Review: The Program

program

DIR: Stephen Frears • WRI: John Hodge • PRO: Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Tracey Seaward, Kate Solomon • DOP: Danny Cohen • ED: Valerio Bonelli • MUS: Alex Heffes • DES: Alan MacDonald • CAST: Ben Foster, Chris O’Dowd, Bill Stapleton, Jesse Plemons, Guillaume Canet

 

Despite years of persistent allegations and categorical denials of taking performance-enhancing drugs, when the US Anti-Doping Agency in 2012 found that Lance Armstrong’s career was not only punctuated by drug use but that he was also the mastermind behind one of the most systematic doping programmes cycling had ever seen, it hardly sent shockwaves throughout the sporting world. For his most ardent fans, however, it was the tangled web of deceit, woven on the back of a seemingly insurmountable battle with cancer to win the Tour de France seven consecutive times, that was the ultimate betrayal. Acclaimed filmmaker Alex Gibney laid bare such perennial cat-and-mouse games between the media and the ignominious cyclist in his fly-on-the-wall documentary The Armstrong Lie in 2013, which not only challenged audiences’ perception of honesty but also ruffled Gibney’s own objectives in uncovering the ultimate truth, such was the conviction of the fabulist’s own sympathetic narrative.

British director Stephen Frears’ dramatization The Program, is not a fictional recounting of Gibney’s documentary but is rather an adaptation from David Walsh’s book, Seven Deadly Sins: My Pursuit of Lance Armstrong, the myth-busting sports journalist who spent years trailing the untouchable myth-maker of cycling. Starring Ben Foster as the mercurial champion and Chris O’Dowd as the Irish crusading newshound, Frears’ bio-drama delves into one of the most professionally orchestrated doping programmes in sport, which for almost two decades seemingly hoodwinked the UCI, the media and a legion of fans to allow Armstrong to become one of the greatest cyclists of the twentieth century.

Structuring the narrative around the intricate operations of the doping racket, which began with Armstrong’s first 1999 Tour win to his public fall from grace in 2009, The Program races through the cyclist’s biography at a thumping, cyclonic rate. Charging through his early formative years, from an unknown but cocksure competitor to a testicular cancer diagnosis that should have halted his obdurate ambition but led to an unrivalled golden age of victory, until a restless retirement and doomed comeback exposed the extensive use of performance-enhancing drugs. Executing the hyperactivity of a whirlwind career blighted by controversy and suspicion, The Program pulsates with furious pace, explosive energy and a razor-sharp visual style. Mirroring the real-life saga itself, the film’s intensity, evoked through a seductively luminous aesthetic, on the one hand gleams with the electrifying heat of inexorable bravado, while unpredictable, obscure camera angles jerk from a ferociously fidgety lens with a tour de force that shatters the mood, abruptly suspending the narrative in a directionless, disconcerting limbo.

If Gibney stands accused of becoming too emotionally embroiled in the complexity of Armstrong’s sophisms resulting in a somewhat tangled narrative, Frears has no such qualms in keeping a safe emotional distance, allowing the absurdity of the Armstrong character to unfold in accordance with the prevailing mythology constructed by the man himself. Refraining from judgment, not even through the moral compass of nemesis David Walsh, disappointingly played by a miscast Chris O’Dowd, who never appears hungry enough in catching his man, Frears is fully cognizant of the potency of the Armstrong myth, never allowing fiction to blur fact, when the facts themselves are potent enough. With the benefit of hindsight through Armstrong’s public confession, Foster relishes in the creation of a calculating, superhuman monster, avoiding any descent into caricature, simply because he does not need to, his compulsive, full-bodied performance interchangeable with the real-life construction of a man so familiar to audiences through his own manipulation of the media.

Although the film honours the chronology of the doping programme, the ‘EPG generation’, and Italian physician Michele Ferrari’s pivotal role in the scheme, it is the ambitious arrogance without compunction with which Armstrong perpetuated the myth, in full awareness of his role as a cancer survivor, champion and cultural icon, which ultimately defines the cyclist’s narrative. Foster paints an unambiguous, one-dimensional portrait, eliminating any sympathetic characteristics Gibney may have perceived, to illustrate a deeply calculating and smugly charming man, whose overriding fear of failure motivated a ruthless modus operandi of recurring lawsuits, silencing his detractors for almost two decades. Foster’s portrayal becomes so destructive and poisoned because Frears perceives Armstrong’s egotistical actions were destructive and poisoned, his manipulative tactics in competitive sport no different to his strategy in gaining public sympathy and support for his charitable work. Gibney’s flawed hero has now become Frears’ shameless and disingenuous anti-hero, moving from empathy to disgust and it is the audience who feel the most uncomfortable.

