From the Archive: Real Genius

real genius

Here is another of the short reviews I wrote for the “Movies That Shoulda Been Summer Blockbusters” episode of The Reel Thing, aired during the sweltering season of 1991. Looking at this review now, I’m struck by how little I actually wrote about a movie that was a heavy repeat-viewing favorite among my friend group. I feel like I owe director Martha Coolidge and her uncommonly smart comedy another pass.

When Real Genius came out in the summer of 1985, it was amidst a glut of comedies with a scientific twist. Weird Science, My Science Project, and Creator all saw release at around the same time. But Real Genius was the only one that really deserved to enjoy some summertime success.

The film stars Val Kilmer as an offbeat, slightly frazzled but ultimately brilliant college student who joins his colleagues in developing an ultra-powerful laser. They’re elated by their discovery until they find out that their invention is going to be used to create weaponry for the U.S. government. The film presents a fascinating group of students who interact on the college campus and really has fun with the students’ abilities to use their scientific knowledge to create excellent parties; turning dorm hallways into toboggan chutes may be the most notable trick.

Val Kilmer delivers his most likable performance in the lead role, capturing every bit of his character’s goofy charm. Even when the film isn’t wildly funny or particularly challenging, it’s still filled with enough good spirits to make for a highly enjoyable venture.

Now Playing: The Big Sick

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When I write out Judd Apatow’s name in this space, it’s usually in conjunction with some grousing about his creative shortcomings, which have spread across the field of cinematic comedy like spilled Fresca. Apatow is a rambunctiously creative filmmaker, but he also lacks discipline in his craftsmanship, leading to lopsided works that compromise their own insights with wearying rambles. And his success has fostered a broader culture of similarly bloated comedies.

I stand by that assessment, because I’ve seen too many promising films collapse under their own teetering weight. But I also don’t give Apatow enough credit for the ways in which that same expansive nature manifests as a generosity that brings valuable voices in the current cultural sphere, specifically those voices that it’s difficult to imagine with a prominent platform if not for Apatow’s advocacy. In the latest example, The Big Sick would likely not exist if comedian Kumail Nanjiani hadn’t casually shared with Apatow the surprisingly fraught story of his courtship with his eventual wife, Emily V. Gordon, and if Apatow hadn’t responded with the specific encouragement the he’s capable of backing up with supporting action: “That should be a movie, and you should write it.”

Nanjiani did follow the advice to sit down and make the story a screenplay — crafting it alongside Gordon — and he stars as Kumail, an aspiring stand-up comedian in Chicago. One night, his on-stage equilibrium is disrupted when a woman named Emily (Zoe Kazan) offers loud verbal encouragement from the crowd during his set. He finds her afterward and explains that the “whoo-hoo” she lobbed from the audience technically counts as a heckle and was therefore rude. On the movie “meet cute” scale, it’s a more satisfying beginning than most. Kumail and Emily embark on a relationship of tentative escalation that nicely captures the common uncertainty of people coming together in their twenties, when a precariously solidifying sense of an adult self can collide with a desire to connect with another.

And then the film finds its way to the plot turn that gives The Big Sick its title. More valuably, the development gives the movie a greater weight. Since Nanjiani and Gordon are drawing on true events from their own life together, they avoid the sort of maudlin nonsense that might have sunk the film had it been dreamed up by some indie comedy Nicholas Sparks disciple. Without compromising the ringing, character-driven humor that drives the film, the story properly digs into the pinballing between fear and hope that defines that sort of situation.

There are shortcomings. While Nanjiani is consistently engaging, some moments are a touch beyond his capabilities as an actor, an issue that is simultaneously compensated for and accentuated by the sterling performances of Kazan, and supporting players Holly Hunter and Ray Romano. And Michael Showalter’s directing job is a little pedestrian, draining some of the impact from moments big and small. But the film ultimately pushes past the little problems. Combine the emotional honesty of the main plot with the insightful and welcome explorations of how Kumail’s background as a member of a Pakistani immigrant family impacts his ability to navigate an on-edge society, and it’s clear that The Big Sick offers an object lesson in something credited producer Apatow knows well: familiar narrative rhythms can get a boost from a specificity of voice.

