‘Daddy’s Home 2’ Review

This post originally appeared on filmjournal.com

Sitting next to me at a recent screening of Daddy’s Home 2 was an eighth-grader and precocious critic who announced to his companion before the film began that he was planning to post his review of this follow-up to the 2015 comedic hit Daddy’s Home to a teen website (after the embargo against reviews had been lifted, of course). He watched the film with notebook in lap, and after the credits had rolled for 30 seconds or so, sat up, addressed the adult by his side, and pronounced judgment: “Sooo good! [Pause for a moment’s reflection.] Sooo good!”

Some of us might choose to excise several “o’s” from those “so’s,” but otherwise, the kid’s all right. Daddy’s Home 2 is as advertised—that is, a fun family comedy for the holidays. Writer-director Sean Anders and his co-writer John Morris (Brian Burns of “Entourage” created the characters) opt for a bigger-is-better approach that cleanly rebukes those of us inclined to roll our eyes at such an equation—or at the word “sequel” at all. The laughs are a nice mix of silly and suggestive and surround that live beating heart that can be found at the center of most Will Ferrell comedies. Kinda treacly? You betcha. Smooth all the way down? Even so.

Brad (Ferrell) is the sensitive stepfather to the two children of former tough-guy Dusty (Mark Wahlberg) and Dusty’s ex, Sarah (Linda Cardellini). Dusty is a new stepfather himself, to the tween phone addict Adrianna (Didi Costine), who is the daughter of his gorgeous and talented author wife, Karen (real-life model Alessandra Ambrosio). Adrianna’s dad and Karen’s ex Roger (John Cena) briefly shows up, too, in his guise as a dude even more macho than Dusty. You got all that?

Certainly it’s a lot to keep up with, even for the children of this blended family. After little Megan (Scarlett Estevez) publicly complains about splitting Christmas Day between her two families, Brad and Dusty decide to spend the holiday as an ensemble. You see, the two men have overcome the animosity that drove them to such comedic lengths in Daddy’s Home, and are now progressive “co-dads.” But resentments are percolating beneath the surface and soon come to a boil with the arrival of the granddads.

Brad’s dad Don, or “Grandpop” (John Lithgow), and Dusty’s dad Kurt, or “El Padre” (Mel Gibson), are their sons in caricature: Don’s so touchy-feely he greets his boy with a kiss on the lips (no peck or smack, this) and Kurt’s so alpha the barest mention of feelings or compromise elicits a scoff to shame the most disinterested adolescent girl. In fact, Kurt’s horror at the “weakness” his son is exhibiting in co-dadding with Brad manifests in something of a personal mission to tear the bros apart. Forget Scrooge; he’s the Iago of Christmas.

Anders has said that the “humor and conflict” in his film “come from a very relatable, grounded place,” and this isn’t so much jargon. Silly details like the dad who will talk to any stranger, no matter the person’s willingness, and the battle over the thermostat make for funny moments in the “Seinfeld” school of finding humor in the mundane. It’s also worth noting that nearly every character has his or her say, including the wives outside of the film’s central premise and the children that provide its plot mechanism (“Let’s do all of these ridiculous things for the kids”). Ambrosio has the least to do, but the gag that sees her scribbling in a writer’s notebook while Sarah freaks out about just what is being written about her, is repeated enough to keep her in the picture and part of the comedic air. A bit involving Sarah, her wonderfully insane daughter Megan, and a gun for Christmas does gender-subversion with unforced effectiveness.

Ultimately, though Brad & Dusty and Don & Kurt (or Brad & Don and Dusty & Kurt) are the focus of the film, Daddy’s Home 2 winds up feeling like an even larger ensemble comedy. And even when it goes in for the feel-good Christmas ending, it never takes itself too seriously. All of which is, indeed, so good.

Advertisements

‘Princess Cyd’ Review

This post originally appeared on filmjournal.com

Princess Cyd is not for those who like their stories told quickly and their payoffs to be thundering. The eighth film from writer-director Stephen Cone, who will be the subject of an early career retrospective at New York’s Museum of the Moving Image this month, is a decidedly “creep-up-on-you” experience. But with lead characters that are so lifelike, the word “character” with its suggestions of artifice seems ill suited to them, Princess Cyd is movingly satisfying.

It’s summer vacation and 17-year-old Cyd (Jessie Pinnick) is not getting along with her single father, so he decides to send her to her Aunt Miranda’s (a terrific Rebecca Spence) in Chicago for several days. Miranda is a well-known novelist who lives by herself in the childhood home she once shared with Cyd’s late mom. But Miranda is no lonely spinster—she’s a generous community figure who hosts “soirees” at her house the second Friday of every month, when fellow colleagues at the university where she teaches, as well as members of her church and other neighbors and friends, gather to eat, drink and tell and read stories.

