With the 2016 Sundance International Film Festival right around the corner, the Sundance Institute has revealed all its in-competition films including selections from their U.S. Dramatic Competition, U.S. Documentary Competition, World Cinema Dramatic Competition, World Cinema Documentary Competition and their featured NEXT competition for emerging filmmakers. Have a look through the list to find standouts in a year that looks surprisingly slim on them. Read More
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.
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.
Metaphysical bodysnatching from the POV of the snatcher, Advantageous is a soft sci-fi-drama centered around a cool idea but repeatedly undone by shoddy execution, unconvincing performances and dreadful FX. Commendable though Jennifer Phang‘s mother-daughter relationship study might be in the context of Sundance’s overabundance of father-son sagas, Phang is able to capitalize on the maternal bonds between ejector and ejected but has no idea which direction to take it in after it’s been established. Instead, it’s bagged up, zip-tied and casually thrown into an ebb of “does it really matter?”
The future is now in Phang’s minimalist economic fiction and it’s one that’s risibly domineered by white dudes. Though women aren’t technically banned from having jobs, there is an increasingly dominant movement to blast back to the past and re-adopt the Baby Booming mentality of staying at home, making waffles and secretly scarfing cocktails. The commentary isn’t subtle, but neither is the film.
Gwen (Jacqueline Kim) is a single mother, promptly aging out of her cushy position as the face of an appearance engineering firm that’s the modern day evolution of plastic surgery. Faced with the reality that her 40something year old countenance just isn’t paying the bills anymore, she’s forced to make a decision to play guinea pig to a new game-changing procedure that will transfer her consciousness into a younger, more form-fitting body.
This presents obvious mommy issues that extend well beyond the whole “I’m disorientated because Mom’s got a new face” factor and the narrative problems underlying Gwen’s motivation plague the should-be emotionally hefty moments in its later parts. It doesn’t help that the future society in which Gwen and daughter Jules (newcomer Samantha Kim) is populated by half-finished CGI that add nothing to the film aside from a general sense of haphazardness. One is forced to assume that either the money tank ran dry or the effect guys didn’t finish their work. A sadly definitive blanket statement about the film at large.
The appearance of Ken Jeong on the cast list comes as a major red flag though he ends up the least to blame for the frequent failures of Advantageous. The depressing thing is that cinema needs more movies like this: that feature foreign voices, foreign actors and women in the spotlight in front of and behind the camera. But to celebrate the film for its makeup rather than its internal worth is a misstep as well. Ultimately, Advantageous is an unsatisifying, unremarkable, incomplete feeling soft sci-fi that should have been so much more and could have been with a few more coats of paint.
James White is a revealing ailment drama fastened by excellent performances and as smothered in bathos as cafeteria nachos are in fluorescent cheese. Marking the writing/directing debut for longtime Borderline Films producer Josh Mond, this nuclear family implosion bespeaks a turning point for the genre-leaning studio. In the wake of such cerebral thriller vibes of Martha Marcy May Marlene and Simon Killer, James White is the product of hawkish realism – an blemished, brave story that squares its audience in the midst of an emotional tornado.
Encouraged by the close circle of Borderline principals to “work on something personal”, the tragic development at the heart of the film is culled straight from Mond’s own experience of losing his mother to cancer. Says Mond, “James White isn’t my exact story – it wouldn’t be possible to tell my story in one movie – but it definitely came from a place of wanting to understand things that I was dealing with, things that I am still dealing with.”
And you can feel the verisimilitude bleed off the screen. Rather than sentimentalize and aggrandize the role of the mother and son struggling with the big C, Mond eulogizes in repentant waves. This is no story of heroism, it’s an account of needing an instruction manual when there is none available.
