Egypt's Longtime Dictator Acquitted Over 2011 Protester Deaths

Ousted former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak waves to his supporters last year from his hospital room in Cairo, Egypt.

Amr Nabil/AP

hide caption

toggle caption

Amr Nabil/AP

It was once called the “trial of the century” in Egyptian media.

And now, the final ruling has come down from Egypt’s top appeals court: Longtime dictator Hosni Mubarak has been acquitted of ordering police to kill anti-government protesters during the uprising that ousted him in 2011.

This marks the end of a six-year court battle, during which the political landscape in Egypt has shifted dramatically. Many of the protesters who led the 2011 uprising sit in prison, while many figures associated with the Mubarak regime have re-entered political life.

Mubarak, 88 and in poor health, was initially sentenced to life in prison in 2012 for his role in the deaths of hundreds of protesters. “An appeals court overturned that ruling and the court today says those charges are now dismissed,” NPR’s Jane Arraf reports from Cairo. “The court also ruled that relatives of the victims can’t file civil charges in the case.”

The former strongman smiled and waved at supporters during the court session, as The Associated Press reported. After his charges were read, he stated, “It did not happen,” according to the wire service.

The final ruling is a massive blow to the families of those killed during the uprising, who have been demanding justice. “This ruling is not fair and not just. The judiciary is politicised,” Osman al-Hefnawy, a lawyer for the families, told Reuters.

Even at the beginning, the case against Mubarak was difficult to make, and human rights advocates feared that it was poorly constructed, as NPR has reported. A crucial CD of police communications was destroyed. Connecting the killings to Mubarak himself proved difficult. And prosecutors had to rely on evidence from the Interior Ministry, even though it was seen as still loyal to the Mubarak regime.

Top human rights lawyer Negad Borai told The Associated Press that “there was not enough evidence for Mubarak to have been found guilty of the specific charges he faced, but said he still blamed Mubarak’s long autocratic rule for Egypt’s woes.” As he put it: “Mubarak is now technically an innocent, but he killed the future of a country, both directly and indirectly. The question now is how we move forward as a nation.”

Egyptians were initially enthralled by the images on TV of their former dictator wheeled into the courtroom on a stretcher. For many, he symbolized repression and crony capitalism. But the trial had largely fallen out of public attention after the years of political turmoil that followed Mubarak’s ouster.

He was “freed two years ago after serving a three-year sentence for misusing public funds but he has remained at the military hospital where he was treated,” as Jane reports. “Local media quoted his lawyers as saying with this case over, he will now go home.”

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi has presided over a brutal crackdown against government critics since the 2013 ouster of democratically elected Islamist President Mohammed Morsi. Many activists see the current moment as even more repressive than under Mubarak.

Let’s block ads! (Why?)

One Democrat's Hunt For The Hidden Obamacare Replacement Bill

Rep. Frank Pallone still hasn’t been given a chance to see the Republicans’ bill that would replace the ACA. “I think they’re afraid,’ the Democrat from New Jersey said of his Republican colleagues. “I think they’re afraid that it will show that it really doesn’t cover most of the people that receive coverage under the Affordable Care Act.”

Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call,Inc./Getty Images

hide caption

toggle caption

Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call,Inc./Getty Images

U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone, a Democrat from New Jersey, has been trying to get a look at the Republicans’ bill to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare.

He’s the top-ranking Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which will have to approve the bill before the whole House can vote on it.

But as of Thursday afternoon, Pallone still couldn’t get his hands on a copy.

“We have no idea right now what they’re considering,” he said of his Republican colleagues.

Rep. Greg Walden, a Republican from Oregon and the Energy and Commerce Committee’s chairman, made draft legislation available to Republicans on the panel Thursday; but they had to read it in a private room and weren’t allowed to make copies.

When the location of that room leaked on Twitter late Thursday morning, reporters filled the hallway outside the room’s door on the first floor of the U.S. Capitol. Pallone, along with his Democratic colleagues, U.S. Reps. Jan Schakowsky, from Illinois, and Joseph Crowley, from New York, also stopped by.

But when they went in, the room was empty.

INSIDE THE ROOM They have let us in to see there is nothing here

— Peter Sullivan (@PeterSullivan4) March 2, 2017

“We were looking for the bill but there’s no one there,” Pallone said.

That room was just down the hall from House Majority Leader Kevin Macarthy’s office, so Pallone went in to ask McCarthy where he could see the legislation. McCarthy directed him to Walden’s office.

