BAD EDUCATION (2020)

April 23, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. Trust in our national institutions may be at an all-time low, but it’s not like there haven’t been plenty of events over the years to make us wary enough to demand attention and oversight. This story of the 2002 Nassau County Schools scandal is a prime example. This is director Corey Finley’s follow up to his clever and twisted THOROUGHBREDS (2018), and the script is from writer Mike Makowski, who was a student in the district when the scandal hit.

Hugh Jackman plays Dr. Frank Tassone, the District Superintendent of Schools, while Oscar winner Allison Janney (I, TONYA) is Pam Gluckin, the Assistant Superintendent. Both are excellent, but Mr. Jackman delivers what might be his best ever performance. His Tassone is uber-charming, and clearly wants the best for the schools and students. We do notice some oddities about him. He seems to be overly concerned about his physical attractiveness – perfect business suits, facelifts, not a hair out of place, and big smiles to show the world he has it all under control. In contrast, if Ms. Janney’s Pam had a mustache, she would certainly twirl it as the story’s most obvious villain.

The film opens by informing us that the district has been evaluated as doing excellent in terms of student test scores, student admissions to prestigious schools, raising property values in the area, and with financial success that leads to a new construction project – one that appears to be more of an ego project than substantive for education. Ray Romano plays the President of the School Board, and we get glimpses of life at the school, and the challenges faced by the administrators. As with many things, if all is well, few questions are asked.

However, stuff hits the fan when a reporter for the school paper starts doing some basic research. Rachel (Geraldine Viswanathan, BLOCKERS) is writing a “fluff” piece on a new high dollar capital improvement project at the school, when she stumbles on irregularities in billing. It turns out Ms. Gluckin has been embezzling for years. When the discrepancies first come to light, the conversations with the school board and administrators is downright fascinating. The crime is obvious, but by going public, who does it help and who does it hurt? These people don’t want the kids to lose opportunities. They don’t want their property values to drop. And they don’t want the bad publicity that comes with being unaware fraud had been ongoing under their watch.

Once Ms. Gluckin’s scheme has been exposed, Jackman really kicks it into gear for Tassone. Any additional details would spoil the fun, but it becomes clear that he’s a master manipulator. Corrupt people have a way of convincing themselves their actions are justified, given the good work they do. You know the drill – underappreciated and underpaid. Solid support work comes from David Bhargava as Rachel’s father, who is also going through his own professional crisis. Alex Wolff is the editor of the school paper, and he faces his own moral dilemma in a scene where he knows the right thing to do will actually cause harm to his college opportunity. Finally, Rafael Casal stars as Kyle, a bartender/dancer and former student of Tassone, as they are reunited in Las Vegas.

Director Finley and cinematographer Lyle Vincent (THROUGHBREDS, A GIRL WHO WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT) shoot in harsh light, never allowing the truth to hide behind soft filters. These are complex people with real lives and real families and real friends, all doing good things for the students. Watching a compromise of morals or a twisting of ethics is always a bit uncomfortable, but the film shows just how easy we can overlook the obvious. The film features brisk pacing with some dark humor in moments that least deserve humor. The trailer is a bit misleading, as the comedy is quite dark in nature. A low-key approach to filmmaking provides none of the over-the-top dramatic flair we expect. Instead it’s social commentary and a psychological study of pathological liars and manipulators … in positions that bring public trust.

premieres HBO April 25, 2020

watch the trailer:


THOROUGHBREDS (2018)

March 8, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Each year provides us with (at least) a few hidden gems sprinkled amongst the superheroes and newfangled special effects displays, and although this feature film debut from filmmaker Cory Finley is only now hitting theatres, it seems safe to say it likely won’t draw the size audience it deserves. If you enjoy dark, twisted, and devilishly clever films, you owe it to yourself to track down this one.

Olivia Cooke (ME AND EARLY AND THE DYING GIRL) stars as Amanda, someone who walks a miniscule line between neurotic and psychopath. The startling and quite ominous opening features Amanda, a horse, and a large knife. Next, and some time later, we see Amanda re-connecting with her childhood friend and boarding school brainiac Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy, SPLIT and THE WITCH) in what appears to be a tutoring session being held in the palatial estate where Lily lives with her mother and “evil” stepdad Mark (Paul Sparks).