Abrupt, even frank to the point of rudeness, Cyd is not a big reader, but she is a generally good-natured soul who fits in fine with her aunt’s liberal crowd of ethnically and amorously diverse friends. She is also quick to make friends of her own, soon after arrival catching the eye of a pretty barista named Katie (Malic White) for whom her feelings deepen. As the days progress, passionate Cyd and her civilized aunt do, of course, bond, but not without stepping on each other’s toes as two women who influence each other without ever yielding their individual points of view.

This is a nuanced dance that Cone accomplishes with elegance. Perhaps 20 minutes into the movie you may be thinking, “Very pretty, but where is all this going, exactly?” But once Aunt Miranda hosts her soiree of Chicago progressives, the film manages to take off without noticeably accelerating its pace. The personalities of our heroines have been ably established; they have grown more comfortable with each other (and we with their hang-ups), so that when at last they face off, their confrontation builds that much more convincingly for the solidity of its foundation.

This confrontation makes for a superb scene in which local Chicago actress Spence shines. You just know that what she says with such feeling is precisely what an extraordinarily well-educated, insightful and eloquent woman author who, for all her many gifts, has deeply rooted anxieties just like the rest of us would say when challenged by an intelligent but thoughtless teen. Anyone who thinks a person cannot or ought not to write stories for those of a different gender should be shut inside a room with Princess Cyd and made to take notes. Cone has been called a “humanist” for writing characters with admirable complexities, but it might be more accurate to call him an astute mimic. Clearly, he is able to first recognize and secondly render the shades of which people are comprised. But if his portrayals are indeed “generous,” it must also be noted that he has taken for his subjects here a particular kind of people: those who are comprehensibly decent—that is, well-intentioned, no more ill or odd than anyone else who has been unable to escape a brush with trauma. His primary concern is not with evil, even when its specter looms largely, so that the end result simply appears to ring true to the way the decent but flawed speak and act.

Even during its more dramatic moments the film never goes in for operatics, though it isn’t without elements that in less sensitive hands could have been teased into melodrama. This restraint is another characteristic to the director’s credit, but Princess Cyd is no Spartan affair. Zoe White’s cinematography is lush, bright and adds a heightened element to the slowly recounted narrative that, in its richness, is nicely complementary.

The film’s final note is as un-showy as everything that has preceded it, but because it feels like the natural result of its antecedents, it makes for a doozy of a moment whose power may surprise you. “I believe in grace,” Miranda says in answer to Cyd’s question about her beliefs regarding the afterlife. So it is that the earned finale of Princess Cyd has the ability to make believers of those who wait.

‘A Bad Moms Christmas’ Review

This post originally appeared on filmjournal.com

Christine Baranski could entertain her way out of the proverbial paper bag, let alone out of the somewhat more limiting confines of a lackluster holiday comedy. It is the latter that she pulls off with style in A Bad Moms Christmas, and we in the audience are all the better for it.

Just about everything that is not Christine Baranski in this sequel to the 2016 comedy hit Bad Moms is unmemorable. Our titular trio of mothers, including the comparatively sane Amy (Mila Kunis), the naïve Kiki (Kristen Bell) and the rocker-chick who has chosen to disregard the fact that it is no longer the 1980s, Carla (Kathryn Hahn), is stressed out. Not only are they overwhelmed by the demands of a holiday that include “buying presents for everyone we’ve ever met,” decorating their houses to perfection, and making memories for their children in an effort to stave off debilitating parental guilt, they must contend with a Christmas curveball: the arrival of their mothers. These women include Amy’s impossible-to-please mother, Ruth (Baranski); Kiki’s stage-five-clinger mother, Cindy (Cheryl Hines), and Carla’s former-REO-Speedwagon-roadie mother, Isis (Susan Sarandon). Hijinks ensue, women behave kinda badly (but not too badly; they’re moms, after all), and the generations bond over the fact that all any of them want deep down is to be a good mother, darn it.

A Bad Moms Christmas does have its moments. Spa attendant Carla enjoys an amusingly ridiculous meet-cute with the embodiment of a straight woman’s fantasy, a firefighter stripper named Ty Swindle (Justin Hartley, of TV’s “This Is Us”). Ty shows up for a waxing and Carla melts as he with his “manly” smile refuses to flinch while she tears the hair from his nether regions. An appearance by Wanda Sykes as the therapist who counsels Kiki and her mom brings a much-needed jolt of energy to the proceedings, while the moment during a “moms-gone-bad-at-the-mall” montage when our ladies spike the free samples outside Williams Sonoma hits the sweet spot of suburban satire that elsewhere A Bad Moms Christmas fails to tap.

Because elsewhere, A Bad Moms Christmas is lowest-common-denominator stuff. It abounds in references to reproductive organs and processes that perhaps could have been funny if the jokes had done something with their “naughty” subjects, but in the end it seems the barest mention of sex alone is enough to pass for a quip. This logic seems akin to that which is adopted by people who curse in lieu of having something to say (which happens here, too). There’s also something strangely outdated about several of its gags, including a joke about Kenny G (who nonetheless gets the modern comedy treatment when he puts his instrument between his legs and rides it) and a bit where Ruth refuses to remember the name of Amy’s Hispanic boyfriend, Jessie (Jay Hernandez). In this last instance the movie and not the snobbish character it’s trying to skewer becomes vulnerable to charges of tone-deafness. The filmmakers neglect to give Jessie any role to speak of, leaving him no wisecracks of his own to offer. He is a mute presence on the sectional beside Amy, as well as the butt of a joke we’ve heard before.

