The Stanford Prison Experiment

experiment

We live in a world of broad-based entertainment as the films released in each of our favorite genres are often engineered to have the widest possible appeal. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s healthy. Audiences not only want to be entertained – they need to be. While there is often great artistry in such endeavors – they certainly aren’t always art. It takes a different kind of film to be considered as such.

While many can debate as to what makes a film, artistic – one underlying question remains constant – did the work move its audience? Because if it fails to engage the audience, how could it be art, when it’s barely existing as entertainment?

The flip side of this is how audiences interpret films that shock them or expand their world view. We don’t see films like this too often, as they don’t inherently have the broadest of appeal, but we should never forget that It is imperative for the art of cinema not only to entertain, but also to shock, disgust and without a doubt get a rise out of its audience.

The Stanford Prison Experiment succeeds beautifully in doing this. It moves its audience into a shellshocked realm as the filmmakers have delivered a visceral human experience by painstakingly recreating a disturbing psychological experiment that happened over 40 years ago—but seems as relevant as if it just happened yesterday.

Firing on all cylinders to shock, inform and move its audience—The Stanford Prison Experiment easily presents itself as a top contender for both a directing award and Waldo Salt Award for Screenwriting.

Tim Talbott’s script is a success because he simply throws the viewer into the experiment in the same way in which the students at Stanford were tossed to the lions.

There’s a ticking clock at hand, as the experiment is scheduled to last 14 days. Amusingly after seeing how crazy things go on day one, it makes the audience wonder just how much longer these students can possibly continue.

Talbott chose to make the film a true ensemble piece which is one of its many saving graces because for such a complex experience it would have been a waste of time to simply stick with one subject, or observer. Talbott instead takes an omniscient point of view that benefits the audience by truly gauging the scope of just how intense the situation became and how it personally challenged all the individuals involved in it.

The danger of ensemble writing is that there’s often not enough time to make anyone three dimensional enough for the audience to care, but the beauty of the setup here is that beyond the observers all the test subjects were strangers and only gained insight into each other’s lives as their time together continued. It makes for a leveled playing field and adds to the intrigue of the tale.

Director Kyle Patrick Alvarez does a phenomenal job handling the complex duties at hand. For starters the true claustrophobia of the converted Stanford lab basement into a small prison worked excellently and we quickly not only got a sense of where we are, but how trapped all of the subjects and at times even observers must have felt. The performances were excellent, as both the director and his cast truly dug their heels into the experience.

As for what that experience is – let’s take a brief moment in case you’re unfamiliar, to catch you up with a synopsis. I wouldn’t dare write out a synopsis when I have such a great one from the Sundance Guide – the review continues after: “It is the summer of 1971. Dr. Philip Zimbardo launches a study on the psychology of imprisonment. Twenty-four male undergraduates are randomly assigned to be either a guard or a prisoner. Set in a simulated jail, the project unfolds. The participants rapidly embody their roles—the guards become power-hungry and sadistic, while the prisoners, subject to degradation, strategize as underdogs. It soon becomes clear that, as Zimbardo and team monitor the escalation of action through surveillance cameras, they are not fully aware of how they, too, have become part of the experiment.

Based on the real-life research of Dr. Zimbardo (who was a consultant on the film), The Stanford Prison Experiment is a dramatic period piece that remains relevant over 40 years later. Along with an impressive cast, including Billy Crudup as Zimbardo, Kyle Patrick Alvarez (C.O.G., 2013 Sundance Film Festival) delivers an intense, visceral film about the role of power that plays to both chilling and exhilarating effect. —K.Y – 2015 Sundance Guide.”

For something so well constructed, its only problem is ultimately its subject matter. Talbott, Alvarez and their cast do their jobs so well that at times the film is difficult to watch as its lessons show such an ugly truism of human nature that to view it is at times both difficult and harrowing. Yet, you can’t stop watching it and that is exactly why The Stanford Prison Experiment is an important film. Its prescient lessons are just as relevant today as they were 40 years ago and until the human race decides to better learn them, we’re destined to continue to drag each other down.

As of press time the film had not been bought, but when a distributor finally is bold enough to step in and snatch it up, I can only hope audiences show up in droves so that more such challenging films will get made..

The Stanford Prison Experiment
Director: Kyle Patrick Alvarez
Screenwriter: Tim Talbott

Infinitely Entertaining Writing in The End of the Tour

tour

After spending 5 days on the road with David Foster Wallace at the end of his book tour for Infinite Jest journalist David Lipsky was never able to publish the Rolling Stone piece he was supposed to be writing.

Unfortunately the film The End of the Tour never exactly answers why the article was never published (a title card in the end credits would have been nice) however that omitted fact does not in the least take away from the pure pleasure that it is to watch The End of the Tour.

Luckily Liplsky later turned his travels with Wallce into a 300 page memoir entitled Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself and later Pulitzer prize winner Donald Margulies did an amazing adaptation of it into a script.

