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Director: Peter Berg

Screenplay: Matthew Michael Carnahan and Matthew Sand

Country: USA

Runtime: 107 mins

Cast: Mark Wahlberg (Mike Williams), Kurt Russell (Jimmy “Mr Jimmy” Farrell), Andrea Fleytas (Gina Rodriguez), John Malkovich (Vidrine), David Maldonado (Kuchta), Kate Hudson (Felicia), Dylan O’Brien (Caleb Holloway)

“Hope ain’t a tactic”: Director Peter Berg’s angry depiction of the well from hell sticks the knife into BP

Towards the end of Deepwater Horizon, based on the disastrous 2010 oil rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico, a group of survivors drop to their knees and recite The Lord’s Prayer. Upon the line “Deliver us from evil” the camera cuts to the rig, completely engulfed in flames, reminding us of a line spoken earlier: “This is the well from hell”. Indeed, the actual incident killed eleven workers, injured seventeen others and devasted marine life (210 million gallons of oil spilled into the ocean).

I headed to the cinema with a certain degree of trepidation, concerned that this might in some way be an exploitative film that maximised thrills at the expense of reality. I never expect total accuracy from a cinematic dramatisation of real-life events – the demands of story-telling rarely allow that – but it is important that the broad picture is roughly accurate and, in the case of a tragedy like this one, is respectful to those who risked or lost their lives.

In any event, Deepwater Horizon struck me as deeply respectful to the plight of the riggers, though BP executives will no doubt feel they have been painted as pantomime villains (especially with Malkovich channelling his familiar evil side as BP representative, Vidrine). There isn’t much time for in-depth characterisation, but three people in particular are foregrounded to elicit our sympathies. The first of these is Michael Williams (Wahlberg), who we see in the opening scenes spending his last breakfast with his wife Felicia (Kate Hudson) and daughter Sydney (Stella Allen). The latter gives us a potted account of how oil is created, in the form of an essay written for school, and also demonstrates how drilling works, using a can of coke.

The second key figure is “Mr Jimmy” Harrell (Russell), a rugged no-nonsense figure of authority who has the last word on whether or not drilling can proceed. The third is Andrea Fleytas (Rodriguez), the only woman that we see on the rig and whose sensible judgment when disaster strikes is overruled by a bullying male colleague.

The first hint of danger comes when the helicopter transporting workers to the rig experiences a birdstrike. Upon arrival at the free-floating Deepwater Horizon platform, Williams and Harrell are concerned to discover that the previous team have not conducted safety checks on the cement casing around the production equipment. BP’s representatives, Vidrine and Kuchta (Maldonado), blithely assert their confidence in the integrity of the cementing, on the basis of no evidence at all, and are obviously motivated by the fact that a planned experimental drilling operation is behind time and over budget. Harrell insists on a safety test, but when the results are somewhat ambiguous he allows himself to be pressurised into permitting drilling. This leads to a blowout in which methane escapes from the well and up the drillshaft, where it ignites on the platform.

The subsequent depictions of fire, explosions and desperate attempts to control the situation, whilst assisting the injured, are absolutely compelling. For those of us who have ever wondered what an oil rig disaster must be like, this imagining of such an event is a terrifying eye-opener. I was so swept up in events that it was only later that I realised that a considerable amount of CGI must have been involved. It doesn’t show.

If ever there was a picture of human vulnerability, it is surely Kurt Russell’s Jimmy Harrell waking from unconsciousness, naked on the floor of what used to be a shower, half-blind, and his body peppered with glass. After being rescued by Williams, he himself resumes the direction of operations.

It is quite something that a Hollywood movie should so clearly stick the knife into a multi-billion dollar corporation, but that is exactly what Deepwater Horizon does to BP. And it does so without resorting to cliché. Director Peter Berg has chosen to tell this story in a straightforward unfussy way. It just happens to be one hell of a story.

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Director: Liang Zhao

Country: China / France

Runtime: 95 mins

The Behemoth in the title of Liang Zhao’s extraordinary documentary is a huge monster that must be fed from the mountains of China, in this particular case the supposedly autonomous region of Inner Mongolia. However, the area that Zhao concerns himself with, once covered in vegetation, now looks like a vast barren alien landscape. Where once there were grass-covered hills there is now a seemingly endless quarry, populated by coal miners, mechanical diggers and trucks. As we quickly realise, the real Behemoth is our apparently insatiable desire for fossil fuel.

