[REVIEW] ‘Bad Education’ Makes for a Good Movie

Like most of us I have been sitting through quarantine waiting for the next big hit to appear on my television. Unfortunately there have been more misses than hits but occasionally you run across a real gem. For me during quarantine I’ve found 2 gems from HBO: the first is the docuseries McMillions, which I adored, and the second a new dramatic film called Bad Education that is one of the best films I’ve seen in 2020.

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There are many great things about Bad Education but the biggest standout is the dynamite script by Mike Makowsky based on a book by Robert Kolker. The plot is based on the true story of former superintendent Frank Tassone who in 2004 was convicted of stealing millions of dollars from the local school system in Long Island. Evidently Makowsky was a student at the very schools when this was all happening and that closeness gives the script a sharpness I don’t think you’d have otherwise.

When I compare Bad Education to something like The Big Short it is especially impressive. The script does not waste any time over-explaining the scam. It doesn’t make Tassone into too much of a sniveling greedy rich guy. He has a lot of softer moments but then they are put alongside some that are exceedingly selfish. I was so impressed by how tightly written the script was and how well done every character is written. Even small characters like Tassone’s life-partner gets a full character arc in only a few scenes.

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It almost goes without saying but Hugh Jackman is remarkable as Tassone, as is Alison Janney as his partner in crime (literally). Again these are very selfish characters but their weaknesses are easy to imagine falling into, making the story all the more compelling. Their great performances and the terrific script make for a very entertaining ride.

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I also thought Geraldine Viswanathan was excellent as the young student who begins digging into the waste and corruption at the schools. At first Tassone thinks he can patronize her assuming her work will come to nothing. Then the more she digs the more scared he gets. It was very well done!

In addition, don’t miss Ray Ramano in another excellent supporting role. Honestly, the whole cast is great.

If I was going to nitpick the film probably spends a little bit too long on Tassone’s personal life but even that I didn’t mind much because it was so well executed.

If you like captivating true stories then you definitely need to see Bad Education. It is funny, chilling, well acted wonderful film. I highly recommend it! If it was in the theater it would be an R rated film but it’s not too bad. Some mild sensuality and language is all.

Check it out!

8 out of 10

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[REVIEW] ‘The Willoughbys’ or Not My Kind of Dysfunction

If you are an animation fan there is perhaps nothing more exciting than what is happening over at Netflix. In recent years they have been gathering a group of talented animators and collaborators unmatched by any other studio. This is true for series like Hilda and Disenchantment and feature films like last year’s Oscar-nominated Klaus (also my favorite movie of 2019!). What’s especially exciting is they are experimenting with new animation styles and bringing back traditional artistry like 2D animation.

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Unfortunately they can’t all be winners and their latest entry The Willoughbys wasn’t my cup of tea. I love the animation and appreciate some of the moments of heart, but its hurt by an uneven tone and a story that fails to produce laughs or provide us with memorable characters.

The Willoughbys is based on a novel by Lois Lowry, and I can imagine the humor working well on the written page. A lot of the jokes are of the dark and dry variety, which is very tough to pull off and not feel mean-spirited. It’s similar to the challenges found in adapting Roald Dahl to the big screen. His books are so strange and dark that when you translate them to screen you have to add a lot of whimsy to make the stories palatable. It’s the same problem with The Willoughbys, and I don’t think they succeeded in finding that balance.

The Willoughbys tells the story of the eponymous family who have the most horrible parents since the Mom and Dad in Madeline. They are disgusted by their children and have no interest in taking care of them. One day they find a new baby and the parents tell the kids to get rid of the baby and not come home until they do. In revenge they decide to send their parents on a ‘murderous vacation’ so they can be on their own and be orphans.

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I can see why some kids will like this style of comedy. I used to love playing orphans with my friends and pretending to take care of ourselves without need of parents. It was an empowering game. However, the tone in The Willoughbys is too all over the place to work on that level and the humor almost never made me laugh. I also didn’t feel like I got to know any of the children very well.

If you look at a similarly structured film in Coraline, I get to know her way better than any of the kids here. Coraline also has a much more consistent tone which makes the scary and funny parts work much better than anything we see in The Willoughbys. I’m rooting for Coraline in a way I never am for these kids who are more props for jokes than compelling characters.

All that said, if you are jonesing for something to watch on Netflix you could do worse than The Willoughbys. It’s not awful. I just didn’t think the script was sharp or funny enough for a recommendation. I would strongly recommend you watch Hilda or Klaus instead of spending time with The Willoughbys.

4.5 out of 10

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Blind Spot 52: ‘The Three Colors Trilogy’

When I was setting up this year’s blind spot picks I took what seemed like a big risk in my pick for April. Deciding to go with a trilogy of films called the Three Colors Trilogy seemed like a big ask. Little did I know we would have a pandemic and I’d be in quarantine for the entire month! It ended up being the ideal choice!