Luckily, Walden had a Capitol “hideaway” office just down the hall.

Pallone led his colleagues, a string of reporters, and even a couple of Capitol Police officers, to the unmarked door, knocked and waited.

“It’s locked,” he said after trying the handle. “This is ridiculous.”

He paused and looked at the crowd. “Do you want to go to Rayburn?”

He was referring to Rayburn House Office Building, across Independence Avenue from the Capitol. It’s where Walden’s personal office and the Energy and Commerce Committee offices are.

Everybody wanted to go.

As we strolled the halls of the Capitol, down elevators and through the underground tunnel that leads to the House office buildings, Pallone reflected on why his Republican colleagues were keeping the legislation under lock and key.

The bill is not here. Rep House: “We cannot find the bill.”

— Paul McLeod (@pdmcleod) March 2, 2017

“I think they’re afraid,’ he said. “I think they’re afraid that it will show that it really doesn’t cover most of the people that receive coverage under the Affordable Care Act.”

Last week, an earlier draft of the bill, dated February 10, was leaked to Politico. Most analysts said that legislation would lead to millions of people losing coverage. And members of the House Freedom Caucus, considered the most conservative wing of the Republican Party, said they’d oppose the bill because it includes refundable tax credits for people who are too poor to pay any federal income tax.

Pallone said he was pushing to get a copy of the most recent draft of the bill because he had heard Walden intends to have the committee vote on it next Wednesday — that timeline wouldn’t give the Democrats and the public much time to analyze the legislation.

He compared what the Republicans are doing this week to what theDemocrats did with their draft of the Affordable Care Act several years ago; Democrats posted the text of the ACA online 30 days before it went to members for a vote.

“The reason why Republicans were able to comment on the ACA — and of course many of them commented negatively — was because the bill was out there,” Pallone said.

At Walden’s personal office in the Rayburn building, Andrew Malcolm, Walden’s deputy chief of staff, told Pallone he’d be better off directing questions about the bill to the Energy and Commerce Committee office. It was an awkward conversation as Pallone asked repeatedly whether Walden would be there, and Malcolm refused to answer.

“That’s not helpful,” Pallone said. “He’s probably ducking us.” Still, Pallone headed to that committee office, as Malcolm suggested.

And just as Pallone walked in, Walden came down the hall walking very quickly, trailed by some of his staff. He scowled at Pallone and the crowd of reporters in his lobby, and headed out a back hallway toward the hearing room next door. He didn’t say a word.

“Well, obviously he doesn’t want to talk,” Pallone said. “I’m not going to keep chasing him. I’m tired of chasing him around. Obviously he doesn’t want us to see the bill.”

Let’s block ads! (Why?)

DHS To Help Jewish Community Centers Enhance Security Protocols

Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department K-9 officers search the Jewish Community Center of Southern Nevada after an employee received a suspicious phone call that led about 10 people to evacuate the building on Feb. 27. Jewish institutions across the nation have received more than 120 bomb threats in the past two months

Ethan Miller/Getty Images

hide caption

toggle caption

Ethan Miller/Getty Images

The Department of Homeland Security is stepping up its support for Jewish institutions across the nation who’ve received more than 120 bomb threats in the past two months. Jewish Community Centers have been pressing for help as they’ve been targeted by waves of threatening calls as well as vandalism.

Since January, the calls coming in to JCCs have been both vivid and unnerving. Betzy Lynch, executive director of the JCC in Birmingham, Ala., got three of the threatening calls, all very similar.

“It is a very disguised sort of digitized voice that indicates that there’s a bomb in the building, and then there’s some pretty horrific rhetoric about hurting Jewish people,” she says.

The calls have thrust JCCs around the nation into repeated evacuations. Elderly women doing water aerobics and babies in daycares have been rushed out to the streets, and whole communities have been rattled.

“Everybody’s no more than one or two degrees of separation from someone whose kid ended up on a sidewalk in front of a JCC over the last couple of weeks,” says Jeremy Burnton, the head of Boston’s Jewish Community Relations Council.

He says the current uptick in anti-Semitism is particularly disconcerting to younger Jews.

“Frankly, it’s bit of a shock,” Burnton says. “And maybe we are a bit naive, but we sort of maybe assumed that it was something we had mostly left behind.”

