‘Sword of Trust’ Thrives On the Energy of its Cast

Sword of Trust movie poster

While driving over to a screening of “Sword of Trust.” I ended up in a fender bender which succeeded in ruining my mood for the rest of the day. As a result, I came into this movie wondering if I could look at it objectively as my mind kept going back to the unfortunate incident, and I was fuming at how I could not change what just happened. Well, it’s a good thing I waited a couple of days to write this review on it as my mind is clearer than it was previously. “Sword of Trust” at times feels like a half-realized film, but I did enjoy it and admired the intent of its filmmaker and cast to give us something character driven in a time when cinema is still infinitely dominated by superhero and comic book movies.

We meet Cynthia (Jillian Bell) and Mary (Michaela Watkins), a loving couple who arrive in Alabama to collect Cynthia’s inheritance from recently departed grandfather. They both think they will gain ownership of his home, but they discover it is wrapped up in reverse mortgages which means the bank owns it and is not about to give it up. Don’t you love that? Even if you read the fine print, you and your family members can ever so easily get screwed out of home ownership as greed remains king.

Anyway, Cynthia instead inherits a Civil War era sword, and it comes with a set of letters which prove that it was the South which actually won the Civil War. As a result, the two take the sword to the nearest pawn shop which is run by the cantankerous curmudgeon Mel (Marc Maron) who is quicker to cheat his customers out of the best deal possible for his own capitalistic gains. However, when his man-child employee Nathaniel (Jon Bass) stumbles across a You Tube video in which an overzealous conspiracy theorist appears more than willing to pay thousands of dollars for Civil War artifacts, these two men quickly become very interested in selling this sword to the highest bidder.

I enjoyed how the characters in “Sword of Trust” show themselves to be more capitalistic than they initially realize. Mel initially shuts down Cynthia’s and Mary’s attempt to sell him their sword, but when he shows a renewed interest in it, the two women are not about to be cheated out of any money. Unlike certain people, they refuse to believe Paramount Pictures has yet go profit on the Eddie Murphy comedy “Coming to America,” and they are not about to be swindled out of any substantial profit they are entitled to.

From there, the story moves in unpredictable directions as these four characters attempt to sell the sword to those conspiracy theorists, and I had no idea of where things were going to go which made this film especially entertaining. Considering the depressing rise in white supremacy in the United States of America, I started to believe “Sword of Trust” would descend into an abyss of racism, greed and selfishness. Does it? I refuse to say.

What I can tell you is “Sword of Trust” deals with characters who are more like us than we may initially realize. As they are driven to an undisclosed location in the back of a truck with no windows, they come to reveal things about themselves which no one is quick to another without some level of trust. This scene made me like this movie even more as these characters could have easily been passed off as types instead of individuals who slowly reveal share who they really are to complete strangers.

Directing this movie is Lynn Shelton who co-wrote the screenplay with Mike O’Brien, and she allowed her cast to improvise in a way which has us wondering how everything will turn out. “Sword of Trust” looks to be a cinematic experience we have seen far too many times beforehand, but it is filled with humanity and some strong laughs throughout. Even though it may very well get swept away by the latest summer blockbusters such as the live-action version of “The Lion King,” I think it is worth checking out for those who are looking for something a little different.

All the actors really commit to the material, and it is great fun to watch Watkins and Bell work off of one another throughout. It’s also fun to watch Bass fumble about as Nathaniel, a man-child who has made the mistake of believing in the wrong things to where his mind threatens to be permanently warped. Then again, his character does represent a growing portion of Americans who have somehow led themselves to believe the earth is flat (newsflash, it isn’t).

But the real star by far of “Sword of Trust” is Marc Maron. I have become a big fan of his after watching his IFC show “Maron” and listening weekly to his podcast “WTF.” Having seen and heard him in various formats, it is tempting to say he is simply playing a version of himself as Mel, but that isn’t really fair. Just watch as he tries to keep his guard up when his ex-girlfriend Deirdre (played by Shelton) visits his store; his inability to say something right away speaks volumes. Whether it is that scene or the one in the back of the truck, Maron has proven himself to be a strong actor as he is able to say many things without uttering a word, and it is an example of why he is having a career renaissance which has allowed him to star on the Netflix series “GLOW” and have a co-starring role in the upcoming film “The Joker.”

In addition, Maron also provides the music for this film, and his guitar helps to illustrate the complicated lives of each character and of the absurdity of their current predicament. Whether or not it will have you crying out “Boomer lives” while in the movie theater is another story.

“Sword of Trust” isn’t a great film, but it is an entertaining and absorbing one which I admired. Its resolution is a little pat, and some of the character twists feel a little too manipulative and fly in the face of easy logic, but I did admire what each cast member was able to bring to the material, and their performances alone make this worth a look.

It’s sad to see movies like this get such a short shelf life. Character driven motion pictures are not as prevalent in today’s cinematic landscape as they once were. I am always waiting for things to circle around back to where these kinds of movies will become more popular again, but it looks like we still have a long, long way to go to get there. Still, we have filmmakers like Lynn Shelton around who continue to buck the Hollywood trends, and this is better than nothing.

Now, back to my damaged car… Dammit.

* * * out of * * * *

“Sword of Trust” will be playing at the Nuart Theatre in Los Angeles, California thru July 25, 2019.

 

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‘The Wind’ is a Menacing Horror Western Which Gets Under Your Skin

The Wind movie poster

Weather can be a formidable character in movies, especially those in the horror genre. We have “The Fog” (John Carpenter’s original, not the dreadful remake), “The Mist” (talk about an infinitely devastating climax), “The Wave” which proved to be the best disaster flick I have seen in a long time, and there’s even “The Day After Tomorrow” which dealt with climate change although in a highly unrealistic way.

Now we have “The Wind,” a horror western which takes us back to the untamed Western frontier of the 1800’s. The wind here has a supernatural force inhabiting it almost in the same way those ghosts inhabited “The Fog,” and you are left wondering how anyone can rise above such a common weather element especially when it is always around. In the process, we are sucked right into a horror movie which fearlessly turns a number of tropes on its head especially when it comes to female characters.

Lizzy Macklin (Caitlin Gerard) is forced to fend for herself in the lonely wilderness when her husband, Isaac Macklin (Ashley Zukerman), is forced to leave her and travel into the nearest town with their friend Gideon Harper (Dylan McTee) for reasons which will quickly become clear. From there, she is stuck in the loneliest of places and in a house which looks like something out of Clint Eastwood’s “Unforgiven.” The old west Lizzy resides in is not the least bit glamourous, but we quickly realize she is resilient and strong even after she is chased back into her house by a pair of ravenous coyotes.

The wind of the movie’s title first presents itself as a natural element, but it quickly becomes very ominous as it has hands reaching out at its victims who have little hope of escape. But after a while, one begins to wonder if Lizzy is really being attacked by a supernatural force, or if she is instead descending deeper and deeper into madness. Either way, you are in for an unsettling ride which won’t let you go.

The first thing I should single out is Caitlin Gerard’s performance. Right from the start, she holds our attention as she makes Lizzy into a formidable character who doesn’t necessarily need a man to see her through dangers of any kind. Furthermore, she has many scenes in which she doesn’t utter a word of dialogue and has to get things across with her face and body. It’s a lot to ask of an actor to communicate with just their face as they could easily fall into the trap of emoting to where they overdo it and turn in a performance which is inescapably laughable. Gerard, however, never falls into this trap as she almost succeeds in turning this movie into a one-woman show. Throughout, she succeeds in conveying so much while saying so little, and she completely sucked me into Lizzy’s horrifying predicament which could have easily done in a weaker character.