While Gibney’s attempts to unearth the truth behind the lies still evoked sympathy towards the fallen champion, Frears’ film serves as a reminder to its audience of its own flaws, taunting those who perpetuated the myth through an obsession with the cult of celebrity. Frears implies the Armstrong myth endured because those who deified the fraudster allowed it to do so. Foster’s performance is so compelling because in its entire monstrosity, it touches a raw nerve, not only exposing the feebleness of the man but more particularly, the feebleness of those who championed him. Frears points the finger as much at a gushing audience as he does at the make-up of a highly flawed man, the irony not lost that his mythical 2009 comeback came on the back of such highly-charged adoration as much as ego, ultimately leading to his final downfall.

Those familiar with Gibney’s documentary may be slightly disappointed that Frears does not take any new perspective into the prevailing Armstrong narrative nor offer fresh insight into the psyche of the man behind the painstakingly moulded mask. His complicated personal relationships remain closely guarded and The Program instead is about culture’s love affair with celebrity as much as it is about Lance Armstrong’s love affair with himself and success. The film doesn’t romanticise, condemn or exaggerate the mythical hero for dramatic purposes but rather aims to expose a truth, which Gibney could not quite infiltrate. Thanks to Armstrong’s manipulation of the media, he himself has constructed the brutal and ugly portrayal that Foster assumes in The Program. There is no room for compassion towards the truculent cyclist, who used his battle with illness to deceive the integrity of competitive sports and particularly the integrity of adoring fans, whose faith in Armstrong’s successes should have been a source of inspiration but instead has left them feeling exceptionally cheated and fundamentally flawed themselves.

Dee O’Donoghue

 

15A (See IFCO for details)

 103 minutes

The Program is released 16th October 2015

The Program – Official Website

 

Share

Cinema Review: Kill Your Darlings

foster-radcliffe-dehaan-kill-your-darlings-680

DIR: John Krokidas • WRI: Austin Bunn, John Krokidas • PRO: Michael Benaroya, Rose Ganguzza, John Krokidas Christine Vachon • DOP: Reed Morano • ED: Brian A. Kates • DES: Stephen H. Carter • MUS: Nico Muhly • CAST: Daniel Radcliffe, Dane DeHaan, Michael C. Hall, Ben Foster

Kill Your Darlings focuses on the formative years of American poet Allen Ginsberg, one of the writers of the Beat Generation who came to prominence in the 1950s. The film traces the movement’s emergence in wartime Columbia University and the part Ginsberg played in the killing of David Kammerer. It’s a sensational romantic thriller.

Ginsberg leaves his paranoid mother to study at Columbia, where the teachers insist on maintaining traditional forms. Ginsberg, inspired by Walt Whitman, seeks to break the rules. His willingness to question orthodoxy impresses Lucien Carr, who invites him into the gay scene of 1940s New York. Their circle includes a young William S. Burroughs and, later, Jack Kerouac. Ginsberg becomes infatuated with Carr, whose involvement with an older man, David Kammerer, creates difficulties for the group, who wish to pursue “a new vision”, motivated by the taboo-breaking works of James Joyce and Henry Miller.

The playing is impeccable. Daniel Radcliffe, as Allen Ginsberg, continues to distance himself from the role that made him famous, and he more than holds his own among an impressive cast. His scenes with Dane DeHaan, as Lucien Carr, are among the most sexually charged in recent memory. Ben Foster exercises restraint in portraying William S. Burroughs, while Michael C. Hall (TV’s Dexter) and David Cross (Arrested Development’s Tobias Fünke) also succeed in playing outside their more celebrated roles.

John Krokidas makes his directorial debut, displaying great skill in his treatment of controversial material. He treats Ginsberg’s romance with Lucien with apposite tenderness. He also injects the film with wicked humour. His rapid-fire montages include frank images that surprise as much as they amuse. His use of flashbacks and playing scenes in reverse are effective in depicting the effects of the drugs that Burroughs, in particular, encourages his associates to use.

The flaw in Krokidas’ choices is his use of music from TV on the Radio and Bloc Party on the soundtrack. These selections are jarring when the period detail and costuming are as good as they are.

But that’s a minor grumble. Kill Your Darlings is an accomplished first feature with superb performances. Sexy, stylish and sophisticated, it tells an engrossing story about fascinating people.

