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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: Booksmart

Booksmart is the wonderful story of complicated, messy but hopeful and joyous young adulthood

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booksmart

Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut Booksmart has had a rough time at the box office since its release a few weeks ago. Pundits have placed blame on poor marketing by Annapurna Pictures (the studio releasing it) but in truth, the film just isn’t a big cinema flick. But there’s nothing wrong with that because, in every sense, Booksmart is a brilliant film. It’s funny, it’s smart, it’s wonderfully written, well-directed, and filled with stories that are relatable across generations. But box offices are intrinsically built on those first weekend numbers, it is why it exists, and it is a shame the team behind the film has made a big deal out of the lack of box office draw instead of building on what will surely make it a cult classic- word of mouth.

The film tells the story of Amy and Molly, two high school seniors who have spent their high school careers being great in class, but not so great socially. The day before graduation they realize that their plan of spending their high school careers buried in books, getting straight A’s, and then transcending into the upper echelon of higher education is thwarted when the very people they thought they were escaping, have, in fact, accomplished the same. The difference is that they all had fun during high school while Amy and Molly didn’t. What ensues is a smart pastiche of college humor comedies and high school coming-of-age flicks that have been a staple of cinema across generations. Taking cues from Superbad and the recent Blockers, Booksmart takes raunchy humor and gross-out jokes but injects them with contemporary social dynamics. Universal stories of high school joy, friendship, and heartbreak are told with the kind of relatable charm that is rare- relatable regardless of age, gender, or sexuality. Its inclusivity has been praised not because it is gratuitous or forced, but because it feels genuine and heartfelt.

The two leads, played by Beanie Feldstein (Neighbors 2) and Kaitlyn Dever, are brilliant. If you watched the sitcom Last Man Standing you always knew that Dever was destined for greatness, so it’s no surprise that Booksmart is a great vehicle for her and Feldstein to show their talents. They both act with enough nuance when it is needed, but both sizzle with chemistry when they need to be riotously funny- the screen becomes their canvas and it is hard to escape their presence. Dever and Feldstein are flanked by an assemblage of funny people- Lisa Kudrow, Jason Sudeikis, Will Forte, Jessica Williams, the funny kid from Santa Clarita Diet– who all contribute to the film’s balanced characters. It is only at times that a few of them seem a little too much like a cartoon that it detracts from the film (still not sure what Billie Lourd’s character is about).

Billie Lourd and Kaitlyn Dever in Booksmart

Wilde’s first turn at directing has proven that she’s got a keen eye for it. Booksmart does all the basics right and when Wilde wants to shoot outside of the box, they get that right too (the scene in which our leads are trippin’ daisies on hallucinogens, in particular, comes off as both funny and well done).

Its strengths, aside from the leads, is the writing and the seemingly truthful way in which the film depicts teenagers (in this case, teenage girls) living through that period of high school transitioning off into college and the so-called ‘real world’. Much has been said about its authenticity, and even if you can’t directly relate, you can still feel and understand the emotions and the relationships. And that is something that is hard to do, and the writers, the cast, and Olivia Wilde have accomplished that.

So what exactly is the problem with Booksmart? And why haven’t people flocked to see it? It still feels like a “small” movie, hindered perhaps by its very Netflix-like production. It doesn’t have that big-budget, must-see-at-the-cinema demeanor that films like Superbad or even Blockers had. Even films like Neighbors and its sequel felt much bigger in scope. Booksmart just FEELS like a television movie, even if it’s not.

Poor box office runs haven’t been the death knell for small-budget, indie successes. There have been plenty of critically acclaimed films that have been dwarfed in the numbers by superheroes, cartoons and sinking ships. Hopefully, ones that fuel conversation (like Booksmart), will keep studios making them. It’s a shame that a lot of the news has relegated Booksmart to “box office failure” because it deserves more. In time, with good word of mouth, and as more and more people see it and realize its resonance, it surely will. It has to because the heart of this movie, the way in which it tells the story of complicated, messy but hopeful and joyous young adulthood will not let it die without a fight.

Booksmart is in US cinemas now and opens in Australian cinemas June 27.

BOOKSMART
Directed by: Olivia Wilde
Written by: Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins, Susanna Fogel, Katie Silberman
Cast: Kaitlyn Dever, Beanie Feldstein, Lisa Kudrow, Jason Sudeikis, Will Forte, Jessica Williams
Released by: Annapurna Pictures
Runtime: 102 mins
Website: Booksmart.movie

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Film Reviews

Godzilla: King of the Monsters is beautiful, symphonic destruction

As a singular film, Godzilla: King of the Monsters is beautiful, symphonic destruction of humanity, one that only becomes unglued by humanity itself.

