Monday, January 2, 2017

The Worst Films of 2016

Here, in chronological order, are some of the titles that made 2016 appreciably worse than recent years at the movies:

The Benefactor” was awful even by January standards, with a Richard Gere performance (as a philanthropist named “Franny”) hammy enough for five bad movies. He’s creepily generous to “Poodles” (Dakota Fanning), the daughter of his best friend, who was killed in a car crash he survived (and may have precipitated), and to her fiancé Luke (stunning Theo James). The “mystery” of his motivation is obvious from the jump; Franny’s a prescription drug addict and wants Dr. Luke to keep his supply refreshed. There is no reason for this movie to exist... A bouquet of dead roses for Colombia’s Oscar nominee “Embrace of the Serpent,” a vile and racist mosaic of mystical mumbo-jumbo about an Amazonian shaman named Karamakate who reluctantly guides two European scientists – forty years apart - in search of the medicinal yakruna plant. As he spews vitriol toward “the white man,” the set pieces become ever more disgusting: shivering fits of leishmaniasis, a delusional cult figure who takes the traveling party hostage (“Sacred plants? The only sacred thing in this jungle is me!”), and finally a priest who ties a young boy to a post and whips the shit out of him. I reached my walk-out point when Karamakate muttered something about giving him “the sun’s semen"...  I hated every minute of the assembly-line actioner "London Has Fallen," with another starchy turn by Gerard Butler as Secret Service agent Mike Banning and Aaron Eckhart as U.S. President Benjamin Asher, whom Banning must rescue after Yemeni terrorists take over London and kill multiple world leaders gathered for the funeral of the Prime Minister. Among the talented and distinctive actresses completely wasted in this depressing, dehumanized video game of a movie are Angela Bassett, Melissa Leo and Radha Mitchell. The computer-program dialogue is a travesty throughout, but Morgan Freeman gets more than his share of unintentional howlers...  Sacha Baron Cohen mines a few big laughs from the depravity of "The Brothers Grimsby" - as often as not the throwaway lines - but the thrilling comic audacity of "Borat" has by now given way to a schoolboy's undeveloped and anally fixated humor. More than once I turned away from the screen, the taste of embarrassment backing up in my mouth... Ryder (Logan Miller) is a gay Californian in his early teens. As "Take Me to the River" opens, his mother (Robin Weigert) and father (Richard Schiff) drive him to a large family reunion in Nebraska and suggest he keep his sexuality a secret. He reluctantly agrees, but can't help himself from wearing red short shorts that no corn-fed breeder would ever put on. The prepubescent girls, though, love his look, and his uncle Keith's (Josh Hamilton) youngest daughter Molly (Ursula Parker) is especially obvious about her crush. During a barbecue lunch, Ryder agrees to take Molly across the way to the barn, where they violate their promise not to climb on the bales and Ryder lets Molly climb on his shoulders - she calls it "chicken fighting." Moments later, Molly lets out a piercing squeal and runs back to the group. She is bleeding from the area of her private parts, and Keith warns Ryder and his parents menacingly to keep him away from Molly. What happened in the barn is the subject of "Take Me to the River," a film so stilted and overheated it plays like an SNL skit, with director Matt Sobel's camera closing up on the pursed-lipped Keith so tightly you half-expect to hear his thoughts in voice-over. Miller nicely captures a young adolescent's need both to shock and fit in, but Weigert's like fingernails on a blackboard, and who knows what chit Sobel cashed in to land Schiff. And talk about anticlimactic... Director Karyn Kusama - who was supposed to be the next big thing around Y2K, until "Girlfight" opened with a thud - returned with a movie that hit the 90's on Rotten Tomatoes but had us squirming in our seats so uncomfortably we walked out halfway through. It's called "The Invitation," and a scraggly-bearded Logan Marshall-Green heads the cast as Will, ex-husband of Eden (Tammy Blanchard, especially awful), who with her new husband David (Michiel Huisman) has just returned from two years in Mexico and throws a dinner party for a dozen friends old and new. The behavior of everyone at the party ranges from creepy to bizarre, and that's before Eden and David fire up a video promoting The Invitation, the cultish spiritual support group with whom they took their extended sabbatical. Its (bald, natch) leader promises a peaceful way out of the pain of life. After the video, the hosts put back on music that sounds like bad folk bent through a misshapen tuning fork. We started checking the time every five minutes, then every three minutes, then every minute, before finally bailing. When I read my friend the remaining plot scene by scene, she pronounced it the stupidest she'd ever heard... Then, there was the headache-inducing "Hardcore Henry," essentially