John Moran

16 (See IFCO for details)

104  mins

Kill Your Darlings is released on 6th December 2013

Kill Your Darlings – Official Website

Share

Cinema Review: Contraband

Last of the tobacco

DIR: Baltasar Kormákur • WRI: Aaron Guzikowski • PRO: Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Baltasar Kormákur, Stephen Levinson, Mark Wahlberg • DOP: Barry Ackroyd • ED: Elísabet Ronaldsdóttir • DES: Tony Fanning • Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Giovanni Ribisi, Kate Beckinsale, Ben Foster

Contraband is a remake of the Icelandic film Reykjavik-Rotterdam, which starred Baltasar Kormákur. This time the actor of the 2008 film becomes the director of this 2012 film, and while he shows some visual flair behind the camera; it is only in an effort to frantically apply polish to a steaming Hollywood turd.

This is a slovenly pieced-together, lazy movie of tiresome cliches, which rehashes that old chestnut of ‘one last job’. The film’s star, Mark Wahlberg, epitomizes the laziness of the whole endeavor sleeprunning and toughguying his way through the film in a jockstrap performance of overwrought machismo.

Wahlberg plays Chris, an ex-smuggler turned honest, who’s just trying to make a decent living for his wife and children. But goddammit the world won’t let him – his wife’s pesky brother, Andy, has got himself involved with some bad boys in the smuggling business and owes them a load of cash; so Mark must take on ‘one last job’ to save the lives of his bother-in-law, plus his own wife and their children, whose lives are now in danger. He puts together a team and heads off to Panama to recreate his money-yielding smuggling days. Unfortunately, things don’t go smoothly and bad stuff happens that Chris must overcome. Fortunately, cockamamie coincidences and ludicrous occurrences are on his side.

The whole thing whizzes along in a gargantuan effort to trick your jaw against dropping to the floor as each scene lays on one ridiculous scenario after another, populated by a cadaver of characters that bring no relief from the film’s outrageous sense of taking itself so seriously in the face of such far-fetched farce. The only thing you’ll come out of this film the better for is knowing that when Mark Wahlberg says to you something like, ‘Don’t worry. Everything is going to be fine’, that’s a cue to look at your watch, feign an important meeting, and get the feck out of dodge immediately.

Minus the gloss, this is nothing more than straight-to-DVD fare.

Steven Galvin

Rated 15A (see IFCO website for details)
Contraband is released on 16th March 2012

Share

Cinema Review: Rampart – Film of the Week

Weedy Harrelson

DIR: Oren Moverman • WRI: James Ellroy, Oren Moverman • PRO: Ben Foster, Lawrence Inglee, Ken Kao, Clark Peterson • DOP: Chr Bobby Bukowski • ED: Jay Rabinowitz • DES: David Wasco • Cast: Woody Harrelson, Ben Foster, Sigourney Weaver, Jon Bernthal

The story of Rampart is the story of corruption itself. Woody Harrelson plays ‘Date-Rape’ Dave Brown, a hard-drinking LAPD officer who lives by his own set of morals and ethics – or rather, his lack thereof. Dirty cops aren’t a particularly new topic in films. It is, however, strange for them to be front and centre in a film. That being said, it makes for an engrossing experience. Brown is embroiled in a scandal involving police brutality. Caught in the lens of the media, his life slowly begins to spiral out of his control as he attempts to put right what he perceives as an injustice dealt upon him. His methods becoming increasingly violent and extreme, culminating in a botched armed robbery that sets the story in motion.

The plot is surprisingly straightforward for a James Ellroy-penned script. This gives it a primal drive, much like Harrelson’s character – single-minded, bull-headed and utterly ruthless. Harrelson gives a performance not seen since Natural Born Killers. He is a monstrosity; lascivious and gluttonous in his pursuits of women and drugs. Much like his performance in Natural Born Killers, his character is working under the assumption that he is judge, jury and executioner – that no law will hold him. This is a topic that is not uncommon in James Ellroy’s previous work, although the distinction here is that the consequences are more prevalent and are being meted out by authority, instead of being covered by them.