Co-starring alongside Gerard is Julia Goldani Telles who plays Emma Harper, Isaac’s pregnant wife who befriends Lizzy. Emma is pleasant at first, but she soon complains of how something is out to get her, and she becomes possessed by a force which does everything except turn her head 360 degrees. Telles also could have fallen into the same trap, but she makes Emma’s possession fierce and believable to where her transition from sane to insane is all the more terrifying.

From a distance, “The Wind” looks like a movie which will employ the usual variety of horror tropes such as the last woman standing, heroic and moronic male characters and a murderous villain looking for a long-running franchise which will eventually see a reboot. However, this horror western feels unique to many of its ilk, and it is great to see such strong female characters inhabiting it. Honestly, it feels like it has been a long time since I have seen a horror movie with female characters like these as they easily dominate the male characters without any doubt.

Director Emma Tammi makes her narrative feature debut here after having made several documentaries including “Fair Chase.” It is a very assured debut as she balances out all the cinematic elements in equal fashion. In addition to getting excellent performances from the cast, there is also beautiful cinematography from Lyn Moncrief and a terrific film score composed by Ben Lovett which sounds like something out of my childhood nightmares. The fact Tammi had only 30 days to film “The Wind” makes her work here all the more impressive.

If “The Wind” does run into any problems, it is in regards to its non-linear story which gives the movie a lot of power, but also generates some confusion. The screenplay by Teresa Sutherland is strong, but the more it shifts from one place in time to another, the more I lost track of where the characters were in the story. Granted, a lot of my confusion was rectified before the movie’s climax, but being thrown off like that did take away from my viewing experience.

I also have to say that the ending was a bit of a letdown. As much as I enjoy ambiguous conclusions, this was one I wanted spelled out for me. I usually hate it when filmmakers try to spell things out for audiences, but this time it would have helped as “The Wind” felt somewhat incomplete when the screen went to black.

Regardless, I very much taken in by “The Wind” and found it to be a highly unnerving horror film. It’s coming in under the radar and is easily being smothered by bigger movies, but I hope fans of the genre will give it a look. In the meantime, I will be waiting for the next weather disaster movie, “The Smog.” That one will be worth it just to hear its characters have the following exchange:

“You don’t understand! The smog is here and it’s trying to kill us!”

“Ahh, I see you are new to Los Angeles…”

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘The House That Jack Built: Director’s Cut’ is More Subversive Than Shocking

The House That Jack Built poster

“Wanting people to listen, you can’t just tap them on the shoulder anymore. You have to hit them with a sledgehammer, and then you’ll notice you’ve got their strict attention.”

-John Doe from “Seven”

Lars Von Trier loves getting our strict attention too, and he does this yet again with “The House That Jack Built” which stars Matt Dillon as a serial killer. On November 28, 2018, IFC Films presented his director’s cut for one night only, and the advertisements boasted of how over 100 people walked out of it at Cannes, and that those who stayed gave it a 10-minute standing ovation. Give IFC some credit as they have seized upon the film’s controversy to great effect. they are showing Von Trier’s cut before releasing an R-rated version in December, and the advertisements make it clear how this version may not be your cup of tea. As for us proud Von Trier veterans, we know exactly what we are in for. Or do we?

What surprised me most about this cut of “The House That Jack Built,” is that it is nowhere as shocking as I was led to believe. In fact, I found the violence at times rather tame especially compared to the scenes of mutilation in “Antichrist.” This is in many ways the result of many people writing about the movie’s most graphic scenes in scorching detail from one article to the next, but we are also living through a tumultuous time where few things can shock us the way they used to. Or perhaps the images our minds generate will always come across as more shocking than what any filmmaker can put on the silver screen.

The violence shown is extremely brutal and very bloody, and what Jack does with the bodies is just as disturbing. But Von Trier keeps us at a distance from the action to where we are fully in Jack’s mindset, treating his soon to be murdered victims as parts of major work of art. Many may cringe at the images Von Trier thrusts upon us with a twisted glee, but in the end, this is only a movie, not real life.

The movie is constructed of five episodes, each of which shows Jack murdering one or more people and it takes place over 12 years in Washington State. Each murder serves to illustrate Jack’s development as a serial killer, one with a serious case of OCD. And throughout we hear him having a conversation with a man named Verge (played by Bruno Ganz) about the murders he has gotten away with, and their talks take many twist and turns as it leads to a grand finale in one of the darkest places on earth.

The first chapter entitled “1st Incident” has Jack picking up a stranded motorist (played by Uma Thurman) who proceeds to taunt him by saying he might be a serial killer, and it serves to set up an ironic tone which will dominate much of the movie. It’s almost impossible to take things seriously as Von Trier is practically begging us to root for Jack to kill her as she cannot shut her mouth and even goes as far to say where he can bury her body.

Another surprising thing about Von Trier’s serial killer film is that it’s actually quite funny. This is clearly the case in the “2nd Incident” in which Jack attempts to con his way into the home of another woman (played by Siobhan Fallon Hogan, whose expressions are priceless) in a pathetic fashion. He first tries to pass himself off as a policeman, but his explanations for why he doesn’t have a badge on him are just hopeless, and yet he does not give up easily. And thanks to his OCD, he is convinced he has left evidence of her murder to where he keeps going in and out of the house several times.

The violence does become even more brutal and nihilistic as “The House That Jack Built” goes on, and men, women, children and animals are never spared from this wrath. I’m not going to bother going into specific descriptions as, again, the gory details have already been written about in various articles, but I will say this movie is not shock for shock’s sake. If you want that, check out the god-awful “Human Centipede 3.”

Von Trier has said in interviews how he was inspired by “the idea that life is evil and soulless” as well as the rise of Donald Trump. Indeed, many live in anxious uncertainty as the former reality television show host never ceases to give us one headache after another, and seeing him and his cronies (several of whom have since been indicted) threatens to make us apathetic to his inescapable crimes. Jack exists in a world too apathetic to realize the horrible things he is doing to others, and he keeps getting away with murder as a result.

A key scene for me was when Jack corners his girlfriend (played by Riley Keough) who slowly realizes who he really is. She screams for help, and Jack does the same in a mocking fashion. When he opens a window and cries to anyone who can hear how “nobody wants to help,” this helps illustrate just how apathetic the world is to the cries of someone in danger. If there are people willing to help someone, none of them are in a close enough vicinity to do so. If they are, they must have their own problems to deal with.

Another key subject involves art and what constitutes the greatest works of it. Neither Jack or Verge can come to a consensus of what makes great art as Verge believes you cannot have any without love as love, like intimacy, is an art unto itself. Jack, however, sees violence as playing a huge part in art and, he sees the murders he has committed as being more creatively stimulating for him than building a house.

David Bowie’s song “Fame” is played many times throughout, and I kept wondering why. Well, let’s look at the first set of lyrics:

“Fame makes a man take things over

Fame lets him loose, hard to swallow

Fame puts you there where things are hollow (fame)

Fame, it’s not your brain, it’s just the flame

That burns your change to keep you insane (fame).”