The Art of the Sell: The Big Sick

These posts celebrate the movie trailers, movie posters, commercials, print ads, and other promotional material that stand as their own works of art. 

big sick
I believe this image originated with the Los Angeles Times.

I’m planning to get to my review of The Big Sick tomorrow. As a precursor, I want to offer a commendation to the sales pitch that’s led up to and accompanied the release of the comedy penned by spouses Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon. In this, I don’t mean the sorts of more traditional promotional materials. The movie poster is mediocre at best, and the trailer isn’t much better.

Instead, those behind The Big Sick — led by Nanjiani and Gordon — have done an amazing job of using every other avenue at their disposal to tell the compelling story behind the film. Nanjiani and Gordon have seemingly been everywhere together, proving effortlessly engaging on podcasts, public radio staples, and in venerable outposts of celebrity celebration. That part of the campaign has been accompanied by the pair’s expert use of their respective social media presences, marked by effusive fan interaction and joyful wonder at the new world they find themselves in.

If there’s another recent instance of a film’s marketing campaign being simultaneously so ubiquitous and yet earnestly genial — defined by a humble gratitude that never feels calculated —  I can’t recall it. By the time The Big Sick made it to my town, I’d developed a rooting interest in it, as if it were crafted by a family member or a lifelong friend. Maybe that was someone’s devious plan all along. In the final analysis, it doesn’t matter. Held up agains the bludgeoning insistence of other marketing campaigns, the affection I feel for The Big Sick — and the people who made it — is a lovely feeling.

Other entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “Art of the Sell” tag.

Now Playing: War for the Planet of the Apes

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As with its immediate predecessors, I admire the franchise film War for the Planet of the Apes for attempting to instill weightier themes into its high-concept hook. Also in accordance with the other offerings since the reboot was rebooted — Rise of the Planet of the Apes and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes — the new film isn’t quite as profound or moving as it aspires to be.

When War for the Planet of the Apes begins, the hyper-evolved simians led by a chimpanzee named Caesar (Andy Serkis, continuing his reign as the master of motion capture acting) are still holding down their outpost in the woods, despite the fervent efforts of a human military unit led by a fuming figure known mainly as the Colonel (Woody Harrelson). While Caesar insists he wants only peace — sparing a group of human soldiers who were taken captive after a battle, for example — his patience for detente is sorely tested when a raid on the ape camp leaves some of his loved ones dead. In a heartbreaking moment, vengeance asserts its appeal.

And the plot moves along with assurance if not urgency. There are unique twists here and there, but too much of the narrative is rigid enough to repel any deeper emotional attachment.  Perhaps the key example of this is a traveling cadre of simian soldiers becoming caretakers of a young human girl (Amiah Miller). What’s presumably meant to provide another layer of feeling to the proceedings — to up the stakes — instead feels mechanical, a way to set up the casting of a name twenty-something actress in a fourth installment someday.

About the only addition that makes a notable impression is the introduction of Bad Ape (Steve Zahn), a zoo escapee chimpanzee who has the same facility for speech as Caesar, though equipped with a more limited vocabulary (which smartly align’s with the character’s history). In that instance, the main appeal is the comic relief the character provides, a highly welcome development in otherwise grim proceedings. Even the positive element calls attention to the clicking motors of the storytelling.

Director Matt Reeves – who handled the same duties on Dawn of the Planet of the Apes — knows how to balance his visuals between the blessedly straightforward and grandly striking. He also manages to drive home the highly cynical themes about the ugliness of organized humanity without lapsing into the didactic. It’s not every summer blockbuster that’s going to include the sight of militarized Americans engaged in vicious oppression while “The Star Spangled Banner” plays over tinny speakers. I can’t deny that War for the Planet of the Apes has a backbone.

