Review of HBO’s Paterno

True crime stuff always pulls me in and I thought it was great that HBO was going to take a run at the Jerry Sandusky debacle at Penn State.  Having seen Al Pacino play Dr. Kevorkian in a HBO show, I was hopeful to get some real insights as to what actually happened during the turmoil of the case.  I thought with the passage of time, we might get some clarity around the events that rapidly unfolded.

I was disappointed.

The HBO film, Paterno, is a bizarre collage of bits and pieces that barely hang together as a movie.  I stuck with it to the end, because I was still in search of some resolution.  Don’t make the same mistake I did.

Paterno comes across as entirely unsympathetic from a character perspective.  He is detached to the point of senility.  The question remains through 99% of the movie as to what he knew and when he knew it.  Only in the last few minutes do we get a glimpse of how many decades he covered for Sandusky.

The reporter character who broke the case is about the only character you can latch onto as redeemable and her parts are a jumble of disjointed segments leaving you to wonder what she actually thinks and believes.   Her character could and should have been used to guide the viewer through the allegations of misconduct.  In reality, you get the feeling she is along for the ride with the rest of us.

We never see the critical scenes where Paterno is told of Sandusky’s terrible infractions or his action.  All we see is Pacino’s character struggle to remember the event and blow it off as not important.  There are parts of this movie that either were left on the cutting room floor or never filmed in the first place.

Pacino’s acting is great but there is nothing in the character he plays that viewers can or will identify with.  The victims of Jerry Sandusky are backgrounds to a choppy plot.  What was needed here was a treatment like All The President’s Men or The Post. What we get is dull and filmed with lots of strange moving camera angles and poorly written lines about characters none of us can identify with or care about.  It fails as true crime or even as fluff-entertainment.

I was disappointed in HBO this time around, a rarity.

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Mid-Series Review of Waco

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Waco is everywhere on TV…there are at least three documentary-style mini-series out there interviewing the survivors of the disastrous raid.  The 25th anniversary generates that kind of true crime nostalgia.  Just to be clear, I am reviewing the Paramount (formerly Spike) network docudrama called Waco.

It might be hard to remember the events accurately.  In 1993 the ATF and FBI raided the Branch Davidian Compound in Waco, Texas.  The Davidians were led by David Koresh and were often characterized at the time as being a cult and that Koresh was a madman.  Of course, that is the government’s side of matters.  The raid turned into a gun battle that ultimately resulted in the deaths of 76 of the Davidians.  For those of us who remember the 51 day standoff, it was horrific on many levels, and seemed brutally unnecessary.

Ironically this mini-series comes out at a time when the integrity of the FBI is being drawn into question.  This series subtly provides a backdrop for current political events and takes us back to a time when the integrity of the FBI was at deepening low.  There’s no way the producers could have foreseen some of the parallels that could be drawn, which makes the series more genuine.

Normally I am not a fan of docudramas, but this one has the same polish and excellent writing/casting as FX’s The People vs. OJ Simpson.  Yes, it is scripted, but it does a great job of keeping to the facts.  As a history and true crime author, I had a benchmark coming into this series.  I told my wife, “You can’t tell the story of what happened in Waco if you don’t tell the story in some way, about what happened with the Weaver’s at Ruby Ridge.”  That standoff set the stage for Waco.

The first episode started with Ruby Ridge and immediately I was drawn in.  I knew that the producers were going to try and tell the whole story of the tragic events that unfolded.

Koresh is not a crazed cult-leader. There are a lot of layers to this man.  The series does an excellent job of drawing in the viewers to the life he was trying to establish for his church members.  This is not Jim Jones, but a man that finds himself the target of the ATF because that agency was trying to use the Davidians as a PR event to rebuild their reputation after Ruby Ridge.

David Koresh does not come across as a cult leader, but a victim of sorts.  His followers are not mindless drones in the series, but well-crafted characters and personalities all on their own.

Waco is captivating, compelling, and has outstanding performances.  It pulls you in and holds you tight to your seat.  It doesn’t stray from the truth, but attempts to put it into context…a rarity for Hollywood these days.  If you are not watching it, I recommend you do (Paramount Networks – Wednesday’s at 10pm).  We are just two episodes in and I am truly enjoying this series.

#truecrime

#Waco

Mid-Season Review – Killing Fields – Murder Isle

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Isle of Wight’s Best

We’re through four episodes so far of the new season of the Killing Fields and so far Discovery has not failed to deliver.

