Film Review: Paterno (dir by Barry Levinson)


There’s a great scene that occurs about an hour into HBO’s latest original film, Paterno.

Joe Paterno (Al Pacino), the legendary and aging Penn State football coach, has been accused of knowing and failing to report that one of his former assistant coaches, Jerry Sandusky (Jim Johnson), was a pedophile.  With Paterno and his family plotting out strategy behind closed doors, a group of Penn State students gather outside of the Paterno home.  Instead of being angry that children were molested at their college, they’ve come to show their support for Paterno.

“JOE PATERNO!” they chant.

Scott Paterno (Greg Grunberg) hears the chants.  Scott is a lawyer and appears to be the only member of the Paterno family to truly understand the seriousness of the accusations.  Scott steps outside.

“JOE PATERNO!” the crowd continues to chant.

Scott thanks them for their support but then says that they also need to show the same support to all of Sandusky’s victims…

“JOE PATERNO!” the chant continues.

Struggling to be heard, Scott again asks them to remember that the children molested by Sandusky are the ones who need the most support…

Suddenly, the chant changes.  “SCOTT PATERNO!” the crowd starts to chant.  It’s not because they’ve heard anything that Scott’s said.  Instead, it’s because Scott’s a Paterno and, in the eyes of the crowd, that makes him royalty.  As the crowd continues to chant his name, Scott gives up and reenters the house.

Paterno could have used more scenes like that, scenes that explicitly showed the danger of blind hero worship as opposed to just telling us about it.  For the most part, Paterno feels like a well-written Wikipedia article.  You can’t deny the skill with which the film was made but, at the same time, it’s difficult not to get frustrated by Paterno‘s refusal to really dig too far underneath the surface of the story.

Some of the problem is with the film’s structure.  The film primarily takes place over the final six days of Paterno’s career.  Paterno spends the majority of the film locked away in his house, passive aggressively avoiding the question of what he knew and when he knew it.  His wife (Kathy Baker) and his other son, buffoonish Jay (Larry Mitchell), make excuses for him while Scott tries to get everyone to understand that the accusations aren’t just going to go away.  This is the part of the Paterno story that, in most films, would be summed up by an end credits title card.

As a result, Paterno never really deals with why Joe Paterno not only didn’t report Sandusky but also apparently protected him and that, to be honest, is the most important and troubling part of the story.  Since Sandusky is only briefly seen, we never get any insight into his relationship with Paterno and we never understand why Paterno would go to bat for an assistant who he, at one point, refers to as being “a pain in the ass.”  Was Paterno truly clueless about what was happening or did he just think he could sweep it under the rug and nobody would say anything because he was Joe Paterno?  Were Paterno’s actions the result of willful blindness or hubris?  It’s not so much a problem that the film leaves certain questions unanswered as much as it’s a problem that the film itself doesn’t seem to be all that concerned with the answers.

When the film isn’t concentrating on the Paternos, it’s concentrating on the reporter, Sara Ganim (Riley Keough), who originally broke the story.  However, these scenes are never quite as compelling as the film seems to think they are.  Riley Keough, who was so great in American Honey, seems miscast here.  For the most part. Sara seems to be there so that she can witness the Penn State students rioting and chanting, “Fuck the Media” after Paterno loses his job.

The best thing that Paterno has going for it is the lead performance of Al Pacino.  Pacino plays Paterno as a man who is very comfortable with the routine that he’s built up for himself.  His life revolves around Penn State, his team, and finally his own legend.  When the Sandusky story first breaks, Paterno can’t understand why he even has to be concerned about it.  He’s got a game against Nebraska coming up!  Awkward even around his adoring family, Paterno only seems to be truly comfortable when he’s coaching.  Pacino plays Paterno as a fragile and sickly man, a once ferocious lion brought down by a combination of cancer and scandal.  When we first see him, Paterno is coaching his team to a record-setting victory and he seems like a larger-than-life figure.  By the end of the movie, Paterno seems much smaller, a confused man who still can’t seem to bring himself to deal with why everyone is getting so upset.  It’s a great performance in an uneven film.

 

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (dir. by J.J. Abrams) Is the Sequel the Fandom Has Been Waiting For


Star Wars - The Force Awakens

[some minor, very minor spoilers]

When I first began this site on Christmas Eve of 2009 I had to thank the excitement I had for event films after seeing and experiencing James Cameron’s Avatar. It was an experience I hadn’t felt since the days of the Lord of the Rings trilogy and, even earlier than that, the original Star Wars trilogy. These were films that fired up one’s imagination, appreciation and love for film as entertainment and art. Some of these films would linger on longer in one’s mind than others, but that first viewing in their initial release would always imprint their effect on each viewer.

When George Lucas announced that he would be returning to that galaxy, far, far away with a trilogy of prequels almost 15 years since the world last saw Return of the Jedi premiere first the first time, the Star Wars fandom were giddy, excited and hyped beyond belief. The Star Wars films and the many spin-offs (novels, comic books, video games, etc.) which came about because of it only whetted the appetites of long-time Star Wars fans for more films detailing the adventures in the scifi universe created by George Lucas.

Yet, the prequels’ effect on these long-time fans would be the direct opposite of the effect the original trilogy had on the fandom. These three prequels (all directed and written by George Lucas himself) would do more than disappoint the fandom. It would create a schism between those who saw the original trilogy as the gateway to their fandom and those younger generation who never saw the original trilogy and had the prequels become their gateway to the fandom. Even to this day there would be some of the younger generation who truly believe that the prequels trump the original three films which began the franchise.

When news came down that Disney had bought Lucasfilm and everything which George Lucas had built and cultivated there was no chance in hell that there wouldn’t be another series of Star Wars despite the disaster which were the prequels. Lo and behold, it didn’t take long for Disney to greenlight the sequel to Return of the Jedi and have it set decades after the events of that film.

So, it is with Star Wars: The Force Awakens that the Star Wars fandom get to see whether their continued faith in the franchise was worth it or if they have been Charlie Brown’d once again and had the ball taken away at the very last second. It’s easy to say that Star Wars: The Force Awakens was great or it was awful. The true answer to whether this film succeeded in what it intended do was a bit more complicated.

Yet, if one was to look for an easy and simple answer then I’m happy to say that Star Wars: The Force Awakens was great. It had it’s moments of logic gap and plot holes, but as an overall finished product the film succeeded in course-correcting the franchise from the nadir it was at with the culmination of the prequels. It wouldn’t have taken much to surpass the very low bar set by those prequels, but The Force Awakens leapfrogged that bar and went even higher.

The film does begin thirty years after the events of Return of the Jedi and we find out with the now familiar episode intro crawl that Luke Skywalker has disappeared since those events and the galaxy has remained in turmoil with his absence. The Galactic Empire has been defeated, but in its place a new danger in the form of the genocidal First Order has arisen from the Empire’s remains. Opposing the First Order is a sort of galactic force supported in secret by the New Republic and led by General (not Princess) Leia Organa calling themselves the Resistance. It’s the conflict between these two factions and the search for Luke that forms the narrative base for The Force Awakens.

The film doesn’t linger too long in explaining the events which occurred in that 30-year gap between Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens. It doesn’t need it as we’re quickly introduced to the series’ new characters in the form of Poe Dameron, the best pilot in the galaxy, who has been sent on a secret mission by Leia to find the clues as to her brother’s whereabouts. Next in line was Kylo Ren who becomes this film’s analogue to the Darth Vader figure of the original trilogy. Yet, the bulk of the film was told through the eyes of Finn and Rey.  The former is First Order stormtrooper who has seen first-hand what the First Order truly stands for and not for the betterment of the galaxy. The latter is a young woman living life on the desert planet Jakku scavenging the graveyard of starship wreckage from a battle thirty year’s prior.

It’s through Rey and Finn that the audience learns through their adventures upon meeting up with each other on Jakku what has transpired since the Rebellion destroyed the second Death Star and killed Emperor Palpatine. To these two characters, the events from the original trilogy seem to have passed beyond the realm of history and become more like legends and myths to the younger generation. Through a combination of fear and awe, Ren and Finn get introduced to some of the original trilogies main characters (Leia, Han Solo, Chewbacca and even Admiral Ackbar). These are the stories they’ve been told of growing up come to life right in front of their eyes and their reaction mirrors those of the audience who haven’t seen these characters in anything new and relevant since the end of Return of the Jedi. The reaction alone to seeing Han Solo and Chewbacca alone seemed like the fandom’s collective cheer for the good that has been missing with the franchise for over 30 years now.

The Force Awakens is not a perfect by any stretch of the imagination. Like mentioned earlier, the film does suffer from some gaps in story logic and plot holes. As with most J.J. Abrams directed films he had a hand in writing the script and one could see where he sacrificed coherent storytelling beats for something that just pushed the story along the path he wanted the film to take. For those who have been steeped in Star Wars lore and backstory, this would be easily explained as the Force nudging, guiding and, if all else fails, pushing the characters onto the right path, but for the casual viewers it would come off as story beats of convenience.

