Category Archives: ★★

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).


City Streets (1931, Rouben Mamoulian)

The first third of City Streets is this awesome bit of experimenting from director Mamoulian as he tries to figure out how to make a sound picture. Lots of great shots and camera setups, usually with too dawdling cuts. William Shea holds everything just a few seconds too long. But the montage imagery itself is fantastic. And Mamoulian carries it over into the narrative a bit too, though he eventually stops with it after sort of peaking.

But even for all Mamoulian’s experimenting, Streets is never experimental. There’s always the script to drag it back to reality. Oliver H.P. Garrett (adapting a Dashiell Hammett original story, with help form Max Marcin) writes some great scenes and some excellent characters… he just doesn’t write the right ones excellent. Or, if he does, at the wrong times. There’s no reason Wynne Gibson, as a jilted mobster’s dame, ought to end up giving the most dynamic female performance in Streets. It’s literally Sylvia Sidney’s movie and she loses it to Gibson for the finale. Gibson’s great, but great because the movie doesn’t give Sidney a presence much less a chance. Possibly because no one realized Gary Cooper doesn’t work without Sidney around. His performance is better, but he doesn’t function right in the plot without her.

Streets is a crime melodrama. Sidney works for her step-father, a truly singular Guy Kibbee as an abject sociopath, who in turn works for crime boss Paul Lukas. Lukas is a classy European guy who seduces the women of his gang and then kills off his romantic rivals and promotes some duplicitous underling. He’s a psychopath, but one in the guise of a sociopath. Lukas is pretty awesome. He’s not as good as Kibbee because no one’s as good as Kibbee, but Lukas is frightening. Of course, Lukas doesn’t meet Sidney through Kibbee, rather through Gary Cooper. Cooper starts the movie a dope of a cowboy who’s found his way to the big city, just waiting until the circus shows up and he can join up. He’s Sidney’s fella. And he wants nothing to do with the bootlegging gangsters.

At least until Sidney’s in a jam and, being a complete moron, Kibbee’s able to talk Cooper into it to help her. Shame the only thing Sidney’s able to hold onto is the knowledge her fella would never get involved with the bootlegging gangsters.

There’s some great romantic scenes between Cooper and Sidney, which occasionally get messed up by the edits, occasionally amplified. The first one is on the beach and is exemplar good sexy until they cut to a two-shot in the studio instead of the location. Then one where the lovers are separated by a screen. Sidney’s amazing in that one. She also gets a few great thinking scenes, one accompanied by a sound flashback (the first in film, according to the IMDb), and then one where she’s got to figure out how to save Cooper.

Because once Lukas gets a look at her, he’s not going to stop at anything to get her.

And Kibbee’s more than happy to go along. And Cooper’s a dope who thinks Lukas is his pal.

There’s a better movie in the story, but maybe not much better. Cooper’s okay. He’s actually better as the plotting gangster than the dopey cowboy stud. Sidney’s excellent, but the material’s not always with her. Kibbee, Gibson, Lukas. William Boyd’s kind of blah as Lukas’s number two. Not bad just blander than he ought to be. Some of it’s the script.

There’s a great montage sequence of Cooper and all the mob guys looking at each other. I wonder how it’d sound with Ennio Morricone.

The film’s most impressive for Mamoulian’s direction. Unfortunately, you could cut together a ten minute reel of all the best directed stuff and be fine. For whatever reason, Mamoulian drops the experimenting in the second half and the melodrama stalls. It even drags, not good for an eighty minute picture. Maybe it needs to be longer….

The film just can’t figure out how to make all its pieces work; Mamoulian tries a lot of successful things, they just don’t add up. And he seems to get tired of trying, which hurts it.

But City Streets is still an amazing piece of motion picture making.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Rouben Mamoulian; screenplay by Oliver H.P. Garrett, based on an adaptation by Max Marcin and a story by Dashiell Hammett; director of photography, Lee Garmes; edited by William Shea; produced by E. Lloyd Sheldon; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Sylvia Sidney (Nan Cooley), Gary Cooper (The Kid), Guy Kibbee (Pop Cooley), Wynne Gibson (Agnes), William ‘Stage’ Boyd (McCoy), and Paul Lukas (Big Fellow Maskal).


High Tide (1987, Gillian Armstrong)

During High Tide’s final twist, I began to wonder just how different the film would be with different music. Sometimes Peter Best’s score is fine—or even good—sometimes it’s very much a product of its time and using way too much saxophone. The film’s biggest melodrama beat, where it commits to just being a melodrama about long-lost mom Judy Davis reuniting with daughter-who-thought-she-was-dead Claudia Karvan, the music utterly flops. It’s a questionable sequence at best—director Armstrong and writer Laura Jones have completely lost any sense of narrative distance or perspective by this point in the film—but it Best’s accompanying music just makes it silly.

