Movie reviews

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They_Look_Like_People_review

The creepiness factor with They Look Like People starts with the name. Who looks like people? They? Who are they? If they only look like people, what do they really look like? Let your imagination run with it. Rest assured your questions will be answered in this chilling slow burn version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers — either one — with a payoff every bit as effective and unexpected.

There’s a whole contingency of late-night call-in show wackos who believe in lizard people disguised as humans for some insidious plot. They’re crazy, right? Where’s the line that separates being ill, being imaginative, and actually being right? As the old saying goes, it’s not paranoia if they’re actually out to get you. How much can you trust the voices in your head, whether they’re affirmation tapes or messages heard on a phone that might not even work? These are the ideas that They Look Like People writer and director Perry Blackshears explores with his cast. Evan Dumouchel as a Ray Liotta crossed with Mark Duplass leading man, the endearingly Tilly-esque Margaret Ying Drake, and an appropriately bland and uncertain MacLeod Andrews.

Blackshears plays it maddeningly close to the vest, sometimes out of necessity. Given the subject matter and the guerilla style filmmaking, I can’t help but think of Larry Cohen’s God Told Me To. You probably don’t know what that is, and frankly you’re not missing much. The 70s were a hell of a thing. So think of this as a microbudget Jacob’s Ladder that relies on sound design and just the lightest touch of effects. It’s a less-is-so-much-more approach to tension. Jump scares? Who needs them? They Look Like People does what it needs to do with quiet shots, badly lit rooms, and disarming edits. It doesn’t have to lunge at you and make sudden loud noises. It’s not interested in how other horror movies do it, much less what other horror movies actually do. It’s ultimately got something else on its mind. Something far more disturbing.

Not to say it’s not a horror movie! It absolutely is. A supremely creepy one. But how many horror movies begin with the premise that greater love hath no man than he who would shave his friend’s back for him? Except for he who would repay the favor to the degree it’s repaid here.

They Look Like People is available for VOD. Support Qt3 and watch it on Amazon.com.

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Creative_Control_review

Written, directed, and starring the same person? Rarely a good sign. Sure, there are exceptions. But this is almost always a red flag. At least Creative Control’s stoatfur sleek black-and-white aesthetic and mostly unridiculous futuristic computer interfaces are eye candy for director/writer/leading man Benjamin Dickonson’s vanity project.

But a funny thing happens while you’re enjoying the tastefully restrained effects work. Dickinson might be admiring himself in the mirror, but he doesn’t expect us to join him. He’s not patting himself on the back. On the contrary, he’s spearheading a cast of flawed unlikable characters. In addition to his own weaselly ad executive, there are his wife, his best friend, and his mistress. They’re played by Nora Zehetner, the femme fatale from Brick shedding any sign of her shrewdness from that movie; a delightfully miscast Dan Gill wallowing in his role; and the flickering almond-eyed faux flawlessness of Alexia Rasmussen.

Although it’s a character drama, Creative Control is squarely sci-fi. It shares similarities with Spike Jonze’s Her, which was beautiful and heartfelt, but entirely hypothetical. We can only relate elliptically to someone falling in love with his operating system. Her is a parable about being in love with an ideal or a fantasy, and Creative Control wants to tell that same story. But whereas Her was perhaps a celebration of that love and its very real power, Creative Control has a more cynical take. Dickinson is no dreamer like Jonze. To him, technology makes it easier for us to be weak.

The more direct comparison for Creative Control is Jesse Armstrong’s brilliant The Entire History of You from the BBC anthology, Black Mirror. Creative Control doesn’t hit as hard as The Entire History of You. It’s not a punch to the gut. It doesn’t damn us quite so strongly as Armstrong’s vision of the future where we’re all doomed by our foibles, our insecurities, our weaknesses. Creative Control is a playful sock on the arm. But they’re both stories about about how the more things change, the more people are still assholes.

Creative Control is available for VOD. Support Qt3 and watch it on Amazon.com.

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Green_Room_review

Jeremy Saulnier’s Blue Ruin was a slow burn about the conflict between ruthless people and people who haven’t yet learned to be ruthless, but they’re getting there. His latest movie, Green Room, is the same thing, but without the slow. Green Room gets right to the burn and sustains it with the intensity of white phosphorous. This might sting a little. As Saulnier lets loose with bullets, fangs, and blades, Green Room isn’t shy about painting the walls red. Startlingly good effects remind us of the unpleasant fact that we’re all just flesh.

