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.

 

Cleaning Out The DVR Yet Again #32: Sister Cities (dir by Sean Hanish)


(Lisa recently discovered that she only has about 8 hours of space left on her DVR!  It turns out that she’s been recording movies from July and she just hasn’t gotten around to watching and reviewing them yet.  So, once again, Lisa is cleaning out her DVR!  She is going to try to watch and review 52 movies by the end of Wednesday, December 7th!  Will she make it?  Keep checking the site to find out!)

Sister Cities originally aired on Lifetime on September 17th.  When it first aired, I was really expecting to like it just because it’s a movie about four sisters and I’m the youngest of four sisters.  Add to that, one of the sisters was named Dallas and Dallas is my city.  Seriously, I seemed destined to like Sister Cities.

But then I actually saw the film.  And I have to admit that, for the first hour or so, I felt a little bit guilty about not liking the film.  It may have been a painfully slow film but I figured that it deserved some credit for at least trying to take the time for the viewers to get to know the four sisters.  As well, I couldn’t deny that casting did a good job when it came to selecting the four lead actresses.  You looked at them and they all had enough features and mannerisms in common that you could actually believe that they were related.

In the film, the four sisters gather together after the suicide of their mother (played, in flashbacks, by both Amy Smart and Jacki Weaver).  The sisters all have their own distinct personalities and, for some reason, three of them are named after cities.

For instance, the youngest sister is named Baltimore (Troian Bellisario).  She’s a free-spirit who does what she wants.  Now, my boyfriend is from Baltimore.  I have friends who live in Baltimore.  I’ve visited Baltimore and I loved it.  But I would not name my daughter Baltimore because Baltimore is a great name for a city but it’s a terribly clunky one for a human being.  If I was going to pick a city to name my daughter after, I’d probably go with Savannah or maybe Charlotte.  Or, for that matter, maybe Ardglass.   But not Baltimore.

Then there’s Dallas (Michelle Trachtenberg), who is the super organized and neat sister.  She’s the one who gets taunted for always wearing matching underwear but seriously, what’s wrong with that?  At least Dallas gets a pretty name.

Austin (Jess Wexler) has a pretty name too.  We’re told that she’s a successful writer.  We never believe it for a second.  Austin lived with her mother and she’s the one who called the other sisters back home.  Austin is as close as the film comes to having a central character.

And then there’s Carolina (Stana Katic), who is the oldest.  She’s a lawyer and she’s angry because her mother named her after one of the Carolinas but never clarified which one.

To be honest, it’s a bit too much.  The sisters are all exaggerated types.  The mother is an exaggerated type.  They all have cutesy names.  The nonstop theatrical quirkiness of it all is very off-putting and it doesn’t help that the film’s first hour is painfully slow.  There’s a few attempts at dark humor but it’s never as insightful or affecting as it seems to think it is.

Then we get to the second hour and the film remains painfully slow but it also turns into a rather strident screed about assisted suicide.  Eventually, the whole film comes down to an extended flashback of a beatific-looking Jacki Weaver smiling as she calmly explains that Austin will have to help her commit suicide because she’s the only sister who is emotionally strong enough to handle it.  It was all so manipulative and heavy-handed that I ended up getting so annoyed that I took off my shoes and nearly threw them at the TV.

Sorry, Baltimore.

Sorry, Dallas.

Sorry, Austin.

Sorry, Carolina.

Back to School Part II #39: The Glass House (dir by Daniel Sackheim)


the_glass_house_2001_film

Originally, I was planning on using the 2001 thriller The Glass House as one of my guilty pleasure reviews.  Because, seriously, this film truly is one of the guiltiest of all guilty pleasures.  I mean, there’s so much that you can criticize about the movie but it’s so much fun that I always feel rather bad for doing so.  However, after giving it some thought, I decided to use The Glass House as one of my Back to School reviews.  Seeing as how I just totally trashed a Leelee Sobieski film called Here On Earth, it only seems fair to now recommend one of her films.

In The Glass House, Leelee plays Ruby Baker, a 16 year-old whose parents are killed in a car accident.  Though their uncle (Chris Noth) wants to adopt them, the will states that Ruby and her nine year-old brother (Trevor Morgan) will instead be looked after by their parents’ best friends, Erin (Diane Lane) and Terry (Stellan Skarsgard).