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There is almost no explanatory dialogue to guide the viewer, except for some occasional snatches of narrative based on Dante’s Divine Comedy. The mining area is, for example, described as “a purgatory of a place”. The narrative typically accompanies scenes involving two Dante-type figures, one a naked figure usually shown curled up in a fetal position, and the other a “guide” who wanders around with a mirror upon his back. In essence, the film is a poetic meditation on the brutal reality underlying China’s economic transformation, using the power of the cinematic image to highlight the destruction of the environment and the harm caused to the miners.

Having first established the scale of the mining operations, Zhao takes us below ground where we watch dirt-caked men drilling into the rocks above them. The camera follows another miner as he walks through a tunnel, only to be almost rocked off his feet by the reverberations of a controlled explosion somewhere else. On the surface, we see men and women, simple pieces of cloth over their faces, shovelling dirt and coal into trucks or sifting through the earth with their gloved hands. On the outskirts of the quarry, trucks continually deposit their contents onto the edge of farmland, gradually encroaching onto the fertile areas where men and women continue to herd goats and sheep, even as the wind carries coal dust across them.

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From the scenes of the mining operation, Zhao then takes us to one of the film’s most arresting images: dozens, perhaps hundreds, of coal-filled trucks lined up nose-to-tail as they snake their way down a long road to a power station. After this, we are inside a steelworks watching sweltering men in overalls bathed in the orange glow from furnaces and molten metal.

In the penultimate segment of the film, we are shown the impact of the coal mining operations upon the workers, many of whom are poor migrant workers from other parts of China. There are no interviews, but rather a series of extreme close-ups of their dirt-encrusted faces, followed by shots of people scrubbing themselves clean and picking the callouses from their hands. Most devastatingly, we are shown the reality for tens of thousands of Chinese workers: people fighting for breath in hospital beds, with oxygen tubes inserted into their noses. Pneumoconiosis is the main occupational disease in China, and exposure to coal dust through mining operations is the primary cause. Its prevalence far exceeds that of developed nations, due to lack of effective safety measures.

What paradise is being built upon the lives of these Chinese mineworkers? The answer is hundreds of “ghost cities” – brand new urban areas that the state intends to move rural populations into, but which currently lie empty, either because people moved in but left or did not want to go there in the first place.

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Director: David Street

Country: UK, Spain, USA

Runtime: 104 mins

The Flying Scotsman rides again

Scottish cyclist Graeme Obree is a sporting figure of remarkable tenacity. The 2006 dramatic biopic The Flying Scotsman tells the story of how, despite psychological difficulties and run-ins with the cycling authorities, he twice broke the world one-hour distance record on a bicycle (“Old Faithful”) that he had constructed from scrap metal and parts of a washing machine.

David Street’s new documentary film, Battle Mountain, covers a subsequent period in Obree’s life and career after the cyclist decides to enter the World Human Powered Speed Championships. Adopting a filming strategy in which Obree is never asked to repeat any behaviours for the camera, Street observes as the Scot constructs a new bicycle, to be ridden prone-style, in his kitchen at home. Obree complains that people only remember him as a bloke that made a racing bike out of a washing machine (“It was only one part”, he says), yet is soon proudly cutting pieces out of a saucepan to make shoulder supports. There are some wonderfully comic moments, not least when Obree enlists his two sons to squeeze him between the living room wall and a piece of furniture in order to determine the width of the narrow aerodynamic shell that will encase his bike.

During the course of developing and testing the new machine Obree opens up about the psychological problems that he has faced in his life, partly explored in the earlier film, and the contributory factors, which have resulted in suicide attempts. In terms of his psychological well-being a lot appears to be at stake for Graeme in taking on the challenge of breaking the world speed record. However, things do not go smoothly. At one point during training he experiences an unfortunate side-effect from anti-depressant medication, leading to a hospital operation and an enforced period of recuperation.

But perhaps worse than this, the new bike – nicknamed “The Beastie” by Sir Chris Hoy – turns out to be highly unstable. Nonetheless, Obree persists through all the psychological, physical and technical difficulties and finds himself at the allocated location for the Championships – Battle Mountain in Nevada – in September of 2013. His psychologist, he opines, would not be pleased to know about the pressure he is putting himself under. For those who don’t already know the outcome I won’t spoil things by revealing what transpires, but suffice to say that you would need a heart of stone not to come away full of admiration for this most extraordinary of athletes. Battle Mountain is an enthralling, funny and ultimately joyous addition to the pantheon of against-the-odds sports stories.

