This year we nearly didn’t make to our annual movie-binge-orgy at Sundance. We’ve had some close calls and hastily rebooked flights before — after all, it is the dead of winter — but now the entire trip was in jeopardy. A storm-of-the-century Nor’easter threatened to dump an all-time record helping of snow onto New York City, so Mayor de Blasio and city officials decided to hunker down. As the blizzard began on Monday, basically all NYC transportation ceased and we were told to stay indoors and batten down against some seriously howling winds. Hold up a tick, weather gods: I got some flicks to watch! Fortunately, the brunt of the storm passed Manhattan by, and on Tuesday the same bloviating idiots who’d castigated Mayor Bloomberg for under-preparedness after a 2010 snowplop were all over the current mayor for freaking out when it wasn’t needed (this wisdom only evident in hindsight, which is any bloviator’s warm security blanket). Man, I’ll take over-prepared over the alternative any ole time. But still: movies!
So, with winter conditions temporarily at bay, our Wednesday morning flight took off on sked. It was much warmer when we got to Park City, and judging from the mountains on the way up from Salt Lake, I guess the snow must have skedaddled back east. For a ski resort in late January (they’ve permanently moved the festival so it will never again conflict with the Martin Luther King holiday, a huge three-day skiing weekend too often made redundant when all the pasty North-Faced Hollywood suits are hogging the hotel rooms and eatery tables), Park City was downright balmy. But the Lord works in mysterious ways: the snow was nice and puffy and white on the ski runs themselves, even if the rest of the mountain looked brownish. Getting it to snow only where you need it: that’s Harvey Weinstein pull!
It was warmer inside as well. This, our twelfth Sundance, was the most artistically cheerful slate we’ve yet encountered. Yes, it partially depends on the luck of the draw — you can peep as hard as you like for ten solid days (I had 4 1/2) and still not come close to seeing everything — but you can also infer a festival sense beyond what you yourself witness by talking to others waiting in line or sitting next to you just before a screening. The typical Sundance movie has become stereotypical: hardscrabble this dealing with opposing that, colorless gray or hospital-green filters, “brave” performances, etc. But today’s indie creative palette is much broader, and I attribute the growth both to a generational handoff and to the stripped-down digital technology that makes damn near all things possible, even on a budget. “Serious” movies are more playful. Homage now extends to films many of us remember fondly without a trace of irony.
Is it all getting too commercial? Gee, I dunno. Before I got there, Warner Bros. inexplicably hosted a surprise screening of the Wachowskis’ JUPITER ASCENDING at the venerable Egyptian Theater on Main Street, 3-D glasses and all. I read that the iconic Park City venue wasn’t even full, but if I’d been there, I’d have been there, if you know what I mean. Still, what were you Warnerians thinking? You abandoned indie budgets TEN YEARS AGO, so how could you possibly expect the parkascenti to give a shit about your new $175 million plaything?
Just before our final screening, THE STANFORD PRISON EXPERIMENT, we had the good fortune to stand in line behind Sundance juror (World Dramatic; they chose SLOW WEST; see below) Col Needham. Col is the founder, and still CEO, of IMDb (the Internet Movie Database, as if you didn’t already know), and I tried to bow down as low as you all would have done in my place. I also found out some stuff about the Sundance jury process which I can’t reveal, since it involves a few eldritch incantations that would burn up your screen if I invoked them. Since he’s a Brit, I assumed Col would know all about my mates at the Four Word Film Review — same country, right? — and he seemed mildly (actually politely) aware. As we were filing in, he challenged me: “OK then, give me a four-word film review after you see this.” I summoned all my skills, and while the credits were rolling I came up with one. It made Col and his lady both laugh, thank goodness. It was… <message me for the answer>
Here are my knee-jerk capsule thoughts, written for remembrance as much as for reportage, on the twenty flicks I saw this year, in order of screening, rated on a five-star scale:
DON VERDEAN*** (World Premiere) This one was eagerly anticipated by the Utah crowd, since it’s by Salt Lake’s (and LDS’s) own Jared Hess, maker of NAPOLEON DYNAMITE, and was filmed in the state. Mr. Verdean of the title (Sam Rockwell) is a Biblical archaeologist who makes his living by selling books and DVDs of his many travels. He gets on the radar of a rich evangelist (Danny McBride) who offers to bankroll ever greater expeditions: Verdean comes up with the remains of Lot’s petrified wife and claims to know the location of the Holy Grail. This is potentially interesting farcical stuff, but Hess’s tone is much too polite. Not even Will Forte as Verdean’s former-Satanist arch-enemy can pull this one out of the quicksand. For that we need Hess veteran Jemaine Clement (the tall one in FLIGHT OF THE CONCHORDS), who steals every scene he’s in as Verdean’s Middle East co-conspirator, who blackmails his way back to America and bumbles into their biggest looming score. Great potential is wasted here; it’s as if LIFE OF BRIAN had had all its teeth removed. Some funny moments, mostly from Forte and especially Clement (who could probably play Sacha Baron Cohen in a biopic), but in general a letdown.