As the eponymous character, Christopher Abbot breaks out in the biggest way possible. Full of rage and anguish, he’s an impossible character but Abbot absolutely nails him. From his hard partying exploits to dealing with his grief in volatile salvos, Abbott rounds the character out without sanding him down. We’re privy to all the ugly, unflattering divots and bumps in his personality. Combative detonations, emotional blusters and huge (but understandable) mood swings reveal a soul as lumpy and bruised as an overgrown tumor.
White’s best friend is played by Kid Cudi, who after a surprisingly impressive debut in Need for Speed (a fun performance trapped in a lagging film) is back showcasing a deft ability to handle drama. Cynthia Nixon is a heartbreaker as White’s fading matriarch, giving a performance soaked in fever sweat and unsentimentally sobering.
Mond keeps things simple in order to showcase the developing relationship arcs – the twentysomething deadbeat manning up, the caregiver role inevitably transplanted from one generation to the next – and for it is rewarded with a singularly affecting film that’s lamentably about as much fun as the death throes.
There’s a flicker of hope early on in Reversal. A scuzzy captive batters her captor, gaining the upper hand and chaining him in the very binds she was kept in for who knows how long. She scours the house for car keys, stumbling upon a folder filled with Polaroids of similarly imprisoned females. She rages downstairs, pistol cocked, face splattered with blood from their recent altercation. Tensions run high and the stage for a decent horror flick is set. And then she opens her mouth.
Reversal is a film that really isn’t horrible so long as no one’s talking. When they’re forced to peel through Rock Shaink Jr.‘s hacky script, it is. It really, really is. Cheap and stinking more of cheese than bleu basking in the sun, Shaink Jr.’s dialogue are first draft-worthy cliches shaped into an incoherent series of events likely to incur frustration (“Why doesn’t she just call the cops!”) and walk outs (nearly half my theater dumped out before the end).
José Manuel Cravioto‘s misplaced direction doesn’t help the matter. But it’s only fair to cut him a little bit of a break. English isn’t his first language and it shows. Thoroughly showcasing his foreign” director status, Cravioto tries on material he must not linguistically understand. How else can you account for the absolutely horrendous delivery of some of an already shoddy script?
A handful of his shots prove tempestuous, particularly when no one’s speaking. From blood-splattered slow-mo walks to explosive fits of violence, Cravioto has an eye for setting the scene but not the ear to discern performances.
It’s not that Tina Ivlev is terrible so much as her scenes seem rushed and “first take”. Richard Tyson gets out a hair better, but similarly fails to overcome the bargain bin script. Which is a true disappointment. Films of this nature – female-led revenge flicks – ought to empower. Rather, the whole thing feels discounted and inauthentic – the artifact of two men trying to capitalize on feminine rage.
There are so many pivot points in Z for Zachariah that it becomes hard to nail down exactly what director Craig Zobel intended for it. At one point, it seems decidedly about gender politics, at another about race relations, and eventually it boiled down to themes of suspicion, greed and jealousy. Spliced with a domineering amount of ambiguity. All this from a cast of three. To call it thematically rich may be overly generous – maybe thematically crowded would hit the nail on the head more – but nonetheless, it strives for something thoughtful and great, even when it comes up just short. Read More
What do 1630, a silver cup, Christian fervor and a goat named Black Phillip have in common? The Witch. Unholy goodness through and through, Robert Egger‘s feature film debut is a horror masquerading as a costume drama that’s as beady, black and misshapen as the center of a goat’s eye. Beneath the dirt-stained, leather-bound waistcoats, the perfumed, toity language of the New World, the white bonnets and constrictive girdles, The Witch has a vicious, illict and suspicious center and though admittedly scaled back on “scares” is deeply atmospheric, deeply disturbing and deeply great. Read More
Of all the issues I had with A Walk in the Woods (our review) – the telling of Bill Bryson’s failure to complete the Appalachian Trail – Nick Nolte was not amongst them. In fact, he was the solitary beacon of hope shining through a film that otherwise stank of mediocrity. After the screening, the infamously crazed actor looked older than ever, shambling to a chair with the help of friends and family. You see, following the filming of Woods, Nolte had a full hip replacement. His spirits, medium-high, he sat to ironic applause and answered a few ambling questions with surprising tact and clarity. For such a wild man, Nolte has an astute, somewhat rambling outlook on nature, film and the great American trail. And nothing can beat out that gruffalo growl of his.
