Tag Archives: Ki Hong Lee

The Stanford Prison Experiment (2015)

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Most people have probably heard of the controversial Stanford Prison Experiment, in which a bunch of elite college students in 1971 got more than they bargained for when they volunteered for an unusual psychological study to play either inmates and guards in a simulated prison environment. There have been a few movies based on the concept, most notably the 2010 film The Experiment (starring Adrien Brody and Forest Whitaker), but I wasn’t aware of a film that tried to depict the actual events — until now.

The Stanford Prison Experiment is largely based on the book by Stanford University psychology professor Philip Zimbardo, the man who conducted the study back in 1971 to test the hypothesis that the personality traits of prisoners and guards are the chief cause of abusive behaviour between them. And so begins a fascinating look into the complex and unexpected dynamics between power and authority, subservience and rebellion, empathy and cruelty. It’s not just the inmates and guards either — the effects of the experiment extended to the teachers and the supervisors, and even to the relationship between Zimbardo and his girlfriend, who happens to be a former student of his.

This is by no means an easy film to watch — some parts are unbearably tense, others just plain unbearable — but it’s one that absolutely captivated me from start to finish. Part of it is indeed the intrigue of the premise itself, though it would be unfair to attribute it all to that since I basically already knew what would happen and what the outcome would be.

It is a low budget film, but it’s also a film that didn’t need much of a budget because almost all of it is set in the simulated prison on the university campus. The filmmakers do a fantastic job of creating a sense of claustrophobia and paranoia, and most importantly they somehow manage to make you believe what is happening on screen despite how little sense it seems to make. It made me incredulous, it made me angry, and it made me sad — it’s one of those surreal experiences that make you question what you think you know about human nature and even yourself.

The film is far from fast-paced, though there’s always enough drama and tension — notwithstanding some repetitiveness — to compel me to keep watching. I suspect it will be remembered as a polarising film, and I can definitely understand if some people dislike it for its dark tones and ugliness.

First announced in 2002,  The Stanford Prison Experiment was in developmental hell for a dozen years before unknown director Kyle Patrick Alvarez managed to get it done with a brilliant cast of established actors and up-and-coming stars.

Headlining the performers is Billy Crudup, who plays the well-intentioned Zimbardo, with a whole bunch of recognisable names — or at least faces — filling out the other roles. These include Ezra Miller (We Need to Talk About Kevin, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and soon-to-be Flash in the new DC cinematic universe), Michael Angarano (The Final Kingdom, Red State), Tye Sheridan (Mud, Tree of Life, and soon-to-be young Cyclops in X-Men: Apocalypse), Logan Miller (Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse), James Frecheville (the fantastic Aussie man-child from Animal Kingdom), Johnny Simmons (Jennifer’s Body, Scott Pilgrim vs the World, The Perks of Being a Wallflower), Ki Hong Lee (The Maze Runner series), Jack Kilmer (Palo Alto; Val Kilmer’s son), Thomas Mann (Project X, Me Earl and the Dying Girl, Barely Lethal), Olivia Thirlby (Juno, Dredd), and Nelsan Ellis (True Blood).

Interestingly, the script is co-written by Christoper McQuarrie, best known for winning the screenplay Oscar for The Usual Suspects and more recently for writing Edge of Tomorrow and directing the awesome Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation.

As uncomfortable and frustrating as it is, I think The Stanford Prison Experiment is a brilliant film that will have you asking yourself how you might react in their situations. Though it’s based on events that are more than 40 years old, the concepts and themes remain as relevant today as they did then, perhaps even more so in light of what we now know since the outbreak of the War on Terror. Thanks to the wonderful performances from the talented cast, a great script and skillful filmmaking, I found myself engrossed in the experiment, much like its participants. It’s a chilling and troubling experience that deserves a lot more attention and discussion than it’s been receiving.

4.5 stars out of 5

Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials (2015)

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The Maze Runner was one of my surprise hits of 2014. I know a lot of people didn’t like it, or even hated it, but I loved the concept, the intrigue and the action sequences. I even went as far as saying that it should be considered an A-grade teen franchise like The Hunger Games.

And so I was very excited to see the sequel that was destined to happen after the first film made back the budget 10-fold. I’ve heard some people say that Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials is an improvement over its predecessor, though I must say I respectfully disagree.

