Category Archives: Television

Bad Education (2019, Cory Finley)

Bad Education is the story of a junior in high school (Geraldine Viswanathan) uncovering the biggest school embezzlement case in United States history, something like $12 million dollars. Only it’s not Viswanathan’s movie. It’s Hugh Jackman’s movie, which makes sense because Hugh Jackman’s great in it. Not transcendent, but he’s really good. He can’t be transcendent because Finley’s direction and particularly Mike Makowsky’s script… it doesn’t let him be. Jackman’s got to be the star but can’t be the protagonist, can’t even be the main character, even though—in its final stumble—the film tries hard to force it for the postscript.

It’s disappointing, but the whole third act’s disappointing so, while maybe a surprise, not an unpredictable one.

Also a bigger star in the movie than Viswanathan is Allison Janney. She plays school district superintendent Jackman’s assistant superintendent. The one who handles all the money. Janney and Jackman are excellent together so it’s really too bad when they don’t get to have any more scenes together. Unlike everyone else Jackman plays off—school board president Ray Romano, accountant Jeremy Shamos, boyfriend (and former student, but we’ll get to this one in a bit) Rafael Casal, and then partner of thirty-three years Stephen Spinella, Jackman doesn’t bullshit Janney, so you get some insight into the character in their interactions. Because the rest of the time you’re just watching to see if Jackman’s going to turn out to be the sociopath he seems destined to turn out to be.

Plus… they make Janney sympathetic. She’s got genuine nice guy husband Ray Abruzzo looking out for her and if he loves her, she can’t be all bad. Right? Meanwhile, the film introduces Jackman being gay after him hooking up with former student Casal (who he coincidentally meets while at a conference). It makes Jackman look like a creepy closeted teacher—even giving him an apparently fake dead wife—when, in actuality, the Casal romance seems the most honest look we’re getting at Jackman. It’s humanizing, even as the movie presents manipulatively.

Compounding it being problematic is apparently it’s all fictitious; yes, the real guy was gay, yes, he had a long-term relationship, but he never hooked up with a student or faked having a dead wife. So… odd choice, bad choice, especially since when it doesn’t pan out at all it leaves Jackman’s only character development subplot unresolved.

Ditto some of the stuff about Jackman as educator, which might be hard to play—as it involves Viswanathan (Jackman’s encouragement is what gives her the self-confidence to dig as a school paper reporter)–and there’s a scene where Jackman kind of threatens Viswanathan and Finley doesn’t direct it well. Finley’s constantly showcasing Jackman when the attention should be somewhere else. It’s disappointing. Especially after it seems like Finley’s seemingly gotten past some of the problems and adjusted the narrative distance, only for him to fall back into the same techniques.

Good supporting performances from Shamos and Romano. Janney’s great. Not much of a part but she’s great. Hari Dhillon’s occasionally in it as Viswanathan’s dad. He’s good.

It’s simultaneously not creative enough and too creative while doing the docudrama thing. Finley gets good and better performances from the cast and his composition’s… fine, but his direction holds back the character development. And the script’s already got problems with it. Someone needs to be invested in the characters, not unfolding the story. Someone besides the actors.

Bad Education’s pretty good considering it’s all over the place.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Cory Finley; screenplay by Mike Makowsky, based on an article by Robert Kolker; director of photography, Lyle Vincent; edited by Louise Ford; music by Michael Abels; production designer, Meredith Lippincott; costume designer, Alex Bovaird; produced by Fred Berger, Brian Kavanaugh-Jones, Julia Lebedev, Makowsky, Oren Moverman, and Eddie Vaisman; aired by Home Box Office.

Starring Hugh Jackman (Frank Tassone), Allison Janney (Pam Gluckin), Ray Romano (Big Bob Spicer), Geraldine Viswanathan (Rachel Bhargava), Alex Wolff (Nick Fleischman), Rafael Casal (Kyle Contreras), Annaleigh Ashford (Jenny Aquila), Hari Dhillon (David Bhargava), Ray Abruzzo (Howard Gluckin), Stephen Spinella (Tom Tuggiero), Jeremy Shamos (Phil Metzger), and Welker White (Mary Ann).


