REVIEW: Happy Valley

2 09 2015

Happy ValleyAmir Bar-Lev’s “Happy Valley,” a documentary account of the fall and rebirth of the Penn State football program, initially unfolds as a pretty straightforward chronicle of events.  We get a definitive look at how Jerry Sandusky managed to use his charitable organization as a front to sexually abuse young, underprivileged children as well as how the university’s athletic program turned a blind eye to his exploits.

Establishing this baseline of information takes about 30 minutes, which is fine.  It plays like a really good ESPN “30 for 30” program.  But once it moves past the firing of head coach Joe Paterno and resignation of university president Graham Spanier, “Happy Valley” starts to get significantly more interesting.  By spending the majority of the film exploring the aftermath, Bar-Lev shows an interest in more than just recounting events.  He wants to interrogate them.

The film explores the lingering question of how to handle the legacy of Paterno, the winningest coach in college football – and also a man who aided and abetted a criminal act.  Not unlike what has happened in the wake of all the allegations against Bill Cosby, people must confront the dissonance between the memory of a man who provided them years of happiness and the reality of a person who committed a deplorable act.  How do we reconcile that?  How do we weigh legal guilt against a greater moral guilt?

These are tough issues to resolve, and Bar-Lev shows people on both sides of the aisle.  He interviews a student who rants angrily from his dorm room about how no action Paterno took should ever scrub his coaching record.  Yet he also shows a man who stands in front of a statue erected in Paterno’s honor, refusing to let those who want to take a picture with it leave without fully understanding the weight of his actions.

Ultimately, these two sides of the coin point to a larger dichotomy Bar-Lev explores: individual vs. social culpability.  How much are we, the fans of the sport, willing to excuse in the name of victory?  Again, this is not easy to answer.  But it is necessary.  B+3stars

2011 … It was the worst of times.

31 12 2011

On New Year’s Eve, this year as always, we stand teetering unevenly between the past and the future – one eye looking forward, the other looking back.  However, this particular day more than any in recent history, people seem to be casting all sight and all hope towards the future because 2011 brought them more pain than pleasure.  Indeed, while there was plenty to celebrate, this year seemed to highlight the worst in all of us, emphasizing our shortcomings rather than our strengths, reminding us that we could be better … but for some reason we weren’t.

Politically, the year started with such promise as we looked to put an end to inflammatory and hateful dialogue in the wake of the horrific shooting in Tuscon that nearly took the life of Arizona congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords.  In a horrifyingly ironic twist, Sarah Palin had put her district on a map with a shotgun sight on it a few months earlier, drawing attention to the overuse of words like murder and kill in the vernacular.  The tragedy shamed us all, although apparently not nearly enough.

In this age of uncertainty, Washington moved towards its idealogical poles, only drawing attention to their vast differences instead of our many similarities.  We are all committed to having a government that functions (and functions with less debt), yet the parts nearly came to a screeching halt as politicians disagreed as to the machine’s output.  We all want to get out of this economic slump, but the inability to find common ground may have only added to the problem.  And amidst it all, you heard the same kind of hateful speech that we wanted to eradicate back in January.  Much of it was directed at the Tea Party: Rep. Maxine Waters said they “can go straight to hell,” Vice-President Joe Biden called them “terrorists,” and perhaps worst of all, Teamsters President Jimmy Hoffa issued a rallying cry to “take the sons of b*tches out.”  We could be better … but for some reason we weren’t.

It was also a year of scandals that highlighted the inability of men to handle the power granted them by society.  Rep. Anthony Weiner was forced to resign after moronically tweeting nude pictures of himself to young women (the icing on the cake was his wife’s pregnancy coming shortly thereafter).  It likely went unnoticed amidst the debt ceiling drama, but Rep. David Wu also vacated his position after an alleged sexual assault.

The most sickening, though, was the Penn State child sex abuse drama that resulted in the termination of much of the football staff including the legendary coach Joe Paterno.  As if 2011 needed any other humiliating debacle, Jerry Sandusky’s use of his charity for at-risk children to fulfill his perverse sexual desires (read the grand jury report if you want to gag) makes everything else look tame.  Yes, even you, lovechild bearing governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, accused rapist and IMF head Dominique Strauss-Kahn, or philandering former Republican presidential hopeful Herman Cain.  It makes Charlie Sheen look like he actually could be #winning.  We could be better … but for some reason we weren’t.

Look at TIME’s Person of the Year and you can deduce the prevailing emotion of the year: anger.  Protesters throughout the world channeled their distrust and disapproval of government, of institutions, even of people into the streets.  Some were organized, like the Arab Spring through social media and around a particular message, such as Egypt’s demands that Mubarak needed to resign for the sake of freedom and posterity.  Others, like Occupy Wall Street and its various offshoots, just inspired people to bring whatever grievance they had in a display of civil disobedience.  While the topics of income inequality, corporate greed, and the government influence of the financial sector floated into mainstream conversation, the lack of a unified goal has led to frustration, confusion, and inefficacy.  In America, anger has just bred more anger.