As coincidence would have it, director James Ponsoldt was a former playwriting student of Marguilies at Yale, and the professor reached out to Ponsoldt to see if he’d be interested in directing the film (Set up by Anonymous Content) not even knowing that Ponsoldt was a lifelong David Foster Wallace fan.

The resulting film’s simple structure begins with Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg) finding out Wallace committed suicide and then flashes back to their trip together. It’s a fascinating character study of the dynamic that can be formed between journalist and subject. Trust, fear of betrayal, guarded answers and honest intimate moments all wrap neatly into this dialogue heavy flick.

To its credit, the film never feels like a play or “too talky,” which is a triumph because the audience literally can’t wait until all the secondary characters get out of frame so that our protagonists can continue onto one of their amazing conversations.

It evokes the feeling of hanging out on screen which is no easy task because of the narrative responsibility that most films need to subject themselves to. Yet here those shackles are broken, in which the entire meat of the film is found in the act of hanging out with one of the more brilliant authors of recent American literature.

Jason Segel delivers an incredibly honest and captivating performance that captures the spirit of Wallace, not just as a genius, but as a regular person as well. The performance and the script both reinforce the myth of the troubled genius author along with breaking down said myth to show him as just a regular tobacco chewing dog lover as well.

For a film with no real antagonist, tension is built as Lipsky himself knows that eventually he has to become the antagonist since tough questions must be asked per his editor’s wishes. This creates a unease as both we and Lipsky dread the moment when the rumor of drug addiction must be asked to the man who he just spent days shadowing and had finally gained his trust.

Margulies’ script coupled with Ponsoldt’s directing and point on performances by Eisenberg & Segel make this truly a must-see show at Sundance. Distributor A24 bought the film and will release sometime later in 2015 – and this one is worth keeping on your radar.

Sadly (to my knowledge )the film is not eligible for awards, like the Waldo Salt Award for Screenwriting or the Jury Prize, since it was categorized in the Premiere section – which is a mystery and a bummer.

For those at the fest, standing in long lines (hopefully even to see a new viewing of The End of the Tour) it seems quite appropriate to humbly suggest you download Infinte Jest onto your phone or tablet and let Wallace’s creative spirit help you pass the time away and maybe even inspire you to do something creative on your own.

–Jeff Goldsmith is the publisher of Backstory on the iPad and the host of The Q&A with Jeff Goldsmith podcast in iTunes. Follow him on Twitter as @yogoldsmith

Here’s what the Sundance Guide Had to Say:

In 1996, shortly after the publication of his groundbreaking novel Infinite Jest, acclaimed author David Foster Wallace (Jason Segel) sets off on a five-day interview with Rolling Stone reporter David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg). As the days pass, a tenuous yet significant relationship develops between journalist and subject. Lipsky and Wallace bob and weave around each other, revealing as much in what they don’t say as what the say. They share laughs, expose hidden frailties, yet it’s never clear when or to what extent they are being truthful. The interview is never published. Five days of audio tapes are packed away in Lipsky’s closet, and the two men never meet again.

The End of the Tour is based on Lipsky’s critically acclaimed memoir about this unforgettable encounter that he wrote following Wallace’s suicide in 2008.

Deeply emotional, insightful performances from Jason Segel and Jesse Eisenberg lay bare a heartbreaking screenplay by Pulitzer-Prize winner Donald Margulies. Directed with humor and tenderness by Sundance Film Festival veteran James Ponsoldt (The Spectacular Now, Smashed) and befitting the troubled soul of Wallace himself, The End of the Tour is profound, surprising, and compellingly human. —D.C

Director: James Ponsoldt
Screenwriter: Donald Margulies

Stockholm, PA delivers a taught script

Stockholm

You don’t want to be here.

No one wants to investigate the subdued horrors that follow when a daughter reunites with her parents after being kidnapped & held in a basement for 17 years – yet this well told tale surprisingly takes you in a different direction.

Armed with her 2012 Nichcoll Fellowship script, first time writer-director Nikole Beckworth only starts to take you down the path toward a narrative that would usually fall deep into melodramatic territory but instead winds up delivering a creepy treatise regarding the concept of just how far one can go in forcing someone to love you.

The obvious scenes of the young kidnapped girl (in flashback) triumph because Jason Isaac’s performance is only creepy because he’s so truly in love with his captive. To the point that he believes he’d never hurt her and is actually protecting her from the world he says has ended outside of their safety zone in the basement.

Most importantly, Leanne (Saoirse Ronan) fully believes her captor and sees him as a mentor and caregiver.

Now, as a freed 22 year-old, she is conflicted with feelings of betrayal (the world didn’t end and she was merely kidnapped) and separation anxiety from someone she truly loves.

His dynamic mixes well with her disconnect from her real parents as her mom Marcy (Cynthia Nixon) traverses a trail that begins in the realm of a grieving mom given a second chance but winds up utterly unraveling when her self help books fail to oull her through the reunion she’s only dreamed about.

