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Films I Neglected To Revie: Two Popes, No Waiting
by Peter Sobczynski

Please enjoy short reviews of "Daniel Isn't Real," "I See You," "The Two Popes" and "Varda by Agnes."

As "Daniel Isn't Real" opens, young Luke (Griffin Robert Faulkner) wanders out of his house and stumbles upon the aftermath of a mass shooting and while staring at the bullet-riddled body of the perpetrator, another kid pops up and asks if he wants to play. As you can surmise from the title, Daniel is imaginary and becomes Luke's sidekick until the day when he convinces Luke to attempt to kill his unstable mother (Mary Stuart Masterson). Mom survives and Daniel is banished, seemingly forever, inside an old dollhouse. Years pass and when we see Daniel (now played by Miles Robbins) next, he is an awkward college freshman trying to deal with both his mother's deteriorating psyche and his own mental health issues. When it all becomes too much, he releases Daniel (now played by Patrick Schwarzenegger) from his prison and he begins helping Luke make over his life--encouraging his dream of being a photographer and helping him win over fellow artist Cassie (Sasha Lane). It is all great for a while but Daniel's "help" takes on an increasingly malevolent edge and Luke finds it increasingly hard to shed him, especially when Daniel begins to literally possess Luke whenever he wants.

The film is based on a 2009 novel by Brian DeLeeuw, who co-wrote the screenplay with director Adam Egypt Mortimer, but one could make a list of all the films that have clearly influenced it, ranging from obvious titles like "Donnie Darko" and "Fight Club" to the justifiably obscure "Drop Dead Fred." The first half of the film is actually not that bad--Mortimer sets up the concept in a quick and concise manner and the first scenes of the now-grown Luke reuniting with Daniel are well-done, especially in the scenes involving another student (Hannah Marks) who inspires some particularly malevolent thoughts from Daniel that he uses Luke to put into motion. The trouble is that at about the halfway point, the story takes a bizarre shift that moves the narrative away from a metaphor about mental instability to Luke literally battling a form of possession, turning what had been a potentially interesting story about dealing with inner demons into a much sillier one about dealing with literal demons with plenty of gore and Cronenberg-style body horror effects thrown in for good measure. "Daniel Isn't Real" has plenty of ambition and there are little pleasures here and there (it is always nice to see Mary Stuart Masterson turn up, even if the role deserves more screen time than it gets) but much like its central character, it never quite manages to connect in a satisfying manner.

One of the great joys of being a genre movie fan is coming across some largely unheralded and unpromising-looking film and discovering to equal parts shock and surprise that it is about 19 times better than any sensible person might have expected it to be. The offbeat new thriller "I See You" may not be quite that good but it is certainly a far more interesting film than I suspected it might be when I sat down to watch it. Set in a seemingly idyllic small town that was rocked a few years earlier by a series of child abductions and murders, the film opens with another young boy who is seemingly snatched into the air while riding his bike in the woods. While investigating the scene, detective Greg Harper (Jon Tenney) finds a clue that suggest that either a copycat has arrived or the real killer was never caught. For Harper, life is hardly less stressful off-duty thanks to the recent revelation that his wife, Jackie (Helen Hunt), has been having an affair, a discovery that has alienated their teenage son Connor (Judah Lewis) against her. If that wasn't enough, weird things have been happening in the Harper home--silverware and coffee mugs mysteriously disappear, the TV and stereo keeping turning on seemingly by themselves and a repairman mentions being let in by a daughter that they donít have. Is there some kind of otherworldly presence inside the house and does it have anything to do with the latest abduction? What happens from this point, I leave for you to discover except to say that this is where the narrative makes a radical shift that imposes an unexpected new perspective on the events we have just witnessed.

