Archive | October, 2015

The Stanford Prison Experiment (2015)

10 Oct

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

SPOILER WARNING (but this is based on a real study)

Imagine if you were placed in a situation where it was “you” versus “them.” What would you do? What would you say? What would you feel?

Some high-school or college psychology classes tend to teach about the Stanford Prison Experiment, which was an experiment ran by Dr. Philip Zimbardo in the early 1970s to investigate the cause of conflict between prisoners and guards by hiring 18 male Stanford students and dividing them up into one group or the other. A campus building basement was transformed into a makeshift prison and the guards took turns as three at a time kept the prisoners in order. It was supposed to last for two weeks, but due to the constant bullying to the point of psychological pain brought on by the guards, Zimbardo pulled the plug on the experiment after only six days. What did he want to prove? That the personalities of the guards and the prisoners tied with the brutality within prison settings? That people can and will change under pressure, given similar circumstances such as environment? Maybe both? Either way, it shouldn’t have happened in the first place, and he must’ve known it shouldn’t go on for another week. After only six days, it had already become violent and unpredictable; who knows what could’ve happened later?

The experiment has been the subject of many documentaries and a few narrative films (as well as term papers, for that matter), and with “The Stanford Prison Experiment,” director Kyle Patrick Alvarez and writer Tim Talbott’s fictional interpretation, based on Zimbardo’s book, “The Lucifer Effect,” may be the definitive narrative film about the subject, eyeing conflicts from both sides, the watchers (Zimbardo and his staff) and the watched (not just the prisoners but the guards as well), with a cold, objective tone. As a result, it’s chilling, shocking, and thought-provoking; one of the most disturbing films of the year.

It’s helped not only by the skillful filmmaking but also by the acting. Billy Crudup makes Zimbardo less than noble as an observer oddly compelled to keep going, despite himself becoming part of the experiment as well. Nelsan Ellis is strong in a role as an actual former prisoner who has some advice about the experiment and backs out when he becomes the very thing he hated for a long time. Olivia Thirlby shines in a brief but pivotal role as Zimbaro’s girlfriend who is appalled at what she sees. That leaves very impressive ensemble work from the many young actors playing prisoners and guards. Since they are not there to have characters of their own, only a few stand out—Michael Angarano, who is very chilling as a sadistic guard who takes influence from Strother Martin in “Cool Hand Luke”; Ezra Miller, who is heartbreaking as a prisoner who cracks as he realizes the authenticity of the experiment; Tye Sheridan, a rebellious prisoner; and Thomas Mann, a replacement prisoner who tries to cut through the “experiment.”

Alvarez and Talbott must have followed the source material closely, as we see almost exactly how the experiment gradually fell apart. There aren’t many clear answers, but the best thing about the film is how many questions it raises about human nature, as we ourselves interpret how the guards and prisoners acted certain ways because we can imagine how we would act in a similar situation. When I left the theater after I saw this film, I had a forty-minute drive home. The whole time I was driving, I kept imagining how I would behave if I was a guard or a prisoner. If I were a prisoner, would I be passive and take it or stand up for myself and fight back? If I were a guard, would I just do my duty or would I lose my head and get rough? I had to look deep within myself. That’s the effect “The Stanford Prison Experiment” had on me. It’s a film I won’t forget anytime soon. I hope to see it a second time with someone I could discuss it with to see what we both come up with in our conclusions.

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Escobar: Paradise Lost (2015)

10 Oct

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

I guess I should start this review by saying that the title, “Escobar: Paradise Lost,” makes it seem like Pablo Escobar is the central focus of the film. That is not the case. Like “The Last Kind of Scotland,” “Me and Orson Welles,” and “My Week With Marilyn,” “Escobar: Paradise Lost” is less about the historical figure and more about how a young person sees him or her during a life-changing experience. I think “Me and Escobar” or “Escobar and Me” or even “The Escobar Supremacy Ruined My Life” would’ve been better (just kidding).

Because the performance by Benicio Del Toro as Escobar is so brilliant, people have complained that this film fell back on its potential by having its main character be a less-than-interesting young man trapped in Escobar’s world. But for what it is, I think “Escobar: Paradise Lost” is still a riveting drama with a lead that is unfairly evaluated. At its core is the story of a young man who realizes too late what he’s gotten himself into, leading to confusion and betrayal. This story’s been done before, but if done right, it can still work effectively, which I believe is the case here.