Rating: 4/5

Speed Sisters

Director: Amber Fares

Country: Palestine, USA, Qatar, UK, Denmark, Canada

Runtime: 80 mins

A high-octane documentary that offers thrills as it rides roughshod over stereotypes

Amber Fares’s thrilling high-octane documentary about the first all-female street car racing team in the Middle East begins with a statement of intent from the 19 year old reigning champion: “I want the whole world to know there is a girl called Marah Zahalqa who represents Palestine”. By the end of the film I felt like shouting not just Marah’s name in the street, but the names of all the other team members. They are Maysoon (the manager), Noor, Mona, and Marah’s closest challenger – Betty.

Speed Sisters follows these racers through two seasons of the street car championship, during which director Fares drives donuts over stereotypes about Palestinian women. In the conservative city of Jenin we see the young women walking around with their heads uncovered, long hair flowing. Marah’s father tells us he has always supported her ambition to race cars and has made sacrifices for her. When her grandfather says she ought to have a job that would get respect, such as being a doctor, dad points out that she is respected. He’s right, too. It’s not just the female audience at races that cheer on the women; the men are cheering for them as well. The biggest problem for the team is not the conservatism of Palestinian society, but the Israeli occupation.There are few places to practice and to get to race events the women must waste hours getting through checkpoints, sometimes with soldiers tear-gassing stone-throwing youths as the traffic passes through.

Towards the end of the first season some tension arises within the team after Betty is awarded a race win despite having infringed the rules. There is a suspicion that the racing authorities recognise the publicity value of her photogenic good looks and are trying to tilt the championship in her favour. Betty herself emphasises her femininity, getting herself prettified so as not to appear a “tomboy” and doing pouty photoshoots after getting a sponsorship deal. However, just when it appears that Betty might be turning into a sporting pantomime villain (rather like Tony Hawk in All This Mayhem), the occupation rears its ugly head and draws our sympathy back to Betty.

Whilst on the way to practice, the car carrying a few of the girls runs over a rock and they stop to check for possible damage. A hundred or so metres away there is a group of Israeli Defense Force soldiers. One of them, completely unprovoked, fires a tear gas canister which hits Betty in the back. This act, deliberate and cruel, is caught on camera for all to see. The girls speed away with Betty on the back seat, in pain and crying. The attack leaves a particularly nasty bruise, from which she recovers, but who knows what psychological scars might remain? On another occasion, one of the girls, upon smelling teargas, remarks that it reminds her of her childhood.

I don’t want to give away the results of the championship, but the rivalry between Betty and Marah continues until the last moment of the final race, and the final update before the credits tells us that the rivalry will continue into the next season.

Speed Sisters is troubling, thought-provoking and ultimately uplifting. This is the best documentary I have seen so far this year.

Rating: 5/5

 

 

Hooligan Sparrow

Director: Nanfu Wang

Writers: Mark Monroe and Nanfu Wang

Country: China / USA

Runtime: 83 mins

Feminist activists in China run up against the authorities as they try to expose corruption and child abuse

Nanfu Wang’s extraordinary debut documentary covers a story of horrific child sex abuse involving corrupt Chinese government officials. Wang’s reward for her effort is that she is now unsure whether she will be allowed entry back into China or, if she is, whether she will be allowed out again.

The story begins with the disappearance of six schoolchildren in the city of Wanning. They are discovered alive but traumatised. The girls, aged between 11 and 14, have been forced to have sex in a hotel with their school principal, Chen Zaipeng, and a government official from the housing department. It transpires that the children were given to the official as a bribe, something that is distressingly common in China.

The police initially try to deny that anything untoward has happened, but when a hotel security camera shows the children with their principal a new tactic is adopted. The principal’s story is that the two men paid the girls for sex, an important distinction in Chinese law. Paying children for sex is treated under child prostitution laws and carries a less severe penalty than rape.

