Friday, November 6, 2015

Spectre (2015)


Meditative, brooding, imperfect, also remarkable, the new James Bond adventure Spectre, directed by Sam Mendes, marks the third time the series has reached the status of a breathing, ambiguous work of art. The last two heights, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and 2012’s pop dream Skyfall, combined the sleekness of franchise cool—cars, world travelling, sexual indulgence, action—with human personality and resonant entanglements.

They created a utopia of franchise tropes and thematic richness, culminating in the fusion of past and present in Skyfall’s masterful climax at Bond’s childhood manor. Quoting the unlikely sources Les Vampires and Under The Volcano (book and film) Spectre didn’t leave me walking on a cloud like Skyfall but it isn’t trying to be the previous movie. The Bond films have turned Mendes, previously a middlebrow hack, into a possibly great director. He interrogates and celebrates Bond in equal measure. If not the most notable instance of an auteur doing new, creative things with a recognizable icon since Godard took up Lemy Caution, Mendes’ extraordinary 007 films offer mainstream lift and an autodidact’s hermetic concerns.

Start with Under The Volcano. Spectre begins with a ravishing vista of Mexico City on the Day Of The Dead, the enormous skeleton parade float recalling the opening credits of John Huston’s adaptation of the Malcolm Lowry novel. In an illusion of sustained tracking the camera cranes down to find Bond wearing a skull mask and walking towards another dalliance with a woman. Like Lowry’s Consul (and Albert Finney’s definitive drunkard walking dead performance in Huston’s film) Bond is a man living in extremes and always threatening to die. He also admits to drinking “too much.”  Recalling Timothy Dalton’s actorly professionalism, Craig is never likable, always fascinating. Who is this guy? When Spectre’s oneiric story unfolds and we find that a shadowy villain (Christoph Waltz) has been the cause of all of Craig’s Bond’s losses and heartache over the previous three installments—“I’m the author of all your pain” being a line so genius Sorkin could never think it up—Craig’s, and the series’, continuity reveals itself to be one Rivette-length epic. Spectre begins by aligning Bond with one of the great characters of British literature and then goes further, enmeshing him into a secret society that recalls Feuillade’s cloak and dagger trickery and, by extension, Rivette’s. The action scenes are good and serviceable in the Mendes Bonds—Spectre includes a dazzling train fight and boat/helicopter showdown climax—but the cultural recalls and sheer invigorating pulse given to the material makes these recent movies singular classics.      

Since rebooting the series with 2006’s Casino Royale, the Craig Bonds have reimagined villains, plotlines, images and characters from the Broccoli series in ways that make Bond contemporary and mythic. 2009’s Quantum Of Solace was a largely failed attempt to make Bond Bourne yet it contained the forever-haunting image of a nude female conquest covered in oil, a response to the classic lover’s death in Goldfinger and a prescient reminder of where Bond stood in today’s uncertain quagmire of terrorism and politics.

Quantum was made by a director, Marc Forster, who possessed neither movie sense nor a love for Bond. Mendes has both. Beloved characters like M (Ralph Fiennes), Q (Ben Wishaw) and Moneypenny  (Naomie Harris) are given showier roles and become integral to the narrative melee. The Bond Girls (Lèa Seydoux and Monica Bellucci) are fleshed out women yet still filmed with sexy radiance (a shot of Bond introducing himself to Bellucci while in front of a mirror questions the series’ history of objectification). Traditional Bond scenes like the car chase, the pursuits by the henchman, the aquiring of gadgets and journey to the villain’s lair are shot with high cinematic standards, true pop immersion and love. Yet Mendes and his writers (among them John Logan, author of the classic screenplays Any Given Sunday and The Aviator) don’t forget that Bond is, like Geoffrey Firmin, a man living with death and loneliness. Spectre is airier and more deliberate than past Bonds; an almost funeral essence hangs about its edges. It might be the art film of the year. 

Though the final scenes aren’t as inspired as perhaps they should be, and the showdown with Waltz’s major character lacks catharsis, Spectre brings Craig’s Bond story to a rousing conclusion. His movies as the character click together like no other Bond actor’s. So what if, as early reviews have charged, it doesn’t “Make sense”? Neither does Feuillade, most Hitchcock, most De Palma, most movies. Neither does Under The Volcano. The aestheic rush: Now that’s a neat trick. 


Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Love (2015)


“You’re a dead fuck,” someone told Crispin Glover in a certain movie years ago, and that’s the perfect way to respond to Gaspar Noè’s new erotic 3D drama Love. Turgid and aimless, dire in its lack of the director’s previous invention, danger, passion and elastically restless camera, Love does nothing for sex on film besides make it boring—I almost walked out and nearly fell asleep about a half dozen times—while the only kind of sex it really emphasizes is masturbation, namely of the directorial kind (Characters name their baby “Gaspar” for Chrissakes!)

For two hours and fifteen minutes we’re stuck with Murphy (Karl Clusman) and Electra (Aomi Muyock) a couple in Paris redefining solipsism through nakedness. Their bedroom trysts are athletic and dually beneficial, as we see in the opening shot: a long, unbroken take of mutual masturbation that’s as explicit as it is compositionally flat. There’s been much hubbub about the lack of talent shown by the amateur actors here, but I thought Clusman and Muyock's improvisational line readings possessed a refreshing rawness. (Murphy’s late film lament of “I’m lost” has a lack of studied cadence and is thus not mannered.) The blame for Love’s failure rests soley on Noè’s shoulders.

Provocateurs can be artists too (look at Fassbinder, Harmony Korine, John Waters) and Noè has been an artist in the past. I even tolerated the weak acting and excessive naval gazing in his previous feature Enter The Void because of the sheer lush beauty of the Tokyo nightscapes and Noè’s extraordinary utilization of camera movement. Here everything is constricted when it should be most liberating.

Murphy and Electra are that classic variant of hot young couple: artists who don’t make art, primarily because they’re busy with each other and with having a life (I live in a college town so I meet their horrific kind most every day). Their repartee consists of Kubrick references (Murphy calls 2001 the greatest movie ever made, classic film school blather for the world’s most overrated director), epic clashes and hermetic boasts. Noè’s widescreen tracking shots attempt a trance-like immersion but the superficiality of Murphy and Elektra’s characters deaden the screen. Also, Noè’s grasp of English (this is his first feature in the language) recalls the awkwardness of Ingmar Bergman’s obscure Elliot Gould-starring The Touch. “I shouldn’t have taken that shit,” Murphy declares in ponderous voice-over, while later in a flashback the aspiring junkie Electra yells at him in what I assume Tommy Wiseau would think is naturalistic dialogue. After they take their underage neighbor Omi (Klara Kristin) into bed with them their already fraught relationship is further wrenched. Noè doesn’t employ traditional cuts; there’s a swift darkness between shots, which gets old fast. Rather than entering a void we get worn down by repetition. The three-way sex scene is a failed turn-on because of these aesthetic blackouts.

Unlike Godard’s game-changing use of 3D in Goodbye To Language Noè’s handling of the technology doesn’t justify the extra money for the ticket purchase. Only two shots “jump out”—a finger pointing at the audience and Murphy’s sperm careening from his erect penis—and they feel like Noè’s feeble attempt to give a bad idea some credence.

When Noè has real actors his superficial nihilism musters weight, that’s why Irreversible remains his best film. But Murphy and Electra are a long way from Vincent Cassel and Monica Bellucci. Despite Noè’s welcome choice to leave certain plot threads hanging, and a mildly affecting conclusion, Love is an irreversible disaster, the rectum of Noè’s art. Real sex in cinema can yield remarkable results, as in the XXXs of Radley Metzger and Kirdy Stevens, and in movies like Shortbus. Emotion and narrative become memorably fused. They can also lead to meandering non-events as in Michael Winterbottom’s 9 Songs (Winterbottom thankfully dropped actual sex from his ambitions which has led to recent triumphs like The Trip and this year’s woefully underrated The Face Of An Angel). Love doesn’t reveal any truth about relationships, bodies, or intimacy, and Noè said the same things more profoundly in his segment for the anthology film Destricted. Here his efforts just produce a dead fuck.  

    

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Our Brand Is Crisis+Burnt (2015)