The basic story isn’t unusual. Events A, then B, then C roll out almost like clockwork (although the strangely poignant Y followed by the absurd Z are sure signs of Saulnier’s talent). You’ve seen this set-up before. What you haven’t seen is these people rolling out these events in this place. Saulnier has described Green Room as punk war horror, which has a “you got peanut butter in my chocolate” feel. It’s a bit like Bone Tomahawk, another recent horror hybrid. And like Bone Tomahawk, it’s not afraid to unleash brutality on characters you’ve come to care about.

These character are a group of likable young slackers. Yeah, they’re in a punk band, but don’t hold that against them. They seem like the kind of kids who are smart and well-intentioned enough to eventually grow out of it. You already know Anton Yelchin from Star Trek and Alia Shawkat from Arrested Development. Imogen Poots might be hard to recognize under that bad haircut. You’ll meet an actor named Joe Cole, who I’d seen trapped underwater with Danny Huston and Matthew Goode in a movie called Pressure. I hope to see more of Cole. A handful of really good character actors — including Macon Blair from Blue Ruin — fill in the blanks admirably. Patrick Stewart makes a chillingly effective ringleader presiding over the hardcore grand guignol.

Saulnier’s concept of what evil lurks in Oregon’s forests is like a nightmare version of Kelly Reichardt’s movies, which suggest Oregon as place populated by conflicted but mostly decent people, a little too smart for their own good. You don’t expect Green Room to happen in this laid back wet chill. You’d expect it in the open desert where the heat drives people mad or in remote jungles far from the taming influence of civilization. This must be what it was like when people went to theaters in 1972 to see an adventure movie about some guys going canoeing for a weekend. Little did they know they were about to watch Deliverance.

Green Room is currently in limited release. It opens wide on April 29.

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The_Invitation_review

Given the strength of Matt Manfredi and Phil Hay’s script for The Invitation, I hesitate to mention their previous credits. Suffice it to say they wrote Karyn Kusama’s Aeon Flux adaptation, a flawed but overlooked gem of characterization, stylish action tableaus, and sci-fi gobbledygook. Kusama’s movie credits have mostly been genre stories with strong female characters, from Girlfight to Aeon Flux to Jennifer’s Body, also a flawed gem that has the distinction of being Diablo Cody’s least Diablo Cody script.

You might think Kusama is outside her comfort zone with The Invitation, in which an ensemble cast has a dialogue-heavy dinner party. Think The Man from Earth or Coherence, but with a director who really knows what she’s doing. Would I scare you off if I said The Invitation could easily be a play? What if I stipulated that it would be a really good play?

Although Kusama doesn’t shoot it like a play (you can’t pan across a sumptuous feast on a dinner table if the audience is looking up at a stage), she films her actors with the intimacy of someone directing a play. She focuses intensely on lead actor Logan Marshall-Green, a Tom Hardy doppelganger who effortlessly manages Hardy’s bottled up intensity. She works wonders playing against Michiel Huisman’s easy charm, not so evident in Game of Thrones, but used to great effect opposite Blake Lively’s lively performance in Age of Adeline. And oh, how she rolls out the great John Carroll Lynch, whose notable credits are too numerous to list, so I’ll just mention Frances McDormand’s husband in Fargo and Lennie James’ mentor in that one episode of Walking Dead.

Kusama also demonstrates a Polanski-esque talent for blurring the line between the mundane and the menacing. She wrings from simple social cues a sense of something slightly off. She catches you off guard and then reassures you that you just imagined it. “Yeah, they’re a little weird,” says one of the characters, “but this is LA. They’re harmless.” The Invitation smiles coyly as it slithers along the line between social paranoia and malice. Are you watching a psychological thriller? An indie drama? A horror movie?

Whatever you call it, The Invitation is partly about the anxiety of catching up with friends who have changed over the years. Who are these people you once knew so well? What have they become? What have you become? It’s also about the impossibility of coming to terms with a malevolent universe. Anyone who can, anyone who does, anyone who manages Tammy Blanchard’s sad desperate smile, must be mad. Something must be wrong with those people. Right? Or is something wrong with you? When The Invitation eventually decides, it sure does decide.

