Jeremy Renner brings to life one of the most heinous murderers of the modern era in this horrific biopic.
Malcolm X. 1992. Directed by Spike Lee. Screenplay by Lee & Arnold Perl.
Starring Denzel Washington, Angela Bassett, Albert Hall, Al Freeman Jr., Delroy Lindo, Spike Lee, Theresa Randle, Kate Vernon, Lonette MCKee, Tommy Hollis, James McDaniel, Ernest Thomas, Jean-Claude La Marre, O.L. Duke, & Larry McCoy. 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks/Largo International N.V./JCV Entertainment Networks/Warner Bros.
Rated PG-13. 202 minutes.
Sometimes I’m not a fan of Spike Lee as a public persona, simply because he doesn’t always think before speaking. However, I’m usually a fan of his work as a director. He has a big, wide mind and puts that to work usually tackling issues within the African American community. There are too many of his movies to talk of in an introduction, but suffice to say I do think he is a great director. One of the greatest in his generation, and certainly one of the best African American directors out there, period.
And that’s perhaps why Malcolm X is the film out of his catalogue which resonates most. It isn’t necessarily his greatest. Yet there’s such a poignancy and depth to the work Lee does to portray Malcolm X (played wonderfully by Denzel Washington), not just as a powerful black leader, but also as a human being; one not completely above judgement, one not perfect as some might idealise him. Furthermore, we’re able to get a look at the inside of the Nation of Islam, as far as fiction allows. Many prominent figures in the life of X and circling the NOI, as well as the Civil Rights movement in general, are included, from cameo roles such as Nelson Mandela, Al Sharpton and others, to the portrayals of characters like Elijah Muhammad (Al Freeman Jr.) and Thomas Hagan (Giancarlo Esposito), among more. The nearly three and a half hour runtime of Malcolm X may seem daunting. If you’re sitting down to watch a film, you’ve really got to be prepared for this one, though it’s beyond worth the effort. For me, the 202 minutes rushes by in a beautifully shot and directed, phenomenally acted story that jams a whole man’s life into one screenplay. Not everything gets covered, and there’s also plenty of story to be told after X’s assassination. Above all else, the character of X comes out, as does his struggle. For some this was a stepping stone to learning more about the Civil Rights movements that began raging during the 1960s and 1970s, and onward. I won’t ever forget my first time seeing this one. It’s a classic that stands the test of time, telling an important, crucial story about America during the early latter half of the 20th century, and examining one of the more turbulent times of race relations in the country’s history. Sadly, some of what happened back then is still much too alive and much too well in American society, and if X were still alive he’d likely still be as fiery and determined as ever.
The best aspect of Malcolm X is the fact Lee doesn’t attempt to make him above reproach. As a person, X was not perfect. Nobody is, so Lee never tries to make him out to be anything else. Some worried that he would include X’s life before he converted to Islam, and that’s exactly part of what makes this story interesting and intriguing. There’s no sense in ignoring that part of his existence. X himself never did ignore it, he always kept himself open and honest and raw. That’s a huge part of why many did, and still do(/always will), admire him. He was not like most other leaders. He didn’t admit every one of his faults – again, he is only human. But on the whole, he never shied away from his once criminal past, as that in a way led him to where he went after and helped him attain the enlightenment of Islam.
One of my favourite moments happens between Malcolm X’s speeches. A young white woman approaches him, admiring his work, and wondering what a white person without prejudice might do to help further his cause: “Nothing,” he says smiling before walking on. This is such a brief, powerful moment. I’m reminded of watching a recent documentary about the KKK, where they also spotlighted the Black Lives Matter movement and the shooting in Charleston; one scene shows a white woman, with a mixed race child, trying to march in solidarity, who’s told by a black woman to go home – she does in fact leave after, though the black lady gives her a hug and seemingly explains this is just not the time or place for her presence. There’s a stand-off element to X and his feelings for white people. Again, that changed once he went to Mecca on his Hajj, and then essentially transformed into a full blown humanitarian. Yet Lee never strays away from that inflammatory perspective X held towards white American society, and makes clear it’s simply about black people gaining back their power, or retaining what they have, not so much about hating white people. So in that scene where X shrugs the white woman off, it represents the idea that white people may want to help, but black people don’t need their help. They sometimes just need white people to stand back, let them do their thing and settle the issues on their own. That’s not always the case. Particularly in the time of X, there were tough things happening (not that there still aren’t in this day and age), so this was a stance he felt black society needed to take in those times of near racial war. Not long after X, once Elijah Muhammad was out of his life, he made clear the black community had to unite first, then they could work more on white-black relations. That scene with the white girl epitomises this concept.
