Sundance Recap: “Holy Hell”

LOUISA:    2.5 STARS       MATT:    2.5 STARS


LOUISA SAYS:

The unprecedented access to the inner workings of a cult is the biggest strength of this documentary, but even all of that behind the scenes footage couldn’t save “Holy Hell” for me.

Maybe it’s because director Will Allen was a member of the cult himself and couldn’t distance himself from the subject, but I felt like there were so many missed opportunities to examine some deeper issues about the psyche of cults and religion. It’s hard for me to understand how people can be so coerced into following some self-proclaimed guru and even more shocking that some members were enduring such horrible sexual and mental abuse but nobody cried wolf.

The film’s big finale, centering around the eventual disbanding of the cult and a subsequent confrontation of a former member and the leader in Hawaii, is deeply unsatisfying.

This is a mildly interesting documentary that sadly fizzles out all too quickly.

MATT SAYS:

A man spends 22 years filming his own life and personal experiences in a cult named “Buddhafield,” led by a mysterious, charismatic man known only as Michel. In “Holy Hell,” director Will Allen gives us a uniquely personal look into the inner workings of a cult, based on the video he shot for the group while he was a part of it.

Although unique both in its level of access and in its deeply personal connection to the filmmaker, “Holy Hell” is not a particularly well-made documentary. Many questions remain unanswered. The movie fails to shed any real insight into the whys and hows of a cult: what, specifically, attracts people to the group and why do they stay — particularly after the sordid and scandalous details of its leader’s exploitation of the members become public? Why do adults allow themselves to be exploited? What is it in human nature that draws people to groups like this one and why do they refuse to leave even when they know something is very, very wrong? Because it failed to provide any real level of understanding about the answers to the questions, I give it two and a half stars.

 

“Jane Got A Gun”

LOUISA:     3.5 STARS     MATT:   3.5 STARS


LOUISA SAYS:

I don’t respond well to westerns but I love a good ass-kicking heroine, and “Jane Got A Gun” delivers just that. Try to ignore the miscasting of Natalie Portman as the titular Jane and relish the perfect casting of Joel Edgerton as a rancher who helps her defend her home against a gang of ruthless outlaws. Ewan McGregor, playing an unintentionally campy sort of Black Bart villain complete with a giant black hat and horrendous fake teeth, is shamefully wasted here.

Director Gavin O’Connor seems ill equipped to handle a western and it shows: while the story fits the formula (outlaws are a’comin’ so let’s get some guns and hole up in our homestead and shoot ’em all when they come for us), it’s visually unappealing (washed out images make the film look drab, and confusing editing that jumps around makes the movie feel like there are big chunks of story missing). However, the script here is really good and I genuinely cared about the characters. Fans of the genre will find this worthy of a viewing.

The extra half star rating is for the charming (and misbehaving) white horse who steals the show in every scene he is in. Keep an eye on that equine, he is one to watch.

MATT SAYS:

Anchored by strong performances by Natalie Portman and Joel Edgerton, “Jane Got a Gun” is a simple story, well-told. The movie is set in the bad old days of the American West where murder, thievery and white slavery are commonplace and the line between good and evil cannot be clearly drawn and the ability to kill, and kill well, is a highly-valued talent. In 1870s New Mexico, life is driven by the categorical imperative, and Jane is forced by circumstances to take lives to protect her own and those of her family.

The Western has all but fallen out of favor with the modern movie-going public, however movies like this one remind us that the setting can serve as a powerful backdrop for fresh new stories that can reinvigorate the genre. Like the “The Homesman” in 2014, “Jane Got a Gun” is a rare female-driven Western, one that features an expansive landscape but a story that is small and simple in scope. And like that movie, this one is worth watching.

“Kung Fu Panda 3”

LOUISA:    4 STARS    MATT:   3.5 STARS


LOUISA SAYS:

I’m tough on animated movies because as a fan of the art form, I expect quality all around. I frequently bemoan the current state of animated films, but I’m happy to report that the Kung Fu Panda franchise is still just as dependable and smart as ever. Our cuddly black and white hero Po (Jack Black) is back, and this time he must train his fellow pandas in the art of kung fu in order to save the entire kingdom from ruin.