Unfortunately for "I See You," it comes into theaters a couple of months after another film--to name it would be a makjor spoiler--employed a somewhat similar twist, no doubt blunting its impact for some viewers to at least some extent. However, this quirk of fate does not really damage the film as a whole because it is not one that relies only on the shock value of its twists to entertain. Instead, screenwriter Devon Graye has created a smartly written storyline that plays with the tropes of a number of familiar genres in interesting ways that keep viewers guessing while mostly playing fair with them and director Adam Randall presents it in a stylish and occasionally creepy manner that is all the more impressive when you consider how radically its formal approach changes at the halfway point. Granted, there are times when the rehashes of plot points in the second half are a little overdone and the explanations in the final scenes are inevitably less interesting than the more mysterious feel of the early going. Nevertheless, "I See You" is a nifty genre exercise that is almost certain to get lost in the holiday movie scrum but which deserves to be put on your radar as one to keep an eye out for.

Despite what is suggested by the title, "The Two Popes" is not an ecclesiastical version of "Gemini Man" (though I confess that now that I have written those words, there is nothing that I want to see more). As the film, inspired by real events, opens in 2012, Argentinian Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce) , increasingly frustrated by the direction of the Catholic Church, has petitioned the Vatican for permission to retire numerous times without receiving a response until he is unexpectedly summoned to meet with Pope Benedict (Anthony Hopkins) himself. When he arrives to make his case, Benedict, who beat him for the papacy following the death of John Paul II a few years earlier, informs him that he has been summoned for a different reason--following a rocky few years of scandals, Benedict is planning to retire himself (an act virtually unheard of for a pope) and wants to get a sense of where his likely successor is coming from. Over the course of several days, the two debate their various approaches (Benedict is a strict traditionalist while Bergoglio is quite open-minded by Catholic standards) and attempt to come to terms with the darkness in their respective pasts before going forward with such a momentous change in the history of the Church.

In theory, this might strike some people as pretty heavy going but perhaps the most surprising thing about "The Two Popes" is how tonally light it is for the most part when it sticks to the title characters going at in ways that almost make you want to retitle it "The Sunshine Papists." For a while, this is entertaining enough, largely due to the pleasure of watching actors of the caliber of Hopkins and Pryce playing off of each other. However, the film is so busy trying to brush up Bergoglio's benevolent bonafides and indulging in cutesiness between the two (including banter about "Abbey Road" and Bergoglio trying to teach the stiffer Benedict how to tango) that when it comes time to get to the darker material, such as detailed talk about the various scandals under Benedict's watch or the bleak moments of Bergoglio's past that still haunt him, director Fernando Meirelles cannot find a way to properly handle them, a fumble that will no doubt enrage those looking for a more serious inquiry of the recent history of the Catholic Church. Because of the performances from the two leads "The Two Popes" is not completely devoid of interest but if one were to ultimately give it a pass, there are few who would consider that to be a sin.

The world of film suffered any number of tremendous losses this year but few were as painful as the passing of Agnes Varda, the legendary filmmaker who first made a name for herself as one of the key figures of the Nouvelle Vague, went on to become an institution in the annals of French cinema and in recent years reinvented herself as the creator of a series of sly and inventive documentaries while accepting multiple tributes for her creative legacy throughout the world. Cushioning the blow slightly is the fact that she had completed one final film before her passing, "Varda by Agnes." As you can surmise, the film is essentially a career overview that is based upon a series of talks that she delivered around the world at theaters and museums regarding her life and work, at times joined by some of her key past collaborators. For those who are relative newcomers to her filmography, which includes such greats as "Cleo from 5 to 7," "Le Bonheur" and "Vagabond," the film will no doubt serve as a strong and informative introduction to her work. However, her more devoted fans--the very people most likely to flock to see this--may find a lot of it to be on the overly familiar side with precious few new insights into her legacy. (One of the best of these finds her talking excitedly about working with Robert De Niro for one day on what would prove to be her last narrative feature.) That said, the relative lack of fresh material is more than offset by the presence of Varda herself, who had that ability to make a story seem fresh no matter how many times she has recounted it in the past (and to judge from the number of different lectures the footage was evidently culled from, she told them a lot). I can't say I really learned much of anything from "Varda by Agnes" that I didnít already know going in but I was still entertained by it. It may ultimately be an exercise in mild self-indulgence--one that may get a higher profile than intended because of an accident of fate--but if ever there was a filmmaker who deserved to put a final cap on their career entirely on their own terms, it was Varda.

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originally posted: 12/07/19 02:30:25
last updated: 12/07/19 02:43:56
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