I love the inclusion of the conk hairstyle at the beginning with Malcolm and his buddy Shorty. Not simply because African American culture at the time saw a lot of young black men styling their hair that way. What’s most interesting is that Malcolm X later spoke about conk and its double edged sword-like effect on the black community. On the one hand, conk – because of its threat of chemical burns and scarring, hair loss, et cetera – was seen as a ritual of manhood, going from a boy to a grown adult. On the other hand, he and other African American scholars came to see conk also as a way of erasing oneself in order to become more white. This latter idea is presented in the screenplay after the conk is put in, washed out, then Malcolm admires his new hair in the mirror and says to the men in the barbershop: “Looks white, don‘t it?” The whole concept of the conk plays into how we see Malcolm ultimately reject everything white. And yes, he said incredibly inflammatory things about white people. But things can change, people can. He didn’t turn into who he was later because of a hate for white people. Effectively, he hated injustice. The white man, the white culture, the white HAIR, it all comes down to representing the white world that he lived in and found himself subject to at every turn, on a daily, minute-to-minute basis. So the conk is simply one element of the white superstructure that Malcolm came to reject. A great inclusion on Lee’s part to show that. It could’ve been a basic scene that shows us where he came from, his beginnings. Instead the scene represents a microcosm of that influence white culture had (/still has) on black people that are brainwashed into feeling as if ‘white is right’ or any of that other sadness. Later when Malcolm is in jail, the conk becomes a sticking point when he’s confronted by an inmate who tries to help him, out of the life of a gangster and moving towards something better, which is the Nation of Islam; a huge influence in his life during prison, as well as afterwards. It may seem a superficial, brief moment in the 202 minute runtime of this epic biography. And it’s a drop in the pond, really. Although, it is highly significant to the overall themes surrounding the film and X himself as a Civil Rights leader.
This is one of the best movies of the 1990s, certainly one of Spike Lee’s best, too. Malcolm X is a dissection of a cult of personality. It is a film that attempts to get to the core of what X and his struggle represented. Without all the denial some insist on upholding in regards to X’s personal history, who he was, who he became. The movie is not totally perfect, though it is perfect where it counts. Likewise, Lee concentrates on not inflating X as a leader. Rather he takes an inclusive look at the man, not ignoring the good and the bad alike. He dives into the an era where things were different, and somehow not enough has changed as of this writing in 2016. Watching this movie again now, 24 years after its release and concerning a subject decades older, it’s almost sad to watch and think how hard X would roll over in his grave were he able to witness some of the scary racist madness that’s still going on in the streets of America. Love this movie, love Denzel, and Spike is near his best here. A positively entertaining piece of biography, history, all combining to make a well executed film in every respect.
Talk Radio. 1988. Directed by Oliver Stone. Screenplay by Stone & Eric Bogosian; based on the play by Bogosian & Tad Savinar, which is based on the book Talked to Death: The Life & Murder of Alan Berg by Stephen Singular.
Starring Eric Bogosian, Ellen Greene, Leslie Hope, John C. McGinley, Alec Baldwin, John Pankow, Michael Wincott, Linda Atkinson, Robert Trebor, Zach Grenier, Tony Frank, Harlan Jordan, Anna Levine & Allan Corduner. Cineplex-Odeon Films/Ten-Four Productions.
Rated 14A. 110 minutes.
Disclaimer: parts of this review will spoil the finale, which is obviously huge. So I urge you to check the movie out, then come back. If not there’s an intense moment near the end that’ll be totally ruined for you.
Oliver Stone is a filmmaker whose catalogue of work can easily divide people. Then there are hardcore supposed Stone fans that don’t like his movies that aren’t like Natural Born Killers or JFK. They don’t want him unless he’s on full-throttle Stone style, whatever that is. Because for me, he is a versatile director and storyteller. He is always slightly political, if not completely politically minded. But there are many facets to his in your face style of filmmaking. First and foremost, Stone is continually concerned about the truth. His films are a way of examining the truth, and sometimes various truths, about life, politics, history, and everything else in between.
Talk Radio is perhaps one of his most poignant films, for many reasons. Despite what he says about his own work. First, the screenplay was written by Stone and also star Eric Bogosian, based on the stage play Bogosian wrote with Tad Savinar. In turn, that play is further based on Stephen Singular’s biography about radio host Alan Berg. So there’s a very interesting aspect to Stone’s film that captures part of the stage play, in the sense we stick close to lead character Barry Champlain, and many of the extended scenes are relegated to the radio station’s main room. With Stone’s talent, and a blockbuster performance from Bogosian in a role that he already knew but was able to flesh out onscreen, Talk Radio becomes a highly personal, emotional journey that’s also a part of a larger conversation about freedom of speech and difference of opinion.
