Tag Archives: B

BAD EDUCATION

Producers: Fred Berger, Eddie Vaisman, Julia Lebedev, Brian Kavanaugh-Jones, Oren Moverman and Mike Makowsky    Director: Corey Finley   Screenplay: Mike Makowsky   Cast: Hugh Jackman, Allison Janney, Geraldine Viswanathan, Ray Romano, Alex Wolff, Annaleigh Ashford, Jeremy Shamos, Ray Abruzzo, Rafael Casal, Hari Dhillon, Stephen Spinella, Jimmy Tatro and Jane Brockman   Distributor: HBO Films

Grade: B

Corey Finley’s debut feature “Thoroughbreds” was an intriguing variant of “Heavenly Creatures” marred by a mannered visual and verbal style.  That’s moderated in this follow-up even though it shares with the first the talents of cinematographer Lyle Vincent.

That’s because the script about a scandal that occurred at a Long Island school district in the early 2000—based by Mike Makowsky (an alum of the school where it occurred) on a New York Magazine article, “The Superintendant,” by Robert Kolker—is a much more straightforward piece of work than Finley’s was for “Thoroughbreds.”  That doesn’t mean, however, that it isn’t cunningly constructed, with plenty of crisply-written dialogue and spicy scenes.  It manipulates some of the facts for dramatic effect, of course, but that’s hardly crime equal to the ones perpetrated in the movie by its principal crooks.

The focus of it all is Frank Tassone (Hugh Jackman), the smiling, glad-handing superintendant of the Rosyln school district.  He has his faults—he’s extraordinarily vain and has a semi-secret private life with longtime gay partner Tom Tuggiero (Stephen Spinella) while cheating on him with ex-student Kyle Contreras (Rafael Casal), who’s now an exotic dancer in Vegas—not to mention that he’s been scamming funds from the district budget for years (and overlooking the fact that his assistant Pamela Gluckin has been doing the same).  But he’s well-educated, seems genuinely interested in the students, encouraging them to do their best and working to get them into the best colleges, and has improved the overall record of the district astronomically.  That makes the school board headed by realtor Big Bob Spicer (Ray Romano) very happy, since it help increase local property values enormously.  They’re also much taken with Tassone’s latest project, an expensive skywalk that will set the district apart from its rivals. 

It’s an error by Gluckin (Allison Janney) that leads to the collapse of Tassone’s house of cards.  She’s extremely incautious with her ill-gotten wealth, driving around in a sports car and putting cash into several homes.  Still, it might have gone unnoticed among the contented citizenry had not she placed the responsibility of renovating her newest property in the hands of her dim-bulb son (Jimmy Tatro), who racks up credit card bills at a local hardware store that start the scheme unraveling.  Even obtuse district auditor Phil Metzger (Jeremy Shamos) finally grasps what’s going on, though not the extent of the chicanery. 

Tassone reacts quickly, throwing Gluckin to the wolves and claiming clean hands himself.  With the board’s support he might have survived were it not for Rachel Bhargava (Geraldine Viswanathan), a dedicated reporter at the school newspaper.  Though assigned by her editor (Alex Wolff) to do a puff piece on the skywalk, she digs into the financial malfeasance with help from her father (Hari Dhillon), who lost his job at a big Wall Street firm over various shenanigans there, and ultimately sets her sights on Tassone himself.  The rest, as they say, is history, even if Makowsky massages the facts a bit.

Jackson uses his aging leading-man looks to excellent effect here.  He ably conveys Tassone’s initial self-confidence but also his slightly shifty manner extremely well, making him a smarmy figure even as he offers excuses for his behavior (which he explains as beginning accidently rather than maliciously).  Finley and Vincent help by giving him a rather sallow complexion, to which the actor adds the appropriate twitches and perspiration as matters become desperate. 

Janney, meanwhile, brings enormous energy and brashness to Gluckin, and a real sense of anguish and anger as her career falls apart and threatens her family along with it.  By the close one feels a bit of sympathy for these two inept miscreants, along with Shamos’ inept auditor, Spinella’s cuckolded husband, Romano’s blindsided real estate man, Gluckin’s clueless aide (Annaleigh Ashford) and even Alex Wolff’s newspaper editor, who blithely advises his reporter that the Beacon is just an extracurricular activity intended to fatten the staff’s résumés.  If there’s a weakness among the cast, it’s in Viswanathan’s Rachel; the actress is fine, but her character is underdeveloped. 

The movie doesn’t beautify the Roslyn scandal visually, either.  Meredith Lippicott’s production design and Alex Bovaird reflect the place and period and place unobtrusively, and Vincent’s camerawork, more relaxed this time around, capture them warts and all.  Louise Ford’s editing is sharp and the score by Michael Abels unobtrusively supportive.