Now, here’s the thing.  This is going to blow your mind.  Guess where Erin and Terry live?  They live in a big mansion in Malibu and the entire house is made out of … GLASS!  We have a title, right!?  But wait, there’s more!  Guess what Terry and Erin’s last name is?  That’s right — GLASS!  So, the house is not only literally a glass house but it’s also the Glass house as well!  And beyond that, there’s that old saying that people who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones and … well, that really doesn’t apply to this film.

Anyway, I’m making such a big deal about the title because it pretty much tells you everything that you need to know about The Glass House.  There is not a single subtle moment to be found in this entire film. And really, this is not a film that requires or rewards subtlety.  We know that Terry Glass is up to no good from the minute we meet him, largely because he’s played by Stellan Skarsgard and when was the last time Stellan Skarsgard played a trustworthy character?  Skarsgard pretty much gives the same performance here that he’s given in almost every thriller that he’s ever appeared in (including David Fincher’s rehash of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo — which I’m still ticked off about, by the way) but it works wonderfully because there’s not a hint of pretension to The Glass House.  It just wants to entertain and it does just that.  There’s little that can match the entertainment value of watching Stellan Skarsgard go totally over the top.

Sure, the film has all sorts of flaws.  Ruby’s intelligence changes from scene to scene, depending on what the film’s story needs her to do.  (For that matter, the same thing can be said about every character in the film.)  But the film’s a lot of fun and Leelee Sobieski gives one of the best and most sympathetic performances of her career.  Ruby may be an inconsistent character but she’s so well-played that you like her anyway.  In a film that often threatens to go just a little bit too crazy, Leelee gives a performance of both believable grief and believable inner strength.  She keeps the film grounded just enough that you’ll continue to watch even when the narrative hits a rough patch.  As well, Bruce Dern is hilariously sleazy as a possibly duplicitous attorney.  The only thing more entertaining than watching Stellan Skarsgard go over the top is watching Bruce Dern do the same thing in the same film.

The Glass House is one of those films that seems to show up on cable constantly.  And, 9 times out of 10, I’ll at least watch at least a little bit of it.  It’s just a fun movie.

Embracing the Melodrama #45: Inventing the Abbotts (dir by Pat O’Connor)


First released in 1997, Inventing the Abbotts is a small town, romantic melodrama about two families in the 1950s.  One family is poor.  One family is rich.  As you can probably guess, each is fated to determine the destiny of the other.

Decades ago, Lloyd Abbott (Will Patton) and Holt were business partners.  However, after Lloyd had an affair with Holt’s wife (Kathy Baker), their friendship ended.  Lloyd eventually becomes the richest man in town and has three beautiful daughters: dutiful Alice (Joanna Going), wild Eleanor (Jennifer Connelly), and virginal Pam (Liv Tyler).  Holt is long since dead and his two sons, Jacey (Billy Crudup) and Doug (Joaquin Phoenix) live next door to the Abbotts.  While the bitter Jacey is obsessed with the Abbott family and ends up pursuing both Eleanor and the married Alice, Doug claims not to care about the Abbotts.  However, despite his claimed indifference, Doug soon finds himself falling in love with Pam.  Will Doug and Pam be together or will Lloyd succeed in keeping them apart?

To be honest, Inventing the Abbotts is not a particularly good film.  It moves way too slowly, Doug and Jacey frequently swtich personalities whenever the plot demands it, the story is way too predictable, the voice over narration is way too obvious, and Jennifer Connelly’s character leaves the film way too early.  This is one of those films that is determined to make sue that you never forget that it’s taking place in the 50s and you can be sure that every cliché that you associate with that decade will pop up at least once.  There are a few scenes that could have been easily been replaced with a picture of Joaquin Phoenix holding a sign reading, “It’s the 50s,” without causing us to miss out on any important information.

And yet, I still liked Inventing the Abbotts.  I think it really comes down to the fact that I’m the youngest of four sisters and therefore, I have a weakness for movies about sisters.  And the sisters in Inventing the Abbotts are all perfectly cast and believable as siblings so, for me, the movie was redeemed because of the number of scenes to which anyone who is a sister or who has a sister will be able to relate.

As such, despite its flaws, Inventing the Abbotts is definitely a guilty pleasure for me.

