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Out in Theaters: ‘READY PLAYER ONE’ 

Ernest Cline’s 2011 dystopian YA novel ‘Ready Player One’ struck a nerve with self-described fanboys, sending readers into a tizzy of nostalgia-fueled nerdgasms. Many gyrated over the book’s overindulgent references to 80s pop culture, from coin-op arcade games to deeply engrained new wave synthpop cuts to the nerdcore iconography of John Hughes films. I personally found the book dull, monotonous and underwritten; reference-laden light reading that worked more as a pop culture checklist than an actual story. Worse yet, Cline’s book functioned as an unchecked celebration of deep-dive fandom in a time where fandom has become hostile, exclusionary and often vile.  Read More

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Out in Theaters: ‘LAST DAYS IN THE DESERT’

Director Rodrigo García claimed two themes interested him most in his articulation of Jesus’ untold 40 day fast in the desert. The first: the primordial idea of how a boy becomes a man, a step that Garcia contents happens “with or without his father’s help of permission.” The second theme surrounds the notion of creationism, both in a spiritual and storyteller’s sense. García himself underwent a creation process in the construction of Last Days in the Desert, weaving a fictitious narrative out of a notable absence in Jesus’ origin story – only mentioned in passing in the Gospels but entirely bereft of detail. This absence of a story drew García to the project, offering him an entrance into a narrative that felt to him inspired, fresh and wildly important.   Read More

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Out in Theaters: ‘X-MEN: APOCALYPSE’

“Everyone knows the third one is always the worst,” a young Jean Grey (Game of Throne’s Sophie Turner) ironically reports, exiting a 1983 screening of Return of the Jedi. She’s right of course: Jedi is the lesser of the original Star Wars trilogy. But to her larger point: the culmination of trilogies often results in some degree of disappointment, sometimes even sullying the good name of that whence came before it. Take Godfather: Part III, The Dark Knight Rises, The Matrix Revolutions, Spiderman 3, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, ALIEN3, Mad Max Beyond the Thunderdome, Terminator: Rise of the Machines and of course, Brett Ratner’s quite bad X-Men: The Last Stand. Jean’s remark, planted as it is in what is the third film of this newfangled X-Men trilogy, is meant to be tongue-in-cheek, perhaps both a potshot at Ratner’s derided 2006 entry to the franchise and a preemptive snarky parlay to the film’s inevitable detractors, because believe me when I say, X-Men: Apocalypse proves Jean Grey’s point. Read More

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Out in Theaters: DARK PLACES

The charge for any movie based upon a popular novel is two-fold. First, they must remain  faithful to the source material. You can’t have a writer bandying critical alterations in plot or character, lest they invite the chagrin of a million swarming fanboys, ready with pitchforks and sub-reddit comments. Secondly, they must inject some modicum of vision into the material. To transform a novel into a film without tact or some place of purpose is to present an audience with a run-down of in-book events without much-needed personality or intent. Think James Franco adapting Faulkner or Angelina Jolie taking on “Unbroken”. They failed because they were “adaptations” and nothing more; they changed the medium, but lost the soul. Read More

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Out in Theaters: THE STANFORD PRISON EXPERIMENT

*This is a reprint of our 2015 Sundance review.

Things came in twos at this year’s Sundance Film Festival with a pair of Cobie Smulders’ features competing against one another for the Dramatic Competition prize, a set of unexpected pregnancy comedy/dramas, Tye Sheridans (who actually was showcased in three films: Last Days in the Desert, Entertainment and this film we’re in the midst of reviewing) and, most notably, a duo of 1960-70s social psychology experiment films. One of which, The Experimenter told the story of Stanley Milgram, administer of increasing electrical shocks and student of peer pressure. The feature starred Peter Sarsgaard and was met with middling reviews. Read More

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Sundance Review: LAST DAYS IN THE DESERT

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Director Rodrigo García claimed two themes interested him most in his articulation of Jesus’ untold 40 day fast in the desert. The first: the primordial idea of how a boy becomes a man, a step that Garcia contents happens “with or without his father’s help of permission.” The second theme surrounds the notion of creationism, both in a spiritual and storyteller’s sense. García himself underwent a creation process in the construction of Last Days in the Desert, weaving a fictitious narrative out of a notable absence in Jesus’ origin story – only mentioned in passing in the Gospels but entirely bereft of detail. This absence of a story drew García to the project, offering him an entrance into a narrative that felt to him inspired, fresh and wildly important.  