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The Three Colors Trilogy is a trio of films by polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski. The 3 films are loosely tied together stories that are named after the colors of the French flag and supposedly meant to be emblematic of the 3 political ideals associated with each color: blue=liberty, white=equality, red=fraternity. Some also feel the films are an anti-tragedy, anti-comedy, and anti-romance.

While I admire the boldness of the project, the trilogy is bookended by 2 great films with a real turkey stuck in the middle. That’s right. I enjoyed Blue and Red but found white to be a big misfire. However, as they aren’t very connected this isn’t a huge problem and I’d honestly suggest just skipping White all together.

Anyway, here are my thoughts on all 3:

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Blue

Blue stars Juliette Binoche as a widow who loses both her daughter and husband in a horrible car accident at the beginning of the film. She is a classical music composer, as was her husband, but he got most of the praise and glory. Now out of the hospital she has to try to put her life back together all the while discovering new revelations about her husband along the way.

This is a very ‘fly on the wall’ type of movie with us mostly following Binoche around as she makes choices. One minute she is reuniting with a former lover, another she is selling her house, then moving to Paris etc. Fortunately she’s a compelling enough character for this to work. Binoche does a terrific job playing this damaged woman and her responses felt real and honest- no melodrama here.

I also enjoyed the way Kieslowski brought in the color blue into the film through a blue chandelier and lots of time in or near swimming pools. It was more than a gimmick but a way to establish moods of grief and loss.

Blue is a definite great start to the trilogy!

8 out of 10

Smile Worthy

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White

As I mentioned above White is the film in the trilogy that is the big miss. It stars Zbigniew Zamachowski as a sad sap of a man who at the start of the film is getting divorced by his wife. She is played by Julie Delpy and she wants a divorce because he has failed to consummate their relationship. He then spends the rest of the movie feeling sorry for himself and planning his elaborate revenge.

At one point he gets involved with the mafia and sends himself in a suitcase to Poland to finish a job for a shady friend. I guess such gestures are supposed to be the ‘anti-comedy’ of the trilogy, but I didn’t laugh. I found him selfish, rude and irritating. I think there is supposed to be satisfaction in his ending, but I found it pathetic.

I suppose the acting and filming of White is fine but the story and characters were too insufferable and annoying for me to care about. Let’s just say it’s a slice of life I can do without!

4 out of 10

Frown Worthy

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Red

The highlight of the trilogy is the concluding film, Red. Instead of an irritating useless male character as we saw in White, in Red you get a layered, interesting character and an ending that ties the trilogy together.

Red tells the story of a model named Valentine played by Irene Jacob. One day she has a car accident with a dog and she seeks out the dog owner. It turns out to be a former judge played by Jean-Louis Trintignant. Unfortunately the judge doesn’t care about the dog but he has a sophisticated technology for listening in on the conversations of his neighbors.

Like in Rear Window, as he listens he becomes more involved in their lives and starts to make assumptions about what is best for them. Valentine tries to help the judge but things become more complicated by the minute. She also has her own love problems to deal with along with some bad luck at work and in her social life.

Like Blue, Red works because it has a compelling main character we are interested in. The reason it is better than Blue is because the plot is more linear and engaging and Valentine is a more complex character (it was nominated for best screenplay). It’s also beautifully made from the lighting, music, direction, all the way to the cinematography. It’s a gem!

9 out of 10

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Have you seen The Three Colors Trilogy? Which one is your favorite? I would love to read your thoughts below in the comments

[SERIES REVIEW] ‘The Chosen’ or Getting to Know Christ and His Followers

One of the greatest challenges is to make an effective faith-based film. The reason is because faith and particularly conversion are intensely personal experiences. What is powerful and profound to one human may come off as cloying and false to another. This makes telling a universal story very difficult. However, it also makes the successes all the more meaningful. One such success can be found in the new series based on the early ministry of Jesus Christ called The Chosen. I highly recommend it for anyone of faith that is looking for quality storytelling.

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The Chosen is created by the company VidAngel and had the honor of being the top crowdfunding film/TV project in history. Now you can find the show on the series app/website with the first episode being free to watch on youtube and other platforms.

The series then asks you to ‘pay it forward’ by making a contribution which will allow other people to enjoy it. Indeed, when you are watching the app tells you who’s contribution helped you. It’s a pretty nifty model and hopefully one that will pay off, as the creators have lofty goals of being a spiritual version of Game of Thrones.

No matter how you watch the series, it’s the storytelling that makes it special. I’m not sure who the writers are but they deserve a ton of credit for taking a story we all know and bringing new life to it. Some may feel they take too many liberties with the Bible stories but I felt they took the known stories and told them accurately while elaborating on stories and characters we don’t know much about.