In the end, A Bad Moms Christmas devolves into schmaltzy Hallmark fare. The explanation for Ruth’s bitchiness is pat, and Peter Gallagher, as Amy’s father and Ruth’s husband, must suffer the role of sentimental messenger. The film ends with a shot of the three grandmothers, although according to IMDb, writer-directors Jon Lucas and Scott Moore (of the infinitely superior The Hangover) currently have a Bad Dads rather than a Bad Grandmas in the works. If it means Christine Baranski is free to spread her wings in projects more deserving of her, this is for the best.

‘Novitiate’ Review

This post originally appeared on filmjournal.com

Novitiate opens with a wonderful premise. Toward the beginning of the film we hear the voiceover of teenage Cathleen (Margaret Qualley) explaining why she and several other very young girls want to become nuns. It’s a choice guided by the same passions that influence other adolescents. Quite simply, “We were women in love.”

The object of their affection is, of course, God. The non-Catholic writer-director Maggie Betts has said that before she read an unauthorized biography of Mother Teresa, whose letters were apparently quite torrid stuff, she didn’t realize nuns were brides of Christ who did indeed consider the Lord their husband. She described the newly canonized saint’s relationship with God as “volatile” and her love for Him as “not a healthy one.” Her curiosity piqued, she read many memoirs of nuns, and eventually, and smartly, decided to set her film about a teen’s fervent love for God against the backdrop of the sweepingly liberal Church reforms established by Pope John Paul the XXIII during the momentous Second Vatican Council he called between 1962 and 1965, known popularly as Vatican II.

Novitiate’s point of departure, then, is interesting from both a character and historical angle. Unfortunately, the film isn’t quite as compelling as its subject matter. In the beginning we watch the childhood of Cathleen rendered in broadest strokes: Her unreligious, bold and promiscuous mother Nora (Julianne Nicholson) divorces from her wayward father, thereby severing a relationship that gave Cathleen her first look at a “volatile” and “unhealthy” love. Cathleen is shy, but when her mother enrolls her in a Catholic school because its nuns are offering scholarships, she find comfort in the peace of the Church, and in the kindness of one nun in particular. Now in the early ’60s, Nora is horrified when Cathleen decides to become a nun herself, but her anxiety only has cause to deepen as her daughter advances through the emotionally and physically extreme stages of training under the directorship of a dragonish Reverend Mother (Melissa Leo).

Cathleen is a great character, a young woman whose passions roil beneath a reserved exterior. Qualley sounds a good deal like Kristen Stewart but isn’t as affected as that actress can sometimes seem. When we stay with her and watch how she reacts to the severe circumstances of life under the Reverend Mother’s rule, how the atmosphere combines with her ardent nature to produce acts of extraordinary and self-imposed rigor and then of quite moving abandon, Novitiate is at its best.

But when we leave Cathleen to focus on different characters, including the other and far less interesting novitiates (played by a who’s-who of up-and-coming actresses, such as “Homeland”’s Morgan Saylor and If I Stay’s Liana Liberato); a teacher, Sister Mary Grace (“Glee”’s Dianna Agron); and the Mother Superior, the film is less absorbing. It’s almost too bad Cathleen is as intriguing as she is, because most everyone else can seem like “a type” in comparison. Reverend Mother wants to hold fast to the old ways of convent life and instruction that are being swept aside by the progressive Vatican II reforms. Though many of the practices she loves are, quite literally, medieval, they are all she knows; she has not left the convent in 40 years. Can you imagine what an upheaval the Vatican II changes must have seemed to such lifers? This is the question Betts appears to be hoping her viewers will ask, but because the two nuns we get to know best are rather flat, they do not invite much empathetic speculation on their or their sisters’ behalf. Sister Mary Grace is The Nice One and The Mother is simply The B****. A possible attempt to humanize the latter via a scene in which she professes her undying love for Christ even though He may have abandoned her is more over-the-top than moving. In fact, there are a few moments when the film seems to suffer from a fatal sense of self-seriousness, a feeling aided by its dramatic score by Christopher Stark. The lack of a character to whom we are attached among the nuns undercuts the impact of that moment filmed for emotionality when the nuns must at last face the Vatican II reforms.

With a few exceptions, what we see of the other novitiates (The Awkward One, The One Who’s There For the Wrong Reasons, the Strict One) is their sufferings under a retrograde system. So that in the end what we are left with is, in the main, a simplistic feeling that this way of life pre-1965 was just bad, though I’m not sure this is what Betts intended, as she has said that the heart of her story is to “explore the subject of the way women love.”