This season was a big departure for the series.  The shift went from Iberville Parish, Louisiana to Isle of Wight County, Virginia.  Some of the same elements are there.  A frigid cold case.  A grizzled and seasoned investigator determined to see it solved.  The “young buck” detective that is partnered with them.  The seasoned officer sitting in his backyard with a drink at night is still there.  It has the same gritty look and feel to the past two seasons – lots of drone shots, and plenty of twists and turns. Discovery has done a good job of keeping the elements of the series in place as it transitions to a new locale.  Personally, I miss Rhodie talking about the “raggedy-ass” killers though.

The twists and turns are plentiful.  What starts out as the investigation into the brutal murder of Carrie Singer morphs into the two murders that may be connected.  We see some of the new technologies in DNA testing, such as M-Vac systems DNA collecting system, and DNA phenotyping (getting a facial reconstruction of a killer from their DNA), being brought into play.

I know some of this is scripted, but it certainly plays out as realistic.  Often times investigators start down one trail, only to be seductively lured onto new paths as a result of their efforts.  I haven’t bonded much with the key characters just yet – but we are only four episodes in…and frankly, it feels like a rollercoaster ride of twists and turns.

For me, this series is more personal.  Two of the victims of the Colonial Parkway Murders (David Knobling and Robin Edwards) were found at the Ragged Island Wildlife Refuge in Isle of Wight County. My daughter and I wrote a book on these serial killings, A Special Kind of Evil.  I have been there many times, taking that long, lonely, sometimes eerie, drive on the James River Bridge.  It was great for me to see the former Sheriff, Charlie Phelps, in one episode.  I interviewed him twice and it was great to associate a face to a voice.

Isle of Wight is a place of contradictions and contrasts.  It is isolated, yet very close to numerous cities.  Like any rural county, there is a mix of characters and backstories that are starting to emerge in the series. It has been a dumping ground for years for Newport News and other cities.  It has a bit of hometown appeal, a dash of redneckiness, and a twist of strangeness that makes it compelling to watch.

If you are not watching Killing Fields – start.  You can get caught up On-Demand.  It is worth your time if you are a true crime fan. Even if you are not, it is a great view into an active investigation – filmed “real time.”  Let’s hope that Discovery’s efforts brings about some convictions in the murders profiled.

#M-vac

#truecrime

#killingfields

Review of the HBO series Gunpowder

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Only HBO can make Guy Fawkes a medieval superhero

Remember, remember!

The fifth of November,

The Gunpowder treason and plot;

I know of no reason

Why the Gunpowder treason

Should ever be forgot!

Guy Fawkes and his companions

Did the scheme contrive,

To blow the King and Parliament

All up alive.

Threescore barrels, laid below,

To prove old England’s overthrow.

But, by God’s providence, him they catch,

With a dark lantern, lighting a match!

A stick and a stake

For King James’s sake!

I have to admit a fondness for Guy Fawkes and his fellow conspirators. Oppressed, they sought to change the course of history. There is a bit of a rebel in all of us and in some ways Fawkes and his fellow conspirator’s appeals to those feelings on their most base level.  Of course, in reality, the suppressed Catholics became even larger targets of oppressions as a result of the infamous Gunpowder plot’s horrific failure.

I would say that this review of spoiler-free, but I can assure you, it is not. Series based on history cannot be spoiler free.

When I saw HBO was doing a series on this, starring Kit Harrington from Game of Thrones, I was pretty excited.  Americans only know Guy Fawkes from the movie “V for Vendetta” so I thought that this was going to be a great docudrama that was both entertaining and educational.

It is a dark series, both story-wise and visually.  There are a number of characters introduced that we never really get to know and invest ourselves in.  As such, their fates do not mean much to us as viewers – which is a lost opportunity.  That isn’t to say that this is a bad series – in fact is very captivating and stimulating, with a bit of a let-down at the end.

The story of English Catholics during King James reign is played out in dramatic fashion in the opening episode.  The scenes of the crushing death of a Catholic resistor was disturbing and unfortunately historically accurate.

Guy Fawkes emerges in the second episode as a bit of a bad-ass. When push came to shove, the plan is hatched to blow up Parliament and the King. The second episode does a great job of building up for a confrontation and conflagration.