And in the tradition of societal tumult, we look for a scapegoat.  For some it was John Boehner’s Congress.  Others blamed President Obama.  But during the summer of our discontent, Americans found an unlikely figure to project their uncertainty and insecurity onto: Casey Anthony, the Florida mother accused of murdering her young daughter.  Here was someone that represented everything wrong with the country – neglecting her duties, failing her children, squelching the possibility of a bright future – yet ironically, she was deemed innocent.

Cue everyone on Facebook and Twitter screaming in all caps “CASEY ANTHONY IS SO GUILTY!”  No one wanted justice, they wanted blood.  An eye for an eye, the perpetrator for the victim.  That misplaced anger showed up once again at Penn State, where students rioted in support of their beloved Coach Paterno, whom they believed to be collateral damage in the fallout of the scandal.  Yet if they had really listened, they would have known that Paterno had not called the police when directly given the information of Sandusky’s sexual misconduct in his facilities.  We could be better … but for some reason we weren’t.

So why are you reading this on Marshall and the Movies?  You probably could have read all the above on CNN.  For one, I have firm belief in the ability of the history (the societal narrative) to affect the biography (the personal narrative), so everything from the shameful scandals to the angry Americans to the partial politics played a role in how we watched (or didn’t watch) movies and how they reflected us.

It was a year of intelligent apocalyptic movies, on a global scale by way of storms (“Take Shelter”), viruses (“Contagion”), planetary collisions (“Melancholia”), technological manipulation (“Rise of the Planet of the Apes”), and financial meltdown (“Margin Call”), all of which tied into the anxieties of living in the now.

There was also an abundance of movies tying into non-apocalyptic but hardly apocryphal personal crises.  Much of it centered around loss  – the loss of a family member (“The Descendants,” “Super 8”), the loss of health (“50/50”), the loss of a job (“Everything Must Go,” “Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop”), or the loss of perspective (“Martha Marcy May Marlene,” “The Beaver”).

However, plenty of these catalysts for change are the result of society, be they from industrial shifts (“The Artist,” “Hugo”), the impact of digital culture (“Shame,” “Page One”), the fallout of economic downturn (“Win Win”), an unfair playing field (“Moneyball”), hatred (“The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” “In a Better World”), injustice (“The Help,” “Weekend”), or a general loss of faith in an institution (“Higher Ground, “The Ides of March”).

Just as the movies had a tumultuous relationship with society in 2011, society had a tumultuous relationship with the movies.  Revenues fell again as ticket sales were the lowest in 15 years; you know, when Tom Cruise suited up as Ethan Hunt for the first “Mission: Impossible” movie, “Independence Day” ruled the box office, and “Super 8” star Elle Fanning had yet to be born.  Why so low?  Look to the same distrust of corporations that moved the Occupiers to New York’s Zuccotti Park.

Just like “Inside Job” showed us that the banks scammed America, the preponderance of 3D revealed to most moviegoers that the technology was being used less for art (like in “Hugo”) and more for increasing profit margins (like for “Captain America”).  As Grady Smith of Entertainment Weekly put it, “Consumers balk at the idea of having to pay a regular ticket price PLUS an additional $3.50 for an experience that doesn’t often provide much more than a headache.”  With the growing precariousness of the country’s economic situation, the consciousness of high ticket prices might have kept the public at large from seeing non-essential movies in the theater.

There also seemed to be a paradoxical audience reaction to sequels in 2011 (as if there already wasn’t enough confusion this year).  The top seven movies of the year were all sequels, and the rest of the top ten belonged to some larger franchise.  Only at #12 (“Bridesmaids”) do you get anything original.  However, this sequel success is double-edged as only the last “Harry Potter” film, “Fast Five,” and “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol” were able to outdo their predecessors.  Some fell just short, while others, particularly animated sequels like “Alvin and the Chipmunks” and “Happy Feet” severely underwhelmed.  The success of original films like “Inception” seems to have done little to phase the studio executives, one of which said that spectacle over story is what they count on for success.  Unfortunately, audiences have wised up thanks to filmmakers like Nolan, and traditional strategies now seem more and more out of touch.

Finally, before I reach my 10 worst movies of the year, which are awful for lack of creativity, purpose, ambition, and cohesion, I wanted to end this post on the worst of 2011 on a personal note.  After nearly 18 months of posting every day, I largely fell off the map this year.  I returned to blog all of summer, but in the spring I let festivities of high school graduation overpower my will to blog; similarly in the fall, I let the transition to college life get the best of my writing capabilities.  I never stopped watching movies (I saw a whopping 114 released this year). Hopwever, I did stop sharing my thoughts about them and interacting with the community at large, making all that time spent in front of the screen self-serving.  I could have been better, but I wasn’t.

But just because I wasn’t better doesn’t mean I can’t be better.  Mark my words, I will be better in 2012.  Hopefully, we all will be.

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