REVIEW: The Program

7 05 2016

The ProgramThere are many stories surrounding cycling icon Lance Armstrong worthy of cinematic treatment. There’s the athlete himself, whose hubris and competitive nature led him to dupe, receive and betray. There’s the many authorities who turned a blind eye, including the media – save the one journalist, David Walsh, with the courage to take on Armstrong’s cabal. And of course, there’s America as a whole, who cheered on his triumphant narrative and marveled aghast when it was exposed as a sham.

Undoubtedly, the saga of Lance Armstrong’s historic rise and meteoric fall from grace has the proportions of Greek tragedy, should someone choose to apply such a framework. Yet none of these seem of interest to John Hodge, writer of”The Program.” His take on the events is one largely void of perspective, oscillating freely between Armstrong and Walsh without ever mooring the film in either one of their tales. The result is an experience that far underwhelms the proportions of the history it covers.

Perhaps the most impressive feat of Stephen Frears’ film is how easily it renders something so ordinary out of this extraordinary scandal. It appears that the main focus of the film is Armstrong (Ben Foster) and his insatiable need to win, a trait which powers him to the top of the sport while also sowing the seeds of his eventual demise. His teammates, as represented primarily through Jesse Plemons’ Floyd Landis, reaped the benefits of Armstrong’s victory thanks to the increased media attention his story gave the sport. This rising tide lifting their ships, however, came on the condition that they both stay out of the spotlight and remain complicit in the doping ring.

Armstrong might have made a better background character, to be honest. We know his face, his voice and his character from the aforementioned turn of the millennium media blitz. It’s pretty clear that Foster aims for a less imitative and more representational portrait of the man, akin to Michael Fassbender’s take on Steve Jobs. But as much as we thought we knew Jobs, his persona mostly amounts to tidbits from product launches. Lance Armstrong was everywhere for a solid decade, and Foster’s inability to overcome the hurdle of recognition hampers the rest of his performance.

“The Program” could have even been a wicked two-hander with Chris O’Dowd’s Walsh, working a “Frost/Nixon” style dynamic. A long-time skeptic who covered Armstrong even before his testicular cancer struck, Walsh might have developed into an interesting foil. But alas, Hodge mostly reduces him to a peripheral figure who is important only because of the role he plays in the events – not because the script treats him as such. He fares better than the average incredulous American media consumers, though, who get totally left out of “The Program.”

It’s ok, fellow common folk, we have the far better film about Lance Armstrong: Alex Gibney’s incisive documentary “The Armstrong Lie.” C2stars

REVIEW: St. Vincent

19 11 2014

St. VincentAs Bill Murray’s zany candor becomes the ultimate cult of personality, it seems that plenty of people are completely entertained by just watching him be – whether in character or in real life.  “St. Vincent” thus assumes the position of a holy text in Murray’s civil religion. Writer/director Theodore Melfi essentially gives Murray an entire film where he can just exemplify his effortlessly authentic mix of odd and cool.

It really does not even matter that the mechanics of his performance are quite rusty, as most egregiously evinced by his seriously spotty Brooklyn accent.  As the harmlessly grouchy titular character, he gets the chance to spout plenty of memorable maxims (or Bill Murrayisms, as they are often called).  “St. Vincent” provides an hour and a half to spend basking in his wisdom for those not lucky enough to run into him at a hotel.

Murray does not just show up, though; he adjusts his acting style as necessary in order to mesh with Melfi’s sentimental but nonetheless winning story.  “St. Vincent” operates from a big, sympathetic heart that it wears on its sleeve.  Melfi could have done without so many mellow music montages to convey that emotion, however, since it comes so naturally from the actors.

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REVIEW: Calvary

7 08 2014

Summer 2012 has been uncommonly rife with spiritual themes, from “The Immigrant” to “I Origins” and even “Wish I Was Here” all delving into faith issues on a personal scale.  Writer/director John Michael McDonagh’s “Calvary” expands even further, taking a look at the institutional level of religion through his protagonist, the unconventional Catholic priest Father James (Brendan Gleeson).

McDonagh imbues James with a unique brand of wisdom, partially due to his unusual path to the priesthood.  Father James was a normal man who even fathered a child, only finding his way into the cassock after the death of his wife left him reeling.  This background in the realm of the worldly leads him to be a more patient, understanding paternal figure for the small Irish town he oversees.

