A new HBO film throws the book at a public school scandal but takes a little while to get to its thesis. Cory Finley’s Bad Education (B-) tells the true 2002 story of a corrupt Long Island village school superintendent responsible for the sector’s largest embezzlement in U.S. history. In this central role, Hugh Jackman plays against type: an exquisitely controlled performance of a vain, dark and diabolical heart. Viewers are left wanting more insight into what drives this man, additional details about his relationship with his financial enabler (played with relish by Allison Janney in an all too brief role) and any contours about what drives a teenage journalist protagonist (impenetrable performance by Geraldine Viswanathan) who unearths the malfeasance. Finley’s compositions of bureaucratic bungling and many droll line readings are delightful, as is the jolting, percussive score by Michael Abels. But if there were an open-ended essay pop quiz every few minutes about what makes this film more distinctive than others in the genre, creative answers would be difficult to conjure. It’s an engrossing and watchable drama nonetheless, worth watching for Jackman’s performance alone. It’s now available on HBO streaming services.
Ryan White and Ben Cotner’s The Case Against 8 (A) tells a tale documented over multiple years that builds into greater significance in each and every brilliantly edited sequence leading up to its glorious and life-affirming third act. Buoyed by the unconventional legal team duo of Ted Olson, lead counsel for the Republicans in the 2000 Bush v. Gore Supreme Court decision, and David Boies, the attorney who unsuccessfully represented Team Gore, the documentary also follows Kris Perry and Sandy Stier, and Jeff Zarrillo and Paul Katami, two couples selected as plaintiffs in a landmark case to overturn a discriminatory referendum and pave the path for equal rights for the LBGT community. All six protagonists help connect the dots to provide compelling points for the audience to relate to in this chronicle of this complex case. It’s a magnificent mix of strategy and poignancy that has the capability to change some minds and at the very least bring depth and dignity to one of the most critical issues of our times.
Director Ryan Murphy’s film adaptation of Larry Kramer’s AIDS activism ensemble drama The Normal Heart (B) tells a stirring chronicle of life in New York in the ’80s among gay men with the dreaded new virus sneaking up on the population with a slow burn akin to the zombies of modern myths. Mark Ruffalo has never been better as the lead agitator to the political powers that be; and Matt Bomer, Jim Parsons and Taylor Kitsch are excellent as the alternately spellbound and skeptical members of his inner circle. Julia Roberts is also effective as a driven doctor helping early casualties of the epidemic. Roberts’ inner Brokovich and Ruffalo’s inner Hulk bring the rage of the stage to the events that unfold. But the director of Eat, Pray, Love, not known for his sustained narrative cohesion, sometimes follows a formula of Meet, Yell, Scream and fizzles without resolution. When he gets it right, especially in the Ruffalo-Bomer romance and in framing a double tragedy, Murphy nails it. But there are other undernourished supporting characters and subplots that don’t propel the plot as effectively. Ultimately the film is a significant slice of history, told with care and resonance about a critical topic that still calls out for our attention. Thanks to commanding performances and an absorbing underdog story, there are great lessons to learn here.