Sundance Reviews: ‘Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead,’ ‘Experimenter,’ ”71′

By February 3, 2015
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Rarely content to live in the present or fantasize about the future, we often use movies to grapple with the past. Here are three very good Sundance entries that take different approaches to history. One’s a straightforward (but highly entertaining) documentary; one sticks to the facts but tells it story with flair; and one tells a fictional story set during a non-fictional conflict.

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DRUNK STONED BRILLIANT DEAD: THE STORY OF THE NATIONAL LAMPOON

Some documentaries are important because they educate viewers on areas of life that they would otherwise know little about. For example, here’s Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of The National Lampoon, which performs the valuable service of informing today’s youth that the National Lampoon label used to be a symbol of quality, not a devalued brand name to be slapped on crappy movies.

The National Lampoon magazine began publication in 1970 as an offshoot of the Harvard Lampoon, which had amused students at that university for a hundred years. National Lampoon was like a darker, meaner, more adult version of Mad, and this doc (nimbly directed by Douglas Tirola) is bursting with glimpses of the magazine’s contents. It’s also crammed with new interviews with just about every key player who’s still alive: co-founder Henry Beard, art director Michael Gross, CEO Matty Simmons, and writers P.J. O’Rourke, Tony Hendra, Anne Beatts, and Sean Kelly, to name a few. Important dead figures like founding writers Doug Kenney and Michael O’Donoghue are remembered fondly (and otherwise) by colleagues who seem never to run out of funny stories to tell. Tales of Kenney and O’Donoghue’s adventures with drugs, alcohol, anger, depression, and brilliance are bittersweet reminders of how tormented some of the funniest people are.

The film traces National Lampoon’s evolution from popular magazine to media juggernaut, and shows how vast its influence was. First came record albums, then a radio show, then an off-Broadway stage show, all featuring sketches and songs written by the Lampoon folks and performed by nobodies with names like John Belushi, Chevy Chase, Christopher Guest, Bill Murray, Gilda Radner, and Harold Ramis. When Saturday Night Live began, in 1975, Lorne Michaels found many of his writers and stars in the Lampoon offices. National Lampoon’s first foray into the movie business, Animal House is also recounted, with memories from Kevin Bacon, Tim Matheson, and director John Landis.

We also see the decline of National Lampoon as a magazine in the 1980s, and as a filmmaking force after that. The film and its interview subjects rather pointedly say nothing about the financial concerns that led to the current lamentable situation, where the “National Lampoon” label can be applied to any movie that wants to pay the licensing fee. (For the record, the last real National Lampoon movie before the name was sold was Christmas Vacation.) Why dwell on the negative stuff that had nothing to do with the mad geniuses who first began it? Whether you’re familiar with the Lampoon magazine or just a fan of comedy in general, this is a thoroughly enlightening and entertaining homework assignment. Grade: B+

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EXPERIMENTER

Stanley Milgram was a social psychologist whose work included studies on the “six degrees of separation” theory, which offers the reassurance that all members of the human family are connected to one another. But Milgram is better known for an experiment with more unsettling results, one that measured people’s willingness to inflict pain on strangers. That study is the subject of Experimenter, a playful, self-aware movie with an eccentric personality.

Milgram, played by a twinkly-eyed Peter Sarsgaard, breaks the fourth wall to narrate the story from the standpoint of one who has already lived it. Writer-director Michael Almereyda, who made a modern Hamlet with Ethan Hawke back in 2000, uses things like visual metaphors (an elephant in the room) and deliberately fake backdrops to remind us of the movie’s inherent artificiality. Just as Milgram tricked people into believing something that wasn’t true, Almereyda (and every other filmmaker) fools us with lights and shadows.

But first we see the 1961 Yale experiments reenacted. Volunteers are told they’re participating in a study about negative reinforcement as a teaching device. When an unseen person in the next room gives an incorrect answer to a question, the volunteer flips a switch that delivers a small electric shock. The shocks get more powerful with each wrong answer, and the victim’s pained reactions are audible. (The victim is really an actor, and there are no shocks.) The question is how far this can go before the volunteer refuses to continue hurting an anonymous stranger.

The answer turns out to be “much further than we thought.” This has chilling ramifications for our understanding of human behavior, and Milgram’s findings are controversial, not least because some view his methods as unethical. The film takes us through the whirlwind of notoriety that followed, including an amusing visit to the set of a TV movie based on the experiment, starring Ossie Davis (Dennis Haysbert) and William Shatner (Kellan Lutz). Winona Ryder adds warmth as Milgram’s supportive wife, while Anton Yelchin, John Leguizamo, Anthony Edwards, Jim Gaffigan, Josh Hamilton, and others appear as test subjects and colleagues.

Almereyda shrewdly avoids telling Milgram’s entire biography, focusing instead on the more easily managed story of this experiment and its aftereffects. As Milgram, Sarsgaard is resourceful and optimistic, a trustworthy pal who’s eager to let us in on his secrets. Despite the alarming questions the study raised about human nature, the film is enjoyably relaxed, a humorous and upbeat account of a fascinating phenomenon. All social science should be this entertaining! Grade: B+

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’71

Northern Ireland’s long, bloody conflict, quaintly nicknamed The Troubles, was between people (mostly Protestant) who wanted to remain part of the U.K. and people (mostly Catholic) who wanted an independent, united Ireland. Americans may have only a vague awareness of the issues involved — apart from a few movies and a U2 song, it hasn’t been prominent in our culture — but in watching ’71, it’s easy to see parallels to Afghanistan, Iraq, Selma, and Ferguson.

’71 (as in 1971) is a tense, nerve-racking drama set primarily over the course of one night in Belfast. Rather than tackle the complicated and volatile emotions that divided the people, it tells a self-contained, fictional story about a single soldier who finds himself behind enemy lines — something anyone can understand, and that doesn’t require any foreknowledge of Irish politics circa 1970.

It stars up-and-comer Jack O’Connell (Unbroken) as Gary Hook, a British soldier whose unit is sent to Belfast to keep the peace during a house-to-house check for weapons in a part of the city known to be an Irish Republican Army stronghold. Gary’s commanding officer says to wear berets, not helmets: they want the people to know they’re here as peacekeepers, not as combatants. Things inevitably go wrong and there is a riot, during which Gary is separated from his unit and left fending for himself in a distinctly anti-British neighborhood. His mission now is simple: get to safety before the IRA catches up with him.

Directed by Yann Demange (an impressive first feature) and scripted by playwright Gregory Burke, the film spends most of its time with Gary, a brave but inexperienced soldier whose resilience is put to the test as one help after another slips from his grasp. But the story also expands to include IRA forces, British undercover operatives, and other interested parties. With traitors on both sides, and dubious characters popping up around every corner, the stage is set for a multi-faceted war drama, which Demange handily delivers (a few moments of distracting shaky-cam usage notwithstanding).

At just 24 years old, O’Connell has carved a niche for himself as an intense actor adept at playing brutally physical roles. Between this, Unbroken, and Starred Up (an under-seen prison drama from 2014), he’s due for a light romantic comedy, or at least something where he doesn’t get beaten up all the time. He carries ’71 with lean confidence, inviting us to hold our breath along with him while he scrambles for safety. Grade: B+

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Eric D. Snider
Eric has been a film critic since 1999, and a beard wearer since 2008. He holds a degree in journalism and used to work in "the newspaper industry," back when that was a thing.