The third episode is a cascade on many levels.  One, the bombing plan unravels.  The explanation of the Spanish as the exposers of the assassination is far-fetched (and likely inaccurate) but adds to the intrigue of the story.  Guy Fawkes, who was such a larger-than-life figure in the second episode is quickly subdued and the explosives diffused.  Harrington’s character Robert Catesby, digs in for a fight to the finish, a battle he does not win.  (Sidebar:  I understand that Harrington is related to Catesby, which is incredibly cool.)

I had to research this period for my book on the cannibal clan of Sawney Bean, which certainly helped my personal enjoyment.  I will say that the end of the series was disappointing.  The characters you embrace are dead (not Game of Thrones style either) and you don’t know what happened after their demise.  Even the contemporary impact of the Gunpowder plot is ignored.  The viewer is left wanting more – even some closure.  I anticipated the poem above to be read, or images of Guy Fawkes Night in modern times.  We don’t get these.

Despite the depressing ending, which mirrored real life, the series has a grittiness and realistic feel about it that is entertaining and chilling.  It is well worth the three hours of your time to watch.

A Mid Season Review of The Hunt for the Zodiac Killer on the History Channel

Zodiac Series

I came into this with a lot of apprehension.  I mean, this IS the History Channel.  How they have covered true crime in the past has been fair to good, but they also back projects like Hunting for Hitler which was a bizarre waste of viewing time.  What compelled me to watch was that fellow true crime author Ken Mains was involved.  We write for the same publisher (Wild Blue Press) and I loved his book on cold cases, Unsolved No More.  His involvement meant there might be hope for this series.

I was not disappointed.

Mains and retired LAPD homicide detective, Sal LaBarbera host the show and have come at Zodiac from a completely different angle than I expected.  They are targeting those crimes that Zodiac claimed credit for beyond the ones he was confirmed to have been involved with.  This is proving an awesome approach.  It means we are getting perspectives and names of suspects not commonly tied to the Zodiac case.  Some of these are downright creepy persons of interest that might very well have ties to the more well-known Zodiac cases.

Added to this is the use of the CARMEL supercomputer which is being used to attempt to break Zodiac’s previously unbroken codes.  As an IT guy, I was intrigued by this new angle and approach.  Yes it is geeky, but it is cool.  When the computer began to write Zodiac inspired poetry – I have to admit, the creep factor went up to 9.6.

The combination of seasoned veteran investigators, a new perspective on Zodiac, and the use of a supercomputer has forged a new true crime show that is must-watch TV.  The investigators are engaging, the pace is good, and they are going where the evidence takes them.  I have to admit, I look forward to the new episode every week.

If you haven’t been following The Hunt for the Zodiac Killer, I suggest you drink in these first episodes and get up to speed.  New perspectives on cold cases are always welcome additions to what we think we know about these infamous crimes.

#truecrime

#Zodiac

Review of the Netflix Series – Mindhunter – Season One

Mindhunter1
It is all about getting into the minds of serial killers 

Being a true crime author, I’m ashamed that I haven’t gotten around to reading the book that this series is based on yet.  It is a matter of time and priority, juggling my own investigations on top of requests for reading.

I sat down to drink in Mindhunter on Netflix when I was recently sick, doing a rare binge-watch of the series.  I thoroughly enjoyed it.  This is the story of how the FBI got into the behavioral science of researching the patterns of serial killers. While that topic sounds potentially slow, they find ways of telling this story that grip and captivate the viewer.

This is the story of three characters on their journey into the dark, twisted minds of the murderers.  One is an arrogant and defiant young agent who is willing to break to rules in a rather Machiavellian manner.  Another is a more seasoned agent, more “by-the-book.”  The other is a psychologist that is an outsider to the FBI, who understand the full potential of this kind of research.  It is a good dynamic of characters working towards the same goal, but coming at it from very different angles and perspectives.

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Opposing them is the FBI itself, the resistance of law enforcement agencies to this new way of thinking, and the serial killers they must confront and mentally dissect. It makes for good, solid, and entertaining TV.

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Perhaps the most creepy portrayal in the series.  Just looking at him ooks me out.  

It was fun to see the origins of words and phrases that I take for granted as an author such as “organized,” and “disorganized,” in relation to serial killers.  The portrayal of the FBI as a big bureaucratic organization, fixed in its mindset and approach, seemed fairly accurate to my own limited experience.

Set in the 1970’s the sets and cars are spot on accurate.  I only found one real flaw.  In the first episode they show Agent Ford’s apartment as a tall building in Fredericksburg, Virginia.  Sorry Netflix, you’d be hard pressed to find something over four stories tall there, even today.

