A Trip To The Movies (Double Feature): Reviews – “The Stanford Prison Experiment” and “Tangerine” 8.2.15

The Stanford Prison Experiment Movie Poster

The first film of my double feature was one that I listed in my “Top 10 Most Anticipated Films of the Summer Movie Season” section back in June. As someone who has an undergraduate degree in Psychology I find just about any and everything interesting that’s even remotely related to exploring why we as humans act and think in the way that we do. Most everyone I know with even the slightest interest in Psychology knows about the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment that took place in the 1960’s at the ivy league university. An experiment that set out to try to found out whether or not the personality traits between prisoners and guards was the chief cause for the abusive behavior between them. The test itself consisted of one very prominent Stanford University professor, some of his hand chosen colleagues, and a sample group of college students – each interviewed and handpicked prior to the experiment, each of whom were also told very little about the actual experiment itself other than that they would be getting paid $25 a day for their participation in it (not a bad day’s pay for a college student in the 1960’s) and that it would last 2 weeks taking place over summer break. The professor in charge, Philip Zimbardo, and his colleagues then hand-picked 24 students each to split up into 2 groups of 12 – one group which would act as “prison guards” and the other the “prisoners” in the basement of one of the university’s lecture halls that would be made up to resemble a prison. From that point forward for the next 2 weeks they would be put under surveillance and studied by professor Zimbardo and his colleagues 24 hours a day around the clock to study the psychology behind control and the abuses of power. As one unfortunate student (played by “We Need To Talk About Kevin” and “The Perks of Being a Wallflower”‘s Ezra Miller) gives prior to the experiment – “I hope I get chosen to be a prisoner”. When asked why he responds – “because it sounds like they’d have the least amount of work to do”. Boy could he have never been more wrong.

This was one of those films, at least in the opinion of this writer, that is catered towards a certain demographic. If you’re the type of person who is into Psychology like myself, and don’t discriminate as to whether it explores either the good or bad in people, well, then this movie should be just about right up your alley. It’s a strong, assured piece of work from its young director, 32-year old Kyle Patrick Alvarez, who tackles one of the more difficult topics with a sense of authenticity that I thought the other 2 films depicting the same experiment – 2001’s “Das Experiment” and especially the forgettable and passable “The Experiment” (2010) failed to do right. Where credit should be given first off should be to the film’s amazing cast. Billy Crudup as Professor Philip Zimbardo winds up being a great casting choice. As does some of the experimentees played by a slew of some of the more notable, young and up-and-coming actors in the business including the aforementioned Ezra Miller (always excellent and a scene stealer here), Tye Sheridan (“The Tree of Life”, “Mud”, “Joe”), and James Frecheville (who I’ve literally been waiting to see reappear since his fantastic work in 2010’s “Animal Kingdom”) as well as several other familiar young actors (I name those 3 specifically because they were the highlights of the film, at least for me). Director Alvarez, this being only the third film into his career, should also be given a fair amount of credit for tackling a rather difficult subject and making it seem real. His posterity and confidence behind the lens shows his mastery and commitment to the material. It’s shot almost clinically and sterile, as any movie about Psychology really should be. Evoking the work of Steven Soderbergh, with his use of oblique camera angles and in terms of its controlled style. The story looks like some kind of docu-drama, which is a true testament to Alvarez as a director and his ability to “reenact” the material with such precision as he does. All of the accolades aside, what I feel almost obligated to point out here is that the film is for “thinkers”, people looking to be challenged other than to be entertaining. The little I share with you about how the experiment winds up turning out (if you don’t have any familiarity with it already) the better. But what I will say is similar to how Craig Zobel’s “Compliance” (2012) depicted humans subordinance to authority figures, well this film explores the same terrain and does so in a way that’s more unflinching and shows it exactly for how it may have really unfolded. It’s a rewarding piece of cinema if you happen to be the right viewer. But for all others it may seem like a bit of an endurance test. Not because it’s slow, but it at times feels exploitative (which I think was/is the point), and to see human beings treating one another so poorly is almost a bit tough to watch. This is a feeling and tone difficult to describe in words, but the last time I felt something close to it was with last year’s “Foxcatcher”. This a great depiction of one of history’s most notorious experiments. But it’s an experience that’s more to be admired and appreciated than it is to be entertained by. Unless you’re some sort of sadomasochist.

[strong B]

My second film in my double feature, “Tangerine”, I had been a little bit skeptical of at first, having seen a less than impressive trailer but something that I’ve heard good word-of-mouth about as well as it garnering some great reviews. My reason for my skepticism was that the film’s poster billed itself as having been “a film shot entirely on an Iphone 5”. To me that felt like a gimmick. And being in that I’m an anti-technologist, that in and of itself turned me off to it. Then a friend of mine messaged me recently and asked – “hey, have you seen “Tangerine” yet”…I thought it was one of the funnier independent comedies I’ve seen all year”. It was simply based on this person’s recommendation of it that I decided to give it a whirl. Given that it was playing right at the same time as the film prior had let out.