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Naturally all the apostles have important arcs but Simon Peter (Shahar Isaac) and Matthew (Paras Patel) get the most to work within the script. For example, we get to dive into what life might have been like for Peter and his wife Eden (Lara Silva) and how ostracized Matthew was because of his work as a publican for Rome.

Erick Avari also does a great job as Nicodemus giving the ruling Jewish classes a warmth and humanity not typically found in a telling of the Christ story. He is astounded by what he see’s Jesus do but struggles to give up his entire life’s work as a rabbi to follow Him and His new teachings.

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All the casting in The Chosen is strong including Jonathan Roumie as a very casual and laid back version of Jesus. They even spend an entire episode with him becoming friends with a group of children who visit his camp before his ministry begins. Some may see this episode as a waste of time as it doesn’t further the story much but I loved having the luxury of spending time with Jesus and imagining what he would be like to eat a meal with and work on chores together. It was really sweet!

As far as flaws, the pacing of the series won’t be for everyone but my main problem was with the dialogue. While I admire the storytelling and plotting of the script there are times where the conversation feels a little too modern for its setting and characters. This is particularly the case in the scenes with Matthew as the Roman characters surrounding him are too glib and American sounding. Most of the time I was able to ignore it but sometimes it did take me out of the show.

Other than that, I really enjoyed The Chosen. It humanizes the characters of Jesus’ ministry in an effective and powerful way that I really enjoyed. I hope they are able to get funding for season 2 as I am looking forward to seeing what they do next.

8 out of 10

Smile Worthy

I was paid to watch and provide feedback to the producers of The Chosen but the review was not required and the opinion is entirely my own.

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[REVIEW] ‘Trolls World Tour’ or Isn’t All Music Fun?

If you’ve been a fan  of this blog for some time you know that I tend to be a tough sale when it comes to DreamWorks and in particular their comedies. For every Mr Peabody and Sherman that’s hilarious there are tons that fall flat. 2016’s Trolls is an interesting entry in their canon because while it didn’t work for me as a whole it did have a number of elements. I particularly loved the animation and music including the very catchy song by Justin Timberlake ‘Can’t Stop the Feeling’.

What I didn’t like in Trolls is the annoying characters and the oddly fascist message. Everyone in the land of the trolls must be the same. They must all like the same activities, music, colors etc. They are all even forced to hug at the same time every day. If they refuse to participate they are pronounced Scrooges and exiled. It seemed bizarre to me in this day and age to send a message about conforming to fit a crowd rather than increasing tolerance of all.

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So now we have the sequel Trolls World Tour, and I’m happy to say they fix this problem…ALMOST! Indeed, most of the world building and lore of the first movie is abandoned for a new dynamic where they are surrounded by nations of music. Poppy’s land is of course pop music and then there is Rock, Country, Classical, Techno and Funk.

Here we have the same problem of everyone having to like the same kind of music and my hope was by the end of the journey Poppy and company would learn to enjoy different music from each land. Unfortunately they don’t go that far. There is tolerance on a macro national level but not on an individual learning to appreciate all kinds of music level. (What a good lesson that would have been for kids…)

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The villain trying to take over all of trolldom is Queen Barb (Rachel Bloom) and she wants everything to be rock. Her evil plan is to gather the strings of all the lands for mass musical takeover. I think there is more of a rebellious streak in punk or heavy metal but it was fine (although when the strings are played/destroyed it’s not exactly a Thanos-level moment!).

I really enjoyed the animation in each musical world with the textures of the felt and hair. There are even sequences where they use 2D animation techniques to tell stories in a scrapbook, which of course I loved.

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In addition, going to see all the different musical lands was fun and well done. I can make nitpicks like why is Kelly Clarkson voicing the country troll Delta Dawn? If there was ever a part screaming for Reba McEntire this was it. She even has red hair! The funk world was particularly interesting as they have a musical montage that explains how the other music especially pop has misappropriated the work of POC songwriters for decades.

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They try to make room for other types of music beyond the 6 lands with bounty hunters of regaeton, kpop and yodeling but there are still obvious omissions like blues, salsa, broadway etc.  Nevertheless, kids will have a lot of fun with the music and will be no doubt dancing along to the songs watching at home. Unfortunately It seems like most of the cover songs were outdated. For example, in the pop covers they have songs like ‘Can’t Touch This’ from MC Hammer and ‘Wannabe’ by the Spice Girls. Surely they could have gotten something more recent?

Sadly the new songs aren’t much better. In fact, they are entirely forgettable, which is disappointing. I don’t know if they were trying too hard to match the appeal of the first film but the new songs pale in comparison.