Jewish leaders across the nation who’ve been frustrated that the threats have gone on so long have been calling on the federal government to do more to help protect their institutions.

Two hundred leaders joined a conference call Wednesday with the DHS that ended with officials promising more support. That will include assessing where JCCs are vulnerable to helping them improve security.

Bob Kolasky, the acting deputy under secretary for the National Protection and Programs Directorate at DHS, says JCCs will be trained on everything from dealing with an active shooter to managing the current bomb threats that seem to be intended to cause more fear than harm.

“The advice that we will give is how do you deal with something you think is probably not likely to come to fruition,” he says. “We’re not going to tell an organization not to evacuate, but we’re also going to teach them some of the telltale signs that may help make that decision.”

Lynch says the federal expertise will go a long way to help secure JCCs like hers in Alabama.

“This outreach is unprecedented, and it’s much, much appreciated,” she says.

She also hopes it will help reassure members and even persuade some families who’ve left in fear to return.

“I think that feeling of knowing that this really is not OK with people reassures us that while we’re in a difficult period, the federal government has decided that they’re standing with us as well,” she says.

But others were more circumspect.

The Anti-Defamation League calls the federal support an important step forward, but insists more must be done, including new federal policies that will crack down on hate crimes more broadly.

Many Jewish leaders are also imploring the federal government to expand efforts to find the perpetrators.

“In the end, the only response that’s going to be adequate for us is catching these guys,” says Mark Sokoll, CEO at Jewish Community Centers of Greater Boston. Authorities should do more so that “these people who are filled with hate can be brought to justice, and this can stop,” he says.

In the meantime, security is tight at Jewish institutions — like it was at a Boston event Wednesday.

“I mean, look at this synagogue,” says Helene Weitzenkorn, an attendee. “They are checking people going in here. I’ve never seen them have even a metal detector.”

She calls the current climate of anti-Semitism palpable.

“I mean, I’m almost 64, and I have just never felt this scared,” she says.

Others took a longer view, noting anti-Semitism’s long history. The echos are disturbing, as one put it. But they’re also a reminder that this too shall pass.

Let’s block ads! (Why?)

$190 Million Raised To Fill Aid Gap Left By Trump's Abortion Rule

Lilianne Ploumen is a government minister in the Netherlands. “I was in a position to do something,” she says of her decision to start the “She Decides” initiative.

John Thys/AFP/Getty Images

hide caption

toggle caption

John Thys/AFP/Getty Images

At a conference in Brussels on Thursday, more than a dozen nations and private funders pledged a combined total of $190 million for international family planning charities that stand to lose their U.S. support as a result of President Trump’s Jan. 23 executive action to block U.S. foreign aid funding of groups linked to abortion.

The policy disqualifies organizations that perform abortions or advocate for the procedure’s legalization, as well as those that provide patients with basic information about abortion or medical referrals to obtain the procedure.

“The President, it’s no secret, has made it very clear that he’s a pro-life president,” White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer told reporters shortly after the Trump action. “And I think the reinstatement of this policy is not just something that echoes that value but respects taxpayer funding as well.”

For all its size and scope, the fundraising effort was the brainchild of one woman: Lilianne Ploumen, a Dutch government official who came up with the idea just a few weeks ago, shortly after Trump enacted the measure.

The policy has been adopted by each Republican president since Ronald Reagan, and reversed by Democratic presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. Still, Ploumen says she was surprised that Trump re-instated it.

“I was very disappointed. I did have some hopes that he might decide differently,” she says. But then, adds Ploumen, she realized that as the Netherlands’ Minister of Foreign Trade and Development Cooperation, “I was in a position to do something.”

She dubbed the replacement fund the “She Decides Initiative” and set about recruiting partners in other governments. Ministers of three other nations — Belgium, Denmark, and Sweden — soon signed on to co-sponsor the conference in Brussels.

As a self-identified Catholic — “I do go to church, though not every week,” Ploumen says — she might seem an unusual champion of this cause. Several Catholic organizations are among the staunchest supporters of the U.S. funding ban, arguing that it’s the only way to ensure that U.S. tax dollars don’t go toward supporting abortions overseas.

“Without the Mexico City Policy in place, the U.S. is … exporting the destruction of life as a solution to challenges faced by families in developing countries,” Deirdre McQuade, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops told NPR shortly after Trump’s election. “Poor women in developing nations don’t want help aborting their children. They’re calling for food, clean water, housing, education and medicine for their families.”

