The following are quick, capsule reviews of Lionsgate's Barb & Star Go to Vsita Del Mar which is now available to rent on all streaming platforms, The World to Come from Bleecker Street which is now playing in theaters and will be available On Demand on March 2nd, Sony Classics' French Exit which is now playing in New York and Los Angeles and will expand nationwide on April 2nd, as well as Robin Wright's Land from Focus Features which is now playing in theaters.  

"You saw all my folds and holes."

The formula of two unaware and somewhat dim best friends stumbling into a plot with larger implications than their small, vacuum of an existence can even comprehend but of which they become the only hope in saving the rest of humanity (or at least the rest of the resort town they're visiting) is not a new one, but Josh Greenbaum's Barb & Star Go to Vista Del Mar which was written by and stars the incomparable Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo who previously collaborated on Bridesmaids certainly does everything in its absurd power to give said concept a whole new look. Walking the line between completely trashing the small Midwestern middle-aged woman and absolutely adoring everything that makes their quaint, innocent lives so enviable Wiig's Star and Mumolo's Barb are the best of friends and have been so for so long they've kind of morphed into one another or one big feathered hairdo of excessive sweetness, wonder, and bliss. Their lives have followed similar trajectories to the point they've both ended up working in the same mall furniture store post-divorce, get fired from said store on the same day, and kicked out of their "Talking Club" on the same night for lying about still having those jobs at the furniture store. In what feels like the biggest departure the two could possibly make from their cozy, insulated existence the two decide to kick-off this next phase of their lives by embarking on the adventure of a lifetime by leaving their small Midwestern town for the first time ever.     

Arriving in the fictional Vista Del Mar or the oasis of all "mid-lifers" as Wendi McLendon-Covey's Mickey would say, Barb and Star are essentially aliens arriving on a different planet and discovering different forms of life than they've ever encountered before. Chief among these specimens in Jamie Dornan's Edgar who, unbeknownst to our titular heroes, is there at the behest of his Dr. Evil-like boss (also played by Wiig) to enact a revenge plot for some ridiculous reason that doesn't make much sense, but doesn't have to because nothing here - except how much you laugh - is taken seriously. All that matters is that Barb and Star are now caught-up in a love triangle, something even more daring and scandalous than leaving their comfortable routine, while beginning to lie to one another for the first time in what is probably the history of Barb and Star. Surrounded by the brightest shades of orange and turquoise possible as well as the largest cocktails ever concocted, our heroines follow the predictable narrative arc laid out before them, but what elevates the film to a different plane of comedy is the specificity Mumolo and Wiig have written with. The jokes - whether verbal, visual, or musical lampoons - each come so quick that they feel effortless, but by the time the entire picture is revealed feel that much more thought-out and almost exquisitely crafted. Dornan nearly steals the movie with the show-stopping "Edgar's Prayer" number that made me laugh harder at a movie than I think I have in a decade if not more. Dornan completely understands the tone of the world he's in and more specifically, how he fits into it. Other supporting players like Vanessa Bayer, Mark Jonathan Davis, Damon Wayans Jr., and Karen Maruyama each add to the bizarre nature of the world this film exists in. Special shout-out to Reyn Doi though, who essentially put me in this movie's pocket from the very beginning with his rendition of Barbra Streisand and Barry Gibb's "Guilty". It's easy to note with its very specific brand of comedy that Barb & Star Go to Vista Del Mar isn't for everyone, but the ongoing outlandishness of it all and the admitted stupidity is what made the experience such a delight, especially having come along at this point in time.

"After the calamity of Nellie's loss what calm I enjoy does not derive from the notion of a better world to come."

It's been quite a year for LGBTQ entertainment from the many Netflix-produced projects like A Secret Love, The Boys in the Band, The Half of It, and even The Haunting of Bly Manor along with Hulu's Happiest Season, Amazon's Uncle Frank, as well as studio features like Ammonite, Summerland, and fellow Bleecker Street film, Supernova. In The World to Come Katherine Waterston (the Fantastic Beasts franchise) and Vanessa Kirby (The Crown, Mission: Impossible - Fallout) star as two women who have each faced different kinds of hardship and isolation - much of which comes from their environment being that of the American frontier in 1856. Mona Fastvold directs her second feature from a script by Jon Hansen and Jim Shepard that follows Waterston's Abigail and her husband, Dyer (Casey Affleck), as they not only come to deal with a landscape that would challenge any farmer, but the pain a parent should never have to face. It is in the aftermath of tragedy that Kirby's Tallie and her husband Finney (Christopher Abbott) move to town and it is in Tallie that Abigail begins to find a renewed sense of purpose if not hope in the world. As the film tracks its way through the calendar year via Abigail's diary entries Fastvold elicits our sympathy for these women given the circumstances of their love for one another. Abigail is completely grief-stricken, and Dyer is unsure what more he can do in order to comfort her as he seems to realize there is nothing that will erase the pain he himself is also still dealing with. In fact, Dyer - while leery of his new neighbors - is almost happy to look past what might be developing between his wife and her new friend given it clearly brings her a certain amount of happiness he hasn't seen in some time, but Tallie's situation is decidedly different. Tallie is very much an early feminist and is in no way inclined to serve simply as a surrogate for Finney's seed or be reduced to a house maid. She is ambitious enough to want to live a life and not simply transfer her services from her parents to her husband. Tallie is angry in many respects and has seemingly been preparing for this moment her entire life while Abigail, though happier than she believed she'd ever be again, must process how to allow herself this happiness by moving past her guilt. Fastvold chronicles these arcs, but Abigail's more specifically, with an eye like Terrence Malick and a tone akin to David Lowery. André Chemetoff's cinematography only emphasizes the beautifully depressing nature of our protagonists and the status of their love at this point in history while Daniel Blumberg's score foreshadows an ominous conclusion that makes Tallie and Abigail's genuine hope for a better world to come even more heartbreaking.