“Tangerine” revolves around the story of a trans gender woman living in Los Angeles named Sin-Dee. A prostitute who at the beginning of the film is released from jail after a short month-long stint for a drug charge. She meets up with the other main character of the film, her best friend Alexandra, another trans gender woman, who spends most of her time like Sin-Dee does, turning tricks for cash. The basic story line is rather simple – Sin-Dee gets word that her pimp/boyfriend, Chester, has his time during her stint in jail in the company of another prostitute, Dinah, who she vows to find and pay her back for her wrongdoings with Chester. From that point forward we see, well, the daily lives of two inner-city trans prostitutes, as they weave their way in, out, and all around L.A. in their quest to find both Sin-Dee’s cheating boyfriend Chester, and the unfortunate woman who he’s been cheating on her with while she did time for him in jail.

This was a film that had some rather strong components of it but overall wound up being a flawed one as a whole. The first thing that came to mind as I was watching it was that it felt strikingly similar to Larry Clark/Harmony Korine’s “Kids” (1995). Except with an updated, almost contemporary feel that depicted the day to day lives of trans gender people living in L.A. as opposed to teenagers living in New York City. It starts off rather engaging with a hyperkentic style and use of editing that initially reels the viewer in to its story. Also, something should be said for what I called its “gimmick approach”. As a viewer the fact that it was shot “entirely on an Iphone” didn’t once cross my mind. As director Sean Baker does a rather deft job at making it look real and not grainy as one would expect, which I found quite inspiring from a technical standpoint as in this age of film and digital movie making, you can actually film a movie (and do it well mind you) with just your phone. As reluctant and apprehensive as I am to wanting to admit it. It also boasted a great, all-instrumental score of hip-hop, electronic, and otherwise “urban” music, which I thought lended itself quite well to the material and the images we were being shown on screen. Those things aside, It mostly fell flat in terms of its execution and where the story goes with its too main leads. It tries to introduce one too many subplots in its short 90 minutes that don’t seem all that believable or maybe better put, aren’t that engaging. The many subplots makes the ongoing shifts in the film’s tone jarring and simply not all that interesting. Added into the fact that there’s a third main character who is introduced about halfway in, a cab driver on the prowl solely for trans prostitutes (which does actually produce one hilariously funny scene where he unexpectedly pays for a “non” trans person’s services only to find out via “The Crying Game” that she (or “he” as he expects her to be, isn’t really who he thinks she is). But outside of the strong look of the film and glimpse into an otherwise unfamiliar contingency of people, the current trans world, I found it to be somewhat politically incorrect (without trying to bring politics into my analysis of a film), somewhat misogynistic, and also inflammatory against the gay community. As these characters don’t really have much or dimension to them other than that they are “trans gender prostitutes”. Added into the fact that the film’s “climax” (if you want to call it that) feels underwhelming and a bit too predictable as all sides emerge to intersect with one another coincidentally. This is a film more built around a good idea than it was in its execution. Not something I would necessarily recommend, but in some ways something that I could admire in terms of conceit over storytelling.

[C+]

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Midweek Roundup: 2 New-To-DVD/VOD Reviews – “Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter” + “Manglehorn” (7.1.15)

First up in a series of back to back films I watched so far this week, was an independent film starring the Oscar nominated Rinko Kikuchi (2006’s “Babel”), in a film that had one of the more interesting concepts that I had heard about this year. And one that had a long theatrical run here in Portland, at mainly some of our more art house theaters. Coming off strong word-of-mouth and a synopsis built around a young Japanese woman (played by Kikuchi), who goes about her mundane existence somewhat jaded by the life that she’s living in as a secretary to a rather wealthy philanthropist. One day she stumbles across a VHS recording of the Coen Brothers’ Fargo (1996). She grows a certain fascination and obsessiveness with the film, particularly that of the scene where Steve Buscemi’s character buries the suitcase of money he gets from the ransom, and goes about planning a trip to the United States in hoping that she can go back to the exact location in which it was buried, in hopes that she’ll find the money and escape the monotony of her everyday life.

