Written by Daniel Simpson
Before moving on with 2016 in the form of my top ten list, I wanted to take a minute to highlight some of the films I caught with in early 2017. I didn’t think there would be enough demand for them to warrant their own reviews at this point, so I’ve opted to combine a handful of shorter reviews here. So here is my last minute round-up of 2016 films.
Hunt for the Wilderpeople
This was one of the more beloved films of 2016 and having finally caught up with that I’d say I’m mostly on board too. Though the basic story of a mismatched couple coming to bond over a comedic journey is stock, writer/director Taika Waititi finds a lot of ways to give Hunt for the Wilderpeople a unique identity. The New Zealand location certainly helps, as does the characters, who are more creatively drawn than their types suggest. Waititi also injects the film without a lot of energy and his visual style is pretty well realized too. This also works pretty well as a comedy. There’s some clever dialogue and the banter between Ricky and Hec works really well. The side characters are pretty fun too.
All told, Hunt for the Wilderpeople is a very well-realized movie that doesn’t make any major fumbles, but also only garnered so much enthusiasm from me. While I did find the film consistently amusing, it never rose above the level of just being amusing. Much as I liked Ricky and Hec, I can’t say I was ever touched by their journey and while the film is funny, I’m not sure if it was ever hilarious. So, while I did enjoy the film, I can’t say it really excelled in my eyes. Still, I am grateful to the film for introducing me to Taika Waititi. I may not love this movie, but I certainly see a ton of potential for this guy and I’ll be seeking more of his work out in the future.
The Invitation is a small little movie that made a decent buzz on Netlifx. The plot revolves around a young man who is inexplicably invited to a dinner party by his ex-wife after two years without contact. He’s already somewhat uncomfortable with the affair, but upon arrival he starts to suspect his hosts have malicious intent. The film plays as a horror/thriller, but the tension comes from whether or not the perceived danger is real. Director Karyn Kusama does a good job keeping the tension persistent through low-lighting, lingering shots, and a foreboding score. For a film like this to work it does need to go somewhere and when the film finally plays its hand it is pretty satisfying. Indeed, the film is a pretty decent potboiler and something that mostly kept my interest, but I can’t imagine it really sticking with me. The exploration of grief never really amount to much and while the final reveal is neat it doesn’t exactly call for a reexamination of the work. Still, as a way to kill an hour and forty minutes on Netflix, this is pretty good.
The Love Witch
The Love Witch revolves around a young woman named Elaine, (Samantha Robinson) who is openly a witch who specializes in making love bombs to entrap men. However, with each experience, the man reveals himself to be unworthy for various reasons, but generally because they’re pathetic. What stands out most is the film’s style. The Love Witch is shot in a very striking Technicolor style and the costumes and sets echo the 1960s. The film also really plays up the melodrama of the scenario and generally goes for a comedic tone. For a time, this approach is pretty funny. The dramatic line readings, bumbling men, and awkward timing works well. This is most evident in an early section of the film where Elaine picks up and seduces a man who is eventually revealed to be a whimpering baby. The dialogue between the two works, the performances are just the right level of hokey, and the way the whole scene plays out is really amusing.
Unfortunately, this is also where the film peaks. From there, the story is never really able to find an interesting groove. Elaine just goes on to pick up more men with equally disastrous results, but the scenes never play out as interestingly as the first one. What’s more, I feel the gimmick starts to run thin. Once you’ve acclimatized yourself to the film’s style, the laughs become a lot less frequent and they also don’t hit as hard as in the first act. By the end, I found I had grown tired of the film and was ready for it to be over.
The film does have a fairly interesting feminist streak, but ultimately it’s a bit too simplistic. Essentially, the film is making the broad argument that men are shallow and weak. They only want to satisfy their own selfish desires and if their fantasies are fulfilled they are revealed to be quite pathetic. I’m not offended by this conclusion, but I do think it’s too simplistic and not too interesting. Again, part of this is rooted in the film’s style and comedy running stale. Had I been totally on-board with these elements than the film’s feminist argument, would have complimented the whole nicely. However as is the film relies pretty strongly on these themes and I just don’t think they’re strong enough.
Overall, this film didn’t work for me, but in the realm of films I don’t like I do respect this one a whole lot. It dedicates itself to a style pretty fully and ultimately does a pretty good job bringing that vision to the screen. While the novelty of it did where thin for me, I imagine this will be a lot of fun for the right audience. It’s also pretty different from most of the movies have seen lately and that too gives it an edge. Finally, I do wanna highlight Samantha Robinson’s lead performance, which is consistently compelling even when the film starts to become stale.
Our Little Sister
Three young adult women who have been living together without parental support since their father left them at a young age come to take in their teenage half sister after their shared father passes away. The film then follows the four women as they live together and reflect on their parentage.
That simple premise might suggest that Our Little Sister is fraught with drama as the four sisters clash, the youngest tries to cope with her new home, and a life time of drama comes to the surface, but that isn’t the case at all. In many ways, Hirokazu Koreeda rejects the traditional methods one might tell this story and instead opts for a more low-key and humble approach. While there is certainly drama to be found in Our Little Sister, none of these issues are ever framed as insurmountable or particularly dire. Rather, they are just other chapters in the lives of these characters, and while they may not be pleasant, they are part of living. The relatively low-key stakes contribute to the film’s theme which is about finding the positive in life even during hard times. Whatever obstacles the four sisters face, they continue to plunge ahead, work hard, and find joy in their lives. The fact that these elements are fairly subdued actually the message all the more poignant. A lesser film might have exaggerated the highs and lows, resulting in a melodramatic and saccharine experience. In choosing to hold back, Koreeda’s film feels more real and therefore more substantial. This kind of optimism is something of a rarity in cinema, particularly to see it presented this strongly.
On its most basic level, Our Little Sister works as an observation of a handful of interesting people. The four women at the center of the film are not terribly complex, but they’re detailed characters who are well-drawn and very likable. Koreeda also finds the moments which, though seemingly quiet and humble, are quite engaging and affecting. Scenes like the middle sister freaking out because she finds an insect in the shower or the four going out for a quiet dinner together, or the youngest sister going for a walk with a friend on the soccer team don’t seem like they’d be particularly special, but there is a simple and very real pleasure that comes from sharing these moments with the four women at the heart of the film.
I can understand why Our Little Sister hasn’t been among the most talked about films of 2016. It lacks a juicy hook to be sold on, the drama is low-key, and much of Koreeda’s success comes from his restraint. All of these reasons are however precisely way the film works as well as it does. Though simple, it takes a high degree of skill to pull off a movie like this so successfully. It’s a warm film that makes you feel good coming out, and the fact that Koreeda achieved this while still feeling entirely honest is very special. Our Little Sister is one of the year’s best films.