Is Von Trier attempting to say something about fame? Perhaps. Jack looks to gain infamy by sending photographs of his corpses to the local newspaper under the name of “Mr. Sophistication,” and they do not go unrecognized by the general public. But whether Jack is a serial killer or a singing star, his life is so cut off from others, and his existence will always be a hollow one. Regardless of how things end up for Jack, any fame he could hope to have will not succeed in making his life different.

There is also a moment where Von Trier features clips of his past movies like “Breaking the Waves,” “Dancer in the Dark,” “Antichrist” and “Melancholia” among others as Jack says the following:

“Some people claim that the atrocities we commit in our fiction are those inner desires which we cannot commit in our controlled civilization, so they’re expressed instead through our art. I don’t agree. I believe Heaven and Hell are one and the same. The soul belongs to Heaven and the body to Hell.”

Is Von Trier explaining how he works or apologizing for the crazy things he has brought to the silver screen? Indeed, the realm of art and fiction are places where we can exorcise our darkest thoughts and angriest emotions, and I for one will always be thankful for this. For the Danish filmmaker, it’s a must as he continues to deal with endless phobias and clinical depression, and he always looks to be exorcising some malady he could do without. But with Jack, he is dealing with a character who is a soulless vessel who can no longer see the line between right and wrong or fact and fiction, so maybe the filmmaker is wondering if he truly has gone too far.

How long have we been watching Matt Dillon onscreen? Have we seen him play a role like this before? If so, none quickly comes to mind. He is in just about every frame of this 155-minute movie, and he gives a frighteningly authentic portrayal of a serial killer at their most banal. Dillon makes Jack into the same kind of killer John Doe described himself as in “Seven” in that he is not special and has never been extraordinary, and it’s fascinating to see the actor refusing any opportunity to chew the scenery as many others would. He mines the role for all its pathos and morbid black humor, and it’s one of the best performances I have seen in a movie this year. Having said that, it is highly unlikely will receive an Oscar nomination. Need I say why?

“The House That Jack Built” will not go down as one of my most favorite Von Trier movies as it does drag on for far too long, but it is as fascinating as any he has previously made. There is much more to this cinematic experience than you will see at its gory surface, and you will ponder the many things Von Trier has dared you to explore on a deeper level.

I am glad Von Trier is still making movies as we need filmmakers willing to push the envelope and unsettle us in an effort to get us to see a bigger truth we too often turn away from. Say what you will of him as a person, but I always look forward to what his movies. As much as he may shock you, he also gets you to think. Right now, there are only so many filmmakers who can do that.

Still, I have a feeling the upcoming R-rated version will be far more shocking. The MPAA will most likely censor the movie’s most graphic moments to where our imaginations may have to spell out what we think we saw. In the process of trying to protect American audiences, this archaic body usually, and thoughtlessly, makes a movie more traumatic than anyone intended it to be. I guess I’ll have to wait and see.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘Blaze’ Gives a Late Musician the Audience He Never Got in Life

Blaze 2018 movie poster

There have been a number of music biopics in the last few years like “Straight Outta Compton,” “Love and Mercy” and “I Saw the Light.” Looking back, I wonder if my enjoyment, or lack of, was the result of how much knowledge I had of their main subjects: the rap group N.W.A., Beach Boys singer Brian Wilson, and country singer Hank Williams. Typically, biopics focus on people we know of, and I went into them wondering if the filmmakers had anything new to say about these iconic figures. Biopics are, of course, “based on a true story,” so you can expect many liberties will be taken with the source material, so this just complicates things even more.

I bring this up because “Blaze” deals with a country singer and songwriter whom I am not familiar with, Blaze Foley. Many consider him a cult figure in the realm of country music, especially in Austin, Texas. What results here is an absorbing motion picture which delves into the life of a musician whose life, like many of his ilk, was cut short at far too young an age. Part of me wonders if my enjoyment of this movie would have been affected had I known more about Blaze Foley before I walked into the theater, but considering how much I liked it, I suppose the answer doesn’t matter much.

Based on the memoir “Living in the Woods in a Tree: Remembering Blaze” by Sybil Rosen, “Blaze” weaves together three different timelines which examines this musician in life and death. We see him develop a loving relationship with aspiring actress Sybil Rosen (Alia Shawkat) to where she becomes his muse. Then we see him being discussed post-mortem by his close friends Zee (Josh Hamilton) and Townes Van Zandt (Charlie Sexton) on a radio show, and they reflect on his life with both respect and bafflement. And then there is the Blaze’s last night on earth which is presented in an unspectacular fashion, and we come to mourn a loss which was deeper than many realized at the time.

The narrative of “Blaze” shifts back and forth quite often, but I never lost track of where the story was going. This is saying a lot as the editing job on this movie could have rendered it into a complete mess, but it instead makes “Blaze” into an especially interesting motion picture as I was never sure which direction it would end up taking. Viewing a person’s life while they were alive and after they died proves to be endlessly fascinating here as we see all sides of the man in a way which feels both subjective and objective.

While watching “Blaze,” I kept thinking of “I Saw the Light” which focused on the life of Hank Williams. While it featured a stellar performance by Loki himself, Tom Hiddleston, the movie was a narrative mess even though it was told in a linear fashion. There were moments where it took me some time to figure out what was happening as events jumped from one place to another with very little warning. “Blaze” could have been a similar mess, but Hawke never lets us lose sight of where things are going, and kept my attention throughout as I was intrigued to see where the movie would head next. I can’t say that for a lot of biopics these days.

When we first see Blaze Foley, he is a complete mess and screwing up a recording session to where a producer does little to hesitate in throwing him out of his studio. But then we rewind back to when he was an up and coming musician who showed the great love he had for music. Sybil asks him if he wants to be famous, but Blaze replies he how he instead wants to be a legend. As the movie goes on, we see him struggling with being a true musician and becoming a star in a way which he feels will dilute everything he does. When the movie started, I felt it would be like Oliver Stone’s “The Doors” which made Jim Morrison into the kind of musician you thought you would like to spend time with, but ended up wanting to avoid at all costs. Instead, the movie dares to look at Blaze’s life in a way which evokes both sympathy and pity.

In his unorthodox way of wooing Sybil, we see Blaze defying ordinary conventions in showing his love to another human being. As the movie goes on, we watch as he struggles with both his artistic ambitions and the fear he has of becoming a commodity which may make him a rich man, but will also rob him of any artistic integrity he ever hopes to have. Clearly this is a musician who wants to leave his mark on society, but like any stubborn artist, he wants to leave his mark on his own terms. The trouble is, does anyone get to leave their mark on this world on their own terms?

“Blaze” was co-written and directed by Ethan Hawke, an actor who has struggled with his place as a celebrity. We know him for acting in box office hits like “Dead Poets Society” and “Sinister,” but he is also well-known for delving into movies which defy mainstream convention like the “Before Sunrise” trilogy. I can see how the story of Blaze Foley appealed to him as Blaze is an artist who wants to be true to his art, but he is also subjected to the pressures of commercial success, or the potential for it, to such a degree that they fold under the pressure or have an overwhelming fear of being seen as a sellout. Hawke continues to walk the fine line between Hollywood and indie movies, and I believe it when he says how long it took for him to become comfortable with the fame he had achieved.

Hawke has directed a few movies previously such as “Chelsea Walls” and “The Hottest State,” both of which had their share of flaws but showed him to be a filmmaker willing to take chances even if critics questioned his methods and material. With “Blaze,” he has given us a motion picture which feels assured in its vision, and it features some of the most ingenious editing I have seen in movie in some time.