This was just as much of a hidden treasure of a find, much like the hidden gem of the VHS tape its main character finds and pursues as the main story line of the film. Anyone who is a fan of the original film (and I can’t speak for the series, having not seen it) will find this story entertaining as it puts a new spin on a person’s movie-fed obsession where the lines of reality and faux fiction are blurred to whereas someone who’s not familiar with movies (like the Kikucki character) might take something they see in a movie as reality and pick up where the story left off. Kind of like an updated, more contemporary version of the old series of books – “Choose Your Own Adventure”. Besides the original and inventive plot which alone should draw the viewer in. It features a rather strong, stand out performance by the brilliant and under utilized Japanese actress Kikuchi, and plays out like a character study about one woman’s hopefulness and new found sense of self-worth as she makes the trek from Tokyo to the rural icy winter of the North Dakota setting of which the original film was based in. It’s a somber piece, with a lot of it shot in beautiful wintry landscapes in the Dakotas. It allows the viewer to immerse themselves and invest in her “quest” to find the ransom money, and suspend disbelief in the sheer absurdity of her intentions. As well intentioned as they may be. This is for a specific type of target audience. For lovers of both the original “Fargo” and moviegoers looking for something a bit different than what they’re used to. I personally really enjoyed this film and the deft handling of the story, and found myself finding it to be quite enjoyable from beginning to end. This one already landed itself a spot on my list of Honorable Mentions of the films I’ve seen (so far) this year. I can say with some degree of confidence that it should not disappoint, especially for fans and lovers of more modern day, contemporary independent cinema. [strong B]

The second one up was from a director whom I really admire, the very young and talented David Gordon Green. Who’s maybe the most divisive independent filmmaker on the scene but who’s career trajectory draws similarities to that of someone like a Steven Soderbergh. Who, like Soderbergh, seems to have adapted the “one for them, one for me” approach to film-making. I loved his more indie friendly early work that he’s done with films like “George Washington” (2000) and “All The Real Girls” (2003). He then seemed to go in a bit more of a mainstream direction with films like “Pineapple Express” (2008), “Your Highness” (2011), and “The Sitter” (2011), only to seemingly be returning to his more independent roots with his back-to-back films released within the same year – 2013’s “Prince Avalanche” and the understated but brilliant character study “Joe”. So based on mere credibility alone and the shift in which his career has been taking as of late I sought this one out.

“Manglehorn” is the second feature film I’ve watched in two weeks starring Al Pacino, who, seems to be in sort of a resurgence phase as he’s been attached to more interesting looking projects like this one and the recently reviewed “Danny Collins”, also released this year. It takes a look at the life a character that seems slightly familiar to others like Bill Murray in last year’s “St. Vincent”. He’s a bigot, unlikable character, full of regrets of how his life could have played out but didn’t. In a series of voice-overs, we learn that he lost the once love of his life because well, he was too selfish to realize that he had much of a good thing going for him. He know lives in solitude as a locksmith. He sees his somewhat regularly, but because of his own failures, doesn’t seem to be able to develop much of a relationship with him. He tries to form a bond with a local banker (played by Holly Hunter) and an ex-drug addict turned massage parlor owner (played by one of the more interesting casting choices in art house director Harmony Korine). It’s through these relationships that he tried to “reconnect” with himself, but ultimately winds up failing at, because, well, he’s an old man set in his ways.

This was a mediocre film by Gordon Green, which has quite a few strong elements, particularly that of Pacino, who proves once again why he is one of the greatest actors of the past half century or so. When given the right kind of role and material, like this one, he’s one of those actors that can make a somewhat familiar, cliche driven script into something much greater than. His performance here is top notch, despite the contrived script and often times poor execution. There are themes here that will resonate with anybody, both young and old, about things like regret, remorse, and one’s ability (or lack thereof) to try and change. It’s somewhat of a mess when looked at an analyzed as a whole. But for Pacino’ performance alone, and a story that at times felt universally human, I can give it a recommendation. Along with another brilliant score by the post-rock band, Explosions in the Sky, it’s certainly not a great film, but is just good enough and worthwhile of a recommendation. [B-]

Review: ‘Joe’ 6.18.14

This is a strong, well constructed, assured directing effort by David Gordon Green, who as you may know, has recently gotten back in touch with making gritty social dramas like he did at the start of his career with films like ‘George Washington’ and ‘All The Real Girls’ over more Hollywood based fare like ‘Pineapple Express’, ‘Your Highness’, and ‘The Sitter’. You can tell, especially with this film, that’s he’s getting back in touch with his roots of telling bleak social dramas set in the South. Nicolas Cage, in what might be his finest, multi layered work since ‘Leaving Las Vegas’, just goes to prove that he’s a fine actor if given the right material (which is rare I know) and really shines here giving a stellar performance, as does Tye Sheridan, who I have to take off my hat to after a string of back-to-back quality films (‘The Tree of Life, ‘Mud’, & now this). He’s proving to be one of the promising young actors (only 17) in the business. Heartfelt, raw, confident storytelling. In a film that was just graded slightly lower was because it was a bit slow to start. This is one, in formulating my “best of the 1st half of 2014”, that is high on my list of honorable mentions. Definitely worth seeking out.

Grade: B/B+