#263. Savant

Everyone observes the world in their own, unique way. It has been theorized that babies perceive more things than we are aware of, mainly because they haven’t been able to determine what is noise and filter it out yet. Different theories say our minds are processing an enormous amount of observations on a subconscious level that we just can’t access. Either way, our brains eventually learn to tune out everything around us so we can function without being overwhelmed by data. That is unless someone has savant syndrome. While certain aspects of this mental disability give it a negative connotation, the fact still remains that savants have super-human abilities. Whether it’s being skilled at mental calculations or having incredible musical talent, savants see the world a little differently than we do. This week’s two films highlight savants.

Rain ManRain Man
Year: 1988
Rating: R
Length: 133 minutes / 2.22 hours

Often, savants are also diagnosed as having autism. Somehow, the deficiencies in one area of the brain are made up for in an exceedance in another area. Scientists are unsure why this happens, but the mental disability seems to be a prerequisite to having savant-like abilities. Some versions of autism require a structured schedule for the autistic person to function within. Things we may take for granted, like flying, for example, are incredible ordeals for certain, autistic individuals. Perhaps due to the inconvenience autism can have for the caretakers of these people, the savant abilities of said individuals may never have the chance to be revealed to the caretakers. Hopefully, if the caretakers do find out about the savant abilities of their ward, they don’t try to take advantage of them, but rather recognize the talent for what it is.

Raymond Babbitt (Dustin Hoffman) spends his time in a mental institution abiding by his stringent routine of watching The People’s Court and going to bed by 11:00 pm. He has been living in this institution for a long time, ever since an incident that placed his younger brother in danger. One day, he learns his father has died and, as a result, the mental institution is receiving his inheritance. This is the same day he is visited by his brother, Charlie (Tom Cruise), who was unaware of Raymond’s existence until recently. Charlie realizes Raymond has an excellent recall ability and tries to exploit this mental math in Las Vegas as he also attempts to exploit Raymond into getting him their father’s inheritance. As they travel across the country (but not by plane, due to Raymond’s fear), they grow closer. Finally, Raymond returns home to the mental institution, with Charlie coming to visit soon.

Year: 1996
Rating: PG-13
Length: 105 minutes / 1.75 hours

One of the other methods of obtaining a savant status, albeit a meager 10%, is to acquire it after a severe neurological event. These are often found in the trope of an individual being struck on the head, only to find they are now an expert in mathematics or music. Could it be that the acquired savant syndrome is because the brain is forced to only focus on one thing and to do it extremely well? Regardless of the reason behind the change, the acquired savant will often be misunderstood for their talents, mainly because people who encounter them have no understanding of their skills and talents before the accident that made them into a savant. Perhaps a focused brain merely highlights the inherent talents in the individual, when seen as a contrast to the less-than-exemplary functioning in normal society.

David Helfgott (Geoffrey Rush) was pushed as a child to excel in piano playing by his teacher and father Peter Helfgott (Armin Mueller-Stahl). Because of Peter’s obsession with winning, David is successful and wins many competitions with his skills. However, after he was pulled away from Peter’s tutelage by a local music instructor, David finds his father no longer approves of his life decisions. To impress his father, David works tirelessly at perfecting Rachmaninoff’s 3rd Concerto, an extremely difficult piece of music that causes him to suffer a mental breakdown during its performance. During his long road to recovery, people are surprised to find he is still adept at playing the piano. Even though a few individuals find it too challenging to deal with him, he does eventually find those who help him live his life and continue to play his music.

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 special savants

#262. Tom Cruise

Say what you will about his personal life, be it the tabloid headline-inducing relationships or his involvement with Scientology, but Tom Cruise has been in a lot of movies. But what seems to be the unique element to his prolific career is the fact that most of his films were recognized as “Tom Cruise films” (i.e., films that star Tom Cruise). While his early career has had a few minor roles, and his later career also includes the occasional bit part (via cameo), most of Tom Cruise’s roles have been in the leading capacity for the majority of his career. Perhaps the genius of his unique personal life frequently making the headlines of grocery store checkout lines is how we are often reminded that he is starring in a new film sometime soon. This week’s two films highlight some of the varied work Tom Cruise has done on the big screen.

                                         Mission Impossible: Ghost ProtocolMission Impossible: Ghost Protocol
Year: 2011
Rating: PG-13
Length: 133 minutes / 2.22 hours

Perhaps what has given Tom Cruise his success is two-fold: being cast by a lot of legendary directors and a knack for action films. Quite early in his career, he worked with Francis Ford Coppola on The Outsiders (1983), which no doubt opened the door for him working with Martin Scorsese (The Color of Money (1986)), Rob Reiner (A Few Good Men (1992)), Stanley Kubrick (Eyes Wide Shut (1999)), Steven Spielberg (Minority Report (2002) and War of the Worlds (2005)), and J.J. Abrams (Mission: Impossible III (2006)). While there are plenty of other directors who have tied Cruise into their movies, the theme that is often seen in a fair number of his roles is that he excels at action. One of his franchises that epitomizes this is the Mission: Impossible series. With five films under his belt as Ethan Hunt, this 20+ year franchise helped to get him where he is today.

Because of a semi-botched mission to extract some information from the Kremlin that resulted in the famous Russian building being destroyed, Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) and his IMF team have been disavowed from the United States via the “Ghost Protocol.” Now it is up to them to find the perpetrator of the Kremlin bombing, a mysterious man who goes by the name of “Cobalt.” In their pursuit, the team finds that Cobalt is attempting to strike up a global war between the United States and Russia since his new target is to obtain Russian launch codes for their nuclear missiles. Intercepting the codes in Dubai, all the members of the IMF team are prepared to do what it takes to stop Cobalt. Unfortunately, as their plans begin to fail, it’s down to the wire to stop an incoming nuclear missile from detonating on San Francisco.