Josh Hutcherson stars as Nick Brady, a young Canadian surfer who lives in a surf shack on a beach with his brother (Brady Corbet) and his family. When Nick meets and becomes involved with a young beauty named Maria (Claudia Traisac), she invites him to meet her family, including her uncle, Pablo Escobar. Nick is naïve enough to believe that Escobar’s cocaine trade is for medicinal purposes and he’s only exporting “the national product,” so he falls in with the family. But as time goes by, little does he know that Escobar has been gradually luring him into his circle of influence, and by the time he understands the danger he’s in and is about to leave town with Maria, he’s called in to hide the “goods” to a secret location, where he must shoot and kill a local who will take him there.

This leads to a very well-done, extended, suspenseful sequence after which Nick meets the guide he is supposed to kill…and it’s a kid. The tension mounts over a long period of time, as horrified Nick is nervously trying to think of what to do. The back half of the film is the most powerful portion, with action, suspense, and even drama.

Benicio Del Toro is only on screen for I’d say about half of the film, but his presence dominates the entire film with a creepy blend of allure and malice, as he orders death with straightforwardness while holding family and God close to heart. Del Toro plays a monster in human form.

Josh Hutcherson, one of my favorite young actors working today, is quite believable in a role that may not have been written well but is surpassed by his credibility. There’s a scene late in the film where he comes to a hasty decision in order to attempt to save someone, and he plays it very effectively. Because of his performance, I didn’t mind that this was our lead and Escobar was merely second-billing.

My only problems with the film involve the supporting cast. There aren’t many memorable characters in either Nick’s family or Escobar’s circle, and this can welcome criticism with an obvious comparison (“The Godfather”), but then again, this isn’t that film, though it would’ve been nice to meet someone else on the same level as Del Toro. As for the relationship involving Nick and Maria, it falters because Maria starts out interesting but then becomes less of a character as the film moves along.

And something else people complain about with this film is that it’s two movies at once—a true story of the notorious Colombian drug lord of the early 1990s and an action-thriller about an innocent trapped in a web of violence. I would agree with that, but I’m not going to judge too harshly on it, because the film begins with Escobar telling Nick what he needs him to do while hiding the drugs and then flashes back to Nick’s surfing days before he even met Maria. So it keeps the tension level up by telling us something important, showing how it came to this, and then catching back up to where it left off. So I didn’t mind.

Maybe a biopic starring Del Toro as Pablo Escobar would’ve been intriguing because Del Toro does such a good job in the role, but for what it is, I recommend “Escobar: Paradise Lost,” due to Del Toro’s powerful performance, Hutcherson’s charisma, and a skillfully crafted second half.

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (2015)

10 Oct

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

I might use this review as an opportunity to write about two pet peeves I have with some recent quirky, independent comedy-dramas. One is what I like to call Kind of Aware But Not Quite; that’s when a film is so self-aware of itself that it has a character point out the clichés, thinking that commenting on it will make it less of a cliché. The other is Excessive Comic Relief: desperate side characters thrown in by screenwriters who don’t think the comic relief they have already isn’t funny enough—these people tend to A) appear as if they’ve come from another planet of social skills, B) distract away from the plot & leads, as if they should have a movie of their own, and C) are not very funny. (There’s also D) all of the above.)

It may seem a little odd that I’m going into these pet peeves in a review of a movie I like rather than a movie I dislike, but I decided to because…I came close to disliking “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl.” This film has its heart in the right place, is visually interesting, and has a fresh, engaging trio of young people to focus on. It’s also a little too self-indulgent and features some strange, off-putting side characters that I’m sure are funny to some but just strange to me. (But hey, it apparently worked for everyone at Sundance, seeing as how it received the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award.) But honestly, after watching this film twice, the material I like, I find I really like. It makes up for some of the things I find off-putting in this film.

Based on the novel by Jesse Andrews (who also wrote the screenplay), “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” centers on a high-school senior named Greg (Thomas Mann). He’s narcissistic, socially awkward, has little to no ambition in life, is very neutral on school grounds (so he doesn’t make any friends or enemies), and is a classic-film lover. He also makes bad home movies, which are parodies of classics (for example, “Brew Vervet” for “Blue Velvet”), with his only friend, Earl (R.J. Cyler), whom he doesn’t label as his “friend” even though they’ve known each other since kindergarten.

