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

 

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Cinema Review: Calvary

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DIR/WRI: John Michael McDonagh  • PRO: Chris Clark, Flora Fernandez-Marengo, James Flynn • DOP: Larry Smith • ED: Chris Gill • MUS: Patrick Cassidy • DES: Mark Geraghty • CAST: Aidan Gillen, Brendan Gleeson, Kelly O’ Reilly, Chris O’Dowd, Kelly Reilly, Dylan Moran, Killian Scott

 

Village priest Father James Lavelle finds himself offered up as a sacrificial lamb when a victim of sexual abuse, now grown, decides that killing an innocent priest will send a better message than disposing of a guilty one. Granted seven days to “put his house in order”, Lavelle embarks on a stumbling Stations of the Cross through an unrepentant parish only too happy to parade their sins before him, and trade every attempted benediction for yet another barb.

John Michael McDonagh’s much-anticipated follow-up to first feature The Guard, Calvary certainly aims to shake audience expectations, evidenced scarcely five seconds into the opening scene when our faceless parishioner delivers his ultimatum.  However, while certainly sharing the biting humour and self-awareness of its predecessor, the irreverence here is aimed not so much towards tweaking the nose, as it is towards a close and often uncomfortable scrutiny of spirituality in the modern day.

What follows is a search for meaning that meanders between comedy and tragedy, anchored by Gleeson’s most compelling performance yet as a shepherd doomed to spend his (potentially) final days tending a flock of black sheep. A widower and former alcoholic, Lavelle was world-weary before he came to the cloth and finds himself growing increasingly frustrated as his attempts to offer comfort and guidance are consistently thrown back in his face by residents of an unnamed Sligo village that often seems McDonagh’s version of a small-town Sodom.

Filling out alongside Gleeson, McDonagh’s cast boasts a rogues’ gallery of Irish talent – Dylan Moran’s embittered banker, Killian Scott’s aspiring sociopath and Kelly O’ Reilly as Lavelle’s grown daughter – all worthy of particular note. Solid performances are tied together by a haunting score and enough gorgeous landscape shots to make any Fáilte Ireland employee weep shamrocks.

While the meandering script and a slightly cluttered cast contribute to a third act that begins to lose momentum, any doubts are quickly dismissed by a confident and compelling conclusion. The critic’s knee-jerk reaction to pan McDonagh’s sophomore effort as self-indulgent is ultimately stifled by the sense that a few bum notes do little to impact the overall piece, and that this notion of throwing the baby out with the bathwater is exactly the type of reductive cynicism that Calvary rails against.

If The Guard is a deconstruction of genre and our notion of “Oirishness”, Calvary is the follow-up that aims to strip away the cynicism that has become so embroiled in Irish spirituality simply to see what is left. Half-critique, half-homage but feeling all-organically Irish, Calvary will likely secure a place amongst one of Ireland’s most talked-about films  and, if nothing else, affords us yet another opportunity  to bow down in worship of the craggy island that is Mr. Gleeson’s well-worn visage. Hallelujah.

 

Ruairí Moore

15A (See IFCO for details)
100 mins

Calvary is released on 11th April 2014

Calvary– Official Website

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JDIFF: Irish Film Review – Calvary

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Donnchadh Tiernan checks out John Michael McDonagh’s Calvary, which opened the 12th Jameson Dublin International Film Festival.

The opening line of John Michael McDonagh’s sophomore effort packs such an almighty punch it would be a shame to divulge it here. As a quote from Saint Augustine on the poetic implications of the titular hill fades to the candlelit visage of Brendan Gleeson’s central priest a line of dialogue is delivered with enough weight to shake any audience of expectations for a would-be sequel to 2011’s The Guard. The dialogue of the anonymous confessor continues to outline what will be the framework within which the film will play out; in seven days, having spent their childhood being raped daily by a priest, the faceless victim will shoot Gleeson’s priest, plainly because he, a good priest, being murdered will send a greater message. When Gleeson leaves the booth he seems to know who has threatened him. We, however, do not, and the film commences.

The prime action of the piece is made up of Gleeson’s interactions with locals; characters played by the greatest assembly of Irish and British acting talent since Intermission: Pat Shortt as a Buddhist publican; Dylan Moran as a socially estranged property developer; Chris O’Dowd as the butcher; Kelly Reilly as Gleeson’s suicidal daughter from a pre-orders marriage; Aidan Gillen as an atheistic, nihilistic doctor. The list actually does go on but to give everyone worthy of shout-out here their just deserts would evolve this review to a novella. Everyone available seemingly wanted to appear in this film and once one sniffs out the marrow of the meandering plot it is easy to see why.

The first act of Calvary is the segment that requires the most salt in viewing. What might be biting satire or critique is diluted with Fr. Ted jokes as they might have been written for HBO. McDonagh being cut from the cloth he is the dialogue and structure is ever a comment on the medium and genre itself, in this case such thematic stuff as Song for a Raggy Boy or Sleepers, but considering both the setting and the opening this does not seem enough. As a matter of fact, until Gleeson’s church is burnt to the ground midway through (as seen in the trailer and on the poster), it seems as though the writer-director is shying from the route he initially gestured towards. Then, as flames flicker against the night, the second act reveals a darker side of The Guard’s wry wit and the film dives headlong into murk the previous film only hinted at.