Wang’s film follows a group of activists, led by Ye Haiyan (Hooligan Sparrow), as they call for justice. They begin by protesting outside the school, an act that clearly carries some risk. One onlooker notes that the women won’t be stopped from protesting, but that the police will come for them later. This turns out to be the case and the women find themselves, variously, imprisoned, harassed by demonstrators in the pay of the government, and run out of town.

After a campaign that becomes international, including the involvement of famous dissident artist Ai Weiwei, the women achieve a justice of sorts, albeit a rather inadequate justice. Many of those who stood up to the authorities are now paying a price. Wang Yu, the human rights lawyer who assisted the activists has been held without trial since July 2015 and the Chinese authorities announced in January this year that she will be prosecuted on charges of subversion, an offence that can carry a life sentence. Five feminist activists (Wei Tingting, Wang Man, Zheng Churan, Li Tingting and Wu Rongrong) were arbitrarily detained for over a month and are now on bail but under police surveillance.

This is a film that deserves to be seen.

#FreeWangYu

Shown at the Curzon Soho as part of the Human Rights Watch Film Festival

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Director: Lenny Abrahamson

Screenplay: Emma Donaghue

Country: Ireland / Canada

Runtime: 118 mins

Cast: Brie Larson (Ma), Jacob Tremblay (Jack), Sean Bridgers (Old Nick), Amanda Brugel (Officer Parker)

A tender mother-son relationship is the focus of this tale of captivity and its aftermath

Recent years have brought to light several cases of women being kept captive by men, most notoriously in the case of the Austrian Josef Fritzl who kept his daughter captive in a basement for 24 years. She bore seven children as a result of his abuse.

In Room Emma Donaghue has adapted for the screen her own novel of the same name, which itself was inspired by the story of five-year old Felix in the Fritzl case. The film begins with young Jack (Jacob Tremblay) walking around a small room saying hello to various objects. It turns out to be the morning of his fifth birthday and his mother, Ma (Brie Larson), bakes him a cake. However, there are tears when Jack discovers there are no candles for the cake. Gradually, we discover that Jack and Ma are being held in captivity, and are living on basic rations supplied by Old Nick (Sean Bridgers). He turns up in the evening and slips into Ma’s bed, whilst Jack sleeps in a cupboard.

To young Jack, however, their room is the whole world. He has never known a life outside and Ma has kept from him the truth about their situation. His only knowledge of anything external to the room is the sky, which is visible through a skylight, the sole window.

Eventually, Ma arranges an escape from their prison, but adjustment to a new life is not at all straightforward.

At the time the story starts, Ma has been led captive for seven years. Thankfully, perhaps, we are spared the details of her capture and of the abuse she has suffered.The focus of the story is on the mother-son relationship, both before and after captivity. This is beautifully depicted by Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay. The latter is in reality a few years older than the boy he plays, but has deservedly garnered awards and nominations for his portrayal of a child whose entire understanding of the world is suddenly turned upside down.

Brie Larson is likewise utterly convincing as a mother who will do anything to protect her child, but who then struggles to adjust once she has obtained the freedom she craves.

For most of us it is almost impossible to imagine the travails of someone who is kept in illegal captivity.  But with Room, Emma Donaghue and director Lenny Abrahamson have given us a glimpse into such a world. With its emphasis on the psychological effects of captivity and its aftermath, the film makes clear that the title word has connotations beyond its physical meaning.

Rating: 5/5

Best of…2015

Posted: December 31, 2015 in English language

Although my film attendance in 2015 has been frequent and regular, the demands of my day job mean that my reviewing – a purely personal endeavour – has rather tailed off this year. Nonetheless, with every other professional and non-professional reviewer serving up their “best of…” lists I can’t resist chipping in with my tuppence-worth.

First, though, it would be remiss of me to talk about 2015’s movies without referring to some of this year’s highest-grossing features, none of which are in my Top 10.