In the Gloaming (1997, Christopher Reeve)

In the Gloaming is a qualified success. If you’re trying to go for humanizing a guy dying of AIDS while his upper middle class White yuppie family is slow to realize he’s a dying person who they probably ought not to avoid because they’ll regret it… it does that job. Gloaming is an hour-long HBO movie, based on a New Yorker story, all set in and around Glenn Close and David Strathairn’s picture perfect home in Westchester County, New York. Straithairn presumably works in the city, but it’s never actually clear. Doesn’t really matter. Just they’ve got enough money to have a gorgeous house but no servants.

And son Robert Sean Leonard has come home to die.

The film’s a series of what you know the filmmakers would prefer you think of as vignettes, as Close bonds with Leonard while Strathairn gets pissy. Close has to overcome the fear she’s responsibility for Leonard being gay because she was nice to him as a kid. She wasn’t as nice to his sister, Bridget Fonda, who grew up to be too much of a yuppie even for Close, off married with child, but the son and husband don’t come around because AIDS is gross and so’s Leonard being gay. But it’s okay because Fonda’s going to cry when he’s dead? Maybe. Not resolved. The vignettes are more like clips of the character development without any follow-up. Like when Strathairn, finally coming to terms with Leonard’s impending death, thinks it’s a good time to go for some martial relations with Close. No follow-up on that one.

Plus Whoopi Goldberg’s just around as the nurse, who eventually makes Close feel better about herself.

The film’s… comprised. Screenwriter Will Scheffer does not have the chops to make the strained manners of the bourgeois somehow say more than if Strathairn actually sat down and had a conversation with Leonard. They talk a lot about how it’s going to happen, then never does. Because Strathairn’s a terrible guy, even though he grows tomatoes for Close to cook him even though he doesn’t like tomatoes much. But we’ve got to understand Strathairn’s position–he just wanted what must be a macho man in Westchester County 1997, a tennis playing gardener man. Instead he got son Leonard, who went off to Berkeley and became gay. Meanwhile, why doesn’t anyone love Fonda enough, she’s doing her part, working full-time and wearing pantsuits and being mean to her own son so he doesn’t turn out gay.

Yes, Gloaming is from 1997. Yes, it’s from HBO. Yes, it’s from a New Yorker story (but 1997 New Yorker so… I mean… right?). But it has a lot it’s not willing to address. Scared to address. Leaving Strathairn, Fonda, and Goldberg with somewhat pointless parts. Fonda’s scary good as the shittiest human being and Goldberg’s at least likable. Strathairn’s just tiresome. He’s a one note caricature, with some “details” thrown in to round him. Doesn’t work.

So after two paragraphs dunking on it, why is In the Gloaming a qualified success?

Because the stuff with Leonard and Close, as they bond and work through his imminent mortality—mind you, they don’t get real character development in the script because of that vignette structure–it’s great work from Close and Leonard. The script limits them, sure. But Reeve works the hell out of their scenes together. And it resolves their relationship just right. Then ruins it with the actual last scene, which is an eye-roll and a half.

But Leonard and Close. They’re real good. They do so much with… not so little, but so… comprised a material. They refuse to let it limit their performances, which is cool.

Reeve’s direction is fine. He likes crane shots and doesn’t get to do enough of them. Good photography from Frederick Elmes. David Ray’s editing is a little too hurried, which is strange because of the the oddly manipulative nature montages–it’s like HBO is slamming their affluent viewers over the head with, “It could be your sons too, White women ages 45-55 who like Glenn Close!”—but then Ray’s got no sense of cutting when it comes to the dialogue scenes.

It’s like Reeve tried to direct it as a stage adaptation but without the play backbone.

Very heavily Scottish-influenced Dave Grusin score, which is weird (and figures into the plot); it’s a good score, it’s just a lot.