Playing Blaze Foley is musician Ben Dickey, a man who has never acted before. But in a movie like this, the actors are meant to inhabit their characters more than play him, and Dickey ends up inhabiting Blaze in a way few others could. His life is similar to Blaze’s in a number of ways as he also has music running through his blood and has traveled throughout America playing songs filled with cinematic imagery which deal with life at its most hopeful and at its darkest.

As Blaze. Dickey gives the movie its heart and soul as we see him traveling through life wanting to be pure as an artist while dealing with a past and a heartache that will never let him be. He is matched perfectly with the fantastic Alia Shawkat as Blaze’s wife and muse, Sybil. I admired her work in a movie which came out earlier this year called “Duck Butter,” and she brings same emotionally raw power to the role of a person who lives to be another’s muse until it becomes too much to bear.

My only real complaint with “Blaze” is it never digs too deep into the singer’s life. We get only hints and implications of how troubled his childhood was, but no real specifics are given so we can only guess what led him to be such a tortured soul. We do get a nice cameo from Kris Kristofferson as Blaze’s father who is seen asking everyone for a cigarette, but it only tells us so much about their relationship. Perhaps Hawke felt it was better to imply certain things without spelling everything out to audience.

Hawke has had quite the year with this and “First Reformed,” and “Blaze” shows he has long since arrived at a place where he can do passion projects like this and Hollywood films to where he can transition from one to the other with relative ease. More importantly, he makes Blaze Foley into a complex human being who may have alienated many people close to him, but we never lose our empathy for the struggles he endures. I have seen many biopics which try to present a complex portrait and have failed to get below the surface, and it says a lot that Hawke doesn’t make the same mistake here.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

IFC Debuts First Trailer for Lars Von Trier’s ‘The House That Jack Built’

The House That Jack Built poster

For years Lars Von Trier was considered persona non grata at the Cannes Film Festival, but in 2018 he returned to it with a vengeance. His latest film, “The House That Jack Built,” premiered there recently, and it was reported that a hundred people walked out of the screening in utter disgust. Of course, it wouldn’t be a Von Trier film if it didn’t cause some strong visceral reaction, let alone polarize the first audience to witness it. Now, those of us who were not lucky to go to Cannes this year get to watch the first trailer for “The House That Jack Built,” and it is made clear right away how this film is not at all for the faint of heart.

The trailer opens with Jack (Matt Dillon), an unrepentant serial killer, talking with Verge (Bruno Ganz) who I can only assume is a therapist of some kind. In their conversation, Jack assumes there are rules he must follow, but Verge assures him this is not the case but also says “don’t believe you’re going to tell me something I haven’t heard before.” But after I watched this trailer, I wondered if this would be the case. Many of us have grown up on serial killer movies like “The Silence of the Lambs,” “Seven” and “Copycat,” but this one seems a bit different and far more visceral than any I have seen in the past.

We see Jack pick up a lady played by Uma Thurman whose car has broken down. She holds a broken car jack in her hands, and she puts it down beside Jack once she gets in his car. From there, she talks openly about how she might have made a mistake getting into Jack’s car as he may very well be a serial killer. This reminded me of when a friend of mine shared his experience of watching “Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood” and of a particular female character who was there for the audience to utterly hate. When it looked like Jason was ready to kill her, my friend told me the audience started a chant of “kill the bitch, kill the bitch, kill the bitch,” and it looks like Von Trier is going for the same thing here as Thurman is just asking for Dillon to bash her head in with that car jack.

This trailer is filled with enough snippets to inform you “The House That Jack Built” will be an especially grisly adventure as Jack drags Thurman’s corpse into what looks like his secret lair, tortures another lady played by Riley Keough to where she screams helplessly, and takes aim at a pair of children and their mother. It should be clear before even watching this trailer that Von Trier is a filmmaker who never plays it safe, but those who are unware of this will be made very aware long before the last image.

For myself, there a couple of moments which stand out unforgettably. One is when Jack looks out the window of an apartment and yells how “nobody wants to help,” and the camera zooms out to where it looks like not a human being is in sight. The other comes when Jack says the following:

“Some people claim that the atrocities we commit in our fiction are those inner desires we cannot commit in our controlled civilization, so they are expressed instead through our art. I don’t agree. I believe heaven and hell are one and the same. The soul belongs to heaven and the body to hell.”

The way I see it, everyone has a dark side, and the world of art allows us to exorcise our most shameful desires. With “The House That Jack Built,” Von Trier gives us an individual who cannot separate the line between what is real and what is not, let alone fact and fiction. I have been a big admirer of this filmmaker since being introduced to his work through “Breaking the Waves,” and I cannot wait to see what he has in store for us here.

Please feel free to check out the trailer below at your own risk.

 

Exclusive Video Interview with Jonas Carpignano about ‘A Ciambra’

A Ciambra” was Italy’s official submission in the Foreign Language Film category for the 90th Academy Awards, and it was made in the heart of the country’s Romani community. A gritty coming of age story, it follows Pio Amato, a 14-year-old boy who is eager to grow up real fast. Pio spends his days smoking and drinking as well as following his older brother Cosimo (Damiano Amato) around town while learning the skills needed for survival in their hometown. While tensions between the different factions, the Italians, the African immigrants and his fellow Romani, remain high, Pio is able to slide through each in a way few others can. When Cosimo is arrested one night, Pio is quick to convince everyone he is more than ready to fill his older brother’s shoes and take care of things. But as the movie goes on, he wonders if he is truly ready to become a man.

“A Ciambra” was written and directed by Jonas Carpignano whose previous film, “Mediterranea” won various awards including Best Directorial Debut from the National Board of Review and the Gotham Award for Breakthrough Directing. What he has succeeded in doing here is giving us a motion picture which makes you feel like you are hanging out with these characters instead of just watching them from a distance. Carpignano combines biographical elements with documentary style filmmaking to give us something we experience more than anything else. There are not many movies like this one these days, and I will take them wherever I can get them.

Carpignano spent his childhood between Rome and New York City, and he currently lives in Italy where he continues his filmmaking endeavors. He was in Los Angeles to talk about “A Ciambra,” and it was a pleasure taking with him about how he went about making the film with non-professional actors. In addition, he spoke of what it was like to work alongside Martin Scorsese who is the film’s executive producer and of the most valuable piece of advice the “Goodfellas” director gave him.

“A Ciambra” opens in Los Angeles at Laemmle’s Royal Theater on February 2, 2018. Be sure to check out the interview above as well as the movie’s trailer below.

A Ciambra poster

Exclusive Video Interview with Matthew Heineman on ‘City of Ghosts’

City of Ghosts poster

Of the documentaries released in 2017, “City of Ghosts” is one of the most important to witness. It follows the journey of “Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently” (RBSS), a group of anonymous activists who came together after their peaceful hometown was taken over and decimated by ISIS in 2014. What results is a film which is as astonishing as it is harrowing to sit through. We watch as Raqqa goes from being a town whose inhabitants celebrate weddings for a whole week to one laid in ruins as the radical terrorist group ISIS uses every weapon available to suppress the population and silence those who would speak out against them. Despite being threatened by one of the greatest evils in the world today, this group of citizen journalists continue to stand up against the atrocities ISIS has committed, and the images they have captured show just how far they will go which includes executing the father of one of the journalists.