In Last Days in the Desert, the first theme is tackled with obvious symmetry. On the last leg of his sandy spirit journey, Yeshua (Ewan McGregor) a.k.a. Jesus is heading home to Gaililee, a community that has praised and forsaken him in equal measure. Entering the home stretch and somewhat disappointed that his Dad has gone all hush-hush on him, Jesus feels just the slightest bit forsaken. His food- and spirit-hungry skepticism is only exacerbated by the arrival of the Devil (again, Ewan McGregor) a personified shadow demon whispering doubt at the robes wearing deity.

As his faith is bent but not broken, he comes upon the desolate home of a few essentially human folk, barley living off the arid sterility of this harsh desert land. Soon, his spiritual self-actualization is at odds with his inherently human desire to help these people in needs. Deciding to give himself over to the toil of these hard-working but flawed mortals, Yeshua must remain focused on his own metaphysical well-being while playing mediator to the internal familial strife of these desert clan (problems that include stilted interpersonal relationships and a dying matriarch.)

As Yeshua contents with the difficulty of his own distant, difficult to please father figure, the offspring of this newfound family, a boy known only as Boy (Tye Sheridan), struggles with his own unideal paternal rapport. The boy projects a warm intelligent in his penchant towards self-satisfied riddles and Sheridan ably reflects a brand of hushed  acumen. Wanting to travel to Jerusalem to take on an apprenticeship doing anything other than this deserted carpentry, he asks to take up with Yeshua on his travels, offering to abandon his family in the night and pretending to be his son. There’s no WWJD contemplation as the little-big-man-upstairs gives him a brusk “Uh uh.” Sensing his son’s withdrawal, the father (Ciarán Hinds) seeks advice on how to bond with his son, eventually proving that even the best riddle cannot bring together two men clashing over something as fundamental as maturation.

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In Christian Scripture, 40 days and 40 nights is the gold standard for spiritual enlightenment – with Moses also forgoing food and company for a 40 day stretch before penning (hacking?) the Ten Commandments – but García’s Last Days in the Desert wrapped in just five weeks. Filmed mostly in the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park of Southern California, Oscar-winning cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (Gravity, Birdman) adds his own signature touch to the visual flourish of García’s gazes into gritty nothingness. Though his product here is a distant cousin to the uninterrupted camerawork of both Birdman and Gravity, Lubezki illuminates the desert into otherworldly effect, predominately only with the use of natural light.

Unlike those aforementioned features that were by definition go-go-go, Last Days in the Desert is periodically immobilized by its sense of stagnancy. Through solid performances, dazzling cinematography and an alluringly minimalist narrative, it closely resembles the devil on Jesus’ shoulder in not ever being quite bewitching enough to fully tempt us onto its side. Though it does get tigerishly close.

García delivers some surprisingly compelling, though sleepy, material for a “Jesus in the Desert” art film but his post-screening testaments that this is a tale of unquestionable divinity (he contents that the Yeshua onscreen is most definitely a God, and not just a man. Here, I was thinking he was telling the story of a man, and only a man) only managed to chill my lukewarm reception of this sun-scorched film even more.

C+

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Sundance Review: THE STANFORD PRISON EXPERIMENT

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Things came in twos at this year’s Sundance Film Festival with a pair of Cobie Smulders’ features competing against one another for the Dramatic Competition prize, a set of unexpected pregnancy comedy/dramas, Tye Sheridans (who actually was showcased in three films: Last Days in the Desert, Entertainment and this film we’re in the midst of reviewing) and, most notably, a duo of 1960-70s social psychology experiment films. One of which, The Experimenter told the story of Stanley Milgram, administer of increasing electrical shocks and student of peer pressure. The feature starred Peter Sarsgaard and was met with middling reviews.