The Invitation is currently in theatrical release and available for VOD. Support Qt3 and watch it on Amazon.com.

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Pandemic_review

This shouldn’t bother me, but it does because there’s little else to keep me interested in Pandemic, a no-budget, half-assed, found-footage, zombie apocalypse hack job. The characters wear cameras mounted on their hazmat suits. The lens is situated above the clear face plate, about four inches over their heads. Pandemic is shot almost exclusively from the perspective of these cameras (occasional iPhone and security camera footage is edited in because why not?). Yet whenever a character looks at another character, the other character looks directly into the lens. Not at the person’s face, which would be well below the lens. But directly into the lens because it didn’t occur to the people making Pandemic that where an actor looks is an important part of making a movie. Hey, Pandemic filmmakers, it’s called an eyeline. Look into it.

While you’re looking into it, also look into casting (poor Alfie “Theon Greyjoy” Allen, whose tough but heroic convict belongs in a better movie), screenwriting (zombie apocalypses don’t get to magically ignore plausibility), CG (sticking a couple of half-hearted smoke effect overlays onto shots of Los Angeles doesn’t quite cut it), and especially production design. Pandemic features a garden-variety bright yellow school bus when the script obviously intends some sort of Damnation Alley battlewagon driven by an elite team of soldiers and scientists into a post-apocalyptic zombie infested city. It’s hilarious that this school bus has lightly frosted glass windows so the production design team doesn’t have to dress anything in post-apocalypse detritus during the driving scenes, which comprise about half of the movie’s running time. It’s even more hilarious when one of the characters insists he’s indispensable because he’s the only one “trained” to drive the vehicle. I spent many years riding these buses to and from school, and I well remember the kinds of people who were “trained” to drive these vehicles. I wouldn’t dream of having one of them deliver an elite team of soldiers and scientists into a zombie apocalypse.

Support Qt3 and watch Pandemic on Amazon.com. Actually, don’t. Instead, use the link to find something else worth watching. You’d have a hard time doing worse than Pandemic.

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Croft_review

Somehow I found myself going down a rabbit hole of Tomb Raider fan films on YouTube. The fewer the views, the more unintentionally hilarious the film. That’s how I discovered a combat move I’ve never seen before. Ladies, gentlemen, and children 13 and up, behold the butt punch.

I shouldn’t be surprised at the sheer number of them. I shouldn’t be surprised that most of them represent Lara Croft as nothing more than a ponytail, a tank top, and a nice rack. It’s called cosplay. Most of these fan films are just cosplay videos.

But then there’s the one from a couple of years ago with the deceptively understated title of Croft. Just Croft. It isn’t about the dress up. It is instead about the action. One tiny woman against a bunch of burly men with guns. Frankly, this is more Jane Wick than Lara Croft. But it’s competently shot, edited, acted, and even well written for what little part of it isn’t action. The action is top notch, with fantastic stunt work and some astonishing physicality. When the wirework looks this good (pictured), they’re doing it right.

Director Terrvor Addie and actress Cassandra Ebner have a long list of credits doing stuntwork for mega budget productions. In a way, it feels like cheating. This isn’t a fan film. This is a short film made by talented professionals showing off their skill.

Watch Croft here.

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Corpse_of_Anna_Fritz_review

The Corpse of Anna Fritz opens with a shot of an unseen orderly wheeling a sheet-draped corpse down a corridor. A news voiceover explains that Anna Fritz, a world renowned actress, has died. Her body has been taken to an unspecified hospital to avoid a mob scene. The orderly rolls the gurney into the morgue, gingerly peels pack the sheet to reveal a beautiful woman, and snaps a picture with his cell phone. It gets worse from there.

In an American movie called The Body, three chicks accidentally kill a dude. Oops. To avoid getting in trouble, they posthumously stage a rape so they can claim self-defense. But that doesn’t work out so well when they discover they didn’t actually kill the dude, but just broke his neck. Awkward. The Body falls apart mainly because of the implausibility of its characters’ motivations and a conspicuous weak link in the cast.

The Corpse of Anna Fritz, a fascinating inverse of The Body, has no such shortcomings. The characters do what they do because they’re reprehensible. Spanish writer/director Hector Vincens isn’t interested in our sympathy. He’s just interested in subjecting us to his cruel thriller, setting the stage with one of the most ghastly reveals since Jack Nicholson’s tryst in room 237. It gets a bit clumsy from there, with lots of flopping around on the floor. But that scene — you’ll know it — easily sustains The Corpse of Anna Fritz until graves are spit on.

