Sundance Review: “Raw”



A lot of fuss is being made about “Raw,” a twisted and dark French horror film about shy vegetarian teen Justine (Garance Marillier) who, after a bizarre rabbit kidney eating hazing ritual at a veterinary school, finds herself with an uncontrollable craving for meat. It’s an amusing premise for a movie, but I wouldn’t really classify this as a true horror film. Yes, the movie features graphic cannibalism and unforgiving close-ups of gross-out flesh chewing, but it’s more horrifically funny than truly suspenseful and terrifying. Think of it as more arty exploitation than true horror.

Marillier is perfectly cast in the lead role, bringing the perfect mix of innocent and crazy. In fact, she’s pretty damn fantastic and carries the film with a fearless feminist spirit. The same goes for Ella Rumpf (as her sister Alexia). The two are completely believable as sisters with a relationship that will become, over the course of the film, a bit more…complicated.

There’s a refreshingly unique female perspective to the film, with deeper themes that explore the agony and ecstasy of becoming a woman and the complications that sometimes arise between sisters and familial relationships. Writer / director Julia Ducournau handles the material with a confident ease, not an easy task when you’re at the helm of a disturbing coming of age tale where your heroine discovers her budding sexuality in what can only be described as a carnal as well as a carnivorous awakening.

Setting the film in a veterinary school seems pointless and wasted for the most part. Justine’s rabid desires may play well off the setting, but there are far too many odd directorial choices that go nowhere, like a slow motion scene of a horse running on a treadmill. It’s visually stunning, but serves no purpose to the story — not even as a relevant metaphor. There are so many animalistic qualities that aren’t fully realized or explored (except for a brilliant scene where Alexia takes Justine to teach her to hunt like a predator schooling her young, where drivers on a nearby highway make for easy prey).

The setting also makes this movie not such a great choice for animal lovers, as I had to shut my eyes in many scenes. While I couldn’t watch the nauseatingly detailed dog autopsies and horse surgery, I had no problem with the gruesome human cannibalism scenes — and I’m not sure what this disturbing fact says about my psyche. This also is not a film for the squeamish. Trust me on this.

Justine’s introduction to cannibalism — her cannibal origin story, if you will — is pretty funny and is scored with some killer (ha!) original music. There are lots of cringe-worthy and macabre scenes, including an unforgettable sequence with an at-home Brazilian wax gone wrong. Very wrong.

To stretch the film’s runtime, the director adds in a few too many party scenes that feel much like pointless filler. Ducournau has a great artistic eye and a clear vision, but some of the pieces don’t quite work as they should (like a slow motion early morning walk of shame across the school’s campus). The idea had to look great on paper but it doesn’t translate well to film.

“Raw” very much reminds me of Yorgos Lathimos’ films, especially “Dogtooth,” in tone and style. It’s the kind of disgustingly funny movie where you will be unsure if you should laugh or vomit.

This film was screened and reviewed at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.

Sundance Review: “Bushwick”



Some of the best truly independent films start out with the simple question of “what if?” In “Bushwick,” Texas militia forces invade a neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York as the state attempts to secede from the United States and a civil war is breaking out across the country.

It’s a fun premise and is done extremely well, especially on a shoestring budget. There’s not a lot of new ground covered here and the film is far from original, but co-directors Jonathan Milott and Cary Murnion have a good eye for staging exciting action and chase sequences (the final shootout in a park is incredibly well done, staged with long, fluid takes). In fact, I loved that the entire movie was filled with smooth, almost elegant shots instead of the obnoxious and annoying shaky-cam that dominates so many big studio action films.

This isn’t to say that there isn’t a lot of predictable running and hiding, blood and gunshots, yelling and CGI explosions, but the gimmick of having a camera follow the action from behind like a participant rather an observer, works. While making sure the audience feels like part of the action, it also serves as a distraction from the realization that there’s not much plot to the story.

Lucy (Brittany Snow) is a college student who steps out of the subway and into a war zone. While running to seek shelter, she ducks into a bunker of burly and tough ex-Marine Stupe (Dave Bautista). The two play well enough off each other, and they are saddled with plenty of simplistic and lame dialogue. The amateurism acting is reminiscent of a high school drama production (at one point you can visibly see an actor who’s supposed to be playing dead breathing), but it really doesn’t matter.

There’s just the right amount of action and humor peppered throughout, making “Bushwick” a worthy companion to similar films like “Attack the Block” and “Cloverfield.”

This film was screened and reviewed at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.