Finley’s sharp, nicely nuanced treatment proves that dramatizing bad behavior in school administrative offices can make for a good movie, especially when bolstered by performances from the likes of Jackman and Janney.

END OF SENTENCE

Producers: Elfar Adalsteins, David Collins and Sigurjan Sighvatsson   Director: Elfar Adalsteins   Screenplay: Michael Armbruster   Cast: John Hawkes, Logan Lerman, Sarah Bolger, Andrea Irvine, Olafur Darri Olafsson, Denis Conway, Lalor Roddy, David Grant White, Sean Malron and Mary McEvoy   Distributor: Gravitas Ventures

Grade: B

A road-trip movie about the reconciliation between a father and his estranged son might not seem the most imaginative idea in the world, but with “End of Sentence” producer-turned-director Elfar Adalsteins beats the odds and delivers a winning take on a familiar formula.

Michael Armbruster’s script opens at an Alabama prison, where a loving couple, Frank and Anna Fogle (John Hawkes and Andrea Irvine) are visiting their incarcerated son Sean (Logan Lerman), a repeated offender now behind bars for car theft.  Anna is suffering from terminal cancer, and has come to share a tearful goodbye with Sean.  Frank pointedly sits on a bench outside, a stiff, precise fellow who’s well-spoken but obviously not at ease with the young man. 

Soon after Anna’s funeral occurs, and fastidious Frank takes the urn containing her ashes to greet Sean upon his release.  His son wants nothing to do with him, intending to drive to California where a job is waiting for him.  Even Frank informs him of Anna’s last wish—that they should travel to her native Ireland and scatter her ashes in an obscure lake—the young man is resolute, until he learns that because of his rap sheet, no one will entrust him with a car to drive west.  Reluctantly he takes up Frank on his offer—which carries the revelation that Anna had left him a house in Ireland, and a promise to pay Sean’s way to California by the date his job is set to start—but is still surly toward his father, whom he dismisses as a milquetoast who never stands up for himself.

There’s some truth to that.  Frank is unfailingly courteous and quietly submissive, even when others are treating him without much respect.  He explains his placid attitude as a way of getting through life without turmoil, but Sean finds his docility revolting, especially since—as we eventually learn—his failure to take a stand on his son’s behalf at important moments was a major cause of their long estrangement. 

When they get to Ireland, Frank’s demeanor at the car rental counter—requiring an automatic transmission, buying all the insurance he can—irritates Sean, and his slow driving and insistence on stopping regularly for gas irritate him.  Frank also surprises him by saying that they will be stopping in Dublin to share a memorial visit with some of Anna’s old friends and relatives. 

That stop has two important ramifications.  Frank learns that his late wife had a reputation for wildness in her youth, and is especially obsessed with a photo showing her on a motorcycle with an attractive man.  Meanwhile Sean links up with Jewel (Sarah Bolger), a hot-to-trot Irish lass with a lovely singing voice, and insists that she join them on the road, much to Frank’s distress.

Needless to say, the trip has its share of speed bumps.  Jewel proves to be not quite the sweet girl she seems, flirting with Frank while bedding Sean, and Frank becomes intent on tracking down the man in that photograph with Anna and finding out why the lake was so important to her that she wanted her ashes scattered in it.  The twists are sometimes a might hard to swallow—this is Ireland, the country of blarney, after all—but in the end they serve as a satisfactory means of encouraging the bonding of father and son without pummeling us over the head with the message that that’s what the dead woman intended all along. 

The story, predictable overall if surprising in the details, would not have worked but not for the nuanced work of Hawkes and Lerman.  The former adds to the long list of incisive portraits of imperfect men he’s quietly built up over a career now spanning more than three decades; he makes Frank a poignant, only slightly absurd character, set in his ways until—of course—he literally takes a leap at the close.  Lerman, who was always rather spindly and sheepish in his earlier roles, now appears all buff and grown up as Sean, playing off his macho attitude expertly against Hawkes’ recessive character.  Jewel adds a charge of seductive, amoral energy to the proceedings, and the rest of the cast add color and enthusiasm to their roles.

It’s entirely to be expected that Karl Oskarson’s cinematography would be a star of the picture too, employing the lovely Irish locations to fine effect.  Expert work also comes from production designer Ray Ball and editor Kristjan Lodmfjord. Though the latter’s handling of a couple of actions scenes—an encounter with a couple of junkyard dogs, a chase on a ferry—could be smoother, though the original footage was probably the problem.  Petur Benediktsson contributes an evocative score, with a couple of songs adding to the atmosphere.

This is the first feature directed by Adalsteins, but it indicates that his earlier work as a producer has provided good training for the job.   This is a “Sentence” most viewers will be happy to have served.