a first-person video game experience shot on Go Pro cameras, in which the never-seen-from-the-front protagonist wakes up in a world of power-mad scientists, ruthless arms dealers, and doctors with unknown motivations. Everybody's shooting at him - and vice versa - except for a chap named Jimmy who, as played by the mystifying Sharlto Copley, is about as much fun to be around as your local crackhead. Most of the dialogue consists of monosyllabic grunts that make Maria Sharapova's seem full of meaning by comparison. Some suggested that "Hardcore Henry" might "reinvent" the action movie, but is it a movie at all? A full-length feature comprising a single, ongoing chase can work when made with wit, as in the Japanese "Non-Stop" (2000) or Tom Tykwer's "Run Lola Run" (1998). But "Henry" offers not even a semblance of plot. It's dreary to look at and painful to listen to. If this is the future, include me out... "Demolition" stars usually reliable Jake Gyllenhaal as Wall Street investment banker Davis Mitchell, who survived the auto accident that killed his young wife Julia (Heather Lind). Davis' behavior at the fund managed by Julia's prickly father (Chris Cooper) becomes increasingly erratic, while in voice-overs Gyllenhaal reads a series of implausibly long letters to the Champion Vending Company, whose machine #714 ate his $1.25 at the hospital the night of the crash without delivering Peanut M&M's. Karen Moreno (Naomi Watts), the one-woman Champion customer service department, calls Davis at two in the morning to express her sympathy, and though she's dating the owner, she starts seeing Davis too - platonically. Davis goes for an MRI and when the doctor asks where he's feeling numb, he waves his hand over his whole body and says, "This general area." Then the metaphors get even more hammer-headed (literally) as Davis begins demolishing several major items in his home. ("Other than the appliances," Karen notes, "you've got a really nice place.") When he hired a bulldozer to raze the whole multi-million dollar mansion, I couldn't join him on the journey any longer. Friends reported that after 90 minutes of general malaise, Vallée fills the last half-hour with enough plot for ten movies. Unlike the couple next to us - who spent the runtime noisily debating whether to leave - I was still glad I had... Next, two self-styled film franchises whose latest dismal offerings sounded their death knells: the late Garry Marshall’s holiday-themed romcoms (represented by “Mother’s Day”) and the so-called “Cities of Love” (“Rio, I Love You”). Cities of Love – anthologies of short films, each somehow related to love and set in the title city – kicked off in style with “Paris, je t’aime” (2007), which featured strong and memorable work by, inter alia, Gus Van Sant and Alexander Payne. Even Marshall’s 2010 “Valentine’s Day,” in which Ashton Kutcher spent an inordinate amount of time in his underwear, had its moments (those). The dialogue in “Mother’s Day,” by comparison, is so on-the-nose and devoid of nuance you don’t know whether you’re in lobotomy pre-op or post-op. “Rio, I Love You” opens with dozens of title cards listing its “sponsors,” one of which is the automaker Fiat. Guess what cars they’re driving around the favelas. Its dialogue is so generic and inscrutable you could be watching an SNL spoof of an ad for Calvin Klein’s Obsession. Only the great Margo Martindale and Indian actress Anoush Nevart jolt “Mother’s Day” into something remotely resembling real life, as the clucking mothers of a culture-clash couple. Fernanda Montenegro – an Oscar nominee for 1998’s charmer “Central Station” – does the same for “Rio” as a former schoolteacher who now lives on the streets by choice. “Rio” is the kind of movie you can walk in and out of, or lapse in and out of consciousness. In one segment, John Turturro tells Vanessa Paradis, “What is love? Love is a good thing. I don’t know how to express myself." Sure don't, buddy, and neither did anyone else in these fakakta movies... Low marks for English director Ben Wheatley’s two hour torture-thon “High-Rise,” a variant on Bong Joon-ho’s 2013 “Snowpiercer.” There, your compartment on a train perpetually circumnavigating a frozen Earth denoted your economic status; here, it's your floor in the titular condominium, designed by architect Jeremy Irons, who has the penthouse, and inhabited by his mistress (Sienna Miller), a young doctor (Tom Hiddleston), a new mother-to-be (Elizabeth Moss), and her documentarian husband (Luke Evans). This one's a mess almost from the start, gruesomely violent and satirically tone-deaf, its incoherent social comment devoid of thrust... One generally does well to eschew comedies with long, cutesy titles. Case in point: Jeremy Lalonde’s “How to Plan an Orgy in a Small Town,” 100 minutes of false starts that somehow manages to be (and it’s quite the trifecta) completely unfunny, completely unbelievable, and completely unsexy... "Central Intelligence" sorely disappoints, wasting the comic talents of Kevin Hart and Dwayne Johnson in a ridiculous and disposable plot about the