Excellent voice talent (from Black, Bryan Cranston, Dustin Hoffman, Seth Rogen, J.K. Simmons, Angelina Jolie and David Cross) paired with gorgeous animation (that far exceeds the look of the first two films) makes for a movie worth watching. This is not simply a throw away movie for the kiddos. The filmmakers have created a satisfying balance of truly touching, grown-up moments that are quickly interspersed with some kid-friendly humor to ensure things never get too heavy.

All this comedy and action is finished off with a dash of wisdom sprinkled on top, with the timeless message of the joy in just being yourself. While there are plenty of silly animal jokes and sight gags, the film has quite a few intense and disturbing scenes where beloved characters are in peril, so I think it’s more appropriate for slightly older kids.

MATT SAYS:

Let’s face it: most movies made for kids are junk. Almost no effort goes into the craft of storytelling; it’s like the filmmakers don’t care whether their movie is engaging or whether its characters are three-dimensional. I can just picture the internal meetings, where tough questions about plot, pacing, and structure are met with a collective shrug and the stock response: “who cares, the kids are going to see it anyway.”

This is where the “Kung Fu Panda” movies stand apart from the pack. The characters are memorable, their relationships fully-fledged, and the storylines worthwhile. There are realistic relationships and the stories have an arc where Po, his friends and even his teacher actually grow and continue to learn.

“Kung Fu Panda 3” isn’t a perfect movie by any stretch – the first half of the movie drags, the furious five (who were a significant part of the first and second movies) have little to do, and it’s a little too heavy on the fat jokes (fat people be eatin’, amirite?) – but as a whole it works well. The film picks up significant steam in the latter half, where Po and company face a new adversary and in the process are taught valuable lessons about the value of appreciating who you are and how all of us can and should continue to grow through learning, all of the time.

Unlike so many other movies made in this segment, “Kung Fu Panda 3” isn’t mindlessly stupid trash.

“Dirty Grandpa”

LOUISA:  1 STAR       MATT:  1.5 STARS


LOUISA SAYS:

“Dirty Grandpa” is crass, crude, rude, gross and just plain unfunny. Vulgarity should never be confused with humor, but it is here and the film is terrible as a result. I didn’t find the movie offensive but I did find it very sad: I’m sad for Robert DeNiro and Zac Efron for agreeing to star in this nasty, mean-spirited spring break bender movie.

It’s poorly made to boot: the story makes zero sense and half of the joke set-ups quickly crash and burn. I’m sure the surf shop proprieter’s (Jason Mantzoukas) side drug business and relationship with the local cops looked funny on paper but it fails miserably here.

Aubrey Plaza‘s deadpan delivery saves the movie from being a total loss. Well, that and Efron’s nude scene.

MATT SAYS:

Not to be confused with the hilarious 2013 Johnny Knoxville movie “Bad Grandpa,” this movie was mostly an unfunny mess. There were about 3 good jokes and the others bombed. In a good comedy, I can forgive a lot — including dumb set-ups and and an extreme lack of logic. But when a movie is as painfully lacking in humor as this one, those flaws become unforgivable. Skip this one and watch “Bad Grandpa” instead.

 

“Ride Along 2”

LOUISA:  1.5 STARS     MATT:  1 STAR


LOUISA SAYS:

Ice Cube and Kevin Hart are both immensely charismatic actors but their talent far outweighs the weak material they have to work with in “Ride Along 2.” They are both way too good to be starring in such junk. This terribly unfunny movie fails on every level possible. It’s not funny, it’s not exciting, the dialogue is abysmal, the lame gags fall flat, and a coherent plot is nonexistent. By the time the movie picks up some steam with a shipping dock shootout, it’s far too late for salvation. The whole thing feels like stale, sad, reheated leftovers. This ride quickly runs out of gas.

MATT SAYS:

Sadly, the sequel is every bit as worthless and boring as the the first movie. Once again, two very likable actors (Ice Cube and Kevin Hart) are completely wasted, having been saddled with a one-note script. This screenplay feels like it was scribbled in crayon on the back of greasy pizza boxes left over from an all-night “Lethal Weapon” binge watching marathon.