Ploumen counters that her Catholic faith is actually what drives her commitment to the effort.

“We were taught that your faith helps you to develop your own conscience and to make your own decisions,” she says. “But in order to be able to do so you have information and you have to know what your options are, so that you can weigh them according to your values.”

And like other opponents of the funding ban, Ploumen argues it will prove counterproductive by resulting in more unwanted pregnancies and unsafe abortions.

Drumming up funds for a feminist cause is a familiar role for Ploumen. From the mid-1990s through 2001 she headed an organization called Mama Cash whose mission is to raise money for groups that support women’s rights. During her tenure there says, Ploumen, “it was not so easy to get support for the movement.”

By contrast, she says, the swift response to the She Decides fund has been “heartening.” Among the funders that formally announced their contributions today are the governments of nine European countries, Australia, Canada and private parties such as the Gates Foundation (which is a funder of NPR). The largest single grant came from an anonymous U.S.-based donor: $50 million.

Still the grand total of nearly $200 million represents less than a third of the roughly $600 million in U.S. family planning funding potentially at stake. And the amount may actually be much higher because Trump’s version of the policy is more expansive — applying to spending by all global health groups and not just not just monies explicitly earmarked for family planning groups.

Ploumen says she hopes not just other countries, but more non-profit groups and even individuals will step up to fill the gap in the coming weeks and months.

“This is only the beginning,” she says. “And governments can’t do it alone.”

Let’s block ads! (Why?)

Sessions Revelations Put 'Quiet, Behind-The-Scenes' Russian Envoy In Spotlight

Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak arrives before President Donald Trump addresses a joint session of the Congress on Feb. 28.

Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

hide caption

toggle caption

Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

Russia’s ambassador to the United States, Sergey Kislyak, is not known to seek the limelight. He’s a mild-mannered diplomat and an arms control expert who came to Washington as ambassador in 2008. But he has been in the news a lot of late, as Trump administration contacts with him come under scrutiny.

Michael Flynn, President Trump’s original national security adviser, had to resign after misleading the administration about his phone calls with Kislyak. And now, Trump’s attorney general, Jeff Sessions, has come under fire for meeting twice with the ambassador last year.

“I never had meetings with Russian operatives or Russian intermediaries about the Trump campaign,” Sessions said Thursday. But he announced he would recuse himself “from any existing or future investigations of any matters related in any way to the campaigns for president of the United States.”

Speaking at Stanford University last November, Kislyak defended his contacts with Trump surrogates.

Our job is to talk to all the people, be it Republicans, be it Democrats, whether they work for a campaign, whether they don’t work for a campaign,” he said. “Our job is to understand.”

He also lamented the souring of U.S.-Russia relations.

We are living in the worst point in our relations after the end of the Cold War,” he said.

But the ambassador complained that the U.S. is trying to contain Russia, through sanctions and political pressure.

Kislyak has built a reputation in Washington as a pragmatist. Alexander Vershbow, a former U.S. ambassador and NATO official, has known him since the 1990s, and negotiated directly with him when both served as ambassadors to NATO.

Vershbow says when he left that job to become U.S. ambassador to Russia, Kislyak gave him a gift — an album by the Red Army Chorus called “Our Answer to NATO.” It was all in good humor, Vershbow says, and that’s the kind of ambassador Kislyak is – patriotic but personable.

“He’s much more of a quiet, behind-the-scenes type,” Vershbow says, “a real experts’ expert on arms control and security issues … but also has a good reputation as a problem-solver, one of the relatively pragmatic and non-polemical diplomats I’ve dealt with.”

A former Obama administration official, Philip Gordon, found the same in his dealings with Kislyak. In the early days of the Obama administration’s “reset” of relations with Russia, Kislyak played a key role.

“There was a real agenda,” Gordon says, “and Kislyak was a part of that positive development in relations between the two countries.”

Dmitry Medevedev was Russia’s president at the time. But when Vladimir Putin returned to the job, the Kremlin set a different tone, says Gordon, now at the Council on Foreign Relations.

“We started to hear the differences,” Gordon recalls, “and the Russian ambassador reflected those, just as he reflected his government’s policies when we were in a more positive phase.”

Gordon says it was not surprising to see Kislyak make contacts with Trump surrogates during the campaign. But he says it is alarming that those advisers weren’t upfront with Americans about those contacts.

