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Films I Neglected To Review: Twist Endings
by Peter Sobczynski

Please enjoy short reviews of "Masquerade," "Stillwater" and "Twist."

I can only assume that in creating "Masquerade," writer-director Shane Dax Taylor came up with the final shocking twist ending first and then devised the rest of the narrative to serve solely as little more than a support system for that climactic reveal. However, even if the finale presented here had been as truly startling and audacious as he clearly thinks it to be--and it isn't, I hasten to assure you--everything leading up to it is so poky and pedestrian that even those who like it will still find it to be hardly worth the wait in the end. While her art dealer parents (Austin Nichols and Mircea Monroe) are out at a charity fundraiser, 11-year-old Casey (Alyvia Alyn Lind) is at their home with her babysitter when another couple (Michael Proctor and Skyler Samuels) break in with the plan to steal the priceless artwork on display inside. After gruesomely taking care of the babysitter, the two are discovered by Casey, who is then forced to fend for herself while her parents are being driven home from the party from a bartender (Bella Thorne, presumably hoping for a twist ending of her own where she wakes up one morning with Zendaya's career) who is perhaps a bit too solicitous to be trusted. This kicks off a seemingly endless series of scenes involving Casey hiding from the intruders, the intruders alternating between fruitlessly searching for her and carefully removing paintings from frames and the parents on their ride home, all of which is conveyed with molasses-like pacing and a curious lack of anything resembling suspense that makes it all seem at least twice as long as it actually is. Then, after 70 minutes of general tedium, the last 10 minutes are dedicated to the big rug pull and while this section is slightly livelier than what preceded it, it still doesn't work because it is more contrived than compelling--learning that nothing is as you thought it was is not that big of a deal if you didn't care about any of it in the first place. Unless you are a Bella Thorne completist--and even then, you might come away disappointed from her relative lack of screen time--"Masquerade" is a film as forgettable as its title and with an ending that will almost certainly have you leaving the theater thinking of nothing but where you are planning to get dinner.

As "Stillwater" begins, Bill Baker (Matt Damon), an out-of-work Oklahoma oil rigger who now ekes out a living cleaning up disaster areas (and yes, this will prove to be symbolic to be symbolic) is setting off for a trip to Marseille, France. This may seem like an unusual place for a guy like him to visit--upon arrival, he checks in to the local Best Western and grabs a sandwich from Subway--and we quickly discover that he is not there for the sights or atmosphere. He is actually there to visit his daughter, Allison (Abigail Breslin), who has spent the last five years in prison after being convicted of murdering the girlfriend/roommate who she met while studying abroad, a case that inspired lurid headlines around the world. Although there is still friction between the two due to Bill's checkered past involving crappy parenting and addiction issues, she asks him to pass on some new information to the judge in her case that she hopes will lead to her exoneration. When the judge refuses to investigate the evidence, Bill decides to tell Allison otherwise and sets off to check out the lead on his own. Since he speaks zero French, he asks Virginie (Camille Cottin), the single mother of the adorable Maya (Lilou Siauvaud) who was his neighbor at the hotel, to assist in his investigation. The tip goes nowhere and Allison predictably blows her stack when she learns that her dad lied to her yet again. Over the course of the next few months, Bill remains in France and doggedly pursues any lead that he can to get Allison released while at the same time growing closer to Virginie, eventually moving in with her and Maya and achieving a sense of personal happiness that proves to be all too fragile in the end.

Although "Stillwater" is clearly inspired by our memories of the Amanda Knox case, it is not specifically based on it and indeed, director/co-writer Tom McCarthy, in his first film since the Oscar-winning "Spotlight," seems to have little interest in its particulars, preferring instead to center his focus on Bill as he goes about trying to save the remaining member of the family that he destroyed through his bad behavior while at the same time tentatively entering in another familial unit with the extremely helpful Frenchwoman. This rather oblique approach--which makes it feel at times like an Atom Egoyan film with a redneck at its center instead of distraught and soul-sick Canadians--is interesting, as is his decision to portray Bill in a reasonably empathetic light despite his quintessential Ugly American pose. The problem is that in spite of the undeniably good performances by Damon and Cottin, the film is a little too aimless and meandering for its own good and when it does bring the murder case back into the storyline towards the end, it is via a series of contrivances and plot twists that are more silly than startling and end up making the whole thing into a mere exercise in feel-bad cinema instead of a narrative with a genuine point and purpose. I don't hate "Stillwater" and indeed, there are stretches where it is reasonably compelling, but considering the pedigree of those involved and the generally meh results, I cannot regard it as anything other than a bit of a disappointment.

Wikipedia lists 24 films adapted from the Charles Dickens classic "Oliver Twist" and while I cannot say that I have seen them all--the best probably being the 1948 version from David Lean, though I found Roman Polanski's 2005 take to be surprisingly effective as well (and "Oliver!" can burn in hell forever for winning the Best Picture Oscar in a year when "2001: A Space Odyssey" didn't even rate a nomination)--I have certainly seen enough of them to know that I have no real need to see yet another one unless it brings something new and interesting to the equation. With an updating to modern times, lots of parkour and the Artful Dodger equivalent played by pop star Rita Ora, the additions included in "Twist" are certainly "new," if a long way away from anything resembling "interesting." Twist (Rafferty Jaw) is a brilliant graffiti artist living by his wits on the streets when he is taken in by a criminal enterprise led by the avuncular Fagin (Michael Caine, evidently in need of another house) and including the aforementioned Dodge (Ora) and Red (Sophie Simnett), with whom Twist instantly falls in love. Alas, Red is under the dominance of Sikes (Lena Hedey), the most psychotic member of the group and as the gang plans and executes an elaborate heist of a crooked art dealer who once did Fagin wrong, Twist tries to figure out how free her from Sikes's clutches without getting the both of them killed.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the whole enterprise is kind of dumb--it seems more indebted to the "Ocean's 11" films and the cheeky crime thrillers of Guy Ritchie than it is to Dickens and even by those less elevated standards, it comes up lacking. This is one of those films where the heroes are meant to be experts in subterfuge but their disguises are so patently unconvincing that it just makes everything seem kind of dumb and cartoonish. Caine and Headey are obviously the most capable members of the cast but even though it is painfully clear that they are going through their paces with a minimum of effort, they still come across as more compelling and dedicated than their younger co-stars by a mile--Law and Simnett are as bland as can be while Ora's key job appears to be modeling a different oddball outfit in every scene. I do not object to the notion of a modern-day "Oliver Twist," mind you--the works of Dickens works are certainly strong enough to absorb such changes as long as they are done intelligently. The problem with "Twist" is that the changes are all lazy and cosmetic ones that serve only to bury the still-compelling narrative under tons of increasingly tedious nonsense. As I said, there have been at least 24 film versions of this particular story and if you pick virtually any of them other than "Twist"—yes, even "Oliver!"-- you will be doing yourself a favor.

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originally posted: 07/30/21 04:50:52
last updated: 07/30/21 05:16:05
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