Bad Genius (Chalat Kem Kong)

Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean that someone isn’t following you.

(2017) Thriller (GDH 559) Chutimon Cheungcharoensukying, Elsaya Hosuwan, Teeradon Supapunpinyo, Chanon Santinatornkul, Thaneth Warakulnukroh, Sarinrat Thomas, Ego Mikitas, Pasin Kuansataporn, Sahajak Boonthanakit, Kanjana Vinaipanid, Yuthapong Varanukrohchoke, Nopawat Likitwong, David Gray, Laluna Nitze. Directed by Nattawut Poonpiriya

It is easy to admire smart people; it is also easy to distrust them. After all, knowledge is power and we all know what power does – it corrupts.

Lynn (Cheungcharoensukying) is a brilliant girl whose teacher father (Warakulnukroh) is trying to get her into one of Bangkok’s most exclusive private schools. It appears that her divorced dad won’t be able to afford the prestigious school’s fees and tuition but after Lynn accurately reads the headmistress’s (Thomas) greed, she uses math-based analysis to talk her way into a full ride scholarship.

Brilliant but socially awkward (the two often go hand in hand), she is befriended by Grace (Hosuwan), an aspiring actress who helps Lynn “look her best.” The two become fast friends and when Grace confesses to her much smarter companion that she’s worried about an upcoming math test, Lynn offers to tutor her for the test. However, Grace proves to be even dimmer than Lynn could account for and when she forgets everything she was supposed to have memorized for the test, Lynn writes the answers down on an eraser and ingeniously delivers them to Grace by a process that can only be called “shoe-mail.”

Grace’s wealthy boyfriend Pat (Supapunpinyo) sees a gold mine in test cheats and organizes a bit of a racket that the wealthy students of the school are only too happy to pay for if only to get their achievement-fixated parents off their backs. The fact that the school is charging her father exorbitant “maintenance fees” on what was supposed to be a free ride sways the formerly naïve Lynn and turns her cynical. She comes up with a brilliant idea utilizing codes tapped out on the desk like a piano etude. The plan works too – until another impoverished genius, Bank (Santinatornkul) blows the whistle on them. Lynn ends up getting her scholarship pulled.

Determined to right what Lynn sees as an inequity in that wealthier students who can afford it can bribe teacher for test answers in advance, she decides to go after the holy grail of test cheats – the Standardized Test for International Colleges or STIC, a fictional version of the SAT – with a bold and brilliant plan. Grace and Pat will help but she will need Bank and his photographic memory to pull it off. However, getting the test answers to students willing to pay for it isn’t going to be easy

The movie starts out as something of a social justice allegory with the hoity toity private school standing in for Thai society in general (and not far off from our own these days). It ends up as a slick heist thriller that wouldn’t be out of place on the resumes of Steven Soderburgh and Harmony Korine. Poonpiriya proves to be a director with formidable talent, melding the two disparate types of film into a singular whole that is entertaining as well as having something to say.

Cheungcharoensukying needs to carry the film and she does; considering that her background is in modeling and that this is her first feature film is absolutely astounding. The lady has plenty of screen presence and is able to handle Lynn in both her shy and socially awkward phase and in her cynical and criminal phase without making either look cliché. They are both Lynn but there are differences between the Lynn at the beginning of the film and the Lynn at the end.

The movie does take awhile to develop but once it gets going it’s like a runaway freight train. There’s also a sense of humor that is a bit sly and subversive; American audiences may not necessarily take to it but I’ve been wrong on that score before. While this is based on an actual issue that is scandalizing Asia at the moment (but not on a specific incident) it doesn’t let up on the fun either. This has a good shot at being remade by Hollywood according to the trades but I think discerning audiences would seek the original out if some distribution could be found. Certainly this is one to keep an eye out for; hopefully at the very least it will be a presence on the Festival circuit for the time being.

REASONS TO GO: Hollywood-slick, the film is as good a thriller that has come out this year. Chutimon is an actress with a future. The sense of humor here is subversive and fun.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie is a bit slow to develop.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some scenes of violence and peril, not to mention some mild profanity and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The actor playing Lynn’s father (Warakulnukroh) also starred in Pop Aye which played at the Florida Film Festival earlier this year and is set to be released by Kino-Lorber later this month.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/5/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.



Two people who know just how cute they are.

Two people who know just how cute they are.

(2013) Romantic Comedy (Focus) Tina Fey, Paul Rudd, Lily Tomlin, Nat Wolff, Michael Sheen, Gloria Reuben, Wallace Shawn, Michael Genadry, Christopher Evan Welch, Sarita Choudhury, Rob Campbell, Sonya Walger, Olek Krupa, Travaris Spears, Camille Branton. Directed by Paul Weitz

Getting into a good school can make all the difference in life. Princeton University, as one of the best schools in the nation, has to rigorously check potential students, culling out the wheat to get to the chaff. Looking for the best and the brightest isn’t always easy.

Portia Nathan (Fey), as one of Princeton’s top admissions officers, has that unenviable task. The simple math is that there are far more applicants than there are open spots so much of what she does is telling young students that their application has been declined.