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Humanity has always been fascinated by the idea of greater beings that threaten and challenge our status as apex predators of Earth. In film, we’ve visited the notion of giants on our planet from The Lost World in 1925 and King Kong in 1933, to the myriad of Greek Gods and mythologies that have continued to dominate our celluloid imagination. Some have been greater successes than others, but there hasn’t been much change to the idea or belief that maybe that there are monsters, Gods, and Titans that will someday rise from the depths, or the skies, to put humanity back into its place. 2014’s Godzilla proved that audiences were still hungry for Japan’s great monster, wiping away the sour taste of 1998’s hyper-Americanized entry and continuing on the idea that once humanity’s moralistic compass had gone so far out of whack, there are forces out there that will ultimately right the wrongs.

Godzilla: King of the Monsters does not stray too far from the successful 2014 formula; doubling down on the true to the original homage that was so forgotten in 1998. King of the Monsters follows on from the events of 2014, pressing forward the idea that Monarch (the secret organization that has known for decades of the existence of Titans) needs to be held accountable for the emergence of Godzilla in 2014 that left San Francisco in ruins. From here we meet our human protagonists, led by Kyle Chandler’s Dr. Mark Russell (animal behavior and communication specialist), Vera Farmiga’s Dr. Emma Russell (a Monarch paleobiologist and environmental activist), and Millie Bobby Brown (their daughter). Their lives were irreversibly upturned by the original attack (leading to the death of their son) and have found themselves splintered across the globe.

Millie Bobby Brown and Vera Farmiga
Millie Bobby Brown and Vera Farmiga

What we learn is that Dr. Emma Russell has nearly perfected a tool that enables communication with the Titans (called ‘Orca’) that she originally developed with her husband. The tool is a MacGuffin of sorts that leads to the inevitable rise of these titans from their slumber. (Minor spoiler) Dr. Emma Russell takes cues from a certain galaxy conquering despot and believes that a solution to humanity’s problems can be solved by eradicating and restarting the population alongside these titans. Enlisting the work of eco-terrorists (their leader portrayed with Charles Dance-like precision by … uh … Charles Dance), her plan to unleash these beasts to cleanse the Earth is met with resistance from her husband, the military, and Monarch. It leads to wild globetrotting goose-chases, futuristic tech that give the Avengers a run for their money, and the opportunity to see the reason we all bought a ticket to this flick in the first place- Godzilla stomping a mudhole in other kaijus.

There is some subtlety lost in comparison to Gareth Edwards’ direction in the first film as new director Michael Dougherty opts for the blunt hammer routine. But these ground shattering battle scenes are by far the film’s strengths. Much of the titans clash in a symphonic crashing of orchestral soundtracks that is both moving and beautiful. Godzilla moves as the orchestra bellows and howls while the percussions thunder, exploding on screen as he battles King Ghidorah across planet-wide destruction. It is, however, plagued by the dumb humans who are reminiscent of children clanging away on triangles and tambourines in the audience of the philharmonic orchestra. By the film’s end, we care much more about Mothra than we do about the majority of the human characters. It isn’t too much of a deterrent- the film’s strengths outweigh the weaknesses. The humor is in check and doesn’t fall into bad Michael Bayisms that plagued the Transformers series, and in the end, our lust and hunger for kaiju destruction are more than satisfied.

Some argue that in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Thanos did nothing wrong. Similarly, in the case of King of the Monsters, there will be many who argue that Dr. Emma Russell is not wrong in her desire to reboot the Earth and reset humanity. That is the moral question the film does pose, whether or not we’ve reached our capacity and ability to survive as a species on our limited Earth. Our fascination towards higher beings is also scratched to destructive proportions in the film. Asking again the question of our place in the universe amongst the leviathans in our mythical imaginations (the film does well in teasing the connection of these titans to ancient Eastern and Western lore). Godzilla: King of the Monsters doesn’t quite have the heart that Godzilla (2014) had, but it doesn’t fall off the cliff the same way Pacific Rim: Uprising did after the first film.

As a singular outing, Godzilla: King of the Monsters is the beautiful, symphonic destruction of humanity, one that only becomes unglued by humanity itself. As the middle part of this impending trilogy and a date in the proverbial ring with Kong looming, it is also Hollywood’s big-budget reminder that everything bad that ever happens to us is really only our own fault.

Godzilla: King of the Monsters is in cinemas now.

GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS
Directed by: Michael Dougherty
Written by: Michael Dougherty, Zach Shields
Cast: Vera Farmiga, Millie Bobby Brown, Kyler Chandler, Bradley Whitford, Zhang Ziyi, Charles Dance, David Strathairn, Aisha Hinds, Sally Hawkins, Ken Watanabe
Distributed by: WarnerMedia / Legendary Pictures
Run time: 132 minutes

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