Oh, and Barry Champlain (Eric Bogosian) is the reason I like to use the word ‘meatball’ in reference to idiots. Frequently.
At his basest level, Barry is searching for passion. Even if it’s the wrong kind, he’s seeking those who feel strongly. When his ex-wife comes back into the picture he realizes she’s likely the only person who actually cares about him. However, she has moved on. But the audience hasn’t, not just the people who like listening to his show, also the ones who hate him. The audience cannot move on, not like his ex-wife. Even his ex-wife is drawn to him, despite remarrying, and though she knows he’s toxic there’s something that keeps her coming back. And the audience is the same. Because at the bottom of it all a guy like Champlain is needed. He inflames both the right and left, and anybody, everybody in between. He constantly and consistently challenges the status quo as an equally opportunity offender; he doesn’t care if you’re black, white, another Jew such as himself, or whoever.
In a day and age where freedom of speech is often at war with people and their differing values, Barry isn’t dated. He is fresh and unique. He represents the right to say what you mean, as long as what you say has merit. This is clearly, easily represented in the way he screens his own calls. Whatever comes through the line, stupid or profound (most of which falls into the former category), Barry takes on. Sometimes he has things to say, other times he’ll just hang up. Because he has things to talk about, he has legitimate ideas that are built around fact and not solely on opinion. Barry draws a line in the sand which ultimately explains what free speech is all about. In that yes, you can say what you want, at least as far as libel and such goes. You can’t just say anything without consequence, and you can’t just say anything without something to back it up. A little fact, a piece of tangible evidence to back yourself up. Without that, what is there? Opinion. It’s fine to have one. Although opinion isn’t truth.
HUGE SPOILER AHEAD: in the end, Barry pays for his truthfulness, his facts and the way he jams them viciously down peoples throat, sparing no one on either side of an issue if they’re not coming with anything credible. He gets gunned down in the parking lot coming out of his show. This is when the free speech bumps up against extremism. The problem with anyone on any side getting to a point of extremism is that they do not consider the fact they’re silencing the same free speech they likely champion for their wild perspectives. Here, the neo-Nazi, white nationalists are the hypocritical faction, at once calling for free speech and at the same time threatening Barry with bodily harm over his outspoken views.
Eric Bogosian transforms a character from a stage play into one that works just as well onscreen. He’s powerful. There are plenty of times he gets to monologue, including one mammoth speech in particular that’s wildly intense. A few of the more powerful moments involve when Barry is confronted over the phone by men who are clearly white supremacists. There’s an air of confidence, an abundance of it almost all the time. Yet underneath, Bogosian shows that Barry is afraid. Not necessarily of them, but of himself and how far he’ll allow it all to go, to what place he’ll eventually get and if he can come back. The whole character is complex, representative of many things. While so much of Barry is about free speech, he’s also about belief and how much a person’s beliefs mean to them. Right to the end he is strong, though to a fault. I can’t think of anyone better to have played him in the film.
This is possibly my favourite Oliver Stone film, right up there next to Salvador. Using the amazing stage play with which Eric Bogosian was associated is a stroke of genius. Much as Oliver Stone claims it inhibited him, in his mind. To me, it worked perfectly. This is one of the less Stone-like films in his own catalogue. Not in any bad way, as I love his style. But Talk Radio is a more straight up take on the subject. No less impressive and powerful. Through a fantastic central performance from Bogosian we’re able to access the inner life of Barry Champlain while simultaneously exploring all those themes he encompasses. There aren’t as many movies out there about freedom of speech that are as good, nor are there any that come so near to the danger in which free speech finds itself today, sadly, in the 21st century. Watching this now it takes on a whole new life. We need more people like Barry. To keep pushing the envelope, though not for one side or the other. Just simply pushing.
Monster. 2003. Directed & Written by Patty Jenkins.
Starring Charlize Theron, Christina Ricci, Bruce Dern, Lee Tergesen, Annie Corley, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Marco St. John, Marc Macaulay, Scott Wilson, Rus Blackwell, Tim Ware, Stephan Jones, Brett Rice, Kaitlin Riley, & Cree Ivey. Media 8 Entertainment/Newmarket Films/DEJ Productions.