TIG***** (World Premiere) Tig Notaro is a supremely confident stand-up comedian, has a nice career, a little “alternative,” but coming on strong, a real comic’s comic. Then in a mere four months, she suffers one existential blow after another: her beloved mother dies, she goes through an agonizing breakup, and it’s all bookended by two life-threatening diagnoses. After the second one, as she’s leaving her oncologist’s office with the devastating news, the owner of L.A.’s Largo club idly texts to make sure she’ll be doing her scheduled set the next night. In that 2012 gig, Tig makes comedy history by coming out on stage and saying, “Good evening, I have cancer,” surprising everyone who knows her, and then proceeds to do 30 minutes of comedy on the subject. Comics like Louis C.K., who was present, were open-mouthed. This world-beating documentary takes on all that, with plenty of onstage footage to nail Tig’s comedy persona, and adds yet another drama, her sole and single attempt — she won’t get another try — to have a biological child through a surrogate. It is nearly impossible to describe how brave and resilient this woman is: any one of her trials would scar most people, any two of them would be really tough to take, but four? And the baby too? We even get to hear part of the legendary Largo set (club policy forbids any recording because the comics are working out their material, but before she came out Tig quietly asked the audio engineer to get this down) and we watch as, amazingly, that performance begins a process by which she pulls her life back together, one shitstorm at a time. Do not miss. I got to shake Tig’s hand and say thanks after the screening, for probably my favorite 2015 moment. (Meeting Col was #2.)
TRUE STORY*** (World Premiere) I didn’t realize this actually was a true story until some end-title cards revealed the principals’ fates, but it is. New York Times Magazine writer Mike Finkel gets caught fudging some details in a printed cover story. The paper has to cut him away and he’s instantly unhireable, sending him into a deep depression. Meanwhile, a man accused of murdering his family is arrested in Mexico; he’s been posing as “Mike Finkel of the New York Times.” Finkel goes to meet the defendant, Christian Longo (turns out he’s a fan), who offers to give him exclusive access if he promises not to publish anything until after the trial. Longo claims he’s protecting the real guilty party, and Finkel senses a huge true-crime book with an exclusive revelation, not to mention a path toward recovery of his sputtering career. The bulk of the movie is jailhouse interviews between Finkel (Jonah Hill) and Longo (a superb James Franco). Is he guilty or not? How much of this exercise is journalism, and how much is celebrity? Has Finkel sold his soul to the devil, or will his carefully cultivated friendship produce a truthful inside look at an accused murderer? Franco keeps us guessing: one minute he’s Hannibal Lecter, the next he’s Andy Dufresne, and he’s constantly wrong-footing us like a pro boxer. It’s fairly talky, but Franco earns your ticket money.
ADVANTAGEOUS*** (U.S. Dramatic Special Jury Award for Collaborative Vision) In the near future, Gwen Koh is the spokesperson for the Center for Advanced Health and Living, a company that can transfer a client‘s personality and memories into a new body. When the Center tells Gwen they want to replace her with someone younger, she volunteers for the procedure herself. That’s all the premise writer-director Jennifer Phang needs for this soft, thoughtful meditation on relationships and family values. The science-fictional aspects are understated; we can see an occasional air-car whiz by and the procedure itself is a soothing visual impression in light blue, but this is almost completely a human-level story. A wonderful cast is led by co-writer Jacqueline Kim as the older Gwen and Freya Adams as “Gwen 2.0,” struggling to re-establish her relationship with a daughter who can no longer recognize her. This is a quiet festival-type film, sedate and haunting, which has precious few explosions (yes, there are some), but will reward patient attentive viewing.
