The Alpha Primitive

Film reviews, essays, commentary and sundry writings

Late Summer/Fall VOD Round Up

The Stanford Prison Experiment

It is a bit of a shock that the Stanford prison experiment, one of the most famous psychological experiments from the 1970’s, has not received a direct adaptation until now. It has inspired films and television shows, but director Kyle Patrick Alvarez’ dramatization is the first to use the actual names and experiences of those involved. The planned fourteen day experiment saw twenty-four male students chosen at random to be either guards or prisoners in a mock prison setup on Stanford’s campus. Spearheaded by Dr. Philip Zimbardo (Billy Crudup), the scenario turned sour when the guards began to abuse their power, with Zimbardo egging them on despite violating the rules against physical confrontation.

Alvarez has amassed quite the cadre of young actors to play his students, led by Michael Angarano (Sky High), Tye Sheridan (Joe, The Tree of Life), Ezra Miller (The Perks of Being a Wallflower, We Need to Talk About Kevin) and Johnny Simmons (Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, the original short version of Whiplash) among many, many others. Miller becomes the de facto leader of the prisoners, cheekily spurring them on to misbehave until the guards begin taking matters into their own hands with some good old fashioned psychological torture. Angarano comes to the fore here, channeling Strother Martin from Cool Hand Luke (complete with Boss Godfrey’s signature aviator sunglasses) and gleefully chewing the scenery in an effective performance that toes the line with camp but never topples over into parody. The cast commits to the verisimilitude of the scenario (the script incorporated real life dialogue) with aplomb and ratchets the tension effectively as the situation grows more dire.

It is odd, then, that the film never entirely leaves second gear. It is a bit incongruous with itself, losing its momentum whenever it cuts away from the students. The other aspect of The Stanford Prison Experiment is rooted in Zimbardo’s moral dilemma and culpability when he chooses to egg on the guards instead of intervening when their attempt to control their prisoners turns physical. It is a good concept, but one Alvarez fails to adequately use to engage the audience. Without that, the scenes feel like a listless distraction from the part of the film that does generate interest. As a result, the film is a tough sit, which is understandable considering the real life nature of the subject matter, but it is a tough sit that does not sufficiently justify the difficulty of the viewing experience. The performances of the students are strong, but that alone does not provide enough to keep The Stanford Prison Experiment afloat. It perseveres as a curiosity of sorts, but easily could have been more.

Z for Zachariah

Making a name for himself in the independent film market with 2012’s profoundly disturbing Compliance, Craig Zobel has returned to the director’s chair for an adaptation of post-apocalyptic novel Z for Zachariah. Ann (Margot Robbie) lives alone in a lush, idyllic valley untouched by the radiation holocaust that has otherwise stripped the planet of its inhabitants. That is until John (Chiwetel Ejiofor) comes wandering into the land in a giant hazmat suit looking for signs of life. Ann and John strike up an uneasy partnership that evolves into something more loving and affectionate. Soon enough, strange events occur around their farm, followed by the appearance of a third survivor, the mysterious Caleb (Chris Pine). Caleb’s presence upsets the delicate balance of Ann and John’s relationship, offering a vulnerable spiritual side John seems to lack. It is the sort of love triangle that is destined for a messy end.

Zobel approaches the world with a subtle eye, choosing to de-emphasize the classic visual cues of established irradiated wastelands. This makes the film feel akin to Never Let Me Go, Mark Romanek’s astounding (and outstanding) vision of dystopia hiding behind the shroud of the mundane. This gives those moments where the reality of their situation pierces the veil of the valley a more pointedly otherworldly quality, exemplified by John’s hazmat suit that seems to exist in the crossroads between 12 Monkeys and Marvin from Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Cinematographer Tim Orr shoots it all with a meld of grace and distance, luxuriating in the beauty of it all predominantly as an outsider.

The other aspect of the film that sets it apart is, oddly enough, how conventional the story at its center actually is. This is very much a straightforward love triangle storyline that happens to take place in a world where most of humanity has died out. But in practice, that does not particularly change how everything plays out. Ejiofor acclimates himself well to the role of confident beau turned jealous cuckold, and between this and Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp, Chris Pine is having quite the summer playing enigmatic recluses (their opposite tones making the feat even more impressive). Margot Robbie has not had a ton to work with in her two biggest roles previous to this one (The Wolf of Wall Street and Focus from earlier this year), but she does well with her first major lead.

The story may be conventional, but the setting and the acting makes Z for Zachariah a solid filmgoing experience.

Queen of Earth

There are few opening scenes more arresting than that of Queen of Earth, Alex Ross Perry’s tale of psychological horror. A nearly unbroken close-up on the distraught face of Elizabeth Moss, with her stringy hair and her smeared eyeshadow, as she excoriates a man off screen for how he has treated her. It is disorienting and out of context, the definition of in media res, and it sets the table for what the director is planning to unleash on his audience. We learn that Moss is Catherine, who has traveled to the vacation home of her long time friend Virginia (Katherine Waterston). It becomes clear quickly that their relationship has soured, as Catherine is dealing with a breakup and the seemingly random antagonism of Virginia’s neighbor/lover Rich (Patrick Fugit).

Perry plays fast and loose with the narrative structure of Queen of Earth, not just in its abrupt opening scene but throughout its 90 minutes. The script fluidly shifts between past and present, mirroring the disorientation of Catherine’s psyche as she struggles to keep herself together amidst mounting pressure from all sides. The structure and tone of the film is certainly a departure from last year’s caustic Perry-directed comedy Listen Up Philip, but he continues his fascination with deconstructing and dressing down overconfident intellectuals. Moss is another link to Listen Up Philip, and she continues to impress in her post-Mad Men film career. This is an intensely unglamorous performance (even the poster joins in on the fun), but an incredibly accomplished and confident one. Portraying mental illness on screen is a tricky tightrope to walk, one that can easily tip over into the garish or fail to register the needed pathos. Moss gives Catherine just the right mix of darting-eyed paranoia and supreme empathy. Fugit, looking less and less like William Miller by the day, is wonderfully smarmy as a sort of agent provocateur designed to push Catherine off the deep end. Waterston, only just breaking into the film world’s consciousness thanks to excellent work in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice, does not have nearly as much to work with (this is very much Moss’ film), but she continues to show a knack for the art, and should have a long, satisfying career ahead of her.

At its best, Queen of Earth feels like it exists at the nexus of Martha Marcy May Marlene and Melancholia (and, presumably, other films that start with M). However, it does not quite have the momentum to keep it up for the full ninety minutes. The film often sags in the middle in comparison to its scintillating opening salvo and its powerful climax, but even at its weakest, Alex Ross Perry’s newest always retains a baseline of interest. Much of that can be laid at the feet of Elizabeth Moss, who is a fair sight better than her material.