“City of Ghosts” was directed by Matthew Heineman who previously gave us “Cartel Land,” a documentary which examined the ongoing drug war at the U.S./Mexican border and of the vigilante groups fighting the Mexican drug cartels. Heineman was inspired to make a documentary about RBSS after reading an article about them in the New Yorker, and he managed to gain their trust very quickly to where it didn’t take long for filming to begin. We watch as these journalists and activists flee their homeland and struggle to keep their spirits up as the threat of death continues to hang over them no matter how far they manage to get away. Also, we view the horrifying footage they have captured of the horrific acts ISIS has committed in Raqqa which includes executing and crucifying its citizens in public view. What is shown cannot be easily erased from our minds, but these crimes of humanity need to be seen as this threat needs to be stopped, and the actions of RBSS need to be commended in a time when journalism is being attacked by those who do not want to hear the truth.

It was an honor to speak with Heineman while he was in Los Angeles to talk about “City of Ghosts,” and he spoke of how he became inspired to create this documentary as well as the current state of the war in Syria which will hopefully end sooner rather than later. Check out the interview below as well as the documentary’s trailer. “City of Ghosts” will make its streaming debut on Amazon starting October 13, 2017.

‘Antichrist’ Shakes You Like Few Movies Can

Antichrist movie poster

This review was written in 2009.

It’s been over a week now since I saw the latest cinematic provocation from Danish film director Lars Von Trier. What I witnessed in “Antichrist” is still on my mind, and it took me a long time to process all I saw. I found myself talking to complete strangers about it as we each tried to interpret the movie on our own terms. Some found it too long which had me wondering if they ever saw Von Trier’s “Dogville” which was three hours long (“Antichrist” is only 109 minutes). Some just didn’t get the story. Either way you look at it, “Antichrist” is to 2009 what Michael Haneke’s remake of “Funny Games” was to 2008; an immensely polarizing film people will have passionate disagreements on. I found it to be a completely mesmerizing experience which had me transfixed throughout its entire length.

“Antichrist” stars Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg in performances which don’t deserve Oscars as much as they do Purple Hearts. They play a married couple who are referred to as He and She, and the movie opens with them making love while their baby boy plays in his room. There is even a hardcore insertion added to the sex scene which may seem inappropriate to some, but it adds a raw carnality to a moment which makes it all the more immediate. Their lovemaking becomes equated with death as their son goes up to an open window, fascinated with the falling snowflakes, and ends up plummeting to his death. From there, “Antichrist” follows them as they cope with their son’s tragic death, but things get even worse. And just when you think they have hit rock bottom, things getting even worse than that. Yup, it’s that kind of movie.

It really helps to go into “Antichrist” with no expectations and an open mind because it will not be anything you predict it will be. So much attention has been paid to the unnervingly graphic moments to where you think Von Trier is trying to court fans of “Saw” and “Hostel.” But anyone expecting this will walk out of this movie horribly disappointed. “Antichrist” does not exist merely to shock viewers with copious amounts of blood and gore. Instead, Von Trier seeks to challenge the things you believe in, and he dares you to look beyond the darkness of our own human natures to get a glimpse of what he implies.

An ominous hum runs throughout this movie in the same way it runs through many of David Lynch’s films (“Lost Highway” and “Blue Velvet” among others). Dafoe’s character is a therapist, and his conflict of interest is clear from the start as he questions how his wife’s psychiatrist is treating her. The wife disagrees, telling him he shouldn’t get involved, but his love for her overrules everything else, including common sense. Almost immediately, he makes her flush her medication down the toilet, causing her a frightening amount of emotional upheaval. He then takes his wife to a cabin in the woods, which is ironically called “Eden” (it’s anything but). She finds this is the place which scares her the most, and he decides it will be the perfect place to try exposure therapy. By facing her greatest fears, he feels this will get her past the tragic loss of their son.

You would think Dafoe’s character has his wife’s best interests at heart, but the exposure therapy only exacerbates her grief and despair. We later discover her hold on reality is tenuous at best when He finds She has been working on a thesis regarding gynocide, which itself is a take on the word gendercide; referring to the systematic killings of a specific sex, in this case, women. He comes to see She has embraced the witchcraft of women and that they are seen as evil beings, something he quickly tries to disprove to her. But having made her emotional state even worse than it already is, He sees her grief has made her justify the punishment She inflicts on herself as She lets herself believe it is her fault their son died.

Von Trier has long been accused of rampant misogyny in his films, and yes, he does seem to put his actresses through an emotional wringer most of the time. But while “Antichrist” deals with misogynistic themes, it is not a misogynistic movie. I’m sure many will make a good that it is, but the film could also be interpreted as empowering in some respects. “Antichrist” does call into question how the female sex is viewed as nurturing and caring while the male sex is seen as stronger. But for the last half of the movie, even though She has gone completely mad, She seems to have all the power and proves to be anything but weak and helpless.

All of this led me to a big question when I walked out of the movie theater in my emotionally shaken state; who is the antichrist of the story? Many may see it as the Gainsbourg character in how She embraces the sexist teachings which She has been studying, and of how the stick figure in the movie’s title seems to look like a woman. But I felt this illustration was not gender specific in its design, so this makes it subject to interpretation. Neither character is of sound mind throughout the movie, and both deal with their soul-sucking grief in very unhealthy ways.

Nature itself is a huge character in this movie, and the majority of the action takes place there. The house which sits upon “Eden” is much like the one we have seen from the “Evil Dead” movies so you can see in advance how bad things will happen there. Maybe nature is the antichrist of because out there, the laws we live under don’t exist in the same way, and there is no order to be found in anything. “Antichrist” almost ends up being like “Deliverance” but without the demented hillbillies. No one is put in cages. This all leads to the moment where Dafoe encounters the fox who takes the time from disemboweling itself to utter the words which define the film, “Chaos reigns!”

This scene apparently led to much laughter in the audience at Cannes when “Antichrist” was shown there, but it is the most truthful and frightening of moments in the entire film. Whether or not you believe Gainsbourg’s character when She says “nature is Satan’s church,” it is clear the relationship between these two, let alone their state of minds, are descending into total chaos. Many movies show how nature can force us to discover the animalistic parts of ourselves, the parts we would rather not know about, and “Antichrist” is no exception.

I took some time to look at the definition of the word antichrist and what it really meant. According to Christianity, the antichrist is one who fulfills Biblical prophecies concerning an adversary of Christ while resembling him in a deceptive manner. Clearly, someone of sin, he or she opposes against anything that is worshiped, claiming divine authority. Most notably, this person also works all kinds of counterfeit miracles and signs. With this in mind, I can’t help but think Dafoe’s character is the antichrist of this movie, for he has taken his wife’s well-being into his hands thinking his experience trumps that of a younger doctor. He rails against all which is medically sound, and he subjects his wife to unnecessary torment despite his intent to help her. If he really thinks exposure therapy is the way to handle things, I wonder how it worked with his other patients who were not family related.

Much of what we see in “Antichrist” is open to interpretation. Von Trier has not gone out of his way to try and justify what he has shown us. There is a story at work here, but its meanings will be different for those who dare to see it. Watching this movie reminded me of when I was a student at UC Irvine and saw a production of David Mamet’s “Oleanna.” It was a play which focused on a meeting between a male professor and one of his female students whom he gave a bad grade to. At the end of it, no one could decide who was more at fault. It frustrated many because the play seemed to be devoid of a straight answer, but this was the point. One made the play so great was how thought provoking it was. It made you think about what you just saw, and it expanded how you saw certain things and maybe gave you a deeper understanding of the world around you more than ever before.