What transpires in the film’s remainder is often heavy drama and is a credit to its cast, particular credit due to Domhnall Gleeson and Chris O’Dowd, the former stepping out of his father’s shadow while sitting across from him, the latter whom will surely be hearing meatier dramatic scripts whacking his hallway floor more regularly in the coming months. This film’s heart, soul and muse, as with The Guard, is undoubtedly the masterful Brendan Gleeson, who communicates the bitterness and flickering hopes of a dying faith with dark weary eyes and reserved gestures.

Any flaws here are minor and aesthetic. The rent-boy Lucky Leo is one caricature too far and Dave McSavage playing a bishop carries too much weight as a cultural reference to work alongside the more serious tones surrounding the role. The cast of characters is, overall, too large to justify and trying to keep up with them at times muddles the plot. Thankfully, McDonagh’s agenda is so potent and engaging that its confidence propels viewer attention along with it at far too ardent a pace to linger on such minor foibles.

With Calvary, McDonagh has completed the sentence he began to utter with The Guard. As an already evident auteur, he loves Ireland (as clearly evidenced by the glorious landscape shots throughout) and despises such Irish institutions as middle-management, bitterness and mob-rule. Were he a pamphleteer, which on a certain level he undoubtedly is, his prime target would be Joe Duffy’s listenership and high-ranking church officials in equal measure. In fact, there is such ample critique of Irish society in the third act it feels as though two films in he may have made his magnum opus. On immediate reflection, not only do I wish to re-watch Calvary soon but I believe it will prove as much of a necessary watch for at least one generation to come as it will be a gripping, funny and moving one for audiences this year. Once again, McDonagh has produced a work impossible to pigeon-hole into any genre, except perhaps “Essential Viewing”.

 

 

Click here for further coverage from the 12th Jameson Dublin International Film Festival.

Calvary screened on Thursday, 13th February 2014 as part of the 12th Jameson Dublin International Film Festival (13 – 23 February 2014).

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Chris O’Dowd’s ‘Moone Boy’ Wins Emmy

Chris O'Dowd, Nick Vincent Murphy

 

Moone Boy,the Irish sitcom created, co-written by and co-starring Chris O’Dowd, has won the International Emmy for Best Comedy at the awards ceremony in New York last night  for the show’s first season.

Chris O’Dowd was on hand to collect the award with writer Nick Vincent Murphy at the star-studded bash at the New York Hilton.

The awards were hosted this year by British comedian John Oliver.

The International Emmy Awards are presented by the International Academy of Television Arts & Sciences to honour excellence in television programming outside the US.

The 41st International Emmy Awards took place Monday, 25th November , 2013 at the New York Hilton.  

Click here for full list of winners at this year’s International Emmy Awards

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Puffin Rock Bought by Broadcasters

Puffin Rock for news

Nick Jr. UK and RTÉjr have bought Puffin Rock, an Irish animated children’s TV series at the international financing event Cartoon Forum in Toulouse.  The Irish animation industry had a very strong profile at Cartoon Forum this year, with 12 Irish-connected projects presented to the world’s top international financiers.

Irish actor Chris O’Dowd is set to narrate the series, and production will begin on the series at the Kilkenny-based Academy Award-nominated animated studio Cartoon Saloon next month.

Commenting on his recent acquisition, Tim Patterson, VP, Director of Programming at Nickelodeon UK, said, “Puffin Rock, with its beautiful art style and charming storytelling, is a perfect complement to the Nick Jr. schedule.”

Other Irish projects selected to pitch at Cartoon Forum and developed by the IFB include Nelly & Nora (Geronimo Productions), Early Bird (JAM Media), The Day Henry Met… (Wiggleywoo), Epic Eric by Treehouse Republic, Fuzzyworld by Avalon Films & Monster Entertainment and Tipto by Kavaleer Productions.

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Cinema Review: The Sapphires

 

DIR: Wayne Blair • WRI: Tony Briggs, Keith Thompson • PRO: Rosemary Blight, Kylie Du Fresne,  DOP: Warwick Thornton • ED: Dany Cooper • DES: Melinda Doring • CAST:  Chris O’Dowd, Deborah Mailman, Tory Kittles

 

Based on a true story this Australian film centres on four aboriginal girls, three sisters and a cousin, and their quest for fame in the late sixties.

 

Gail, Cynthia and Julie are sisters living in rural Australia in 1968 with a penchant for folk and country music. They, along with their cousin Kay, used to perform as a group for their family when they were children. Now adults the three sisters continue with this pursuit. During a talent contest in the local town, hosted by the overtly racist hotel owner, the girls encounter the Irish rogue Dave Lovelace (Chris O’Dowd). Lovelace is a down-and-out musician who advises the sisters that the proper music for black girls to sing is Soul rather than Country and Western. Having secured the girls an audition to perform for U.S. soldiers in Vietnam the quartet form an unlikely alliance; the sisters as the talent and Lovelace as manager. Reunited with cousin Kay, and much to the dismay of mother figure Gail, the group reorganises and under the tutelage of Lovelace becomes an archetypal Soul group akin to Diana Ross and the Supremes. After wowing the crowds in Vietnam with their first performance the band are sent on a tour of military outposts until a fateful U.S.O. show sees them return home again.