Those who support more pragmatic dealings with Russia say that just got more difficult.

“Very few people probably would want to meet with Russia’s ambassador,” says Paul Saunders of the Center for the National Interest, a conservative think tank that has frequently hosted Kislyak. “That really doesn’t really have anything to do with him personally. But I think it has become, in our political climate, increasingly damage to admit to contacts like that.”

The same will likely be the same for the next ambassador. Russian news reports have said Kislyak will be replaced by Anatoly Antonov, who has a reputation as a hardliner.

Let’s block ads! (Why?)

Shirley MacLaine Gets 'The Last Word' — And You'll Want It To Be

Ok it’d be awesome if that car behind them exploded right now (spoiler: it won’t). L to R: Amanda Seyfried, Shirley MacLaine, AnnJewel Lee Dixon in The Last Word.

Beth Dubber/Bleeker Street

hide caption

toggle caption

Beth Dubber/Bleeker Street

Actors are the most visible links the movies possess to their own past, because while actors age, the image of them that we carry with us does not. When you look at Shirley MacLaine today, you can see the young widow giggling over a corpse in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Trouble With Harry, the melancholy mistress in The Apartment whose radiant smile masks the fact that she’s given up on love and life, and the heartbreaking single mother forced to watch her daughter die in Terms of Endearment. You can see all of these women at once, if you like, and then you can reflect on MacLaine’s astonishing stature in the Hollywood canon, that infamous ego elevating her whole life to another plane of performance, or her long-held New Age beliefs that she has lived many lives before her current one, nailing the trick of a full existence each time.

MacLaine has earned the right to coast by in otherwise unremarkable films that kiss the ground she walks on. It’s the familiar Hollywood old-timer move, pulled off in recent years by the likes of Jane Fonda (Peace, Love, & Misunderstanding) and Jerry Lewis (Max Rose).But it’s rare to see such hero-worshipping star vehicles as unsubtle about their intentions as The Last Word, in which a mean businesswoman tries to pad her own obituary with good deeds so everyone will fondly remember her after she has passed. Director Mark Pellington’s treacly Sundance dramedy is about a woman shoring up her own legacy, but it’s so empty and witless, dressing up a formulaic story with boatloads of unearned sentiment and embarrassing, one-note characters, that it seems destined to lie here as a bloated paperweight on MacLaine’s own memory.

MacLaine plays Harriet, a retired ad executive who lives alone in her mansion, bossing around the hired help until a near-death scare compels her to reexamine her life. She recruits Anne, the local newspaper’s obituary writer (Amanda Seyfried), to help her embellish her time on this mortal plane, an absurd breach of journalistic objectivity that’s nevertheless one of the easier things to swallow about Stuart Ross Fink’s insipid script. (“Let me get this straight,” characters say, before repeating the film’s oh-so-quirky premise back to us.)

Obituary writers secretly have the most thoughtful, heartfelt jobs in the newsroom. The excellent documentary Obit, due to arrive in theaters at the end of April, details how these reporters try to capture the best version of their subjects’ lives with less than a day’s notice, employing sweeping yet modest prose while extracting meaningful quotes from emotionally drained friends and family. The brief flashes of wit that do exist in The Last Word come when it tries to puncture this mythos; commenting on the empty platitudes accompanying a recently deceased acquaintance, Harriet snaps, “She was dead, and they were being polite.” Here we’re meant to see this woman as not only a control freak but also someone who can cut to the core of people, who “tells it like it is,” even (especially) if she has to dance on a grave to do it.

Harriet then gives a wildly cynical breakdown of what she sees as the “four essential components of any good obituary,” a checklist for a well-examined life — family, work, community service and “wild card” — that we assume the film is setting us up to transcend. Except it doesn’t. That cynicism becomes the roadmap to Harriet’s own earnest deification: she drags Anne to the local at-risk youth center to deliver a speech that confuses “at-risk” with “taking risks,” then picks out her favorite poor child to mentor, as if shopping at a supermarket. The movie makes a joke about this, and then proceeds to let her do it anyway, selecting a tough black girl (newcomer AnnJewel Lee Dixon) who talks like a middle-aged white man’s idea of a tough black girl, and having her follow the hero everywhere like a potty-mouthed puppy. Minority prop: Check.