handoff of secret codes that will, presumably, entitle the evildoer who acquires them to world domination. I nodded off repeatedly in this two hour movie, of which I'd watch only the last few minutes and the end-credit blooper reel on a plane... If the prospect of two hours spent listening to a computer-generated special effect and a precocious orphan girl say things like, "Bottlesnipes! It's a fuzz-wumper!" sounds like your idea of a good time, then Steven Spielberg's "The BFG" was made for you (and perhaps just for you; as I predicted, it was one of the year's biggest bombs). As for me, I fucking loathe that shit. Snozz-cumbers. Croco-diddlies. Hippo-dumplings. It's Roald Dahl by way of some hideous amalgam of Dr. Seuss, Lewis Carroll and Ned Flanders. The aforementioned orphan, Sophie (Ruby Barnhill in an effortful performance), is an insomniac who reads voraciously and, when she hears noises in the night, reminds herself never to look behind the window curtains. Except the one night when she does, and spies a ginormous arm replacing a trash bin its owner had inadvertently upended. That owner turns out to be the Big Friendly Giant (Mark Rylance), who takes Sophie in hand and runs from London north (way, way north) to Giant Country. If forced, I could cobble together five (non-continuous) minutes of this film I enjoyed, but none more so than the clever ways in which The BFG hides in plain sight whenever a human is about to spot him on this run. After dispelling Sophie's preconception that as a giant, he must eat humans (can a movie be made anymore without reference to prejudice against some group?), he admits that his nine even more giant brothers (who call him "Runt") do in fact eat people - children, specifically - and she should make herself scarce whenever they barge into his place. What goes on there has something to do with "catching dreams," which Spielberg ill-advisedly represents with amorphous blobs of multicolored gas in the jars that line BFG's laboratory shelves. The imprecision of this concept is one of several instances of material that might have worked on the page but loses any potency when depicted literally on the screen. For all the money that went into "The BFG's" CGI, I don't think the effects will hold up well. You may also notice, as the generic John Williams score pounds away during even the picture's idlest moments, that the late screenwriter Melissa Mathison added little in the way of a plot - the most important feature of any entertainment for children (the magic of her "E.T." or the best Disney animations is a natural by-product of their great stories). Spielberg seeks to rectify that lacuna in the last half-hour, with a vaguely amusing if tonally dissonant set piece in which Sophie and the BFG inject the Queen (Penelope Wilton) with a dream that awakens her to the child-menacing practices of the bad giants (who are portrayed as such dumb lugs that there's not even a good scare - which would have enriched the experience - to be had). "The BFG" is vague, not fully formed. I don't think I could expound on its themes or its message if it meant getting into heaven. I do know that its primary source of humor, flatulence, is, to borrow a line from Joan Rivers in "A Piece of Work," not my comedy. (Somehow the movie that kept coming to mind was "My Stepmother is an Alien.") I think children will find all the Gobblefunk charmless and off-putting even if they don't share my visceral antipathy. The storytelling inertia - one critic rightly called it a "hangout movie," where we're supposed to delight in the company of the characters even though not much happens - makes the runtime feel even longer than it is... Writer-director Matt Ross’ “Captain Fantastic” is utter bullshit. Every scene is bullshit. Almost every line is bullshit. It’s what a comedy writer might come up with if charged with a parody of Sundance movies (yes, it played there). There is five times too much dialogue. The quirk level is off the charts. A too-old Viggo Mortensen plays Ben, a recently widowed hippie and father of six kids (with names like Vespyr and Rellian) whom he home-schools in the forests of the Pacific Northwest out of a bus named Steve. (Hippies do not typically wait until their mid-thirties to begin procreating.) Much time is devoted to Ben’s Deep Springs-esque pedagogical approach; not a moment of it rings true. I was a smart kid and I’ve always hung around other smart kids, but the way these kids talk and behave is pure script bullshit. The seven-year-old considers War and Peace light bedtime reading. Daily exercise means climbing unassisted to a peak just short of Mt. Hood’s. Throughout, Ross scatters bumper-sticker leftist droppings such as the kids’ happily celebrating not their own birthdays but Noam Chomsky’s (are you fucking kidding me?), presumably to push the buttons of his already smack-ably smug target audience. Frank Langella is once again the disapproving father, who rightly denominates Ben’s parenting as child abuse, while Ross mistakenly assumes we’re on Ben’s side. There are multiple scenes of graphic