THE PROGRAM (2016)

March 18, 2016

the program Greetings again from the darkness. The fallen king. The disgraced idol. We expect there to be more to the story of Lance Armstrong, but the bottom line is really pretty simple. Lance Armstrong is a liar. Lance Armstrong is a fraud. The movie offers little in the way of excuses or explanations, and you’ll likely think even less of Armstrong after the movie … if that’s even possible.

Ben Foster turns in a nice performance and is believable as Lance the cyclist, Lance the teammate, and Lance the doper. But even Foster can’t quite capture the public façade or reach the level of deception that the real life Lance maintained for years. Chris O’Dowd is spot on as David Walsh, the sportswriter who wrote the book on which the film is based, “Seven Deadly Sins: My Pursuit of Lance Armstrong”. In fact, the movie would likely have been more interesting had it focused on Walsh’s research and pursuit, rather than re-hashing the all too familiar Armstrong deceit.

Director Stephen Frears (The Queen, High Fidelity, The Grifters) works with the screenplay from John Hodge (Trainspotting) and we see how Lance battled through testicular cancer and later sought out Dr. Ferrari (Guillaume Canet) – the Godfather of blood doping. We get many shots of the familiar yellow jersey during numerous Tour de France races, and we hear Lance pontificate on what sets him apart: desire, hunger, heart and soul, and guts. Later we hear his proclamation of innocence followed by “I’m the most tested athlete on the face of the planet”.

Jesse Plemons (“Breaking Bad”, “Fargo”) has slimmed down and plays the crucial role of Floyd Landis – a devout Mennonite, Lance teammate, and the final straw in the crumbling of an empire. It’s Landis who broke “the silence around cycling”, and forced an industry and the public to accept what most of us hoped against all hope wasn’t true.

Armstrong’s infamous “Oprah” appearance and public admission brought poignancy to his own words: “We are the authors of our life stories.” Perhaps this lesson is as valuable as all the money Livestrong raised for cancer research. Picturesque Hamilton Pool in Austin makes an appearance, as do songs from The Ramones, The Fall (“Mr. Pharmacist”) and Leonard Cohen. While the film is not at the level of Alex Gibney’s documentary The Armstrong Lie, it is a reminder that real life can be more dramatic and devastating than the movie version.

watch the trailer:

 

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ANOTHER YEAR

January 30, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. How DARE he? Mike Leigh is such a non-compliant filmmaker. He just refuses to follow the rules … and film goers are the benefactors of his daring. Mind you, his daring is not in the regards of special effects, stunt work or trick photography. No sir. His daring is with the subject, theme, tone and characters. He is … GASP … unafraid of real people! If you have seen Mr. Leigh’s work in Happy-Go-Lucky or Vera Drake, you understand that his films can be simplistic on the surface, while carrying multiple layers of commentary and observations. He also has the classic British sense of humor in that very few “punchlines” exist. Instead the humor comes in allowing the viewer to recognize the characters as someone they know, or God forbid, even their own self!

Mr. Leigh has a history of making films without a script … only broad based outlines for the characters. The actors then work to fill in the details of the individuals, which in turn, forms a story. This explains why the story does not follow the traditional arc. In fact, the story has no real beginning or ending. What we see are the interactions of people who are friends, relatives, co-workers, acquaintances and strangers.

The foundation of the film, as well as the foundation for most of the other characters in the film, is the happily married couple of Tom and Gerri, played by the terrific Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen. This is a couple who not only love and respect each other, but also enjoy being together. Their friends and family come in and out of their lives, but their bond is strong.

 Key amongst this group is their friend, and Gerri’s co-worker, Mary (Lesley Manville). Mary is someone we all recognize. She is single, not getting any younger, desperately trying to avoid loneliness (too often with a bottle), masking her fear through fake excitement, and latched onto the security blanket offered by Tom and Gerri’s friendship. Many felt Ms. Manville deserved an Oscar nom for this role, and I will say she is outstanding.

When family friend Ken (Peter Wight) makes a move on Mary, she shuns him because of his lack of perfection. She always thinks she can do better. When she begins fixating on Tom and Gerri’s son Joe (Oliver Maltman), we really feel her pain but just want to slap some sense into her. The relationships all take a hit when Mary shows up for dinner and is introduced to Joe’s new girlfriend … a wonderfully charming and talented Katie (Karina Fernandez). Mary acts the selfish fool and it drives a wedge between she and Gerri. There is even a line of dialogue earlier on … “never come between a mother and her son“! Another character we are witness to includes the great Imelda Staunton as a depressed middle-aged woman who comes to Gerri for professional guidance. We also meet David Bradley as Tom’s older brother, Ronnie, whose wife has recently passed. Mr. Bradley will be recognized as Argus Filch from the Harry Potter movies.

All of these situations and personalities are balanced by Tom and Gerri as they provide a stable environment … it’s as if they are a fountain of sanity from which everyone wishes to drink. As an added touch, none of the characters are Hollywood beauties. Broadbent and Ms. Sheen would never be mistaken for Brad and Angelina. Rather they are more likely to look like someone you know … and better yet, their characters live like people you WANT to know. So again I ask … How dare he?

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you don’t mind a quick glance at characters who probably mirror you and your friends OR you can appreciate the British way of squeezing some humor out of someone’s pain

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you prefer fantastical stories and “big” Hollywood films to the intimacy of characters who could actually exist.