WESTERN**** (U.S. Documentary Special Jury Award for Verite Filmmaking) A gorgeous, profound, instructive, ultimately heartbreaking documentary on the border towns of Eagle Pass, Texas and Piedras Negras, Mexico. The only thing that separates them is the Rio Grande. For years the sister cities have been living together in peaceful symbiosis: cattle are raised in Mexico and brought to market in America. Citizens of the two towns know each other, party together, have parades and celebrations together. Longtime Eagle Pass mayor Chad Foster sets the tone: he speaks fluent Spanish and presides over the harmony and happiness that he helps instill and preserve. Martin Wall is a fifth-generation cattleman who agrees that they’re living next door to paradise. Then wolves appear at the door, as Mexican drug cartels begin a vicious turf war and the unthinkable happens: ordinary citizens are murdered, and the carnage moves ever closer. Before long a border fence goes up, USDA inspectors are warned not to venture into Mexico to do their jobs, thus halting the cattle trade, and the sister cities’ idyllic existence moves ever closer to ruin. Directors Bill and Turner Ross make films about places, showing us what it feels like to live there. Although interviewees have plenty of opinions (Mayor Foster notes the obvious fact that you can simply walk around any fence that doesn’t cover the entire border), the Ross brothers remain apolitical and let their subjects speak for themselves. At the q&a afterward, they steadfastly resisted being goaded into expressing a political opinion, but it’s obvious that they encourage audience members to make up their own minds. I wish certain particular members of Congress could be forced to watch this beauty. Thing is, another viewer might agree with me, but pick entirely different members.
THE FORBIDDEN ROOM*** (World Premiere) As one of the most revered auteurs in avant-garde cinema, Guy Maddin is an acquired taste. He specializes in kneading and shifting the film form, as did the great first wave of underground filmmakers in the Sixties: Emshwiller, Mekas, Brakhage and the like. He is particularly fascinated with the silent and early sound eras of film and works their tropes into his features and art installations. This film, shown in Sundance’s “New Frontier” program as a kind of warning, tells a group of nested stories: for example, some men trapped in a submarine are interrupted by a woodsman(!) who has his own tale, etc. The film stock is sometimes black and white, sometimes color, sometimes distressed, sometimes crisp. In a scene with two characters, one of them might use silent-film title cards while the other speaks in sync sound. It’s like looking at a constantly moving kaleidoscope fashioned around 1930. Each of the credit cards at the top is presented twice, in the style of old movies: the card might resemble GONE WITH THE WIND, then the same info as if seen in MRS. MINIVER. The film opens with a deadpan bit of absurd instruction on how to take a bath, and a great deal of humor flies by: for instance, a group of apprentice woodsmen are only yet “saplingjacks.” To say this isn’t for everyone would be the understatement of the year. At 2:08 it’s far too long, but by then about a quarter of the audience at my screening had already walked out. Those who remained, the true Maddinheads, clapped their hands off. Among Maddin’s actors are Charlotte Rampling, Geraldine Chaplin, and Udo Kier.
I AM MICHAEL*** (World Premiere) Michael Glatze was a gay-rights activist and founder of Young Gay America when he startled the movement in 2007 by announcing that he no longer identified as homosexual. A health scare had shocked him into reexamining his faith and his sexuality, and he became a Christian pastor, renouncing his former life. This dramatization of Michael’s journey, clearly made by people who believe he had come to deny himself, is nonetheless careful not to point fingers or make fun, and that is its main strength. James Franco (again!) does a terrific job of eliciting sympathy for Michael, even as his life’s contradictions are tearing him apart and he flails for something to believe in: Buddhism, anything. The first few minutes, confined to Michael’s activist group, are the weakest: the men seem to be mouthing talking points that we’ve all heard before. But as Michael’s quest becomes more complicated, even to the point of attracting sweet young Emma Roberts at a Bible college, the issues are less black and white — except to his former boyfriend, nicely played by Zachary Quinto. Writer-director Justin Kelly deserves a hand for leaving the issue open to the viewer’s own conclusions, and delivers a nifty final shot that can be taken two ways as well.