violence to animals, as well as a bizarre exhumation that caused one friend to throw up her hands with impatience. The movie tries to end itself eight times before succeeding... I'm not a male chauvinist pig who believes women can't be funny (of which there are many). To the contrary, most of the great American movie comedies of recent years ("The Heat," "Sisters," "Spy," "Trainwreck") have featured female leads. But if I were that comedic MCP, Paul Feig's "Ghostbusters" reboot would be Exhibit A. This is a numbingly unfunny movie that induces not laughter but deep sleep, wasting the talents of two our finest comediennes in Melissa McCarthy and Kristen Wiig. The concept of "Ghostbusters" just isn't a good one. It's neither fish nor fowl, not inherently funny and not seriously scary. McCarthy and Wiig are too good not to distill a chuckle or two out of the slime, but mostly the movie's all gadgets and gizmos and cheap-looking (but not -costing) CGI. Kate McKinnon attempts to bring yee-haw edge to her character, but gets nothing out of it. As for Leslie Jones, I put her career upside at Marsha Warfield. The best idea is Chris Hemsworth as the ladies' himbo receptionist, but even that is funnier on paper than on the screen... I'm all for movies that celebrate women of a certain age, and female friendship, and not defining oneself by reference to a traditional heterosexual relationship. But there's nothing the least bit celebratory about the impossibly unfunny "Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie," which in Jennifer Saunders' Edina and Joanna Lumley's Patsy gives us two helpless hot messes for whom we can feel only sadness and pity. There is exactly one good line and one terrific sight gag. Other than that, the stars aren't funny, the supporting cast is aggressively unfunny, and the procession of fashion-celeb cameos doesn't even attempt to be funny. This is the kind of movie you watch with your mouth wide open, not believing what you're seeing or that anyone anywhere thought it could be passed off as first-run entertainment... I love that “Sausage Party” revels in its political incorrectness. We all know that the closer we are to someone, the more forthright we can be with him or her, so it stands to reason that getting past P.C. nitpicking will allow a more meaningful dialogue to take place. Unfortunately, “Sausage Party” simply isn’t funny. Not a little bit, not here and there, not at all. I slept through at least half an hour of its 89-minute runtime, a mash-up of endless food puns and witless vulgarity... Next came the Daniel Radcliffe-Toni Collette howler "Imperium," about a rookie FBI agent (Radcliffe, in another vain attempt to exorcise Harry Potter) whose boss (Collette) assigns him to infiltrate the demimonde of violent white supremacists. When you go after fruit that low-hanging, you'd better come with a fresh take and a credible scenario. This one rings false from the outset, never more so than at a family picnic where the womenfolk bake cupcakes with swastika designs, the kid actors wait to deliver their lines one at a time, and one of them is named Timmy. (Not in 2016.) In every scene, you can almost see the crew just outside camera range. Not one moment feels authentic or unscripted. Radcliffe tries too hard and Collette just looks bored. I hope the check cashed... Writer-director Chris Kelly's "Other People" is a false dramedy barely able to contain its contempt for middle America or anyone who practices organized religion. Jesse Plemons plays David, a failed comedy writer who returns home to Sacramento to see his cancer-stricken mother Joanne (Molly Shannon, the sole saving grace) through her last year of life. This is a movie in which a woman buys a "healing wand" from a televangelist and is disappointed to learn it doesn't actually cure cancer - a joke repeated several times. What a gallingly smug expression of how liberals view people of faith. A significant amount of time is devoted to David's relationship with his father Norman (Bradley Whitford), who has never acknowledged his son's longtime (though recently broken-up) boyfriend Paul (Zach Woods). Whitford can't play this dumb, and the conflict feels at least ten years out of date. Shannon fully commits to Joanne, her voice so low at times I had to turn the volume to rock-concert levels to hear her. It's a shame her work is in service of such a phony, contemptuous and deeply unfunny script... I hate everything about "Bridget Jones's Baby." I loathe the superfluous "s" after the apostrophe. I abhor the over-two-hour runtime. I detest the triteness and vulgarity of the script. Not one situation, not one line of dialogue bears the faintest resemblance to human reality. It is a sitcom so stale and rancid you'd turn off if it were the only thing playing on your hospital TV after chemo. Not an original sitcom, a remake - with actors you used to like ten or twenty years ago who haven't gotten the memo that their careers are over. Renée Zellweger: not cute. Patrick Dempsey: not cute. Colin Firth: not only not cute, a total downer. Actively