Real Genius


Party on, nerds!

Party on, nerds!

(1985) Comedy (Tri-Star) Val Kilmer, Gabe Jarret, Michelle Meyrink, William Atherton, Jonathan Gries, Patti D’Arbanville, Stacy Peralta, Ed Lauter, Louis Giambalvo, Charles Shull, Robert Prescott, Mark Kamiyama, Tom Swerdlow, Randolph Dreyfuss, Dean Devlin, Yuji Okumoto, Deborah Foreman, Monte Landis, Paul Tulley, Joanne Baron, Charles Parks, Beau Billingslea. Directed by Martha Coolidge

I have to admit having a great deal of fondness for movies that came out in the 80s. I was in my 20s back then (ugh!) and although I was already skewing towards a demographic that movies weren’t serving quite so much, I was still close enough to it to relate.

The 80s were kind of a transitional period, moving away from the anti-heroes that were the rage in the 70s and more towards lighter, fluffier movies that started with Star Wars and continued as special effects began to become more sophisticated. It was also a great era for comedy as directors like the recently departed Harold Ramis, the late John Hughes and Ivan Reitman were all turning out classics like Ghostbusters, Sixteen Candles and Caddyshack.

One of the more underrated comedies of that era was Real Genius. Directed by Martha Coolidge who had previously helmed Valley Girl, the movie was somewhat akin to Revenge of the Nerds which had been released the previous year.

Mitch Taylor (Jarret) is a 15-year-old science prodigy who has been accepted into the physics program at Pacific Tech (a ringer for Cal Tech) headed by none other than television scientist and personality Dr. Jerry Hathaway (Atherton). Not only that, he’ll be rooming with Chris Knight (Kilmer), a legend in the honors student community who is now a senior at Pacific Tech.

However, Mitch finds that college isn’t exactly the way he thought it would be. The brilliant Knight is more interested in partying and playing elaborate practical jokes than he is in studying and preparing to become the next generation of scientists and engineers that will shape the future of our world. And, just like in high school, there are a group of bullies led by Kent (Prescott) who mercilessly badger and tease young Mitch. Kent it seems is insecure about his position with Dr. Hathaway and sees Mitch as a threat – and for good reason as it turns out as Dr. Hathaway puts Mitch in charge of finding a way to power a four megawatt laser, a project both Chris and Kent had previously been in charge of.

However, things aren’t all bad although the pressure on Mitch is spectacular. He meets Jordan (Meyrink), a hyperactive insomniac who is sweet on him – and vice versa. There is also a mysterious figure who lives in his closet, one Lazlo Hollyfeld (Gries) who was smarter than both Mitch and Chris but cracked when he found out the research that he was doing had been used for weapons.

The stress is growing to the breaking point for Mitch despite Chris’ admonition to blow off steam. The pressure is also growing on Dr. Hathaway, who had been given a grant to get results but was fobbing off the work on his students (who were working for free) and using the money to remodel his house. At last he tells Chris that the job waiting for him after he graduates will evaporate – in fact, he won’t graduate because Dr. Hathaway will fail him no matter what he does in class.

After a disastrous test melts down the laser (due to sabotage from Kent), Chris has an epiphany and gets the laser to work. However, when Lazlo wonders why they are celebrating, he asks them what the use of such a powerful laser would be and there is only one – as a weapon. Devastated, these brilliant students must find a way to make sure their research is never used – and at the same time, get even with those who betrayed them.

The humor here is more gentle and less raunchy than what we’re used to today, and there is a certain amount of sweetness, particularly in the relationship between Mitch and Jordan. Kilmer, who more often than not has been cast in dramatic roles in his career, was at that point a fine comic actor (remember Top Secret?) who had a bit of a quirky edge to him. He is really the center of the movie in many ways although the protagonist is ostensibly Mitch.

