Tag Archives: thomas mann

The Highwaymen

In 1934, the infamous criminal duo Bonnie & Clyde were seemingly unstoppable. Their crime spree was turning more serious and their body count higher each day. Though they enjoyed almost movie-star status in certain circles, they were an embarrassment to the law enforcement they continued to evade – including Hoover’s FBI men.

The Texas Rangers have long since been disbanded – too lawless, too unsupervised. But Lee Simmons (John Carroll Lynch) manages to convince Texas governor Ma Ferguson (Kathy Bates) that since her new police force has proved ineffectual, perhaps what is needed is just a couple of highwaymen, doing things the old fashioned way.

Frank Hamer (Kevin Costner) chafes in his retirement, and though he hasn’t even held a MV5BMjM2NDg5NjQzMV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMzMyNzI5NjM@._V1_SY1000_SX1500_AL_gun in his hand in years, he doesn’t take much convincing. Maney Gault (Woody Harrelson) is a little more reluctant but pride is a tricky thing.

Following Bonnie & Clyde’s bloody trail is a complicated thing. These criminals are hailed as heroes by some, protected by family and friends. The men discuss whether they could shoot a woman, if it came to that. Neither really want it to come to that, but a job is a job is a job. It’s morally muddy ground maybe, but the script is a little shy about saying so, so it merely tiptoes around these dirty puddles, relying too heavily on the grizzled buddy-cop dynamic of Costner and Harrelson. And it’s not a bad dynamic at that: the two do a good job of seeming beaten down by their lives and their choices. But the movie plays it safe, and frankly, sometimes boring. Well, not boring, exactly, but not nearly as jittery and exciting as you might think literally any movie remotely associated with Bonnie & Clyde would be. But that’s the rub, isn’t it? Police work isn’t all car chases and whizzing bullets. Nor was Bonnie and Clyde’s life of crime nearly as glamourous as it was made out to be at the time. The actual truth is lost to us – no witnesses are alive today, and those that talked at the time tended to conflict each other’s stories quite a bit.

I imagine this movie will appeal most to a certain demographic: those inclined to beaten-up recliners and canned nuts. It’s a bit of a dad movie.

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TIFF18: The Land of Steady Habits

Anders is mid-life-crisis-ing, hard. He left his wife, quit his job, sleeps with strangers he meets in Bed, Bath & Beyond while shopping for knick-knacks to fill his empty shelves. BUT HE’S STILL NOT HAPPY! Can you believe that abandoning everything you spent your lifetime building is not the path to true happiness? Can you imagine that the real problem was him all along?

I mean, those thoughts haven’t occurred to Anders (Ben Mendelsohn) yet. He’s a man. He’s not that quick. In fact, he’s slow and dumb enough to get high with someone else’s son. Charlie (Charlie Tehan) barely survives an overdose but shows up at Anders’ new bachelor pad looking for…friendship? Anders should know better; his own son PrestonMV5BMWZlMjZiMGItMjBhZS00YTlhLTlkMDgtNDc3Y2NkOTc2OGViXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyODI4MjAzNjU@._V1_ (Thomas Mann) has been to rehab and apparently still has a problem that isn’t quite addressed. But if his own son isn’t really his problem, why should someone else’s be?

So that doesn’t go well. Nothing does. The Land of Steady Habits is drenched in suburban angst, dripping with the failure of men, both young and old. Director Nicole Holofcener has a knack for eliciting career-best performances from her actors, and Ben Mendelsohn is no exception. His little idiosyncrasies, that devilish grin, they keep the character just shy of being unforgivable. Still, Anders is not meant to be liked. He gambled on the grass being greener and it isn’t. His discontent seems to poison those around him. Ah, the listlessness of the wealthy. It makes it so easy to sit back and judge, guilt-free.

Holofcener makes some interesting choices – notably, that Anders has already shed his previous life when we meet him. And he’s already finding the new one to be hollow. And we experience his search for meaning to be quite petty and superficial. Mendelsohn subverts his usual simmering anger to suggest an inner tension as he navigates relations with his son, ex-wife (Edie Falco), and new love (Connie Britton), with bitter, sometimes humourous results.