Perhaps that exploration could have superseded all other concerns if Novitiate had stayed tighter on interesting Cathleen and her religious love (which is apparent) while paring down the roles of supporting players. However, Betts, who won the Special Jury Prize for Breakthrough Director at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, does have an eye for composition, as well as a nose for compelling material.

‘Crash Pad’ Review

This post originally appeared on filmjournal.com

When Crash Pad opens, our hopeless dreamer of a hero, Stensland (Domhnall Gleeson), has just learned the older woman with whom he’s been sleeping is married. Stensland is horrified; he had thought/convinced himself their liaison had all the markings of true love. To wit: Just the other night, Morgan (Christina Applegate) held his hand in a cab. “That’s not the action of a woman looking for sex behind her hubby’s back,” Stensland cries, indignant. “That’s a woman looking for Dr. Zhivago!”

After Morgan kicks him out of her bed, Stensland falls into a pit of despair, his grungy apartment outfitted in furniture hemorrhaging stuffing. He spends his days getting high while taking a self-imposed leave of absence from his job that soon becomes permanent. His roommate moves out and Stensland is left alone with only his VHS copies of “Dawson’s Creek” for companionship.

But his indulgent solitude does not last long. Morgan’s husband, Grady (he of the excellent delivery, Thomas Haden Church), shows up uninvited with an unloaded gun in hand to scare the poop and other bodily fluids out of him. But the squalor in which Stensland lives appeals to Grady, and instead of assaulting the man who cuckolded him, Grady moves in, offering to pay Stensland’s rent for the privilege. So begins a series of misadventures in which Grady relives his premarital glory days while forcing the “prematurely middle-aged” Stensland to be his reluctant wingman.

Crash Pad is the first feature written by Jeremy Catalino, but hopefully it won’t be his last comedy. The movie plays with its stereotypes in a manner that is sometimes gleefully silly and sometimes sharply clever. Once every few minutes you’re “Ha!”-ing aloud. Some of the dialogue is so dense you have to wonder just how much preparatory work the actors were moved to complete before filming began, and if no breathing coaches were involved. Gleeson in particular is charged with landing some humdinger lines. But everyone in this A-list cast is such a pro—you know the material must have been appealing if Haden Church, Gleeson and comedy golden girl Applegate all agreed to participate. That, or the filmmakers all have very good agents—the almost showy (OK, sometimes showy) writing never upstages the players.

Director Kevin Tent is an Oscar-nominated editor who’s worked on a number of films from Alexander Payne, who is an exec producer on Crash Pad. (Hence the connection with Haden Church, who starred in Payne’s Sideways.) He has edited such seminal comedies as Election, and such forgettable comedies as Monster-in-LawCrash Pad is neither a classic nor another reason to smack palm to forehead as you wonder: But whydid they make this? The answer is comprehensible enough: Because it’s funny. If there’s nothing surprising in its portrayals of macho men who need to de-swagger, Millennials who need to grow up, and married couples that need to try harder, there’s plenty of incentive to watch what is there again. It’s true that Applegate should have been given considerably more to do, but one can dream of a sophomore Catalino feature in which she has a starring role.

Open to Serendipity: A Conversation with Agnès Varda and J.R.

This post originally appeared on filmjournal.com

Partway through the charming documentary Faces Places, octogenarian filmmaker Agnès Varda, often referred to as “the godmother of the French New Wave,” and her co-director, the thirtyish French street artist JR, decide to paste an enlarged photograph onto a German bunker that sits like a modern-art sculpture on the beach of Saint-Aubin-Sur-Mer in Normandy. Varda had taken this picture of the young photographer Guy Bourdin just above the beach over 60 years earlier. Without knowing what the place meant to her, JR had suggested they visit. Varda simply “couldn’t believe” that of all the locations in France, it was this “five kilometers” or so stretch of seashore, so dear to her because of its associations with her late friend Guy, that JR should have recommended. But then, “serendipity” could have been a third collaborator on their film.

Hauling their equipment onto the beach, including ladders, cameras and scaffolding, and then pasting the photograph of Guy onto the bunker before the tide came in was quite a production, and even a little dangerous. “I don’t know how much the audience can feel the adventure,” Varda fretted earlier this week while she and JR were in town to promote Faces Places, which Cohen Media Group opens in New York today. “We didn’t know about the audience reaction. Because we don’t make films for us. We make them to be shown.”

Born in Belgium in 1928, Varda did not begin her career making films. She worked as a photographer before shooting her first movie in her mid-20s. Varda has said that at the time she had seen no more than ten films in her life; she simply “imagined” how hers would look. Her sophomore feature, Cleo from 5 to 7, demonstrated the formidable power of this imagination and was nominated for the Palme d’Or at the 1962 Cannes Film Festival. A Berlin Silver Bear (for 1965’s Happiness), a Venice Golden Lion (for 1985’s Vagabond) a European Film Award (for 2000’s The Gleaners and I) and a French César (for 2008’s The Beaches of Agnès), among other awards, followed suit. In 2015, she received an honorary Palme d’Or, and she will be honored with a special Oscar (aka the Governors Award) in November.