All in all, Trolls World Tour is harmless for kids. It has some beautiful animation and sweet moments but it could have been much better. I so wish they had shown Poppy and Branch embracing all different kinds of music in the end and everyone being richer as a result. As it is, the world of Trolls ends pretty close to where it began, which is not what you want in a quest movie. The message is still you have to think like everyone else or there is a problem, and I don’t like that!

4.5 out of 10

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[REVIEW] ‘Stargirl’ or Manic Pixie Dream Girl Teenage Edition

In many ways writing a review for a movie like Stargirl is difficult. I didn’t love it. I didn’t hate it. It’s fine but there are a number of  things about it that irritated me. If I didn’t have the binary requirements of rottentomatoes I would probably give it some form of meh but I must decide if it is good or bad so let’s talk about the pluses and minuses.

Before we start on the film I must own I was not a big fan of the book by Jerry Spinelli. I found it cloying and annoying but I know many loved the book. If you did, than you should love this movie. If, like me, you didn’t, than you will probably have mixed to negative feelings as they stick pretty close to the book (at least by memory. It has been a few years since I read it).

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Anyway, Stargirl is about a young man named Leo Borlock (Graham Verchere) who becomes fixated on a new girl at school named Stargirl (Grace VanderWaal). Stargirl is your classic free spirit that sings with her ukulele (with no microphone!) at the school football games and wears weird clothes. She’s basically a manic pixie dream girl but in teenage form.

Like any MPDG Stargirl exists to help our male character come alive and get over his demons. She has no personal goals or ambitions. We learn almost nothing about her as a character. Is she a guardian angel? Is she an alien or some other kind of mythical creature? Maybe but she exists to help Leo be a better person and I dislike that in female characters. I am aware the tough girl trope can be just as cringeworthy but females are not there to pluck up our lonely males. It’s such a groan-worthy trope that I dislike.

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That said, Stargirl has its heart in the right place. The film isn’t trying to make some grand statement on feminism or male/female relationships. They are just trying to make a movie about how a nice girl who see’s the good in people can make a difference. The film’s anti-bullying message is sweet and well done and should ring true to many teenagers.

I liked the chemistry between VanderWaal and Verchere and the supporting cast with actors like Giancarlo Esposito help make Stargirl more than the sum of its parts. The film also loves the Beach Boys just about as much as I do making the soundtrack very enjoyable.

Basically if you watch the trailer for Stargirl and it looks cute than you’ll probably enjoy it. If it looks super cringe-worthy than you probably won’t. It’s as simple as that. I’m in the middle on it but I think I was more annoyed than entertained.

5 out of 10

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[REVIEW] ‘The Way Back’ or A Portrait of an Alcoholic

Before the world shut down I had the chance to see the new film The Way Back in the theater. I was pretty excited for this film because I love underdog sports movies and director Gavin O’Connor has made 2 of my favorites: Miracle and Warrior (which was best picture worthy if you ask me). Now we have The Way Back and it turned out to be a very surprising film. It’s not perfect but definitely worth a watch if only for Ben Affleck’s raw and intimate performance.

On the surface The Way Back is very similar to the sports classic Hoosiers. Both films are about scrappy underdog basketball teams and both have deeply wounded coaches with troubled pasts. (There’s even a scene where the coach fires a player for rudeness at the beginning of each film). However, the difference between the films is The Way Back is less a redemption story and more a portrait of the life of an alcoholic mid-addiction. In fact, some people might be frustrated at how little this film is about basketball.

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Especially knowing Affleck’s own history with addiction his performance in The Way Back is completely devastating. As he struggles to appear normal throughout the day you see the ache in his eyes and the pull the alcohol has in its momentary release from life’s problems. Affleck’s character has a backstory that makes him susceptible to drowning his addiction and the further he spirals the more I found myself rooting for his character- rooting that he could find a way out of this terrible disease.

I have lost 2 of my cousins to the traps of addiction and so much of The Way Back was hard to watch. I cried a lot as the film provides no easy answers and does not sugarcoat things at all. It is very tough but rewarding for Affleck’s tremendous performance.

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In fact, his performance was so good I found myself not caring much about the basketball. The weight of who won the big game felt inconsequential in comparison with the life and death struggle of Affleck’s character. I almost wish they hadn’t made his job matter at all to the plot because the 2 types of storytelling (addiction drama and underdog sports movie) didn’t gel well together. Also the story would have meant a little more if it was based off of a true story and not fiction.

All that said, the addiction drama stuff is really good and Affleck gives a tremendous performance. The Way Back is definitely worth checking out for that alone. Almost every family in America is impacted by addiction in one form or another so most should be able to relate to this broken man fighting a seemingly insurmountable battle with his demons.

7 out of 10

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