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+]

A Trip (Back) To The Movies – Review: “Spring Breakers” (2012) 4.5.15

Spring Breakers Movie Poster

I was excited when I saw that our local college student run movie theater was showing this as the first film of their spring season. I’ve always been a firm believer that movies aren’t always better, but deserved to be witnessed on the big screen. It’s an entirely different experience from that of the privacy of your own home. The great thing about living in a city like Portland is you can re-experience or experience something for the first time at one of our many local area theaters that show older films, so that those of us can get a chance to revisit older films as they were intended to be seen – on the big screen. I remember seeing this film twice in theaters when it got a limited wide release early in 2013 and was so impressed by it that it made my “Top 10 Films of 2013”. First off, I have always been a fan of Harmony Korine’s work. Though like other directors (Lars Von Trier comes to mind), his films have always been a bit esoteric. Korine is a provocateur, who seems to be always pushing the envelope, which is essentially what he’s been doing ever since he first gained notoriety when he wrote the screenplay at the age of 18 for Larry Clark’s “Kids” (1995). A landmark achievement of a film that explored the daily lives of a group of New York City teenagers as they did well, what teenagers did at the time and still do – consume. Whether it’s by having copious amounts of sex, partying, or drinking and drugging their way through adolescence. It was one of the most controversial films of the decade but while it was shocking and explicit, it also was a revealing depiction of what it’s like to be a teenager and the types of poor choices they make in their more formative years because let’s face it – teenagers think they’re invincible. “Kids” was and always will remain a deeply important film because it depicted a slice of life that most of us experienced as we numbed ourselves through our formative years for no other reason other than that it seemed like “the thing to do”.

“Spring Breakers” is essentially a companion piece to “Kids”. Korine’s screenplay seems to explore similar ideas and themes, just set in more current, modern-day times. This time focusing on a group of college students (played against Disney typecast by Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Benson, and Korine’s own wife – Rachel Korine) as they take a spring break trip to hell. The film starts with a brilliant opening montage that looks like something out of a “Girls Gone Wild” video set to a loud and abrasive Dubstep piece by the king of the EDM/Dubstep scene – Skrillex (who collaborates on the film’s score with who’s arguably the best film composer in the business – Cliff Martinez). It’s filmed in slow motion and shows countless crowds of college students engaged in just about every act of spring break debauchery – drinking beer bongs, girls flashing just about every body part, guys pouring bottles of beer on them, everyone flipping off the camera, etc. This does a great job in setting the tone for the rest of the film. It then flashes back to the four female central characters eagerly anticipating the end of the term so that they can join the ranks of college students who flock each year down to exotic locations in chase of some sort of cathartic experience in which they can go all out without any care in the world for any repercussions for the lewd behavior in which they choose to engage in. The four girls take a trip down to Florida in hopes of searching for the “American Dream” (as you’ll often hear Spring Break referred to in the film) winding up in some kind of nightmare as they experience the dark side of what happens when you wind up in the aftermath of Spring Break. It’s within the film’s second half, when the girls are taken out of the Spring Break culture after being arrested and bailed out by the film’s most integral character, Alien (played by a scene stealing, career best performance by James Franco, complete with cornrows and a full grill on his teeth). It’s within the second half of the film that I felt like Korine really starts to explore some of the underlying themes of the film and his intentions for doing so.

“Spring Breakers” is a vile and repulsive film about our generation’s fascination with sex, violence, consumerism, and over consumption. It seemed liike many people didn’t quite know what to make of the film as Korine does an expert job at mis-marketing it to look like something it’s actually not. While also being his most accessible (which is easy coming from the director of films like “Gummo” and “Trash Humpers”), commercially successful (it was the top grossing limited release of 2013), and also his most satirical and misunderstood film to date. One thing I realized during my third viewing of the film, is that you kind of have to be looking through Korine’s lens and the world in which he depicts, to understand the film’s subtext. Korine is in no way glamorizing or sensationalizing the world in which these characters exist in. Rather quite the opposite. He is repulsed like you or I are. This is clearly exemplified by the lifestyle of the film’s protagonist (if you want to call him that) Alien. Alien represents everything our current youth and adult culture idolizes – excess and the allure of money. He appears to have it all that any young person could want on the surface – lots of money, a fast car, a beautiful home on the water, endless supplies of drugs…the list goes on and on. But he’s also a byproduct of living in a society of consumerism and endless consumption. For all of his many materialist riches his life is void of anything or substance or meaning. There’s a segment in the film that many people laughed at but which I found downright deplorable. While in his home he shows off his many “riches” – money scattered everywhere, an artillery wall for his guns, an endless supply of drugs, a bed made of art, swim shorts in every color (look at my SHIT!). He embodies everything almost any young man or women could want, or at the very least, would want to be around (hence his appeal to the four female leads). Franco plays the character to a T. In one of those iconic roles that you really can’t picture any other actor being able to pull off. It’s a total transformative performance that ranks up there with some of the best of the past few years.

While the first half of the film is filmed like some sort of dream complete with rich candy colors (Korine and DP of photography Benoit Debie, who’s prior work on Gasper Noe’s “Enter The Void” (2009) was a cited influence for the “look” of the film).The film’s second half is filmed in slightly more muted colors, with many of the scenes taking place at sunset or night (a nicely, rather intentional decision of contrast by Korine). The way in which it’s filmed also has a Terrence Malick-esque feel (“The Tree of Life”) as the cinematography takes on a free-floating, soaring, stream-of-consciousness quality to it with many scenes using voice-over narration in showing multiple shots and quick edits of its characters. The film goes from Girls Gone Wild sex romp in its first half to semi-tragedy in its second. I could go on and on about the satirical elements Korine seems to want to get across to his audience. But I’ll end by saying this, like Bobcat Goldthwait’s biting satire – “God Bless America” (2011) did, Korine does a good job at putting up a mirror to our generation’s cultural climate, where we see ourselves in, but are too ashamed or embarrassed to admit it. Which is essentially what I think turned most people off to this film. It’s my favorite of all of Korine’s work to date, and in years to come, will be discovered as a dug up artifact to remind the future of the materialistic, self-serving, superficial, and hopeless reflection of both the times and society in which we currently live in.

[A-]