But it’s definitely a missed opportunity overall. It’s aged like flat root beer.

So, technically, earnestly, but unenthusiastically:

2/3Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Christopher Reeve; teleplay by Will Scheffer, based on a story by Alice Elliott Dark; director of photography, Frederick Elmes; edited by David Ray; music by Dave Grusin; production designer, Andrew Jackness; costume designer, Jane Greenwood; produced by Nellie Nugiel; aired by HBO.

Starring Glenn Close (Janet), Robert Sean Leonard (Danny), David Strathairn (Martin), Bridget Fonda (Anne), and Whoopi Goldberg (Myrna).


Duel (1971, Steven Spielberg)

The first act of Duel ought to be enough to carry it. Spielberg’s direction, Frank Morriss’s editing, even Jack A. Marta’s workman photography—it’s spellbinding. It even gets through lead Dennis Weaver calling home to fight with his wife and revealing to the audience he’s a wuss. See, last night he and the wife went to a party and some guy groped her and Weaver didn’t do anything and now she’s mad. Jacqueline Scott’s the wife. She’s in one scene, a handful of shots, at home taking care of the kids after the incident while Weaver’s driving across the state (of California) for a business meeting. The whole account depends on it, but really it’s because he’s a wuss. Weaver’s a wuss, which… isn’t actually part of Duel’s initial narrative impulse because the phone call to the wife is added material for the theatrical release. Duel is a TV movie turned theatrical release (for international markets).

Weaver’s even more of an annoying wuss because he puts up his leg in a very pseudo-macho way while on the phone. It’s weird. And it’s a lot, but Duel can get through it because it’s so well-made.

See, Weaver’s driving to this meeting and he pisses off a truck driver. That truck driver starts messing with Weaver, not letting him pass, roaring past him, waving him on into another vehicle. A rural highway nightmare. What’s Weaver going to do about it with his machismo posturing after all. But Weaver doesn’t really matter—not even as much as the comedy bit playing on his radio—what matters is how Spielberg and Morriss tell this story. Well, to be fair to writer Richard Matheson… relate this anecdote.

And if Duel were a short or led Psycho-style into something else, it’d be fine. But once Weaver gets around other people and starts narrating the film with his thoughts… there’s only so much good filmmaking can do and covering for Weaver’s basically obnoxious performance is too much. Especially given how the narration doesn’t exactly sync up with the character onscreen and definitely not in the implications of his relationship with Scott. Because it turns out—though it’s a single mention then gone—Weaver’s a Vietnam vet and he might be suffering from some kind of PTSD. It’s such a surprise you spend the entire scene where white collar Weaver is trying to figure out how to speak with blue collar working men—he’s going to tell off the truck driver, who he thinks is in this roadside restaurant with him—wondering how the hell Weaver made it back alive.

There’s no help from Weaver on it, of course (I get the feeling hearing Weaver describe his character would be a trip), because his performance is… a step too far into disbelief. Killer truck driver who runs cars off the road then goes and gets their plates as trophies, yes. Dennis Weaver not being able to make a traumatized beta male sympathetic in the slightest, no.

The second half of the film—basically everything following the restaurant and Weaver’s narration starting—moves fast but not well. Nothing Weaver does is reasonable (he’s already missed the meeting, yet continues driving towards it even though the film’s established he can’t be late), Spielberg gets obvious in the reveals. Not to mention when the truck does finally turn into a six ton slasher and go all in on attacking Weaver and anyone around him (though not the school bus, in an inserted for the theatrical sequence; because Weaver in danger isn’t anywhere near as sympathetic as annoying school kids), it’s only impressive as far as the stunt driving goes.

Duel’s beautifully made for a while, then it’s well-executed albeit middling, then it’s a little tedious. Given it’s a real-ish time thriller about White middle class suspicions of the White working class being validated in a terrifying way… it shouldn’t get tedious. The tediousness of the third act is interesting—somehow Duel still moves at a good pace but Weaver’s so annoying in the action it drags.