Rain ManRain Man
Year: 1988
Rating: R
Length: 133 minutes / 2.22 hours

While Cruise has proven he can go the distance for action films, he has also shown he can excel in dramas as well. In fact, his three nominations for an acting Oscar have been from dramas. Oliver Stone’s Born on the Fourth of July (1989), Cameron Crowe’s Jerry Maguire (1996), and Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia (1999) gave him nominations from the Academy, but none of them earned him the coveted gold statue. That’s not to say these (and other) films haven’t won big at the Oscars. For instance, Rain Man (1988) ended up being the Best Picture for that year. Of course, once again the mark of famous directors is at play here, as many of Tom Cruise’s more dramatic roles have been in the films guided by the experienced hands of a skilled director. It’s no wonder Rain Man also won an Oscar for Best Director, Barry Levinson.

Charlie Babbitt (Tom Cruise) is one of those fast-talking, deeply-in-debt scumbags who is always trying to break it big by dealing in less-than-exemplary deals. His recent deal quickly falling through places him many tens of thousands of dollars in debt, which is why he is pleased to hear his rich and estranged father has died. Unfortunately, none of the money of the estate is bequeathed to him. Instead, this money is willed to a mental institution where Charlie finds he has a heretofore unknown older brother, Raymond (Dustin Hoffman). Raymond is severely autistic, but also has the qualities of a savant that Charlie tries to exploit to make money in Las Vegas counting cards. While Raymond’s strict routines stress the brothers’ relationship, they eventually grow close enough that Charlie no longer cares about the money and would rather have a brother than be rich.

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 classic Cruise roles

Bacon #: 1 (A Few Good Men / Kevin Bacon)

#105. Dustin Hoffman

One of the enduring icons of the theater is the image of two masks named Sock and Buskin. These date back to the era of the Greeks where staged plays originated. Sock is the mask representing comedy and Buskin is the mask that stands for tragedy. Most films fall into these two categories, but what is more impressive is when an actor can equally play both roles. Some actors excel at comedy and don’t venture out into the realm of serious drama. In the same fashion, some actors are so serious that they don’t transfer over into comedy well. However, there are a few actors who do equally well in comedy and tragedy. Dustin Hoffman is one of these actors. This week’s two films look at one comedy and one tragedy from the diverse works of actor Dustin Hoffman.

Year: 1982
Rating: R
Length: 116 minutes / 1.93 hours

Although comedy rarely wins awards, it is still occasionally recognized. While Dustin Hoffman has won two Best Actor Oscars, he has also been nominated five other times, including the 1982 comedy, Tootsie. In a role like this, Dustin Hoffman has proven that he really doesn’t take himself seriously at times. Of course, other films show his lighter side, including Hook (1991), and (to an extent) Stranger Than Fiction (2006). He also provides the voice for Master Shifu in the Kung Fu Panda series. And yet, Tootsie remains Dustin Hoffman’s defining comedic role. I think it’s this level of versatility Hoffman exhibits that really draws me to him as one of my most favorite actors. Still, this is merely a personal bias, and others may have differing opinions.

Logic and perfection might get you far in some artistic fields like sculpture or painting, but in acting, it can create a lot of headaches for those who work around you. Until you’ve made a name for yourself, you can’t argue with the director about the minutiae of the script, especially since you’re only doing bit parts for commercials. However, if an actor were to use his perfectionism to create a female persona who could get a solid acting gig, he’d be set for quite a while. Of course, the challenge here is making sure the ruse is never figured out, otherwise your career would be immediately dead in the water. Add to this the temptation of getting closer to people in an assumed identity than you ever would as yourself and things aren’t going to end well at all.

Kramer vs. KramerKramer vs. Kramer
Year: 1979
Rating: PG
Length: 105 minutes / 1.75 hours

One of Dustin Hoffman’s Best Actor Oscars was for the Best Picture winner, Rain Man (1988). Much like how he could act like a woman in Tootsie, he showed the world that he could also easily portray the autistic savant, Raymond Babbitt. And yet, this performance was his second Best Actor win. About ten years before Rain Man, Hoffman starred in another Best Picture, this time by the name of Kramer vs. Kramer (1979). Granted, he was already nominated for the award two times before this for The Graduate (1967) and Midnight Cowboy (1969). It just wasn’t until he starred in this family courtroom drama that he was formally recognized for his talents. If anything, Kramer vs. Kramer shows Dustin Hoffman can take on characters who really have heart.

Merely one Oscar win away from being another “Big Five” winner, Kramer vs. Kramer delves into the lives of divorced parents Ted (Dustin Hoffman) and Joanna (Meryl Streep) and the effects of the divorce on their lives and the life of their son, Billy (Justin Henry). Since Ted was left with Billy, he has to adjust his world to accommodate for the child. This means becoming less of a workaholic and more of a loving father. Despite having left the family, Joanna is fighting for custody of Billy because she eventually comes around to the realization that a child needs a mother’s influence above all else. And yet, when it comes right down to it, Billy is old enough to be able to determine who he wants to stay with. The courts decide to let him choose in a heartwarming conclusion.

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 Dustin Hoffman dramatis personae

Bacon #: 1 (Sleepers / Kevin Bacon)