The Land of Steady Habits is a good character study that’s a bit uneven as a dramedy. Holofcener tends to be restrained. Sometimes that’s wonderful, and sometimes it’s a little frustrating. This movie seethes with ennui, shame, and regret, and nobody gets a free pass.

Our House

Our-House-TrailerOur House is a retelling of the age-old cautionary tale about the dangers of science. As we all know, science experiments’ most common outcomes are monsters, ghosts, and superviruses, with temporal paradoxes or dimensional portals being all-too-common as well.

Despite the known risks of science, Ethan (Thomas Mann) has to experiment and push the envelope anyway, consequences be damned, as he works on his wireless electricity machine. The Fly poster on the wall of Ethan’s garage/lab is a sure sign that his science project is a risky one, bound for disaster, and he should know better. Even so, for a while it seems like Ethan’s project might actually work, since when his machine is on his little sister can talk to recently deceased loved ones, but inevitably, much more sinister beings begin to make their presence felt.

IMG_2042Full disclosure: I was fortunate  to watch this film with a ferocious guard dog on my lap, so I knew I could handle whatever scares were thrown my way. You likely will not have that same advantage, at least while Our House is in theatres. But even without the dog, the first hour of this movie will be bearable for everyone, including scaredy-cats like Jay. There’s not any significant tension in this film until the final third of the movie, but that last third contains a very suspenseful sequence that made me wish the intensity had been raised sooner, to allow for a longer showdown with the ghosts.

Leaving me wanting more is not a bad thing, and the movie is right to lean heavily on the family drama aspect with its very strong young cast including Mann, Percy Hynes-White, and Kate Moyer. It’s just that a few more ghosts would have made this movie more memorable, because it’s when those ghosts are actively pursuing Ethan and his family that Our House is at its best.

Brain On Fire

Susannah is working her dream job at a newspaper in New York City, but just as it seems as though the 21 year old has it all together – a cute apartment, a musician boyfriend, and a hot assignment from her boss things start to go wonky.

A super caring (read: sarcasm) doctor diagnoses her with “partying too hard” based on the one glass of wine she cops to drinking occasionally but something’s definitely up and whatever it is, it ain’t that. She’s not acting like herself. She zones out. She convulses with seizures. What the heck is happening with Susannah?

MV5BNjE4OTcyZDUtN2Y0My00NzlhLWJhODgtMjZlMTNjNzU0ZDIzXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNDkwNTM3OTA@._V1_In theory this is an interesting little mystery, but on tape it’s surprisingly boring. Chloe Grace Moretz “acts” a great range of symptoms by making crazy eyes and flaring her nostrils while we maintain a polite distance. In fact, there’s such a remove that’s built-in it kind of makes me feel like I’m visiting my own sick relative and just nosily eavesdropping on Susannah’s shit.

I read the book on which this movie is based and it didn’t really light my fire either. Not to make light of her disease, but I sort of think a brain on fire is preferable to what this movie did to mine, ie, turned it into pea soup. Now I’m going to have to stand on one foot and hop up and down trying to mushify those peas and get them draining out the various holes in my face. You know, best case scenario.

Anyway, I’m sure there’s some weird network on television that airs diseases of the week, and that’ll be no worse than this, but your expectations should be more realistically aligned. This movie is just a no for me. I would have rather spent the time in the waiting room of my local ER – at least as long as there are KitKats in the vending machine.

The Heyday of the Insensitive Bastards

Seven stories. Self-contained, based on short stories from Robert Boswell’s collection. They have some commonalities, I suppose: toeing the line between fantasy and reality, or the gray area between memory and what really happened. Inventing shit when we’re young and have no experience. Blurring reality when we’re old and looking back. Life is bittersweet. We’re all bastards sometimes. It just depends on the day.

Conrad (James Franco) identifies his father’s dead body and is comforted by his death, comforted by the fact that he wasn’t the only one his father wanted to kill.

Paul (Jim Parrack) goes home to visit his father, whom he barely recognizes. Dementia has taken him further and further away from the man he used to be. All that seems to be left is his meanness, and even knowing it’s the product of disease doesn’t quite mitigate it. It cuts particularly close to home when it involves Paul’s ex wife (Natalie Portman) and the kid who looks disturbingly just like him.

Monica (Kristen Wiig) is a single mother who works as a maid. She gets through the day by fantasizing about using her wealthy clients’ lives as inspiration for the writing that will make her rich and famous one day.

A huge cast, including Kate Mara, Amber Tamblyn, Thomas Mann, Matthew Modine, Rico Rodriguez, Tony Cox, Jimmy Kimmel, and Keir Gilchrist assembles to pull this thing together, along with more than 7 writers and more than 7 directors. The stories are not uniformly good, or uniformly  memorable, and though I enjoyed some, I don’t think they really mean much as a whole.

 

 

The Preppie Connection

A gifted teenager from a working-class family gets accepted into a hqdefaultfancy prep school, with scholarship, without ever having applied. His mother has certain pretensions you see, and wants to see her family move up in the world. So she did the applying, and the accepting, for him (her depression and classic guilt trips assure compliance). But Tobey (Thomas Mann) knows he doesn’t belong there – “Before I even started Sage, I knew he was finished.”

A Columbian exchange student lets him know how to fit in (copious amounts of Lacoste go a long way – it’s 1984) and a pretty blonde girl, Alex, (Lucy Fry) gives him the motivatiimagesCAZ3G5GCon to stay. She’s in love with the preppiest, poppiest collar of them all though, so that spells trouble. How to get into the inner circle? Well, keeping in mind it’s 1984, Tobey figures it out pretty quickly: cocaine. Lots and lots of blow.

This movie is actually based on a true story of how a high school kid smuggled $300k of uncut cocaine into the US (remember that conveniently Columbian friend he made on the first day of school?).

You may have cut school once or twice in your day. What kind of shenanigans did you get up to? Pot? Sex? Soap operas? This kid flies to a foreign country and makes friends with a drug cartel. You can probably guess that things kind of get out of hand. The reason to watch this movie is to find out two things:

  1. Did he have fun while it lasted?
  2. Was it all worth it?

I really liked Thomas Mann in Me and Earl & The Dying Girl, and Screen+Shot+2014-10-27+at+8_44_22+PMagain in The Stanford Prison Experiment (he even popped up in Welcome to Me); this kid is someone to keep your eyes on. He’s excellent in this, effortless.

Director Joseph Castelo went to boarding school himself in the 80s, and remembers hearing about this story. Ultimately, it broke on 60 Minutes and then the whole country knew, and were aghast. Reflecting on his own experience, Castelo says “I was looking back on many of my own experiences and my own feelings of being an outsider in a boarding school. I wasn’t from a wealthy family and I was experiencing culture shock when I went to boarding school, just like Tobey experiences culture shock. You know you very much want to be a part of tThe+Preppie+Connection+Casthose circles, and it’s like any kid in high school, you need to figure out what’s the way in, how do I get into that inner circle, how do I become a part of this system that you have suddenly been thrust into and either you rebel against it or you work at being a part of it, and in a way, Tobey did both which is interesting. It made me think about my own impulses and my own thoughts and feelings when I was in boarding school. It really was cathartic. I really did feel like I worked through a lot of my own life.”

Sam Bisbee, the film’s music composer, adds his own personal touch, having worked and toured during the 80s. He says he “jumped at the chance” to work on the film because “the world and universe of the film is the same universe I grew up in, at almost the same time as the film’s setting. In the mid 1980’s I was a boarding school student at a New England prep school, and this was the time when I fell in love with music (I, also, clearly remember when the real life scandal happened at Choate).”

This film debuted just a few weeks ago at the Hamptons Film Festival, and was an excellent choice for the New Hampshire Film Festival as well. It’s not your average coming of age story, but it’s funny how even a rags to riches high school drug kingpin can still feel relatable and familiar. Maybe it has something to do with the intimacy of the film – it feels like we’re very close to Tobey. We know what he’s thinking before he says the words. We’re really inside his head, but there’s a cinematic wash, an 80s patina if you will, that still gives the movie an interesting sense of style.