It was at Cannes this year that Varda’s fears concerning audience reactions to Faces Places first proved unfounded. The documentary follows her and JR as they travel through a number of French villages in the van JR uses for his ongoing participatory art project, “Inside Out,” for which he won a TED award in 2011. The back of the van doubles as a photo booth that dispenses from the side of the vehicle poster-sized photographs. They chat with the locals and then do what JR does best: paste giant-sized pictures of people (or animals) onto the exteriors of buildings (or shipping containers, or trains, or World War II-era bunkers, or whatever else moves them). It is indeed a great “adventure” propelled by the warmth of their friendship.

Anyone who has seen the documentary will not be surprised by Varda’s description of her experience at Cannes this spring. A roomful of “2,012 people” gave the film “such an enthusiastic reception, we felt almost surprised. We said: Is it a mistake or something? It’s too much. Which made us feel good,” she adds. The film is currently 100% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes.

It was Varda’s daughter, the costume designer Rosalie Varda-Demy, who arranged for their introduction. (Rosalie’s stepfather was the late The Umbrellas of Cherbourgdirector, Jacques Demy. Varda also had a son with Demy, the actor and filmmaker Mathieu Demy.) Rosalie thought the two might hit it off, given that Varda, who filmed a 1981 documentary on murals in Los Angeles, Mur Murs, is interested in street art. However, “we didn’t think we would get along so well and be best buddies,” says JR, in the affectionately teasing tone he adopts with his collaborator. It was clear from the first they would do something together, although they didn’t know it would be a documentary.

“If we’d thought from the beginning that this was going to be a film, we wouldn’t have taken it that easy,” JR admits. They would have felt pressured to follow a schedule. But circumstances favored a laid-back approach. Varda, who was in her mid-80s when filming began, could only shoot two to four days each month. There were also periods during which they had to wait for executive producer Rosalie to secure more financing. So they traveled and filmed when they could, and for two years, “we were just playing.”

Varda believes their “peaceful” doc was so enthusiastically received because it is the right film for the times. While we live “in a world of so much chaos and bad news and hate and violence,” Faces Places is a “proposition out of politics, out of terror, out of violence. It’s a proposition of ‘Let’s be together with people.’”

And yet politics is often present in the film at its margins, though Varda would call it “sociologie or anthropologie.” One of the first towns that Varda and JR visit, for example, is home to a former mining community on the downturn. The woman who lives in the last house along a kind of miner’s row is the daughter of a deceased miner who is refusing to move. Varda and this woman still send each other chocolates, JR says.

At a factory, Varda came to consider differently a political issue she has been watching for some time. One of the days they filmed happened to be the very last day for an employee who had been at the factory for 30 years. “I’ve been following the politics, demonstrations, march[es] in the streets” of those who want better retirement conditions, says 89-year-old Varda. But, “I never was on the side of somebody who has to retire.” This man didn’t know what his tomorrow would look like. The way he “spoke about falling from a…”

“Cliff,” offers JR.

“…cliff. Suddenly I said, ‘Well, I learned it’s not that easy to retire.’”

And then there are the dockworkers who were on strike when the filmmakers visited. Yet again, serendipity appeared at their side. (Varda has joked in more than one interview that she enlists “chance” as her assistant on her documentaries. He deserves a raise.) JR admits they were hesitant to ask the workers to participate in their project. But, “they said, ‘No, actually, art has nothing to do with our strike.’” Not only were the workers game to participate, there is little chance they could have participated had they not been on strike.

“We were lucky, ’cause they were all free to help us because they didn’t have to work,” explains JR. Varda and JR chose to paste their enlarged photographs onto immense shipping containers that the workers voluntarily stacked like LEGO blocks.

The men’s enthusiasm also allowed the filmmakers to gratify their feminist impulses. Those familiar with Varda will know to associate her with feminism: Not only is she the only woman commonly named among the French New Wave directors of the late ’50s and ’60s (directors who also include her late husband Demy, as well as François Truffaut, Alain Resnais and the mysterious Jean-Luc Godard), she has agitated for abortion rights and written several “difficult” female characters, most notably Mona of Vagabond. But viewers unfamiliar with JR might be interested (albeit unsurprised, given his rapport with Varda and the grandmother who makes a cameo in the movie) to know his first film was a documentary titled Women Are Heroes.

So both were excited to invite three of the workers’ wives to the dock. It was the first time these women had ever visited the place where their husbands work. And it was photographs of them, not of their men, that Varda and JR chose to enlarge and paste onto the towering shipping containers. These women survey the dock like benevolent giantesses. Their husbands “were surprised to be themselves touched” by the spectacle, Varda recalls. “So we were impressed that maybe it changed…their perception of life.” She speculates that seeing their women on a heroic scale made the dockworkers reconsider certain gender stereotypes. “Because we work with images. And images are not innocent.” Here, it was JR and Varda, not advertisers concerned with a bottom line, who could control what the images of women meant.