What follows is the mind-bending, winding-road of us attempting to fit either or both of these characters into some “normal” category of human behavior. Instead, what lies beneath is slowly unsheathed. As Amanda and Lily interact, we especially come to realize that Amanda is drawing out what’s behind the proper front that Lily wears on a daily basis. A plot to murder the stepdad is developed, and caught in the wicked web is Anton Yelchin as Tim, a dreamer and schemer who quickly realizes the trouble these two bring. This was one of the last roles Yelchin filmed before his tragic death. His brief time on screen here reminds us of his immense talent.

An atmosphere of dread and pending doom hovers over most every scene, yet somehow it’s simultaneously funny and disturbing. We find ourselves asking if it’s OK to laugh at some of the exchanges. As Amanda explains she’s “not a bad person”, the line makes us chuckle, while also making us realize she actually believes it and we shouldn’t! As she teaches her tutor Lily “the technique”, we become convinced the line has been crossed into psychopathy.

Suburban Connecticut and its corresponding privileged life has rarely generated more queasy feelings, and with our hope for humanity in the balance, we watch Amanda and Lily bounce from plotting to problem solving and from conspiring to collaborating. The absence of empathy goes beyond disconcerting and into a feeling of resolved fear. The lack of emotions and empathy can be more frightening than vampires or fictional monsters.

Cinematographer Lyle Vincent does nice work displaying this world, and he will always deserve a mention after his sterling work on 2014’s A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT. The dark, twisted work is well accompanied by the abrupt and jarring music, and filmmaker Finley deserves recognition for crafting this creepy corner of a universe none of us want to join. His film is in the vein of something Yorgos Lanthimos (THE LOBSTER) might deliver, and that’s quite high praise for oddity … in fact, Odin Impetus Lowe even gets a screen credit, and he’s the opening scene horse!


A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT (2014)

January 4, 2015

 

a girl walks home Greetings again from the darkness. This is my third “first feature” from a writer/director this week, but there endeth any similarities. Ana Lily Amirpour presents the first ever Iranian romantic vampire thriller that blends the styles of Spaghetti Westerns, graphic novels and 1950’s rebel flicks, while making a social statement regarding Muslim women.

This festival favorite is an expanded version of Ms. Amirpour’s 2011 short film of the same title, and the use of black and white, combined with cinematographer Lyle Vincent’s extraordinary photography, delivers a beautifully stark dream-like atmosphere that lends itself well to the sparse dialogue approach.

Despite minimal conversation, we quickly recognize Saeed (Dominic Rains) as the ultra-arrogant drug dealer and bullying pimp, Arash (Arash Marandi) as the hard-working dutiful nice guy who sees himself as a would-be James Dean, Hossein (Marshall Manash) as the drug-addicted dad who burdens his son, and Atti (Mozhan Marno) as the aging, powerless prostitute with little hope. There is even the street boy (Milad Eghbali) who sees all and says little … and is the target of the film’s most terrifying scene (and maybe one of the most terrifying bloodless scenes of any horror film).

What really stands out about this low-budget gem is the seamless and effective mixing of genres. In addition to the “vampire” moments, there are a couple of the most quietly erotic scenes that I can recall (including an ear-piercing), and even a quite humorous scene with an under-the-influence Arash mesmerized by a lamp post while wearing a Dracula costume and being observed by a real vampire.

The vampire is played perfectly by Sheila Vand, whose intoxicating eyes and subtle facial gestures convey all whether she is feeding her appetite, being gently seduced by Arash, or slowly coasting on her skateboard. Her only time to unleash pent-up emotions is the previously mentioned scene when she warns “Be a good boy”. Otherwise, she is the lonesome vampire in search of connection who periodically weeds out the bad men – simultaneously improving society and empowering women.

It’s an odd production as the characters speak Farsi, but filming took place outside Bakersfield, California in a locale that fits the story town’s name, Bad City. Any influence of Iranian culture is only evident through interpretation and the excellent cast. The beautiful camera work is complemented by an outstanding and unusual soundtrack … a combination that proves Ms. Amirpour’s eye and feel for storytelling. The minimal dialogue approach is successful thanks to the atmospheric style and the talents of the cast (many of whom will be familiar to American TV and film audiences). It’s an exciting first feature and has many anxiously awaiting the next project from Ana Lily Amirpour.

**NOTE: In the 2011 short film, the vampire was played by Nazanin Boniadi, whom you might recognize as Fara from “Homeland”

watch the trailer: