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Film Review: The Armstrong Lie

The impression you get from Alex Gibney’s The Armstrong Lie is absolutely; that his only real regret was coming back to the sport and then getting caught.

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Lance Armstrong isn’t sorry. He doesn’t view what he did, all those years of doping, threatening and bullying as cheating or wrong. He says it’s embarrassing and bad to hear when asked about his lying and his attacks on those that told the truth. But would he do it all again? The impression you get from Alex Gibney’s The Armstrong Lie is absolutely; that his only real regret was coming back to the sport and then getting caught.

Gibney became involved with Armstrong in 2008 due to that comeback, hired to document the rider’s return to the Tour de France after four years of retirement. When the scandal broke he shelved the film, picking it up again after the Oprah confession. It’s interesting that Gibney, one of the most influential documentarians around and known for hard-hitting exposés like Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room and Taxi to the Dark Side, should sign on to do what many in the cycling community saw as a puff piece. Armstrong had been dogged by doping rumours ever since his first tour win, with every single rider that stood on the podium during his seven wins implicated but him, but this film would focus on the mythical return of a hero. Gibney is a savvy journalist and knew of the allegations but admits to being swept up in the narrative, the stories that Armstrong liked to create around himself. It’s lucky for him that the doping scandal broke then; the film would have been far too hagiographic otherwise, with Gibney confessing to finding himself just another fan cheering on Lance.

This is a large problem with the film – Gibney inserts himself in to it far too much. He continually refers to it as ‘my documentary’ and narrates his thoughts and feelings rather than letting the footage, interviews and facts speak for themselves. There’s certainly a place for the documentarian in film as they are ostensibly the ones shaping it, but in this case it gets in the way of the story, with Gibney forcing his own experiences on it. Most importantly though, he doesn’t even use the close relationship that he developed with Armstrong over the course of his filming to his advantage. Armstrong had lied to his face for years, but when Ginbey picks the film up in 2013 he seems to have little issue with it. He notes it happened and says Armstrong owes him another interview by way of explanation, but he never takes him to task for it, never really questions him about his actions and behaviour, just sits him in front of the camera again and lets him tell his side, say what he wants. Unless he’s really pressured, where is the value in listing to anything said by a man who lied for so long and so meticulously controlled his image even when finally exposed?

It is fascinating to watch the interviews with Armstrong before the 2009 Tour though, the manner in which he rails against his critics, the sheer brazenness in his lying, lies that he told for so long and had surely come to believe. Even if the truth hadn’t come out I would have found it difficult to take away a view of Armstrong as a hero. I found him completely unlikable, a narcissistic bully with sociopathic tendencies who used his ill-gotten power to crush those who went against him. Rules, people – just more obstacles to be overcome in his quest to win, to dominate.

The original shape and narrative of the film, from before the scandal broke, takes greater hold in the second half when focus is given to the 2009 Tour. Whilst the motivations behind, and consequences of, the comeback are important, it’s given too much time in comparison to the eventual Novitsky investigation and its fallout, which is wrapped up too briefly at the end.

I don’t want to get into a long spiel about the Armstrong case, but I absolutely cannot agree with Gibney’s apparent argument that there’s some moral relativism at work here – that Armstrong just doped because everyone else did, and that so many people wanted to believe that he hadn’t, that he was a miracle, that they ignored the evidence. There’s too much empathy here. This is a man that deserves to be torn down like he tried to destroy the lives of those who dared to speak against him. Instead Gibney gives him the final word, finishing the film with Armstrong saying what he clearly believes should be his legacy no matter what, “he won the Tour de France seven times”, and with an almost triumphant aerial shot of him riding atop a mountain.

There’s a lot more of this story to come out, and while The Armstrong Lie is fascinating at points, Gibey himself gets in the way, and this is not the true deconstruction of the Armstrong myth that is needed and that many desire.

THE ARMSTRONG LIE
Written and directed by: Alex Gibney
Running time: 2 hours 3 minutes.

