The Stanford Prison Experiment (2015)

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This isn’t an experiment!  This is real! That’s what Prisoner 8612 (Ezra Miller) declares one hour into this dramatisation of psychologist Philip Zimbardo’s controversial 1971 study (or demonstration?) of perceived power and authority, paying self-selecting students to participate in a two-week faked prison on the grounds of the University. He leaves and is swiftly followed by Prisoner 819 (Tye Sheridan). They know their rights even if the guards, aping the mirror-shaded Southern-accented sadists from Cool Hand Luke,  led by Michael Angarano, are getting deeper into character and don’t care. The other fools stay to be preyed upon.  These are not prisoners. They are not subjects. They are not students. They are boys. Zimbardo’s girlfriend (Olivia Thirlby) arrives to participate on the parole board and watching the ‘prisoners’ make no attempt to just leave this horrifying situation she tells Zimbardo (Billy Crudup) what is going on is truly disturbing. But he is on a power trip himself and it isn’t until he finally observes the degree of abuse and destruction while left alone watching it unfold on the surveillance cameras that he finally calls a halt just 6 days in. This won’t tell you anything new about human behaviour. The faux interviews (based on the original recordings) at the end won’t clarify anything except that people seem to slide into preordained institutional roles and succumb to punishment which is dealt them entirely arbitarily by alleged superiors. And everyone’s kinda surprised that other people would treat them like dogs. But nobody got harmed during the making of this ego trip for a University professor. Go figure. Reality’s a bitch. Just! Say! No!  Or beat them up right back. Adapted by Tim Talbott from Zimbardo’s The Lucifer Effect and directed by Kyle Patrick Alvarez.

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Risky Business (1983)

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What was it about Chicago’s North Shore that inspired such good movies in the 80s? It’s hard to believe but it’s 34 years since Tom Cruise became a star – and this smart, tart satire about sex and money is the reason why. Joel Goodson (Cruise) is mostly a good boy but his grades are not top notch and his dad is trying to get him into Princeton. The folks are going out of town for the weekend so it’s time to bust out some bucks and deliver some guys of their innocence courtesy of some hookers after one attempt goes wrong. One of them is Lana (Rebecca De Mornay) who as well as spending the night, has an idea for some moneymaking activities to pay her bill – and the damage to the family Porsche – which coincide with the visit from the Princeton rep (Richard Masur): Joel has turned his folks’ house into a brothel. He makes a pile of money. Then Lana’s pimp (Joe Pantoliano) wants a piece and holds the furniture ransom.  Cruise is flawless in Paul Brickman’s directing debut (working from his original screenplay.) We all know the iconic moments – Cruise dancing in his pants, his winning smile, the sex act on the train (the last time Cruise knowingly participated in such a thing onscreen – and performed to Phil Collins of all people!) but it’s a sharp social commentary too, with a great soundtrack courtesy of Tangerine Dream (remember them?!) as well of course as Old Time Rock ‘n’ Roll. This was really on the money and retains its impact. Classic.

Wonder Boys (2000)

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Michael Chabon’s droll campus novel of dejected one hit wonder creative writing professor Grady Tripp (Michael Douglas) gets a funny and tender adaptation from the late Curtis Hanson and writer Steve Kloves. James Leer (Tobey Maguire) is the weird and ubertalented student whose work is stupendously impressive so when agent Terry Crabtree (Robert Downey Jr) arrives at a college event for aspiring authors he immediately transfers his affection from his transvestitite companion to this new kid on the block and a raucous weekend on and off campus ensues. At a party given by the Chancellor Sara Gaskell (Frances McDormand) – who happens to be Grady’s mistress – and her husband Walter (Richard Thomas) a valuable piece of Marilyn Monroe memorabilia is stolen,  the family dog is shot and the body hidden in a trunk, and tension rattles when Sara reveals she’s pregnant by Grady, whose wife has taken off to her parents’. Grady thinks James is a suicide risk so keeps him with him – along with the dead dog. It eventually dawns on him that James is a compulsive liar and a total liability. His fellow student Hannah (Katie Holmes) has a thing for Grady but he’s not into her which makes life at his house tricky – she’s renting a room there. Walter sends the police for James when he figures where the MM goods have gone. What happens to Grady’s new book manuscript and the car is just cringeworthy … This is so great in every department – the very texture of the emotions is in every gesture and expression, something that occurs when writing, performance and staging are in perfect sync. Hilarious, compassionate and endlessly watchable. And for anyone looking to complete their picture collection of Michael Douglas’ abject masculinity on film, there’s the image of him standing on the porch in a woman’s dressing gown – something to knock that Basic Instinct v-neck into a cocked hat. Cherishable.