As a story to bring back the faithful and lure in those still uninitiated to the franchise The Force Awakens straddles the line between nostalgia and trying to bring in something new to the proceedings.

Let’s begin with the former and just say it now that The Force Awakens does follow some major story beats directly from A New Hope (to a smaller effect from Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi). One could almost say that this film was a sort of soft reboot of the original trilogy with how it lifted ideas from them and through some writing and directing recombination come up with something new, but still very familiar for hardcore and non-fans alike.

Does this decision to lean heavily on the original trilogy for ideas hurt the film? For some it might be a bit too distracting to recognize too many callbacks to those earlier films, but for most it’s a reminder of what the prequels lacked and that’s the sense of adventure and fun. There was never anything fun about the prequels. The Force Awakens brings it all back and for most viewers this is the course-correction the series has needed since the last images from Revenge of the Sith faded away from the silver-screen.

Even the new characters introduced in this latest film were an amalgamation of the main characters from the original trilogy. Where Abrams and Kasdan changed this up a bit was to go beyond just creating new analogues for the classic characters of Leia, Han, Luke, Chewie and R2D2. They opted to take all the qualities fans loved about those characters and mixed them all up to be used in the roles of Rey, Finn, Poe, Kylo Ren and BB8.

As the standout character in the film, Rey (played by find of the year Daisy Ridley) would bring back memories of not just the young and hopeful Luke from the original trilogy, but also some personal traits of Leia and Han. The same goes for Finn who at times reminded us of Han’s roguish charm to Luke’s naivete of his role in the larger world he has finally witnessed for the very first time. For the half-empty crowd this might look as lazy character development, but those who see the film with the half-full mindset would easily latch onto these new characters. Characters who now take on the responsibility of moving the franchise beyond the nostalgia of the original trilogy and erasure of the disappointment of the prequels to new adventures with the next two films.

So, is Star Wars: The Force Awakens worth returning back to the franchise after the prequels or is it too much of a rehash of the original three films? The answer to that is a definite yes despite some of it’s flaws. For some the very flaws some have pointed out (too many callbacks, sort of a reboot, etc.) was what made the film a fun time to be had. It’s a return to the comfort zone the fandom missed with the prequels.

Will the next two films in this new trilogy follow suit and just rely too much on nostalgia to continue trying to satisfy it’s massive audience? Or will Rian Johnson and Colin Trevorrow (director of Episode VIII and Episode IX, respectively) move into new territory with minimal callbacks to those earlier films? We as an audience will have to wait til 2017 and 2019 to find out. Until then enjoy what Abrams and Lucasfilm has accomplished with The Force Awakens. A film which has reinvigorated a film franchise that has seem some major lows, but one which also happens to be one hell of a fun ride from start to finish on it’s own merits.

P.S.: Some controversy has arisen since the film’s release concerning the character played by Daisy Ridley. Some have been very vocal about calling her Rey character as a sort of knee-jerk reaction to the accusation that the Star Wars films have lacked for a strong female lead. An argument that’s as misguided and misinformed as that of the films being whitewashed. The films in the franchise have always had strong female characters. The accusation that Rey as a character in The Force Awakens is such a “Mary Sue” (a female character written and created to be the best at everything, no flaws) ignore the details in the character’s development.

What’s sadder is that some of the very people (film critics and writers) who in the past have complained that major films (especially blockbusters) have been lacking in very strong female characters have been the very same who see Rey as a negative and a character too good. This despite the character following in the very same footsteps in how her predecessors have been written (Luke, Han, Anakin). It’s an argument that is sure to bring heated debate among fans and detractors, but one that takes away from the performance of Daisy Ridley who should be one of the many breakout stars to come out of Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

2013 In Review: The Best of SyFy


It’s been quite a year for the SyFy network, even if the network’s most widely-seen original film, Sharknado, was actually one of their weaker offerings.  As a proud member of the Snarkalecs and a Snarkies voter, I’ve certainly enjoyed watching, reviewing, and live tweeting all of the films that SyFy and the Asylum have had to offer us this year.

Below, you’ll find my personal nominees for the best SyFy films and performances of 2013.  (Winners are listed in bold.)