The Stanford Prison Experiment featured no such A-list star in its telling of the infamous study of the role of the situation but, from what we’ve gathered, is the superior feature of the two – the Prestige to its Illusionist (2006), the Jurassic Park to its Carnosaur (1993), the John Wick to its Equalizer (2014)- amounting to a chilling, procedural experiment of authority and influence that toys with the variable of structural familiarity. It’s dangerously close to being great – and truly is in some scenes – but it’s true-to-life messiness doesn’t coalesce into the kind of form-fitting narrative perfection that defines stronger films.  

You can train a dog to sit, shake and roll over. You should not however force a human to learn the same tricks. What takes place in The Stanford Prison Experiment is very much an exercise in teaching an old dog a new trick by way of unchecked domination. The result is a harrowing, hard-to-watch dissection of the role of power and the all-encompassing effect of the situation on the perception of those inside of it.

In 1971, 24 college-aged students were divided into two groups – prisoner and correctional officers – for a study intended to examine the seemingly unavoidable clash between military guards and their prisoners. If Tim Talbott‘s script can be believe, all participants uniformly preferred to be selected as the “prisoner” in the study. One particular rationale for such preference was: “It will probably be easier.” As The Stanford Prison Experiment unfolds, nothing could have been further off the mark.

Over the course of only the first day, Dr. Phillip Zimbardo (Billy Crudup), the chief psychologist in charge of the study, realizes the data is going to be much more exaggerated than he first hypothesized. From go, those selected as guards assimilate into the role with cowboyish abandon, with one exuberant guard later labeled “John Wayne” going so far as to adopt a southern lawman drawl and persona. Just as Zimbardo smirks and smiles through his mock arrest, the bogus guards find it their simulated duty to wipe that smile off as quickly as possible. Stripped of his clothes and dignity in mere minutes, they achieve their goal with unthinkable menace.  

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Operating under the presumption that they were selected because of their better standing as students, workers or citizens, the guards take on a hulking superiority complex, one that is exaggerated by director Kyle Patrick Alvarez‘s no-holds-barred grasp on the psychological tension of the situation. Having the consolation of the real Dr. Zimbardo gives the film further credibility, especially in the context of its least humane moments.

Treating the prisons like bonafide wrongdoers and extending so far as to physically beat them (a breach of contractual agreements), each set of guards – morning, day and night – has its own alpha male personality that takes the lead. Not to stoop to obvious parallels but Hitler Youth is written all over these psuedo-sherriffs who’ve tasked themselves with the responsibility of robbing the inmates of their most basic human privileges. The knowledge that they are indeed just peers, unluckily assigned at the flip of a coin, has all but escaped them. The extent of their malicious humiliation is enough to turn blood to ice, creating a hellish arena cloaked in uniforms and aviators well beyond what one would expect your average 18-year-old capable of.

All the authenticity The Stanford Prison Experiment brings to the table establishes an alarming, visceral sense of reality but is also accountable for a skosh of its failures. Because of its strict adherence to factual truths, some of the most intriguing characters disappear before we want them to. A minor complaint in the fact of a lofty accomplishment but one I had none the less.   

B

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Out in Theaters: JOE

Joe populates a stretch of XL bible belted, confederate flag-waving backwoods Texas with rapists and murders of the worst degree, painting a picture so unrelenting bleak that a repeat drunk driver that spends his days in whore houses and/or dog fighting is our closest thing to a hero. It’s a place where slavery may as well have been yesteryear, where molestation lurks around every corner, where hope goes to die. It’s a small nowheresville of inexplicable evil. Like a flash sideways where Jack didn’t cork the Island’s malevolent juju (“Lost” reference alert). Joe lives in a land where morals come to roast on skewers and are snacked on by open-mouthed buffoons. This is Kentucky Fried hell. But even hell must have its fallen angels. Read More