Rated 18A. 109 minutes.
For those that don’t know the entire story, Aileen Wuornos was indeed a serial killer. She murdered men. She was a prostitute, one that had been abused, supposedly raped, tortured, and one who took emancipation from a life of sex as business into her own hands when there was nowhere else to turn. And that was the ultimate problem concerning Aileen’s long, tumultuous life. Starting from an early age she was frequently beaten, while naked, by her adoptive father. At the age of fourteen she got pregnant, later putting the boy up for adoption in 1971. She was actually married to a multimillionaire by age twenty, which later ended in a restraining order against her and an annulment. This was also around the time Lee started getting arrested, charged with assault and battery, among other things. When she finally wound up in Daytona, drinking in a gay bar, she met Tyria Moore who’d become the one big love of her life. It was in Daytona the trail of bodies behind Aileen – affectionately known as Lee to those close to her – started piling up.
And this is where director-writer Patty Jenkins’ Monster comes in.
Wuornos, by all accounts, had trouble with the truth. Most of all after her arrest in 1991. What Jenkins does is examine Wuornos in those days after meeting Moore – here named Selby – and the steady decline of her mental state from the time of her first murder onward. In a realistic style alongside a great script, Jenkins uses the fascinatingly honest, brutally true-to-life performance of Charlize Theron as the centerpiece of a discussion about everything from murder to prostitution, to how we judge prostitutes when they say they’ve been sexually assaulted, love, as well as so many other themes in between. This movie is a great film from the early 2000s containing one of the single best performances ever seen in the history of cinema.
There’s some great editing in this film. When Selby and Aileen first stay together in the hotel, after she’s murdered her first victim, things are so light and lovely, which then switches quickly into the stone cold realities of this woman’s life: we cut fast to Aileen in her stolen car, spraying down the windshield and wiping off any of the last bloody remnants inside to make sure it’s not a rolling DNA lab. This is one of the most evident points where we see the division in Aileen’s life, between the woman she wants to be and the woman she is/has become. An instance of when good editing and writing come together to create a sorrowful look into the inner life of a character, especially heart wrenching due to the fact Aileen is a serial killer, as well as partly a very tragic case.
What is part serial killer picture is also part indictment of our general society, which chews people like Aileen Wuornos up and spits them out. Aside from her alleged rape (I only say alleged because Aileen was the only person left on Earth who knew the truth for sure about that particular event), one of the first truly sad scenes is the montage sequence where Aileen heads out looking for a job. First just seeing her dressed in a nice little outfit while looking terrifyingly rough is semi-comical, which might explain Jenkins once telling an interviewer the film was meant to be played as a lighthearted comedy with bits of the murders tossed in amongst everything else. Secondly, when Aileen then goes on to a law office where she hopes to get a secretarial job, the treatment she receives is downright appalling. Then when she freaks out, it’s as if she is being the unreasonable one, but the man provoked her into that behaviour, and furthermore we continue to see how the system is not designed for people like Aileen. One poignantly tragic moment is when Selby is being chastised about Aileen by her aunt, who basically says
Basically, a long and ruined life led Aileen to where she ended up. Having been used and abused most of her lifetime she wound up doing all she was ever conditioned to do: prostitute herself and sell her body. The saddest part to me is that one way or another, Aileen was likely to become a killer. Because if she didn’t willingly start killing men that she felt were assaulting or raping her then there’s still a high probability she would’ve likely, at some point in life, contracted HIV and spread it. Aileen wasn’t some high class escort, she lived on the street going from one situation to the next in desperation, so there’s a huge chance HIV would’ve come along. But the biggest, saddest irony lies in the fact that if Aileen was telling the truth about the original john she killed in the beginning, it’s likely this rape and assault which pushed her into killing the others, even if they never assaulted her themselves. Not to excuse her crimes, they are horrific and inexcusable. It just begs attention paid to the systemic abuse of low class prostitutes that are living dangerous lives on the fringe of society, no protection, barely any mind paid to their situations and their struggles. Eventually the levee has to break, somehow, somewhere down the line. Aileen represents one of the most perfect cases of a woman pushed too far. People want to act like a prostitute gets what she deserves, whatever that means, as if selling her body to survive and get through life effectively relegates her to a life of rape, torture, and all around terror. As if she asked for that. But Aileen asked for none of the life she was given. The title of this film accurately describes Wuornos, yet it has more than just the surface meaning that she is a monstrous person. This title refers further to the monster which society made her, the serial killing creature into which society molded her.
