Notes from the Screener Pile: 2015.3

Awards season keeps on truckin'! (Pardon the neglect, Canadian films!)

(USA, 98 min.)
Written and directed by Michael Almereyda
Starring: Peter Sarsgaard, Winona Ryder
Winona Ryder and Peter Sarsgaard in Experimenter.
Magnolia Pictures
Anyone with an introductory psych class under his or her belt will be familiar with the experiments of Stanley Milgram. Milgram’s most famous experiment with authority and power, as PSYC 100 students know, involves patients administering shocks on a participant during routine questioning. The shocks amplify and the shocker almost always presses the button at the command of the test leader, despite believing that the person on the receiving end of the shock is in considerable pain. Peter Sarsgaard plays the shrewd doctor as Experimenter turns up the button on Milgram’s experiment and meditates upon the nature of human evil as this study from the past sees countless participants inflict pain because someone tells them to do it.

The landmark study offers fascinating implications and writer/director Michael Almereyda (Hamlet) takes the depth of Milgram’s study to interrogate not only the banality of evil, but also the ethical boundaries one may cross in the pursuit of knowledge. The film doesn’t let Milgram off the hook for his controversial study. Strong performances by Peter Sarsgaard and Winona Ryder (as Milgram’s wife) can’t keep the film afloat, however, as inconsistencies in the direction play like a botched experiment itself. Random backgrounds (like Brechtian greenscreens?) draw attention to theatricality in one scene while other scenes offer flat, sterile compositions. The film also adds a bizarre thread in which Milgram roams the halls of his faculty while an elephant trails him. The elephant, literally credited as The Elephant in the Room within the film, ultimately makes the film a pointless head-scratcher: What does Experimenter propose that isn’t already self-evident in previous scholarship?

Rating: ★★½ (out of ★★★★★)

Experimenter is now in theatres and on VOD.
It opens in Ottawa at The Mayfair in January.

(UK, 131 min.)
Written and directed by Brian Helgeland
Starring: Tom Hardy, Tom Hardy, Emily Browning
Tom Hardy and Tom Hardy star in Legend.
Elevation Pictures.

Cinemablographer seems to be slumming in this episode of “Notes from the Screener Pile”! If Experiment disappoints, then Legend is unequivocally the dud of the screener pile. The big disappointment with Legend is that Tom Hardy gives two performances and they both suck.

Hardy plays gangster twins Ronald and Reggie Kray, and Legend feels like nothing but a gimmick from beginning to end. The film impresses with its technical coup of putting two Tom Hardys on the screen at the same time, but this effect isn’t anything new five years after Armie Hammer played the Winklevoss twins in The Social Network. Two Tom Hardys aren’t better than one.

The misfortune isn’t so much the gimmick, but actually Hardy’s performance itself (or performances themselves?). As Ronald, he’s cool and cruel, like a Guy Ritchie character who longs to be Ray Liotta in GoodFellas, and as Reggie, he sports a big nose and a jittery mania. (He’s the Guy Ritchie character who wants to be Joe Pesci in GoodFellas.) Emily Browning, meanwhile, is fine as the girlfirend Ronald mistreats at every turn. Legend also doubles Hardy’s recurring problem with annoying and unintelligible accents, for the film features two mumbly drawls from his low-life gangsters as Hardy sounds like a British Marlon Brando with an orange in his mouth. Consequently, much of the film’s dialogue is frankly inaudible.

Hardy’s wonky performance also flings Legend back and forth between drama and comedy as if it’s a pendulum, and one never really knows how to take it. It’s not funny; it’s not gritty; it’s not sharp. It’s pointless, if anything. Even 90 minutes into its 131-minute time. Legend virtually seems to have no purpose other than to let Hardy loose. It’s one of those unseemly misfires that distributors chuck into award season when they know they have nothing but a golden goose on their hands with fleeting impressions of prestige. Don’t be fooled!

Rating: ★★ (out of ★★★★★)

Legend is now playing in limited release.

White God (Fehér isten)
(Hungary/Germany/Sweden, 121 min.)
Dir. Kornél Mundruczó, Writ. Kornél Mundruczó, Viktória Petrányi, Kata Wéber
Starring: Zsófia Psotta, Body and Luke
Magnolia Pictures

Slumming takes a turn for the better as “Notes from the Screener Pile” goes to the dogs and heads for the streets. White God is one of the year’s best surprises. The film, Hungary’s Oscar submission last year, features two outstanding pooch performances from dogs Body and Luke in the role of Hagen, a compelling mutt who commands the screen with more force and power than Cujo. Take that, Tom Hardy—these dogs are best in show!

The extent to which the dogs of White God carry the film is genuinely unlike anything before, even Lassie, Homeward Bound, and The Artist as virtually half the film centres on Hagen as a protagonist as he roams the streets of Budapest and amasses a herd of abandoned mongrels to unite against the people who kicked them to the curb. Hagen leads the film with brave fury and his eyes have humanlike emotion and conviction. As the film uses a mildly speculative premise in which mixed breed dogs are outlawed and pursued by ruthless dogcatchers, White God uses Hagen’s homeward quest—and thirst for blood—to make a stirringly powerful moral fable about animal rights.

The film somewhat loses its edge as it morphs into an all-out frenzy of wild animals à la The Birds, but the canine coup never ceases to impress. Kornél Mundruczó provides a laudable feat of direction in training these animals to perform so well. White God especially astounds with the visual scope and power it finds in the majestic, powerful, and fearsome bodies of the dogs as the cinematography uses the dogs’ muscles, teeth, and jowls spectacularly in alternating compositions of beauty and menace. The opening sequence, in which Hagen leads a stampede of dogs toward his owner, a teenager named Lili (Zsófia Psotta), and White God tops this breathtaking sequence by teaching the dogs another trick to bring the film to an awe-inspiring close. This is one bitchin’ flick!

Rating: ★★★★ (out of ★★★★★)
White God is now available on home video.

Plus a revisit to TIFF favourite, Youth!

Up next: drugs, yellow thugs, and 45 hugs.