Cinema polymath David Gordon Green wants to direct every kind of movie from Malickian sun flare panoramas (George Washington, All The Real Girls) to boob comedies (Your Highness and his undisputed masterpiece The Sitter) to road trip 70s throwbacks (the little-seen Prince Avalanche) to Great Actor character studies (the mighty Joe and effete Manglehorn). Now he’s doing his political satire with the George Clooney-sanctioned Our Brand Is Crisis, based on a ND (Notable Documentary) and starring Sandra Bullock, in a role originally meant for Clooney, as “Calamity” Jane Bodine, a vaunted campaign strategist brought out of semi-retirement to run the hopeful ascent of shady Bolivian pol Castillo (Joaquim de Almeida) whose opposition is spearheaded by her arch-nemesis Pat (Billy Bob Thornton). The problem is…quick, count how many political satires actually work? Besides, say, The Candidate and, I don’t know, Bullworth, the list is pretty anemic, with movies like Wag The Dog and the recent The Campaign ratcheting up nothing but the smugness of their creators trying to score direct hits and emerging with thin movies and even thinner politics. Crisis works best as a drama and behind-the-scenes exposè, with Jane’s collaborators (among them Zoe Kazan, Ann Dowd, Scoot McNairy and Anthony Mackie) providing a rich sea of character actor idiosyncrasies. What doesn’t work are the jokes, like hijinks involving animals and dud smear commercials. This has to be the least personal film of Green’s career. He shoots Bolivia like it was anyplace (contrast this with the tactile dread Denis Villeneuve brought to the Mexico of Sicario) and even his usually rich cinematographer Tim Orr hefts up bland Sorkinlike imagery. Still, Bullock’s obsessive grandstanding isn’t a further hindrance—it recalls her underrated turn in the 2009 comedy All About Steve, which was better than her overrated Red State porno The Blind Side—and de Almeida gives a rather thankless role a degree of smarmy depth. Thornton looks like he’d rather be off playing music, and he deserves his own immersion-film like Green gave Cage and Pacino. As it is, Crisis scratches the surface, which Green refused to do in even his crudest paeans to the mainstream.


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Burnt (formerly Adam Jones, formerly Chef till it sat in development for so long that Favreau took the title) is a minor film with a major performance by Bradley Cooper. As the formerly titular Adam Jones, exiled star chef who emerges from a past of drug use and fucking people over to start a restaurant in London that will hopefully net him his third Michelin Star, Cooper essentially plays an American Gordon Ramsay—indeed, Ramsay is an executive producer—and, like the notorious celebrity chef, has freakouts and one epic breakdown in the kitchen that heightens the film to must-see status. As someone who has watched hours of Ramsay I always wondered what a great actor would add to his litany of cusses and rage, and seeing Jones after a bad service chewing out his crew (including fellow American Sniper holdover Sienna Miller) makes for an explosion of personality worthy of placement besides real cinematic explosions in Zabriskie Point and The Fury. Yes, the movie begins in a way that makes it feel like it’s own sequel, and the romance and Jones’ redemption strike one as tacked on and unnecessary after screenwriter Steven Knight’s typically astute attention to the details of milieu (he also wrote Dirty Pretty Things, Eastern Promises and last year’s great Locke). Yet Cooper’s mastery keeps Burnt compulsively watchable. The food is gorgeously filmed too. Jones wants his work to be perfect, “not ‘good,’ not ‘excellent,’: perfect” and so does Cooper. Unlike Our Brand Is Crisis this movie doesn’t feel overly fussed over and prodded. Burnt doesn’t have too many cooks in the kitchen. 


Saturday, October 24, 2015

Jem And The Holograms (2015)


I have to preface this by admitting I have absolutely no relationship to the cartoon that Jem And The Holograms is based on. Sorry. Anyway:

What freezes choreographer/directors? The likes of Kenny Ortega and Adam Shankman always make the most anonymous, joyless films—their understanding of dance never translating to the passionate demands of cinema—and now Step Up sequel guy Jon M. Chu can be added to the list with his Hasbro franchise launch Jem And The Holograms. Aside from the neon fairy tale cinematography by Alice Brooks Jem is oddly slack and dour, Pop without pop.

Jerrica (Aubrey Peeples) lives with her biological sister Kimber (Kimber? Emily VanCamp lookalike Stefanie Scott) and foster sisters Shana and Aja (Aurora Perrineau and Hayley Kiyoko) all being raised by her aunt (tense-faced Molly Ringwald). After an opening montage honoring Youtubers (the endearing ones who make music and Vlog, not the cultural pit of video game commentators) we’re introduced to Jerrica and her tight-knit brood. Peeples, with her true blue eyes and huge, kissable lips, is quite likeable, but her sisters lack appeal and throughout the movie we, like the evil record executive (Juliette Lewis), want Jerrica to go solo.

She’s discovered after donning Liquid Sky makeup and calling herself Jem—based on her deceased father’s nickname for her—in a video that Kimber (Kimber??) uploads to Youtube, making her an overnight sensation. She’s soon whisked away to a series of pop-up shows in Los Angeles with a cutesy robot named Synergy that her father invented in tow. Half the movie chronicles Jem and her sister/bandmates’ rise and struggles, and half is the WTF subplot of Jem following Synergy’s clues to a maudlin dénouement that recalls this year’s mushy mystery Paper Towns.