Film Reviews

Film Review: It Chapter Two

The sweet spot between Stephen King fans, horror fans and (believe it or not) comedy fans

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The final installment in the It saga is a clever, scary, probably-too-long allegory about the power of friendship — complete with a 20-foot clown spider. Sure, it’s probably a half-hour longer than it really needs to be — but It Chapter Two is still a fantastic film that hits the sweet spot between Stephen King fans, horror fans and (believe it or not) comedy fans.

It’s a story about friendship, and just like the first film, it’s those relationships that make this story so compelling and keep it woven together in a way that you really care about what’s happening to all the folks Pennywise has been menacing across these two films. Sure, Bill Skarsgård’s absolutely terrifying performance as Pennywise is what puts butts in the seats, but at its heart, this is a story about the power of friendship to win out over pretty much anything. If we work together, we can overcome fear, loneliness, doubt, depression — and yeah — even a supernaturally godlike killer clown. Thankfully, all the blood keeps that message from getting too sappy along the way.

The first It in 2017 was a surprise, monster hit — but for good reason. The Stephen King adaptation by director Andy Muschietti is pretty much a horror masterpiece wrapped in a compelling coming of age story. Think Goonies meets a face-eating monster flick with jump scares galore to keep the blood pumping. But, despite a decently-closed ending to the first chapter, the story was always conceived as a two-part film run, which is pretty much the only way one could hope to possibly wrap up King’s massive tome (the studio actually briefly considered splitting Chapter Two into two films, because there’s just so much material). 

It Chapter Two makes a wise decision to keep the stellar younger cast from the first film involved via ample flashbacks, while still providing space for the adult Losers to live and breathe (and, ahem, die) while bridging the gap between who they were and who they all grew up to be. It also embraces the inherent silliness and insanity of its premise to laugh, now seen through the lens of middle-aged adults as opposed to middle school minds. It’s a hard tone to hit, and it arguably might come off with more laughs than scares, but it’s true to the inherent madness of Pennywise.

The adult cast is also a home run by and large. James McAvoy makes for a capable adult Bill; Jessica Chastain is the embodiment of adult Bev; James Ransome nails grown-up Eddie; and Isaiah Mustafa does a capable job providing the necessary info-dumps as adult Mike. But the real breakout is Saturday Night Live alum Bill Hader as grown-up Richie. There’s scattered buzz that Hader could be worthy of an Oscar nomination for his performance, and he deserves every bit of it. We knew Hader had comedy chops, and he uses them plenty to keep this dark tale from getting too dark, but he really taps into the emotion of what it’d be like to go through something so traumatizing. And the moments that break Richie will almost certainly break you, too.

As for the changes to King’s original novel, sure, they’ll certainly be noticeable for fans. That said, the book itself — especially the ending — is absolutely wild and arguably impossible to adapt in a way that could work on the screen. The ending on-screen largely stays true to King’s themes built into the novel, and for the story that’s been told across these two films, it really does work. Hell, even King himself shows up in a cameo to make a joke about just how hard it can be to get an ending right.

Thankfully, despite a few bumps, It Chapter Two pretty much nails the landing. In a world filled more and more with King adaptations, this two-film run will stand as one of the best.

It Chapter Two is in cinemas now

IT CHAPTER TWO
Directed by: Andy Muschietti
Written by: Gary Dauberman
Cast: James McAvoy, Jessica Chastain, Bill Hader, Isaiah Mustafa, Bill Skarsgård
Distributed by: Warner Bros. Pictures
Run time: 169 minutes

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Film Review: Hobbs & Shaw

If you’ve already got the volume at 11, you might as well blast it to oblivion

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Hobbs and Shaw

It is hard to believe that 2001’s The Fast & The Furious was just a film about the underground culture of street racing. Fast forward nearly 20 years later and the films have gotten so ridiculous that the only logical next step for the film series is to blast it into space. Our endless appetite for the series has seen us grown accustomed to cars taking planes out of the sky (Fast 6), cars jumping from one building to another (Fast 7), and cars being remotely controlled to act like a pack of mechanical wild dogs (Fast 8). Ridiculous is not a barrier the film series will ever brake for and so it brings us to this, the biggest spin-off the series has seen, Hobbs & Shaw.

