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August 18-31
VOL.14 ISSUE. 26
HOME / STORY

Shocking Stuff

Jorge Ignacio Castillo
Published Thursday November 12, 06:47 pm
Experimenter is a strange yet effective biopic

  Experimenter

Broadway (Opens Saturday 21)

3.5/5

In 1961, psychologist Stanley Milgram conducted a social experiment on obedience that shed some light on human behaviour towards authority. Under the guise of a memory study, a group of participants were instructed to administer electric shocks of increasing intensity to fellow subjects, who got zapped every time they failed to answer correctly.

Despite hearing shrieks and pleas to stop from the receiving end, two out of three of those administering the jolts continued doing it. Transfer the result to any act of state-sponsored violence (hello, Nazis) and you have an expected sociological behaviour.

Unlike the equally renowned Stanford prison experiment, Milgram’s scenario was scientifically sound — but this didn’t stop his peers from trying to discredit him for decades, mainly because the results were too uncomfortable to accept. Milgram’s point was that awareness is knowledge.

Experimenter is an odd movie. It refuses to provide entertainment for entertainment’s sake, and it breaks the fourth wall consistently to underline the artificiality of the medium. The sets are noticeably fake and exterior shots are often just projections. Meanwhile, Milgram (Peter Sarsgaard, The Killing, Green Lantern) dissects every episode of his own life clinically, with a slight bias, as if he was an overgrown guinea pig.

Directed by Michael Almereyda (whose modern and abridged version of Hamlet is one of the best adaptations of a Shakespeare play ever), the film depicts Milgram as a well-intentioned, methodical scientist whose heightened common sense separates him from others and renders him cold and aloof. While he’s far from a jerk, he’s such a cerebral man that emotional relationships are a struggle.

While the experiments and Milgram’s sociological insights are fascinating, his family life is much less so: The movie dedicates plenty of time to the scientist’s relationship with his wife Sasha, but there isn’t enough drama to justify it. This, to no fault of the leads. Sarsgaard is unimpeachable as Milgram, and Winona Ryder as his spouse makes the most of a flat character.

Presumably because of Almereyda’s reputation among thespians, Experimenter is filled with recognizable character actors: Anthony Edwards, Anton Yelchin, John Leguizamo and others are at hand for brief but emotionally loaded cameos. An especially inspired bit of casting is Kellan Lutz (one of the Twilight pinup vampires) as William Shatner, who starred in a TV movie about Milgram’s work. Instead of being distracting, the star-studded cast reinforces the idea that we’re watching both reality and artifice. We’re the scientists in this scenario, appropriately enough.

 

The 33

Cineplex

2/5

Late in 2010, 33 Chilean miners managed to survive 69 days trapped almost 2,000 feet underground, with minimum resources. Their trauma and eventual triumph was broadcast live to every corner of the globe: It was a rare feel-good story in the usually grim news cycle and had an undeniable cinematic value.

So it’s no surprise that Hollywood came calling, and five years later we have The 33, a terrible yet undeniably entertaining film adaptation of the miners’ adventure and the minister who would stop at nothing to get them out of the pit. Not even the shifty Presidente, Juliette Binoche’s powerful slaps or the laws of physics will get in his way.

With the exception of Antonio Banderas, the miners are each given a single personality trait: The drunk, the adulterer, the soccer fan, the Bolivian, the last-day guy, and the 27 interchangeable others. Outside the mine, the families don’t fare much better — because really, it’s all about the good-hearted bureaucrat.

If you survive the hodgepodge of accents (there are no actual Chileans in the main roles, just Americans, Brazilians, Mexicans and the guy from La Bamba) and the telenovela-worthy script, there’s still the wild overacting to contend with. Banderas is in a class of his own, but Binoche and Gabriel Byrne are also no slouches when it comes to chewing the scenery.

The film is so concerned with the broadest of dramatic beats that it misses two richer veins: The fact the owners did nothing to help rescue the workers, and that conflict inside the mine only started after reestablishing contact with the outside world. The 33 wants to be about the power of community and the spirit of collaboration, but all you need is to dig deeper to find a less savoury truth.

One last complaint: Once again the villain is a Castillo. Sigh. In real life, we’re actually all bark and no bite.

 

Victoria

Roxy (opens Friday 25)

1/5

More often than not, gimmicky movies fail to transcend the stunt that’s supposed to validate their existence. Rope, for example, Alfred Hitchcock’s real-time thriller, is by far the master of suspense’s weakest entry, while Run Lola Run — considered ground-breaking a decade ago — hasn’t aged well, mainly because it doesn’t have a decent plot to sustain the videogame-like premise.

Victoria suffers from the same problem. A 138-minute one-shot wonder, the German flick suffers from predictable problems (no sense of rhythm, barely acceptable cinematography, boredom) and scriptwriting ineptitude (a female character so devoid of common sense that it defies plausibility).

The Victoria in question is a Spanish student on a working holiday in Berlin. The clueless, utterly trusting girl gets involved with four suspicious-looking characters who try to pick her up at a club. Victoria tags along with the belligerent lowlifes as they go on increasingly risky undertakings, culminating in a bank robbery. As you do.

The problem with the character is her utter disregard for her own safety, particularly when a self-destructive personality hasn’t at all been established earlier. There are so many red flags here it’s like a parade in China.

The very flimsy plot doesn’t justify the 138-minute running time — especially because half of it is dedicated to a sluggish courtship that wants to be Before Sunrise and flops almost completely. The choreography is decent enough to keep things from falling apart entirely, but the film often feels like it’s treading water, an indication of poor planning.

Director Sebastian Schipper has acknowledged he didn’t have a script, but rather a 12-page treatment to work from. The result isn’t much different than going out with your friends and recording them with your smartphone (especially if said friends are criminals and bad at it). All the critical fawning over Victoria is most baffling.  

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