Obviously the most impressive piece of Monster is Theron. Not just the physical transformation, though that is perfect. She not only takes on the physical appearance of Wuornos, she also gets the mannerisms and the phrasing, everything, so dead on correct. If you’ve ever watched any of the documentary material on Aileen, specifically the films made by Nick Broomfield, you’ll find it undeniable how accurate Theron portrays this woman, from top the bottom. Emotionally, this role is heavy, and all the various traumas of Aileen are not easy to illustrate onscreen. Theron proves that empathy reigns supreme, as she crawls inside the skin of this woman, whose story is sad but still altogether scary to relate to. We do, though. We relate in the most unnerving of ways, and that isn’t solely on the writing by Jenkins, fleshing out many important moments in the later stages of Aileen’s days. Theron opens the door to that empathetic viewing, which ultimately makes Monster one of the more compelling films to look at a true story about a serial killer. Yes, there are graphic moments. Even those are tactfully written and handled with solid directorial choices on Jenkins’ part.
With Theron’s powerhouse acting talent this movie doesn’t have to linger totally on the murder, the blood, the rape, none of that. Instead those lie on the peripherals of the film, adding their touches lightly, as Jenkins chooses to focus on the emotional, sentimental aspects of Aileen’s life. In doing so, Theron is able to show off her skills, and the movie reaches a height many other biographical films concerning the hideous legacy of serial murderers often can’t manage to attain. This is a 5-star masterpiece of a crime film. Even better, it’s based in real life, the melodrama is almost non-existent. Not only is Monster one of the best films in the past 16 years, it is an excellent movie period. And Theron’s performance as Wuornos will forever go down in history as one of the greatest. She deserved and still deserves all the accolades heaped upon her for this role because it is tremendous. To make people care about someone who has killed, a bunch of people, is truly remarkable, and to bring forward some of the issues in this film is brave on both the part of Theron and writer-director Jenkins. Truly a phenomenal work of cinema.
Chopper. 2000. Directed & Written by Andrew Dominik; based on the books of Mark Brandon Read.
Starring Eric Bana, Simon Lyndon, David Field, Dan Wyllie, Bill Young, Vince Colosimo, Kenny Graham, Kate Beahan, Serge Liistro, Pam Western, Gary Waddell, Brian Mannix, Skye Wansey, Annalise Emtsis, & Johnnie Targhan. Australian Film Finance Corporation/Mushroom Pictures/Pariah Entertainment Group.
Unrated. 94 minutes.
Many true stories are often a rosy-eyed view of the life of their subjects. Too often they devolve into hero worship or over sentimentality. Really, what a good biography deserves is truth. Even if that truth has many sides.
Chopper is a film about infamous Australian criminal, prisoner, author, vigilante, Mark Brandon Read – a.k.a “Chopper” Read. The tagline NEVER LET THE TRUTH GET IN THE WAY OF A GOOD YARN is one of his personal mantras. So, how can a story about a notorious liar find truth? In its depiction of the central character, whose mantra on truth is a huge focus. Using bits of truth and bits of who-knows-if-its-fiction from Chopper himself, director-writer Andrew Dominik explores an interesting chapter of Mark Read’s life, as Eric Bana crawls into the man’s skin, bringing to life his odd habits, his paranoid mind, and his utterly hypnotic foolishness. It’s hard not to like Chopper at times because he’s a vigilante, he likes to prey on criminals. But he is a paradox – a criminal, a murderer, a pathological liar.
Is Chopper Read a good or a bad man? Is he a product of a nasty environment? You be the judge.
A product of the Australian penal system since the age of 16, Mark Brandon “Chopper” Read (Eric Bana) does a bid in jail for having kidnapped a Supreme Court judge, in order to try getting his old friend Jimmy Loughnan (Simon Lyndon) out of Pentridge Prison. Inside, serving in the notoriously well-known H-Division, Chopper kills off a big time criminal in the hopes of climbing the ranks. Instead of that happening, Chopper finds everyone turns on him. Even Jimmy tries stabbing him, unsuccessfully. With too many enemies after him Chopper has the tops of his ears cut off by another inmate, which gains him notoriety and also a transfer out of H-Division. In 1986, he’s released back unto the world.
Problem is life moves on. But ole Chop, he’s still living inside even on the outside. He’s paranoid, unable to figure out the line between enemy and friend. And soon, the delusional truths in Chop’s head start to work their way into the real world. Then the line between friend and enemy is no longer of importance because there’s no line anymore to separate dreams and reality.
But a few fibs never stopped Chop from telling a good tale, did it?