What they could not control was the reaction of everyone to whom they reached out. At the end of the film, they drop in to see Godard. Things, however, do not go according to plan. To this day, Varda has not spoken with the filmmaker. Although she sent him a DVD of Faces Places, she has received no reply.

“I really admire his work,” she says. “And I won’t change my mind about, as a filmmaker, how important he has been. As a friend, he was an important friend, but this was in the sixties, and people have the right to change, to have other friends, or to forget.”

Equally important to the film’s conclusion is JR’s trademark sunglasses. Although his refusal to remove his shades irks Varda throughout the film, they serve a pragmatic purpose in real life. Many of the public street-art projects that have taken him from Russian embassies throughout Europe to the border wall separating the United States and Mexico are illegal. In order to preserve his anonymity, JR will neither be photographed nor filmed without his sunglasses. It was, in fact, in consideration of this point that Varda first asked me upon sitting down and seeing a recording device on the table: “Are you filming?”

But while discussing the finale to Faces Places, Varda grew distracted. Also on the table was a stack of promotional postcards. The image from the film’s poster appeared on the front of each postcard, while on the back there was a synopsis and a few shortened reviews. One review irritated Varda so much that she interrupted herself mid-sentence to demand, “Who gives stars? Who is it?”

The five stars and accompanying phrase—“Exquisite”—were from The Guardian, I told her.

“But they only gave it to me,” teased JR. “There’s a little asterisk that says, ‘Stars only to JR.’”

Varda ignored him. “Why is it ‘exquisite’? This is not ‘exquisite.’ That’s a ridiculous name.”

JR: “She’s complaining about everything.”

AV: “Yes, this is not a good quote.”

JR: “That’s a very French thing to do.”

AV: “This is not an exquisite film.”

How would you describe it? I asked.

“Well, I would say, warm, helping you get new friends,” she replied. “I don’t know, something about people.”

“We had luck all along the way, actually,” JR said. Even “what you would call maybe ‘not luck’ at the end of the film was incredible luck.” He tapped Varda’s hands with the edges of several postcards. She shooed him off. He grinned. “I think the biggest luck is that we got to meet, finally.”

‘First They Killed My Father’ Review

This post originally appeared on filmjournal.com

Filmed from the point of view of its child protagonist, and adapted from the memoir of the same name by Loung Ung, First They Killed My Father is an impressionistic, episodic and at times merciless account of the genocide that devastated Cambodia from 1975 to 1979.

When the film begins, Loung (the excellent Sareum Srey Moch) is five years old and living with her family in comfortable bourgeois style. They’re city folk, as is everyone else whom Loung watches cheer on the parade that sweeps down their street in celebration of the American evacuation from Cambodia, and the ascension of new Communist leadership. But soon enough, and in one of the more effective sequences of the film, excitement quickly devolves into terror as soldiers overtake the revelers. The shift in tone is seamless. Cheers give way to stern military orders delivered through megaphones that instruct the people to pack their belongings and evacuate to the countryside, ostensibly for their own safety, as, so they’re told, the Americans are planning to bomb the city. You can return in three days, the soldiers tell the evacuees. One doesn’t need to be familiar with the historical record to understand the lie.

And so begins Loung’s journey through what has become the despot Pol Pot’s “Kampuchea” (his new name for the country), a brutal and brutish place where people are forced to live as “equals” in a bizarre interpretation of an agrarian utopia. When asked to give his occupation, Loung’s father lies and says he is a humble worker, knowing full well that if he were to reveal his well-to-do background, he would be shot and killed, the fate of innumerable victims among the former middle class. The family is forced to denounce their “selfish” ways and relinquish their belongings to the Angkar, or Khmer Rouge leadership. They dye their clothes a dull bluish grey so they can look like everyone else in an act of renunciation against “Western vanity.”

In this atmosphere, Loung ages, until we leave her at nine years old. First They Killed My Father is filmed according to what she sees and notices, the camera spending nearly as much time on her face in its state of reflection as on the images she contemplates. These images of violence are unstinting, but it is the ceaseless succession of atrocities, one scene after another after another, that at times gives the film an air of mercilessness. This isn’t to suggest it’s a uniform slog without air or light; in fact, and as if to compensate for rather than simply counterbalance its darker moments, the film includes a streak of sentimentality that can be nearly saccharine. This is most evident in Loung’s dreams and flashbacks. Sareum Srey Moch has an intelligent enough face that her emotions are much more movingly and subtly conveyed when the camera simply remains on her features.

But those unyielding scenes in the present action are harrowing, some deeply affecting, unavoidably affecting, particularly toward the latter half of the film. They are also episodic. That the movie is an adaptation of a book is apparent in the sheer number of incidents that it packs into two hours and 16 minutes. On the one hand, many of these incidents—which see Loung migrate from an agrarian camp to a child workers’ camp to a military training camp and beyond—move along quickly in themselves. But there are so many of them in total, in a film whose impressionistic style has already subordinated traditional narrative to sensations, that, as a whole, First They Killed My Father ends up seeming overlong. There is a comprehensible character arc for Loung, but the ascent of this line is so gradual, it feels almost level. In other words, problems of structure—a story heavy not so much with subject matter (although of course that is there, too) as with incident—appear to detract most from First They Killed My Father’s great ambitions, and its moving renderings.