Doesn’t help the scenes immediately following are basically a rapid-fire montage to get the characters through their difficult “thinking and feeling” responses, skipping Davis altogether and giving Karvan yet another disagreement with grandmother and guardian Jan Adele. What’s even stranger is the film takes place in a very finite time period—a week and a couple days, yet sometimes it’ll seem like far more time has passed than could’ve, particularly with Davis’s romance with local boy Colin Friels.

It’s all a shame because the first act is excellent. Davis comes to this small-town on tour; she’s a backup singer and dancer for an Elvis impersonator. Little does she know daughter Karvan is living there with Adele in a mobile home park. Karvan’s aware of Davis’s presence almost immediately. The town’s only got one entertainment hall, split between the family friendly and the adults only. Karvan sneaks over to look and happens to see Davis, but has no frame of reference to recognize her. Davis has made no effort to contact Karvan and, for a while, I’d forgotten they were going to be mother and daughter, because Davis is so blasé about being in this particular small town.

Well, she’s blasé because she has no idea. But when her car breaks down and she’s got to stay in the same mobile home park while it’s getting fixed up… it’s only a matter of time before she and Karvan cross paths. And then only a little more time before Adele shows up, telling Davis to stay away or else. Can Davis stay away? Ish. The plot perturbations to inform Karvan of her mystery parentage are rather protracted and basically reveal the utter pointlessness of one of the supporting cast members. High Tide’s plotting is particularly weird because the third act dumps significant supporting cast members, leaving their subplots either unresolved or passed off with a shrug and a line of exposition.

Based on how Armstrong sets up the film’s narrative distance in the first act, with the camera as an omniscient, objective third person, it could be fine. But the camera gets a whole lot less exploratory in the second act, especially once Armstrong settles on her system for conversation scenes. Establishing, close-up, alternate close-up, close-up, alternative close-up, maybe a tight medium shot of one person, then the other, then scene. Armstrong sticks closest to this formula with anything involving Davis, which means you rarely get to see her and Karvan on screen together. Instead there are just the reaction shots as they try to figure out their relationship, which ought to be some good scenes, based on how well Davis and Karvan do in other parts of the film… but the script’s not there. You wait the whole movie—well, after it’s revealed they’re really doing the one in 16.26 million chance of them running into each other—and then the pay-off is blah. It’s okay enough for Davis, but the film’s been gradually less and less her perspective and more her being a subject, but it’s terrible for Karvan. When Davis and Adele are fighting over her, she’s got all the agency of a paperweight.

Again, with that omniscient, objective third person camera Armstrong could get away with it because she’s just finding the image in these actions, but Armstrong has long since dropped it. Even for the terrible melodrama beat, it’s not like Armstrong’s got some beautifully visualized sequence with crappy music. It’s a boring (albeit pretty because ocean and beach and whatnot) visual and that crappy saxophone blaring.

For some of the second act, before it’s clear Davis doesn’t actually have anything going on besides the don’t-want-to-be a mom arc, it seems like High Tide would be better if she and Karvan’s stories were just juxtaposed. But they don’t end up having enough story. Davis’s most successful character relationship arc is with the mechanic (Mark Hembrow), who’s not even in it enough to get a name in the end credits. And Adele… she kind of gets more to do than either of them, but it’s just to burn runtime.

Good photography from Russell Boyd, fine editing from Nicholas Beauman. Sally Campbell’s production design is excellent.

Davis is good, Adele is all right, Karvan’s okay. Friels’s… fine. What’s interesting about Davis is apparently she picks “good” men, which isn’t really part of the story as it turns out. High Tide just needs a good rewrite. And a composer without a predilection for saxophones.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Gillian Armstrong; written by Laura Jones; director of photography, Russell Boyd; edited by Nicholas Beauman; music by Peter Best; production designer, Sally Campbell; costume designer, Terry Ryan; produced by Sandra Levy; released by Filmpac Distribution.

Starring Judy Davis (Lilli), Claudia Karvan (Ally), Jan Adele (Bet), John Clayton (Col), Colin Friels (Mick), Frankie J. Holden (Lester), Toni Scanlan (Mary), Monica Trapaga (Tracey), ‘Cowboy’ Bob Purtell (Joe), Marc Aden Gray (Jason), Emily Stocker (Michelle), and Mark Hembrow (the mechanic).


Champagne for Caesar (1950, Richard Whorf)

What’s so frustrating about Champagne for Caesar is how little the film really would’ve need to do to be a success. It just needed a rewrite. Someone to come in and fix Hans Jacoby and Frederick Brady’s script, which is usually fine but they really can’t figure out what to do with Celeste Holm. And given Holm is second-billed (albeit below the title) and doesn’t come into the picture until moments before the halfway point… it’s like there needs to be a point to Holm.

