Sundance Capsule Reviews Jan. 30 | Buzz Blog
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Sundance Capsule Reviews Jan. 30


The Stanford Prison Experiment ***
A laser focus on the titular, infamous 1971 incident—in which psychologist Dr. Philip Zimbardo (Billy Crudup) recruited students to serve as guards and inmates in a simulated prison in the basement of the Stanford University psychology department—keeps this dark drama intriguing even when it gets too obvious in its nudges at 21st-century events. Director Kyle Patrick Alvarez doesn’t waste time establishing who these 18 young men were before they were randomly assigned one or the other of the two roles, an appropriate choice given the experiment’s entire suggestion that their behavior had little to do with background. And it’s a harrowing experience watching how quickly the participants become emotionally invested either in asserting control (Michael Angarano as the alpha guard) or pushing back against that control (Ezra Miller as the most volatile prisoner); audience members audibly react when the “Day 2” title card appears, realizing how quickly the situation destabilized. There’s some unfortunate pointless business involving Zimbardo’s colleague/girlfriend (Olivia Thirlby) becoming the conscience of the experiment, and Alvarez isn’t exactly subtle about turning the story into an Abu Ghraib metaphor. Yet it certainly captures how power corrupts—and not just those wielding the power. (Scott Renshaw)

Tig ***
Comedian Tig Notaro—after more than 15 years as a professional comedian—became an “overnight” viral sensation in 2012 when she did a legendary set about her recent diagnosis with breast cancer. And this documentary by Kristina Goolsby and Ashley York is at its best when it focuses on Notaro’s subsequent attempts to dive back into her career, wondering if she can live up to that legend now that she’s not dying. There’s a welcome minimum of retrospective biography about Notaro’s childhood and early career, as the filmmakers stick to the aftermath of her double-mastectomy—which itself followed a couple of other significant life tragedies—and gradual attempts to find normalcy in her personal and professional life. The “personal” part of that equation provides plenty of emotional material, as Notaro begins a new relationship and considers finding a surrogate mother to carry her baby. But it’s stronger when it concentrates on the professional—both because that means we get to hear some hilarious stand-up material, and because we get to watch an artist practically re-learn the art form she had already mastered. As sweet and inspirational as it is, Tig is actually a compelling portrait of a kind of emotional rehabilitation as Notaro tries to figure out if tragedy plus time can equal comedy again.

Experimenter ***
With the vagaries of awards season being what they are, one grows weary of biopics quite rapidly. Writer-director Michael Almereyda deserves credit for doing something with the form, with his latest falling somewhere in the Venn diagram between historical fiction, documentary and extended metaphor. Peter Sarsgaard stars as Stanley Milgram, the highly controversial experimental psychologist who decided to explore the nature of the human need to obey, in light of the trial of longtime fugitive Nazi Adolf Eichmann. Milgram's methods and motivations came under attack, affecting both his career and personal life, creating the bulk of the drama in Experimeter, most of which is narrated in past tense by Sarsgaard as an extratextual Milgram commenting on his own life's work. Almereyda has considerable sly fun with artifice—Sarsgaard frequently appears with a literal elephant in the room, an amusingly on-the-nose reference to the inescapable association with his obedience experiment, and there are some glorious wigs and fake beards—but the story sags a bit in the middle, partly due to that being the point when the focus is on story, not Milgram. Still, even if Experiementer is something less than a home run, it's worth a look for being a noble experiment. (Danny Bowes)

Call Me Lucky ***
Sometimes, the hardest job in approaching a documentary is separating a compelling, important story or character from a not-particularly-great way of telling it. Director and veteran comedian Bobcat Goldthwait takes on the story of his longtime friend and mentor Barry Crimmins, a stand-up comic and political satirist who help launched many careers with his 1980s Boston comedy club yet never quite broke into the big time himself. It’s clear that Crimmins’ less-than-spectacular career was largely the result of his anger and acidic brand of socially-conscious humor, and Goldthwait explores the childhood experiences that informed much of Crimmins’ disdain for monolithic authority, as well as turned him into a passionate activist against Internet-based child pornography in the mid-1990s. Goldthwait also doesn’t always make the best choices with that material: playing coy with the nature of Crimmins’ childhood experience for a while; spending too much time on his contemporaries and other protégés of Crimmins sharing anecdotes. Fortunately, there are enough powerful moments built around Crimmins’ righteous rage—from his performances to his appearance before a Senate hearing in 1995—that the central character grips you even when the filmmaking threatens to get in the way. (SR)

People, Places, Things **
The thing about movies like People, Places, Things is that because they're “sweet” and “nice” and “quirky” and all that, critiquing their serious problems comes off as mean. But it must be done: People, Places, Things has a cataclysmic problem, inextricable from almost all of its virtues (of which there are a bunch). It's about A Nice Guy (Jemaine Clement, who in spite of everything manages to be excellent because he's Jemaine Clement and that's how things work) who catches the mother of his twin daughters having sex with another man in their house during the kids' birthday party. And therein lies the problem: The mother is written as an absolute monster, a Grand Guignol caricature of an artsy Brooklynite. The deck being stacked so wantonly against her character throws off the entire balance of the movie, and casts a pall over the much more interesting subplot involving Clement's relationship with the mother of one of his animation students, wasting great performances by Jessica Williams and Regina Hall (and a whole other, much more interesting movie). The kids are cute. And Clement's a magician. It’s just a shame the only one-dimensional, disastrously ill-conceived character was, y'know, essential to the plot. (DB)