When the chemistry between The Rock and Jason Statham proved magic in Fast 8, it only took The Rock butting heads with Vin Diesel to see that logically, the series needed a freshness to it. Who better than Dwayne Johnson and Jason Statham? Well, as Hobbs & Shaw proves, if you’ve already got the volume at 11, you might as well blast it to oblivion as the film cares not for subtlety, pouring gasoline on the fire. The film sees the addition of Idris Elba as supervillain Brixton Lore and the effervescent Vanessa Kirby as Hattie Shaw, the sister of Statham’s character. Both characters fit in superbly well to the colorful, over-the-top personas of the series, but with one difference; they haven’t worn thin yet and are extremely likable. The film benefits greatly from the absence of Vin Diesel’s dopey head and the majority of the dopey Fast “family”, instead taking the Fast and Furious formula and giving it a spit shine, turning it sideways, and sticking it right up… well, you know the drill.

Hobbs (Johnson) and Shaw (Statham) play the unlikeliest (but most charismatic) buddy cop twosome since the days of Eddie Murphy and Nick Nolte. Unexpectedly, this film is really quite hilarious- with the two swapping one-liners and jibes that keeps the film light and funny. The two are tasked with stopping global genocide at the hands of the megalomaniacal terrorist organization known as Etheon. The “face” of Etheon is superhuman Brixton Lore (Elba), an agent left for dead and turned into a weaponized cyborg-esque villain using genetic engineering. He’s the “black Superman” as he says, and he’s got an array of tech and gadgets (including a transforming, autonomous motorbike that would have found itself at home in a Transformers movie) that are part of Etheon’s plan to rid the world of the “weak”.

Vanessa Kirby
Vanessa Kirby is one of the highlights of Hobbs & Shaw

Etheon are after a deadly virus that is in possession of Hattie Shaw and what ensues is the expected cinematic equivalent of flexing your muscles and undoing the top few buttons of your blouse soundtracked to explosions, fast machines, and zippy dialogue. Director David Leitch (Atomic Blonde, Deadpool 2) keeps things by the book, and visually it’s all very on brand with the film series. But it is the chemistry and likability of the stars- namely Kirby, Statham, and Johnson- that keeps Hobbs & Shaw light on its feet, big with its set pieces, and never a chore. Kirby, in particular, has shown that her action chops are as deadly as her acting chops (is it too late to make her Black Widow? Or maybe just put her in all the action films). She never spends the film waiting to be rescued and is often the one quelling the childish, but hilarious quarrelling between Statham and Johnson.

The film trades the tired Fast family for real blood family, and while we still get the whole “family” and “heart” spiel that Vin Diesel loves to harp on about in these films, there is definitely a welcome change to the last few films. In fact, the Fast films haven’t been this fun in a long time. Unlike the last few, Hobbs & Shaw knows that the stakes of the film are global, but never does it take that too seriously and we the audience never feel too burdened by the ridiculousness of it all. There are some great cameos (two unexpected stars pop up that add the right comedic touches, plus Helen Mirren is always brilliant) and while the changing of scenery to Samoa is reminiscent of the previous Fast family vacations to South America et al, there’s something spiritual about this trip.

In the end, you don’t even have to turn your brain off because the film is soaked in charm and lightness that makes for a fun, smart enough romp that keeps its two-plus hour run time feeling like quite a breeze. Hobbs & Shaw is what this film series desperately needed. And while we can’t say the appeal will still be there when we’re inevitably sitting through Hobbs & Shaw 2, 3, 4, 5… we can say that for now, we’ll live this life one spin-off at a time.

HOBBS & SHAW
Directed by: David Leitch
Written by: Chris Morgan, Drew Pearce
Cast: Dwayne Johnson, Jason Statham, Vanessa Kirby, Idris Elba, Helen Mirren
Distributed by: Universal Pictures
Run time: 135 minutes

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