I haven’t read the books and don’t intend to, though I hear that the film diverges from its source material quite a bit. The film’s story picks up not long after the first movie ended. The kids from the maze, led by Thomas (Dylan O’Brien), are in danger right off the bat, and shortly after they meet a mysterious new character named Janson — played by Aiden Gillen, otherwise known as the notorious Littlefinger from Game of Thrones. Jason says he wants to help them out, but of course, if you know anything about Littlefinger you’ll know that things aren’t quite what they seem.

Much like other teen series that achieve success after the first book, the Maze Runner sequel feels somewhat arbitrary in that it starts resorting to less original ideas. I thought the maze idea was fantastic in the first film, but of course they can’t just recycle the exact same approach. And so the story goes down another well-trodden path — the road trip.

Yes, just like Insurgent, the second film in the Divergent series, Scorch Trials takes the characters on an adventurous journey from point A to point B for some reason. They encounter new people, overcome new obstacles along the way, and try to keep one step ahead of baddies chasing after them.

As a result, the film feels more contrived to me. The intrigue is not built into the plot like the maze, and so screenwriter TS Nowlin and director Wes Ball (who also directed the first film) had to manufacture ways to maintain the mystery. No one they meet is “straight up” — they all act mysterious, don’t answer questions and love to say, “Follow me,” without explaining anything. Honestly, just about every new character that appears on screen utters that phrase.

At 131 minutes, it’s also about 10-15 minutes too long, and watching it I could tell there was fat around edges that could have been trimmed. Yet despite the length, there’s actually not as much character development this time around, though on the plus side we do get to find out more about what’s going on. I also think it’s a smart move to make WCKD, the shadowy organisation seemingly behind it all, morally ambiguous, so that you have to make up your own mind whether they really are the bad guys.

Notwithstanding to the amazing CGI renderings of the desolate landscape of the outside world, the most appealing aspect of the movie is still the action, which is again executed really well, with multiple heart-pounding sequences that kept me on the edge of my seat. There’s a lot of frantic running and chase scenes that utilised the shaky-cam, something I ordinarily hate, though in this case it was acceptable as it did add to the intensity and was used sparingly enough to avoid nausea.

Interestingly, the film also has quite a few horror elements and actually works best when it’s in scare mode (as opposed to mystery or adventure mode). For the video game fans out there, however, the film gave me a sneaking feeling that it was ripping off perhaps the best game of all time, The Last of Us. From one perspective, that’s great, because The Last of Us is so awesome, but on the other it worries me that we’re getting too many Last of Us wannabes, to the extent that when the real Last of Us film adaptation finally comes out we’ll all be too exhausted to be impressed.

The cast was a pleasant surprise to me too. Dylan O’Brien is as good as playing Thomas as he was last time, and the film also brings back the welcome familiar faces of Newt (Thomas Brodie-Sangster — aka Jojen Reed from Game of Thrones), Minho (Ki Hong Lee) and Teresa (Kaya Scodelario). I liked the dynamics between these characters and was glad that the relationships didn’t veer towards the teen cliches we’ve seen a zillion times before.

Apart from Littlefinger, the biggest new addition to the franchise is Rosa Salazar’s Brenda, yet another actress who has hit 30 still playing a teen. The other notable teen character is played by the film’s third Game of Thrones alum, Nathalie Emmanuel, aka Missandei, who has a small role.

There are lots of big names among the “adults.” Patricia Clarkson returns as the head of WCKD, while Breaking Bad’s Giancarlo Esposito, aka the legendary Gus Fring, joins the cast as Jorge, the leader of a new group. Barry Pepper, Lili Taylor and Alan Tudyk all have smallish roles too.

With so many big names and excellent special effects and action sequences, it’s hard to believe that Scorch Trials was made for just $61 million and has already nearly doubled that in box office takings. That means we’re guaranteed to get Maze Runner: The Death Cure, which I am so glad to say WON’T be split into two films. Massive kudos to all involved in that decision.

I said at the start of this review that I believe Maze Runner is on the same level as the Hunger Games franchise  not necessarily as good, but at least they share an identical plane. Admittedly, Scorch Trials has its fair share of flaws and for me is a notch below its predecessor, but the more I think about it the more I like it, and I am still of the opinion that the notion stands.

3.5 stars out of 5