“Antichrist” gave me this same kind of experience, and I can’t remember the last time I had one like it. Most movies today don’t challenge you out of fear of offending too many paying customers they depend on, so as emotionally draining as this film is, it still feels s like a victory something this artful actually got made. It is meant to shake you, and that it did to me. Many will hate the film, but for those filmgoers who are far more adventurous in what they watch, I think there is much they can appreciate.

Is there anything audiences can come to agreement on with “Antichrist”? Well, one thing’s sure; you cannot deny the astonishing beauty of the cinematography on display. The director of photography is Anthony Dod Mantle, the same cinematographer who shot “Slumdog Millionaire.” The opening prologue stands out as one of the most beautiful pieces of film I have ever seen. The juxtaposition of He and She making love while their son ends up falling from his bedroom window is as lovely as it is horrifically tragic. Mantle also gives us some incredible dreamlike shots which capture the beauty of nature while hinting at the inescapable darkness lingering beneath the surface. I somehow doubt that I will see more beautiful imagery in any other movie I see for the rest of 2009.

What else can we agree on about “Antichrist”? Ah yes, the performances! Both Dafoe and Gainsbourg rise up to the unthinkable challenges Von Trier lays at their feet. What they both do here almost seems criminal were they not such willing participants. Both actors are known for taking big risks, so this makes them well suited to take on material so emotionally naked.

Gainsbourg won the Best Actress award at the Cannes Film Festival, and she clearly deserved it. Ironically enough, she also appeared in a production of David Mamet’s “Oleanna,” and she played the title character in the 1996 version of “Jane Eyre.” Her opening intro from “The Cement Garden” was used in one of my all-time favorite Madonna songs, “What It Feels Like for A Girl.” Throughout her career, she has disappeared into her characters with an abandon you don’t find in many other actors. Her performance in “Antichrist” shows her at the peak of her powers, but I’m sure there is greater work we will see from her in the future.

But let us not leave out Dafoe who can add his role here to the many great ones he has played. His character is a witness to an unspeakable despair, and he does not hide the fact his character deals with this despair in ways which are selfish more than anything else. Dafoe’s career has spanned several decades, and it includes controversial movies like “Mississippi Burning” and “The Last Temptation of Christ.” Dafoe’s mission and intent as an actor has never been to simply get under your skin, but to explore the darker parts of humanity so we can better understand them. He is unhindered by the trappings of stardom and glamor, and he continues to take chances with movies like this one.

Von Trier may not be “the greatest director in the world” as he proclaims whenever given the opportunity, but he is certainly one of the best directors working today. Watching his movies, you can understand why there is actually a benefit to people booing his material. Were a film like this were not generating strong emotions such as booing, this film would have been a failure for him. Art, be it in film or in paintings, serves to challenge the things we believe in, and that is what Von Trier has done here.

“Antichrist” is a movie which takes its time in getting to where it’s going as opposed to going for a quick payoff like most movies do. If you can keep up with its slow pace, you will be in for a movie as mesmerizing as it is psychologically draining.  Many will it intensely, but I count myself as one of its defenders. For me, this is far and away one of the best movies of 2009. But like both sides, I will warn you this is not a movie for everybody. If you are easily offended or not in the mood for something deeply disturbing, then don’t see “Antichrist.”

* * * * out of * * * *

 

Exclusive Interview with Ben Ketai about ‘Beneath’

Ben Katei

He has made a place for himself in the horror genre with the “30 Days of Night: Dust to Dust” miniseries and the web series “Chosen.” Now with “Beneath,” Ben Ketai breaks into the feature film realm with a story about a bunch of coal miners who get trapped several hundred feet underground after a catastrophic accident. The movie stars Jeff Fahey as veteran coal miner who spends the last day on the job with his co-workers and his daughter Samantha (Kelly Noonan) when the accident happens, and they have to work together to escape the mine before madness and toxic gasses kill them.

I got to speak with Ketai over the phone, and it was great fun talking with him as he explained what it was like working with Fahey, the challenges of maintaining a strong level of suspense for ninety minutes, and the research he did on coal miners for this movie. “Beneath” might look like your typical horror movie, but in many ways, it isn’t.

Beneath movie poster

Ben Kenber: I thought this movie was very riveting and I like how you managed to keep the suspense up until the very end. How much of a challenge was it to maintain that suspense from start to finish? It could not have been easy.

Ben Ketai: One of the challenges when doing a horror movie like this where you are stuck in one space for the entire film, and I give all the credit to Chris (Valenziano) and Patrick (Doody), the writers, is figuring out how to build a proper level of escalation that keeps the story moving without breaking the suspense until the very, very end. It definitely makes my job much easier when you have a creative group of people like that.

Ben Kenber: This is definitely an interesting story for a horror movie. There have been a lot of stories in the news over the past years of mines collapsing and miners being trapped for an agonizing period of time. Was there a specific event that inspired the story for this film?

Ben Ketai: It was really, for Patrick and Chris, the Chilean coal miners and what they went through was the first seedlings of the idea. And then while they were working on it, I think there were a couple more incidents that came along and so we had a lot of different unfortunate happenings that allowed us to draw inspiration from. A lot the inspiration for the film also comes from just coal miners who haven’t been in collapses, and Chris and Patrick did extensive research while writing the script talking to coal miners and visiting coal mines in West Virginia. We had a recently retired coal miner talk to our cast before production. It was like a little seminar on what it’s like to be a coal miner. There were lots of wonderful sources of inspiration.

Ben Kenber: Where exactly was this movie shot? It looks like a real coal mine, but I came out of it not knowing if it was actually a movie set or not.

Ben Ketai: We actually shot it on a soundstage in Culver City, and pretty much everything you see inside the mine was constructed by our brilliant and very resourceful production designer Michael Barton.

Ben Kenber: At times, I thought it looked so real.

Ben Ketai: I had to remind myself sometimes when we were actually on set. I would start to get claustrophobic, and I had to remind myself that we were on a soundstage and that there was sunlight outside.

Ben Kenber: While watching “Beneath,” I was reminded of a number of other movies like “The Descent” where a group of women went cave dwelling and encountered a bunch of vicious monsters. Was there any movie which inspired you or played through your mind while you were making “Beneath?”

Ben Ketai: We actively tried to avoid “The Descent” and other movies like it because we knew it would draw such strong comparisons just because of the subject matter. But of course we watched “The Descent” and we looked at what works best in that movie, and then also what signifies what that movie is and what that movie looks like it feels like. It sounds too derivative, but while making the movie and immersed in the experience I tried to pull from movies that aren’t actually entirely of the genre. I wanted to try to put something more human to the horror experience. Honestly, one of the movies that my crew and I watched the night before we shot was “Friday Night Lights” simply because it’s a film to me that just does a great job of capturing real camaraderie, and also it has a very piece of life feel to it. That was something that we wanted to bring to a movie like this and to try to make the characters feel like real people that we love and care about, and if we can do that then the horror is going to take care of itself. “The Wrestler” was another movie we watched, and it did such a great job of getting the camera to capture the world of wrestling in such a personal way. I wanted to do that same thing with coal miners and have that same sensation.

