. Although not a success when it first came out, it has gone on to become a cult favorite over the years and it still packs one hell of a punch for viewers today. (The Criterion Collection. $39.95)


link directly to this feature at https://www.efilmcritic.com/feature.php?feature=4293
originally posted: 02/13/21 01:05:23
last updated: 02/13/21 02:12:47
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