Your results may vary.

Inventing the Abbotts

Film Reviews: The Skin I Live In (dir. by Pedro Almodovar) and Take Shelter (dir. by Jeff Nichols)


In terms of film, the horror genre has never gotten the respect that it undeniably deserves.  Afterall, some of the most effective trends in cinema (German expressionism, for instance) first had their start in the horror genre.  However, most critics seem to be more comfortable just dismissing most horror films as being a bunch of predictable tropes and easy shocks as opposes to admitting that the horror genre is one that is rich with history, subtext, and importance.  Right now, there are two horror films playing the art houses of America and they are both more than worth your time.  Those films: Pedro Almodovar’s The Skin I Live In and Jeff Nichols’s Take Shelter.

In The Skin I Live In, a weary-looking Antonio Banderas plays a world-renowned plastic surgeon who, unknown to all of his colleagues, has trapped a young woman in his sprawling estate.  With the help of his devoted servant Marilla (Marisa Paredes), he keeps the woman (played by Elena Anaya) a total prisoner while continually experimenting on her in his efforts to create a new type of skin that is immune to bug bites and being burned.  However, Anaya — who has been held prisoner for six years — is desperate to escape and is even willing to engage in self-mutilation in her effort to make things difficult for Banderas.  Finally, while Banderas is out, Marilla’s psychotic son (a terrifying Robert Alamo) shows up at the estate and, convinced that he knows the young woman, tries to kidnap her for his own.

In between the scenes involving the strange experiments going on at the estate, another story plays out as Antonio Banderas exacts a disturbing revenge on the young man (Jan Cornet) that Banderas holds responsible for the death of his daughter.  The film’s two stories eventually intersect in a surprising yet disturbingly logical way.

As a director, Almodovar often pays homage to other, similarly iconic filmmakers and The Skin I Live In feels like a combination of the over-the-top melodrama of Douglas Sirk (right down to the film’s “hero” being a doctor) and the unapologetic sordidness of Jesus Franco.  This is especially evident in the film’s big, surprise twist; a twist that manages to be both ludicrous and compelling at the same time.  (I should also note that, at the showing I went to, the twist inspired about a fourth of the people in the theater to leave.)  The end result is a creepily effective, thought-provoking horror film that is both deliberately absurd and touched with a strain of undeniable melancholy.

As opposed to the baroque The Skin I Live In, Take Shelter takes place in the deceptively mundane American midwest.  Michael Shannon plays Curtis, a soft-spoken construction worker who suddenly finds himself haunted with terrifying nightmares of an incoming apocalypse.  The nightmares always start with rain and, as the film unfolds, they grew progressively more and more disturbing.  Soon, he’s seeing shadowy figures wearing hospital gowns standing out in the rain, waiting to attack him and even worse, he starts to see visions of his friends and family waiting to attack him.  Is Curtis seeing the future or has he simply inherited his mother’s schizophrenia?

The genius of the film is that, up until the final scene, you’re not quite sure.  I’ve seen a lot of nightmares in a lot of horror films and I can usually spot them long before the inevitable scene of the film’s hero waking up in bed with a shout.  Take Shelter is full of nightmares and they all follow the same basic theme but they are so effortlessly woven into the film that they still take you by surprise long after they shouldn’t.  As a viewer, you find yourself relating to Curtis because, like him, you’re never quite sure what’s real and what’s just in his mind.  The film forces us to try to figure out whether Curtis is scared because he’s crazy or is he going crazy because he’s scared. 

The film’s apocalyptic visions reminded me a lot of Peter Weir’s somewhat similar film, The Last Wave.  However, both director Jeff Nichols and star Michael Shannon manage to make this story their own.  Shannon is in nearly every scene of the film and he gives a performance that’s both dramatic and subtle.  In the past, whenever Shannon’s played a mentally ill character (Revolutionary Road, The Runaways), I’ve always felt he’s come really close to caricature.  However, in this case, he gets it right and brings a real sense of reality and urgency to the film.  Also giving good performances: Kathy Baker (as Curtis’s mother) and Jessica Chastain (who plays Shannon’s wife).

The horror genre may never get the respect it deserves.  However, films like The Skin I Live In and Take Shelter are here to let us know that horror remains a vibrant genre that will not be ignored.