Sundance Review: “The Discovery”



“The Discovery” hooks you in with a fantastic and shocking opening scene, one that is so compelling that it grossly misleads you as to what is to come in this boring, emotionless, and utterly sluggish movie. It’s the kind of film that you’ll start to watch with some enthusiasm but then shut it off within the first 15 minutes.  It’s obvious the filmmakers think they’ve made some profound work of art, but this movie isn’t nearly as important nor impressive as their boasting would suggest.

When a scientist (Robert Redford) proves the existence of an afterlife, the world’s suicide rate skyrockets. His son (Jason Segel) develops an attraction to a mysterious woman (Rooney Mara) and the pair go to live in his dad’s science-minded mansion. The film plays with time and alternate universes, and leaves too many questions unanswered.

The reason I think I really hated this movie is that it’s so full of itself; so much so that you can practically feel the massive egos of the writer and director leaping off the screen and proceeding to beat the audience over the head.

It’s sloppily directed by Charlie McDowell, a disjointed disarray that reminds me of a rip-off of the far superior “Flatliners,” “Another Earth,” and “Groundhog Day.” After viewing this movie, it’s clear that alternate reality timelines are best left to more competent writers and directors like Brit Marling and Christopher Nolan. The non-cohesive story is maddening (with a twist ending that is a guaranteed frustrating letdown), the writing (by McDowell and Justin Lader) is on a fifth grade level with a lot of ‘telling’ rather than ‘showing,’ and the characters are all kept at a distance, leading to zero emotional connection with any of them. The characters’ motivations are unclear at best, nonsensical at worst. There’s an unbelievable love story between leads Segel and Mara, their chemistry altogether absent.

Instead of taking the time and care to craft an astute, meaningful story about the existence of an afterlife, the screenplay takes the lazy route and dismisses anything and everything remotely interesting. Why not explore the religious and moral implications of such a scientific discovery? Oh, that’s right: it would take far too much work and thought to do so! Not only is the content tired, but the drab, dreary cinematography is also ugly and the movie looks terrible. The same goes for the wildly uneven original score.

This movie made me so angry that I can only compare it to the cinematic equivalent of one massive eye roll.


“The Discovery” irritated me more than any movie in recent memory, largely due to the self-important attitude of director Charlie McDowell, who was on hand to answer questions during a recent screening at the Sundance Film Festival.

According to McDowell, he has made an important movie that explores complex and interesting questions of morality that have gained new urgency in the face of Trump’s America. That wasn’t the movie I saw. Apparently, having everyone at a film festival tell you how brilliant you are for 10 days straight will go to your head. It certainly went to his.

In “The Discovery” Jason Segel is Will Harbor, the son of acclaimed scientist Thomas Harbor (Robert Redford). The senior Harbor has made a life-changing discovery that has changed the face of humankind: he has proven, scientifically and without a doubt, that the human consciousness continues to exist after death on some alternate plane of existence. This discovery has led to a massive amount of suicides across the world, as people look to escape their problems in this world and seek an opportunity to exist somewhere else. Will, who is estranged from his father, returns home to his dad’s compound where Thomas continues his research to answer the remaining question: what comes next?

Admittedly, it’s a fascinating premise. It raises many interesting questions: is suicide moral when we know that death is not the end? And, more importantly, when will people start determining to take a step beyond suicide and actually murder someone else with the intention of sending them to a hoped-for better place? Is murder ever acceptable, or moral, under those circumstances? And what about the effect of the discovery on religion? Does the certainty of continuing to exist after death make it more or less likely that religion will play an important role in people’s lives? Do more or fewer people start attending church after the discovery?

These are all great questions that are raised by the film’s premise. But it doesn’t seriously explore any of them. Instead, the story which focuses largely on Will and his relationship with Isla (Rooney Mara), a mysterious woman that Will meets on a ferry boat. Will and Isla have absolutely zero chemistry – both due to their poorly-written characters and the attention of the actors – and this lack of believability in their relationship completely poisons the movie and everything that follows. We are supposed to believe that Will’s feelings for Isla somehow motivate him, but we can’t. And what’s worse is that when the film takes a violent turn, the characters’ motivations remain similarly baffling, even after the screenwriters (McDowell and Justin Lader) have tried to explain them.

“The Discovery” is a nonsensical movie that is one of the most shameful wastes of a great premise since “Be Kind Rewind” and “Unleashed.”

This film was screened and reviewed at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.

Sundance Review: “Berlin Syndrome”



It’s every single female traveler’s worst nightmare: you find yourself alone in a foreign city when a smooth talking, handsome man befriends you. You follow him home for a night of passion but wake up the next morning and find yourself kidnapped, locked inside his house as a prisoner. “Berlin Syndrome” spins the familiar tale of Prince Charming turned psychopath and this time the girl is Australian photographer Clare (Teresa Palmer) and the charismatic serial killer is a Berlin teacher named Andi (Max Riemelt). It’s a cautionary tale of a harmless fling turned deadly, and it’s sure to send a chill down the spine of world travelers who tend to let their guard down a bit more when they are away from home.