But I also can’t deny that War for the Planet of the Apes left me a little cold. It offers a reminder that injecting franchise filmmaking with heated intent doesn’t automatically stretch sturdy bridges over the built-in pitfalls of a cinematic corner more hungry for dollars than art.

Martin Landau: 1928 – 2017

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In describing his approach to acting, Martin Landau once employed a story about a drunk and a sculptor. In Landau’s recounting, the sculptor is putting the finishing touches on a statue of elephant. In order to get the drunk to stop pestering him in the middle of his intricate work, the sculptor agrees to share the secret of crafting such a piece of art. The artist explains the process: get a large, square chunk of marble and chip away everything that doesn’t look like an elephant.

“I chip away everything that doesn’t look like the character,” concluded Landau.

When I started reviewing movies, at the very beginning of the nineteen-nineties, Landau was on quite a roll. Only a decade earlier, he was getting by on acting jobs in the likes of the TV movie The Harlem Globetrotters on Gilligan’s Island. A committed working actor in his sixties — and without movie star cachet — he wasn’t totally free from wince-inducing projects, but he also had a couple recent Oscar nominations in his pocket. It was an impressive late-career resurgence for an actor who’d been around long enough that his first major film role came in Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest.

Tall and stately, he was called upon to play serious men: doctors and judges and gravely worried fathers. Underneath that simmering seriousness, there was one deeper, truer unifying quality to his myriad of performances, one clear piece of Landau’s self that was there for those who looked closely enough. He clearly loved what he was doing, and acting sparked with his contained but constant invention.

And he could transform a whole narrative with his relentless quest for emotional truth in his performances. Notably, he met Woody Allen’s offer to play Judah Rosenthal in Crimes and Misdemeanors by explaining to the revered writer-director that his conception of the character was off. Landau felt the character was written as a hard-nosed villain and that Judah should instead be sympathetic, so that the audience could understand why he committed his morally bereft acts even as they found the infractions appalling. Allen hired Landau that day.

Landau explained how the collaboration shifted from there:

And about two weeks into the shooting, he came up to me and said, “You know when I wrote it, I didn’t quite see him as sympathetically or as sensitively played as you’re doing it. But I think it’s better, and I want to thank you.”

Crimes and Misdemeanors is a completely different film absent Landau’s adjustment to the central character. That performance delivered him his second Academy Award nomination.

It was the performance that nabbed Landau’s third Oscar nomination that most vividly exhibited the joy in the craft I mentioned above. As Bela Lugosi in Tim Burton’s Ed Wood, Landau takes a part that could easily be played as little more than a flinty stunt — and still be an effective and enjoyable performance — and infuses it with depths of feeling, giving a funny, mildly spoof-spun film a welcome vein of pathos. For his efforts, Landau finally claimed an Oscar statuette, one of the most deserving acting wins of the past twenty-five years.

Although I betrayed a disdainful view of some of the projects Landau had to sign up for over the years, one of the things I respected about him was the way he didn’t really seem to adopt the same harsh judgment of material that was, by many reasonable measures, inferior. Every part was an opportunity, a gift, an avenue to potential wonderment. He plied his trade at a time when an increasing range of entertainment options — especially on television — could allow him to play an actor bringing varied strategies to a theater audition, twin brothers mixed up in a murder case (in an episode of Columbo that includes a cooking demo that stretches to several minutes), and a starship commander.

No matter the role, Landau approached it with respect, which lent a dignity to practically everything he did. He believed in what he was doing, which helped the audience shift into agreement with that outlook, no matter the built-in shortcomings of the role or the piece that held it. Landau did the work to make that happen. He chipped away.

 

From the Archive — The Man with Two Brains

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Won’t your friends be impressed when they see you in your vintage promotional cap? Buy it today!

Continuing with mini-series launched last week that excavates the reviews from the bygone “Movies That Shoulda Been Summer Blockbusters” special episode of 90FM’s The Reel Thing, this is what I wrote about the comedy The Man with Two Brains, directed by Carl Reiner and starring Steve Martin. I see Google designates this film as “Romance/Horror.” That’s, um, not quite right, gang. Once again, the text here is transcribed exactly from the original radio script. 