Mad Max: Fury Road.  Having read the many words that have been written about this film, I realise that I am in a very small minority when it comes to my appraisal. MMFR is undeniably an impressive spectacle. For me, though, it was just too relentless. There was barely any let-up in the action and hence little dramatic tension. Tom Hardy, fine actor though he is, didn’t bring Mel Gibson’s charisma to the role and this wasn’t helped by a script that meant he wasn’t even the “maddest” character in the film. But the numbers don’t lie – lots of people loved MMFR. Personally, I had a lot more fun watching Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens.  By contrast, the latest in the Star Wars franchise was a somewhat unexpected pleasure. I’ve never been a Star Wars aficionado. The original movie was fun enough, though the basic story was a melange of a thousand SF space opera cliches. I haven’t kept up with the storyline that runs through the prequels and sequels. But in the event this didn’t matter one jot. The preamble at the start of SWtFA told me as much as I needed to know and from thereon in I had no trouble following the action. And what action there was! It’s a matter of no small significance that the lead characters were a woman and a black man, but this would have counted for nought if the film had sucked – and glory of glories, it didn’t. The story is of course the usual daft nonsense, but we care about the characters, the action sequences are brilliant (especially in 3D), and the script is peppered with just the right amount of humour.

Spectre. Speaking of humour, Daniel Craig’s James Bond – hitherto a rather troubled and serious individual – returned with a new lightness of attitude. British critics have mostly lavished praise on this new addition to the franchise, though some critics abroad and some regular cinema goers here have been less enthusiastic. For many people, the storyline in Spectre is not as strong as in Skyfall. The earlier film did perhaps make more of its villain and also included a 39 Steps-style odd couple road trip to the Scottish highlands. Nonetheless, I enjoyed Spectre a lot. The set pieces were as thrilling as ever and director Sam Mendes ensured that things rattled along efficiently. My main complaint is that the helicopter sequence at the start of the film was more exciting than the end sequence. But perhaps the most notable aspect of Spectre was it’s pro-Snowden take on surveillance. I wonder what they made of that at the royal premiere?

Incidentally, a couple of other major movies in 2015 also included elements that could be taken as commentary on contemporary matters. Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies was about the politics and negotiations underlying the exchange of two captured spies; the Soviet spy Rudolf Abel and the American spy plane pilot Gary Powers. The film explicitly makes the point that it is foolish and hypocritical to mistreat the other side’s prisoners if you expect the other side to behave properly when your own people are captured. With memories of Abu Ghraib and America’s post-9/11 torture program not yet faded, this message could hardly be more pertinent.

The other film that could be interpreted as having a contemporary message is Black Mass, the real-life story of how the FBI did a deal with Irish-American crime boss James Bulger to bring down the Mafia in Boston. The result was that Bulger’s murderous gang were strengthened, whilst FBI agent John Connolly became compromised and corrupted. Isn’t this also the story of much Western intervention?

My Top Ten consists of movies that were on general release in 2015, but there were also some film festival previews that will be worth looking out for in 2016, notably High Rise, Desierto, Assassination and Truth.

  1. Carol. Todd Haynes’s latest feature tells the slow-burning story of the relationship between a well-to-do but soon-to-be-divorced mother and a young female department store counter assistant. Set in the 1950s, a lesbian relationship is fraught with difficulty, but this love-against-the-odds theme is one that anyone can identify with. With an opening scene borrowed from Brief Encounter and cinematography influenced by Saul Leiter, Carol is one of the great cinema romances.
  2. Hard to be a God. Reviewed here on August 21st, this final film of Aleksei German is a gruesome epic about an earthlike planet stuck in their own equivalent of our Middle Ages, with an encroaching fascism. The story concerns the difficulties faced by an undercover observer from Earth, working to a brief that forbids him to kill. But it is the realistic mud, blood and guts depiction of the world that appals and appeals.
  3. The Dance of Reality. From the director of El Topo, and reviewed here on June 17th 2014, Alejandro Jodorowsky’s most recent film is a surreal reworking of his Chilean childhood, during which his communist father tries – and fails – to assassinate the President. Jodorowsky plays with cinematic form in a way which few films dare to do.
  4. The Lobster.  From director Yorgos Lanthimos, The Lobster is a fine example of what can be achieved with fairly simple locations and a strong story. It is set in a dystopian present or near-future where anybody not in a relationship is sent to a hotel where they have 45 days to pair off with someone. If they fail to do so, they will be transformed into an animal of their choice and sent out into the wild. However, out in the forest is a group of renegades whose rules forbid them to have relationships. The Lobster is a wonderfully engaging dark satire on the rituals of mating.
  5. Black Mass.  Reviewed here earlier today (31st December), this is a chilling and unromanticised crime drama about an unholy alliance between the FBI and James Bulger’s Irish-American crime outfit in order to bring down the Mafia in Boston.
  6. Foxcatcher.  Reviewed here on January 17th. Steve Carell gives a masterful performance as troubled millionaire John Du Pont whose attempt to create a medal-winning American wrestling team leads to tragedy.
  7. Mommy.  The latest dazzling invention from French-Canadian wunderkind Xavier Dolan concerns a single mother’s struggle to raise her troubled but charming son.
  8. Force Majeure. During an alpine skiing holiday a father abandons his wife and children when they (wrongly) think they are about to be overwhelmed by an avalanche. Director Ruben Östlund examines the emotional upheavals that follow.
  9. Bridge of Spies. Spielberg’s latest features Tom Hanks as Everyman lawyer Thomas B. Donovan who finds himself brokering a deal with the Russians to exchange captured Soviet spy Rudolf Abel for the imprisoned American spy plane pilot Gary Powers.
  10. Tangerine.  Shot on an iPhone 5s, director Sean Baker breaks new ground with a comic drama about two transgender sex workers living on the margins in West Hollywood. For characters who initially struck me as rather unsympathetic, I was amazed to find myself rooting for them by the end of the film. Unexpectedly, it turns out to be a feel good Christmas movie!