Writer, director and producer (and mother of one of the executive producers, the Cambodian Maddox Jolie-Pitt) Angelina Jolie first met the real Loung Ung when she was a twenty-something shooting Tomb Raider in Cambodia. She bought a paperback copy of First They Killed My Father, and was moved to learn more. Though her adaptation of the memoir may be uneven, its earnest depiction of the Cambodian genocide will likely move sensitive viewers to similar acts of self-education.

‘Fallen’ Review

This post originally appeared on filmjournal.com

Adapted from the bestselling young-adult novel by Lauren Kate, Fallen has a promisingly melodramatic premise. A reformatory school for teens plays home to a number of angels in adolescent guise who have been banished from Heaven (the titular “fallen”). Some of these students are good angels, with shiny blond hair, who are aligned with the forces of God (see: Gabbe, short for Gabrielle), and some of them are bad angels, covered in heavy Goth makeup, who have solemnly sworn to be up to no good in the name of Lucifer. As we learn from the new, primly British schoolteacher (Joely Richardson), during the war in Heaven which resulted in the banishment of the fallen, one angel not only refused to take sides, he did so in order to pursue his love for a human girl.

Into this steamy hotbed of theology and romance, then, enters pretty, soft-spoken and, we are told, intelligent Lucinda, or “Luce” (Addison Timlin). Luce has a troubled past that includes arson and murky visions of dark, roiling clouds she calls her “shadows.” Luce is inexplicably but inexorably drawn to Daniel (Jeremy Irvine), he of the blond-haired good-guys gang, although Daniel, for all the tortured looks he casts her way, does his darnedest to avoid her, at least at first…

There’s much more to the high-concept story besides, including a curse and something to do with baptism that makes much more sense after you’ve read the Wikipedia synopsis of the novel on which the film is based. As is often the case with stories that take place in fantastical worlds whose rules need first to be established before their stakes can be understood, the graceful incorporation of exposition poses a problem. Fallen tackles the difficulty straightaway with an animated opening sequence that uses Richardson’s voiceover to explain the background information recounted above. This opener is dark and broody and kind of cool in its own grandly self-serious way. But several other important details, including that point about baptism and the related way in which the lovers’ curse is working (or not) in the present action, are left vague.

It is, however, entirely possible the filmmakers are waiting in optimistic expectation of a sequel. Fallen the novel is, after all, the first in a quartet. But if this is the case, it is emblematic of one of two problems that prevent Fallen the movie from realizing the promise of its epically scaled concept. That is, the film is so obviously structured to lead into a sequel it feels more like a pilot episode than a discrete work in its own right. Just as we’re gearing up for a climactic battle, just as all the angst and love triangulations are about to pay off, the film abruptly ends. And it isn’t as if we’ve run out of time: Fallen clocks in at 91 minutes. Instead, it’s as if the entire third act has been lopped off in the hopes that viewers will be so agitated they will chase after it all the way into next year or the year after that, or whenever it is the filmmakers release (if they do) a follow-up. If you’re Harry Potter, Twilight or even “Game of Thrones,” maybe you can get away with such emotional teasing. But without a history of success to justify the move, it feels cynical.

Even more troublesome is the way in which Fallen violates one of the cardinal rules of screenwriting: It features a passive protagonist to whom many more things happen than she herself makes happen. Attractive boys with contrasting hair colors fight over Luce, but why, beyond the fact that she is stunning, is not made clear, either through what she says or what she does. We are told Luce is very smart, but we see her hatch no clever schemes and earn no outstanding marks. Perhaps beauty is all she needs to be the center of this story, but that’s so depressingly retrograde one feels the need to re-watch Beauty and the Beast to counterbalance the effect.

The brightest spark in the film is not Luce with all her fire, but her non-angelic best friend, Pennyweather, or “Penn,” played by Jemima Kirke’s younger sister, Lola. In a film as moody as its tonal antecedent, Twilight, but without Twilight’s great soundtrack, Kirke enlivens every scene she’s in. Her character is not only comically hyper-verbal—allowing Kirke to show off impressive breath control—but refreshingly warm. We hear her say clever things and attempt to problem-solve because she feels moved to do something. If she had been the story’s axis, or if some of her characteristics had been given to Luce, Fallen might have benefited from the elevation.

‘The Layover’ Review

This post originally appeared on filmjournal.com

The director of The Layover, William H. Macy, is a very talented actor, and the film’s writers, David Hornsby and Lance Krall, have previously written for “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” which is a very funny show. Because The Layover also includes appearances by Kal Penn and the wonderfully bonkers Molly Shannon, it might seem primed to deliver the laughs, or at least breezily pass the time. But this isn’t the case. The gags aren’t quite silly enough to make you grin, quite vulgar enough to make you groan in appreciation (a la the recent Girls Trip), or clever enough to make you laugh outright. It’s a middling interpretation of familiar material. In all, The Layover is a trip better avoided.

