THE STANFORD PRISON EXPERIMENT (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 2 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Language including Abusive Behavior and some Sexual References

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Directed by: Kyle Patrick Alvarez

Written by: Tim Talbott

Starring: Billy Crudup, Ezra Miller, Olivia Thirlby, Nelsan Ellis, Tye Sheridan, James Wolk, Logan Miller, Johnny Simmons & Michael Angarano

2015 has brought two famous psychology experiments to the big screen. One of these being the infamous Milgram obedience studies and the other being Zimbardo’s notorious Stanford Prison Experiment. The latter has already been adapted onto the screen twice with the German film DAS EXPERIMENT and that film’s American remake 2010’s THE EXPERIMENT. While both of those films sensationalized what actually occurred in the small “cell block” of Stanford University, this new cinematic representation of the story is a more grounded, realistic take on how the experiment actually played out. Though it’s an intense and very upsetting movie, THE STANFORD PRISON EXPERIMENT will likely be considered required viewing in many college Psychology classes.

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In the summer of 1971, Professor Philip Zimbardo puts out an ad for volunteers in a psychological experiment. A group of students are assembled and then split into two smaller groups: guards and prisoners. In the hallway of a basement, Zimbardo recreates a prison setting and intends on studying how innocent students react to the new environment and their new designated roles. However, Zimbardo’s simulation was cut short after severe mental breakdowns and emotional damage was being inflicted on volunteers. This film pretty much authentically recreates the six days of the experiment as they unfold.

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STANFORD PRISON EXPERIMENT is a movie that’s been in the works since 2002 and took over a decade to finally make it to the big screen. While this is usually a warning sign, this is actually a great film for a number of reasons. While DAS EXPERIMENT and THE EXPERIMENT were sensationalized thrillers with big name actors, this film takes a much more fact-based approach to the real events. The film mostly takes place in two settings: the prison hallway and the room in which Zimbardo’s team watches the events unfold. The latter is where this movie really shines in showing the unethical practices and questionable methods that were happening behind the scenes of the simulation. We watch as Zimbardo (who seems like a reasonable guy at the beginning) slowly devolves as the experiment begins to take control of his personality. Billy Crudup does a fantastic job as Zimbardo and gets us to see how a doctor with good intentions temporarily transforms into an emotionless machine of a man.

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Besides Crudup, the rest of the cast shine as well. A few of the actors playing guards/prisoners should be familiar faces to some viewers. Michael Angarano (SKY HIGH, RED STATE) dominates the screen as the “John Wayne” guard. His faux Southern drawl line delivery comes off as comical and then quickly becomes disturbing as the experiment goes further. Tye Sheridan (who made waves in MUD and JOE), Ezra Miller and Johnny Simmons (both from PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER) are appropriately sympathetic as prisoners. If there are any main characters to be had they come in Zimbardo and the “John Wayne” guard, while the rest of the prisoners and guard serve as objects in the experiment and that’s sort of the point.

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The film runs a little too long (being slightly over two hours) thanks to a couple of scenes that drag out (e.g. the prisoners counting off for five minutes or repeating the same line twenty times to torment another prisoner). I think the point of the film could have easily been made without running these moments for as long as they go. However, I particularly enjoyed the powerful acting from Crudup in the finale as he watches the psychological horrors unfold on the video camera. There’s no denying that the film is disturbing in the same way that 2012’s COMPLIANCE was, but for different reasons. The visuals also have a dank atmosphere thanks to gray, tan, brown and urine yellow being constant colors.

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Zimbardo originally began the Stanford Prison Experiment thinking it might be a long, boring experience. He could have never imagined it quickly shifting into the dark lesson of human nature that it became. College students transformed into monsters and victims based on roles assigned by a simple coin toss, while Zimbardo unintentionally ran an actual prison. This all comes out in a well-directed film that has quality acting and a fascinating (though deeply disturbing) true-life story at its core. While an extensive documentary on this experiment might have been slightly more powerful than a reenactment, THE STANFORD PRISON EXPERIMENT is well worth a watch…if you don’t mind taking a look at the darker side of human nature.