Jem doesn’t rock as hard as the girl group classic Ladies And Gentlemen…The Fabulous Stains. It’s not in the same league. That film connected teen angst with the raw release of performing it out and Jem’s concert scenes are as spontaneous as Synergy’s beeps and programmed graphics. Jem’s songs have no lift; this music is just factory Itunes downloads. (The most memorable song in the film is Hailee Steinfeld’s transcendent masturbation anthem played as incidental music during a red carpet scene.) The best musical moment comes during an impromptu singing session under a pier that Chu thankfully milks—it’s really wonderful—but then we’re back to family sentiment between actors who don’t begin to pass as family members and Jerrica’s flirtations with Rio (What is it with this movie and names? Ryan Guzman), scion of the bigwig record company that signs Jem. 

This reads like a vicious pan, but leaving the theater I didn’t feel any remorse for having seen it, and a late film montage of Youtubers saying how Jem helped their lives is a decent if naïve fantasy of internet democratization. Peeples is agreeable and Lewis is a nasty, catty pleasure, as she usually is. It’s sobering also to see a setup for a follow-up movie when you know the film you’ve watched has bombed. (Pan was the same.) I guess Kesha will never have a chance to go after Jem. A sequel to this movie will always be just a hologram. 


Friday, October 23, 2015

Steve Jobs (2015)


I can picture The Onion on Steve Jobs, a large headline reading “Steve Jobs Was A Hero” with the subhead “Was Steve Jobs An Asshole?” A glut of biopics and documentaries have offered dissenting viewpoints, but you can tell which direction Aaron Sorkin and Danny Boyle bend while watching their new film. As the genius behind items you’re probably using right now, Michael Fassbender plays someone who views himself as a deity if not God himself. Strutting and sniping before his Macintosh, Next and IMac computers, with a mouth as innovative as each invention he presents in the film’s framing device (three product launches, a new machine for each of Sorkin’s acts) Fassbender’s Jobs is a dense, troubled inferno of a man.

Aaron Sorkin writes dialogue the way John Dillinger shot at cops. He’s better when he doesn’t like his characters—Sorkin becomes unbearably precious and didactic when he does—and he clearly has an almost personal set of grievances for Jobs, who denied paternity of his daughter Lisa (played by three different, and talented, actresses during the course of the film), cut down, ignored and used his colleagues (including Seth Rogan as former right hand man and amiable milquetoast Steve Wozniak) and destroyed seemingly every relationship he had save the one with his chief excecutive Joanna Hoffman, played by the usually sturdy Kate Winslet with an oscillating Polish accent.

Sorkin’s script for The Social Network is a masterclass in construction, but the movie was great because David Fincher’s visual expertise sanded over Sorkin’s television thinking and added weight to his words that made them cinematic. Danny Boyle, a hackish director who long buried his promise under cottage cheese aesthetics and pedantic noodling, infuses the screenplay with effects like subliminal inserts, melodramatic music queues and an adherence to Sorkin’s patented “walk and talk” that accomplishes nothing more than showing what Thomas Schlamme would do with Panavision.

Steve Jobs is saved—indeed, it becomes Boyle’s best movie despite his worst intentions—because of the superb acting by Fassbender, Rogan, Jeff Daniels (as Apple CEO John Sculley) and Katherine Waterston as Steve’s baby mama. Waterston has been a constant stunner ever since her breakout role as the melancholic beach bunny in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice, and she’s deepened her art in Alex Ross Perry’s moody psychodrama Queen Of Earth and here, where as Chrisann she’s liable to explode in hysterics at every dickish thing Jobs says to her. 

A late film verbal battle royale between Jobs and Wozniak, played out in front of an auditorium of sycophantic underlings, is the best scene in the movie, primarily because Boyle trusts Sorkin’s searing words (“It’s not a binary. You can be caring and gifted at the same time,” Woz tells Jobs) and doesn’t try to sabotage them with his “look ma, I’m directing” sensibility. Daniels, settling phlegmatically into his current career typecasting as the tired-eyed businessman (it’s basically the same role he had in The Martian) displays resigned sadness at having to balance one man’s erratic high functionality with the bottom line. Rogan taps into the searching vulnerability of his more dramatically inclined performances, and the great character actor Michael Stuhlbarg issues a cutting putdown that you know will stay with Jobs forever.  