Rediscovering a love of music, Harriet next dusts off her record collection and wheels it into the local alt-rock radio station, leveraging her bluster and complete lack of DJ experience into a morning drivetime slot. Wild card: check. The current DJ loses her job to this end-of-life crisis case who offers to do it for free, yet later applauds Harriet’s first session, hooting, “Much respect.” There are times like this when the film wants us to find Harriet’s actions life-affirming and cute instead of what they are, which is cruel and selfish. In a reunion with her estranged daughter (Anne Heche, bringing her always-wonderful comic timing), Harriet can’t help but laugh hysterically when she hears how successful she’s become. In her mind this confirms she was a good mother, and thus no longer needs to feel guilt for decades of broken-off contact. This is a special kind of narcissist’s logic that only sounds like redemption to someone who’s never had to truly redeem themselves.

MacLaine clearly relishes being worshipped by young folks, and eats up the screen in her DJ chair, delivering withering looks at all of her co-stars. But she never gives her character a sense that any human connections she’s making are intentional. Seyfried’s job, then, is to express on her own face everything that MacLaine does not: to mug and mug, and mug some more, until we accept she’s found her new mother figure. (Anne’s own mother, of course, walked out on her when she was young, presumably bound for the Island of Conveniently Absent Parents.) To jump from Harriet’s gynecologist remarking she has “the angriest vagina this side of China” to an end-of-life revisionist history stating that, actually, the woman wasn’t all bad would take a special emotional leap — or, maybe, just a scene where three cross-generational misfits jump into a lake together.

How odd it is to see an actor who defines Hollywood royalty entrust her legacy to a movie that doesn’t even know how to pad an obituary correctly.

Let’s block ads! (Why?)

A Self-Destructive Dad Gambles With His Son's Future In The Drama 'Wolves'

Anthony (Taylor John Smith) and mother Jenny (Carla Gugino) share a reflective moment in Wolves.

IFC Films

hide caption

toggle caption

IFC Films

He’s a handsome fellow who can play all sorts when given half a chance, but Michael Shannon’s alarming bone structure and “you-talkin’-to-me?” eyes tend to trap him in many Frankenstein-adjacent roles. Which is why you might be forgiven for spending much of Wolves, a somber family drama with a fun sports movie neatly tucked inside, waiting for Shannon to explode. And he is a familiar coiled spring as Billy, the self-immolating father of a promising high-school basketball star. In fact, without Shannon, it’s unclear that writer-director Bart Freundlich would have gotten a release for this modestly pleasing, unsurprising indie about a family undone by anger issues.

Shannon also knows how not to suck up all the air in an ensemble piece though. Billy’s fuse blows now and again, but mostly this unmotivated college professor with ballooning sidelines in booze and gambling mopes around, a hapless hostage to his destructive habits. He’s all too easily manipulated by muscled mob-ish creditors who crawl out of the woodwork at intervals to add a dab of menace. Freundlich’s focus rests less on Billy than on the damage his arbitrary rages inflict on his son, Anthony (played with fine restraint by American Crime‘s Taylor John Smith), a high-school basketball star and all-round sweet fellow in desperate need of better role models. Anthony has a smart, loyal girl friend played by Zazie Beetz, and can I just applaud the fact that nothing whatever is made of the fact that he’s white and she’s African-American? But his equally attentive, hard-working mother (Carla Gugino) is desperately trying to hold the fort, putting out fires and trying to retrieve the irretrievable when she should be changing the game for everyone’s sake. Chris Bauer is very good as the family friend and enabler.

You know the drill, and I wish I had a dollar for all the co-dependence family sagas I’ve sat through. No new ground is broken here in that regard, but what Wolves does well is to draw out, with necessary repetition, the degree to which most of us would rather dig ourselves over and over into the pain and the massaging stories we tell ourselves, rather than risk the change that might liberate us and those we love. Thus does Billy run himself deeper and more dangerously into risk, while his wife compulsively trots her bright and positive mantras. As for Anthony, even when a possible scholarship to Cornell ups the stakes, for a while he sticks with his groove as the good boy who never stops smiling and acquiescing to the bully who’s ruining his life.

Wolves, too, doesn’t stray far from the prescribed build toward the transfiguring moment. But it’s a stretched-out doozie of a cathartic sequence on the basketball court, with Samuel Ray Gates especially fine as the black former sports star who releases Anthony’s buried anger and shows him how to use it without damage to himself or others. Except for one other, of course, and to this small but richly specific film’s credit, he is discharged with equal parts empathy and relief.