Q: Did you do all your own stunts while filming A Walk in The Woods?
Nick Nolte: Yeah, I did everything, except the one fall. Bob did that. We didn’t think we could survive it, but we felt that we had an obligation to finish the film. It was truly amazing area. It was like an hour-and-a-half to the location, by car or van, and there were the camels, or donkeys, and a couple of horses, and four-wheeled vehicles. And Bob would ride up on a horse. I was going to try a camel – he spit a lot – but I went up on a four-wheeler instead. The trouble was that they wouldn’t let Bob hold the reins of the horse. I guess they felt questionable over insurance responsibilities. So Bob got upset, and walked up the hill, which was quite brave of him. I always admired him for that. We’d get up there, and there he’d be… and of course all the guys would be up there and they’d say, “Oh, this is a great part of the trail. We can shoot this and this and this.” He would go up to the edge of the cliff, “Oh, you can come up here.” Well, let’s look at it first. Look out over everywhere. I thought we would run into a lot of hikers; we didn’t. We had to use a lot of actors, you know, to be hikers. Not a lot of people ever finish the Appalachian Trail. There are people who have walked it, straight through. It’s not a one summer deal. There are people who walk it for years. The trail runs about two miles from my farm in New York. There’s just a stake stamped into the ground, you know, a metal stake. And it’s up to the states to take care of the trail. It’s an amazing trail, because it had Thomas Jefferson’s dad’s initials up there, because he always said about the Appalachians that it was the barrier of America. We didn’t know what was west of that. It was quite a discovery, when we came upon that.
Q: Would you say that this filming experience changed you in any way?
NN: Oh, yeah. Every film does. They all change you. With this one, there’s a broader perspective. First of all, I didn’t ever imagine I’d be playing a contemporary guy. I’m not necessarily an easy contemporary person. I have a lot of nervousness and anxiety, fear and such… It was very strange to be getting into that, when you’re at this moment, just now, this is it, this is what we play. And Bob, too, I know it’s a struggle with Bob. Originally it was supposed to be Paul Newman and Bob, and Paul died. Paul had offered me a role in a cowboy film he had, and it took a week for me to read, three or four times, and finally told Paul, “Look, it’s a deputy that has to transport ten hookers from his town to another town. I don’t quite understand the humor.” And Paul said, “That’s exactly what Redford says!” We did agree on that.
Q: You said that the third main character of the film was the trail. One of the threads that runs through is the exfoliation of the whole forest, the appreciation of the environment, the whole thing, the awe and wonder of the natural world. How do you see that, given the crises the natural world is in, and the responsibility of the society to see that?
NN: Awe is probably the quality that the artist tries to achieve. But nature itself achieves it. Any activity that goes beyond what we think can be done, and it goes beyond that, creates a state of awe. It’s a very important state, and it’s very hard to create that, on film, or athletics, or whatever. Nature is a great provider of that, and that’s why we’ve got to… we can’t let it become mundane to us. We can’t get egotistical about nature, and consider it secondary, and “Oh, I’ve seen that.” No, you haven’t seen that. You haven’t seen what nature can do. We do have to become partners with it.
NOTE: Reprinted from our 2014 Sundance Review
Agenda-slinging, headline drama Camp X-Ray transcends expiration date glitz with universal tale of friendship. Burdened with a Guantanamo Bay premise and Twilight sensation Kristen Stewart in a headlining spot, expectations may come half-popped but Camp X-Ray manages to steer clear of inflammatory hot topic territory as Stewart and co-star Peyman Moaadi probe powerhouse territory.
