The second collaboration between director Terry Zwigoff and comic book writer Daniel Clowes following the excellent Ghost World is nowhere (and we do mean nowhere) near as good as its predecessor, suffering from the kind of twee indie-film self-consciousness that Ghost World so expertly managed to avoid. However, there are still some pleasures to be had in this strange tale of a young student (Max Minghella) who comes of age as both a man and an artist while enrolled at a prestigious art school via falling in love with one of the models (Sophia Myles) and inadvertently becoming involved and inspired by the campus’ neighborhood being terrorized by a serial killer (huh?). It’s just too flip and too-cool-for-school distant to really make any sort of dramatic impact (or anything really resembling a point, at that), but there are some choice character moments scattered throughout, most of them provided by the wonderful Jim Broadbent as a hard-drinking, washed-up painter. Ultimately, Art School Confidential should’ve been a lot better, but it does manage to sometimes almost perfectly capture the pretentiousness and eccentricity of an arts college, which will undoubtedly inspire a few “inside” chuckles from applicable viewers.
“Nerrrrrdddss…” Has there ever been an utterance more sinister in the history of cinema? What starts off as a riotous comedy turns into something of an action thriller as a group of ever-humiliated and put-upon misfit college students plan a series of elaborate and multi-tiered vengeance schemes against their tormentors, the Alpha Betas and Pi Delta Pis. The panty raid and subsequent video surveillance system installed in the shower of the sorority house is the setpiece everyone remembers best (and rightly so), though our favorite sequence might be the incredible musical production the nerds put on at the end of the Greek Games (this was indeed the era of Devo, in case you had forgotten), which had to have blown a good portion of the film’s budget. The entire cast seems to be having a blast, though oddly enough it’s two of the “grown-ups” who end up stealing the show: Bernie Mac as Jefferson, the badass head of Lambda Lambda Lambda, and John Goodman as the buffoonish Coach Harris. To paraphrase Lewis (Robert Carradine), this movie’s for “anyone who has ever felt stepped on, left out, picked on or put down” — and that pretty much covers everyone, right? The nerds are, indeed, the champions, my friends.
“Readin’, Writin’, and Radiation!” Troma king Lloyd Kaufman, the man who brought us The Toxic Avenger, continued indulging his weirdo fascination with unstable nuclear power and subsequent mutation run amok with this low-budget 1986 schlockfest that takes place at New Jersey’s pride and joy, Tromaville High School, which is located right next to a — you guessed it! — nuclear power plant. When the school’s main gang, the Cretins, sells radioactive marijuana to the one of the students and he smokes it with two of his friends, the results include developing superhuman powers and a giant monster in the school basement that the girl initially spat down the toilet upon learning that she was pregnant (think about it — it sort of makes sense, right?). It’s just as tasteful and cheap as anything that Troma has ever produced — and just as wickedly creative and amusing. Followed by two sequels that no one really gave a damn about (but that have their own charms as well), Class of Nuke ‘Em High 2: Subhumanoid Meltdown (1991) and Class of Nuke ‘Em High 3: The Good, the Bad and the Subhumanoid (1994).
An opportunity to see Chris Evans before he was “Chris Evans” and Scarlett Johansson before she was SCARLETT JOHANSSON, The Perfect Score is kind of like The Breakfast Club reimagined as Ocean’s Eleven but with only about a quarter of the wit, as a group of perfectly diverse (and no doubt focus group-created) high school students come together to pull off a heist involving breaking into the ETS (Educational Testing Service) building to snatch the correct answers of the SAT exam so they can all get into the colleges of their choice with the least amount of effort. Besides being completely both amoral and preposterous, The Perfect Exam also suffers from not even being able to commit to its own dubious premise; the film has a strange “Are we really making this movie?” kind of self-consciousness that makes it feel like one big put-on. A disappointing endeavor, to say the least, especially as it was directed by Brian Robbins, who made a decidely much more entertaining MTV Films romp, Varsity Blues; the cast tries hard but, being movie stars in a movie that’s so self-aware, you never buy that any of them would ever have to actually worry about anything so mundane as taking the SAT.
An inspiring, classy though certainly intense and intimidating portrait of continuing education, The Paper Chase chronicles the uneasy, often combative though mutually life-changing relationship between James T. Hart (upgraded with a first name and middle initial from the novel, where he’s never known as anything other than simply “Hart”), a hardworking yet somewhat in-over-his-head first-year law student at Harvard, and Professor Charles W. Kingsfield, Jr. (John Houseman), the brilliant, stern and seemingly larger-than-life contracts professor. Kingsfield tells his students that they come to him with “a skull full of mush and you leave thinking like a lawyer,” a process and, indeed, journey that challenges and changes the young, naive University of Minnesota transplant. College is crazy hard, to say the least, in this excellent and, except for the elaboration on Hart’s name, extremely faithful adaptation of John Jay Osborn, Jr.’s equally excellent novel — though it’s also the best possible place to find out what you’re really made of, both as a student and a human being. Houseman is amazingly good as the hardass professor, winning the 1973 Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his performance; even more amazing is that he got the role only after Melvyn Douglas, John Gielgud, James Mason, Edward G. Robinson and Paul Scofield all turned it down.