Let’s block ads! (Why?)

'Table 19': At This Wedding, The Laughs Never Register

They ordered the chicken: (L-R) Lisa Kudrow, Craig Robinson, June Squibb, Stephen Merchant, Anna Kendrick and Tony Revolori in Table 19.

Jace Downs/Fox Searchlight Pictures

hide caption

toggle caption

Jace Downs/Fox Searchlight Pictures

Fifteen years ago, director Jeffrey Blitz kicked off his career with the hit documentary Spellbound, which brought audiences into the high-stakes world of spelling bees, following eight competitors on the road to the 1999 National Spelling Bee. The kids were all outcasts, products of hard-driving parents who pushed them to memorize words like “hellebore” and “seguidilla” and study their lingual roots like thickly bespectacled Talmudic scholars. But when they got together for the big event, they had all these specific qualities in common and experienced a social ease and camaraderie that eluded them in everyday life.

Blitz’s insight into these types of characters would later extend to his feature debut, Rocket Science, about the brainiac savagery of high-school debate teams, and to his frequent direction of the NBC sitcom The Office, which gathered a motley collection of white-collar drones in Scranton, Pennsylvania.

It also makes him the ideal choice to direct the new comedy Table 19, about the misfits and undesirables who populate the farthermost corner of a wedding reception. They alternately describe themselves as “the invisible table” or the table for people who should have RSVP-ed with regrets and sent something nice off the registry. To the extent they’re acknowledged at all, they are treated like mutants.

Table 19 seems like a surefire proposition. Blitz wrote the script from a concept he developed with Jay and Mark Duplass, who made their names on chronicles of middle-class awkwardness, from their DIY debut The Puffy Chair to their HBO series Togetherness. And it reunites Blitz with the multi-talented Anna Kendrick, whose career took shape after her breakthrough performance as a wound-up debater in Rocket Science. Yet the observational qualities of Spellbound and the Duplass’ best work are abandoned, here, in favor of stock characters and deeply contrived subplots. As a result, the subcultures that develop so naturally in Blitz’s other work never take form.

The energy level is conspicuously low from the start, as if paced to the half-hearted ’80s covers that the wedding band grinds out all night. Blitz labors to bring the various parties to the reception, starting with Eloise McGarry (Kendrick), who would have been at the head table if the bride’s brother, Teddy (Wyatt Russell), hadn’t dumped her a couple months earlier. Her table-mates run the gamut from family outcasts to distant friends: Walter (Stephen Merchant), a spacey ex-convict who tries to pass himself off as a “successful business”; Renzo (Tony Revolori, of The Grand Budapest Hotel), a fur-tie-wearing teenager who’s trying to end his virginity; Bina and Jerry (Lisa Kudrow and Craig Robinson), a pair of diner-owners whose marriage is stuck in a rut; and Jo (June Squibb), a seemingly sweet-natured older woman who was once Teddy and the bride’s nanny.

There’s little evidence in Table 19 that a looser, more improvisational approach to the reception, like Robert Altman’s A Wedding or the ensemble raunch of Bridesmaids, would have yielded a better film, because the group chemistry is stilted so much of the time. But the surprise of Table 19 — especially coming from the Duplasses, who prize spontaneity — is how loudly the gears of the story clank away. Rather than see where the afternoon and evening takes them, the characters bail on the reception fairly early and wander around the resort, with each coming to terms with whatever personal crisis is eating away at them.

Table 19 finally starts to cohere when the group decides to prank Teddy for betraying Eloise, but the plan is abandoned almost as soon as it’s proposed, and they’re left to mope around the premises, together or in pairs. Though Blitz was among the first to recognize Kendrick’s immense talent, he reduces her to an off-the-rack rom-com flibbertigibbet, doomed to embarrass herself relentlessly until fate plays its hand. Of the other actors, Squibb, so memorably dyspeptic in Nebraska, does what she can with the standard granny-with-the-pot-in-her-purse role, but even she can’t escape a maudlin subplot of her own.

Comedy and drama are toggled like a light switch, and the off-again/on-again flipping keeps Table 19 from getting any kind of flow going. Blitz offers up these characters as problems to be solved, one by one, rather than a more organic coming-together of marginalized strangers. At a certain point, the awkwardness behind the camera grows more pronounced than the awkwardness in front of it.

Let’s block ads! (Why?)