Jarret was a bit underwhelming as Mitch although I suspect that is as much by design as anything else. Mitch, as written, is a bit of a doormat so at times the character seems to be dragged about by whatever current is taking him. That makes it hard for an audience to get behind him and certainly to remember him. Easily it will be Meyrink and Kilmer who most will remember about this movie.

While the film is a bit dated in places (anything about technology will look dated 20 and 30 years on), the science is surprisingly sound (with the exception of the final prank which was recently debunked by Mythbusters). To this day, a laser as powerful as the one depicted here has yet to be invented although by the standards of the time the theory was apparently sound.

While this isn’t my favorite film or even my favorite comedy from the era, it remains one of those pleasures I’ve seen dozens of times and never get tired of. It doesn’t re-invent the wheel, Coolidge has a decent story to work with that she tells flawlessly and the performances are spot on. While some young whippersnappers have complained about the soundtrack, it is evocative of its times and any movie that spotlights Tears for Fears “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” is okay in my book.

WHY RENT THIS: Light and fun, not to mention funny. Kilmer is a fine comic actor. The science is also surprisingly sound.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Somewhat dated in places.

FAMILY VALUES:  A few bad words, some sensuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In the scene where a procession of cars is arranged for a test firing of the laser, the cars are set up to mirror the motorcade of President Kennedy when he was assassinated.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $12.9M on an unreported production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Weird Science

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: The Lie

Nancy, Please


Nancy is all smoke and mirrors.

Nancy is all smoke and mirrors.

(2012) Drama (Small Coup) Will Rogers, Eleonore Hendricks, Rebecca Lawrence, Santino Fontana, Novella Nelson, Wally Dunn, Timothy Chastain, Ellis Cahill, Steph Holmbo, Claire Molloy, Elizabeth Ansell, Peter Coleman, Alice Kemelberg, Alex Robles, Alexis Rose, Hilary Shar, Matthew Taylor. Directed by Andrew Semans   

 Florida Film Festival 2013

It doesn’t take much to annoy most of us. Petty little cruelties can prey on our minds. Most of the time we just brush it off and simply classify the perpetrator as a jerk and move on. Once in awhile however something just captures our brains and we get obsessed by the injustice, determined to exact our measure of triumph out of a situation in which we feel wronged.

Paul (Rogers) is a doctoral candidate at Yale, working on a thesis that follows the description of the English political process described by Charles Dickens in his classic novel Little Dorrit. To that end he has his own hardcover in which he has written notes covering the subject.

Life is actually pretty good for Paul. He’s just moved in with his beautiful girlfriend Jen (Lawrence) who is supporting him while he works on his thesis, which he is finally ready to start writing. However as he’s unpacking, he discovers to his chagrin that the crucial copy of the book has been left behind at his old apartment. Therefore he calls his old roommate Nancy (Hendricks) to see if he can drop by and pick up the book.

Days go by and he hears nothing. He is beginning to get frantic. His best friend Charlie (Fontana), a fellow doctoral candidate, urges him to simply drive over to his apartment and knock on the door. s they do, Paul is certain he glimpses Nancy inside but she doesn’t answer the door. The door turns out to be unlocked but Paul feels awkward about going in so he continues to wait.

The cat and mouse game between Paul and Nancy continues, escalating. Nancy does return his call a couple of times but always when Paul is unavailable. Paul is becoming obsessed, certain that Nancy has some sort of vendetta against him. Jen is becoming irritated because Paul is neglecting to do things around their house that he’d promised to do, forcing Jen who is supporting them to have to take care of things that Paul has more time to deal with.

However Paul is too busy dealing with Nancy to really focus on anything else. His faculty advisor, Dr. Bannister (Nelson) is growing impatient; it has been two years since Paul began his doctoral work and he has shown little or no movement in getting his thesis done. She is threatening to have him removed from the program. Paul’s stress is turning to desperation; he needs that book. So finally after a good deal of prodding from both Charlie and Jen, he decides to go in using a spare key Jen had when she used to come by the apartment to visit him and just get the book himself. This plan turns out to be disastrous.