First and foremost, Chopper is about appearances; both the film and the man. Everything about Chopper is legit, in terms of his tough guy appeal. At the same time he continually feels the need to pump himself up, one way or another. When he shoots a previous victim after getting out of jail, he brings the guy to hospital, yet then denies it to everyone else who asks. Really, Chop? Well, that’s because he has a specific idea of what and who Mark “Chopper” Read should be to the world. So what’s interesting is how director-writer Dominik decides to tackle the many stories, many of which are true, that Chopper has blown up into half-truths and half-fabrications. We go back through events at a couple points, seeing things as they really are, then through Chop’s eyes – often turned into a more elaborate, more exciting version of events. Because that’s another big aspect of the film, and of the man’s life: Chopper was always, above all else, a storyteller. And this is incredibly clear at the end. Without spoiling the plot and the finale, you can see how Chopper thrives off the social nature of his hardness, of his crazy reputation, because after he’s left all alone, nobody to talk/brag to, Chopper becomes a silent man, full of solitude, and there’s nobody there any longer to listen to his ramblings and his inflated ego.
I often say that a certain performance is great because an actor was the only one capable of playing the role. When I say that here, in the case of Eric Bana as Mark Read it is the truest I’ve ever felt about that sentiment. No surprise even Read himself suggested Bana for the part. Because he fits the bill. It is a real transformation, especially for those who know Bana in recent years for his performances. He gained weight, rocked the fake tattoos and the goatee, beefs up his natural Australian accent into a more lower class sounding dialect. Then there’s simply the fact he strikes me as genuinely loony. Bana gets right into the skin of Chopper Read; the bravado, the paranoia, the odd sense of humour. You’ll find it hard pressed to even take your eyes off him for a second. The raw magnetism of his character leaks from every last scene. He’ll make you laugh, he’ll also make you uncomfortable, a bit frightened at times. And you will constantly be unsure of what’s to come next. Read’s volatile essence is in good hands with Bana, giving him a human side even under all the machismo and ego.
Hands down one of my favourite biographies, ever. Nearly a perfect film, as it takes us inside such an enigmatic persona with both style and substance. Lead by an absolutely captivating performance from Eric Bana, giving us chuckles and chills, Chopper is at times horrific, others hilarious, and always it has the ability to hold your attention. Its little quirks are the best, from a scene depicting the subtle effects of speed to the moment where Chop casually hangs a bit of dong for a woman in the bar. See this if you haven’t yet, and make it a priority if you’re a big Bana fan because this is truly the performance which put him on, and will keep him on, the map. Plus, who doesn’t love a bit of true crime? As true as it can get when concerning Mr. Read.
The Stanford Prison Experiment. 2015. Directed by Kyle Patrick Alvarez. Screenplay by Tim Talbott.
Starring Billy Crudup, Michael Angarano, Moises Arias, Nicholas Braun, Gaius Charles, Keir Gilchrist, Ki Hong Lee, Thomas Mann, Ezra Miller, Logan Miller, Tye Sheridan, Johnny Simmons, James Wolk, Nelsan Ellis, and Olivia Thirlby. Coup d’Etat Films/Sandbar Pictures/Abandon Pictures.
Rated 14A. 122 minutes.
There’ve been two other films based on the real Stanford Prison Experiment conducted by Philip Zimbardo, at least that I know of – the German film Das Experiment and the semi-remake of that starring Adrian Brody and Forest Whitaker, The Experiment. Many will tell you the former is the best. Certainly none will say the latter. But I’ll go ahead and give you my opinion: The Stanford Prison Experiment is the best of the trio. It is the most raw, real, honest version compared with true events. It showcases best the real results of the experiment Zimbardo setup. Here, we see the worst of the human condition, what people are capable of given power and the ability to judge as they see fit.
As opposed to the other two films, Kyle Patrick Alvarez doesn’t try to add anything extra to the story. Or better put, screenwriter Tim Talbott sticks mostly to the practical facts of the original experiment. Instead of getting too flowery, attempting to intensify themes, Talbott’s script brings out the moral dilemmas inherent in Zimbardo’s supposed experiment. We are thrown directly in the hot seat, both with the people behind the glass and the inmates on the other side. This film focuses best on the human aspect of what really happened, rather than ratcheting up the violence, the threat of rape, or any number of things. Not saying every last bit of this is completely factual. More that it attempts to stick with reality. And things get very raw. For someone who traffics in a lot of horror, many disturbing pieces of cinema, this can actually be tough to watch; it isn’t even graphic. The psychological torture of the men in this experiment bleeds through the screen.