It’s a classic “what if?” scenario, and I found myself frantically searching every corner of the Andi’s apartment looking for ideas of how to escape. Clare tries many clever methods but fails repeatedly. Eventually she resigns herself to being held by a captor for life. This movie could be described as light horror, with plenty of tension-heavy scenes and just as many disturbing ones. The film, directed by Cate Shortland, takes its time with the surprise setup (by the end it’s a little too slow and could stand to lose a good half hour). Still, the film’s too-long runtime doesn’t diminish the intensity of its thriller aspects and the cat and mouse game of predator versus prey.

There’s a distracting use of slow motion photography bursts throughout, as well as rather pedestrian foreshadowing (when Clare first meets Andi, he takes her on a walk near empty houses where within minutes they encounter a ferocious barking dog, an abandoned wolf mask, and a police siren wailing in the background). Talk about obvious warnings. As she enters his home (which is in an abandoned warehouse in the middle of nowhere), you’d think the years-old peeling paint, sealed windows that won’t open, and Andi’s encouragement for her to make as many pleasurable sounds as she desires during sex because “no one will hear you” would at least set off some alarm bells!

Things start to pick up once Clare becomes Andi’s prisoner and property, and as she starts to uncover more horrific clues about what a real creep and danger this guy truly is. Then there’s that unsettling feeling that Clare is beginning to enjoy or at least become comfortable in her new hostage situation, which is more disturbing than any of the bloody violence that inevitably ensues (hence the play on the Stockholm syndrome theme and title). It may not be easy to watch this tale of sexual captivity, but “Berlin Syndrome” is an interesting and well-made psychological thriller that will keep you guessing until the end.

This film was screened and reviewed at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.

Sundance Review: “Bad Day for the Cut”



Revenge thrillers can be repetitive and unoriginal, and “Bad Day for the Cut” is as bland as they come. In an obvious (and lame) rip-off to the far superior “Blue Ruin,” the film seems to confuse nasty, bloody violence with and interesting and feasible plot.

Donal (Nigel O’Neill) is a simple farmer who, after a night of drinking, wakes up to find his elderly mother lying dead in her living room. Shocked by this brutal murder, Donal sets off to find those responsible — and leaves a bloodbath and a pile of bodies in his wake. Clues slowly unravel that answer the mystery as to why his elderly mother was brutally murdered (the answer is a real letdown and the payoff an anticlimactic disappointment).

This has been described as a slow burn Irish revenge thriller, yet I didn’t find the pacing slow at all. The issue is that the bad guy (actually a bad girl, overacted to the point of pronounced yelling by Susan Lynch) is uninteresting; even her motivation for murder is foolish and laughable. In fact, she’s one of the worst cinematic bad guys I’ve ever seen. Luckily O’Neill saves the acting portion of the film, showing a quiet, vigilante rage of a man with a serious grudge and nothing to lose. There’s also a nicely understated performance from Józef Pawlowski as Donal’s would-be assassin and unlikely partner.

The film is super violent, bloody, and has a considerable amount of realistic, brutal savagery that fans of the genre will at least appreciate. It’s hard to ruin a good revenge film, but the real problem is that “Bad Day for the Cut” is just nothing special. There’s no reason to watch this international indie over a run-of-the-mill, big budget studio blockbuster. It’s just as forgettable as any mundane U.S. crime film that you (can’t) remember.

This film was screened and reviewed at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.

Sundance Review: “The Little Hours”



I really wanted to love “The Little Hours,” the latest film from “Life After Beth” and “Joshy” director Jeff Baena. He has a sense of humor that directly mirrors mine and when I heard that he was tackling a religious themed comedy based on Giovanni Boccaccio’s classic literary text “The Decameron” as his next project, I was sold. Unfortunately, the film aimlessly wanders around the screen in a cloudy haze of expletives for two hours instead of being something truly special.

The film is full of talented, funny comic actors but they just don’t have great material to work with. We first meet Sister Fernanda (Aubrey Plaza), Sister Alessandra (Alison Brie), and Sister Genevra (Kate Micucci) quietly going about their daily routine. When the gardener wishes them a good morning, they turn violent, verbally abusing him with an f-bomb laced tirade, throwing turnips at his face, and spitting at him. A group of nasty, rude and cursing nuns is a funny premise for sure, but this one-note joke gets stretched over the entire course of the film and quickly becomes repetitive (and rapidly loses its humor).