“I’m poorly built,” Jobs tells one of Lisa’s iterations, though he doesn’t believe it himself, at least that’s how Fassbender, one of our finest, plays the moment. He’s above Sorkin’s dramatically uncomplicated mythologizing of real people. The genius/asshole but-who-ultimately-betters-the-world theme was developed with higher art in The Social Network; this feels like spare parts. As a movie it’s poorly built. But Fassbender, man. His commitment unblinking, his Bob Dylan worship lustily specious, his transformation in dress and personality in the journey from the dressing room to the stage efficiently calculated to project another person to his literal worshippers, all these elements coalesce into one of the year’s top acting achievements.

Steve Jobs is stirring but superficial, and undercuts itself by including flashbacks which offset the sweaty real-time feeling of the backstage squabbles. Left to his own devices Boyle is pathetic at worst, and his transitions and tryouts—breaking the “reel” (an effect stolen from Monte Hellmann’s Two Lane Blacktop) and projecting images onto walls as Steve speaks to their importance in his vision—remind us of effort, and we can see him sweat. We can hear Sorkin sweat too, making everything punchy and a tour de force. (He compared himself to Chayefsky at the Oscars, which is like Ronald McDonald judging himself superior to Gordon Ramsay.) Steve Jobs is so often excellent that the failures make one angry. It should have been TV.


Thursday, October 22, 2015

The Final Girls (2015)


Eli Roth made two of the best movies of the year with The Green Inferno and Knock Knock, and aside from their satirical pleasures and crackerjack filmmaking the double feature offered terror that wasn’t grounded in ghosts. My preferred horror is caused by people, not spirits, and after the box office failure of Roth’s Hostel 2 and the success of the lame Paranormal Activity the scales have unfortunately balanced in the ghosts’ favor. It’s too early to see if Roth’s great twofer will cause a renaissance, but Todd Strauss-Schulson’s The Final Girls honors the reign of movies that dominated the 80s and influenced Roth.

I gulped in dread during the opening of The Final Girls. Yes, there was a tribute to the low-res company logo of Vestron Video, but Schulson stages parody footage of 80s Slasher movies, specifically the invented Camp Bloodbath. It’s all there: horny girls shouting “woo” before getting dispatched by this movie’s campfire killer Billy Murphy, along with cheeky taglines (“Kum-bay-nooooo!”) all underneath fake “Grindhouse” print scratches which look totally false against digital videography. I thought we were in the realm of Robert Rodriguez’s blind homage trips or the smug genre disgrace Cabin In The Woods.

Then the film got substantially better. Max (Taissa Farmiga from American Horror Story, younger sister of Vera) is still grieving over the loss of her mother Amanda (Malin Akerman) in a car crash three years before. See, Amanda played Nancy the fresh-faced, virginal “good girl” in Camp Bloodbath, and now a fanatic of the series, self-professed “Bathematician” Duncan (Thomas Middleditch, sublime on Mike Judge’s Silicon Valley) asks her to attend a screening of the first Bloodbath. She reluctanctly agrees to go, along with her friends (including Alia Shawkat and Nina Dobrev) but after a fire in the theater the leads escape through a hole in the screen, effectively landing inside the movie.

It’s like Last Action Hero or Pleasantville with Jason Voorhees. Every 92 minutes—the perfect length of an old Slasher—the action restarts in a loop, and Schulson finds inventive ways to enforce the logic of being lodged in a movie: if Max and her friends run away they immediately return to the action, and when Nancy delivers a monologue about Billy’s origin the room liquefies into a portal opening into the fifties. One particularly resonant image has Max looking up at the evening sky where the end credits of Camp Bloodbath run like programmed clouds.

What’s missing is the forbidden sleaze of these movies, the gratuitous nudity and piquant gore. The Final Girls is PG-13 so we’re not in the truly evil realm of Buddy Cooper’s The Mutilator, which is ingeniously vile. But this movie has other offerings. The dynamic between Max and her non-mother is moving and suggests that the relationship between movies and real life has a membrane that begs to be torn down and can even reunite the living and the dead.

It also genuinely reveres Slashers and sees their usual motley of regularly assorted characters as pop archetypes. (Comedy Central star Adam Devine is funny as the horny bro, better here than he was fist-pounding De Niro in Nancy Meyers’ The Intern.) And Farmiga gets the line—“You fucked with the wrong virgin”—that has been on the lips of every actual “Final Girl” in underground film history.