I really enjoyed this one, and I’m pretty sure you will too. It’s playing at the St. Lawrence International Film Festival this weekend – Saturday October 24th in Potsdam, where it is receiving the inaugural Empire State Award, for excellence in filmmaking for either a New York Story or a New York Filmmaker. I’ll keep you posted on its wide release date – this is an independent movie that deserves to find its audience.

The Stanford Prison Experiment

NEgmvND20hOojj_1_bIn 1971 at Stanford University, psychology professor Philip Zimbardo set up a 2 week experiment wherein Stanford students were recruited and paid $15 a day to either be a prisoner, or a prison guard. This ‘experiment’ was aimed to find whether inherent personality traits of prisoners or guards are the primary cause of the abusive behaviour that happens in prisons. The students were screened to exclude those with criminal backgrounds, questionable mental health, or medical problems. They were all deemed stable. Prisoners and guards were established by the flip of a coin.

Professor Zimbardo designed the experiment in order to maximize the depersonalization of participants – prisoners wore sac dresses and caps; guards wore uniforms and sunglasses. He imposed one rule: there was to be no physical assault of the prisoners. Very quickly, however, the participants’ behaviours exceeded beyond what Zimbardo could have imagined. Within hours, those in the role of guard were enforcing authoritarian rules to such an extent that some prisoners were subjected to psychological torture. The prisoners, disoriented, mostly passively accepted the abuse, and could be induced to taunt those that didn’t.

After just 36 hours, one ‘prisoner’ had to be released due to increasingly erratic behaviour. Fully stanford-movie-poster-919x517 a third of the ‘guards’ exhibited sadistic behaviour to the ‘prisoners’ who, keep in mind, were student volunteers just like themselves. They stripped them, degraded them, exerted them, bullied them, disturbed their sleep. It became an exercise in cruelty that the professor, reluctant to look away from his precious and costly little experiment, was forced to call off after just 6 days.

As a student of psychology, I poured over this data and watched a lot of the footage, fascinated and horrified. We don’t just study this in behavioural psychology, we also study it in ethics. Why? This ‘study’ would not pass muster today, not by a long shot, not by 87 prison yards stacked back to back. Zimbardo was not much of a scientist or researchers. The MOMENT his ‘experiment’ (and you see by my quotations how I long not to call it that) veered away from predicted boundaries and went straight towardSPX DANGEROUS situations, he should have hit the brakes. Instead, he put kids in psychologically damaging situations. Kids who were making $15 a day and didn’t fully understand that they could walk away. FIVE of eighteen had to be removed early because of emotional trauma – and I remind you this lasted only 6 of the 14 intended days.

Luckily a grad student convinced Zimbardo that not only was he passively allowing these unethical acts (and HELLO – as psychologists, we’re supposed to HEAL not damage!), but that he himself had become absorbed by his role as the “superintendent” of the prison. He had lost all objectivity. This whole experiment was a waste – because he could not remain neutral, any stanford-movie-poster-919x517observations that we can make are subjective and anecdotal at best (let alone impossible to reproduce!).

If this sounds too crazy to be true, well, I wish that was so. This wouldn’t be allowed to happen on a University campus anymore, but it sure as hell feels familiar if you look over what happened at Abu Ghraib with fresh eyes. If it sounds kind of like a movie, well, now it is.

It stars Billy Crudup (Big Fish) as the famed professor, Nelson Ellis (True Blood’s Lafayette) as an ex-con consultant, and a bunch of young men as the students: Ezra Miller (Trainwreck) as prisoner 8612, Tye Sheridan (The Tree of Life) as 819 and Thomas Mann (Me and Earl and the Dying Girl) as 416.

The movie, thankfully well-acted, is chilling, troubling, and thought-provoking. The cruelty is stanford-prison-experimentrelentlessly one-note, so if you watch it, you’re going to want to pencil in some debriefing\discussing\come-down time immediately after, because the saddest part about it is that 45 years later, it’s just as relevant.