Ben Kenber: I’m assuming that you did a lot of research on coal miners and mining accidents, and I imagine that when you have a lack of oxygen down there beneath the earth that you start seeing things that may or may not actually be there. What kind of research did you do in preparation for directing this film?

Ben Ketai: All sorts really. The writers had a great head start obviously and they worked on the script for about a year and a half. When I came onto the project just a couple months out from production, they kind of dumped all the research into my lap and I had to do a crash course and catch up fast with them. We were developing the script through craft and with the actors. We just gathered as much information as we could about what happens to your brain during oxygen deprivation, and not only that but what happens when you were trapped in a coal mine. It’s not just that you are running out of oxygen, but the air itself is becoming toxic. There are always toxic gasses that are leaking into the coal mine, and usually if the mine hasn’t collapsed there is stuff that extracts that from the working environment. When the collapse happens, it basically cuts off their flow of fresh air, and things like methane and poisonous gasses continue to build up. All the crazy things that can happen to you like hallucinations to total personality changes, that was really the most exciting thing to me. We had this great device that creates a real-life thing that could explain away all those supernatural things. We really wanted to make it all ambiguous, and we did.

Ben Kenber: The cast for this movie is really spot on. All the actors look like they have worked in a mine for a long, long time. What was it like casting this film?

Ben Ketai: The casting process on this movie was awesome. It was probably the most enjoyable process that I ever had working on movies because we didn’t have a studio looking over our shoulder and we didn’t have foreign sales companies to answer to. So we really just got to do it the old school way and we just had auditions. We really took our time to figure out who were the best people to embody these characters, and we managed to assemble what I felt was a cast of just all incredibly talented and incredibly realistic people/actors.

Ben Kenber: What was it like working with Jeff Fahey?

Ben Ketai: It was a really, really incredible experience. I’ve always been a fan of his. I was probably 12 years old when I first saw “Lawnmower Man.” I grew up with Jeff Fahey. It’s kind of a dream to get to work with a guy like this, and not only that but he’s got so many years of experience under his belt and so much passion for his craft that working with him is sort of like… You turn him loose in a scene and his energy and his expertise kind of permeates to the rest of the cast. I think it really helped pull everything together. I feel like, as a director, I’m just lucky to be able to put that in front of the camera.

Ben Kenber: Robert Rodriguez once said having less money to work with forces you to be more creative. Was that the case for you on this movie, and did you have to cut any corners to get the shots that you wanted?

Ben Ketai: It definitely forces you to be more creative, and I really actually think in many ways it’s what gives the movie its voice and personality. We had to spend so much money building the set itself because we couldn’t film in a coal mine. There really wasn’t much left for anything else. When I came onto the film as director, my first role was to try to make everything feel as real as possible. Myself and Tim Burton, my cinematographer, we wanted to make it feel like we were down in the coal mine with flashlights and headlamps. So what you actually see onscreen is lit with practical lights. Instead of spending our time and our electric budget on a huge lighting truck like you would get on a big studio movie, we were at Home Depot looking at different kinds of flashlights.

I want to thank Ben Ketai for taking the time to talk with me. “Beneath” is now available to own and rent on DVD, Blu-ray, and Digital.

Exclusive Interview with Kyle Patrick Alvarez about ‘The Stanford Prison Experiment’

kyle-patrick-alvarez-directing-stanford-prison-experiment

Kyle Patrick Alvarez’s “The Stanford Prison Experiment” takes us back to the year 1971 when psychology professor Philip Zimbardo (played in the movie by Billy Crudup) conducted the infamous experiment which had 24 students playing the roles of prisoners and guards in a makeshift prison located in the basement of the school’s psychology building. Things start off well, but the experiment soon goes out of control when the guards become increasingly abusive to the prisoners, and Zimbardo is unwilling to stop their brutality as he is infinitely curious to see what it will produce. Zimbardo was out to test his hypothesis of how the personality traits of prisoners and guards are the chief cause of abusive behavior between them. The experiment was supposed to last fourteen days, but it ended after 6.

What results is one of the most intense moviegoing experiences from the year 2015 as a cast of actors including Ezra Miller, Tye Sheridan, Michael Angarano, and Logan Miller find themselves caught up in the experiment’s grip to where the line between reality and fiction is completely blurred. Whereas previous films have observed this experiment from an academic standpoint, this one observes it from an emotional one.

I got to talk with Kyle while he was in Los Angeles to promote “The Stanford Prison Experiment.” His previous films as writer and director were “C.O.G.” in which a cocky young man travels to Oregon to work on an apple farm, and “Easier with Practice” which tells the tale of a novelist going on a road trip with his younger brother to promote his unpublished novel.

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Ben Kenber: “The Stanford Prison Experiment” is one of the most movies you don’t watch as much as you experience.

Kyle Patrick Alvarez: I’m finding that out, yeah (laughs).

BK: There are only so many movies you can say that about. “Deliverance” is a good example of that.

KPA: I was really humbled. When the movie first played I think the first question at the Q&A was, “Did you feel like this movie was an experiment on the audience?” I was so taken aback by the question not in a negative way, but because no one had seen the movie before. I was actually working so hard to not overburden the audience with the story. We even tempered it down a lot. They were stripping guys by the end of day one. I think by the end it’s supposed to become burdensome to watch, and I embrace it now that that’s the reaction, but I didn’t know that that was going to be the case. So the first time the movie screened I was like. okay, it is playing this way to people and I know I can just embrace that now which is good. I hope not every movie I make is like that, but hopefully the movie earns it and then people appreciate the challenge of the experience of watching it.

BK: I remember hearing about this particular experiment while I was in a psychology class in college, and we even watched a documentary about it as well. The one thing that stood out to me the most was when the prisoners started saying “prisoner 819 did a bad thing,” and they kept saying it over and over. I kept waiting for that moment to come up in this movie.

KPA: Oh yeah. I felt like that was one of the really iconic things that you hear. You can hear it over and over and over again in your head, and I think we even joked at one point that they could release a teaser that was just that over and over again. That was interesting to me. As I read the script I had all these things that seemed larger than life, and when you read about it or saw the footage you’re like oh these things really did happen. The Frankenstein walk, to me, is so bizarre and so odd, yet it’s a real thing. To try to make a film that embodies that sort of spirit was hopefully the aim.

BK: This movie is “based on a true story,” but you didn’t use that phrase at the start of it. I was glad you didn’t because this phrase has long since lost its meaning.

KPA: I kind of fought for that a little bit actually. My whole argument was that marketing is going to say it no matter what. I’m a firm believer that you want the movie to stand on its own regardless of marketing, but at the same time I just don’t know anyone that would go to a movie called The Stanford Prison Experiment and not know anything about it and not know it was based on a true thing. I talked about it when I first got involved in the film that “based on a true story” means nothing anymore. The movie I was using for an example was the one where Eric Bana plays a cop who is hunting demons in New York City (“Deliver Us from Evil”), and the trailer says it was “based on a true story.” There are demons in New York; we know this as fact, right? There are not people who hunt demons in New York. Maybe there’s someone who said he does once, but that doesn’t mean it is based on a true story. So, it just doesn’t mean anything to people anymore and it doesn’t carry any weight or value. I tried to think of some other vernacular it could be. I didn’t want it to be like this is a true story because then that says everything in it is true, which is a lie. As soon as you make a movie on anything, nothing in it is true anymore.