Dr. Philip Zombardo (Billy Crudup) conducts an experiment at Stanford University in the early 1970s. Twenty four men were recruited. They were broken into groups of guards and prisoners. This experiment sees how both groups act under the guidelines of a prison environment in the basement of the university.
Except things start to get a little out of hand. The guards aren’t allowed to physically hurt the prisoners. But they do everything else possible. They psychologically torture the young men playing prisoners. Some of them rebel. Others comply completely. Allowed to leave at any time, a couple do, or at least try to. For Zombardo’s part he tries to keep people there, going beyond acceptable limits; certainly beyond ethical scientific limits. As some of the guards go a little wilder than others, the Stanford Prison Experiment gets further out of hand than even Zombardo could have predicted.
They had two weeks allotted to conduct the experiment. It didn’t even last one.
Many times we see Zombardo lose it. One key moment is when a member of the research/experiment team has to leave, due to a death in the family, and Philip doesn’t lose it, but the lack of care for his colleague’s dead family member is evident. We can see how Zombardo doesn’t care about anything else, anybody else. Nothing other than his precious experiment. So, in subtle scenes like that we see the fabric of his personality wearing away. He meets an older man, either a former mentor or an older colleague, who asks about variables in his experiment; Phil dismisses him in a mix between anger, resentment, and perhaps a small dose of doubt, guilt, too. The character is a loaded one and full of many complexities. We watch as the guy’s mind tears, right alongside many of the inmates and some of the guards in the experiment. Hard to tell sometimes exactly who is slipping most.
Then there’s Michael Angarano. He is a great actor, one I’ve enjoyed plenty on Cinemax’s The Knick. Here he plays the “John Wayne” guard, Christopher Archer. Watching him progress from the first scene where we see him, to the Napoleonic character he becomes later in the film, it truly is impressive. Some may get annoyed by his fake Southern accent – part of the character itself, imitating a character from Cool Hand Luke, and poorly (on purpose). However, I find Angarano excellent here. He plays a young man who is fairly despicable, just as bad as Zombardo, and certainly one of the worst of all the men playing guards. His youthfulness comes in handy because he portrays a guy who, in real life, went too far and thought it was all justifiable, as if being a terrible human being at the drop of a hat, as he was during the experiment, were a situation anybody would find themselves in. His character helps to call into question the individual moral dilemma of such an experiment, and displays exactly the type of behaviour any person in their right mind would be ashamed of if it were them. A few other good performances here, including Ezra Miller and Tye Sheridan plus more. Although, Angarano and Crudup clearly shine. That could also have much to do with their characters’ respective importance to the events in question. Still, they both do an amazing job pulling their share of the weight along the way.
This a dark and raw 5-star film based on true events. In the final fifteen minutes, The Stanford Prison Experiment devolves to madness and presents us with the regression of humanity, all represented in these men posing as the guards. The moment where Crudup’s Zombardo breaks is quietly intense, but it hits you hard. I do not admire anything about Zombardo. This moment just rocked me – especially with the line by Angarano afterward. There’s a despicable quality to the ending, and it lingered with me, yet above all a sense of relief. This film is a visceral one at times, it will get under your skin. Deep; if you let it. The bare human qualities of this movie made it one of my favourites from 2015.
The Devil and Daniel Johnston. 2005. Directed & Written by Jeff Feuerzeig.
Starring Daniel Johnston, Laurie Allen, Brian Beattie, Louis Black, David Fair, Jad Fair, Don Goede, Matt Groening, Gibby Haynes, Sally Johnston Reid, Bill Johnston, Dick Johnston, Mabel Johnston, Margie Johnston, and Ken Lieck. Complex Corporation/This Is That Productions.
Rated PG-13. 110 minutes.
Documentaries are everywhere, on every sort of subject. Anything in the world you can think of, there’s probably a documentary on the subject. Certain documentary films interest me because of how I connect with them personally, others are just intriguing and interesting topics that will draw me in.
The Devil and Daniel Johnston is one of the former types. I’d never actually heard of Daniel Johnston before this movie. Other people I know had heard of him, but not me. Either way, I dove into this documentary because I knew that Johnston suffered from mental illness; that’s the single thing I knew of him. Identifying with him, as both a hopeful artist and a man trying to negotiate life with a severe form of depression, this film spoke to me. While I’m not a fan of all his songs, there are pieces of music here and there which really reach out to me. More than that, to see Johnston struggle through being an artist, growing up, living life, all the while battling manic depression desperately. There are moments you might find yourself grinding your teeth sitting there almost feeling the pain. Certain scenes are funny, lighthearted. A huge mixed bag here that collides into making one of the most personal, wrenching, devastatingly awesome documentaries about a musician you’re likely to ever see.