You know a movie’s terrible when the funniest moments come from watching the extras overact and overreact (the extras during the movie’s dumb dance sequence are particularly memorable). If this was the best the filmmakers could do, they should just stop trying. Forget about these characters and leave Hart and Cube to work on other, better projects.

 

Sundance Recap: “Wiener-Dog”

LOUISA: 2.5 STARS       MATT:  3 STARS


LOUISA SAYS:

Director Todd Solondz is a freaky-weird guy with an odd sense of humor to match, so it goes without saying that I kept waiting for something horrible to happen to the titular dog (do I really need to add a “spoiler alert” warning here?) Most of the scenes that worked featured the adorable little wiener dog (including an absolutely gleefully bizarre intermission break that got funnier and funnier as it went on), but sadly as the movie progresses, we see less and less of the pup.

The movie’s four major storylines were evenly split 50/50 in their overall success: my two favorites featured Greta Gerwig and Kieran Culkin (bringing their own take to Dawn Wiener and Brandon from Solondz’s film “Welcome to the Dollhouse” in performances so raw that I’m sure to remember them at the end of the year) and another with Ellen Burstyn and Zosia Mamet (as a homebound grandma and free-spirited granddaughter who visits after 4 years because she needs money). Unfortunately, the storylines with Danny DeVito as an irrelevant film professor and a particularly foul opening sequence and story with Julie Delphy and Keaton Cooke (in one of the worst child actor performances I’ve ever seen) served to sink this movie more than keep it afloat. While I appreciate the true independent voice of Solondz, this movie didn’t succeed on enough levels for me to recommend it.

MATT SAYS:

“Wiener Dog” is a series of stories interconnected by the admittedly adorable title character. Some of these stories work, and some of them don’t. Some of Director Todd Solondz previous efforts (like “Welcome to the Dollhouse” and “Happiness“) were as inspired as they were upsetting, “Wiener Dog” was neither. It was a middle-of-the-road effort that is, and will be, easily forgotten. On the strength of the two “good” stories, I give it: 3 stars.

Sundance Recap: “As You Are”


LOUISA:  3.5 STARS     MATT:   3.5 STARS


LOUISA SAYS:

It’s always exciting to see a film where you instantly know the director and cast are “ones to watch,” and this is one of those movies. “As You Are” is loaded with so much talent and originality that it’s shocking to learn this came from a first-time writer / director, Miles Joris-Peyrafitte.

The real star of this 1990s-set mystery are the young actors (super talented Owen Campbell, Charlie Heaton and Amandla Stenberg), all fantastic and believable as a trio of angsty teens with some pretty serious problems of their own. Their relationship feels so real and rich and honest.

The director’s skills of working with his actors far exceeds his slow storytelling style, and he is able to get strong performances from each of them. I think we can expect some great things from this director as he hones in on his craft (the storytelling style on display here is very effective; the movie starts out with a gunshot in the woods and then is told in various flashbacks from different points of view — all interspersed with VHS police station interviews). We know something horrible has happened, but we don’t know what or to whom.

This movie isn’t perfect but it’s an engaging take on the classic coming of age story, and it had me fully immersed through the end credits.

MATT SAYS:

Set in the 1990s, “As You Are” is a coming-of-age movie that tells the story of two teenage boys growing up in upstate New York. While not polished, “As You Are” is a solid film. Supported by strong performances from its leads, the movie effectively channels the feelings of adolescent outsiders who are struggling to find their place in the world and amongst their peers. This is a great example of what independent filmmaking should be: a simple story, written well and supported by solid acting, told honestly.

Sundance Recap: “Operation Avalanche”

LOUISA:   2 STARS    MATT: 1.5 STARS


LOUISA SAYS:

I wanted to give “Operation Avalanche” a higher star rating because at its core is a really fun and smart and cool idea, but I spent a good chunk of my time looking down at my watch to see how much longer I had to sit in the theater. It’s never a good sign when I’m already getting antsy 15 minutes in.

