Bad Education (Cory Finley, 2020). Based on a real incident, as reported in a New York article, Bad Education is a portrait of criminal greed dressed up as glad-handling public duty. Frank Tassone (Hugh Jackman) is the superintendent of a tony Long Island school district, working students, fellow administrators, and local residents with slippery charm. When an embezzlement scheme comes to light, largely through the dogged efforts of a student journalist (Geraldine Viswanathan), Frank’s carefully constructed world collapses as disastrously as shoddily constructed bleachers. Cory Finely directs the material with an unfussy panache, making the film feel like a small-scale American Hustle. It’s the best part Jackman has had in ages, and he clearly knows it. He tears into the material with controlled intensity of a predatory cat, playing the sparkle and venality with equal verve.
The Story of Temple Drake (Stephen Roberts, 1933). Adapted from a William Faulkner novel, The Story of Temple Drake is a potent example of just how seedy and unsettling Hollywood films could get in the days before the Production Code clamped down on content. Temple Drake (Miriam Hopkins), a young woman with a reputation for wildness, goes out for a night on the town and experiences enough ill turns that she becomes the captive consort of gangster called Trigger (Jack La Rue). Director Stephen Roberts films the most lurid details with a sense of foreboding that is enveloping, and Hopkins plays the part with the conviction aligned with the extra emotiveness required of performers who started before the era of talkies. The film has a certain rickety stiffness that’s also emblematic of the era, and the tendency to bring the lead character right up to the verge of threat only to have it subside or be thwarted suggests the cliffhanger-relief model of serials shaped the storytelling. But the film has an impressive punch to its depiction of fierce human cruelty.
Rocketman (Dexter Fletcher, 2019). Dexter Fletcher was brought it to salvage Bohemian Rhapsody after Bryan Singer’s longstanding practice of abhorrent behavior on set finally caught up with him. Rocketman suggests cinema would have been better off had Fletcher been given the charge to shepherd Freddie Mercury’s story to the screen in the first place. In telling the story of Elton John’s life and career, Fletcher makes a movie that is everything the Queen-focused, Oscar-lauded feature wasn’t. Rocketman is creative, insightful, fearless, and imbued with life. Working from a screenplay by Lee Hall, Fletcher discombobulates the traditional biopic narrative by injecting fantasy and musical numbers structured like classic musicals. It could easily become silly or tiresome. Instead, it works like gangbusters all the way through. An enormous amount of the credit for the film’s success goes to Taron Egerton, who plays John with fulsome spirit and a commitment to the multitude of complications in his being. It’s a little miracle of a performance: theatrical and nuanced at the same time.