"I don't like these people. They're not normal people!"

Knowing nothing of the Patrick DeWitt novel on which this film is based, there was a certain expectation for French Exit based solely on its qualifiers of being distributed by Sony Classics, the fact it starred Michelle Pfieffer and featured Lucas Hedges in a supporting role, as well as being released just in time for awards consideration. With a title like French Exit I expected this to be something of a peculiar little domestic drama with a European edge to it. An art film of the upmost degree and maybe, potentially even a little irritating due to its stuffy nature. And the film does begin as much given Pfieffer is playing this aging Manhattan socialite who we see early in the film rip her son, Malcolm (Hedges), out of boarding school and who continues to live on what's left of her inheritance from her dead husband until she can't anymore at which point she and Malcolm move to a small apartment in Paris that belongs to her sister, Joan (Susan Coyne). The film is slightly odd in the semantics it goes through in getting Pfeiffer's Frances along with Malcolm and their cat (don't forget the cat!) to Paris, but it's initially taken as little more than the obligatory quirkiness a production of this nature must adhere to. It is when the mother and son duo finally arrive in The City of Lights that things actually begin to truly become...what was that word again...peculiar. Beginning with Malcolm abruptly breaking off a seemingly serious relationship with girlfriend Susan (Imogen Poots) as soon as his mother tells him they're leaving New York and the country altogether to the trip across the Atlantic where they encounter Madeleine the Medium (Danielle MacDonald) who both becomes a more critical character in the lives of our protagonists than expected and immediately understands something the audience hasn't yet become privy to, there is a change of tone and a turning of curiosity. 

The heart of the film is the relationship between Frances and Malcolm and how it mines this world of appearance over substance for exactly that; examining if what can be found between this mother and son is actually a connection with meaning or simply the only other outlet Frances could turn to in order to exonerate her societal critiques after the death of her husband. DeWitt, who adapted his own work for the screen, has a certain flair for the absurdity and given absurdities aren't difficult to come by when satirizing the upper class much of this feels like low-hanging fruit, but what separates French Exit from its ilk is the surrealism it embraces in its latter half. The forthright nature of the dialogue, the pure insanity of certain plot points, and director Azazel Jacobs' ability to somehow wrangle all these tones through this pedigreed lens that has no issue winking at the camera without literally winking somehow makes it work. The film itself a contrivance of that which it seeks to expose. Insane yet endearing, this dark comedy that initially appears somewhat airless and old-fashioned builds to a biting, hyper-aware experience that Pfieffer absolutely crushes in regard to target and tone. Valerie Mahaffey as the aloof Madame Reynard is the true diamond here though, as her character is one who simplifies all the film is trying to convey: an individual so accustomed to privilege there is no need for deception and is therefore always her most authentic.       

“Only a person who’s never been hungry thinks starving is a good way to die...there are better ways to die.”

I've never seen an episode of Bear Grylls' Man vs. Wild, but I imagine Land is more or less what that show would feel like if shot by Emmanuel Lubezki and scored by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. That isn't to say Robin Wright's feature directorial debut is devoid of anything substantial or has nothing to say (I'm sure Man vs. Wild can be illuminating in many ways), but more that the simple narrative of a bereaved woman seeking out a new life, off the grid in Wyoming could only carry so much weight or harbor so much investment. Make no mistake though, while this is Wright's first feature she has been behind the camera for multiple episodes of House of Cards and, at the age of fifty-four, feels comfortable both directing and anchoring a film that completely deals with her character being isolated with her pain. In many ways, it's curious to wonder what it was about Jesse Chatham and Erin Dingam's screenplay that made Wright decide to take it on as her first feature credit as a director, but in watching the film unfurl it becomes clear the many parallels both Wright and the character of Edee must deal with. Whether it be the element of both situations being a learning experience, the unexpected issues that are unaccounted for, but have to be dealt with, or the fleshing out of the characters, their nature, and the environment around them; these are all things that need to be considered in order for your life or your movie to be fulfilling. 

Wright's Edee is a woman dealing with an unbearable loss, a loss and a pain that is revealed in her film in what is Wright's greatest moment as a director in this film. It's truly haunting, legitimately gave me chills, and allows the visual storytelling to do all the heavy lifting with Ben Sollee's actual score only emphasizing these emotions. In Edee's tragedy, she elects to relocate and isolate herself as opposed to being around people who would rather her simply pretend to be better than openly discuss her pain. In this departure Edee will obviously come to realize many a truths about herself, her existence moving forward, and the importance of having people involved in that existence that genuinely love her, but Land is largely about the long, complicated road to those realizations and not the moments of realization themself. Wright gives very little indication of how much time is passing beyond the natural climate change outside her cabin windows which works in favor of the film's aesthetic but does detract from how much of a toll this is taking on her character. It isn't until a half hour into the film that another sign of life shows up in the form of Demián Bichir's Miguel. Bichir, an actor who garnered acclaim for 2011's A Better Life and has turned that into a string of strong supporting roles in major projects, brings his natural charisma at a time when it's needed most. The first act largely integrates Edee into her new setting with many a wordless and sometimes tepid sequences that then pivots to a second act where Edee becomes more comfortable and almost reliant on Miguel visiting her despite having little desire to be around people. It is in the bond that forms between Edee and Miguel that the film hits its stride and cascades into a final act that discovers the healing and serenity it has been seeking from the very beginning if not in an unexpected fashion, but an affecting one nonetheless.     

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