Raw (Ducournau; 2016)

The major Hollywood films this week are Smurfs: Lost Village and Going in Style, the movie about three octogenarians robbing a bank which really just looks to be an excuse for Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, and Alan Arkin to get a paycheck.  I’m guessing these films already have a built in audience, while I admit to having no desire to see either of them, I would have if I thought either could aspire to be anything more than they appear and they should be written about.  Given their April releases and lack of critic preview screenings, however, I’m guessing that my instincts were absolutely on target.  Therefore, I decided I’d challenge myself a bit by seeing a French horror movie which has been getting some critical buzz, and challenge myself I did.  That challenge is the focus of this review.

The average moviegoer definitely has a niche they love and will seek out, whether that be action movies, comic book flicks, romantic comedies, animated films, and so on.  In their chosen genre, they will love nearly anything thrown their way, but if a film falls outside of their favored genre then our hypothetical average Joe will complain and complain about all the reboots, sequels, overused plots and actors, and the general lack of creativity in Hollywood overall.   Here are the top 10 U.S. box office grossing films of 2016:

  1. Finding Dory ($486.2 million)
  2. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story ($425 million)
  3. Captain America: Civil War ($408 million)
  4. The Secret Life of Pets ($368.4 million)
  5. The Jungle Book ( $364 million)
  6. Deadpool ($363 million)
  7. Zootopia ($341.2 million)
  8. Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice ($330.3 million)
  9. Suicide Squad ($325.1 million)
  10. Doctor Strange ($230.1 million)

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Here we have five superhero movies, four family friendly “animated” movies (animated in quotes because I’m counting The Jungle Book as one of the four), six sequels (and only two of those sequels being only the second in a series), and all but one is based on a property that existed before the movie was made.  This is not a commentary on the creativity, intelligence, nor quality of these films as a whole, I loved quite a few of these and while I felt quite a few weren’t all that great, none made a worst of the year list of any kind for me.  I also understand that families are the biggest market for films purely because it’s something they can do together and there is by definition more than two of them.  But, one thing these films have in common is that they present no challenge to the viewer whatsoever (I’ll grant you the exception of Zootopia on that, but I think that was more of a pleasant surprise than something which was expected of it and sought out by audiences).  In fact, if you look down the list of top grossing films you have to go all the down to number 31, and Arrival, before you find a film that truly presents any kind of challenge to its viewer.  This is exactly why Hollywood keeps giving you the same familiar movies over and over again.  Because those are the movies you watch.

With that information as a guide, Raw should be a film that no one sees.  I’m going to use the word challenging yet again to describe this movie, and I’m sure I will again, because at it’s core that is what this movie is and does.  It’s themes are complex, realistic, and difficult to completely unravel, it gives us relationships that are not typical, that don’t fit normal movie tropes, but seem all the more real for it, and it is hard to simply watch at times very literally with images that are bloody, uncomfortable, and grotesque.  The original title of this film was Grave, and I am glad it was changed because that single word Raw is a perfect description of what this movie is both on a literal and a metaphorical level.

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Raw is about Justine (Garrance Marillier) the younger of two siblings who has been raised in a family of vegetarian veterinarians. The film starts with her being dropped of by her parents (Laurent Lucas and Joana Preiss) at the medical school her sister Alexia (Ella Rumpf) already attends.  After quickly meeting her new roommate (“I asked for a girl.” “You got a gay.  To these people that’s the same thing.”) Adrien (Rabah Nait Oufella) the hazing begins immediately as the older students begin terrorizing the “rookies” in a sort of friendly, sort of legitimately scary way, and after one of the hazing rituals in which lifelong vegetarian Justine is forced to eat a raw rabbit kidney, Justine finds herself changing and developing appetites she never knew she had.

Raw is billed as a horror movie, and while I won’t argue with that descriptor as this is a tense, gory, at times sadistic move, I would describe it as a coming of age movie which just happens to use horror as a vehicle to describe the transition into adulthood metaphorically rather than the more literal story telling typically used in a coming of age film.  On its surface, Raw is about a cannibal at a veterinarian college and the themes seem to be statements about meat being murder and how we can become addicted to the slaughter involved in the meat industry to the point where it becomes more impulse than conscious thought, and those are absolutely relevant themes in the film.  But, looking even deeper this is really a story about family, particularly siblings, and how we bring out both the best and the worst in each other and how much our family determines who we are even in ways we could never suspect.

While nothing in Raw is the pinnacle of artistry, everything here is well done.  The incredibly intelligent script is the best thing on display here, even if the dialogue is a bit clunky at times, the visuals are rarely art, but damn are they effective and change up styles effortlessly where needed adding to the tension and creepiness of the movie, and the acting is all well done, though in this case well done is better than most horror films and none of the performances reach any inspired level.