By the way, you know how you can hear outlandish things when you hear someone sing in a different language? Without the distinctive patter of that language, your brain translates the syllables into English. To my ears, it sounded like the song playing over the credits was “Cats Know Everything”. Ha ha. I must be mishearing a Spanish phrase.

Nope. The end credits song is in English and it’s called “Cats Know Everything”. Corpse of Anna Fritz: 2. Me: 0.

The Corpse of Anna Fritz is available exclusively on flixfling.com, whatever that is, starting March 8.

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The_Witch_review

The Witch is not the stuff of horror movies; it is the stuff of folklore. Stolen children. Hovels in the woods. Familiars. Poison apples. Cursed wilderness. Here the civilizing influence of Christianity and American exceptionalism are no match for ancient pagan things in the woods. The Wicker Man meets The Exorcist meets The Crucible, but with nary a concession to a modern horror movie audience. Things don’t jump out of the shadows. There isn’t any of the usual gore. It’s not found footage. The actors even talk funny.

Most of first time director Robert Eggers’ experience is as a production designer, and it shows. The Witch is gorgeous with its rustic simplicity, sickly grey cinematography, and richly inhabited period costumes. But Eggers shows considerable skill as a director, telling his story with an unnerving slow burn, a harrowing score, and poetic dialogue. He relies heavily on his cast. His script expects a lot from them. Ralph Ineson’s stately basso profundo and the harshly austere lines of Kate Dickie’s face will be familiar to anyone who’s seen them on Game of Thrones. It’s no surprise these British veterans are fascinating to watch. They make an imposing couple. You’d think ancient pagan things in the woods don’t stand a chance.

But the foundation of The Witch is its child actors. Newcomers Anya Taylor-Joy and especially Harvey Scrimshaw, dwarfed by his father’s musket, manage difficult dialogue and difficult scenes that would have completely undermined the movie if they didn’t work. This is ultimately a horrific fable, a grim fairy tale, and it needs children. It’s hungry for them.

The Witch shares a superficial similarity to Poltergeist and The Exorcist. But because it’s set in a very different time, because it’s about people with deeply religious worldviews and a distinct way of talking, there’s a remote quality to it. This isn’t a horror movie you watch and think about what you would do. This isn’t It Follows or 28 Days Later. Instead, it plays out like someone else’s horror movie. It’s about the things they would be afraid of, how they would act, what they would feel, what they would do. But because it’s so effective, because Eggers and his cast sell the horror with such conviction, there’s no safety in its remoteness. Ultimately, The Witch would have us all.

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Southbound_review

It’s no surprise that the directors of the two strongest segments in V/H/S also provide the two strongest segments in Southbound, a new horror anthology. A collective of filmmakers who call themselves Radio Silence wrote, directed, and did the visual effects for the Halloween-party-gone-wrong effects-heavy rollercoaster finale of V/H/S. Their segment in Southbound, called The Way Out & The Way In, is also effects-heavy. It features a solid set of actors and unique creature design. It gives Southbound its structure and payoff.

But the highlight of Southbound is smack dab in the middle. David Bruckner’s segment, The Accident, consists entirely of the delightful Mather Zickel on the phone, splattered with gore and unsure what to do. It’s a one-man show about about the horror of helplessness in the face of grievous injury. It begins as a typical scenario that would fit snugly into any horror anthology. A driver on a remote road hits someone, panics, and flees the scene. Then he’s haunted and somehow punished. But Bruckner immediately swerves. Zickel, playing the driver, doesn’t flee. He tries desperately to do the right thing. He gives in to the calm guidance and soothing reassurance of the 911 dispatcher at the other end of the line. Or is it in his head? Is this authority, or is it conscience? Is this the Milgram experiment or Psycho?

In addition to gore, The Accident is dripping with the same delicious dark humor as Bruckner’s apocalypse party segment in The Signal (I didn’t care much for Signal co-director Jacob Gentry’s Synchronicity, recently released for VOD, but I was thrilled to see three of the actors from that apocalypse party back together again). Bruckner’s segment in V/H/S, Amateur Night, was also far and away better than the rest of that anthology, for its premise, execution, social relevance, and hugely gratifying payoff. With calling cards like these, I can’t comprehend why Bruckner, probably the most unsung horror director working today, has been unable to get a feature film going in Hollywood. That’s the real horror of Southbound.