 

Set against a backdrop of a war and civil rights movements in both America and Australia there is a surprising lightness to The Sapphires. The time spent in Vietnam does try to highlight the toll that war took on the troops involved but this is heavily offset with scenes of merriment such as late night poker games or barbecues. The issue of racism is raised on a number of occasions also but in a ham-fisted almost embarrassed fashion. This is particularly highlighted in the film’s attempt to broach the subject of Australia’s so-called ‘Lost Generation’. The reasons for Kay’s estrangement are hinted at throughout but only clarified in the form of a story retold by Gail, involving Kay’s de facto abduction and placement with a white family, after which she and Lovelace begin dancing. This shift in tone from solemnity to frivolity is quite jarring and is echoed each time the story leans towards darker elements. When the movie truly shines is in dealing with the lighter side of its story. O’Dowd will please anyone who is already a fan of his work with his brand of awkward charm and the Australian cast display a wonderful aptitude for the comedic elements of the script. Short scenes involving the sisters’ father are especially noteworthy. Superior vocal performances lend the soundtrack some gusto and the version of ‘Heard it Through the Grapevine’ does the Soul roots of this film more than proud.

While this story may skirt around the issues that were prevalent during the time in which it is set, and though it may not be as extraordinary as the story which was its inspiration, it is no less heart-warming and no less deserving of attention.

 

Paddy Delaney

Rated PG (see IFCO website for details) 
103 mins

The Sapphires is released on 9th November 2012

The Sapphires –  Official Website

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Chris O’Dowd attends Premiere of ‘The Sapphires’ in Dublin

Photos: Kate McBride

 

Last night saw the premiere of Chris O’Dowd’s new Australian-set comedy The Sapphires. Joined by cast members Jessica Mauboy, Deborah Mailman, Shari Sebbens and Miranda Tapsell as well as director Wayne Blair, Chris O’Dowd spoke briefly on the red carpet about his role in HBO’s Girls and the upcoming second season. ‘It (filming) just finished up now, I did about one or two episodes. Can’t really talk about it but it was a lot of fun.

 

 

On Moone Boy‘s success and its comparison to Father Ted at such an early stage, Chris said ‘that it’s the highest compliment you can get.

 
The Sapphires is released on 2nd November and Moone Boy Season 1 goes on sale next week.

Brian Lloyd

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Brendan Gleeson stars in dark comedy-drama ‘Cavalry’

Priest (Brendan Gleeson) in Calvary

Principal photography has begun in Co. Sligo, Ireland, on John Michael McDonagh’s CALVARY, his follow-up to the critical and commercial hit, The Guard.

 

Starring Brendan Gleeson (The Guard, In Bruges), Chris O’Dowd (Bridesmaids), Kelly Reilly (Sherlock Holmes, Eden Lake), Aidan Gillen (Game of Thrones, Shadow Dancer), Dylan Moran (Run Fat Boy Run, Shaun of the Dead), Marie Josée Crozé (The Diving Bell and The Butterfly, Tell No One) and Isaach De Bankolé (The Limits of Control, Casino Royale), the blackly comic drama also features a host of other well know Irish actors including Domhnall Gleeson (Anna Karenina, True Grit), Pat Shortt and David Wilmot.

 

Calvary’s Priest is the flipside to The Guard’s Sergeant Gerry Boyle. A good man intent on making the world a better place, he is continually shocked and saddened by the spiteful and confrontational inhabitants of his small country town. After being threatened during confession, he must battle the dark forces closing in around him.

 

Director and writer John Michael McDonagh commented, It is with great excitement, bordering on tumescence, that I am looking forward to collaborating once more with Ireland’s greatest actor, Brendan Gleeson, and working with the finest ensemble cast ever assembled in the history of Irish cinema.

 

‘I would like to thank the Irish Film Board, and the BFI, for their continuing support for filmmaking that seeks to escape from the tiresome, rarefied confines of Dublin 4. Up the West!’

 

Calvary is produced by Chris Clark and Flora Fernandez Marengo of Reprisal Films and James Flynn of Octagon Films.

 

Heads of Department on the production include Mark Geraghty (Ripper Street, In America) as Production Designer, and Eimer Ni Mhaoldomhnaigh (The Guard, Becoming Jane) as Costume Designer. The Director of Photography is Larry Smith (The Guard, Eyes Wide Shut).

 

Calvary will be filmed on location in Co. Sligo and Co. Dublin.

 

It is being co-financed by The Irish Film Board and the BFI Film Fund.
Protagonist Pictures are handling international sales for the film. Deals are already concluded for Canada (Alliance Momentum), Australia/ New Zealand (Transmission), Middle East (Front Row) and CIS (CP Digital).

 

Calvary is due for theatrical release in 2013 and will be distributed by Momentum Pictures in the UK and Ireland.
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