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My final take:   If you want a movie that challenges you in nearly every way a movie can, then Raw is absolutely a film that needs to be seen.  Every scene in this film has layer upon layer of subtext with relevant, uncomfortable themes bursting forth in every image and every added plot point.  But, be wary that this film is utterly grotesque and unflinching.  I guarantee you that at least some things in this movie will make you uncomfortable, and for the more squeamish out there you may have trouble looking at the screen at all for large chunks of the movie.  A further warning is that since this takes place at a veterinary school there are injured and dead animals in the movie, and I know that will bother many.  I don’t expect many to go see this film, I expect them to skip over this one while griping that movies never do anything original anymore.  Well, here you go.  Raw is well made, really smart, and completely original.  Now’s your chance.  It’s time for the American general audiences to put up or shut up, even though I know they won’t do either, and I actually understand the reasons why they won’t.

A Cure for Wellness (Verbinski; 2017)

Gore Verbinski is hardly a novice director.  He is the one who was in the director’s chair for Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, The Mexican, and Rango.  He also gave us two of the other Pirates of the Caribbean movies and The Lone Ranger, but, still, while he isn’t batting 1.000, he isn’t a novice.  It would be hard to tell that from this effort, though, since aside from a few of the sets here and there, A Cure for Wellness looks to be strictly amateur hour.

The movie starts with our protagonist Lockhart, played by Dane DeHaan, as a very generic young up and comer type character at a generic company that deals with money in some way or another.  Our generic protagonist has broken some rules, and is in trouble with the SEC, so when Pembroke (Harry Groener), one of the CEOs of his generic company, has announced he isn’t returning from his spa vacation in the Alps because he has seen the error of his ways and is being cured, the other CEOs tell Lockhart that he has to go bring him back.  Apparently sending a salesperson with ethics issues whom has never met his intended quarry before seems like a good idea to the CEOs of generic company, perhaps explaining why they feel they need Pembroke back so badly.a2bcure2bfor2bwellness

When Lockhart arrives at the spa he finds it has a very sordid centuries old past involving a baron, his wife, the local townsfolk, and the castle that was on this site being burned down.  He also finds that this is a retreat and treatment center for the world’s wealthiest people and that it is rare, if ever, that anyone ever leaves the treatment center.  Apparently no one has noticed that a very large percentage of the world’s most wealthy and prominent people have been disappearing  without a trace for the past century or more after going to the Swiss Alps.  Why would anyone notice that?

As preposterous and poorly thought out as this premise and set up is, the film just keeps getting more and more ridiculous as it goes on, with characters remaining completely oblivious to the very obviously macabre and unsavory goings on at the treatment center, putting the only person who does suspect anything in exactly the places he needs to discover what he needs to (Lockhart suspects things aren’t entirely kosher here, so let’s make sure we put him in the room which has a window which directly overlooks the secret underground passage), plot devices which can work one way in one scene and in exactly the opposite in the next with no explanation as to why they would be different, and so on.   There is nothing in the writing that isn’t completely amateurish from the pacing, to the plot itself, to the dialogue, and the devices.  All of it is arbitrary and generic and exists purely because someone had what they apparently thought was a good idea then had no idea how to write any of it.

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The acting is completely wooden, with not a single person showing any kind of emotion nor depth except for one singular and usually rather boring and cliched character trait which they stick to from beginning to end.  Lockhart is an ambitious sociopath, Hannah (Mia Goth) is a naive waif, Pembroke a repentant rich guy, and so on.  While the script doesn’t do the actors any favors with what they are given to work with, not a single actor does anything to even remotely rise their performance above the material and give us dull, predictable, unfocused, and sloppy performances to a person.

The camera work and visuals on display are, I suppose, meant to be unsettling, and in a way they are, but again its more because of how sloppy and vague they are rather than the fact that they hit a proper tone.  The art direction makes the hospital spa look like something Victorian even though no reason is ever given that the treatment center wouldn’t need to nor want to upgrade to modern tools and machines, and there are an awful lot of unexplained empty, dark, and just plain ugly areas in this spa, especially for one which the wealthiest people in the world clamor to go to and then never want to leave.

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Final recommendation:  A Cure for Wellness is a generic, dull, ugly film which isn’t even brave enough to reach “so bad it’s good” territory.  Don’t go see this in the theaters, and try to avoid it for the rest of your life, if possible.   But if a friend does force you to watch this someday, you could get some entertainment out of making a game which involves pointing out all plot holes and inconsistencies, though if that game involves drinking make sure you won’t be driving anywhere anytime soon, and be careful you don’t contract alcohol poisoning.