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He_Never_Died_regarding_Henry

He Never Died isn’t just a smartly written and adroitly directed story about an immortal doomed to wander the Earth. A grimly R-rated story. That’s also sort of a wry comedy. An angels with bloody faces for the post-comic book 21 century. More importantly, He Never Died is utterly inspired casting. The sad and quietly seething Henry Rollins is equal parts Black Flag frontman just chillin’, bewildered Starman, unconcerned burnout, ill-at-ease introverted nerd, reluctant absentee dad reconnecting with his 19-year-old daughter, divine terminator, and exhausted demigod. It’s a pretty tall order. While the gracefully graying Rollins might not be the most comfortable actor, there is not a single moment in He Didn’t Die that isn’t fascinating because of him. He even gets a chance to let loose with those same outraged and outrageous pipes that bellowed “myyyy waaaaarrrr!” back in the day.

Superman movies taught us that invulnerability is inherently dull. It turns out Superman movies were wrong. Henry Rollins and He Never Died writer/director Jason Crawczyk present invulnerability as vulnerable, interesting, and — bingo! — bleakly funny. And it’s always nice to see Steven Ogg let loose from behind the character of Trevor in Grand Theft Auto V. Ogg’s Nicholson-esque mugging is the yin to Rollin’s stony faced yang.

He Never Died is available for VOD. Support Qt3 and watch it on Amazon.com.

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In_Cold_Blood

Matthew Fox and Jeffrey Donovan have earned a lot of goodwill lately. Fox with his efficiently ruthless Indian killer in Bone Tomahawk and Donovan with his treacherous elder son in the second season of Fargo. They’re not given nearly as much to work with in Extinction, but that’s hardly a fair comparison; Bone Tomahawk and the second season of Fargo are two of the most amazing things I’ve seen this year. Extinction, on the other hand, is just an occasionally clumsy zombie apocalypse yarn. So while they’re eminently watchable here, I can’t blame them for coming across a little flat in comparison to what else they’ve been doing lately. They’re each standing in tall shadows they partly cast themselves.

But Extinction is a unique entry in a genre that’s rarely unique. The first distinguishing feature is an unconventional love triangle. It’s Heather has two daddies…who went through an acrimonious divorce and are now the last survivors in a town called Harmony (subtle irony isn’t Extinction’s strong point). Simple and powerful relationships provide the structure, with Fox, Donovan, and the adorably Barrymore-esque Quinn McColgan as the fulcrum between them. Zombies provide the threat, but instead of shambling hordes, they’re lurking memories. They are a second distinguishing feature for how this isn’t your usual undead rot or rage virus. The final distinguishing feature is a crisp winter aesthetic, icy and colorless. The door to an abandoned house cracks open with that same gratifying ice sheet shatter as a car door opened after an overnight freeze. That cold glaze covers Extinction. This is where it lives. It is the opposite of fertility. Mother Nature has turned as harshly indifferent as a drunkenly numb parent.

Spanish director Miguel Angel Vivas’ previous movie, Kidnapped, was hollow home invasion trash with nothing to recommend it but its real-time split-screen gimmickry. Here Vivas shows that he doesn’t need a gimmick. He shows he can be heartfelt, exciting, and unpredictable, if a bit too earnest. Brace yourself for occasional clunkers like “you are so hellbent on surviving that you’ve forgotten how to live”. I can even sympathize with the zombies in that I sure do wish the music would let up. I’m trying to watch a movie here and the soundtrack keeps butting in to explain everything.

Extinction is available for VOD. Support Qt3 and watch it on Amazon.com.

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Body_review

Body stars two very good actresses and Alexandra Turshen. The best part of the movie is when Turshen lets loose with a full throated scream into someone else’s face and the movie just cuts to black. The intensity of her scream and the abruptness of the cut are chilling. They belong in a better movie.

Unfortunately, the talented, winsome, and frail Helen Rogers will duplicate the moment and it won’t work. Partly because Body doesn’t cut away. Mostly because Rogers isn’t up to the full-throated intensity of Turshen’s scream. Rogers’ strength is her expressiveness and, ironically, her vulnerability, both used to powerful effect in “The Sick Thing That Happened To Emily When She Was Younger”, one of the best shorts in the 2012 horror anthology V/H/S.