WHAT HAPPENED, MISS SIMONE?***** (World Premiere) A great documentary by Sundance veteran Liz Garbus on jazz and blues legend Nina Simone. A classically trained pianist destined for the concert hall, she found her way into vocals out of necessity, playing dingy clubs to make ends meet. She became incredibly popular, known as the “High Priestess of Soul,” but her genius also had its downside. She could be sullen to audiences, the female Miles Davis; after watching this film, I believe she felt she deserved the same type of silent attention that is given to classical artists, and resented being treated otherwise. She lived through the civil rights movement in America, and racism made her so angry that she began to speak out and sing out; she wrote “Mississippi Goddam,” one of the most searing songs of the era, and gave no thought to how her activism might affect her career. (She once told Martin Luther King, “I am not nonviolent.”) This beautifully researched film gives us plenty of concert footage, some of it newly unearthed, and an unvarnished look at her mercurial personality from Simone herself and from the people closest to her, including her daughter. Even viewers familiar with her work will learn something about Nina Simone; those to whom her name is new may well be flabbergasted. This movie was co-produced by Netflix (of particular help in obtaining the many music clearances needed), which will stream it beginning in June after a token, Academy-qualifying theatrical run in New York and Los Angeles.
GLASSLAND* (World Dramatic Special Jury Award for Acting: Jack Reynor) I saw this movie and I’m still not sure what happened in it. This kid drives a taxi in Dublin. His mother is drinking herself to death. That is all I’m positive about. I don’t know what’s in the mysterious package he delivers in an early scene. I’m not sure who his customers are, but I think they may be pimps. I don’t know how he got the money to send his mom to an expensive dry-out clinic. I don’t know who called him to drive to a mysterious house, or why. I don’t understand what was resolved in the end. Jack Reynor won an award for acting, and Toni Collette gave it everything as his mom. Will Poulter, he of the eyebrows, is also in it. Beyond that, I just do not know.
GRANDMA**** (World Premiere, Festival Closing Night) A very good dramedy by the dependable Paul Weitz that I predict will earn Lily Tomlin an Academy Award nomination next year. She plays Elle Reid, a misanthropic grandmother who has just broken up with her girlfriend of four months (Judy Greer), herself a rebound after the death of Elle’s lifelong love. But there’s no time to mope, because Sage, her 18-year-old granddaughter, shows up with a ticking-clock emergency. They’ll have to drive all over town, stopping in on various pieces of Elle’s past. Marcia Gay Harden shines as Sage’s distracted tycoon of a mother, and Sam Elliott makes the most of a ten-minute appearance, but Lily Tomlin is in every single scene, growling out the wisecracks one minute and suffering through pain and loss the next, a very human being that we’re glad to have met.
LILA & EVE*** (World Premiere) THELMA & LOUISE meet RAMBO. After her son’s horrifying drive-by murder, a grieving mother joins a support group. There she meets a friend who is also frustrated by the police’s inability to provide justice, and together they determine to find and punish the killers, no matter what it takes. You’ve seen it all before, even down to a critical plot point (I can’t identify the movie without giving it away). But Viola Davis, in the lead, is spectacular, registering all the colors of grief and determination, never veering into self-parody. Jennifer Lopez keeps up as the hotheaded partner who eggs her on, but this is Davis’s movie and it’s a master class in performance.
PEOPLE, PLACES, THINGS**** Jemaine Clement again, but this time he gets to carry a picture as the leading man. The knowing script by writer-director Jim Strouse is funny and wistful too, as a cartoonist and father of adorable twin girls must put his life back together after breaking up with the girls’ mother. In his natural New Zealand accent, Clement offers droll commentary (to a woman who judges his country beautiful because she saw the HOBBIT movies, he replies, “So you know our ways.”) and charming gangly unease as a solitary artist and teacher with a heart of gold; you’d love him as a friend or a father. THE DAILY SHOW’s Jessica Williams is great as one of his students at New York’s School of Visual Art, and it’s fun to sit in on his classes, especially as he deconstructs the medium of panel art (it’s straight out of Scott McCloud’s UNDERSTANDING COMICS, including some illustrations). We made sure to see this one because Jemaine Clement had the lead; I hope more and more people will develop the same preference and Jemaine becomes a household name, as has already happened to Steve Carell.
THE OVERNIGHT*** A mildly amusing trifle about a couple new to Los Angeles who are invited to the neighbors’ for a get-to-know-you pizza dinner. Once the kids are put to bed, the hosting couple gradually reveal themselves to be farther and farther and farther out there. Adam Scott and Taylor Schilling are the “normal” couple and the audience’s proxies. The main reason to see this movie is Jason Schwartzman, who revels in his increasingly bizarre role: he’s next to nuts, but it’s a lovable kind of nuts, the charming-rogue type a la Jack Nicholson or Bill Murray. Warning to prudes: the same kind of special makeup effect used toward the end of BOOGIE NIGHTS is seen here too. In fact, I counted two of ‘em.
RACING EXTINCTION*** I kept calling this “COVE II,” after one of my favorite films of the 2009 festival. Louie Psihoyos is one of the world’s greatest nature photographers, and when he turned to polemical filmmaking against savage dolphin hunting with the Oscar-winning THE COVE, I was riveted. Now the subject is the wanton extinction of species, far beyond the rate allowed by natural selection; we could lose half of all species within a century. This is perhaps the greatest obscenity perpetuated by those who refuse to lift a finger against climate change, simply because it is in many cases revokable. However, though indisputably gorgeous, this film is far less powerful than THE COVE. There, we were limited to a specific crime against nature, not to mention the deflatingly banal end result, the amusement of humans. Here, the subject is so huge that we are forced to dart around too much. The last bird of its species sings for a female who will never answer: that’s poetic, Shakespearean. But then we are pulled back into the illegal sale of whale meat in a restaurant (exposed by a COVEian sting which helps shutter the joint), or the harvesting of manta rays to be used in Eastern folk remedies, or the communicative powers of whalesong, or the unsustainability of exotic fare like shark-fin soup, or the dangers of depending upon animal protein for nourishment (livestock damage the worldwide atmosphere more than all forms of transportation combined). Then there are unintended consequences to consider: I wanted to know what the filmmakers would do with the people in the manta-ray village whose sole livelihood had now been cut off. We heard some muttering about “tourism,” but nothing concrete. The finale looses a tricked-out Tesla with state-of-the-art gear that can project video images onto the sides of buildings for a few multimedia joyrides in New York City, culminating with a spectacular show at the United Nations complex. (Not too green, maybe, but what the heck.) This film should be required viewing in schools everywhere — after all, it’s school-age kids who will have to live with our filth — and producing it was a fine service, but as a work of art it pales next to its predecessor.
BROOKLYN**** (World Premiere) Money in the bank, mates: a sumptuous period piece that’s largely set in 1950s New York. A young Irish girl (Saoirse Roman) decamps for a more promising life in Brooklyn. Her deep homesickness is only alleviated when she meets a young Italian lad. But even though she’s emotionally attached, a family emergency forces her back to Ireland, where a divergent potential life awaits. John Crowley directs an adaptation by Nick Hornby, and is it ever beautiful. Each period detail is perfectly rendered, and Yves Belanger’s drop-dead-gorgeous cinematography, on both sides of the Atlantic, is thrilling in its ability to nail a place with just a couple of setups. Ms. Roman is splendid: her early sad-sack face morphs into radiance once she finds her footing in New York and then surrenders to a love affair: the production design and particularly the costumes mirror her burgeoning emotional maturity, and by the time she goes back to Ireland, she’s become a rather sophisticated colleen, both in dress and manner. Too girly? Not by me, and I don’t watch most of that BBC stuff. It’s an exemplary job, well written, acted, and shot. I predict great things.
