Stanford Prison Experiment, The (2015)
★★★ / ★★★★
“The Stanford Prison Experiment,” directed by Kyle Patrick Alvarez, dramatizes the infamous 1971 simulation led by Dr. Philip Zimbardo (Billy Crudup), a psychologist employed by Stanford University. The goal of the study is to document the effects prisons can have in human behavior. The subjects are male college students, randomly determined by a coin toss to either be a prisoner or a guard, and the experiment is planned to last between seven to fourteen days. The study lasted only five days.
Note that I did not—and will not—use the word “experiment.” This is because I do not consider Zimbardo’s study to be one given that it is flawed from a scientific perspective. For instance, as one character keenly points out in the film, there seems to be a lack of a control group, a requisite element in most experiments because it determines whether the dependent variable, an effect (or effects) that can be observed, truly arise due to the introduction of an independent variable—a factor (or factors) that can be added, removed, or manipulated by the persons conducting the study.
The film is wonderfully acted by everyone involved. The collective performance is strong and so it is relatively easy to invest into each group’s realities—those participating in the study, those conducting the study, and those outside of it—even though the entire situation is far from pleasant. Particular standouts are Michael Angarano, embodying a guard who tries to personify John Wayne’s toughness, and Ezra Miller, embodying a prisoner consistently pushed to the edge of breakdown. There is confidence in their performances that it is near impossible to look away when they are on screen together.
There is great control from behind the camera. The director utilizes close-ups as a way to invade someone’s personal space. Pay close attention to scenes when a guard verbally assaults a prisoner to the point where we begin to suspect that physical violence can erupt at any second. As the intensity of the confrontation increases, the distance between the camera and its subjects decreases. We are literally in the moment as a guard strips away a prisoner’s remaining humanity and what is put inside that prisoner is fear, a heavy sense of powerlessness, and shame.
But the picture is not without areas that need improvement. For example, although it is obvious why the Crudup and Olivia Thirlby scenes are necessary to the material, both playing a couple with varying degrees of empathy and ethics, their exchanges do not mean more than what they are supposed to symbolize or represent as scholars. I wanted to know more about their personal lives. At the end of the film, a subtitle notes that the two married a year after the so-called experiment and are still together today. But I ask why we should care since the material does not provide enough details outside of their professional lives. More specifically, how can Thirlby’s character, who is a psychologist herself, still choose to be with Zimbardo after seeing what he is capable of?
Nevertheless, “The Stanford Prison Experiment,” written by Tim Talbott, is absorbing and at times thought-provoking. Viewers who have taken psychology courses, like myself, will be very familiar with the study but there are enough details here that are specific and surprising. On the other hand, audiences not familiar with the “experiment” are likely to gape in awe, wondering if such a study was really allowed to happen.
★ / ★★★★
Sam (Michael Angarano) was a twenty-three-year-old children’s book writer who decided to drag Marshall (Reece Thompson), his best friend, to the seaside so that they could spend some time together since they hadn’t seen each other in about a year. But Sam had ulterior motives: the real reason why he dragged Marshall along was to sneak into Zoe’s (Uma Thurman) wedding, his pen pal, and confess his love for her. When Sam met the husband-to-be, Whit (Lee Pace), a conceited documentary filmmaker, Whit invited Sam and his friend to stay and celebrate over the weekend. I appreciated “Ceremony,” written and directed by Max Winkler, for trying to be different but I’m afraid it was just unfunny and dull. Most of the characters were unlikable, which was fine, but they had to be interesting if we were asked to invest our precious time to dig beyond the surface. I didn’t understand why Sam and Marshall were friends. Sam was controlling, cruel, and acted like he was better than his friend just because he was published. Marshall was weak, unnecessarily fixated on the fact that he was pistol-whipped months prior, and so quirky that it was distracting. Perhaps the only time I thought they were remotely interesting and amusing was when they acknowledged the growing homoeroticism between them. But my main problem was I found no reason for the story to be told. The plot element that drove the story forward was Sam’s infatuation with an older woman. If Zoe had taken Sam aside and seriously talked to him about overstepping his boundaries, the picture would have been over at its thirty-minute mark. Eventually, we reached the key conversation but the scenes prior felt contrived. Sam and Marshall’s attempt to hook up with random women at the party was cliché and, in my opinion, the approach was disrespectful and mean-spirited. They thought that it would be easy to lure an older woman to bed because older women are desperate for attention especially from younger men. I’m sure the mindset is not at all atypical especially with words like “MILF” being tossed around with utter disregard in our culture, but it could have been more sensitive. Just because Sam and Marshall looked young, they didn’t have to behave like they had low IQs. Sometimes a bit of insight could go a long way. There was one scene I thought was honest. That is, when Zoe finally told Sam the reason why Whit invited the author and his friend to stay. It was the kind of honesty that was difficult to swallow but at the same time it was exactly what Sam needed so that, potentially, he would realize that unreciprocated love wasn’t the end of the world. “Ceremony” brashly tackled big emotions but the small details involving human behavior to make drama work were absent. With slight alterations in the screenplay, it would have worked as a comedy of manners.