The direction of the film is impressive. Oren Moverman, director of the criminally-underwatched The Messenger, uses Harrelson effectively in each scene that he’s in. The photography varies between hand-held and neon-drenched cityscapes à la Michael Mann, with a range of colours and sequences not seen in Moverman’s previous work. The supporting cast, made up of Cynthia Nixon, Robin Wright, Sigourney Weaver, Ben Foster and Anne Heche, are all admirable and worthy of note. Cynthia Nixon and Anne Heche, particularly, are of note. Playing Harrelson’s ex-wife and sister-in-law respectively, both women are adroit at giving him a human side. Without them, he’s a one-sided fascist with no remorse of any kind. Ben Foster is almost completely unrecognisable as a homeless man who witnesses one of Harrelson’s transgressions. The film is held up and carried by Harrelson. His performance is electric and is on par with Denzel Washington’s role in Training Day. Where Rampart deviates from Training Day is that there is no upstanding police officer to balance it all. Here, everyone is equally accountable for the corruption that permeates through the system. From Sigourney Weaver’s pragmatic lawyering, telling him that ‘LA can’t afford you anymore’, to Robin Wright and her under-handed tactics at getting Harrelson on-side, it’s clear that Ellroy’s script is one that is honest in its portrayal of the realities of the modern-day legal system. Where the film falls down is its ending. The story is left unresolved and open-ended. This could be paving the way for a series of films or it could be that people like Woody Harrelson’s characters often escape justice. Either way, it’s unsatisfying – but, thankfully, it doesn’t detract from the rest of the film. Rampart is a searingly detailed account of a life corrupted.
Brian Lloyd

Rated 16 (see IFCO website for details)
Rampart is released on 24th February 2012

Rampart  – Official Website

Share

The Messenger

DIR: Oren Moverman • WRI: Oren Moverman, Allesandro Camon • PRO: Mark Gordon, Lawrence Inglee, Zack Miller • DOP: Bobby Bukowski • ED: Alexander Hall DES: Stephen Beatrice • Cast: Ben Foster, Woody Harrelson, Samantha Morton, Jena Malone, Eamonn Walker, Steve Buscemi

Very few mainstream American in the modern era seem to address the issues and lives of the working class and the disenfranchised. On the rare occasion this occurs as with David O. Russell’s recent The Fighter, the more conventional or clichéd elements of the story are brought forward somewhat at the expense of emotional authenticity and in that films case the Rocky-like narrative take away from Russell’s real achievement in depicting a gritty, lived in set of circumstances that never felt phoney despite the presence of major Hollywood stars. It had the feel of real life, messy and complicated for the most part.

With the studios backing away from material that reflects a tangible reality or deal with complex subject matter, it is left to those filmmakers working outside of the system to carry the creative torch and produce challenging and thought provoking works that portray the lives of ordinary American citizens.

One area in which the studios have backed away from slowly in the past decade is America’s involvement in Iraq and the Middle East with underwhelming box office takings for the likes of The Kingdom, In the Valley of Elah, Rendition, Stop Loss and more recently The Green Zone reinforcing the belief that the general public weaned on 24-hour news and media coverage of events in the region since 9/11 have no desire to see the news replicated on the big screen packaged with big name stars.

Escapism and regression into fantasy is now the default setting for big-budget filming with only Kathryn Bigelow’s independently financed and produced The Hurt Locker overcoming the Iraq/Middle East War Movie Stigma and having some cultural impact.

First time director Oren Moverman’s film The Messenger, released in 2009 seems to have had some trouble picking up a distributor on this side of the Atlantic, which is baffling considering that it received Oscar® nominations for Moverman and Camon’s original screenplay as well as for Woody Harrelson’s excellent performance.

Ben Foster portrays Will Montgomery, a young soldier who has recently arrived back from fighting in Iraq, which has left him with minor injuries and psychological trauma. Finding it difficult to readjust to civilian life, he attempts to reconnect with his long term sweetheart but he discovers that in his absence she has moved on and is now engaged to another man. With a few months left on his enlistment time, Will is assigned as an officer in the Army’s Casualty Notification department where under the guidance of the more seasoned career soldier Captain Stone (Woody Harrelson) he is given the responsibility of informing civilians of the death of their loved ones on the field of battle; an unenviable and difficult task for which he has no prior training or experience. In the course of their visits, Will comes into contact with Olivia (Samantha Morton) whose husband was recently killed in the war. He is immediately struck by her serene and forgiving nature, and a more mutual attraction grows between them; he reminds her of her husband and she represents an opportunity for nurture and security, a sense of purpose outside of his duty to the army.

Moverman uses his camera in a subtle, impressionistic way that is never heavy handed with the characters slowly revealing themselves to us as the film progresses and in snatches of behaviour that he reveals to us, for example the fact that Montgomery finds it difficult to sleep or eat properly, Stone’s compulsive womanizing masking a deep loneliness, behaviour rather than dialogue is favoured to illustrate the inner workings of these proud yet conflicted men.