ME AND EARL AND THE DYING GIRL***** (Grand Jury Prize, U.S. Dramatic; Audience Award, U.S. Dramatic) It starts as a knowing movie about “the real high school,” but that’s just to gird your grid for some serious stuff to come. Greg (Thomas Mann, who will also show up in THE STANFORD PRISON EXPERIMENT, below) assiduously avoids becoming a member of any clique, only close enough to fist-bump them all. He makes wise-ass movie parodies with his childhood friend Earl. You get to see a few clips from these beauties: my favorite was A SOCKWORK ORANGE, using sock puppets against Purcell’s now-iconic Queen Mary Funeral music. His mother (Connie Britton) forces girl-shy Greg to spend some time with classmate Rachel (Olivia Cooke), who is dying of leukemia. Those are the basics. Now the movie spreads its wings far beyond the expected. Part of the enjoyment is how director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon realizes a brilliant script by Jesse Andrews that upends your smug knowingness at every turn. It all comes down to a bravura ten minutes at the end that raises you up and down on the emotional scale through sight and sound alone, because the camera’s locked. Bring hankies. I’m not sure how this may be received commercially, but we loved it. This movie exudes great respect not only for its fully-drawn characters, but also for cinema in general. Watch and hear what’s playing on tv in the background. If you’ve seen THE 400 BLOWS, you’ll receive something even deeper. This is the third straight year that the audience and the jury have agreed on the U.S. Dramatic winner: PRECIOUS, WHIPLASH, and now this one.
SLOW WEST**** (Grand Jury Prize, World Dramatic) Remember how strange the Western vistas used to look in those classic Sergio Leone movies? Just like the craggy mugs shown so close-up that you could see facial pores, the background off-kilter, as alien as those long dusters that billowed in the wind. That’s because we were actually rolling film half a world away from John Ford’s Monument Valley: we were in Spain, amigo. This very fine movie gives the production globe another twirl, to the wide-open spaces of New Zealand, d/b/a the American West. A lovestruck teenage Scot travels to America to find his former squeeze. He is nearly killed along the way but is saved by a highwayman (excuse me, a bounty hunter), played to perfection by Michael Fassbender. (Is there anything he can’t do?) The scofflaw offers to escort the lad for a fee, but he has a darker reason, and thereby hangs a tale. Now we are down to stunning vistas and superb closeup eye candy from writer/director John Maclean and DP Robbie Ryan. This is an old-fashioned Western quest in many ways, but it possesses an arch attitude that renders it contemporary. G’day to my favorite Aussie character actor, Ben Mendelsohn, who joined the canon here at Sundance with ANIMAL KINGDOM, and to Rory McCann, the Mountain of GAME OF THRONES, who gets a sympathetic part. It was wonderful to see a terrific frontier film at a time when I thought they’d all gone away.
THE WOLFPACK*** (Grand Jury Prize, U.S. Documentary) I dimly remember reading about the Angulo family in the New York Times, probably in a report on the start of production on this film. Six brothers (and one sister, who barely appears) live with their parents on the Lower East Side. They have been home-schooled by their state-accredited mom and are quite articulate, but they have been largely kept insulated from society by their monomaniacal father, who ruled everything when his kids were younger and rarely let them leave the house for fear of contamination by the evils outside. Instructed to fear everything beyond the front door, they are culturally feral — or would be if it weren’t for the movies. They watch tapes and disks ravenously and produce their own homages (not unlike ME AND EARL, only these boys are serious, and several of them are fairly good mimics) by painstakingly copying down dialogue and faking the production design. But now they’re adolescents, and their worthless, alcoholic father suddenly looms less large. One boy breaks the ultimate rule, then everybody else wants to go outside too. We watch as they attend their first film in a real theater, head over to Coney Island, and enjoy a day in the park, making connections to scenes or locations in their favorite movies. You tend to feel for these boys and want a case worker over tout de suite, but this way-alternative lifestyle is a very strange and slippery form of child abuse: one or two of the brothers might even contest that description if you confronted them. They adore their mother, who has been complicit at the very least, but the household is full of blankness rather than authenticity, and it’s thus as dank and depressing as a Poe story. For these boys, “you need to get out more” isn’t just a catchphrase, it’s a life-or-death diagnosis. We fear for them, and we hope they can find the necessary courage before it’s too late.