 

 

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Cast: Johnny Depp (James “Whitey” Bulger), Joel Edgerton (John Connolly), Benedict Cumberbatch (Billy Bulger), Dakota Johnson (Lindsey Cyr), Kevin Bacon (Charles McGuire)

A brilliant performance from Johnny Depp is just one of the good things about this superb crime movie

In Black Mass Johnny Depp gives us the acting comeback that so many have been waiting for. Playing the real-life Irish-American crime boss, James “Whitey” Bulger, Depp dons a bald-wig and puts any memory of his heart-throb good looks behind him. His portrayal of Bulger as a cold, ruthless psychopath is eerily convincing.

The story concerns an unholy alliance between Bulger and the FBI, both of whom have an interest in breaking the grip of the New England Mafia on Boston. FBI agent John Connolly is a childhood friend of Bulger and persuades the latter to become an informant, a decision that Bulger justifies to himself as a sensible business deal. However, the end result of this pairing is that Bulger’s empire grows,  as does the body count of his victims, whilst Connolly himself becomes compromised and corrupted. One wonders if there is a hidden message here for Western governments: doing business with your enemy’s enemy may not work out the way you were hoping.

Black Mass can’t avoid one or two genre stereotypes, notably when Bulger chews out a terrified looking colleague of Connolly’s, only to reveal that he was just putting him on. But in the main, a strong story, strong characterisation, and refusal to romanticise mobsters give this a sense of realism that makes it a cut above the average gangster movie.

Whilst Depp is superb, the script also allows the other performers to shine and there are strong performances from the likes of Benedict Cumberbatch as brother Billy and Joel Edgerton as John Connolly.

Rating: 5/5

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Cast: Jennifer Lawrence (Joy Mangano), Robert De Niro (Rudy), Bradley Cooper (Neil Walker), Edgar Ramirez (Tony), Isabella Rossellini (Trudy)

Jennifer Lawrence wipes the floor with the rest of the cast in this against-the-odds tale of a housewife-turned-entrepreneur

Hot on the heels of Carol comes another end-of-year title consisting only of a woman’s first name. Joy opens with the statement that the film has been inspired by true stories of daring women, and one woman in particular.That woman is Joy Mangano, an Italian-American who, in the 1990s, devised a “Miracle Mop” and made a lot of money selling it on the QVC home-shopping channel.

It isn’t clear how much fictional license  writer/director David O’Russell has taken with Joy’s story, but as told here it is a pretty gripping rollercoaster. An inventive child and valedictorian in her class at school, any aspirations Joy may have had have been crushed by family demands and a failed marriage. Her ex-husband, a failed musician, is still living in the basement two years after their divorce and is joined at the start of the film by Joy’s father Rudy, who has bailed out of another broken relationship. Her mother spends most of the day in bed watching soap operas.

Joy is constantly cleaning up after everybody. After an episode where she cuts her hands squeezing out a mop-head containing broken glass, she comes up with the idea for a mop that avoids any such inconvenience to the user. From this point on Joy has to battle a variety of forces ranged against her, from sceptical family members to unsympathetic corporate executives and corrupt business operatives. Just when you think Joy has made it, there always seems to be another knock-back.