dislikable. The writing operates on such a Bullshit Movieland level it almost doesn't matter that the performances are pitched so broadly. You can find Jim Broadbent, for example, grinning like an idiot at such an inapposite point he had to be thinking about the paycheck. The corners of my mouth moved precisely one millimeter in the direction of a smile once, at something Emma Thompson said. Men in particular must be warned about this train wreck. Do not allow your wife to cajole you into seeing it, no matter how many brownie points she offers. "Bridget Jones's Lousy, Stupid, Stillborn Baby" is so estrogenic you will not be able to conceive after seeing it. Whatever testosterone you bring into the theater will evaporate and you will leave this cinematic castration a broken, sterile shell of a man... Regular readers know Nate Parker is a personal favorite as an actor, but his artless directorial debut, "The Birth of a Nation," lacks nuance and coherence, and celebrates a schizophrenic mass murderer whose sociopathy has nothing to offer those who hope to move the conversation forward today. It's pure slavery porn. Meanwhile, IMDb shows nothing in the works for Parker in front of or behind the camera. Hollywood may have voted him out of show business...  All the mysteries left to the reader's imagination in Paula Hawkins' best-seller are spelled out in "The Girl on the Train," a deplorable, thrill-free thriller that luxuriates in brutal violence against women. Emily Blunt hams it up as the titular drunkard... The gay-porn true crime thriller "King Cobra" is one of the vilest pieces of effluvium ever to wash down the pike. Justin Kelly is the degenerate director responsible for this abortion, which if anyone ever saw it would sweep the Razzies in a romp. Garrett Clayton stars as the fresh face caught in a tug-of-war between rival producers Christian Slater and James Franco. His acting is worse in the solemn moments than in the broad parodies of the videos themselves. Molly Ringwald and Alicia Silverstone battle it out for Worst Cameo; their scenes look like I'd shot them on my iPhone. Kelly, who also did the Franco turkey (redundant) "I Am Michael," would be lucky to get one last chance in the business... Next came one of the most bizarre and unsuccessful movies of the year, "Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk," by a celebrated director, Ang Lee, who keeps getting worse and worse. This one - which feels like an experimental play transposed to IMAX for no discernible reason - tells the almost incoherent, neither-fish-nor-fowl story of an Iraq war hero's (unimpressive newcomer Joe Alwyn) return home to appear with his squad in the halftime spectacular of a Thanksgiving Day 2004 NFL game. If Lee ever knew how human beings talk, he's lost his ear. The dialogue here - when not interrupted by flashbacks to half-hearted battle scenes - consists of strained barracks humor and (mostly) platitudinous sermonizing, by a cast so incongruous (Kristen Stewart, Vin Diesel, Chris Tucker, Steve Martin) you half expect Hulk Hogan, Hillary Clinton and Daffy Duck to make cameos... Taylor Hackford’s mawkish “The Comedian” features Robert De Niro in a role that proves the onetime screen icon will now do absolutely anything for a buck. As former sitcom star Jackie Burke, De Niro looks miserable, as if he’s just returned empty-handed from a quest for an iota of his lost talent. Painfully unfunny comic material is one thing. That I can handle. I’m used to it. Painfully unfunny comic material, followed by cutaway reaction shots of laughing, nodding audience members – no can do. Leslie Mann, who in “This is 40” and especially “The Other Woman” proved she can be side-splittingly funny, is saddled with the thankless part of Harmony, De Niro’s reluctant love interest (at this point, is there any other kind?), who meets Jackie at the church where they’re both doing court-ordered community service. On what planet does this old, unattractive has-been give Leslie Mann the irrepressible urge to kiss him? Among a way-too-good-for-the-material supporting cast that includes Danny DeVito, Edie Falco, Charles Grodin, Harvey Keitel and Patti LuPone, Cloris Leachman comes closest to scoring laughs as a Phyllis Diller type who croaks while Jackie roasts her on a Friars Club type TV special. It’s the one and only time De Niro kills... Sad to see such talents as Jason Bateman, Kate McKinnon and a game Jennifer Aniston wasted in "Office Christmas Party," a loud, profane, laugh-free zone that could turn anyone into a Grinch... Finally, "Why Him?," with a played-out James Franco (there he is again) as the obnoxious tech-gazillionaire boyfriend of Bryan Cranston's Stanford-attending daughter (Zoey Deutch). This is the kind of comedy where you're supposed to laugh at parents' confusing "vaporizing" for "vaping" and not knowing the word "bukkake," and their young son's use of the term "double dicking." Cranston is one of our most important working actors, so to see him in this paycheck part is truly painful.

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