DARK HORSE**** (Audience Award, World Cinema Documentary) ANIMAL HOUSE meets SEABISCUIT. The remarkable story of a racehorse owned by a ragtag syndicate of pub denizens in a tiny Welsh village. In 2000, barmaid Jan Vokes decides to breed a contender and enlists locals to, um, pony up 10 pounds a week. The mare and stud fees are both on a tight budget; not an auspicious start. What emerges is a goofy foal, all spindly legs whose coloration looks like it has donned two pair of white kneesocks. But the village’s new beast — named “Dream Alliance” to represent his unusual ownership — has heart and a street-scrappiness which will take it far past hobbydom, to everyone else’s amazement and delight. The fun is in watching these yobbos and yobbettes gradually assert themselves as owners in the overly snooty world of racing: it’s the slobs versus the snobs, thanks to the determination of Ms. Vokes and a tight circle of people who actually know what they’re doing. The filmmaking carries us along with thunderous coverage of some big events, announced within the first few seconds (at first I felt it a mistake to begin with The Big Race and interrupt to tell the backstory, but I was wrong, as the full tale reveals). These scenes are interspersed with contemporary footage of principals, all looking back now, which allows you to meet, know, and love them. And then there is “Dream,” a natural who follows his own trail, even galloping past a near-death experience. It’s all just adorable: as uplifting, in its own way, as is SEARCHING FOR SUGAR MAN.
THE STANFORD PRISON EXPERIMENT***** (Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award, Alfred P. Sloan Feature Film Prize) A chilling dramatization of the notorious 1971 experiment in group psychology and situational ethics, which was conducted just as I was leaving college for graduate school; I was pretty much the same age as the Stanford students who agreed (for a fee) to populate and administer a “prison” setting for two weeks. The roles of “prisoners” and “guards” were assigned randomly. The hypothesis was that even simulated authority could attain actual dominance when wielded in psychological isolation. “I’d rather be a prisoner,” one prospect blithely muses at his pre-screening session. “Wouldn’t have so much to do.” You really haven’t thought this through, kid. As with most “true stories,” we have no idea if it actually went down this way, but here it takes no time at all for the “guards” — who may not strike or otherwise physically harm their prisoners, but can use any psychological means of control necessary — to channel their inner sadists. Just as remarkably, the “prisoners” also revert to stages of pathetic subordination or scheming. Tim Talbott’s award-winning script is tight as a drum, and director Kyle Patrick Alvarez keeps it so sweaty and claustrophobic that you can feel the temperature change whenever we have to leave the “prison” to watch the watchers. The film depicts mastermind Dr. Philip Zimbardo, played by Billy Crudup, as a bit of a mad scientist, which may be a tad too harsh. But a troupe of terrific young actors laps up these roles like pudding, especially an incendiary Michael Angarano as a “guard” who decides his template will be Strother Martin in COOL HAND LUKE, shitkicker accent and all. At the screening I attended, you could hear a pin drop whenever we were in “prison”; you may well find this film too intense to “enjoy,” so consider yourself warned. I had to keep in mind that it was only a movie about only an experiment, for it’s as armrest-clenching as any thriller. When I read about the Stanford prison experiment at the time, I thought the takeaway was that a uniform changed everything, made it possible for you to follow any crazy-ass order you received. (Another Sundance feature which I missed, EXPERIMENTER, dramatized the equally notorious 1961 Milgram experiment, which set out to prove exactly that.) But as the Stanford kids found out, the uniform can affect behavior in the wearer as well as the beholder. It was a surprise only because until now, they’d never been to prison.
WISH I’D SEEN: BEST OF ENEMIES, CALL ME LUCKY, THE DIARY OF A TEENAGE GIRL, DOPE, DRUNK STONED BRILLIANT DEAD, THE END OF THE TOUR, EXPERIMENTER, GOING CLEAR (it’ll be on HBO next month), MISERY LOVES COMEDY, THE RUSSIAN WOODPECKER, THE WITCH, Z FOR ZACHARIAH
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