Mother Superior (Molly Shannon) runs the convent with Father Tommasso  (John C. Reilly, the true scene stealer in the film). After a chance encounter in the woods, Tommasso crosses paths with runaway servant Massetto (Dave Franco), a man who has been kicked out of his master’s (Nick Offerman) castle for schtupping the lady of the house. Father Tommasso drunkenly laments that he ran out of water and “had to drink the sacramental wine,” and comes up with the grand idea to invite Massetto  back to live with and work for him. Once Massetto arrives he grabs the attention of the sexually repressed, bi-curious nuns, and they scheme to seduce the new farmhand by any means necessary.

While it’s not an original idea to take a classic piece of literature and put a modern spin on the story, there are some truly hilarious concepts at play, including several riotous confession scenes that will no doubt be memorable long after you see the movie. Although the film is set in a 14th century Italian convent, the trio of bad nuns speak in modern slang and give in to their uncontrollable carnal desires, habit be damned.

The film is off-color, bawdy, and seems hell-bent with determination to push the buttons of the devout. I’m not a religious person (nor am I a prude) but I did find many of the jokes, at the expense of Catholics in particular, for the most part only mildly humorous. The film wants to be a screwball comedy but it just gets too weird too fast — and it’s not the good kind of weird. There are several orgy scenes (including what are basically attempted rapes), a bizarre subplot about a coven of witches (who take to nude dancing around a woodland fire), and a laundry list of curse words that would make a sailor blush.

The entire project feels as if it’s raunchy solely for the sake of being raunchy, and I wanted so much more.

This film was screened and reviewed at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.

Sundance Review: “Thoroughbred”



“Thoroughbred” opens with a scene that on the surface seems fairly tame — a teenage girl stares deeply into the eyes of her horse while petting his head. As the camera lingers, unflinching, for several minutes, things start to get really uncomfortable. Suddenly there’s a cut to a backpack being unzipped and a large knife being removed. We never see what happens after that, but it’s not too difficult to guess. The audience eventually learns what happened in that barn through a vivid vocal description, but we never see it. We don’t have to. Simply imagining the horrors is torture enough.

That’s where this film, based on a stage play by the writer / director Cory Finley, excels. Finley is great at tension building in the most basic of ways. It’s a skillful homage to the Alfred Hitchcock school of filmmaking where sometimes the reactions of the characters and the imagination of the audience can be scarier than showing the actual grisly details. There’s an intense scene with a computer and gruesome animal cruelty photos — I had such a physical reaction to the stressors that I had to look away, although we never see what’s happening on the laptop screen and the bloody photos are never shown. This tactic is used again later in the film to a startling, alarming effect, and becomes one of the film’s most well executed and shocking set pieces.

The film is pointlessly told in four chapters and since it is based on a play, it’s dialogue heavy and at times feels more like a stage production than a movie. Luckily Finley has a knack for visual flair and is proficient at building tension with a camera. The film has an unsettling drum heavy score that casts an eerie, ominous feeling, and the cool aloofness of the performances from leads Anya Taylor-Joy (Lily) and Olivia Cooke (Amanda) fits the material just right. There’s a great out of character turn from the late Anton Yelchin (to whom the film is dedicated) as a low-level drug dealer, sex offender, would-be murderer, and aspiring dreamer.

The story revolves around two pretty, rich white girls with serious mental issues. After one is accused of animal cruelty for killing her horse and the other snaps when her step dad (Paul Sparks) announces that he’s sending her away to a boarding school for troubled girls, these psychopathic teenagers decide to plot his murder. There are hints that Lily’s step dad is sexually abusing her, and he is introduced in a creepy, sinister fashion. It’s only later that we realize the truth: that these are superficial problems of the elite and amount to little more than a serious case of teen angst.

The majority of “Thoroughbred” is pretty fantastic. Too bad the director had to go and spoil it with a tacked on, irrelevant epilogue. I completely understand the director’s desire to keep the final scene in the movie, but only because the film’s last line is pretty great. It is a fantastic way to verbally close the film, but I would have preferred that the story end at Chapter 4 rather than with this extraneous scene. It really hurts the tone of the movie and the ending all but ruined it for me.

This film was screened and reviewed at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.

“A Dog’s Purpose”

The Screen Zealots refused to see or review “A Dog’s Purpose” due to the disturbing allegations and video evidence of a live dog actor being mistreated on the set of this film. As animal lovers as well as movie lovers, we highly recommend that you also boycott this film.

Footage of the alarming on-set incident involving a German Shepherd can be accessed and watched online. Click here to watch the video.