If the real Joy Mangano only had to face half the battle depicted here, then I’m full of admiration for her. Perhaps other women will draw inspiration from this film, though I did find myself thinking that the business world appears to be so awful that I can’t imagine why anyone would want to be a part of it.

David Russell doesn’t present Joy as a linear narrative. The film opens with actors in a black-and-white soap opera delivering stilted dialogue and is followed by a flashback to Joy’s childhood, as narrated by her grandmother. References to TV soap operas recur throughout the film, explicitly linking the QVC channel’s marketing of Joy’s mop to the target audience. There are also dream sequences that tell us something about Joy’s hopes and fears.

Jennifer Lawrence gives another stellar performance as the title character. I particularly liked a scene in which she marches away from father Rudy’s auto business, a look of furious determination on her face, then picks up a rifle at the nearby shooting range and starts blasting away.

However, it must also be said that Russell’s script does not really give any of the other actors room to shine. Bradley Cooper does well enough as a top executive at QVC, but we never really feel we know him. And Robert De Niro is sadly wasted as Joy’s father. His role here is little more than a slightly more serious version of the father in Meet the Parents and Meet the Fockers. De Niro’s opening scene requires him to angrily smash up some crockery, a largely pointless action that the film could easily have lived without.

In short, this is Lawrence’s film through and through, and whilst the other performers are completely overshadowed I nonetheless enjoyed this a lot.

Rating: 4/5

 

Director: Stephen Frears

Screenplay: John Hodge (from the book by David Walsh)

Country: UK / France

Runtime: 103 mins

Cast: Ben Foster (Lance Armstrong), Chris O’Dowd (David Walsh), Guillaume Canet (Dr Michele Ferrari), Jesse Plemons (Floyd Landis), Dustin Hoffman (Bob Hamman)

It’s not about the bike; it’s about the massive doping program

Based on the book by Sunday Times journalist David Walsh, The Program is a gripping dramatisation of the rise and fall of Lance Armstrong, seven times winner of the Tour De France until those titles were stripped from him in 2012 following revelations about doping.

Walsh meets Armstrong early in his career, before the Texan starts winning races. A knowledgable sports writer, Walsh finds Armstrong to be likeable but judges him not to be capable of winning endurance races. This is an assessment that Armstrong himself receives from a team doctor, being told that his physique doesn’t provide an adequate power-to-weight ratio. When he starts winning races, Walsh is rightly suspicious, but his concerns are not shared by other journalists. Later, when Walsh really starts to rock the boat other journalists worry about their own privileges being taken away. “We’re all drinking soup from the same trough”, one tells him, to which Walsh responds “Didn’t you ever wonder why we have to drink soup from a trough?”

Armstrong undoubtedly suffered when he was being treated for testicular cancer. This is not a condition you would wish on anyone. Someone trying to find some good in Armstrong might point to the huge sums of money his charitable foundation subsequently raised to assist other cancer survivors. But he also used his foundation as a shield behind which to hide his doping activities. These did not just include his own personal drug use. Armstrong was responsible for setting up the entire doping program within the U.S. Postal team. Members of that team also bullied and intimidated other cyclists, as well as journalists, in order to prevent the truth being revealed.

Armstrong’s story is compelling enough, but the film benefits from the casting of Ben Foster in the lead role because he bears a distinct resemblance to the cyclist. It is quite spooky to watch as Foster’s Armstrong repeats to journalists his mantra that he has never failed a drugs test (a speech that he hones by saying it over and over to himself in the mirror). Appearance aside, Foster’s performance is excellent throughout. Chris O’Dowd brings a touch of humour to his portrayal of David Walsh, which provides a welcome contrast to the otherwise serious subject matter. John Hodges’ script and Frears’ direction ensures that the whole thing moves along at a good pace.

One thing that comes across very strongly in The Program is the willingness of so many people to believe in the myth of Armstrong the superhuman cancer survivor. Why do people have such a need to believe in heroes, especially when this leaves them vulnerable to manipulation by the unscrupulous? But an even bigger question, perhaps more important than the issue of Armstrong’s cheating, is why so many journalists allowed themselves to be hoodwinked. Even when there were strong reasons to be suspicious of Armstrong many sports writers simply failed to ask the key questions. Of course, this is a failure that extends beyond sports writing, which is why it is so important.

Rating: 4/5

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