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Capsule Movie Reviews: ‘The Cartel’ examines a state falling down on the job in educating its children

Also reviewed: ‘Handsome Harry’ and ‘Who Do You Love.’

April 16, 2010

With "The Cartel," Bob Bowdon, a boyish-looking TV news veteran, makes a punchy, provocative debut as a documentary filmmaker with a brisk, incisive and mind-boggling — no other phrase will work — exposé of his native New Jersey's public education system. Pointing out that New Jersey can allocate more than $400,000 on one classroom annually yet only 39% of the state's eighth-graders are proficient or advanced readers — and just 1% better than that in math — Bowdon sees something very wrong with this picture.

The avalanche of dire statistics is staggering: Nearly 80% of the students who graduate from high school and go on to community college require remedial courses. But Bowdon moves beyond statistics to discover how the sorry condition of his state's public schools came to be.

The villain of his plot is the New Jersey Education Assn., an all-powerful teachers union that carries tremendous political clout and seems far more concerned with feathering its own nest, increasing administrative positions and making it all but impossible to remove bad teachers than with seeing to it that children actually learn. (In one district, Bowdon discovers that one school board secretary makes $180,000 a year.) He interviews principals and teachers who have strived to better conditions only to meet with despair or removal from their positions. One says wryly, "The more Mercedes in the parking lot, the worse the school."

Bowdon's many concerned and knowledgeable interviewees argue convincingly that school vouchers and charter schools are the only hopes for change. The hard-fought battle for charter schools has been won, and many of them out-perform district schools, but the state's board of education bureaucrats make it exceedingly difficult for charter school petitions to win approval. What Bowdon has brought to light so vividly, of course, applies across the land, and it's hard to imagine any Angeleno watching this timely film without some sense of recognition.

—Kevin Thomas

"The Cartel." MPAA rating: Unrated. Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes. At the Sunset 5, West Hollywood.

A rare feature, beautifully executed

The stunning "Handsome Harry" is only the third theatrical feature director Bette Gordon has made since her 1984 "Variety," an indie landmark that challenged the usual feminist view toward pornography. "Handsome Harry," which was written by Nicholas T. Proferes, expands upon the themes of Gordon's second film, "Luminous Motion" (2000), in which a 10-year-old boy comes to love life on the road with his mother, learning that you either accept the inevitability of change and loss as a part of growing up or you're destroyed by it. "Handsome Harry" too is about change, delving into how a group of Vietnam War vets has stayed trapped in a John Wayne concept of manhood.

Harry (Jamey Sheridan) is successful as a small-town electrician but is a loner long divorced and barely in touch with his son. A guilty past catches up with him when he receives a deathbed call from Tommy ( Steve Buscemi), who craves forgiveness for an incident that occurred when he and Harry were among a group of Navy electricians. Back then, Tommy discovered their friend David making a pass at Harry as they showered, and soon the whole group is severely beating David. Tommy charges Harry with tracking down the other tormentors and finding David to beg his forgiveness.

When inevitably Harry and David (Campbell Scott) meet again, Harry is confronted with the true and full circumstances of the incident — a truth he has tried to suppress for 32 years. Gordon's way with actors and with screen storytelling is as impeccable as ever.

—Kevin Thomas

"Handsome Harry." MPAA rating: Unrated. Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes. At the Sunset 5, West Hollywood, (323) 848-3500; and the South Coast Village Regency, Irvine.

Revisiting Chess Records

If "Who Do You Love" generates a sense of déjà vu, that's because this story of Chess Records and its shrewd founder, Leonard Chess, was covered in 2008's "Cadillac Records." Still, nostalgia and blues buffs who missed that lively film could do worse than this entertaining, if sometimes slight, revisit directed by Broadway veteran Jerry Zaks.

"Love," which unlike "Cadillac" was made with the blessing of key Chess family members, is a well-acted, fast-paced look at how scrappy, blues-loving Leonard (Alessandro Nivola) and circumspect brother Phil (Jon Abrahams) launched the Chicago-based record label with such groundbreaking artists as Willie Dixon (an enjoyably droll Chi McBride), Muddy Waters (David Oyelowo) and Etta James (re-imagined as "Ivy Mills" and played by sultry Megalyn Ann Echikunwoke). Racism, payola and drug issues are touched on, as is Leonard's reputed infidelity to his wife, Revetta (Marika Dominczyk), but it's the terrific music and amusing array of characters that keep the picture afloat.

The compressed script by Peter Wortmann and Bob Conte ends in the late 1950s, when blues gave birth to rock ‘n' roll, a watershed moment personified by Chess Records sensation Bo Diddley (a fun Robert Randolph). Though it has a logical conclusion, it feels as if there's a Part 2 waiting to be explored.

—Gary Goldstein

"Who Do You Love." MPAA rating: Unrated. Running time: 1 hour, 31 minutes. At Laemmle's Music Hall, Beverly Hills; Laemmle's Monica 4-Plex, Santa Monica; Laemmle's Fallbrook 7, West Hills.

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