Instead of purchasing a ticket to this movie, we encourage you to make a donation to one of our favorite animal charities, the Heaven Can Wait Animal Society or Best Friends.

Sundance Review: “Bitch”



“Bitch” is the very definition of a truly independent, super low budget film, and it’s incredible how much was done with so little money (especially the stunning lighting and visuals). Director Marianna Palka creates a provocative, highly disturbing and deeply unsettling pseudo-horror film with this feminist tinged tale of a suburban mom gone crazy.

Palka plays the lead role of Jill, a mentally distraught and suicidal housewife with a practically useless workaholic (and cheating) husband, Bill (Jason Ritter). Jill can barely function from day to day and becomes obsessed with a dog that constantly stares at her from the front law. When Jill finally loses it and assumes the characteristics of a vicious dog, Bill is left in charge of the household duties and their four children. He enlists the help of sister in law (Jaime King) to try to keep his family life afloat and prevent the total destruction of his slowly crumbling family.

Ritter gives a fantastic leading man quality performance here, and one that’s laced with angst and tragedy as well as comedy. You can feel his desperation and frustration, yet he manages to be sympathetic and tender when necessary, even when some of the screenwriting fails him. Palka is believable as a mom who finally reaches her breaking point and cracks under the pressure. Plus, it’s not easy to spend most of the film on your knees and covered in fake feces.

There’s a heavy reliance placed on the soundtrack to this movie, and it’s as strange and intense as they come. The random background sound effects, noises and music is what I can only describe as “ear assaulting.” It’s intensely loud on purpose, with an absurdist, almost avante garde original score that features a literal cacophony of drums, slide whistles, cartoonish blips and bleeps, and 1950s-era spaceship special effect sounds. By the time the end credits rolled, I felt like I was becoming as unhinged as the lead character and my ears were aching. That may be the point, but it was distracting because it was literally painful.

The film is distressing with its surrealism, but also painful and tragic. It’s an absolute one-of-a-kind original that will make you laugh with its shock humor, but the story eventually becomes a serious exploration of mental illness and gets dark really quickly. Love and acceptance finally become the cure for Jill’s pain, but it doesn’t make the film any more unsettling.

Forget the stresses of being a mother and a wife: simply being a woman is a full time job that will drive you crazy.

This film was screened and reviewed at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.

Sundance Review: “Brigsby Bear”



It’s a scary time in our world, one that’s suddenly filled with so much uncertainty and negativity that sometimes the stress and worry will drive you to tears — and that’s why the utterly sweet “Brigsby Bear” is just what the cinematic doctor ordered. Revealing too much of the plotline will greatly diminish the film’s best surprises, as this is a movie that is best discovered by viewing it with very little background information. This is a sincere film that’s stuffed with kindhearted humor and a feel good message of love and acceptance, and it’s my favorite movie to come out of Sundance this year.

“Brigsby Bear” tells the story of 25 year old James (Kyle Mooney), a man who has lived his entire life in a secluded bunker with a overprotective parents (including an inspired, albeit brief, performance by Mark Hamill). James has little entertainment except for an extensive VHS tape library of the oddly cult-like Brigsby Bear television show.

Brigsby, a giant plush talking bear, teaches life lessons like “curiosity is an unnatural emotion” and advance mathematic skills. The film slowly reveals the truth about where James lives (Is it a cult? The future? The past? A prison?), and a chain of events leads to his escape into the real world (in this case, it’s Utah). This is when the film becomes a quirky fish out of water story with enjoyable instances of severe culture shock as James tries to adapt to the scary new world around him.

When he realizes that he’s the only person in the world who has ever seen the Brigsby Bear t.v. show, James decides that he wants to make a movie adaptation of the series. This is when the movie really finds its footing and becomes an inspiring valentine to the joy of creating art, and it’s a message that creative types and film lovers everywhere will adore. James enlists the help of sister Aubrey (Ryan Simpkins) and his new friend Spencer (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.) to make the movie, as well as a friendly police detective (Greg Kinnear, happily returning to his indie roots and is very funny here) who fancies himself a serious Shakespearean thespian. Matt Walsh, Michaela Watkins, and Claire Danes round out the cast.

Director Dave McCary has created a heartfelt, offbeat story of love and finding acceptance for who you truly are, an eccentric celebration of weirdness and the meaningful experience of sharing your art with others. There’s some darkness to the story (it touches on a few heavy themes like treatment for mental illness and isolation), but it’s mostly filled with a sweet sincerity that never rings false. I could see this film easily becoming a quirky cult classic a’la “Napoleon Dynamite.” As one character says, this movie is “dope as s#@$.”

This film was screened and reviewed at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.