This year it’s particularly vital because the director of admissions (Shawn) is stepping down at the end of the year and he doesn’t want to go out as number two, which Princeton has fallen to for the first time in years. His position will go to either Portia or Corinne (Reuben), her supercilious rival. Portia, whose territory is the northeast, is given the directive to find some new blood from schools not normally associated with Princeton.

Then she gets a call from John Pressman (Rudd), a former classmate at Dartmouth with Portia who knew her roommate well. He’s got a progressive school called Quest Academy in New Hampshire and has a student he’s particularly high on that might make a nice addition to Princeton’s student body. He invites her to talk to the student body about the advantages of going to Princeton. Oh and by the way, the student in question – Jeremiah (Wolff) – may possibly be the child she gave up for adoption just after she graduated from college. Whoops.

Of course now this puts her maternal instincts on overdrive and her impartiality on vacation. In the meantime her personal life is in chaos as her longtime boyfriend (Sheen) has dumped her for a bitchy English professor (Walger) and her relationship with her goofy feminist mom (Tomlin) is pinballing around her life like a pachinko machine gone berserk. On top of that John is looking kinda cute and sexy, even though she tells herself she wants no part of him. Which of course means she does.


Weitz, who’s made some pretty nifty pictures in his time (including About a Boy and American Dreamz) doesn’t quite have that kind of material here. This is, to be honest, a pretty pedestrian story, full of your basic romantic comedy clichés. Fortunately, that’s not all it is – there’s a bit of satire on the higher education system and how cutthroat it has become. There’s also something about embracing the differences, and understanding that people are more than the sum of their parts.

Fey and Rudd make appealing leads and that should come to nobody’s surprise – they are two of the most likable actors in Hollywood. They are not only an attractive couple, they play off of each other well. Both of them are pretty low-key however; there is nothing frenetic here and so the movie has a curiously muted feel. I suspect Weitz didn’t want to play this strictly for comedy (despite casting comedic actors in nearly every role) and wanted a dramatic edge to it but it winds up really settling into a middle ground that is neither funny nor dramatic.

Tomlin makes the movie worth seeing alone. One of the greatest comedians of all time (male or female), she infuses Susannah with just enough grouchiness to be funny, but just enough tenderness to give her the potential for redemption. Tomlin is definitely the comedic highlight here, which I’m sure that Fey as a longtime admirer doesn’t mind.

I actually liked the movie overall – but I didn’t love it (obviously). I wish it had been written a little bit better – perhaps Fey, one of the better writers working today, should have had a hand in it. Having not read the novel that is the source material, I can’t say for certain whether the fault lies in the source material or the adaptation but either way the plot is far too predictable – one of the main twists was predicted by Da Queen early in the movie and not to say that Da Queen isn’t a savvy moviegoer (she is) but it shouldn’t have been that easy for anyone to get it. With the summer blockbusters just a month away from the theaters, this is probably easy to overlook and is just as viable a choice for home viewing as anything else out there.

REASONS TO GO: Nice chemistry between Fey and Rudd. Pleasant and charming in places.

REASONS TO STAY: Formulaic. Lacks big laughs. Is curiously lacking in energy.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s a bit of language and some sexuality but not a lot.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While some of the scenes were shot on the campus of Princeton, more of it was shot at Manhattanville College in Purchase, NY.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/2/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 42% positive reviews. Metacritic: 49/100; the reviews are mixed, trending a teensy bit to the negative.



NEXT: The Burning Plain

Waiting for “Superman”

Waiting for "Superman"

Anthony Black watches his future passing him by.

(2010) Documentary (Paramount Vantage) Michelle Rhee, Geoffrey Canada, Anthony Black, Daisy Esparza, Bianca Hill, Bill Strickland, Randi Weingarten, Bill Gates, George Reeves, Francisco, Davis Guggenheim (voice). Directed by Davis Guggenheim

One of the few things both the left and the right agree on in this country is that the education system is broken, and very badly at that. Comparative test scores with students in other developed countries rank the United States near the bottom in math, science and reading comprehension. However, we are ranked first in one category; student confidence. Thank God for all those positive self-image programs implemented in the 90s!

Guggenheim, the Oscar-winning director for An Inconvenient Truth, returns to the subject that he first visited back in 2001 with the television documentary The First Year. In that documentary, he focused on teachers going into the trenches in inner city schools back in 1999. With the “No Child Left Behind” program having run eight years out of its ten and unlikely to reach its goals, Guggenheim decided to look at the problem from the other side – from the students’ perspective. 

He chooses five of them – Daisy, Bianca, Anthony, Francisco (all from poor ethnic neighborhoods) and Emily (from a middle class Silicon Valley neighborhood). Their stories are troubling – and all too common. All five of them have academic promise; Daisy wants to be a veterinarian while Anthony likes math. They all have parents (in some cases they are the children of single parents) that are singularly involved with their education, helping with homework, assisting them with reading, fully invested in the process. The trouble is that all of the parents know that they are fighting a losing battle.