Humiliated and physically injured, Paul’s paranoia about Nancy is reaching the boiling point. Jen, seeing that things have gone far out of control, finally takes matters into her own hands and in her mind (and in any other reasonable person’s mind) resolves the situation. But in Paul’s mind things are far from over…

This isn’t an easy film to sit through. I think that this is best described as a horror film that is going on only in the lead character’s mind. The innovative thing here is that it’s not actually a horror movie to anyone but Paul. Paul sees Nancy as some sort of cruel monster and she’s a vindictive bitch to be sure but Paul is about as passive a character as you’re likely to meet. He is so aggravating that Da Queen, not normally given to such hyperbole, proclaimed him the biggest pussy in the history of movies. She may have a point.

But so many male indie film leads could be described using that pejorative and you wouldn’t be far wrong and I think that part of the filmmaker’s intent is to satirize the somewhat cliché indie  saw of a passive male lead whose life is resolved either by a strong female presence or through some sort of external motivation. As someone who has seen his life transformed by the love of a good woman, I can’t argue that a man can’t find self-confidence and an improved sense of self-worth through that process. I can say though that it is used far too often in indie films of late.

The focus of the movie is on the antagonists Nancy and Paul and somewhat refreshingly it is more vital for those two to have chemistry than for Paul and Jen to have it and in fact that is the case. Hendricks gives a strong performance in a role that is pretty thankless; Nancy really doesn’t have any reason not to give Paul the book other than to inflict punishment for some sort of transgression – I assume it’s because he had the gall to move out on her. Given her actions it’s not surprising that he’d want to.

Even more thankless is the role of Paul. He’s the nominal “hero” of the piece but he’s far from heroic. In fact, the danger here is that Rogers might be too good in the role – he certainly makes Paul an unlikable lead, to the point where Da Queen really didn’t like this movie once. While my wife and I have nearly identical taste in movies, this is one instance where we disagreed somewhat significantly. I liked the movie precisely for the reason that she didn’t – because the filmmakers have the courage to present a lot of unlikable people in a situation that could easily be resolved but isn’t. Real life is often that way.

Maybe I can see a little bit of myself in Paul. I certainly am the sort who avoids conflicts whenever possible and I tend to let life walk all over me. My ambitions tend to be overridden by my shyness and I tend to need a bit of nagging to get moving on things I know have to get done. However I’m nowhere near as bad as Paul is in that regard – I can self-motivate and even if I do procrastinate on some things they do get done in a timely manner, just not in an instantaneous manner most of the time.

Personal identification aside, I can heartily recommend this movie because it is different and the filmmakers are showing how a simple situation can get complicated in a hurry. I admit that the movie has grown more on me than it did make an immediate positive impression and that may well be the case for you, but if you want to try something outside of the usual kind of movie this is a good place to start.

REASONS TO GO: Love the juxtaposition between the paranoid fantasy going on in Paul’s mind and the mundane reality.

REASONS TO STAY: Possibly one of the most frustratingly passive lead characters ever.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s some brief violence, adult situations, a bit of sexuality and a modicum of expletives.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While the film is set in New Haven, it was mostly filmed in Brooklyn and other New York City locations.

CRITICAL MASS: There have been no reviews published for the film for either Rotten Tomatoes or Metacritic.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Dark Matter

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: Be Good and more 2013 Florida Film Festival coverage

The Insider


The Insider

The young tiger and the old lion.

(1999) True Life Drama (Touchstone) Russell Crowe, Al Pacino, Christopher Plummer, Diana Venora, Philip Baker Hall, Lindsay Crouse, Debi Mazar, Stephen Tobolowski, Colm Feore, Bruce McGill, Gina Gershon, Michael Gambon, Rip Torn, Lynne Thigpen. Directed by Michael Mann

 

On one level, this movie could be taken as the story of Dr. Jeffrey Wigand, the corporate whistleblower who braved much external pressure, death threats, the dissolution of his family and the pangs of his own conscience to step forward and point the finger at Big Tobacco, making several lawsuits against them possible.