This is a fake documentary about the CIA making a movie to fake the NASA Apollo moon landing. The cool conspiracy theory themes work well with the found footage shooting style, but I feel that this mockumentary stuff is so overdone and has become dreadfully boring, especially in the hands of a new filmmaker who hasn’t quite yet honed in on the craft. Director Matt Johnson is also the co-writer and star of the movie. Maybe this film would’ve worked better if he hadn’t insisted on playing the lead; he was awfully distracting and very unlikeable.

A very clever idea that’s stretched too thin, leading to a disappointing conclusion.

MATT SAYS:

A new a different entry into the found footage genre, “Operation Avalanche” tells the (fictional?) story of the CIA conspiracy behind the Apollo 11 moon landing. While that sounds interesting on paper, the execution was lacking.

Oftentimes I feel that using a found footage style is an effective but obvious ways to camouflage flaws in the filming and style; it’s essentially the lazy-man’s way of making a movie. “Operation Avalanche” is no exception to this rule. A clever story is the only thing that propels this movie. Otherwise, this is a fairly conventional and run-of-the mill example of a tired format.

Sundance Recap: “Brahman Naman”

LOUISA:   4 STARS    MATT:   4 STARS


LOUISA SAYS:

In what will inevitably be compared to teen classics “American Pie” and “Napoleon Dynamite,” Indian import “Brahman Naman” is a worthy addition to coming of age comedies. It’s a fun premise: a group of loser quiz team nerds in 1980s India are obsessed with sex and girls; the hugely likeable cast, including Shashank Arora (Naman) and Tanmay Dhanania (Ajay) makes this movie soar.

This funny film is part raunchy sex comedy and part educational documentary about the caste system in India. Interspersed with brilliant animated sequences (I wanted more), unusual trivia questions (look for the answer key in the closing credits), and explicit sex jokes involving randy college boys, this movie is simultaneously strange and delightful. There’s lots of smoking, drinking, singing (the story is told partially in classic 80s songs), misogyny, and of course, lots and lots and lots of solo sex (we are introduced to the hero when he appears in the opening scene having sex with the family’s refrigerator).

This movie isn’t for everyone but it’s a fun, refreshing voice from director Qaushiq “Q” Mukherjee. You can find “Brahman Naman” on Netflix.

MATT SAYS:

In the grand tradition of movies like “Weird Science” and “American Pie” comes a teenage sex comedy with a message. “Brahman Naman” follows a trio (and sometimes quartet) of Indian upperclass sex-obsessed nerdy college boys as they drink and fantasize their way through their last year of university.

This movie is not for the conservative or prudish. Let’s just say Jim from “American Pie” — he with his creative use of pastries — has nothing on Naman, who is much more imaginative in his efforts at self-stimulation, to often hilarious effect.

But for all of its lighthearted comedy, there is also a serious political message behind “Brahman Naman.” The underlying criticisms of the caste system in India are hard to miss here, as is the flagrant sexism that informs the way these boys view and treat women. I both laughed and learned while watching this movie, which is not something I can say about the typical sex comedy.

Welcome to Screen Zealots!

It’s no secret that we love movies. For the last 8 years, we have shared our year-end Top 10 best and worst lists with our friends and family. And every year, we get the same question from them: “why don’t you guys have a movie review blog?” We do now!

On this site, you’ll find our mini reviews of every single movie we see during the calendar year, starting in January 2016. Most of the early reviews we will post are from the 2016 Sundance Film Festival (which we attend every year). We have devised a simple star rating system: one-half star is the worst rating, and five stars is the best.

These are not full-length reviews; we both have day jobs and simply don’t have time to write full articles for every movie. We see movies on our own time and on our own dime.

If you follow us as a regular reader, you’ll find a few surprises sprinkled in here and there. You can find us on Facebook, Twitter, Linked In, Google+ and Pinterest. The best way to keep up to date with our reviews (besides checking out this site every day) is to sign up for our monthly review e-newsletter.

We’ve also archived all of our Top 10 lists back to 2009 so you can take a look at the movies that we loved and hated over the years.

Oh, and about the name: we are huge movie fans and movies really are like our religion. Screen Zealots seemed like the perfect fit since we truly are “Fanatical About Film” (our official tag line).

Thanks so much for reading, and welcome!

Matt & Louisa

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