Such purity of intent makes him a perfect target for one villager, who comes to confession in the first scene of “Calvary” announcing his plans to make Father James a sort of sacrificial lamb.  This mysterious man, who was repeatedly sexually abused by a Catholic priest as a child, seeks the blood of an innocent man to atone for the sins perpetrated against him.

McDonagh doesn’t shy away from looking into the effects of priests’ sexual misconduct, both for the victim and for the church at large.  In that respect, “Calvary” goes quite a bit deeper than 2008’s “Doubt,” although that’s not necessarily a fair apples-to-apples comparison.  (The latter film takes place when the scandals were only just beginning to enter public consciousness, while “Calvary” takes place in the present.)

Sadly, McDonagh doesn’t always play to the strengths of the story and character.  The opening scene would appear to indicate that the film will follow Father James as he deals with this threat on his life.  Yet for the most part, “Calvary” just provides a rather episodic snapshot of his odd bunch of parishioners.

The film is still interesting in these portions, largely because of Gleeson’s nuanced, deeply felt performance and the wide variety of interactions he can have over the course of a week.  But the large bulk of “Calvary” does not seem to be pushing the action towards its inevitable conclusion, making the film feel a little unfocused and meandering in the process.  McDonagh’s finale arrives with a bang, though it could have been a sonic boom had the whole plot been building behind it.  B2halfstars

REVIEW: This Is 40

31 12 2012

Judd Apatow is quite a curious entertainer, and I’m fascinated by the trajectory he’s taken to put his stamp on comedy.  Lately, he’s been using his tremendous power to advance women’s voices in comedy through Lena Dunham‘s HBO series “Girls” and Kristen Wiig’s “Bridesmaids,” quite a noble thing to do.

Yet otherwise as a producer, he makes comedies largely by the status quo, albeit with a slightly Apatowian (is that the proper term?) spin of vulgarity opening up on a big heart.  Some are hits, and others are flops.  Some work; others, absolute disasters.

However, as a director, he’s on the cutting edge.  2009’s “Funny People” and his fourth feature film, “This is 40,” are bold experiments in genre.  In these two movies, Apatow is probing the boundaries of comedy and attempting to make sense of the murky gray area that is dramedy.

These two movies are flawed but noble ventures into the great unknown.  Both films attempt to find the kind of tender human drama that defines the works of Alexander Payne and Jason Reitman, two directors who make serious works with touches of levity.  Apatow strives to find that same pathos without losing his films’ firm rooting in comedy, and though he doesn’t find it in “This is 40,” I’m willing to sit and watch him decipher it out.  Because once he finds that balance, a true masterpiece will be the inevitable result.

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REVIEW: Friends with Kids

22 12 2012

The title “Friends with Kids” sounds an awful lot like “Friends with Benefits,” the 2011 Justin Timberlake-Mila Kunis sex-friends comedy. Though the two differentiate themselves over the course of their respective films, they actually share quite a bit in common.

Both begin with a ridiculous premise: here, it’s the idea that two people can have sex once, procreate, and be parents without forming any sort of emotional connection to each other. It’s an idea that Jason (Adam Scott) and Julie (writer/director Jennifer Westfeldt) hatch one night after seeing how miserable their once happily married friends become when they have kids. And those same friends, like us in the audience, laugh at their foolishness and know it can only lead to disaster.

Their friends, by the way, are essentially a “Bridesmaids” reunion 15 years early for their People shoot. Kristen Wiig and Jon Hamm are Ben and Missy, a sex-crazed couple whose kids take a toll on their marriage. And on the more reasonable end, Maya Rudolph and Chris O’Dowd are a couple coping with the same issues but on a more authentic scale. All that’s missing is some Wilson Phillips (and perhaps a little defecating in sinks just for fun).

Yet just about every time you think it’s going down the path to predictability or genre, Westfeldt surprisingly turns the tables on you. She’s written a very thoughtful movie in “Friends with Kids,” one that makes some insightful revelations about marriage and parenthood. Though Jason and Julie move on to other people – him Megan Fox’s Broadway dancer Mary Jane, her Edward Burns’ family man Kurt – they find each other and their real feelings through those people. It might seem slightly cliched, but with all the laughs and the honesty, I didn’t really mind. B+ / 3stars