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On DVD/Blu-ray: MR. HOLMES (2015); THE STANFORD PRISON EXPERIMENT (2015); and BOUND TO VENGEANCE (2015)

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MR. HOLMES
(US/UK - 2015)

An arthouse sleeper hit for grownups released in summer 2015, MR. HOLMES is a low-key affair that many may dismiss as an "old people movie," but it's an engrossing and quietly effective little film that unfolds like a good book. Based on Mitch Cullen's 2005 novel A Slight Trick of the Mind, MR. HOLMES reunites star Ian McKellen and director Bill Condon, who last collaborated on 1998's GODS AND MONSTERS, which netted McKellen an Oscar nomination. The masterful actor is just as great here as a 93-year-old Sherlock Holmes, 30 years retired from detective work and retired to the English countryside in the years after WWII. Holmes lives in a 1947 where he's also a noted pop culture figure, as his late friend Dr. John Watson's chronicles of their adventures have led to bestselling novels and popular movies. Holmes is fighting to stave off the early signs of dementia, just returning from Japan to procure some jelly made from a "prickly ash" plant that's reputed to help with issues of memory loss. He lives in a cottage with widowed housekeeper Mrs. Munro (Laura Linney), who lost her husband in the war, and her young son Roger (Milo Parker), who spends a lot of time with the elderly Holmes and comes to view him as a father/grandfather figure. Holmes is haunted by regrets and the memories of dead friends and loved ones--Dr. Watson, his brother Mycroft, loyal housekeeper Mrs. Hudson--as well as an unresolved final case involving the search for a missing wife who never got over two miscarriages and a cold husband who didn't understand why she couldn't just move on with her life--a case that carried so much emotional weight with everyone involved that Holmes no longer had it in him to continue his work and retreated completely from public life, preferring to let the genius legend overshadow the flawed man.



McKellen is just perfect as the elderly Holmes, whether he's letting a wry sense of mischief show in his bonding with young Roger or when he illustrates the changing moods that so often come with the onset of dementia. He never overplays it for dramatic effect and he remains steady and genuine throughout. He's matched by the promising Parker and the always-excellent Linney, but this is really Sir Ian's show. As adapted by screenwriter Jeffrey Hatcher, MR. HOLMES still allows Holmes to use his detective skills, but it's really a grounded, serious dramatic piece that bluntly and realistically approaches issues of aging, memories, mortality, and the acceptance that a long life is in its final act. It's a superb film that doesn't move along especially briskly, but slowly and surely draws you in, revealing layers of complexity in its story and themes and resonating with you ways you didn't expect. (PG, 104 mins)




THE STANFORD PRISON EXPERIMENT
(US - 2015)

Dr. Philip Zimbardo's infamous 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment has inspired two films--the German DAS EXPERIMENT (2001) and its abysmal American remake THE EXPERIMENT (2010)--and returned to the spotlight after the revelations of the abuse taking place at Abu Ghraib in Iraq in 2003. But the harrowing indie THE STANFORD PRISON EXPERIMENT is the first narrative feature dealing specifically with it by name and place. Director Kyle Patrick Alvarez and screenwriter Tim Talbott (a former SOUTH PARK writer) stay faithful to the events as documented by Zimbardo (played here by Billy Crudup) and the participants, almost to a degree that some would consider a fault. During the summer when the campus is mostly empty, Zimbardo selects 24 out of 75 volunteers to be broken into groups of twelve guards and twelve prisoners (nine of each active, with three alternates on call if a replacement is needed). Zimbardo and his associates set up a mock prison in some empty offices in the basement of a campus building and let things play out as they happen for a planned duration of two weeks. By day two, the "guards" on the day shift were power-tripping and intimidating the "prisoners" to see how much abuse they would take. It starts with an agonizing roll call, with the prisoners being stripped of their names and known only by numbers and forced to repeat those numbers hundreds of times and in different ways ("I want you to sing it to me this time!"), escalating to forced push-ups, jumping jacks, denial of privileges (no cigarettes; the guards refuse to give one prisoner his glasses even though he can't see without them), and time in the hole. The day shift, led by an overzealous student (Michael Angarano) who fancies himself a John Wayne-type, even putting on an affected Southern accent, encourages the night shift to do the same, resulting in more forced exercise and some bonus sleep deprivation. When rebellious prisoner 8612 (Ezra Miller) snaps and grabs a guard by the throat, the guard clubs him across the face and it escalates from there. Prisoners are denied food and use of the toilets, instead given buckets that they aren't permitted to empty. Their beds are dismantled and they're forced to sleep on the floor. They're openly intimidated by the guards during visitation, and eventually emasculated and thoroughly dehumanized, with Angarano's guard even instigating some mock prison rape by forcing three prisoners to bend over while three others are ordered to grind against them from behind. All of this is observed by Zimbardo and his increasingly incredulous graduate assistants--some of whom abandon the experiment after a few days--but Zimbardo is so fascinated what's happened in so little time that he can't bring himself to terminate it, even as his colleague and girlfriend Dr. Christina Maslach (Olivia Thirlby) expresses her disgust at what he's allowing his subjects ("These aren't prisoners," she shouts. "These are boys!") to endure.



