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The Films of 2016, in 100 Words or Less: Part VII

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I decided to break the final batch of capsule reviews into two: this contains all the remaining films which I ranked *** or less; the final batch, which you’ll get in the next day or two, will contain all the ***½ and **** films. This list, however, does contain two Best Picture nominees and three films nominated in other categories.

Please also note that these reviews may contain spoilers for the films in question.

  • Yoga Hosers – 30 (*½)

Whatever Kevin Smith thought he was doing for his daughter Harley Quinn by making this, he’d have done better to leave well enough alone. Tusk worked reasonably well because it grounded its quirks in a solid horror premise. Here, there’s no grounding, just quirkiness, and very low-grade quirkiness at that. Stupid jokes about Canada and bad Canadian accents abound, the plot is an utter inanity, and Harley Quinn is practically ogled by her father’s camera. That said, she and Lily-Rose Depp make a likable team, and might do better with better material…which wouldn’t be hard to find.

  • Mr. Church – 43 (**)

“Based on a true friendship”, the credits boast, but not all true stories deserve their own film. And it doesn’t help that the story is told from the vantage of Charlie (Britt Robertson; Natalie Coughlin as a child), who starts off intensely dislikable and matures only into total blandness. That leaves Mr. Church as rather a cipher, though Eddie Murphy does his best to bring human dimension to an almost perversely underwritten character. That director Bruce Beresford once made films like Breaker Morant and Tender Mercies is hardly reflected in the cheap, anonymous filmmaking on display here.

  • Live by Night – 52 (**)

What a bloody drag. Argo was no masterpiece, but it had a tension and urgency totally absent here. The story, covering years in the life of a Boston hood (writer-director Ben Affleck, hardly firing on all cylinders) who becomes a rum-runner in Florida, is pretty generic crime-saga stuff, and it proceeds at a snail’s pace, unleavened by compelling characters or clear stakes. The physical production is handsome, and a subplot with Elle Fanning as a would-be starlet turned evangelist would make a compelling film on its own, but as a whole it’s best forgotten (and will be).

  • Passengers – 55 (**½)

Having our supposed hero (Chris Pratt) be a duplicitous creep would be less of an issue if the film explored the dramatic potential of his actions and how the heroine (Jennifer Lawrence) comes to terms with them. Instead, it contrives to excuse his choices at length so as to bring them back together in time for a “happy” ending, which it does…in one of the most jaw-dropping conclusions to any modern blockbuster. The draggy pace and iffy performances (Pratt is miscast; Lawrence is actively bad) only compound its faults, though the Oscar-nominated sets are genuinely impressive.

  • Captain Fantastic – 64 (**½)

Viggo Mortensen managed to sneak into the Best Actor race for this indie comedy-drama released over the summer – no mean feat in of itself. That his performance is solid but not really awards-worthy doesn’t take too much away from the accomplishment. The bigger problem is the film itself, which borders on being an anti-establishment screed; in 1968, it might have been timely, but now, unless you’re firmly in Ben Cash’s camp, it’s all pretty hard to swallow. One-dimensional protagonists, straw-man antagonists, and a final act which grows more absurd by the minute (there’s actual grave-robbing!) undermine what virtues it has.

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I didn’t especially care for the film, but I really do like this poster.

  • The Founder – 69 (***)

There’s a reason this biopic of McDonald’s tycoon Ray Kroc (Michael Keaton) was buried in January and didn’t come close to earning Keaton an Oscar, much less a nomination: it’s not a particularly good film. John Lee Hancock’s flat direction, the unremarkable script, and the vaguely undernourished production all leach the story of its inherent drama, and the performances aren’t really enough to make it better than average. Keaton is solid (though not even in my top 20 for Best Actor), as are Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch as the unfortunate McDonald brothers, but they’ve all done better work elsewhere.

  • La La Land – 71 (***)

La La Land saddens me. The critics love it, audiences love it, and the Academy will probably love it just as much. And I wish I could share in that love. But it’s a severely flawed film, from the problematic script (undercooked characters, contrived situations) to the uneven score (the music is good, but the lyrics are mediocre at best). Stone and Gosling are a charming pair even when their characters aren’t, it looks great, and it was clearly made with ample love and energy. But John Legend speaks the most profound truth in it…and he goes unheeded.

  • Toni Erdmann – 72 (***)

Maren Ade’s epic-length German comedy (or not, according to at least one of the leads) has moments that work wonderfully; the sly pranks played by Winfried (Peter Simonischek, good) while he masquerades as the title figure, or the “naked party” thrown by his workaholic daughter Ines (Sandra Hüller, very good) when she runs out of fucks to give. But the characters and story are too thin and the “enjoy life while you can” ethos is too pat to support the bloated length, too much of which is taken up with dead air. Most have been more forgiving.

  • Hidden Figures – 73 (***)

Maybe I was tired when I saw it, but looking at the awards and the healthy box-office, I have to wonder what I’m missing. The acting is good (Octavia Spencer and Kevin Costner especially), but not so brilliant as to justify the SAG ensemble award. The script tends to be on-the-nose, especially regarding the antagonists – Jim Parsons is too obnoxiously cloddish to be a believable NASA scientist – while a certain lack of narrative drive causes it to drag rather badly at times. But for depicting neglected American heroines, and for its polished production, it does merit admiration.

  • Little Sister – 75 (***)

An odd little film I almost didn’t see; a novice nun and former goth (Addison Timlin) visits her off-kilter family, in particular trying to draw her war-scarred brother (Keith Poulson) out of his shell. It’s the heart on display that really makes it work; the protagonist’s religious devotion is never mocked or doubted, nor is the love the members of the family have for one another, however problematic their behavior. That GWAR and pot brownies feature into the mix without cheapening it is impressive. Good performances, effective makeup, and a nice little score make it worth discovering (it’s on Netflix).

  • 20th Century Women – 76 (***)

Mike Mills succumbs here to a kind of nostalgia all too common among filmmakers, treating the period of his own youth as the pinnacle of modern culture. His (Oscar-nominated) script falters in other ways as well; his characters and their relationships often feel contrived (particularly the Jamie-Julie bond) and inconsistent (especially Dorothea), while touches like the overuse of stock footage or the unnecessary flash-forwards merely push it into overlength. But for all that, it has very good performances, fine period detail, and a lot of humor and truth about matters both timely and timeless. As such, it just misses ***½.

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