Legally Blonde (2001)

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Years before the feel-good musical! Elle Woods (Reese Witherspoon) is the beyond blonde Californian sorority queen who just wants to settle down with her boyfriend Warner Huntington III (Matthew Davis) after graduation from college and on the night she thinks he’s going to propose he dumps her  – for a brunette swot Vivian Kensington (Selma Blair) who’s going to Harvard Law with him.  Elle decides to follow him and crams for the Law School Admission Test – and winds up at Harvard too, pretty in pink with her beloved chihuahua in tow. She’s laughed out of class and takes refuge at a hair salon owned by Paulette (Jennifer Coolidge) and gets real, hits the books and winds up being romanced by her tutor Luke Wilson and getting on the team to defend a wealthy widow who’s accused of murdering her much older husband. Very funny outing with the redoubtable Witherspoon giving a barnstorming performance in a smart satire with a big princess heart at its centre.  The concluding courtroom scene is a doozy. With a slew of nice supporting cast including Ali Larter, Oz Perkins, Victor Garber and Raquel Welch, this is nicely shot by Anthony B. Richmond, and directed by Robert Luketic from a screenplay by Karen McCullah Lutz and Kirsten Smith, adapting Amanda Brown’s novel (the first in a series).

Bad Neighbours 2 (2016)

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Aka Neighbours 2:  Sorority Rising.  They’re back! Well, everyone’s gone and grown up. Sort of. Opening on a horribly vomitous sex scene, Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne realise they’re having another baby. They’re trying to sell their house and it’s in escrow now which they do not understand even when the realtor tries to explain. All they know is their toddler daughter keeps playing with a pink dildo in front of people. Meanwhile, Zac Efron’s bestie Dave Franco is getting married. To a guy. So he has to move out of their place and has nowhere to go – except back to the old frat house, where some bolshie girls led by Chloe Grace Moretz want to set up an alt-sorority so they can party righteously. He mentors them until they dump him while he’s lecturing them (they do it on their phones). So he teams up with Seth and Rose to get rid of the girls in order that their house sale goes through. There ensues … total mayhem! Screamingly funny, flat out gross out, hilarious, physical, bad taste comedy. Five buckets of money, that’s all you need. For anything! Party on, rad dudettes! Written by Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg, Andrew Jay Cohen, Brendan O’Brien and director Nicholas Stoller.

Notes on Blindness (2016)

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Hemingway wrote that people go bankrupt gradually then suddenly. Turns out people go blind the same way. I know a few blind people and they are distinguished by their stentorian, commanding, aggressive voices and compulsive need to dominate a conversation and be the centre of attention. Perhaps they are trained to this level of domination in the only way possible for them. The voice of former Birmingham University religion professor John Hull is different – quiet, considered, soft. Australian.  For it is his recorded diaries that form the voiceover narration and re-enacted conversations here, in the bodies but not the voices (they are lipsyncing) of actors  Dan Renton Skinner and Simone Kirby. Hull lost his sight in 1983 just before his son was born. His illness was progressive and there are very unpleasant close ups of bloody eyeballs and some quite surreal patterns of blood to illustrate the effects on him psychologically as the visuals attempt to provide a correlative to his dimmed experiences, including losing the gallery of images of his family. He never regained a visual memory of Marilyn, his wife. His acceptance of his fate and his wife’s incredibly pragmatic approach to the situation are laid bare by descriptions of the lack of facilities for the visually impaired – to his astonishment, the only audiobooks available at that time were romance and detective fiction. He assembled an army of people to record serious books in order for him to carry out his work. His project was to keep working as an academic despite the dying of the light. The sad irony of the subject’s final question – not why he had been given this gift, rather what he should do with it – is compounded by the filmmakers’ (James Spinney and Peter Middleton) odd decision to add some written information in dark grey on a white background so tiny as to render it unreadable. Now I sort of know how Hull felt. He died in 2015. They also serve who only stand and tape.

The Nutty Professor (1963)

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This Jerry Lewis masterpiece is a cult favourite and not just at my house. Or France. Lewis had the genius idea to reinterpret Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde as a supposed exploration of his own dualistic personality – or maybe he’s just having a dig at his real-life (former) other half, the cooler-than-thou Dean Martin. Julius Kelp (a character that had earlier appeared in Rock-A-Bye-Baby) is the muddle-headed buck-toothed chemistry lecturer who wants to beat the bullies and develops a serum that transforms him into obnoxious hipster Buddy Love, a hit with the glorious student Stella By Starlight, Stella Stevens, who digs him but really prefers the real guy underneath. Great nightclub scenes when Julius’ unfortunate croak breaks through at the most inopportune of moments and there’s that legendary Alaskan Polar Bear Heater routine for the real fans. Wonderful looking, with Lewis really in command of the frame and costumes by the legendary Edith Head, an apt choice for this Paramount tale of transformation. Classic stuff.