Next on my list is the 1983 Steve Martin comedy The Man with Two Brains. Steve Martin plays a doctor who has one brain inside his noggin and a second one inside a jar. The glass-enclosed brain is all that’s left of a sweet woman whose voice is provided by Sissy Spacek. Martin falls in love with this caring, delicate person and goes on a quest to find her a body to be in so he can spend the rest of his life with her rather than his mean-spirited wife, played with sexy relish by Kathleen Turner.

The humor in this summer comedy runs along the lines of the craziness of the Naked Gun movies. Characters yell off-screen to tell some unseen force that it’s OK to stop using subtitles, and what appears to be a simple hotel room from the outside opens up to be an incredibly large castle laboratory. It’s amazing what you can do with a few throw pillows.

Steve Martin’s comedy hasn’t been this wild on screen since. It’s amazing amount of fun watching this masterful comedic actor dig into a script with as many laughs as The Man with Two Brains.

Playing Catch-Up: Cops and Robbers; Murder, He Says; Tower

cops and robbers

Cops and Robbers (Aram Avakian, 1973). This jagged comedy of resignation hails from the era of U.S. cinema when depictions of New York City were so gritty that it seemed as if wringing the celluloid like a towel would cause gray sweat to pulse out of it. Written by novelist Donald E. Westlake (who, in an uncommon reversal, later turned the screenplay into a book), the film follows a pair of metropolitan police officers (Cliff Gorman and Joseph Bologna) who decided to use their knowledge of the crime-fighting biz — and the blue uniforms that afford them ready access to just about anywhere — to pull of their own heist, escapes to more hospitable climes dancing in their heads. The deep-dive into frustrated, combative characters is consistently engaging and the plot they hatch is clever with being so overly elaborate that it starts to strain credibility. John P. Ryan gives a nice supporting performance of genial menace as the local crime figure the uncertain officers go to with their plan. Director Aram Avakian gives the production a perfectly tempered seediness and shows an especially keen eye for detail. When the two protagonists float and plot in their above-ground pool, a lone swim flipper, discarded and forgotten, sits forlornly at the bottom of the watery depths. It’s a simple addition to the scene that conveys so much about the raggedy suburban lives they’re living.

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Murder, He Says (George Marshall, 1945). A pollster (Fred MacMurray) heads into the rural wilds in search of a colleague who’d recently gone missing while out there on assignment. He runs afoul of a feisty clan intent on maintaining their privacy, in large part because one of their kinfolk is in jail for bank robbery, but the tens of thousands of dollars in loot was never recovered. Sure that a payday is coming their way, the last person they want on premises is a snoop asking a lot of questions. Though an original work for the screen (the story is by Jack Moffitt, and Lou Breslow is credited with the script), it plays like a cracking stage farce brought expertly into the more permanent medium. MacMurray is characteristically good as the befuddled gent stammering his way to safety among hair-trigger adversaries, and there’s surprisingly strong camera trickery — for the era — allowing Peter Whitney to play brutish twin brothers. The film is hardly profound, but it’s consistently fun.

tower

Tower (Keith Maitland, 2016). This documentary from director Keith Maitland has layers of ingenuity. It reconstructs the events of August 1, 1966, when a distraught and mentally disturbed Marine veteran climber to the top of the tower building at the heart of the University of Texas at Austin campus and started firing his rifle at the crowd below. Although he also employs archival news footage of the terrible event, Maitland largely depicts the deadly assault on unsuspecting citizens using rotoscopic animation. The simplicity makes the agony more profound, especially as Maitland uses that testimony of those who were there to come close to a real-time staging that gives a sense of how awful it must have been for the people on the ground, whether hiding fearfully as shots ring out or lying on the hot pavement, wounded and unable to get themselves to safety. The empathy present in the filmmaking makes the film nearly unbearable at times, which in turn makes it vital.