Greg’s classmate, Rachel (Olivia Cooke), is diagnosed with leukemia. Greg hardly knows her, but his overbearing mother (Connie Britton) insists that he pay her a visit. With his honest, offbeat, oddly charming manner, he manages to get through Rachel’s defenses and soon enough, they become close friends. One of the best things about this film is the relationship between Greg and Rachel. It’s not romantic; it’s platonic and very sincere. It starts out awkward (though believably so) and gets better for them along the way. You could argue that maybe they do love each other, but their interaction and bond is stronger than that in terms of friendship, and we never even see them kiss. What makes it all the more interesting and tragic is that Rachel needs a close friend or some kind of emotional asset now that her mortality is more seeming than ever. Greg doesn’t know it, but he needs one too.

The underlying drama is the best part of the film, but some of the comedy works well too. I laughed at a few lines of dialogue and some situations (such as when Greg and Earl are accidentally stoned at school). What don’t work so well for me are the captions that tell us which scene we’re in (for example, “The Part I Meet a Dying Girl”) and how deep we are into the “Doomed Friendship,” as Greg (our narrator) labels it. The film borders on being too cute for its own good; using voiceover narration, Greg also winks at clichés the film inevitably uses—it doesn’t really work, especially when it tries to make something predictable unpredictable. And then there are the “characters” of Greg’s weird father (Nick Offerman, often a victim of the Excessive Comic Relief—when will he find a good movie role?) who moseys about the house in his robe, cooking up strange meals; Greg’s mother who is so overbearing that it’s kind of humorous (which I guess is the point); and Rachel’s mother (Molly Shannon), who would be more interesting if we got more of a sense of how she feels about her daughter dying but is instead a strange woman who’s often with a drink in her hand and lusts over Greg at first sight, calling him “delicious” and “yummy.”

What does work in “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” is the interaction between Greg and Rachel, Greg and Earl, and Greg, Rachel, and Earl (though all three don’t get that much screen time together as a unit). Their dialogue sounds natural, their offbeat personalities are appealing, and their performances are very strong. Thomas Mann plays Greg almost like the complete opposite of who John Hughes was looking for in a high-school teen; the “anti-Ferris-Bueller” who doesn’t want to be noticed and wants to live in his own world without any worries or fears or even ambitions. When he gets an awakening, it feels less than artificial and forced, and it’s to Mann’s credit that he’s able to make us feel when he realizes something unique. Also, He’s not afraid to make Greg even unlikable at times, but he never loses sympathy and he’s always believable. “Believable” is also too big of an understatement to describe Olivia Cooke’s performance as “the dying girl.” She’s more credible than many cancer patients I’ve seen in movies and is very charming as well. The terrific newcomer R.J. Cyler starts out as central comic relief (comic relief that is essential to the movement of the plot and the growth of the lead character) and develops into something more as the story continues. God bless Nick Offerman and Molly Shannon, but they never felt believable to me, especially in comparison to these three fine young actors.

The look and feel of this film reminds me of a Wes Anderson production in the way the camera moves or where it is placed, and that really works, especially when the film is being “cute.” It’s a good balance that makes the overall film charming. It’s when I mention the look that I realize it’s a film that really wants me to like it and tries everything to win me over, and I just can’t help myself.

Without giving the ending away (though you probably know the inevitable result), it hammers in effectively the importance of friendship and ambition, and it delivers a true wakeup call for Greg (and without dialogue too). It’s sad, but the film really earned its sadness by this point.

Oh, and of course, I can’t forget to talk about the home movies made by Greg and Earl. Glimpses of them are seen here and there, and they are brilliant! That’s all I’ll say about it.

“Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” may suffer from Kind of Aware But Not Quite and Excessive Comic Relief, but it has strengths apart from them. It’s charming, has winning lead characters, is well-directed by Alfonso Romez-Rejon, is well-constructed, and has more than enough for me to recommend despite my pet peeves.

Napoleon Dynamite (2004)

7 Oct

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Vote for Pedro.” I challenge you to find anyone who doesn’t immediately get that reference.

“Napoleon Dynamite” is certainly a strange film. I tend to refer to it as the “anti-teen-movie” or the “anti-coming-of-age-movie.” It’s a slice of life centered around some particularly strange characters who live in worlds all their own. These people are so off-putting that they’re the very reason people either love it or hate it. If you can’t tell by the Verdict rating, I belong to the former group.

