For this week’s Netflix column, we’re focusing on movies that delve into the dark side of human nature, from those who revel in sadistic manipulation to friends who resent one another’s success. Our first two films are both set in the 1970s and based on true events. Christine stars Rebecca Hall as a television reporter suffering from depression and anxiety who opposes the sensationalistic “if it bleeds it leads” style of news reporting that is starting to take hold. Although a seriously bleak film, it’s worth watching for Hall’s impressive performance alone. The Stanford Prison Experiment is a convincing dramatization of the famous psychological study involving college students participating in a mock correctional facility environment that demonstrated how quickly people will abuse power to belittle one another.
Next up is Catfight with Sandra Oh and Anne Heche taking turns punching each other in the face. It may not sound like it, but this one is a comedy, a scathing satire about our capacity for cruelty. And just to lighten the mood up a bit, we’ve also included Don't Think Twice featuring Keegan-Michael Key. By no means a downer, this fictionalized peek into the world of improv comedy deals with the competitiveness and envy that can occur among friends.
Our last pick is the adults-only Suntan, which focuses on exotic vacations and some of the worst aspects of man’s basic instincts. The film, which takes place on a beautiful Greek island, tells the story of a lonely, middle-aged doctor who meets a group of wild twentysomethings that stir up feelings in him that he can’t control. Suntan, along with Christine and The Stanford Prison Experiment, come with trigger warnings for anybody who’s been affected by traumatic experiences. Viewer discretion is advised.
Warning: May Contain Spoilers
Starring: Rebecca Hall, Michael C. Hall, Tracy Letts, Maria Dizzia
Director: Antonio Campos
Christine is based on the true story of Christine Chubbuck, an ambitious but troubled TV reporter working at a local station in Florida during the early ‘70s. As portrayed by Rebecca Hall in a remarkable performance, Chubbuck is someone both at odds with herself and the changing news media, which had just started exploiting violence for higher ratings.
Preoccupied with advancing her career without sacrificing her integrity, the smart, outspoken, and sometimes-awkward journalist also has to contend with a serious case of depression at a time when there was much to learn about mental health issues. Chubbuck eventually does something unforgettable and violent on live TV, an act that changed media history forever in real life. Hall offers a lasting impression in a role that must have meant a lot to her. She gives every fiber of herself transforming into a sad and lonely reporter who, ironically enough, can’t always properly communicate her internal conflicts.
The Stanford Prison Experiment (2015)
Starring: Billy Crudup, Ezra Miller, Michael Angarano, Johnny Simmons, Olivia Thirlby
Director: Kyle Patrick Alvarez
In 1971, a group of random college students were paid $15 a day to play out the roles of guards and prisoners for an experiment that subsequently went off the rails. What’s perhaps most disturbing about this real life event and the 2015 cinematic retelling is how quickly the guards slip into their overseer duties, as well as how the majority of the prisoners, stripped of their identities, fall in line.
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The cast is filled with young talent, led by Ezra Miller (We Need to Talk About Kevin) as a rebellious prisoner and Michael Angarano as a real asshole who enjoys being an evil guard a little too much. Billy Crudup is Philip Zimbardo, the goateed and always-smirking professor in charge, who bears a passing resemblance to the devil. His voyeuristic willingness to keep watching the sadism evolving in front of him feels like an extra jab at all of us who have become desensitized to human misery.
Starring: Sandra Oh, Anne Heche, Alicia Silverstone, Ariel Kavoussi, Myra Lucretia Taylor
Director: Onur Tukel
Rich housewife Sandra Oh and struggling artist Anne Heche are former college acquaintances (and not exactly nice people) who run into each other at a party one night. It doesn’t take long for their mutual disdain for each other to explode into pro wrestling levels of violence, which will have life-altering consequences for both women.
Catfight is an all-out farce with a vicious bite that vaguely resembles Voltaire's Candide and A Clockwork Orange rolled into one. Set in New York just a few years into the future, the film takes great pleasure in ridiculing everything from the way we allow ourselves to be distracted from society’s ills by cheap entertainment to our current presidential administration’s overt ineptitude. It also takes aim at classism, privilege, and a few distinctly American attitudes, like our unrelenting and ultimately futile tendency to solve problems with brute force.
Don't Think Twice (2016)
Starring: Keegan-Michael Key, Gillian Jacobs, Tami Sagher, Chris Gethard
Director: Mike Birbiglia
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Don't Think Twice pulls back the curtain on the inner workings of a closely-knit improv group and how they react when one of their own joins the cast of a long-running fictional show in the vein of Saturday Night Live. Securing a spot on the program is like winning the lottery, and regardless of their tight friendships, the comedians can’t help but feel a certain way when Keegan-Michael Key’s character gets chosen over them.
The film works both as a behind-the-scenes look at the business of comedy, as well as a personal account of how comedians use humor to help them deal with any situation, even grief. And while we may think that stage fright, hecklers, and other fears of failure are what worry comics the most, sometimes the fear of success can be their biggest obstacle.
Starring: Makis Papadimitriou, Elli Tringou, Yannis Tsortekis, Pavlos Orkopoulos
Director: Argyris Papadimitropoulos
Suntan starts in winter with the arrival of a doctor to a sleepy Greek island. Kostis (Makis Papadimitriou) is in his early 40s. He’s a quiet, chubby fellow with a permanently dour expression on his face. The locals all tell him the same thing: wait until summer when things get poppin’ around here. Kostis’ demeanor tells us something, too. This is one lonely man.
Then along comes summer and Kostis’ world is never the same once he meets and starts partying with 21-year-old free spirit Anna (Elli Tringou) and her ultra-hedonistic friends on holiday. This is the part where we warn you about the wall-to-wall full-frontal nudity and numerous sexual situations.
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After a hypnotic hour-and-a-half and an intense turn, you just wish the film ended with more resolution. Still, Suntan is worth catching for its uncanny ability to recreate the powerfully seductive allure of untamed youth and an aging man’s inability to cope with his repressed desires once they’ve run wild.