Arlington Road (1999)

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You know you’re watching a terrific thriller when Joan Cusack’s sudden appearance at a phone booth makes you jump out of your seat in fright. The screenplay by the gifted Ehren Kruger is concerned with homegrown terrorism, a notion that has never gone away but had particular currency in the era of Timothy McVeigh. Jeff Bridges is the recently widowed history lecturer who discovers that his new neighbours might be plotting something very nasty indeed and realises too late that his young son is spending way too much time in their company. This is a brilliantly sustained tense piece of work which never drops the ball and is tonally pretty perfect. An underrated achievement. Directed by Mark Pellington.

The Man Who Knew Infinity (2015)

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Tamil Srinivasa Ramanujan is toiling away as a clerk in Madras, a maths prodigy who is entirely self-taught and with little future in his home country. His work leads Professor GH Hardy to bring him to Cambridge and a difficult career ensues throughout WW1. Adapted by writer/director Matthew Brown from the book by Robert Kanigel, this biographical drama is puzzling and touching in equal parts:  the beauty of mathematics is difficult to convey to a dimwit like myself but the relationships and overt racism on campus bring out the best in Dev Patel’s acting skills. The essence of his character is religious faith – he eventually confesses to the gruff and irascible atheist Hardy (Jeremy Irons) that he believes his God is speaking to him in his sleep. Hardy’s inspiration is less theological and his insistence on proofs leads Ramanujan to a period of self-doubt, depression and serious illness. Hardy becomes his friend very late in the day, following racist attacks, vicious rivalries within the University and a declining marriage: back home in India, Ramanujan’s mother has been hiding the letters his illiterate wife was writing to him and his wife doesn’t know and ultimately writes to inform him she is leaving him. This is a beautifully handled drama about a little known man whose work during the last year of his life has been used to understand black holes. What was that about infinity and beyond?! Ah, sweet mystery of life. Gimme dat ol time religion.

Deconstructing Harry (1997)

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When I saw this last it was at its film festival premiere and my companion said he’d never sat beside someone who squirmed so much in discomfort at a movie. I was horrified by it. It starts with Julia Louis-Dreyfus going down on Richard Benjamin and then being entered by him from behind in front of her blind grandmother. Funny? Not so much. Turns out it’s a dramatisation of a scene from the latest novel by Harry Block (Woody Allen) and Benjamin is him, Dreyfus is his ex Lucy( Judy Davis) who promptly arrives at his apartment with a pistol prepared to shoot him because now everyone knows about them and their adultery – and she’s his sister in law.  There are other mini-movies drawing on Block’s work and there are both flashbacks and interactions between Block and his fictional characters. The film turns on issues primarily of Jewishness and its evocation both cinematic and writerly, hence the significance of Benjamin’s casting:  he is Philip Roth’s most famous on-screen avatar (Goodbye Columbus, Portnoy’s Complaint) and there are many, myself included, who would see this as a foul-mouthed excoriation of one of America’s greatest writers, and not merely a revisiting of Stardust Memories. And why, you might ask? I’m not a psychologist but Allen’s former paramour Mia Farrow was rumoured to have been involved with Roth for a spell and it has often been speculated that Allen himself was envious of his achievements. Roth has never really made me laugh, he has made me think, while Allen at his best makes me laugh like a drain. The reference to Block’s having an affair with his sister in law would appear to be material he had already plundered in Hannah and Her Sisters – an affair Allen allegedly had with one of Farrow’s sisters (and, some claim, more than one sister.) Then there’s the casting of his underage object of desire from Manhattan Mariel Hemingway and his behaviour regarding their son,whom he kidnaps, another dig into his own grubby public past, whether true or not. His muse Elisabeth Shue (sporting a Farrow-like mop of hair) splits for his best friend. And he hires a black prostitute to accompany them on their trip to a university where he’s being honoured and he slides out of focus just like one of his characters played by Robin Williams earlier in the story. (Face and fiction have blurred to the point that even he cannot tell them apart.)  Even after all these years I just can’t enjoy this tacky, tasteless outing, an admission on Allen’s part (perhaps) that psychoanalysis is a greenlight for perverted recidivism and that he had lost his greatest muse to strange desires. A very uncomfortable watch.