Grade: B+

THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER (2012)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 42 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Mature Thematic Material, Drug and Alcohol Use, Sexual Content including References, and a Fight -all involving Teens

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Directed by: Stephen Chbosky

Written by: Stephen Chbosky

(based on the novel THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER by Stephen Chbosky)

Starring: Logan Lerman, Emma Watson, Ezra Miller, Mae Whitman, Paul Rudd, Nina Dobrev, Johnny Simmons, Kate Walsh, Dylan McDermott, Melanie Lynskey & Joan Cusack

PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER is a novel that became controversial right from the beginning. Though it is frequently included on high school reading lists, it has also appeared many times on the 10 Most Challenged Books list. Issues addressed in Stephen Chbosky’s novel are prevalent in high schools across the country, yet many adults prefer to pretend they don’t exist or just outright ignore them. None of the controversy stopped PERKS from being a hit among the young adult crowd as well as a number of adults. This all led to the extremely rare circumstances of an author taking the reigns as a screenwriter and director behind the adaptation of his own book. Stephen Chbosky knew exactly how he wanted his words to translate onto film and in 2012, the cinematic vision of his novel was brought to the screen. PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER is not only one of the most emotionally realistic coming-of-age stories, but it’s also one of the most important.

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Told through letters/memories from our protagonist to an anonymous friend, PERKS is the story of Charlie. He’s an emotionally distressed teenager who’s especially scared about beginning his sophomore year at high school. References are made that Charlie got “really bad” in the past and it becomes clear throughout the film that he is suffering from Depression. Charlie’s first year looks to be boring, bleak and uncomfortable…until he finds a couple of friends. These friends come in the form of Sam and Patrick, a couple of seniors who happen to be siblings. Sam is adventurous, loves old music and opens the doors wide open for Charlie to be himself. Patrick is a proudly gay individual who isn’t afraid of being teased and embraces his uniqueness. Alongside a group of other friends, Charlie, Sam, and Patrick navigate their way through the turbulence of the school year.

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Logan Lerman has had his share of good performances (FURY) and not so good performances (GAMER), but really stands out as Charlie. The character is a difficult one to play as you can see the outside appearance that he’s putting on around other people, but also feel the sadness inside of the character. Thus far, the best performance of Logan’s career is right here in PERKS. Coming off the HARRY POTTER series, Emma Watson masterfully blends right in as Sam. Everything about the character is complex and little touches in her performance show that she is coping with problems that are similar to Charlie’s. Ezra Miller is fantastic as Patrick and turns his role into one of the strongest LGBT movie characters that I’ve ever seen. Mae Whitman and Johnny Simmons shine as a Buddhist/goth and a closeted gay jock. As far as the adults go, Dylan McDermott is great as Charlie’s frustrated father, Tom Savini makes a welcomed appearance as a shop teacher, and Paul Rudd is outstanding as an English teacher with a passion for his subject.

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WALLFLOWER’s big turn off for some folks would be in the marketing. This film was sold as a sort of dramedy, when it’s mostly a serious drama that happens to have a couple of laughs. These laughs mainly come from some light-hearted bonding between Charlie, Sam, and Patrick. The drama comes with you being placed in Charlie’s shoes throughout the rest of the story. The way in which WALLFLOWER addresses its serious themes and issues (including mental illness, abusive relationships, suicide, drug use, and past trauma), but doesn’t necessarily make them the main focus is beyond admirable. At the core this is the story of three high school friends and it just happens to have real-world problems that can be found in every high school across the country. The conclusion is bittersweet and beautiful, actually bringing some tears out of me.

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In my opinion, PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER is one of the most important films that you could show teenagers today. It’s hard-hitting, realistic, emotional, and reminds that everyone has their own set of problems. The last of those is easy to forget when you’re a teenager in high school with homework and dating on your mind. If you’re looking for SIXTEEN CANDLES or THE BREAKFAST CLUB, then feel free to look elsewhere. PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER is depressing, brilliant, and hugely emotional. It’s also far more mature than most teenage-geared movies. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to call PERKS a coming-of-age masterpiece.