Red State (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★
A dead teen was found in the dumpster at the back of the town’s most popular gay bar. It was reported that he was wrapped in plastic from head to toe and authorities believed that it was some form of ritualistic murder. Despite these happenings, Travis (Michael Angarano), Jarod (Kyle Gallner), and Billy-Ray (Nicholas Braun) accepted an online sex ad posted by an older lady (Melissa Leo) on Craigslist. As they headed to the trailer home’s bedroom, the trio lost consciousness. Their bodies were taken to a church by a group of religious zealots, led by Abin Cooper (Michael Parks), to be “punished” for their sins. “Red State,” written and directed by Kevin Smith, was brutal, intense, and sometimes devoid of reason. I think it was meant to incite frustration and anger with the religious extremists’ talk of hatred toward homosexuals, how that one group of people was responsible for the world going to hell. It wasn’t easy to watch, not because of the violence, but because for at least fifteen minutes, we were forced to sit in that church and listen to Abin Cooper summoning fire and brimstone, even implying that the tsunami that ravaged Thailand in 2004 was not only an act of God in order to set an example but it was actually deserved. I was in rage, in a red state, if you will, because in the back of my mind, I knew people like them existed somewhere. I admired the writer-director’s decision to allow the story’s exposition to take up almost half of the picture’s running time. It was necessary that we understood the evil within that church before we were introduced to Joseph Keenan (John Goodman), who was called to arrest the cult members for suspicion of illegally storing firearms, because we were asked to weigh between right and wrong. Sure, the adult cult members needed to be apprehended, preferably dead according to Keenan’s superiors, but there were also children and minors inside. Not all of them were innocent; they, the teens, knew that people were being taken and killed, but none of them had actually partaken in the physical act of taking and killing. However, it didn’t expunge the fact that they ignored their moral responsibility to report a crime. What didn’t work as strongly were the shootout scenes. They dragged for what seemed like an hour. I understood that governmental law and the word of God were literally at war but it eventually started to feel like an action film. Following Keenan as he searched for a kill shot was less exciting than what was happening inside the church. I preferred watching Goodman connecting with someone else, whether it be face-to-face or via cellphone. His pauses, stutters, and variation in voice implied great experience in law enforcement and I was so fascinated with what he was going to do next. His speech regarding a pair of bloodhounds toward the end was brilliantly executed and it summed up the crazy, somewhat otherworldly happenings up to that point. “Red State” defied the conventions of the horror genre. Instead of focusing on the gore to entertain, using violence as a tool, it made a statement about religion and politics: sometimes the two make no sense at all.
Black Irish (2007)
★★ / ★★★★
Here’s another indie film that suffers from the Everyone Must be Depressed Syndrome. After all, it’s about an extremely dysfunctional family whose members are emotionally distant from one another. Michael Angarano plays the youngest of the McKay family and is surrounded by people he wants to look up to but are often disappointed with them: a father who keeps secrets and seems to have no positive outlook on life (Brendan Gleeson), a mother who cares too much about what other people would think so she guilts her children into doing the “right” thing (Melissa Leo), a brother who everyone gave up on because he can’t control his criminal proclivities (Tom Guiry), and a pregnant sister who wants to escape her family’s suffocating environment (Emily VanCamp). Even though each of the actor is featured and sewn into the big picture in some way, I felt like it was too forced. Stories about families must be organic because they have a natural connection to one another despite their idiosyncrasies. Angarano is really coming into his own; he’s come a long way from “The Brainiacs.com” and “Will & Grace.” Like in “Snow Angels,” he’s able to add layers and complexity to his character even though the movie is barely above mediocre. As for Guiry, I’m tired of seeing him as a damaged tough guy like in “The Mudge Boy.” Whatever happened to that nice harmless kid in “The Sandlot”? Even though I think he’s extremely talented, I think he’s repeating the same characters. I knew Emily VanCamp would have no problem with the dramatic scenes. Ever since “Everwood,” she proves to me time and again that she can look sad without trying. In essence, I felt that Guiry and VanCamp are merely cruising along and that really frustrates me because I know they can perform at a higher level. Perhaps they could have done so if the writing and direction (both credits go to Brad Gann) are sharper. Since this is Gann’s directoral debut, clichés tend to pile up on one another. But the nice thing about this movie is that it offers the characters some kind of hope at the end of the tunnel. Even though that hope is somewhat bittersweet, it’s what the characters desperately needed (so did the audiences). I also liked the fact that not everything in the film is solved because it gives the picture some sort of realism. I’m not against recommending this film because it does have some memorable scenes. But I’m not going to enthusiastically recommend it either because it has the kind of story that has been featured by better films.