Very little in the lives of hot Meg (the model Kate Upton) and overanxious Kate (Alexandra Daddario) is going right. Meg’s line of skincare products isn’t selling, and the principal at the school where Kate teaches English has just suggested she rethink her career: Her hair always looks great; maybe hairdressing is her calling? So Meg, the more impulsive of the two, gets drunk and books them on a beach vacation. Once onboard their flight, Kate gets the window seat, Meg snags the aisle, and, lo and behold, between them in the forsaken middle seat there appears a man just as gorgeous as, if not more so than, the two ladies who will spend the next several days competing for his attention. When their plane is grounded in St. Louis due to an impending storm, Meg and Kate battle for the prize of well-coiffed Ryan (Matt Barr) in earnest. People are drugged, panic attacks are had, poo is stepped in, hair is pulled, and we do not see nearly enough of Molly Shannon before we arrive at the crux of what appears to be this summer’s morality lesson, according to its female comedies: To reaffirm your friendships, treat your girlfriends as appallingly as they treat you.

The film has the low-budget look of many—although, to be fair to the creators on that site, not all—YouTube videos. More importantly, its writing takes little advantage of the mundane settings and petty revenge ploys to mine original comedy. Comedic scenes like a diving contest gone anticlimactically awry at a hotel pool or a prolonged trip to the festering bathroom of a gas station only emphasize the mundanity and pettiness, because nothing is either piquantly observed or refreshed by pure silliness. A familiar premise, setting, or even characters, are not problems in themselves. What becomes problematic is a failure to find in well-known types and situations—the odd-couple protagonists or the love-triangle story—something novel or unexpected, to say nothing of funny.

Matt Jones (or Badger from “Breaking Bad”) makes for a convincing good guy, and though frequently called upon to act like a shrew or a simp, Daddario has comedic chops. But like the inconvenience after which it’s named, The Layover will have you wondering when you can be up and moving again. Happily, at 88 minutes, it’s a brief stop.

‘Leap!’ Review

This post originally appeared on filmjournal.com

From chase scenes that would make a young Indiana Jones pant, to a dance-off sure to convince many an impressionable viewer that ballet is now his or her passion, too (at least until the practice kicks in), the animation in Leap! is great fun. Its story, about an orphan girl who tries to pursue her dreams in Paris, is familiar feel-good fare. If Leap! is not as clever as many of the Pixar films—the inevitable benchmark against which animated movies must be measured these days—and if its sunniness might dim its appeal for some discerning older viewers, the film is lively enough, and its visuals engaging enough, to entertain its young audience.

Felicie (the voice of Elle Fanning) is a spirited, motor-mouthed orphan living in an incongruously beautiful orphanage whose castle-like façade belies the drudgery of dish washing that occurs within. At her side among the mountains of dirty cutlery is awkward, scruffy Victor (the perfectly matched voice of Nat Wolff), a wannabe inventor and not-so-secret admirer of Felicie’s. The two friends escape to Paris, where Victor promptly suffers from a mild bout of clumsiness that leaves them separated for a night. On her own, Felicie finds her way to the city opera house, where she decides she wants to dance just like the prima ballerina she sees practicing. In short order she’s taken for a thief, then rescued by a mysteriously melancholy “cleaner” with a limp, Odette (the voice of singer Carly Rae Jepsen). Luck and some duplicitousness soon help Felicie enroll in a ballet class at the opera. But, while Odette trains her, Felicie must contend with the machinations of a sinister stage mom (the voice of Kate McKinnon) and her own immaturity before she can realize her dream.

Although a character name like “Odette” in a tale about ballerinas might lead to some speculation about the story’s origins, Leap! is an original idea from French producers and writers Laurent Zeitoun (The Intouchables) and Eric Summer (Carol Noble also worked on the screenplay). Its exhortation to “follow your dreams” at all costs is a staple of children’s-movie morality, but Leap!—taking its cues from movies like The Karate Kid and Rocky, according to its producers—also champions the importance of hard work. Felicie even briefly suffers for believing her “uniqueness” alone will see her through (though the lies she tells to obtain what she wants go largely unpunished, the rather suspect excuse seeming to be that her dissembling only hurt those who were nasty anyway).

But even when dangers lurk or disappointments dishearten, the sun never fully sets on Felicie’s world. Leap! is bright and buoyant, with an appropriately Carly Rae Jepsen-sounding soundtrack and comedy that works better in the visuals than in the writing. If it isn’t destined for the pantheon of children’s classics, its shortcomings might be the result of a strength that is also its weakness: that sunniness, which never convincingly, and therefore movingly, dims. The animation is charming and the climax rousing, but some older members of the audience might feel a pang of longing for the terrors of Jim Henson or early Tim Burton or, more relevantly, for the pathos of Up. Leap! is sparkly; it’s just not quite luminous.