Saturday, April 28, 2018

Movie Reviews: The Commuter, Paterno

The Commuter
directed by Jaume Collet-Serra
Occasionally certain actors and directors just seem to work really well together regardless of the material. Antoine Fuqua and Denzel Washington. Spike Lee and Denzel Washington. Quentin Tarantino and Samuel Jackson. Martin Scorsese and Robert DeNiro. And Liam Neeson and Jaume Collet-Serra. 

The Commuter is somewhat similar to Neeson's previous film Non-Stop and for that matter Murder on the Orient Express but it's much more engaging than the latter film mentioned. This film largely takes place on public transportation, in the New York City metro area, to be specific.  The film went over the top with some seemingly impossible coincidences and contraptions but it never failed to entertain.

Michael MacCauley (Neeson) is a sixty year old Irish immigrant. Having previously worked as a police officer and found that the money wasn't enough to make it in the NYC area or perhaps having become disgusted with departmental politics, Michael has switched careers. For the past decade he's worked as a life insurance salesman. He's able to provide for his wife and son but he's not really rich. Similar to many high income house poor people, Michael is rarely more than a few paychecks away from disaster.  He lost almost everything in the 2008 financial meltdown. 

Michael intends to give his son the things that he never had, up to and including an expensive college education. Michael just has to keep his nose to the grindstone for a few more years. So Michael leaves early each morning from his Westchester home to take the train to Manhattan and hustle up business. 

Every evening at the same time Michael is back on the train, seeing many of the same people with the same complaints and joys: boring jobs, ungrateful spouses, prostate issues, work promotions, beautiful new grandchildren, yada, yada, yada. But nothing stays the same forever. It's rarely a good sign when your boss wants to speak to you in private. Michael's boss fires him. It could be age discrimination. It could be that Michael's production is lagging. It could be that his younger boss dislikes him. But the bottom line is that Michael is out. To add insult to injury Michael's only severance package is health care, not cash. Keeping the family home looks iffy; paying for his son's college won't happen.

After some barroom commiseration with his old NYPD partner Murphy (Patrick Wilson) Michael heads home on the train with all the other regulars. Michael must find the courage to tell his wife and son that their protector has failed. 

On Michael's return trip an attractive slightly flirty woman named Joanna (Vera Farmiga) sits down across from him. After some banter which sees both people establish that neither wants sex, Joanna gets down to business. She wants to know if Michael would hypothetically agree to accept $100,000 just for identifying a person on the train who has a bag which isn't theirs. Joanna has a name.

Joanna has placed a $25,000 down payment in the bathroom. Michael doesn't say yes but he doesn't exactly say no either. Joanna tells him that it's not his business what happens to the person he identifies. Joanna gets off the train but as she later communicates to Michael once he's opened the bathroom package, he's accepted her offer. And Michael had better find the person before the train reaches Cold Spring. Or things won't go well for Michael's family, will they? 

This was a locked room mystery which was still exciting although you've seen the story a million times before. Michael doesn't know whom he can trust. He's hectic, paranoid and panicked, especially as Joanna ratchets up the pressure. There is some concession to Neeson's age as the film jumps backwards and forwards between mystery and action. Neeson looks good for his age. I  though it was stretching things a bit to think that Neeson's and Wilson's character could have been partners for very long given that Neeson is at least twenty years older than Wilson. Just as Neeson can silently establish authority just by his physical presence, Farmiga can convey extreme annoyance and even danger via her eyes alone. This film would have been better if somehow it could have contrived to have Neeson and Farmiga spend more screen time together.

This is not a super smart movie but it's not dumb either. Just don't think too much and enjoy the ride.

directed by Barry Levinson
For years many people in charge of Penn State football and administration, Pennsylvania charitable oversight, and state and municipal law enforcement either looked the other way or were duped as long time Penn State assistant coach and defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky molested, abused and raped young boys, some as young as eight to ten years old. The public only became aware of these allegations much later when Penn State graduate assistant coach Mike McQueary walked in on the then retired Sandusky raping a boy in the Penn State men's football showers. 

Showing how depraved the Penn State football culture had become McQueary did not immediately physically defend the child, alert security, or call the police. Instead he told his boss, head coach Joe Paterno (Al Pacino). Although McQueary did, supposedly out of "respect" for Paterno's strait-laced old school discomfort about sexual matters, leave out the most graphic details, he made it clear that this was illegal behavior. Paterno didn't tell the police either. He waited a few days and told his AD and another administrator. Significantly, Paterno downplayed the incident as 'horsing around'.

The two men also didn't tell the police but did mention it to the college President. Similar to a game of telephone they also minimized what had happened. The upshot was that Penn State forbade Sandusky from bringing any more young boys onto campus. Sandusky was still allowed to operate his charity for young boys. The journalist Sara Ganim (Riley Keogh) revealed all this and more after she learned that there was a grand jury looking into sexual abuse allegations against Sandusky. Ganim discovered that not only were there many more victims but also that Penn State, in the singular persona of Paterno, had been pretending not to know about Sandusky for years, even decades.

This film is not centered around graphic sexual abuse, which given the victim's ages, thankfully couldn't be depicted anyway. No this film is about the deference we give our heroes and how much evil we accept in our daily life. This film is about Paterno's reverential close family and friends struggling to make sense of the fact that the patriarch they love and admire has been accepting the worst kind of evil for a very long time.  I've written before that when we are very young we often hero worship our parents. Adults usually move past that phase but no one wants to believe that their parent is a bad (wo)man.

His adult children try to convince themselves that their Dad couldn't have known because otherwise he would have done something. Wouldn't he? They have children of their own now; would Paterno have left Sandusky alone with them? Paterno's wife Sue (Kathy Baker) wants to stand by her man, but even she has questions and limits. Pacino is masterful here. 

Pacino gives a very nuanced occasionally hesitant but always powerful performance that is miles apart from his bombastic turns in other films. Pacino disappears into his character. His Paterno is a man whose body has already failed him and whose mind may be going next. But he's still a crafty guy. Neither the character nor the viewer is always sure if Paterno can't remember something or doesn't want to remember something. Paterno definitely has guilt. But he's also defiant, pointing out many other people, some better known or more powerful than he, who supported Sandusky. The film deftly weaves together initial viewer sympathy for an old man who only wants to coach football and growing viewer disgust for a empty suit moralist who doesn't care how many boys get raped because he's only interested in coaching football. At different times Pacino's Paterno is both of those men.  Paterno's flashbacks can be interpreted in different ways.

This is an intense and (given Bill Cosby's recent rape conviction) timely film that will make you think about when, where and why you draw the line between good and evil. Think about the worst thing a loved one has ever done and then multiply it by 100. Do you still love that person? Did you ever know that person? Does the bad thing they did wipe out the good?
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