Archive for October, 2015

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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Director: Ben Wheatley

Screenplay: Amy Jump

Country: UK

Runtime: 112 mins

Cast: Tom Hiddleston (Dr Robert Laing), Jeremy Irons (Anthony Royal), Sienna Miller (Charlotte Melville), Luke Evans (Richard Wilder), Keeley Hawes (Ann Royal), Reece Shearsmith (Nathan Steele)

A mordantly witty adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s novel about a concrete apocalypse

Watching the opening scenes of High Rise, I found myself musing how film adaptations of a book one has previously read can change forever the way you envision the book. I can’t now read J.G. Ballard’s autobiographical novel Empire of the Sun without imagining Christian Bale and John Malkovich as the main characters. I also recall one contemporary reviewer expressing disappointment that the film’s depiction of drained swimming pools – one of the central motifs in many Ballard stories – just seemed a bit underwhelming when viewed on the big screen.

It will probably now be impossible to read High Rise without imagining Tom Hiddleston as physiologist Dr Robert Laing and Jeremy Irons as architect Anthony Royal. But I am delighted to report that Ben Wheatley’s film really brings to life the imagery and spirit of Ballard’s novel. More than anything, he brings to the fore the mordant wit of the book (something I recently discovered upon re-reading but missed entirely when I read it as a younger man).

The story begins with Laing cooking a dog on the balcony of his apartment, part of a luxury tower block complex that has somehow gone to wrack and ruin. Then we flash back to the early days of the building three months before in order to learn just how the concrete apocalypse has come about. The inhabitants are all middle class professionals, but even within this privileged group social divisions arise and are exacerbated as the building itself becomes increasingly dysfunctional. People don’t care about those two or more floors above or below them and, in particular, those on higher levels have greater disdain for those further below them.

In a dreamlike fashion (reminiscent of Wheatley’s earlier A Field in England) anti-social behaviour escalates, from people blocking the rubbish chutes with used nappies, to parties that get out of hand, through to outright violence. As food stocks run out living takes on the characteristics of an urban hunter-gather existence, with the stronger men vying to monopolise the female inhabitants. Where Ballard presciently satirised the behaviour of a group of proto-Thatcherites, Wheatley is more explicit about the political nature of the material. Following an uproarious party on the middle levels, Royal’s acolytes plan a grander party to show the others how it ought to be done. As one of them explains, competition is at the heart of a modern economy. They then decide that the first step in their party planning must be to commandeer all the resources, surely as pointed a commentary on the nature of capitalism as it’s possible to make? High Rise actually closes with an excerpt of a speech by Margaret Thatcher.

Tom Hiddleston is totally convincing as the canny survivor “hiding in plain sight” who, as with so many of Ballard’s protagonists, embraces the catastrophe around him. And Jeremy Irons is an inspired piece of casting as the patrician architect of the luxury apartment complex, who watches with fascinated amusement at the creation of a new kind of society within his decaying empire. From the men’s terrible moustaches to the cars in the parking lot, Ben Wheatley does a great job of depicting the mid-seventies whilst nonetheless making it seem like the dystopian near-future that Ballard first envisioned. And if it won’t be possible to read his novel in the same way again, the same will be true of Abba’s song S.O.S. which is featured at several points in the soundtrack.

Rating: 5/5

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Director: Ridley Scott

Writers: Drew Goddard (screenplay), Andy Weir (novel)

Country: USA

Runtime: 141 mins

Cast: Matt Damon (Mark Watney), Jessica Chastain (Melissa Lewis), Kristen Wiig (Annie Montrose), Jeff Daniels (Teddy Sanders), Sean Bean (Mitch Henderson), Chiwetel Ejiofor (Vincent Kapoor)

Ridley Scott’s latest SF blockbuster is mildly diverting but don’t expect too much

Ridley Scott is responsible for some of cinema’s best-loved science fiction films, such as Blade Runner and Alien, as well as successful movies in other genres (Thelma and Louise). However, recent years have seen duds such as The Counsellor and Exodus: Gods and Kings. Does The Martian represent a return to form? Well, not quite, though it’s definitely an improvement of sorts.

The story follows the plight of astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) who finds himself stranded on Mars, believed dead, after his crewmates abandon the planet to escape an oncoming storm. A botanist by training, Watney devises a way to extend his limited food supplies by growing potatoes on Mars’ barren surface, though he does remain suspiciously healthy for a man who spends months and years eating only spuds (albeit garnished with ketchup). When he eventually manages to mend his damaged communications he contacts NASA, who then have to figure out how to rescue him.

I enjoyed the early parts of the film best, as Watney patches up a wound  sustained in the storm and then sets about the business of surviving incommunicado on the inhospitable red planet. However, once NASA begin putting their rescue mission together disbelief becomes harder to suspend. The number of problems that arise and the increasingly far-fetched and risky solutions that are developed simply serves to remind us that we are watching a Hollywood blockbuster. All these critical problems are presumably a device to distract us from the story’s main shortcoming – we never seriously entertain the possibility that Watney won’t survive (I’m not even going to flag this up as a spoiler).

Although realism may be too much to ask of a SF movie set in the far future, nonetheless The Martian doesn’t even strive for psychological plausibility. Would Watney really be so relentlessly cheerful after months on a barren planet with no one to talk to? For most of the film we know nothing about his life. Does he have a wife? Children? Is there anyone he might be thinking about and anyone who might be worrying about him? Is there any particular reason for us to emotionally invest in this character other than that he seems like a generally ok guy?

Back at NASA big name actors are wasted in roles that are not fleshed out. Jeff Daniels is the Head of NASA who must push the organisation’s top brains to put together a rescue plan, whilst managing PR with a view to future funding. Sean Bean is the no-nonsense team leader for whom the rescue takes precedence over PR bullshit, even if it means breaking the rules. Even more cruelly wasted is Chiwetel Ojiofor as a boffin who must convince everyone that his mad ideas will work.

Despite these shortcomings, The Martian is diverting enough, especially if your expectations aren’t too high.

Rating: 3/5

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