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Films I Neglected To Review: Bad Moms, Worse Mothers
by Peter Sobczynski

Please enjoy short reviews of "A Bad Moms Christmas," "LBJ," "Novitiate" and "Princess Cyd."

Combining all the profound artistic intent of a cash-grab sequel that was quickly launched into production after the original film proved to be a success at the box-office with all the wit and whimsy of a Christmas-themed film whose holiday-related content is there only to hopefully ensure that it will eventually go into heavy rotation every December on some lesser cable channel, ''A Bad Moms Christmas'' stakes its claim against some heavy competition as both one of the year's least funny comedies as well as one of its most utterly unnecessary sequels. This time around, the perennially under-appreciated moms--harried Amy (Mila Kunis), flighty Kiki (Kristen Bell) and slatternly Carla (Kathryn Hahn)--have to face the already stressful holiday season in the presence of their own mothers--the rich and domineering Ruth (Christine Baranski), the ultra-clingy Sandy (Cheryl Hines) and the trashy Isis (Susan Sarandon), respectively. All of these actresses are talented and funny and it is therefore astounding to see just how little use the film has for their abilities. Granted, the first film was hardly a comedy classic but at least it had a concept that made sense and clearly worked on some level for a lot of viewers. This one just merely repeats the more memorable bits from the first one (instead of a drunken romp through a supermarket, they go wild in a crowded shopping mall) with moments of unconvincing sentiment jammed in amidst the ''outrageous'' humor that fails to inspire even the mildest of smiles. The film itself is staggeringly lazy to the extent that it cannot even maintain its own premise from scene to scene--Baranski's character changes so abruptly from scene to scene that it is as if either she or the screenplay are off their meds--and even those who liked the first one are liable to be shocked by how puerile things get this time around. (There is a scene in which Hahn's character waxes the genitalia of a hunky male stripper she is sweet on that goes on for so long with so little payoff that watching it feels like a ''Clockwork Orange''-style torture. That said, ''A Bad Moms Christmas'' does accomplish one thing that I never dreamed to be possible--it is so wretched that it comes frighteningly close to making the prospect of “Daddy’s Home 2” seem borderline palatable by comparison.

Having spent the last decade or so failing in the wilderness with one misbegotten project after another, Rob Reiner once again swings for the fences with the Oscar bait biopic ''LBJ'' but while he once again goes down swinging, this look at the life and work of Lyndon Johnson does connect once or twice. When it does, it is almost entirely due to the efforts of Woody Harrelson in the title role, who overcomes standout recreations of the controversial 37th American president and a supremely shoddy makeup job that makes him look like one of the residents of the haunted building in ''The Sentinel,'' to offer up a reasonably convincing take, especially when he gets to show Johnson's saltier side. The trouble, however, is that Reiner and screenwriter Joey Hartstone, despite limiting the focus of the narrative from Johnson’s unsuccessful run for the presidential nomination against John F. Kennedy to his efforts to push through the landmark civil rights legislation that he was working on as vice-president when JFK was assassinated, the narrative still feels too light and too rushed (especially with it clocking in at around a mere 90 minutes) with most of the more intriguing material (such as the darker areas of JFK's life and the progression of events in Vietnam) either ignored altogether or relegated to the large array of title cards displayed before the running of the end credits. Love him or hate him, Johnson was a complex man and his evolution as a politician effectively mirrored the evolution of the American political scene during the 20th century but to go by this film, all of his maneuvers and machinations were borne out of a simple desire to be loved, a conclusion that has somehow managed to elude Robert Caro so far in his massive, multi-volume biography of the man. In the end, all that ''LBJ'' does is simply whet the appetite for an expansive cinematic treatment of the man and his legacy. Hell, I wouldn’t even mind seeing Harrelson return to the role either, provided that he gets a better screenplay, director and makeup team to join him.

Set in 1964, the new drama ''Novitiate'' begins as the teenaged Cathleen (Margaret Qualley), who has found the kind of solace and stability in Catholicism that has been lacking in her home life, decides to become a nun herself. Under the gaze of the extremely rigid Mother Superior (Melissa Leo), who makes those aspiring to the sisterhood undergo a regime that includes self-flagellation, public shaming and the threat of being kicked out for the most seemingly minor of transgressions, Cathleen and her peers try to prove to themselves and to God that they are worthy of his love. What they don't realize, however, is that this is the time of the Vatican II reforms that were put into place to eradicate such extreme practices and to bring the church and its teachings into the modern era--changes that the Mother Superior has elected to keep from them in order to continue doing things the old ways for as long as she can. This description may make the film seem like a piece of nunsploitation but it is actually a fascinating exploration of the topics of sacrifice and religious devotion that at times suggests a more contemporary companion piece to Martin Scorsese's thematically similar ''Silence.'' Instead of focusing on more salacious matters (though the love that dare not speak its name does come up, it is handled with grace and subtlety), writer-director Margaret Betts is more concerned with spiritual matters and the upheaval that is challenging both the church and those who have chosen to dedicate their lives to it. Most fascinating is the way that she handles the character of the Mother Superior--although she may come across as a sadistic autocrat lording her power over the powerless for most of the running time, Betts also takes pains to show her as a woman reeling from her own personal upheaval thanks to the new decrees, which may have updated the church and its teachings but which also instantly cast aside everything that she had devoted her life to following while yanking away virtually all the power that nuns held within the Catholic church. By the end of the film, you may still hate her but you will be able to at least begin to understand where she is coming from without reducing the horror of her actions. ''Novitiate'' may be a tough sell for most audiences, especially those of the non-Catholic persuasion, and tough to watch for those who do turn up. However, thanks to the thoughtful screenplay and direction and the strong performances from Qualley, Leo and the rest of the cast, it is a film worth seeking out and exploring regardless of one’s specific spiritual beliefs.

Having made one of the more effective coming-of-age films of recent year's with his previous effort, ''Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party,'' Chicago-based indie filmmaker Stephen Cone does it again with the lovely and lyrical ''Princess Cyd.'' As it opens, 16-year-old Cyd (Jessie Pinnick)--who has already seen more than her fair share of tragedy in her young life--arrives in Chicago from her South Carolina home to spend a few weeks over the summer with her Aunt Miranda (Rebecca Spence), a well-regarded novelist who is not exactly a recluse but who prefers to keep a certain distance between herself and the world. Not surprisingly, the two are quite dissimilar in regards to many things (such as Cyd's general disinterest in books) but during their time together, they end up inspiring each other to make moves outside of their respective comfort zones--in Cyd;s case, this leads to the possibility of romance with the slightly older lesbian barista Katie (Malic White). In the hands of a less nuanced filmmaker, this might have resulted in an overly melodramatic work but Cone instead elects to approach the material in a refreshingly low-key manner that eschews big dramatic bits for quieter and more character-driven moments that are far trickier to pull off, especially to the degree that he has here. Pinnick and White are enormously winning as the young couple while Spence is also very good as Miranda, whose character is a refreshing change from the way that adults usually comes across in films of this sort. There may be a couple of moments here and there that don’t quite work (one of the characters suffers a sexual assault and while it is rendered off-screen and as tastefully as possible, it doesn’t really add up to anything other than an overt plot point in a narrative that otherwise has no use for such things) but for the most part, ''Princess Cyd'' is a coming-of-age tale for audiences both young and old to treasure.

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originally posted: 11/04/17 02:42:57
last updated: 11/04/17 03:20:04
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