Fair warning, the first episode was a tad slow for me, but after that it had moments that were pure mental terror to watch.  This is the kind of show you have to commit to…and it is a commitment worth making.

My only critique is the whole storyline of Holden Ford and his girlfriend.  It just feels forced to me.  The sex scenes (approximately one an episode) often feel like they are just tossed in.

I cannot speak as to whether it is accurate to the book – but it doesn’t matter – it stands on its own.

#truecrime

#mindhunter

#netflix

Game of Thrones Wish List and Predictions For Seasons 7 and 8

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As an author/historian, I tend to view Game of Thrones with a different lens.  After all, Time Magazine listed one of my books as good source material on the Wildlings.  http://time.com/4347517/game-of-thrones-history-books/ .  That doesn’t really mean much, but I felt the plug was well-earned.

There are things we all want to see in this series, having invested 60+ hours into it. As an author, there are twists I would put in.  I doubt any of mine are actually in the coming two seasons, but this helps kill the time while I wait.

Also, the authors have given us hints already, buried in previous seasons.  So, here’s my list of things I would like to see – some predictions, some merely wish list items:

Things that should happen:

Daenerys Targaryen lands in Westros.  Her family’s hereditary home is Dragonestone, where Stannis Baratheon led his attempt at the throne.  This makes sense for her to go there first.  It is the kind of thing that Tyrion would recommend. She still has to contend with a rogue Greyjoy uncle, but after that, the squeeze play on the Lannisters can begin.

Jon Snow and Daenerys meet.  You may be wondering why would Jon waste time meeting her?  Simple.  The writers put in the previous seasons that Dragonestone is a source of dragon-glass, (obsidian) which kills the army of the dead.  Jon’s going to need a source of that stuff if he hoped to hold out.  Don’t count on their first meeting to be all hugs and kisses.  The writers are good, they won’t make this a smooth first meeting but one where the characters gain respect for each other.  Jon’s focus is on the army of the dead, Dany’s out to rid the world of pesky Lannisters.  I imagine Jon being sent north to hold the line while Daenerys takes care of cleaning up the rest of Westros. No wedding in season seven.

The return of Gendry.  An heir to House Baratheon, he disappeared seasons ago.  I can see him playing some sort of role once Dany returns. The writers create characters to bring them back.

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I have daddy issues…

The return of Jorah Mormont.  As a writer, I would have him arrive with reinforcements at the hour of Daenerys’s greatest need, right before she is about to lose a battle. I don’t want him to die in the attempt, but given the penchant for the writer’s to kill him – I can see that happening.

The return of Daario Naharis.  Do you really think that mercenary will remain across the Narrow Sea?  I don’t.  I want him and the Second Sons to come and open a can of whoop-ass in Westros.

Cersei goes mad.  I will grant you, it’s not a far trip for her.  She is going to continue her spiral into madness I think.  She will slaughter thousands to hold onto the power she had seized.  I almost pity Jamie – well, almost.

Arya will meet up with Melisandre again.  One thing about GoT is that it is a buddy show. The brilliant writers combine characters and hilarity (and death) ensues.  Arya and Melisandre met and the Red Witch said, “We will meet again.”  Ayra is riding north, Melisandre is riding south.  They are bound to connect and I don’t think it will result in death.

Sam learns the secrets of making Valyrian steel.  Look, I could care less about him and Gilly, but Sam’s research has helped out Jon in the past, and that is destined to continue (otherwise why follow his character at all).  Jon has learned that Valyrian steel unleashes a shitstorm of pain on white walkers.  Sam must learn this and possibly about the Horn of Winter.  What is the Horn?  Remember when Sam found the dragon glass at the Fist of the First Men.  Go back to that – there was a horn found as well.  It has to be the Horn of Winter.  In the books, the Horn of Winter awoke the giants and had the power to shatter the wall.  Sam innocently left it at Castle Black, the worst possible place for something that powerful.

Dragonglass
Dragon glass and the mysterious horn…

The Brothers Without Banners will play a role in fighting the white walkers.

More Lyanna Mormont.  She has more balls than most of the male characters, especially Theon.  Shame on the writers if we don’t see her kicking some ass in the remaining seasons.  She’s my favorite character of them all.

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Let’s face it, we all like her.  