The problem with Body, one of those thrillers about otherwise reasonable people making bad decisions, is that the bad decisions make no sense. Body hopes you’ll believe that these bad decisions result from the force of Turshen’s personality as the alpha female. But being blandly pretty and merely loud don’t qualify you for alpha status. So the script makes its absurd leaps, while Rogers and Lauren Molina, the other very good actress, gamely do their best to bring you along. It isn’t enough. Some leaps are simply too far to make. Body disappears into a chasm of implausibility.

Body is currently in limited release and will be available for VOD on December 29.

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Final_Girls_review

There are three reasons to watch The Final Girls, not to be confused with The Final Girl also featuring Alexander Ludwig who’s probably having a heck of a time convincing people he’s in two separate movies this year. The Final Girl, singular, basically has no reasons to watch it. But then there are all the reasons not to watch The Final Girls, plural. Most of them have to do with writing that can’t sustain it beyond a clever premise as a send-up of slasher flicks. This has been a cottage industry since, oh, about 1981, starting with Student Bodies and going all the way up to the brilliant Cabin in the Woods. But as any of those other movies know, one of the worst ways to lampoon a slasher film is by having to play it safe. But Final Girls is conspicuously PG-13 with the way it assiduously avoids gore, nudity, and more than one occurrence of the F-word. The F-word is near the end and it’s pretty awful. “You fucked with the wrong virgin,” our final Final Girl growls weakly.

The reasons to watch The Final Girls are Thomas Middleditch, Adam DeVine, and Angela Trimbur, all of whom are relegated to minor roles playing facile stereotypes, and all of whom knock it out of the park with comedic timing, admirable commitment, and more energy than this script deserves. Angela Trimbur’s fantastic striptease-on-Adderall dance routine is worth the price of admission. Just fast forward to that part. Or wait until it’s on YouTube. Better yet, watch the comedienne’s joyous Youtube videos. Start with this one. Three millions views can’t be wrong. At least on YouTube her dancing isn’t interrupted by a forgettable movie in which less capable actors like Taissa Farmiga and Malin Ackerman carry what I think is supposed to be emotional gravitas. I can’t really tell since they’re both so, well, mild. The heartfelt moments drag ponderously. Their eyes well up with tears. They look at each other. They smile sadly. The moment drags on. I think there’s dialogue here, but it’s hard not to lose interest. Oh, hey, would you believe the movie ends with Taissa Farmiga doing wirework? And can someone please do something with her hair? She’s a dead ringer for her beautiful sister Vera, but plopping a dishwater blonde mop on her head doesn’t do her any favors.

The Final Girls is available for VOD. Support Qt3 and watch it on Amazon.com. Personally, I’d recommend just watching Cabin in the Woods again.

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Stanford_Prison_Experiment_failure_to_commiserate

Experimenter is at first about the Milgram experiments, in which subjects were tested for their willingness to electrically shock another person at the behest of an authority figure. The finding was basically that people will totally be dicks if they’re absolved of responsibility for their actions. Psychologist Stanley Milgram implied a connection to the Holocaust. The movie exaggerates Milgram’s findings, implying that almost everyone (“the vast majority,” the character says at one point) was willing to escalate the shocks to a life-threatening voltage. In reality, a third of the subjects refused to continue, and Experimenter eventually admits as much. Furthermore, to ratchet up dramatic tension, the movie implies the authority figure was unrelenting as the test subjects protested. But in reaction to protests during the actual tests, the authority figure escalated through four scripted responses. If the subject protested a fifth time, the experiment was halted.

As you might guess from the title, Experimenter is more concerned with Stanley Milgram himself, coolly portrayed by Peter Sarsgaard (Sarsgaard is so often the king of cool, which is why it’s so much fun seeing him lose his cool in Black Mass). Director Michael Almereyda can’t resist gimmicks like breaking the fourth wall, shooting scenes against obvious backdrops, montages detailing Milgram’s other experiments, and one of the most ridiculous beards ever captured on film. There is even a literal elephant in the room when Milgram draws parallels to fascism. “Perhaps our awareness is the first step in liberation,” Almereyda’s movie concludes ponderously.