On another level, this movie could be taken as the story of Lowell Bergman, the courageous producer who brought Wigand’s story to “60 Minutes,” and how he fought to air the story. However, what The Insider is really about is how big corporations whether Big Tobacco or Big Media run our lives in an insidious fashion. They determine what we see on the news, decide what we are allowed to say or not say. It illustrates, in a very subtle manner, how Orwellian our country really has become, and right under our very noses.

Russell Crowe stars in an Oscar-nominated performance as Wigand, a high-ranking scientist and corporate executive at a major tobacco company whose conscience and temper have recently gotten him fired. He has a daughter with a severe asthmatic condition, so medical benefits are paramount to him. His former employer is willing to keep those benefits in place as long as Wigand signs a confidentiality agreement, which Wigand does on two separate occasions (they choose to broaden the scope of the agreement early on in the film).

Bergman (Pacino) is referred to Wigand by a colleague to help him understand some scientific data. Eventually, it becomes clear that Wigand wants to talk and Bergman, realizing the enormity of what he has to say and the evidence in his possession, coaxes him along. Eventually, Wigand testifies in court and does an interview with Mike Wallace (Plummer) on the venerable primetime news program.

Except that CBS corporate doesn’t want to air the story. Nervous about possible litigation running into the billions of dollars at a time when the network is on the auction block, they effectively kill the story with the blessings of 60 Minutes producer Don Hewett (Hall) and Wallace.

It is watching the machinations behind the scenes that is almost as fascinating as Wigand’s own story, which could have made a movie riveting by itself. The tension that Wigand lives through here is palpable, and when you try to put yourself in his shoes, you only marvel at the man’s tenacity. Together, the two stories make for an extremely watchable movie. 

There is some acting here, from Crowe who began a run of incredible performances which would net him an Oscar (although not for this movie) to Pacino who was at his best here. Plummer channeled the late Mike Wallace nicely, even if it wasn’t a very flattering portrait always. Mann doesn’t always get enough credit for it but he seems to have a knack for pulling out superior performances from his actors in nearly all of his movies, going back to his days on the “Miami Vice” television show.

Well after this movie came out we saw just how devastating the lack of corporate conscience is to the economic health of this country, so in many ways this movie was prescient. When short-term greed for bottom line profits overrides common sense and dignity, the results are very much in evidence. Corporate greed is not the sole province of the financial industry; obviously it is prevalent throughout big business, and this was a movie that not only saw that but blew the whistle on it earlier than most. In that sense, it is a chilling precursor to what was to come and a grim warning to what can still occur if we don’t act. The Insider is a jolting reminder that all of us are touched in some way by the corporate culture of profit obsession that has lingered from the days of the robber barons and still is the defining aspect of American big business.

WHY RENT THIS: Tremendous, Oscar-caliber performances. Subject that is as relevant now as it was then.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Slow in places.

FAMILY MATTERS: The language can get a bit harsh in places.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: There’s a feature called “Inside a Scene” which allows the viewer to read the director’s notes and script for a scene before viewing how the scene played out. It’s a fascinating concept but isn’t available for a lot of scenes here.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $60.3M on a $90M production budget; the movie lost money in its theatrical run.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Whistleblower

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: Battleship

It’s Kind of a Funny Story


It's Kind of a Funny Story

Zach Galifianakis tries to pretend he's listening to Keir Gilchrist

(2010) Dramedy (Focus) Keir Gilchrist, Zach Galifianakis, Emma Roberts, Viola Davis, Zoe Kravitz, Aasif Mandvi, Lauren Graham, Jim Gaffigan, Jeremy Davies, Bernard White, Jared Goldstein, Alan Aisenberg, Thomas Mann, Rosalyn Coleman.  Directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck

The human mind is a funny thing and never is it funnier than when we are adolescents. I’m not talking funny ha-ha here, but the other kind of funny. That dichotomy in term makes the title of this movie a double entendre that is worth considering before viewing it.