Reunions:

Pod and Bronn reunite with Tyrion.  We all want to see this.  It would be heartbreaking if they kill Bronn in the war.  He’s my favorite mercenary.

Jamie and Tyrion.  Talk about an uncomfortable family reunion.

Sam and Jon. It’s going to happen.

Cersei and the Queen of Thornes.  You cannot get too much of Diana Rigg.  Her scenes with Tyrion were priceless too, so perhaps we will get a good dose of that as well.

Melisandre and the Brothers Without Banners.  Enough said here.

Brienne of Tarth and Tormund.  Some of the best acting in Game of Thrones was the facial expressions between the wildling and the lady knight.  We want more of this.

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“I think she likes me…”  

Brienne of Tarth and Jamie Lannister.   The last they saw of each other was when Brienne left Riverrun and Jamie let her go.  We need a counterpart to that scene, something to balance it out.  Perhaps she will repay the favor in an upcoming battle?

Shagga, son of Dolf, is the leader of the Stone Crows, of the Hill Tribes that fought for Tyrion in Season One and Tyrion. They introduced this faction with Tyrion and I bet our favorite dwarf enlists their aid for Daenerys.

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It would be cool to see the Hill Tribes again.  

Arya and the Hound. She took the Hound off of her list (not an easy thing to do mind you).  Both characters have changed since they last met.  It would be a shame if we didn’t see them together again.  Perhaps Arya will join the Brothers…?

Fates:

Arya’s Stark.  Let’s face it, this is one damaged character.  She’s an assassin.  I can’t picture her fitting in with the surviving family members because, well, she’s a murderess.  I think her fate will be determined by Jaqen H’ghar.  The Faceless God will take his toll here I believe.

Littlefinger.  Let’s face it, Littlefinger set all of this crap in motion.  He framed Tyron Lannister for attempting to kill Bran Stark, driving the two houses to war.  Varys summed him up best, “He would burn the world to rule the ashes.”  You would expect Sansa to be there at his downfall.  I am a writer.  I picture young Robin Arryn pushing Littlefinger through the Moon Door when he learns that he was responsible for the death of his mother.  That would be awesome and fitting.

Jamie Lannister.  The Kingslayer will have to die.  Two options as a writer here.  One, Tyrion must order it (hard to do, his brother saved him).  The other, is at the hand of Brienne of Tarth.  Those two have a love thing going.  It’s very Shakespearian to have her deliver his death with the sword he gave her. (see my Cersei entry below for an alternate end to Jamie.)

Sansa Stark.  Who cares?  She’s starting to get interesting, but seriously, I just don’t like her. I could see her surviving everything that goes down.  If Jon does marry Daenerys, which we’d all eventually like, she could take the helm at Winterfell as the head of House Stark.

Cersei Lannister.  I picture the Mountain killing Cersei for some dark and forbidding reason.  We all anticipate that the Mountain will face his downfall at the hands of the Hound.  Too predictable.  There is a real twist of fate there.  We all want Tyrion to be the one to determine his sister’s fate, but I doubt we will get something that simple.  My alternate ending:  The ultimate irony would be that Jamie has to kill her, adding Queenslayer to his resume’.  Frankly, Jamie would have to kill himself afterwards.

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Cersei managed to top the Red Wedding in terms of body count.  

 

Tyrion Lannister.  The authors have already told you the perfect end-cap for him.  He wanted to retire to his own vineyards and pictures himself surrounded by his friends.  Wouldn’t that be an awesome way to end the series?  Ten years later…we see him with Grey Worm, Dany, and the other survivors, drinking wine with their old friend.  Perfect ending.

Bran Stark.  Bran’s role I think is bigger than what we know or understand.  I think he could even be the old man in the tree that he meets later.  A popular theory is that he is actually Bran the Builder – travelling back in time to build the wall.  I think the key to Bran is that he can travel in time and can influence it.  He may end up getting lost in time as well.  Ultimately I cannot help but wonder if Bran is the Lord of Light?

Davos Seaworth. I see him as being an emissary to the Brothers Without Banners to enlist their aide.

Daenerys Targaryen.  Remember when those wizards captured her dragons back in Season Two?  Remember how she wandered in that tower from scene to scene.  She found the Iron Throne in a destroyed throne room, snow falling, empty and alone.  The writers are good and I believe that scene was deliberate. I think this is exactly how she will find the Iron Throne after her dragons unleash hell on the city.

#GameofThrones