Grade: A+

JENNIFER’S BODY (2009)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 42 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Sexuality, Bloody Violence, Language and brief Drug Use

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Directed by: Karyn Kusama

Written by: Diablo Cody

Starring: Megan Fox, Amanda Seyfried, Johnny Simmons, J.K. Simmons, Amy Sedaris, Adam Brody, Kyle Gallner, Cynthia Stevenson & Chris Pratt

In the Fall of 2009, it seemed like it was horror overload at the movie theater. There was practically a release every weekend. A few were mighty successful (ZOMBIELAND, PARANORMAL ACTIVITY) and others flopped hard (PANDORUM, CIRQUE DU FREAK). JENNIFER’S BODY was a casualty of a oversaturated Halloween season, but the iffy marketing didn’t help matters either. The film received positive word of mouth from its Midnight Madness premiere at TIFF in early September and was penned by Diablo Cody (of JUNO fame). Reexamining the film today, JENNIFER just isn’t as cool, hip, funny, or scary as it tries to be. There are positive qualities, but they’re either balanced out or buried by the story’s flaws.

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Needy (real name: Anita) is as obvious a dork as you can be. She’s good at school, does her homework, doesn’t sleep around and wears glasses. That’s why everyone is surprised that she’s always been best friends with the slutty, popular cheerleader Jennifer. It can be argued one of these two is a bad influence on the other, but I’ll let you decide if that’s possibly true or not. One night, the pair are at a rock concert in an isolated little bar and a fiery blaze ignites. It kills nearly everyone, but Jennifer and Needy make it out alive. While Needy goes home a weeping wreck, a dazed Jennifer gets into a creepy van with the indie band Low Shoulder and vanishes for the night. Jennifer returns to Needy a little more dangerous, sexy and with a new bloody appetite. Needy tries to juggle her love for her best friend with the monster Jennifer is becoming.

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The biggest problem here is that a majority of the film relies on the relationship between Needy (Amanda Seyfried) and Jennifer (Megan Fox), but there’s little to no chemistry between the two supposed life-long friends. Seyfried plays the dorky angle to a point that’s almost damn near clichéd beyond belief. Fox fails to deliver an ounce of talent as Jennifer. Her delivery is stitled, even in a role as meaty as a bitchy flesh-eating cheerleader. The best actor here is J.K. Simmons as a teacher with a hook for a hand, though he only pops up for about three scenes total. I also liked Johnny Simmons as a genuinely nice boyfriend to Needy and Adam Brody was awesome as the scumbag lead singer of Low Shoulder. However, the dialogue every cast member is given doesn’t leave much to work with. While Diablo Cody’s oddball sayings worked in JUNO, they don’t work here. In fact, a majority of them just add a “y” to the end of a word and call it good (jelly = jealous, shutty = shut up, wetty = wet, salty = cute, etc.). You practically need a decoder for some of the phrases in this film!

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The plot is basically GINGER SNAPS (an awesome Canadian horror film) with a demonic twist as opposed to a werewolf. I enjoyed the nice touches that were thrown in with Low Shoulder banking on the tragedy there were playing at and exploiting it for fame and fortune. The frequent use of their song “Through The Trees” made me laugh nearly every time it popped up. It’s also not a bad tune either. A few twists come later on in the film and make the familiar story slightly more interesting. The bookending scenes are creative as well and I only wish that the entire film had sustained that level of wit.

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The blending of horror and comedy isn’t very well done either. There’s far more comedy than horror and that’s not a big problem. However, not many laughs come out of the obvious jokes (puns or a sight gags). The movie also can’t seem to make up its mind about what kind of vibe it wants. I’m not referencing the uneven blend of laughs or creepiness, but rather if it wants the R rating or not. A handful of scenes have gore (one of which looks great) and the rest almost feels like a PG-13 flick aimed purely for Junior High kids or early High School cliques. This is probably what also contributed to it barely making its money back at the box office. JENNIFER’S BODY is a confused mess that isn’t aimed for anybody.

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Little details that made me chuckle and the creative beginning/conclusion are redeeming qualities. There’s also a nice shot of very good-looking gore that only hints at what kind of horror-comedy this might have been if it had fully embraced its potential and the R rating already being handed to it. However, it falters under the weight of bad characters, lame dialogue and a worse story. The equal quantities of good and bad turn JENNIFER’S BODY out into a middle-of-the-road mess.

Grade: C

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