The most fascinating part about Daniel Johnston is the fact of his own rawness, his real and unabashed open qualities concerning his personality. At one point, on MTV no less during 1985, he tells the camera: “This is my album Hi, How Are You? and I was having a nervous breakdown when I recorded it.” He says it in such a matter-of-fact way that it’s hard not admire, or laugh, or smile. In just about every last scene where he’s talking, you find him divulging the most personal, inner secrets about the darkest corner of his life. And coupled with that, the way Daniel performs is different than anyone else I’ve ever seen. You can witness both the intensity of his musical ability, as well as his wildly nervous personality. He is visibly nervous each time a performance comes up, from his younger days to his later shows. Always there’s this fear inside him, which is actually endearing a lot of the time.
So it’s no surprise when, later, Daniel ends up having an actual serious breakdown. He becomes violent and crazy after experimenting with acid/LSD, which first began at a Butthole Surfers show. Slowly things deteriorate, as Daniel starts to get arrested, the police have altercations with him, he even causes disturbances in his family. Then there are various struggles. There were people who worked for him/with him, re: his career, who all tried their best to help him, whether that was committing him to a mental institution or getting him shows to play or whatever else could’ve been done. All the while throughout the history of Johnston, we’re seeing edits of him talking in various recordings (from dubbed tapes he did himself to video shot of him by others). It’s a strange conglomeration of things coming together to present his life to us. Best of all, even in the most intense, scariest moments of discussing Daniel and his condition, director Jeff Feuerzeig preserves a sense of respect and delicacy that shelters us from looking at Johnston like a freak. He isn’t, especially considering how mental illness is becoming less and less stigmatized today; this is a raw and honest look at someone’s struggle. But again, it doesn’t come off as “Look at how fucked up Daniel is“. There is a tenderness about the way Feuerzeig offers up glimpses of Daniel and his difficult life.
You’ll find it hard to deny the power of this documentary. No matter if you hate Johnston’s music, or if you think he’s a genius (I don’t think; I do find him an incredibly unique talent), if you have a heart beating in your chest and a soul deep down inside, this film will absolutely shake you. In the last 45 minutes or so, the devastating details come out. Such as the time Daniel thought he actually was Casper the Friendly Ghost, took the keys out of his father’s small plane in which they flying and tossed them out into the air, prompting his dad to make a crash landing. Luckily, they made it out of the situation with only minor injuries, but to think of what could’ve happened. It is a really frightening thought. That’s one of the turning points in the documentary, as not only do we realize the extent and depth of his illness, we also see a slight change in Daniel. Shortly afterwards, he starts to come down out of his religious fervor, his hallucinations and other similar delusions. He probably didn’t lose his faith. He just understood the gravity of his own condition. Today, he still struggles with issues of manic depression, but I feel after some of the more insane moments in his journey, there’s a part of him which accepts all of the ups and downs, in one big package. We go along that journey. Maybe in the end, the documentary’s biggest aspiration is to show people the mania inside music. Often people want the crazy, unstable musicians out there doing their thing and entertaining, but forget the human people inside these celebrities, inside the fame, deep down at the core. The humanity can’t ever be forgotten; this, if anything, is what Daniel Johnston and the film of his life has to teach.
This is a 5 star, flawless documentary. One of my favourites ever made. Because despite what you may feel concerning Daniel Johnston’s music, you cannot watch this without feeling something. To understand the mania and depression of others it’s necessary for people to be open, honest, willing to expose themselves to the world. It just so happens Johnston is one of the people willing to open himself up, like a living cadaver, and through this film he allows us a window into the damaged soul inside him. There are so many depressed and mentally ill people who could benefit from people coming out, talking of their own illnesses, their own struggles. We see so much of the devastation of unchecked mental illness in The Devil and Daniel Johnston, but in a roundabout way Daniel lets us understand how severe depression (or other similar mental afflictions) can be conquered: through love, honesty, openness, understanding, and yes, a dose of medication. There’s nothing ever glorious about this documentary, perhaps something which sets it apart from a lot of other biographical movies about musicians. Just remember – it isn’t all about the music, it is about the man. That is a point this film makes, over and over again. You may want all the madness that goes into the music, but don’t forget the men and women behind the music, their lives, what brings them to their talent and what gives us the unforgettable songs they’ve made.