Atlantic Film Festival 2015: Post II — Reviews of Experimenter, Closet Monster

The first full day at #AFF2015, following the traditional Gala screening Thursday night. This year Paul Gross’ Hyena Road was the opener, and the party was at the Lord Nelson. Had the pleasure of interviewing Paul Gross and Allan Hawco at the hotel for a broadcast project I’ll be talking about here on FITI in the months to come.

Mr Gross and Mr Hawco were total pros, and kindly answered all my questions, in case you were wondering. And the gala party was a blast. Great chocolate, great conversation.

Now to the films.



Written and directed by Michael Almereyda | 90 min.

In 1961, Yale researcher Stanley Milgram conducted a series of tests on ordinary people to examine their ability to resist or conform to authority. His subjects were instructed by a man in a lab coat to give electric shocks—faked, mind you—to a person in another room, gradually increasing the voltage. They could hear the “discomfort” the shocks were causing through the wall. Milgram found 65% of his subjects continued the experiment to the very end, where they believed they were shocking a stranger with 450 volts.

Almereyda’s story opens outward, starting in the diffuse claustrophobic greyness of the examination rooms and the one-way glass, with Peter Sarsgaard’s perfectly modulated Milgram narrating his own story with fourth-wall-breaking directness. The first act is remarkably stylized, a docudrama that includes patently artificial rear projection and an occasional hallway elephant, a wonderfully PT Barnum touch to the proceedings.

The self-awareness allows for a dry humour to lighten matters, a nice touch since those matters could go plenty dark—Milgram was Jewish, his work was inspired by the behaviour of ordinary Germans during the Holocaust. His experiments were hugely controversial at the time, considered cruel and unusual by his students and colleagues.

Part way through Experimenter I was totally hooked by the conceit. The formalist qualities and Milgram’s didactic approach to his own story subtly suggest the audience becoming the subject of an experiment themselves. Naturally, we’re forced to ask, how would we do on this test?  It’s helped with really wonderful work from Winona Ryder as Milgram’s wife, and a collection of sterling support and day-players including John Leguizamo, Lori Singer, Anton Yelchin, Dennis Haysbert, Vondie Curtis-Hall and Jim Gaffigan.

Unfortunately, the film drifts and wobbles in the homestretch, including an overt (though funny) Woody Allen homage on the street corner involving an Abe Lincoln impersonator, and a couple flat subplots about a TV movie and Milgram’s marital problems.

Nonetheless, there’s plenty to recommend the film’s Kinsey-esque dissection of a study of human nature, one of the year’s most delightfully mannered and unusual pictures.

Closet Monster


Written and directed by Stephen Dunn | 90 min. 

I can understand why there’s so much excitement around Newfoundlander Dunn and and his first feature. His story, a LGBT coming-of-age drama with surrealist touches, is the best of its sort since Jean-Marc Vallee’s C.R.A.Z.Y., and we’ve all seen where that guy’s career has taken him.

It shares with C.R.A.Z.Y. a gorgeous sound design, music and editing a driving force in the piece. The excellent Connor Jessup is 18-year-old Oscar, raised by an alternately caring and angry and homophobic father (Aaron Abrams), abandoned by his mother (Joanne Kelly). All he’s got is his spirit-animal hamster, delightfully voiced by Isabella Rossellini. He’s into fantasy make-up and wants to go to school in New York, but is crushing on the hot French guy at his hardware depot day job.

The film’s not rewriting the alienated teen, or alienated gay teen, rulebook, but it’s telling the tale with real confidence, the magic realism whimsy a real complement to the gritty family drama.

With this and last year’s Cast No Shadow, Newfoundland filmmaking talent is on fire.  And I’m so happy to report there’s not a fisherman in sight.

About the author


Carsten Knox is a massive, cheese-eating nerd. In the day he works as a journalist in Halifax, Nova Scotia. At night he stares out at the rain-slick streets, watches movies, and writes about what he's seeing.