As Leanne sees a therapist and Marcy’s attempts to rebuild her family fail, it would be about at this point the film would usually get mired down into melodramatics, instead – it takes one hell of a left turn.

Without giving too much away, it can be said that Marcy becomes the devil who she’s despised as she too now is trying to force Leanne to love her.

She goes to great lengths for such pursuits and since Marcy’s behavior is what Leanne has been used to for much of her life, her mom manages a few baby steps toward engaging her lost daughter into a semblance of a relationship. But Leanne is smarter now and the old tricks won’t fully work as she yearns to grow up and gain her own identity.

This leads us to the ending – which won’t be spoiled here – but truly shows a mature hand behind the screen since Beckwith allows her character to take what she’s learned and attempt to find her own path toward love, no matter how psychotically bad that idea is presented, it once again comes from messed up but pure place which works only to reinforce how morally damaged Leanne is and how cycles of abuse manage to keep repeating themselves to the point of being handed down generationally.

Beckwith wrote roles strong enough to attract the fantastic talent and this film should lead to other promising opportunities to come.

–Jeff Goldsmith is the publisher of Backstory on the iPad and the host of The Q&A with Jeff Goldsmith podcast in iTunes. Follow him on Twitter as @yogoldsmith

Learn more from the Sundance Guide Description.

A young woman is reunited with her parents, Marcy and Glen, after being abducted 17 years earlier. Raised in a suburban basement and renamed Leia by her kidnapper, Ben, she was told the outside world had come to an end, and now she must completely reconceive her perception of it. The bright 22-year-old is also forced to reconcile her new life with parents who are virtual strangers and her past life of captivity with Ben, on whom she was completely dependent. As Leia’s growing alienation leads to her longing for Ben, Marcy slowly implodes in her attempts to reclaim her child, and the notion of what it is to be free is called into question.

In a haunting, nuanced performance, Saoirse Ronan is quietly spellbinding as a young woman whose entire basis of knowledge is shattered and her concept of home erased. Writer/director Nikole Beckwith, in an impressive debut feature, strips away the sensational tabloid fodder of the narrative to examine the origins of self, identity, and the power of language. —K.Y.

Director: Nikole Beckwith
Screenwriter: Nikole Beckwith

The Bronze Sticks a solid landing at Sundance

The Bronze

It’s nearing a decade since The Foot Fist Way debuted at Sundance and launched the career of Danny McBride as he and co-writers Jody Hill (also directed) and Ben Best flipped the world of martial arts instruction on its head and tonight’s premiere of The Bronze in the US Dramatic category certainly has echoes of Fist as it finds solid footing in the world of gymnastics.

Tonally, the comedies mirror each other as Bronze co-writer and star Melissa Rauch comes off as a trash talking, over the top hyper gymnast who is always adorned in her warm up gear despite the fact that due to an injury, she’s a decade past her prime.

Melissa and husband Winston’s cutting and raunchy dialogue often evokes laughs, but occasionally comes off as redundant or carries on a hair longer than the scene necessitates. It’s a small price to pay when considering Melissa’s sheer charisma and ability to fully engage in her comedic choices, which she does with the energy and enthusiasm reminiscent of Amy Sedaris’ talents.

Structurally, again similar to Foot Fist, the audience quickly meets protagonist Hope at her lowest, allowing for the character to only journey in one direction–up. And as Hope warms up, the audience easily warms up with her.

The world of gymnastics proves to be fertile ground for humor, even raunchy humor especially in a show stopper of a sex scene that harkens to levels of perverted absurdity that only Team America had previously dared with its own puppet fornication.

What wins for The Bronze is the utilization of the classic formula that beneath a wildly negative and at times hateful veneer lurks a vulnerable, ultra likable woman who simply needs to grow up a little.

Produced by the Duplass Brothers, who again show a strong eye for legit up and coming comedy talent, The Bronze will likely connect with indie audiences later this year as Rauch’s talents are simply too hilarious to be ignored.

Final Score: Silver Medal (better than Bronze!)

-Jeff Goldsmith

Here’s what the Sundance Guide had to say about the film:

In 2004, Hope Ann Greggory became an American hero after winning the bronze medal for the women’s gymnastics team. Today, she’s living in her father’s basement in her small hometown—washed up, largely forgotten, and embittered. Stuck in her past glory, Hope is forced to reassess her life when a promising young gymnast who idolizes her threatens her local celebrity status. Will she mentor the adoring, hopeful protégé, take her down, or both?

Director Bryan Buckley, whose short film Krug played at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival, returns with his hilariously raunchy feature-film debut. Teaming with co-writer and lead actor of the film Melissa Rauch, they create a lovably loathsome character who makes Tonya Harding look like Grace Kelly. Featuring a star-making performance by Rauch, unforgettable scenes, and many quotable lines, The Bronze is comedy gold. —T.G.

Director: Bryan Buckley
Screenwriter: Melissa Rauch / Winston Rauch