Spielberg wanted Weaver for the role because of Weaver’s turn as the creepy motel employee in Touch of Evil, which… is definitely not the same skillset required of the role in Duel, which basically turns into a “Twilight Zone” episode once the narration starts.

So it’s this great short film with this okay “Twilight Zone” episode tacked on around halfway in.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Steven Spielberg; written by Richard Matheson; director of photography, Jack A. Marta; edited by Frank Morriss; music by Billy Goldenberg; produced by George Eckstein; released by Cinema International Corporation.

Starring Dennis Weaver (David Mann), Jacqueline Scott (Mrs. Mann), Eddie Firestone (Chuck), Lou Frizzell (a bus driver), and Carey Loftin (a truck driver).


A Tattered Web (1971, Paul Wendkos)

For its sub-genre of TV movie, A Tattered Web is pretty great. It’s a dirty cop story, only the dirty cop—Lloyd Bridges—is only a dirty cop because he’s trying to protect himself from a murder change and he’s only trying to protect himself from a murder charge so he doesn’t upset his daughter (Sallie Shockley). See, Bridges only killed this woman Anne Helm because Helm was sleeping with Shockley’s husband, Frank Converse. And Bridges didn’t even mean to kill her, he was just shoving her against the wall and, boom, somehow killed her. It was an accident. And Bridges was really about to call it in before he realized he didn’t want to go to prison; even if he got a jury sympathetic to the manslaughter nature of it… Bridges was there to harass Helm for sleeping with Converse. He was abusing his authority big time. And Web is from the early seventies so theoretically he might get in trouble for it.

So the movie is Bridges trying to stay ahead of his partner, a better than his material Murray Hamilton, while trying to convince Converse there’s another murderer—because the cops are after Converse because he’s the lover—and trying to make sure Shockley doesn’t find out about Converse and Helm. There’s always a lot going on in Tattered Web; it’s got a great pace.

It’s also got a rather strong script. There are a lot of narrative shortcuts and whatnot—it’s a seventy-some minute TV movie, after all—but writer Art Wallace still takes the time to have Bridges, now fully conspiring with Converse and framing an innocent man (Broderick Crawford), there’s still this scene where Bridges just gleefully watches Converse get his ass kicked. Even though the subplot doesn’t do much for the story, Web does have this one about Bridges becoming a violence junkie. It’s not great, writing or acting, but it’s weird and imaginative and you can cut it some slack. It’s nice Wallace cares enough to do character development, which isn’t just for Bridges.

Though Bridges also has this great one about the self-loathing his cover-up is causing. There’s visible pain in Bridges’s face when he manipulates Crawford. It’s often a good performance; Bridges isn’t phoning it in. He gets carried away but only slightly. If he doesn’t rein it in himself, it’s like the film’s Converse standing by to pull Bridges back.

Converse gives the best performance. It takes him a while to get going—as he’s doing more dick things at the beginning—but then he starts getting actually good. Shockley you wish was better because she’s clearly capable of it (she pulls off the weird infantilizing interrogation scene she has with Hamilton), but she gets abandoned for the end.

The end is a drag down fist fight on cliffs overlooking the Pacific. There’s no room for girls there, just the men who have to prove themselves. It’s a poorly done action scene—Bridges’s stunt man has brown hair versus blond—but it’s a great idea in the narrative.

A Tattered Web is all right.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Paul Wendkos; written by Art Wallace; director of photography, Michel Hugo; edited by John McSweeney Jr.; music by Robert Drasnin; produced by Bob Markell; aired by the Central Broadcasting System.

Starring Lloyd Bridges (Sgt. Ed Stagg), Frank Converse (Steve Butler), Sallie Shockley (Tina Butler), Murray Hamilton (Sgt. Joe Marcus), Broderick Crawford (Willard Edson), Anne Helm (Louise Campbell), John Fiedler (Sam Jeffers), Val Avery (Sgt. Harry Barnes), and Whit Bissell (Mr. Harland).