Experimenter also considers the ethical implications of the stress inflicted on the test subjects. They weren’t actually shocking anyone. It was a ruse to test their willingness. The “victim” was unseen in another room, faking cries of pain. The subjects felt guilt, remorse, duress, and anguish to varying degrees before they were told it was all a ruse. Psych! Psych, indeed. Should a research psychologist concern himself with the well-being of his test subjects? Or do the findings justify the means? If you want to test whether someone will totally be a dick, do you have to be a dick yourself? Fair questions, all of which the audience will probably wonder without Experimenter’s explicit dialogue to that effect. The most compelling parts of the movie are the scenes of the experiment itself, watching the subjects grow increasingly uneasy. Thanks to Anthony Edwards, John Leguizamo, Anton Yelchin, and Jim Gaffigan for the effectiveness of these scenes. They’re far better than the biopic in which they’re wrapped.

All of these things are expressed more viscerally and less intellectually in The Stanford Prison Experiment, so this is a review of that movie instead. It’s a more effective story about the same topics. As you might guess from the title, it’s about the experiment itself, another study of the willingness of people to be dicks. It similarly called into question the ethics of inflicting stress on test subjects. With confident direction from rookie director Kyle Patrick Alvarez and a pared down script by a former South Park writer named Tim Talbott, Stanford Prison Experiment takes a “just the facts, ma’am” approach. It presents what happened, how it happened, and even why it happened (Billy Cruddup plays research psychologist Philip Zimbardo as a hapless victim of his own hubris). It doesn’t need to preach. It doesn’t need to embellish. It doesn’t need to conjure up lurid thriller tropes like the 2010 movie based on the same experiments, called The Experiment, in which Adrian Brody and Forest Whitaker bring a knife to a psychology fight. This Stanford Prison Experiment is true to its roots, basking in the hardware, the costumes, and the hairstyles of its 1971 setting. It trusts the experiment itself to sustain the movie. It trusts the actors’ light-hearted laughs to convey the absurdity of the early set-up and their performances to see it through to its conclusion.

The cast is an it-list of young male actors. Tye Sheridan, Keir Gilchrist, Ki Hong Lee, Johnny Simmons, Thomas Mann, and Michael Angarano all demonstrate they’re not just pretty young faces. Put these kids in an ensemble, give them good material, and enjoy a tantalizing look at their careers to come. The real standout is Ezra Miller, previously seen as the eponymous Kevin who needs to be talked about in the wretched We Need To Talk About Kevin.

For two movies that use actual studies to make the same point — What did we learn from this and was it worth it? — The Stanford Prison Experiment is a far better movie than Experimenter. The only thing Experimenter has in its favor is the inspired casting of Kellan Lutz as William Shatner. Will someone please spin that into a full blown biopic?

Support Qt3 and watch The Stanford Prison Experiment on Amazon.com. You can also watch Experimenter if you feel like it.

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Man_Up_delightful_dork_duo

It can be awfully unbecoming to watch a couple of adults play at being nervous teenagers. But that’s how Lake Bell and Simon Pegg spend the first third of Man Up. It’s not entirely unsuccessful. You can’t deny Pegg’s deft charm as a nattering dork. Those distinguished crinkles fan out around his eyes when he grins and you know he’s better than this. Lake Bell tempers her comedic confidence with a generous dollop of vulnerability. And who can resist the mega-wattage of that Julia Roberts smile?

The contrived conflict kicks in awfully early. Watch the forced sparks sputter! Then the convenient split before they finally realize The Thing That’s Really Important Is Each Other. To a sappy piano rendition of The Pixies’ “Where Is My Mind?”, no less. Finally the wacky and frenzied dash to reconnect and the climactic emotional confessions of love in front of a crowd of enthusiastic onlookers. “I think you might be the blue bits,” Pegg declares at last! It’s a callback to a metaphor about life being like a jigsaw puzzle. Man Up is nothing if not a clunky formulaic script.

Also notable is Rory Kinnear, who really puts himself out there as the comedic relief. To think this was the actor whose Bolingbroke was such a powerful presence in the BBC’s televised Richard II. I’m sorry, that’s an awfully snooty thing to say in a romcom review, isn’t it? Can you tell this isn’t my preferred genre? But even I know the key to a formulaic romcom is a couple of appealing leads willing to commit even if the script is awful. Man Up has that in spades.

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