The gimmick of being transported to your favorite movie is an engaging metaphor for obsessive fandom. It isn’t as purely enjoyable as Schulson’s Harold And Kumar sequel, and has the residue of On Demand disposability, but The Final Girls is unexpectedly soulful and in the last third photographed like the American slasher giallo that never was.

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This movie got me reflecting on my lifelong relationship with Slasher movies. I would have been a Billy Murphy fan. As a child I imagined the Jason series as a utopia of overflowing female nudity and cherry-red blood. Rewatching the 4th Friday The 13th chapter I was startled by the waste of human life and the time it built up characters (like Crispin Glover’s Jimbo) only to furiously end them and never mention their arcs again. The Final Girls isn’t a real Slasher but it refreshingly meditates on the off-screen history of these movies, the quotidian post-shoot lives of the actors and the magic the idea of Slashers holds for young viewers. That magic doesn’t burn as bright for me anymore (the Roth films offer more riches than mere gorehound-pleasing) but The Final Girls brought some of it back with new dimensions.


Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Experimenter (2015)


Harold Bloom once judged John Updike as being a minor talent with a major style and I think that applies to Michael Almereyda, the director of the cerebral new biopic/character study Experimenter: The Stanley Milgram Story. His work is unassuming, modest in ambition and tightly edited. His fiction features include the strange vampire noir Nadja and the sleek modern day Hamlet, and he’s also produced documentaries, including 2009’s affecting mosaic Paradise, a travelogue that encompassed everything from the set of Malick’s The New World to late portraiture of Manny Farber. Paradise was my favorite Almereyda until Experimenter, a movie that goes by so quickly (a svelte 90 minutes) you may not notice just how thorny and strange it is.

This resembles Mark Rappaport’s essay films more than medical movie treatises like, say, the heinous Awakenings. Milgram (Peter Sarsgaard) narrates directly to the screen while standing in front of rear-projection backgrounds and still photographs standing in for sets. Every time conventionality seems ready to pounce—mainly in the form of Milgram’s wife Sasha (Winona Ryder)—Almereyda layers on the meta.

In Rappaport’s great trio of documentary essays, Rock Hudson’s Home Movies, From The Journals Of Jean Seberg and Color Me Lavender, actors narrated the subterranean relationships in movie history while standing in front of frozen film clips and the artificially obvious. Sarsgaard acts as a Rappaportian guide, taking us step by step through his controversial social psychology tests. Twice as he’s pacing through a hallway addressing us an elephant walks behind him in one of Almereyda’s further audacious touches. What does the elephant mean? Well, what do the experiments (which I won’t go into here because you can easily Google them) reveal—about cruelty and base human nature?

No actor can be as interesting or dull as Sarsgaard, and he’s on fire as Milgram, his furrowed, piercing eyes (and later film beard that looks as fake as most of the film’s interiors) registering cold delight in what his work unveils. Your perception of his success or failure has a lot to do what how you view humanity. Was Milgram wrong in deceiving his subjects? As the experimentees we’re treated to a wealth of good actors (John Leguizamo, Anton Yelchin, Taryn Manning, Anthony Edwards) all allowed terrible epiphanies about what they’re capable of and how they approach or defy authority. The cold, barren headquarters where Milgram operates is in effect the only “real” place in the movie—houses and cars are flimsy stages because to Milgram the only location that has definition for him is the controlled academic dungeon where he is overlord and potential savior. 

I call Almereyda “minor” because his work, fine as it often is, doesn’t make great claims for itself, it doesn’t try to swallow you up. When he comes at you with a formal surprise it’s a genuine shock, like those ostensibly administered to the “learner” (Jim Gaffigan) in the experiment. Soderbergh would likely darken this material, but Almereyda keeps the spectrum breezy, clipped, pithy, like an objective report for the archives. “1984 was also the year that I died,” Milgram tells us with the throwaway casualness of an anecdote. Nothing, not even mortality, is as genuine or important to Milgram as what he gets from other people.

Winona Ryder’s career still hasn’t quite recovered from her shoplifting incident (come on, it’s just stuff!) and seeing her is always welcome even though she doesn’t leave much of an imprint on Experimenter, which is the point. Stanley Milgram isn’t one for domesticity. He briefly mentions his daughter but then digresses with “but at this part of the story she hasn’t been born yet” or words to that effect. His real children, his real marriage, is in the twitch of face and reaction brought on by those administering painful punishment, or what they think is punishment. There’s pathos in that, but the movie is too fleet-footed to dwell. Experimenter is an experiment itself, fooling us into thinking we’re watching something slight. Yet we think about it, and its volts accumulate.