The Stanford Prison Experiment, like the 1961 Milgram Experiment, says a lot about people's blind obedience to authority and the kind of authoritative potential within otherwise normal, well-adjusted people if that level of power is allowed to be wielded without boundaries. The film doesn't shy away from making Zimbardo look bad, whether it's his refusal to let the troubled 8612 leave even though he's clearly approaching a psychotic break after just two days, or in the way he pretty much joins the guards in his psychological abuse of the prisoners, even donning the style of sunglasses he has the guards constantly wear to maximize intimidation and minimize any kind of emotional connection between guard and prisoner. Yes, he sees the error of his ways and went on to become a sympathetic authority in the study of the psychology of abuse, but he's shown to be an insensitive and unwavering prick for most of the film, even in the petty way he corrects the mother of prisoner 819 (Tye Sheridan), who refers to him as "Mr. Zimbardo" ("It's Doctor," he huffs). This is a grueling and intense film, with the clinical and almost relentless portrayal of the systematic breakdown of the prisoners' humanity making it a tough sit of almost SALO unpleasantness. Angarano creates one of the year's most despicable characters, though one weakness of the film is that it doesn't delve into the post-experiment analysis to a significant degree. Zimbardo pulled the plug on the experiment after just six days, and Alvarez shows recreated documentary footage of Miller as 8612 and Angarano's guard discussing the after-effects of the experiment. Here's where the actual footage would've been more interesting to see. Or perhaps the first meeting of these opponents after the termination of the experiment. Did they ever see one another on campus? Also with Nelsan Ellis (TRUE BLOOD) as one of Zimbardo's colleagues, Keir Gilchrist (IT FOLLOWS), Moises Arias (HANNAH MONTANA) and James Frecheville (ANIMAL KINGDOM) as guards, and Logan Miller, Thomas Mann, Johnny Simmons, and Jack Kilmer (Val's son) as prisoners.  (R, 122 mins)



BOUND TO VENGEANCE
(US/Mexico - 2015)


Shot as REVERSAL but christened with the more exploitative BOUND TO VENGEANCE after it was completed, this is an occasionally suspenseful but ultimately empty revenge thriller that leaves too many dangling plot threads to be successful. It gets a lot from a strong performance by Tina Ivlev as Eve, and as the film opens, she's a kidnap victim bashing her captor over the head with a brick. The captor is Phil (Richard Tyson of THREE O'CLOCK HIGH and TWO MOON JUNCTION fame, looking and sounding like a stockier Tom Berenger as he's gotten older), and he's got her chained to a mattress in the basement of a house in the middle of nowhere off a California desert highway. Eve turns the tables on Phil, but she has no idea where she is, the phone doesn't work, and she can't find his car keys, so so fashions a dog catcher's pole out of some pipes and barbed wire and has him completely restrained, forcing him to drive to a series of destinations when he confesses he's got other girls hidden all over Los Angeles, and if she kills him, she'll share responsibility for killing them. It's an intriguing set-up, even though I'd still go for "driving to the nearest police station" as opposed to putting any kind of faith in whatever's up his sleeve. Things go badly when the first girl Eve finds and frees freaks out, trips, and impales herself on a fence post, and the next, a victim of Stockholm Syndrome, puts Eve in a position where she has to kill her in self defense.



Director Jose Manuel Cravioto, making his English language debut, and writers Keith Kjornes (who died in 2013) and Rock Shaink are obviously inspired by the horrific Ariel Castro case in Cleveland, but use it as a springboard to a bigger conspiracy story that never really makes sense. Phil is just a cog in an extensive human trafficking network, and the film blows its big plot twist early on when he keeps mentioning Eve's boyfriend Ronnie (Kris Kjornes). It also doesn't help that they try to humanize Phil by giving him a nice house in the suburbs and a wife and impossibly cute young daughter. Who is this guy? How does he get away with disappearing for long stretches to feed an untold number of kidnapped girls on a rotating basis around the greater Los Angeles area? Who are the people with whom he's complicit?  How big is this operation? How long did Ronnie have to court Eve in order to establish a relationship with her just to arrange her abduction? These questions are never answered, though Ivlev, who might have a future as a second-string Jennifer Lawrence, gives it everything she's got and is thoroughly convincing in that rage-filled I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE/MS. 45 way. There's bits and pieces of a better movie infrequently revealing itself throughout BOUND TO VENGEANCE (and there's a very effective '80s-style score by genre vet Simon Boswell), but it never ends up coalescing into something noteworthy. Keep an eye on Ivlev, though. (Unrated, 79 mins, also available on Netflix Instant)


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