Strange though it may be to imagine the perpetually dulled Bella putting in a considerable performance, her work here is undoubtedly the pinnacle of her career (as it currently stands.) Not exclusively involved in high-profile, low-quality blockbusters, Stewart has peppered her cast credits with the occasion indie film and has even gained mild praise for her work in On the Road and Adventureland, but neither carries the burden of proof that she brings to the table here.
This type of zero to sixty change spotlights a shifting celebrity ethos and proves Stewart wants to be around for a while longer. For a fantastic example of an actor turning a laughable career into a respectably credited empire, look to Matthew McCougnahey. She’s not there yet but baby steps Kristen, baby steps.
In Camp X-Ray, Stewart plays Amy Cole, a tabula rasa of an army woman. Battling gender stereotypes and the unwanted attention of her male counterparts, she exacts bottled frustration out on the detainees, a label she’s commanded to use in place of prisoner (otherwise they would be privy to Genova Convention statutes).
She’s certainly no polaroid-snapping prisoner-piler but her jaded indifference is a telling glimpse into U.S. indoctrination of a polarized world view. She’s trained to think there’s two sides to this war but learns that the political game she’s just a pawn in is infinitely more complex. When she meets Ali, or as he’s better known, 371, her concept of justice, goodness, and Army policy is thrown for a ringer.
Camp X-Ray could have capitalized on the good grace of one political camp or the other but it knowingly avoids falling into that pattern of tabloid drama. Peter Sattler is not fence-sitting either as he certainly gets his personal statements across. The intention is not to disgrace or discolor so much as it is to ponder and think.
When challenged to confront our biases, we come to know not just the world around us but ourselves, Sattler tells us. Cole, through her conversations with Ali, finds herself undergoing a spiritual transformation, letting go of blind judgement and trying to come to terms with the impossibility that is the current state of US affairs.
As Ali and Amy’s lives become intertwined, their relationship shifts, opening up the opportunity for conversation among equals. With this table set, a pensive and powerful exchange unfolds about what one ought to do with a caged lion that serves as the film’s bated breath highlight and a phenomenally powerful metaphorical footnote. Scenes like this, anchored by Stewart and Moaadi’s unflinching engagement with one another, give Camp X-Ray a chance to viscerally body check its audience into taking a long hard look at their own ingrained partisanship. There’s no denying, we could use more thought-provoking, if not entirely novel, films like this.
NOTE: Re-printed from our 2014 Sundance review.
Slam Drive and Stocker together, rub them down in a spicy 80’s genre marinate and sprinkle with mesmerizing performances and dollops of camp and you have The Guest. Like a turducken of genre, Adam Wingard‘s latest is a campy horror movie stuffed inside a hoodwinking Canon action flick and deep fried in the latest brand of Bourne-style thriller. It’s clever, tense, uproarious, and hypnotizing nearly every second.
Coming off the success of You’re Next and the crowd-pleasing anthology V/H/S films, Wingard has assembled another cast of “where did these people come from?” talent. Dan Stevens is absolutely magnetic as the titular guest and from his vacuous eyed stares to his charismatic domination of conversations, he oozes character. You might recognize Stevens from Downtown Abbey but his turn here is a reinvention and could signal the birth of a true star. While youngsters have a floppy tendency to detract from the overall thespian landscape, newbies Brendan Meyer and Maika Monroe each hold their own, elevating cliches into compelling characters.
Wingard and scribe Simon Barrett admit in the writing process, the film was inspired by Terminator and Halloween, an unlikely combination but you can see the influence bleeding from both. By transcending a single genre, The Guest is able to riff on the tropes of nearly all mainstay film culture. But don’t confuse homage with mocking, there is artistry present here that escapes cheap imitation, a fact that garners such a spectrum of emotions. The fact that the film’s mood can change on a dime depending on Steven’s facial composure is a sure sign of its thematic success. The Guest may not be deadly serious but it’s never not deadly funny. We laugh because its familiar and yet new; a crossroads of homage and invention.