Craig (Gilchrist) is a young 15 year old boy who feels unbelievable pressure, particularly from his dad (Gaffigan) to achieve. That pressure has become so intense that he is considering taking a swan dive off the Brooklyn Bridge. Instead, he calls a suicide prevention line and is directed to a local hospital where a doctor (Mandvi) evaluates him.

Although the doc is reluctant to, Craig insists on being kept there and finally the doctor agrees when Craig threatens to kill himself if discharged. What Craig doesn’t realize is that the observation is five days, not the several hours he thought it would be – and the teen wing is being renovated so the teens were scattered among the adult psychiatric population.

He is taken under the wing of Bobby (Galifianakis), someone who has been there awhile and whose marriage and relationship with his daughter is crumbling. Still, Bobby knows all the ins and outs of the system and encourages Craig to follow his dream and as it turns out, Craig’s dreams are a whole lot different than the ones his father and mother (Graham) have for him.

He falls for a girl (Roberts) who’s pretty messed up but a better fit for him than the uptight Nia (Kravitz) whom he has a big time crush on and who has been dating his best friend. Strangely, Craig’s incarceration has made him a celebrity among his classmates and rather thinking him  a freak, they think him more of a rebel and a hero.

This comes from the acclaimed directing team that directed Half-Nelson and Sugar. This is the first movie the team of Boden and Fleck have made that wasn’t an original screenplay. It is also a bit more comedic than their first two efforts, although there were certainly elements of comedy in Sugar. Here, the big star is not necessarily the focus of the movie (Craig is) and unfortunately, while that may be a bold move it’s not necessarily a good thing.

Galifianakis is especially good here. Most of us know him from his comedic roles as in Due Date and the Hangover movies but he shows surprising dramatic range here. He creates sympathy for Bobby who has made some very major mistakes that he might not be able to come back from. Still he manages to put up the veneer which crumbles if prodded too much.

Davis is also fine as Craig’s psychiatrist. She has that irritating manner that some psychiatrists have of being so non-committal as to be almost not human. Not that Davis is non-human here – she does show her humanity in spots – but her objectivity remains clear throughout. It’s an impressive performance in a role that might not get noticed for it. Veteran character actors Davies and Mandvi bring some quirkiness to their roles.

Roberts and Kravitz are both young performers with impeccable pedigrees (Roberts with father Eric and aunt Julia, Kravitz with father Lenny and mother Lisa Bonet) and bright futures. Although they are basically there to be played off of one another and to make a tug-of-war situation with Craig’s heartstrings. Roberts plays against type as a kind of tattooed rebel girl while Kravitz plays the self-centered object of Craig’s affections. Both are memorable in roles which could very easily have been forgotten if left in the hands of less capable actresses.

The trouble with the movie here is that it seems to take a long time meandering down the garden path with apparently no fixed destination and in no particular hurry to get there. Worse still, the path looks strangely familiar and you’ll probably recognize your own footprints on it. That’s not a good feeling when you’re taking your time to get to a destination that you suspect is going to be a place you’ve already visited dozens of times.

There are enough good performances here to make the movie worth your time, but the script holds it back from being a real major release. Still, it’s encouraging to see Galifianakis give such a layered performance. It bodes well for the man’s future in Hollywood, which gets rosier with every film he makes.

WHY RENT THIS: Galifianakis shows some surprising range in his first real dramatic role. Fine supporting work from Davies, Davis, Kravitz, Mandvi and Roberts.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Somewhat formulaic with a predictable outcome.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a little bit of sex and drugs and language, and the overall theme is on the mature side.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: During the “Under Pressure” montage, Craig is dressed as Vanilla Ice who notoriously sampled the bass line for his “Ice Ice Baby.”

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s some footage from the New York red carpet premiere.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $6.5M on an $8M production budget; the movie was a financial flop.

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

TOMORROW: Tangled