Tag Archives: C+

THE DEBT

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C+

A tale of guilt and redemption in the trappings of a spy melodrama, John Madden’s English adaptation of the 2007 Israeli film “Ha-Hov” jumps back and forth between the 1960s and 1990s in telling a story about an intelligence operation gone wrong that gives rise to lies that threaten to unravel decades later. “The Debt” is a sober, well-meaning picture that aims to raise serious issues about truth and justice, but like Roman Polanski’s “Death and the Maiden” (1994), it’s ultimately undone by its own dour earnestness, though it’s not the claustrophobic exercise that one was.

The film opens in 1997, when ex-Mossad agent Rachel Singer (Helen Mirren) is being feted for her role in killing a Nazi war criminal named Vogel (Jesper Christensen), the so-called “Surgeon of Birkenau,” in East Berlin some twenty years earlier—a feat celebrated in her daughter’s new book. The reception is attended by her ex-husband Stefan (Tom Wilkinson), still in government despite being confined to a wheelchair, who had headed the team that got Vogel. But it’s also the occasion for the return—after a long absence—of the third member of their cell, David (Ciaran Hinds), whose sad face encapsulates his discomfort over the event, and who shortly after his arrival commits suicide.

The reason behind his desperation is soon revealed in flashbacks to the actual mission, with the roles now taken by Jessica Chastain (Rachel), Marton Csokas (Stefan) and Sam Worthington (David). The original intent was to kidnap Vogel, who was practicing as a gynecologist in the city, and return him to Israel for trial. But the attempt went awry, and the agents became a hunted trio, locked up in a dingy apartment with the captive German, who toyed with them until Rachel supposedly shot him in an escape attempt. That, at least, was the story they decided to tell. In reality, though, Vogel had escaped and disappeared. Rachel and Stefan had maintained their lie for two decades, and with David’s return their secret—for various reasons—threatens to unravel.

As structured by Madden, writers Matthew Vaughn Jane Goldman and Peter Straughan and editor Alexander Berner, “The Debt” shuffles between the sixties and the nineties, with the treatment of each timeframe showing strengths and weaknesses. The flashbacks contain a couple of well-built suspense sequences, one depicting Vogel’s abduction and the other a botched attempt to get him across the border via train. Some of the cat-and-mouse conversations between the young agents and their captive possess a subtle menace, and the scenes in which Vogel examines Rachel professionally have genuine creepiness. On the other hand, the relationships that develop among the Israelis, with their romantic overtones, are unduly contrived and comparatively stolid. And one has a difficult time connecting them emotionally with what presumably occurred in the intervening years.

The “modern” portion of the picture is even more troublesome. Some of the moments between Mirren and Wilkinson have a grimly fatalistic quality, but Hinds appears at sea in a thankless role. And in the film’s latter stages, when Rachel must come out of retirement to go to Ukraine and save their version of the past, the thriller aspects of “The Debt” come unglued, with the action increasingly preposterous. The denouement, moreover, aims for a truth-is-everything resolution that in fact raises more questions than it answers.

As usual, Madden proves a solid craftsman, and he secures good performances, with Mirren and Chastain ably carrying most of the burden as the two Rachels, though Christensen makes a suitably unpleasant villain, unrepentant and nasty beneath a veneer of culture. Jim Clay’s production design is particularly effective in the East German segments, capturing the dismal period detail, and Thomas Newman’s score complements the visuals adequately.

Ultimately, though, “The Debt” is fully convincing neither as pure Cold War thriller nor as rumination on the dangers of deception and the cost of moral repair.

BAD TEACHER

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C+

Though sporadically funny, this blackish comedy would have been far better had it been a lot darker. Instead of taking its premise about a rude, self-absorbed, manipulative middle-school teacher as far as it can, Jake Kasdan’s picture settles for sitcom-level shenanigans and mild raunchiness before coasting into an ending that effectively cops out. This “Teacher” isn’t really bad, just average.

Shedding her pin-up girl persona, Cameron Diaz stars as Elizabeth Halsey, an abrasive, do-as-little-as-possible gold digger who’s leaving her job as a seventh-grade teacher in a Chicago suburb because she’s finally snagged a rich fiance. But when the doofus, prompted by his mother, dumps her, Elizabeth has little choice but to return to her hated post for another year, determined to raise the ten grand she needs for the breast augmentation surgery she believes will be the key to seducing another wealthy male boob.

There’s some amusement in Halsey’s Spartan, book-free classroom, her nonchalant dismissal of her students, be they overachievers or dweebs, and her tactic of constantly showing them movies about school rather than doing any real work (the clips we see begin with “Stand and Deliver” and wind up with “Scream”). But the supposedly plot-driving premise of her money-making obsession bogs down, first in a car-wash sequence in which she plays on her slutty physical attributes although she’s supposedly uncertain of them (and which never makes clear whether she embezzles the profits, as was presumably her intention) and then in a protracted episode in which she steals the answer sheet to a state test so that she can win a big bonus for having the class with the most improved results.

Even more problematic, though, is that for the most part the script merely settles into the mold of oddball workplace comedy that writers Gene Stupnitsky and Lee Eisenberg have learned from their stint on “The Office,” which makes for a mildly amusing but awfully familiar result. The school principal, Wally Snur (John Michael Higgins), a dolphin-hugger, is a well-meaning dolt who might have been named Michael Scott. Elizabeth’s nemesis, hard-driving, endlessly ebullient but manipulative Amy Squirrel (Lucy Punch), is like a distaff Dwight Shrute. Gym teacher Russell Gettis (Jason Segel), who comments bemusedly on all his colleagues’ foibles, is basically a stand-in John Krasinski’s Jim. New teacher, rich Scott Delacorte (Justin Timberlake)—whom whom Elizabeth and Amy will fight—is the sort of high-minded dimwit who’s a Michael Scott in the making. And comparisons to the NBC comedy are further emphasized by the presence in the supporting cast of Phyllis Smith as another teacher, playing much the same role she does on Thursday nights.

But all the actors—except for Timberlake, who looks stiff and uncomfortable—throw themselves into the farcical business with abandon, sometimes too freely in fact. Under Kasdan’s permissive direction, Punch, most notably, overdoes everything, by the close becoming so manic that you wonder about a final gag that sees her transferred to an inner-city school. But Segel gives what’s probably his most ingratiating performance to date as the likable, laid-back fellow who’s obviously the perfect match for Elizabeth, and Diaz clearly is having a good time playing against type.

Unfortunately, “Bad Teacher” goes soft in the last reel, with Halsey turning over a new leaf while not abandoning either her lust or her hard-edged attitude. The effort to redeem the character without jettisoning what made her amusing in the first place doesn’t really work, smacking more of a having-it-both-ways mentality rather than going for the jugular. Perhaps the mildly cynical stance at the close is all the makers felt they could get away with, but it comes across as tepid rather than sharp.

So “Bad Teacher” deserves points for being more acerbic than the usual run of pallid, prefabricated Hollywood comedies. But it also earns demerits for failing to take things all the way. Like a student who could have gotten a solid B with some extra effort, it has to settle for an almost-but-not-quite C+.