This strong yet subtle directorial hand also draws out some strong performances from the talented cast who breathe full, three-dimensional life into these characters with Foster’s usually clenched acting style perfectly suited to the part but it’s his chemistry with the more loose and woolly Harrelson that really elevates the film with the latter really stealing the show with an understated mixture of bravado and understated vulnerability.

The relationship between Foster and Samantha Morton as the war widow is also sensitively played, though Morton’s American accent still isn’t quite convincing to these ears and we never get a real sense of what makes her character tick or what drives her choices. She remains somewhat ambiguous and seems to be less fleshed out than the two male leads.

The Messenger in a way recalls classic ’70s dramas such as The Last Detail or Five Easy Pieces, character pieces that used to be financed and distributed by major studios and that delved deep into a specific ambiance and corner of life with the plot driven by the characters rather than the other way around. The films approach to dealing with the subject of post-war trauma is free from sensationalism and exaggeration for contrived dramatic effect. A quietly powerful and intimate piece, The Messenger is a reminder of American independent cinema at its finest.

 

Derek Mc Donnell

Rated 15A (see IFCO website for details)
The Messenger is released on 17th June 2011

The Messenger – Official Website

Share

Pandorum

Pandorum

DIR: Christian Alvart • WRI: Travis Milloy • PRO: Paul W.S. Anderson, Jeremy Bolt, Robert Kulzer, Martin Moszkowicz • DOP: Wedigo von Schultzendorff • ED: Philipp Stahl, Yvonne Valdez • DES: Richard Bridgland • CAST: Dennis Quaid, Ben Foster, Cam Gigandet, Antje Traue

Pandorum is a pleasantly unexpected surprise. Horror films may not typically inspire confidence; however, if you are willing to give Pandorum the benefit of the doubt, this exciting film should give your heart a workout.

Director Christian Alvart has chosen the science fiction genre as a base for his tale, which is a bold move considering how quickly sci-fi can descend into ill-considered tripe if not handled thoughtfully. Refreshingly, Pandorum has been meticulously designed and planned. Everything from the sets, costumes, props and models are entirely convincing and well realised, which immediately supports the films authenticity as a sci-fi and is more accessible to the viewer.

Ben Foster and Dennis Quaid, initially being the only two characters, carry the first act with conviction. Predominantly, Ben Foster’s claustrophobic panic-stricken vulnerability affects the viewer. This becomes acutely engaging as this vulnerability ebbs and the character develops. Additionally, credible supporting roles layer the intrigue on thick, notably Cam Gigandet providing a foil for Quaid.

Although constantly at risk, Pandorum’s protagonists are by no means the typical slasher film victims. On the contrary, they are likeably tenacious and their growing ingenuity and confidence help them to develop into rounded, human characters.

The narrative itself is intriguing, which can typically be remiss in the horror franchise. The back-story is revealed organically, via revelations and memories, rather than in typical linear fashion: the result of which is a keenly interested audience throughout, mirroring the characters’ own growing comprehension. This empathy compounds the relationship between character and viewer.

As mentioned, the sci-fi glamour compliments the ambience. The lack of high brow techno-babble is a mercy and the gadgetry induces wide-eyed awe as well as the occasional appreciative giggle, i.e. the lightsaber-esque razor Foster’s character uses to shave with.

This said, the most impressive characteristic of Pandorum is its decision to fuse various tones and practices, uncharacteristic of the horror genre. This is a sci fi horror, but it’s also more. Expect veiled threats, masses of creatures, chase scenes, special effects, riot guns, the occasional twist, plenty of gore… And fights. That’s right: Fight Scenes. In a horror film. And not just one, there are a number of quick but impressively brutal and technically sound fight scenes littered throughout Pandorum. Action junkies should be overjoyed.

This may present the film as a woeful amalgamation of cinematic methods that shouldn’t quite gel. But that’s what is so remarkable, and surprising, about Pandorum, it presents an excellent synergy of these techniques without descending into madness (unless intentionally.) In fact this synergy further promotes the viewer’s affinity to the characters, and the pace changes to constantly keep the blood pumping. Pandorum is no horror by numbers.

Unfortunately, it is very possible that Pandorum will get lost amongst larger releases, or sceptically attacked, due to bias against horror films. But this film demands recognition: At best, it is a bold synergy of great ideas that sync remarkably, and transcend its genre. At worst, Pandorum is an imaginative venture and deserves the benefit of the doubt and an open mind.

Jack McGlynn
(See biog here)

Rated 16 (see IFCO website for details)
Pandorum
is released on 2nd Oct 2009
Pandorum – Official Website

Share