The title character is a high-school teenager who would be classified as a “nerd” due to his outward appearance (thick glasses, odd fashion sense, and hair that must’ve taken hours to look bad), deadpan monotone, and asocial behavior, but you might be far off. This kid, Napoleon Dynamite (Jon Heder), wouldn’t even fit in with the other nerds at school because he’s so repellent and aggressively obnoxious. This isn’t one of those high-school dramas that portray teenage outcasts as tragic figures; we see more than enough of Napoleon to realize he probably deserves to be an outsider.

And yes, he is the protagonist of “Napoleon Dynamite,” and in any other movie, he would be one of the worst movie characters in history. But with this film, it strangely works, because the film itself is so low-key and with a good amount of biting satire that it’s easy for me to admire the decisions director-writer Jared Hess and his wife, co-writer Jerusha Hess, make with it and their characters. They have conveyed a tone in this film that really works because everything is underplayed and so is everyone. Let me put it this way—the comedy in “Napoleon Dynamite” works not because the actors are playing their parts or the material for laughs but because they aren’t, and as the movie goes, their characters grow on us. (State a quote from this movie, and there’s no doubt many people won’t know who or what you’re referencing.)

Who else in this group of strange characters can we count off? Well, there’s Napoleon’s older brother, Kip (Aaron Ruell), who is almost as asocial as he is. He still lives with Napoleon and their grandmother, and his daily life revolves around an Internet Chat Room. (Their grandmother gets very little screen time, but I’d like to know more about her, especially considering what we see of her social life.) Then there’s Uncle Rico (Jon Gries), a pathetic 30-something ex-jock who constantly lives in the past and hopes to relive his glory days of playing football; after Grandma is hospitalized, Uncle Rico stays at the house with Napoleon and Kip (anything to get away from his trailer), and he and Kip go into business as door-to-door salesmen, selling the most bizarre products.

Pedro (Efren Ramirez) is Napoleon’s only friend. He’s the new kid in school and has as much trouble fitting in as Napoleon. What’s so strange about their friendship is that they are often together and exchange words with each other, but they rarely show any emotion whatsoever. Then there’s Deb (Tina Majorino), a shy, awkward girl who has a crush on Napoleon for…reasons, I’m sure. Pedro asks her to the upcoming dance, so Napoleon, having been stood up by his date, has to cut in for one dance.

There isn’t much that happens in “Napoleon Dynamite.” The closest thing it has to a story is introduced in the back half, in which Napoleon and Pedro start a campaign for Pedro to become Class President, with Napoleon as Pedro’s campaign manager. His opponent is a stuck-up popular girl, Summer (Haylie Duff), who Pedro once asked to the dance. (By the way, I love how she responds.) But even that doesn’t have much of a focus, nor does the buildup to the dance or hardly anything else. It just leads to a payoff where Napoleon ultimately gains some kind of victory (though not on the account of anything you might expect, keeping in consistency). “Napoleon Dynamite” is mainly an episodic slice-of-life where we spend an hour-and-a-half spending time with odd, quirky characters, particularly the sadsack loser Napoleon. Strangely enough, there are even side-spots which we’re not even sure why they’re there in the first place. For example, Napoleon and Kip visit a steroid-built dojo owner named Rex (Diedrich Bader), who shares his unorthodox advice on how to defend yourself. What does this have to do with anything? I’ve never figured this out, but it just adds to the “stuff-happens” element that the film offers.

The film doesn’t force us to hate these characters, because it doesn’t necessarily mock or even hate them. It shows its heart near the end and we can appreciate any hint of redemption these people might have in their lives. The film isn’t about that, mind you, but it does show a bit of hope seeping underneath the surface.

As someone who is generally a fan of coming-of-age/slice-of-life movies, I find “Napoleon Dynamite” to be very funny and even more admirable in the way they go against what this type of film usually offers and delivers. Maybe that’s why people seem to be split on it. Some people look at it like I did—a charming, unusual comedy with amusingly disconcerting characters. Others have seen it a different way, because they’re turned off by the film’s characters and tone, they don’t find it funny, and/or they expected something different and more generic. The former group has turned the film into a cult classic. I’m happy to call myself a part of that “cult.”