Many schools, particularly in the inner cities but also elsewhere, have turned into what are termed dropout factories. They are unable and in some cases, unwilling to give their students the education they need to be successful in college. With each passing year, kids fall further and further behind until they simply drop out. Even if they do beat the odds and somehow manage to graduate, they are woefully unprepared for college and spend their freshman year taking remedial courses to try and catch up, and very often, they simply never do.

Guggenheim asks the valid question whether the neighborhoods make the schools bad, or the schools make the neighborhoods bad. It’s a fair question; certainly when a single school over a 40 year period drops 30,000 high school dropouts in a neighborhood, that’s going to make a dent.

But why are schools so bad? This is where I think the film drops the ball a little bit, seeming to oversimplify the issue. According to Guggenheim, it boils down to bad teachers and the inability of school districts to fire them, due to issues of tenure. The documentary asserts that the powerful teacher unions have made sinecures of their jobs, leading to a culture that the job is the teacher’s right, rather than a privilege. In New York City, teachers who are undergoing disciplinary hearings for reasons as varied as excessive lateness to work to sexual abuse are all made to spend their days in a waiting room reading newspapers and playing cards – at their full salary – while they await a disciplinary hearing. That wait lasts months, sometimes up to three years and costs Big Apple taxpayers more than $65 million a year.

There is hope, however – the knight charging to the rescue, as Guggenheim sees it, is charter schools. These are schools that have been created by communities independently of the school district, allowing the administrations to hire excellent teachers at increased salaries with merit bonuses and by allowing the teachers to actually teach rather than simply follow an antiquated lesson plan. However, there are very limited numbers of openings at these chartered schools, and a whole lot of parents wanting their kids to fill them, so according to law, lotteries must be conducted to fairly select which students fill those spots. Literally, the future of these kids hangs on a lottery pick.  

There are heroes too, like Geoffrey Canada, a crusading educator who became fed up with a system that resisted change, and went on to found a school in the worst part of Harlem and immediately set graduation rates and test scores that were better than even the charter schools. There’s also Michelle Rhee, the controversial chancellor of the Washington D.C. school system who took on the unions over tenure, and closed down 21 schools in the district. When she proposed a contract that would give the teachers the option of choosing a small pay increase and keeping tenure, or a larger increase with merit bonuses that could wind up raising teacher compensation into six figures, the union wouldn’t even let their rank and file vote on it. I guess they knew how that vote would turn out.

For my part, I think the movie raises some very important points, but I’m not sure they’re really seeing the entire problem. For one thing, I have to wonder if charter school students perform better because they have motivated parents invested enough in their kids’ education to fight to get them into those schools?  Would the test scores be as high if there were children with parents who were unable or unwilling to put as much time in with their kids?

Also, I don’t think that the film addresses a very crucial subject. While there is a high emphasis placed on the need for teacher accountability, it doesn’t do a lot to look at student accountability. In an atmosphere where the attention of young people is taken by video games, smart phones, surfing the internet, cable television and online social networking, school can’t really compete with these entertainments. Getting kids to understand the need for education is crucial and having a son who has been through the public school system, I can tell you that the issues he had were partially of his own making.  

However, I also know the schools failed my son. The administration put a label on him early on as an underachiever and tracked him with remedial kids. While he always excelled in tests, he had a bit of a lazy streak when it came to homework. The school’s solution was to put him in an environment where he was guaranteed to be bored, and once that happen, the system lost him. He is in college now but it hasn’t been easy for him and that he has fought back and taken charge of his future has made me a very proud papa.

What is important about this movie is that it starts a dialogue. There’s no doubt that our education system needs serious fixing, and sometimes we look at the problem, throw up our hands and say “It’s just too big to be fixed.” The movie shows us that isn’t true; with the involvement of parents and concerned citizens all over the country, we can make a difference and with our children’s future – and indeed, the continued economic health of the United States – in the balance, the stakes couldn’t be higher.

The grim truth is that statistically, we are no longer producing enough students proficient in math and science to fill the Silicon Valley-type jobs that demand those disciplines, and over the next ten years that gap is only going to widen. We are having to bring in students from India, China and other emerging nations who have invested a great deal in their education system and are churning out capable students at a rate the U.S. once did. We are on the brink of becoming a second rate nation, and fixing this crisis in education is the best way of preventing that from happening.

REASONS TO GO: One of the most urgent issues in the United States gets thoughtful treatment; while you may not necessarily agree with all of the filmmaker’s conclusions, there are at least some places to begin the dialogue on how to fix our educational system.

REASONS TO STAY: The movie isn’t terribly complementary to teachers unions and those who believe in them may find the movie insulting.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a little bit of bad language and some kids may find the themes difficult to comprehend, but this is perfectly acceptable for all audiences.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Those who bought tickets in advance from the film’s website can get a free download of the John Legend song that is played during the closing credits.

HOME OR THEATER: While on a viewing level this isn’t the kind of cinematography that begs for the big screen, the issue is important enough to motivate me to urge viewers to see it in theaters.


TOMORROW: Nowhere Boy