Saturday, June 18, 2016

"James White" and "Experimenter"

I've spent the past few weeks dutifully catching up on the award season "also rans," the movies that seem to have been tailor made for an Oscar campaign, but just weren't quite good enough to get there.  Off the top of my head this includes Stephen Frears' "The Program," Edward Zwick's "Pawn Sacrifice," Nicholas Hytner's "The Lady in the Van," Sarah Gavron's "Suffragette,"  Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck "s "Mississippi Grind," and Angelina Jolie "By the Sea."  None of them are worthy of much note. However, there are two titles that I do want to highlight, that I found in that pile: "James White" and "Experimenter."  Both are indie pics that got some attention for good performances, but never had a chance at getting more of the spotlight.  I want to devote some space to them here - mostly because I don't have room for these two in my upcoming 2015 Top Ten list, and both films are good enough features that I feel bad about it.

First up, "James White," the debut of director Josh Mond.  James (Christopher Abbott), is a familiar twenty-something New Yorker who has spent the last few years steadfastly not growing up.  He lives on his cancer-stricken mother's couch, indulges several vices and bad habits with exasperating regularity, and wants nothing more than to not get on with life.  However, soon he doesn't have a choice in a matter.  His mother, Gail (Cynthia Nixon), is slowly but surely dying, and James has to act as her caretaker, even though he's woefully unprepared for the task.  Shot vérité style with a paucity of locations, this domestic drama initially feels a little too familiar, like it's slacker main character.  However, it distinguishes itself in a hurry, painting a heartbreaking portrait of two difficult people at the hardest point in their lives.  Abbott and Nixon are both fantastic in the film, and it'll be impossible for me to view either actor the same way after this movie.

It is so satisfying to watch James learn to summon all these hidden reserves of courage, empathy and sheer willpower that I don't think he realized that he had.  We first meet him at his estranged father's wake, where he lashes the way that we expect a spoiled, entitled young reprobate would.  However, the more time we spend with James, the more the film helps us to probe beneath the surface.  James may not know what he's doing, but it turns out he's exactly who should be there in a crisis, and his priorities shift immediately when they must.  He and Gail initially seem to be on the outs with each other, but when they find themselves facing the worst case scenario, their relationship is suddenly forced into a very different place, and their roles have to change accordingly.  Cancer narratives tend to follow a certain pattern, and "James White" is no exception.  However, I've rarely seen any that are this fearlessly intimate, that put the viewer so close to James's vulnerability, helplessness, and raw despair.

My favorite scene of 2015 is the bathroom conversation where James relays a fantasy of their lives to Gail to help calm her down during a bad episode.  It's a moment of tender happiness at the end of a harrowing sequence of pain and terror.  James does all the talking, but the scene only hits as hard as it does because of both Christopher Abbott and Cynthia Nixon.  Nixon's expressions and reactions convey so much, and her face often fills much of the frame. Abbott, meanwhile, suggests James's newfound maturity and confidence as he works through his monologue.  It's a breakthrough that feels earned here, that feels right for the characters.  And in spite of how dark and how emotionally fraught "James White" is, I came away from it with a genuine sense of hopefulness and fulfillment that is about the rarest thing in modern cinema these days.  And it's something I'll be holding on to for a long time.

Now on to "Experimenter," a thoughtful look at the life and times of Stanley Milgram (Peter Sarsgaard) and the famous Milgram experiments, which tested obedience to authority.  Amusingly, descriptions in a few places have categorized "Experimenter" as an "experimental biopic," because it has some unconventional narrative techniques, and occasionally plays fast and loose with the fourth wall.  First, Milgram is both the subject and the host of the show, presenting scenes from his life and adding dry commentary where appropriate.  The story mostly follows his career during and after the famous obedience experiments, especially Milgram's struggles to weather the controversy that followed.  We also spend some time with Milgram's wife Sasha (Winona Ryder) and learn about a few of Milgram's other social psychology experiments, but it's the obedience experiments that dominate the film.

I appreciate that the experiments, which have often been portrayed with such sinister connotations, are given so much careful, considered context here.  The film opens with Milgram and his collaborators matter-of-factly carrying out the most famous version of the experiment from start to finish.  Milgram comes across as cold, even a little flippant about what he's doing.  However, the experiment is never sensationalized, unlike last year's other true life psychology drama, "The Stanford Prison Experiment."  And as "Experimenter" goes on, it becomes even less sensationalized, as Milgram is forced to defend himself against charges of unethical behavior and flawed methodology.  There's an uncomfortable, amusing debriefing sequence where Milgram is forced to be face to face with many of the experiment's less satisfied subjects.  It says more about Milgram's personal flaws than his critics ever could.

"Experimenter" is so straightforward that it doesn't offer much by way of traditional dramatic conflicts.  Some viewers will surely find the movie dull, but I liked how it made room for real discussions to take place, and how committed it was to the concept of letting Milgram have his say on his legacy.  Stanley Milgram is fascinating enough that his life doesn't need any embellishing.  Peter Sarsgaard is excellent as Milgram, an unreliable but honest and insightful narrator. The film, directed by Michael Almereyda, clearly had almost no budget to speak of.  However, its recreations of the '60s and '70s are convincing, and I liked the little trick of having the actors act against projected video footage of real locations in a few scenes.  It's a good reminder that you don't need many frills make a great film, and "Experimenter" outdoes most of the other biopics of 2015 by a wide margin.


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