Sundance Reviews: Z For Zachariah, Stockholm, Pennsylvania, White God

Z for Zachariah (dir. Craig Zobel)

Z for Zachariah (dir. Craig Zobel)

Editor’s Notes: The following capsule reviews are part of our coverage of the Sundance Film Festival. For more information visit their website here and follow Sundance on Twitter at @sundancefest.

Z for Zachariah (2015)
Dir. Craig Zobel

Sundance veteran Craig Zobel (Compliance) returns with his second film in three years, Z for Zachariah, an allegorical, post-apocalyptic tale that unfolds like a modern updating of the Biblical Adam and Eve story (complete with a serpent, albeit in human form) crossed with a mid-‘50s Roger Corman cheapie (e.g., The Beginning of the End) and an interracial relationship conflict inspired by the Harry Belafonte-starring The World, the Flesh, and the Devil, complete with nuclear fallout (presumably from a nuclear war), an irradiated, contaminated world (alas, without monsters or mutants, not counting those potentially in human form), and a hidden, protected evergreen valley. Starring Margot Robbie as the last, lone survivor, a country farmer with conservative religious beliefs, Chiwetl Ejiofor as a research scientist/engineer who stumbles into paradise, and Chris Pine as the not-quite-so-simple miner who intrudes on their burgeoning Garden of Eden, Z for Zachariah lacks the provocative, controversy-courting, audience-alienating punch that Compliance did three years ago, it still offers more than a few narrative pleasures, themes, and subtext, specifically racial and gender politics and a not-quite successful attempt to explore faith-based issues in what’s otherwise a relatively straightforward genre film.

Stockholm, Pennsylvania (2015)

Dir. Nikole Beckwith

Stockholm, Pennsylvania (dir. Nikole Beckwith)

Stockholm, Pennsylvania (dir. Nikole Beckwith)

A dour, dreary Lifetime Original Movie-style drama elevated by both strong central performances from Saoirse Ronan (Hanna, Atonement) as a twenty-two-year-old returned kidnapped victim, Leia/Lee Ann, Cynthia Nixon as her mother, Marcy, and Jason Isaac as Ben, the man who kidnapped her and held her in underground captivity for almost two decades. Writer-director Nikole Beckwith deserves credit for sidelining the more exploitative aspects of the premise. At the same time, however, that credit disappears when Beckwith’s attempt to turn a story of post-traumatic reintegration into society, something Martha Marcy Marlene handled significantly better. Beckwith takes a slow-build, slow-burn approach to the material, seguing between Leia/Lee Ann’s twisted relationship with Ben, who she still sees as her benefactor and mentor (despite the obvious lies he’s told for the duration of her captivity, and her present-day attempts to adjust to her new home and new family. As obsessively overprotective as Lee Ann’s kidnapper, Marcy takes increasingly extreme measures to reestablish a mother-daughter bond with Lee Ann. Beckwith’s slow-burn approach, however, often grinds to a halt, the result of heavy-handed, repetitive scenes. Overlong by twenty or thirty minutes, Stockholm, Pennsylvania loses whatever minimal goodwill it’s developed over the course of its overlong running time with a stunningly ludicrous, wrongheaded denouement straight out of a bargain-basement exploitation horror film, not a supposedly serious examination of the aftermath of a decade-and-a-half kidnapping, indoctrination, and the difficult, if not impossible, reintegration into society that would ordinarily follow in the real world.

White God (2014)
Dir. Kornél Mundruczó

The Planet of the Apes series (new and old) offered more than their fair share of social, cultural, and political commentary, some admittedly heavy-handed and over-earnest, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that another filmmaker, intentionally or not, would borrow the template that made the series so popular to explore and reflect similar issues in his or her country. In the case of Hungarian writer-director Kornél Mundruczó, non-human primates (CG or practical) aren’t the subject of White Dog, but dogs are. Under Mundruczó’s stylish, fluid direction, the canine of the title, Hagen, a Labrador-Shar Pei mixed breed, loses both his home and his human companion, Lili (Zsófia Psotta), a young girl dumped by her professor mother on her reluctant father’s doorstep for three months. Canines in the White God universe, however, aren’t universally loved. Lili’s father openly resents Hagen, his neighbor complains to the authorities about the dog, an animal control officer appears, demanding payment of a canine tax (because of Hagen’s mixed-breed status). Abandoned on the side of a road, Hagen undergoes Caesar-like trials, from joining a pack of stray dogs, being sold into virtual slavery (dog fighting), turning into a canine Spartacus and eventually leading a revolt of the oppressed dogs against their cruel human masters. As much a plea for compassion toward canines and an allegory/metaphor for the treatment/mistreatment of outsiders, specifically foreigners of any kind, White Dog never goes beyond its surface-deep themes, but Mundruczó’s direction of both human and non-human performers, action choreography, and overall style (he favors vertiginous overhead shots), make White God a worthwhile expenditure of time and effort for semi-adventurous moviegoers.


About Author

Mel Valentin hails from the great state of New Jersey. After attending New York University as an undergrad (politics and economics double major, religious studies minor) and grad school (law), he relocated from the East Coast to San Francisco, California, where he's been ever since. Since Mel began writing about film nine years ago, he's written more than 1,600 reviews and articles. He's a member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle and the Online Film Critics Society.