End of the World

Best Film

Battledogs

Blast Vegas

*End of the World

Flying Monkeys

Ghost Shark

Zombie Night

Best Actor

Neil Grayston in End of the World

*Greg Grunberg in End of the World

Anthony Michael Hall in Zombie Night

Frankie Muniz in Blast Vegas

Corin Nemec in Robocroc

Tom Everett Scott in Independence Daysaster

Best Actress

Maggie Castle in Blast Vegas

Lacey Chabert in Scarecrow

Kaitlyn Leeb in Grave Halloween

*Maika Monroe in Flying Monkeys

Ariana Richards in Battledogs

Mackenzie Rosman in Ghost Shark

Best Supporting Actor

Barry Bostwick in Blast Vegas

William B. Davis in Stonados

Brad Dourif in End of the World

Dennis Haysbert in Battledogs

John Heard in Sharknado

*Richard Moll in Ghost Shark

Best Supporting Actress

*Shirley Jones in Zombie Night

Nicole Munoz in Scarecrow

Jill Teed in Independence Daysaster

Jackie Tuttle in Flying Monkeys

Dee Wallace in Robocroc

Kate Vernon in Battledogs

Best Director

Griff Furst for Ghost Shark

Robert Grasmere for Flying Monkeys

John Gulager for Zombie Night

W.D. Hogan for Independence Daysaster

*Steven R. Monroe for End of the World

Jack Perez for Blast Vegas

Best Screenplay

Shane Van Dyke for Battledogs

Joe D’Ambrosia for Blast Vegas

*Jason C. Bourque and David Ray for End of The World

Silvero Gouris for Flying Monkeys

Paul A. Birkett for Ghost Shark

Rick Suvalle for Scarecrow

Flying Monkeys

Best Monster

*Skippy from Flying Monkeys

The Shark from Ghost Shark

Robocroc from Robocroc

The Scarecrow from Scarecrow

The Tasmanian Devils from Tasmanian Devils

The Zombies from Zombie Night

Battledogs

Tomorrow, I will continue my look back at 2013 with my picks for the 16 worst films of 2013!

What Lisa Marie and the Snarkalecs Watched Last Night #71: End of the World (dir by Steven R. Monroe)


Last night, the Snarkalecs and I watched the SyFy original movie, End of the World.  For the next two hours, we literally dominated twitter as we shared our mutual, nearly obsessive love for this film.  Soon, #EndOfTheWorld was a trending topic and, I’m happy to say, that ended up freaking out a lot of paranoid people who weren’t watching SyFy.

All in all, it was a pretty good night.

End of the WorldWhy Were We Watching It?

Because that’s what the Snarkalecs do.  We watch movies on SyFy and we usually get all snarky about them.  However, it was difficult to be snarky about End of the World because the people who made End of The World were obviously very snarky themselves.

What Was It About?

The world’s being bombarded by chunks of electromagnetic space debris.  Or something like that.  Really, the important thing to know is that the world’s about to end and it’s up to two video store clerks (played by two titans of nerdy adorability, Greg Grunberg and Neil Grayston) to save it.  Their solution involves breaking a sci-fi writer named Doc Brown (Brad Dourif) out of a mental asylum and Greg Grunberg working on a nuclear missile with a power drill.

However, to be honest, the plot is just a distraction.  The storyline is mostly used as an excuse to make clever references to nearly ever science fiction movie ever made.  Some of the references are obvious and some of them are a bit more subtle but, ultimately, they are what this movie is truly about.

What Worked?

It all worked.

Seriously, End of the World is the best film that I’ve ever seen on SyFy.  It was a film that was obviously made by genre fans for genre fans and, as a result, it felt like a belated Valentine’s Day present from the SyFy network to its viewers.

As I previously mentioned, the entire film is basically a collection of references and homages to other science fiction films.  While this is a technique that I’ve found cloying when used by other films, End of the World struck exactly the right tone.  The references were appreciative without over going overboard and, even more importantly, they were cleverly deployed throughout the film.   They moved the film forward and seemed to grow organically out of the action onscreen.  As a result, even with all the references, the film itself never felt heavy-handed.

Greg Grunberg is one of those great actors who can perfectly sell both comedy and drama.  His talents were on perfect display last night.  Perhaps the best Grunberg line of the night was, “It’s a monologue!  MONO!”

Brad Dourif didn’t have a lot of screentime but seriously, he  was just adorable.

Really, the whole film was just adorable.

What Did Not Work?

It all worked.

“Oh my God!  Just Like me!” Moments

Much like the character of Selena (Caroline Cave), I think Greg Grunberg’s pretty awesome.

Lessons Learned

The geeks shall inherit the Earth (but only after the Redheads are finished with it).

Trailer: Big Ass Spider


PCAS

How can you not be excited about a film called Big Ass Spider?  The film, from director Mike Mendez, will be playing at the South By Southwest Film Festival and, to judge from the trailer, it looks like it’s going to be a lot of fun.  You have to love any film that features Greg Grunberg saying, “This is a big ass spider.”