BK: With movies based on real events there are dramatic liberties taken, but with this one it sounds like that wasn’t entirely the case.

KPA: I think we reduced the dramatic liberties quite a bit. I think if you look at a movie, for example, like “Lincoln” which takes voting public record and changes it. I don’t mean to slam the film, I like the film quite a bit, but when they’re voting they change the numbers to make it more suspenseful. I don’t think we took any liberties anywhere near that extreme. Maybe some people who were in the experiment could argue that it wasn’t really that intense or something like that. Others may argue that the intensity comes from putting the camera in their faces or the artistic representation of it. Two of our biggest liberties are when Ezra (Miller) and Brett (Davern) escape the prison. In real life the guy really did take a panel off. He was a guitar player and took the panel off with a sundial, broke the lock and I think they tried to open a door, but a guard was there and admonished them and told them that they had to fix the lock. We added an extra couple hundred feet. When we were doing that we said that we were gonna add this chase sequence because the movie needs to breathe and open up a bit. I thought Tim (Talbott) had done a really good job with that in the script. But then when Phil (Zimbardo) comes around and the other guys, there’s a reason we never see them touch them because they didn’t. That was where we were embellishing a little bit for the sake of the narrative, but we’re not abandoning the fundamentals of what this experiment was about. Those guys did not touch them or physically harass them so we didn’t show that, and having Phil involved was a really good and constant reminder of what those fundamentals are that we shouldn’t change. The ending, when they called it off, actually Phil and Christina kind of said that they needed to call this off and they came up with a plan to do it professionally. For me, you show that and there is an anti-climactic nature to that. I think the emotions are real and that they were being felt, and we just put them in at different times for the ending. I was really interested in making a film that could hold up. If you sit down and watch the documentary “Quiet Rage,” you will go oh, that is actually pretty similar. I didn’t want to make a movie that would replace that or replace “The Lucifer Effect.” I wanted to make a film that would work in tandem with those where it would feel like you could gain something a little more emotional and different than if you just did the academia side.

BK: The actors are all fantastic in the movie and they each give very intense performances. Watching them made me wonder if the movie was an experiment on them.

KPA: In a weird way, I almost wish I had this story to make interviews more exciting about these kids became their characters and I became like Zimbardo. But the truth was I think I was actually overtly aware of that potential, and actually it would have worked so hard against us. If you ask any of the guys, they will say that they had a lot of fun. You only have two options: either go down the path where everyone has fun and everyone gets along, or you gotta push it to go really extreme. I am not a big manipulator. If an actor wants me to manipulate them I will work with that, but on this film it was one of those things where it’s like when the camera’s rolling we’re on, and when it’s off be respectful. Some guys might need more space and might want to stay in character a little bit more, but it never took on the form of the experiment. We did spend two and a half weeks in that hallway, and we were sick of the hallway. We were ready to be done. Sure, some feelings were created, but I told them everyone every day that this is like a soccer game where we all shake hands at the end. So if something is going on that you’re not comfortable with, just say it. I said that probably more to the guards than the prisoners, but once it came down to doing those few physical things in the movie the actors loved it. Nick and Ezra had worked together before so they already respected each other, and they would just run through their scenes and had such a blast. For me, in a weird way we actually worked against that, and I think consequently the actors look back on it very fondly. I also think we got, for the nature of the movie and the tight shooting schedule, better stuff from them because they just felt more invigorated. I would just love to be able to build a career out of actors having good experiences. That’s my favorite party of the process, working with actors. I admire what they do so much because I never could, so it’s honoring that by working to each person. But this is the first time I ever did an ensemble piece and it was a little more about telling them hey this is what it’s going to be like, hey it’s not going to get out of control, guards you are going to follow the script and if you want to push something a little bit more than we’ll talk about it as opposed to unleashing them. There have been previous iterations of this project where that had been the aim where they try to create this potboiler environment where the actors really lose it, but I think what you get with that is more of a machismo quality. I jokingly refer to it as the David Ayer effect. I like his movies so it’s not a slam on them at all, but he’s making testosterone and there’s no doubt about it. I actually was more interested in making the inverse of that. The set was like a frat house, but the aggression was coming from a more complicated place. There wasn’t any actual physical violence. When you look closely at the movie there is no drop of blood other than one or two moments. No one was physically hurt, and so we were really careful to honor that while still creating tension.

BK: One interesting scene is when Ezra Miller’s character gets arrested as part of the experiment. He treats it like it’s no big deal at first, but then the cops slam his head on the car and his mood changes instantly.

KPA: They really did get real cops and they said arrest these guys like they are really criminals. This is something we didn’t have the money to shoot, but they actually took them to the police station and fingerprinted them and booked them and took photos of them and everything. They really put them through this simulation and it really got to them. The cops were really putting paper bags on their heads. Someone criticized the film once saying that they used too much on the nose imagery from Abu Ghraib, specifically referring to the bags. I was like no, no, no, Abu Ghraib just did the same exact thing.

BK: It seems like certain audience members need to be reminded that the Stanford Prison Experiment took place long before Abu Ghraib.

KPA: Oh yeah. It’s one of those stories that’s too bizarre to be true. It’s hard to accept that it was true. I knew there was no way to succeed 100% on this but I tried to work the hardest to make a film that didn’t just always say, “Well it really did happen.” That’s not enough of an answer when you make a movie like this because you have to make the audience feel like it could have happened. I wanted it to be like, “Well I understand why it happened.”

BK: By the time the movie gets to day three, it feels like we have been with these guys for a month.

KPA: Yeah (laughs), that’s how they felt too. They really did not know how many days had passed. They weren’t sleeping which I think was the biggest thing. You can go 36 hours without sleep when you start to legitimately lose your mind, and I think that’s a huge part of what happened.

BK: The Stanford Prison Experiment was supposed to last two weeks, but it ended up being shut down after 6 days. Some have said that it wasn’t because the experiment wasn’t successful, but that it was too successful. Would you say that was the case?

KPA: I think once you talk about success of the experiment you start to bring into the question its true purpose and its ethics. I was really interested in pushing questions of things like that in the movie. At the same time, I didn’t want to fall into the question of, was this okay? People are still arguing the exact same things, so I figured we are never going to solve this. 40 years later people are still arguing whether this experiment succeeded or not or whether it should have never have ever been done in the first place. What we do know now is that the experiment would never be allowed to happen today. It was military financed. Partly because of the experiment, there are so many more checks and balances in place. When I first sat down with Billy (Crudup), one of the things he said was, “How could everyone be so naïve to not realize this would happen?” And I said, “Well of course, they could have because it hadn’t happened yet.” Now it’s easier for us to go, “Well, of course, it would have gone wrong. What were they thinking?” They were doing experiments like this all the time; simulations or recreations. This was just part of what psychologists were doing at the time. This was the time it just really imploded.

BK: That’s a good point. Ever since then we have a better understanding of the power dynamic between prisoners and guards more than ever before.

KPA: Yeah, and that’s why I added a line at the end when Billy is talking to the camera. He says, “There was no sense of precedent. We didn’t know this was going to happen.” I thought that was a really important element.

I want to thank Kyle Patrick Alvarez for taking the time to talk to me. “The Stanford Prison Experiment” is now available to own and rent on DVD, Blu-ray, and Digital.