And there really isn’t.

Up to the point Holm arrives, it really seems like the film knows what to do. Until then, the biggest problems with it are director Whorf’s bland close-up inserts—you can just imagine the actors mugging at nothing instead of the other actor in the scene—and Art Linkletter’s game show host. Linkletter’s supposed to be a jackass so he gets a lot of leeway—he really does seem like a jackass. But even he’s able to redeem himself and help move the film into position to really take off with Holm.

So the film, which starts consciously objectifying sunbathing Ellye Marshall because—as the narrator informs the audience—there won’t be any chance for it later, is actually about erudite Ronald Colman. Colman’s dedicated his life to learning all that is learnable, content to sit and read, doing the odd job to help with the bills, but it’s obvious sister Barbara Britton is supporting them. She teaches piano. It’s crappy—while Coleman doesn’t look his fifty-nine years, he’s visibly older than Britton and there’s a story in how they ended up together, with Britton acting like she’s a spinster just because she doesn’t sunbathe.

This portion of the film, with Coleman and Britton just hanging out and trying to get by while being eccentric—they invite Britton’s student, Byron Foulger, to a show and it ends up them watching a television through the store window. Historically accurate but it’s not a “show.” The scene has Foulger perplexed at how he’s ended up sharing the activity with them; it’s really strong stuff—Whorf’s direction is never better than in the first act, though there are some returns to form later on. Coleman and Britton just perfectly click.

So Coleman has this bad job interview with this weird soap company run by oddball businessman Vincent Price. What makes Price so funny is how everyone indulges his eccentricities when he’s really just a poseur. It pisses Coleman off, so much he decides to sabotage Price’s game show—the soap company sponsors a quiz show and who better to go on a quiz show than Coleman, who’s got encyclopedic knowledge and instant recall.

While at the game show, Britton gets taken with Linkletter, which doesn’t seem like it’s going to be a great arc or anything—quite the opposite—until they fall in love. Again, shouldn’t work, but does work. After Coleman keeps winning, Linkletter offers to use Britton’s crush to snoop on Coleman; except Britton knows Linkletter’s doing it and doesn’t care. She’s not going to betray Coleman—though she’s against his game show revenge plan—but she’s also not going to stop seeing Linkletter.

Very unexpected, very well-executed. You get to see Price just completely lose it, which you’ve been hoping he’s going to do since his first scene and the payoff’s there. The third act bungles Price in a lot of ways—somewhat through neglecting him—but he’s mostly magnificent and absurdly so.

But everything going so well makes it seem like the film’s going to know what to do when it brings in Holm, who’s a professional troublemaker. Price hires her to seduce and destroy Coleman. Holm poses as a nurse to take care of man cold suffering Coleman, working to quickly sabotage him with her feminine wiles.

Except Holm mugs through all the feminine wiles scenes—very effectively, but it doesn’t seem like the script’s written for that approach. And, although he’s obviously taken with her, Coleman’s not believably moony about her. The scenes where he’s got to be a jealous mess, Coleman plays with a shrug. His character’s willing to lose $20 million to make a point, it doesn’t seem like Holm manipulating him will get much mileage.

During this section of the film—so the middle to the third act start or thereabouts—Britton basically disappears. Coleman even comments on her absence. Presumably she’s off with Linkletter but seeing them sit around and talk about Coleman’s chances on the game show would probably be more interesting than the feigned screwball stuff with Coleman and Holm. If Whorf could keep up with the actors, it’d probably be fine. Coleman and Holm are doing different things but never bumping into each other. They’ve got a professional grace, even though the script’s clunky and the direction’s detached.

Then Coleman and Britton get back together in the third act to regroup and Caesar’s all of a sudden so much better for a moment; it’s like you’ve forgotten the ground the film’s lost through its runtime.

The ending’s not bad just flat. Tepid. Lukewarm. Blah.

There’s some excellent material in it—Price is a hoot, Britton’s quite good, Coleman and Holm are solid; Caesar never tasks Coleman and he always gives more than the scene needs. Just needs a better script and more decisive direction.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Richard Whorf; written by Hans Jacoby and Frederick Brady; director of photography, Paul Ivano; edited by Hugh Bennett; music by Dimitri Tiomkin; costume designer, Maria P. Donovan; produced by George Moskov; released by United Artists.

Starring Ronald Colman (Beauregard Bottomley), Barbara Britton (Gwenn Bottomley), Celeste Holm (Flame O’Neil), Art Linkletter (Happy Hogan), Vincent Price (Burnbridge Waters), Byron Foulger (Gerald), Vici Raaf (Waters’s secretary), and Ellye Marshall (Frosty).