The Stanford Prison Experiment

September 6, 2015 by  
Filed under Cody, Reviews

Starring: Billy Crudup, Ezra Miller, Olivia Thirlby
Directed by: Kyle Patrick Alvarez (“C.O.G.”)
Written by: Tim Talbott (debut)

In 1971, psychology professor Dr. Philip Zimbardo conducted one of the most controversial psychological experiments in history. Bringing together a group of student volunteers to play both guards and prisoners, Zimbardo’s intentions were to simulate a prison environment and study the abusive behaviors within the prison system. What happened, however, was that everyone, including Zimbardo himself, become entrenched and absorbed into their roles and psychological degradation, humiliation, and empowerment began. Almost 45 years later, these events are brought to the big screen in Kyle Patrick Alvarez’s “The Stanford Prison Experiment.”

The cast is a veritable who’s who of young actors who have been in minor, but effective roles. Actors like Tye Sheridan, Ezra Miller and Johnny Simmons are among a few of the actors who are great in their roles as prisoners. As each of the prisoners slowly unravel under the pressure from the guards, each actor gets to add more and more nuance and dramatic ability to their performance. On the guard side of things, Michael Angarano plays the sternest guard who takes satisfaction out of antagonizing everyone. At first as a joke, Angarano’s Christopher Archer invents an accent and swagger. As things progress, he starts to become this character and Angarano’s performance starts to get over the top. It is intentional and even necessary to show how far the guards, especially Archer, took it, but Angarano ends up feeling way too cartoonish to take seriously.

There’s a sense of real tension and discomfort that flows through “The Stanford Prison Experiment.” The film is at its best showing an unflinching portrayal of normal people who knew they only in an experiment becoming influenced, swept up in their designed roles and convinced that what they were experiencing was real. Zimbardo (played by Billy Crudup in the film) himself served as a consultant on the film and most of the conversations are lifted from actual transcripts from the experiment itself, which adds to the unease. One of the most effective things about “The Stanford Prison Experiment” is how Alvarez  perfectly captures how good-natured and amusing the experiment seemed at first and how it turned on a dime. As a study of human behavior, it’s fascinating to watch the turn of simulation blending into reality and the effects on the psyche of everyone involved from the guards, to the prisoners, down to the designers of the experimenters themselves.

If there’s a complaint to be had, it is that the film could have used a little bit of condensing. Redundant scenes of abusive behavior are hammered a little too hard and a little tightening up in the editing bay could have made the film feel a lot shorter. Well-shot, designed and with a keen 70’s aesthetic, “The Stanford Prison Experiment” is a slickly made and accurate portrait of one of the most stunning social experiments ever done and will serve as a great conversation piece for psychology students and movie-goers alike.

No Strings Attached

January 21, 2011 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Natalie Portman, Ashton Kutcher, Kevin Kline
Directed by: Ivan Reitman (“My Super Ex Girlfriend”)
Written by: Elizabeth Meriwether (debut)

To the average moviegoer, terms like “romantic comedy” and the less chivalrous-sounding “chick flick” are probably synonyms. A few clever filmmakers have discovered ways to divert from the typical clichés and create those rare date movies men and women can sit through without wondering why the hell they’re on a date with someone who enjoys this crap. In the last five years: “Lars and the Real Girl,” “Ghost Town,” “(500) Days of Summer,” and almost everything directed by Judd Apatow have been noteworthy contributions to the generally watered-down genre.

Then there are movies like “No Strings Attached,” a rom-com so desperate to be the next “The 40 Year Old Virgin” or “Knocked Up” (and thus peeling away the “chick flick” label) it only manages sporadic moments of originality before reverting back into safety-first Kate Hudson-mode.

It’s unfortunate, since “Strings” is starred by Natalie Portman, who comes off the most impressive role of her career in “Black Swan.” She rarely flaunts her comedic chops, much less in a rom-com as easily accessible as this. Here, she plays Emma, a cynical medical student-in-residence who opts for a casual sex-only relationship with Adam (Kutcher), a soft-hearted TV production assistant she’s known since his horny teenage years. Of course, with copulation comes those icky things called feelings and before another box of Trojans opens, the sexcapades have turned into fully-clothed spooning sessions (a no-no in “friends with benefits” etiquette).

While Portman is still charming despite the lightweight and occasionally raunchy dialogue by first-time screenwriter Elizabeth Meriwether, the same can’t be said for Kutcher’s coyness. At least in a movie like “(500) Days of Summer,” actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt was believable as a genuinely nice guy who falls in love with an icy princess. Kutcher’s mushy façade, however, is pitiful. It’s hard to accept him as a hopeless romantic when he’s drunk-dialing girls and asking them if they know of a place where he can put his boner.

At times, director Ivan Reitman (“My Super Ex Girlfriend”) seems like he might cross the line and actually give these characters spines. But Reitman, who has never really gotten any dirtier than campers reading smut in “Meatballs,” is out of his element. Forcing the issue only makes matters worse, especially in a movie that mistakes a little fun between the sheets with edge.

The Wackness

August 6, 2008 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Ben Kingsley, Josh Peck, Olivia Thirlby
Directed by: Jonathan Levine (“All the Boys Love Mandy Lane”)
Written by: Jonathan Levine (debut)

For a film that prides itself in its 90’s references, “The Wackness” has a lot more to offer audiences that just a look back to a music era featuring the Wu Tang Clan and Biggie Smalls. Even though they’re high most of the time, the smartly-written characters are the most redeeming part of this independent surprise from director/writer Jonathan Levine.

In “The Wackness” (which is apparently slang for the opposite of dopeness), Luke Shapiro (Josh Peck) is spending his first summer after graduating from high school trying to figure out what he is going to do for the rest of his life. Set in 1994 in New York City, Luke spends his time dealing dope from his ice cream cart and crushing on his shrink’s stepdaughter Stephanie (Olivia Thirlby).

Dr. Squires (Ben Kingsley, who can always play some great offbeat characters; see most recently “Sexy Beast” and “You Kill Me”), who doesn’t approve of his infatuation with Stephanie, really can’t use the fact that Luke sells drugs to deter the relationship. The reason: Squires trades counseling sessions with Luke for weed. Their interesting relationship isn’t in jeopardy despite the weird set-up. Luke and Squires need each other. Squires needs him for his pot and Luke needs him because he seems to be the only one that listens to him since his parents have been preoccupied with financial problems.

This makes for a very bizarre coming-of-age tale as both men use one another to grow out of their somber personalities. Squires’s middle-age crisis begins as his wife (Famke Janssen) becomes more distant to him. He finds physical satisfaction to ease his pain when he meets fellow hippie Union (Mary-Kate Olsen, who reminds me of Lisa Bonet’s character in “High Fidelity”).

As a stoner movie, “The Wackness” is presented a bit differently than the upcoming “Pineapple Express” or others of the past like the “Harold & Kumar” series. This one is character-driven and considerate of the relationships it nurtures throughout the film. Although it might overplay the nostalgic angle at times (the Nintendo reference is funny and the music does transport you back to the early ’90s), “The Wackness” manages to sail smoothly with some fine performances by its cast and a novice director who actually comes in with a reasonable vision.