films

Dwindling Choices

A couple of weeks ago, Ofcom released its annual Communications Market Report. It’s always stuffed full of information about the UK media marketplace that can be fascinating to dissect.

In 2016, ownership of DVD players (including Blu Ray and games consoles with DVD functionality) was 67% of UK households. This year, it’s just 63% of households. That’s still most homes, but it’s indicative of the way that physical media is in decline as consumers move to streaming services.

Then yesterday, Amazon announced that it was closing Lovefilm. You may recall that Lovefilm was originally the UK’s version of Netflix in that it was a DVD rental by post business (Yes – that was Netflix’s original model too). Their basic service saw users renting films for a flat monthly fee and then posting them back when you’d watched them. In time, Lovefilm added a movie streaming service, so that by the time Amazon swooped in to buy them, it was the streaming service that Amazon was really interested in. That morphed into Amazon Prime Video, but the Lovefilm postal service remained.

And it still worked well, because unlike streaming services, customers had the ability to watch just about any film or TV series released on disc. That included classic films, genre titles and world film titles that never make it onto major streaming services.

And there’s the rub.

We have ownership of machines to play discs falling, and yet digital is not a direct replacement.

It’s all very well have a Netflix or Amazon Prime Video account, but those do not represent a full range of choice. In a Guardian piece bemoaning the death of Lovefilm, the author likened the film selection on the streaming services to the DVD selection in a petrol station. A handful of decent titles – all of which you’ve seen – and a load of trash you’d never want to watch.

That’s a little harsh, but it’s not far from the truth. Yes, the catalogues are slowly improving, but the reality is that on any given day, it’s hard for anyone to actually know what films are available on what services.

Distributors package up groups of films – some are good, some less so – and licence them to the online streamers for certain periods. That period might be measured in months, or it might be measured in years. By and large, the same film is unlikely to be streaming on both Amazon Prime Video and Netflix at the same time. So which do you buy? Both?

The reality is that the all-you-can-eat streaming services offer a fairly meagre range considering the vast breadth and wealth of cinema history. There are a few choice morsels alongside a lot of filler.

Furthermore, you can’t be certain on any given day, that a service you subscribe to will have the film you want to watch available to you.

Ah, but that’s OK. I can get everything else I want to watch from iTunes, Amazon Video (the rent-per-film part) or Google Play Video!

Well, up to a point Lord Copper.

If the film was pretty popular and released in the last twenty years or so, then yes, for around £4.49 for a rental, you probably can stream a copy, with luck in HD. But I think you’ll find there’s an awful lot missing.

Older films, classic films, mid-list films, genre films, TV series and many more.

Question for Film Distributors

If you’re a bit of a film fan like me, then from time to time you suddenly have the urge to watch a film. Assuming you don’t have your own Blu Ray or DVD copy to hand you head to the streaming services and search for it. Only to find it’s not there.

Why in 2017, is not a distributor’s entire catalogue online?

It seems to me that if you own the rights to a film, then you’re deliberately leaving money on the table if you do not at least make it available to purchase digitally in places like the iTunes and Google Play Video stores.

I’m not talking about things you’re holding back to repackage in various ways for maximum revenue – Disney, I’m looking at you!

I’m talking about average films, that if I wait long enough will pop-up once every couple of months on FilmFour or BBC2 anyway. I’m talking about solid mid-range titles, that once upon a time, I could happily find in physical format in a largish branch of HMV or the Virgin Megastore.

Here are a handful of films that I have genuinely wanted to stream but not been able to find on streaming services when I looked, all from within the last thirty years, and all currently or previously released on physical media.

  • Truly, Madly, Deeply
  • The Grifters
  • Rambling Rose
  • Enchanted April

If I started searching for older films then the list would get much longer much more quickly.

What I really don’t understand is that the costs of making catalogue movies available on these services is surely basically nil. You don’t even have to worry whether HMV will give up shelf space to a title, or Amazon warehouse space. You just list the film and let the money run in (or at least trickle in).

In 2017, if you’re a bit of a movie buff, then while the streaming services might sate your appetite a little, you’re not getting the full picture.

What you can’t do is draw an analogy with music. Spotify has a catalogue of ~30m tracks, so perhaps you could ditch your physical music collection and rely solely on their service (I wouldn’t personally, but many do). The same simply isn’t true for films, and we don’t seem to be close to that point.

Indeed if you don’t own a DVD or Blu Ray player, you’re limiting yourself enormously. And that’s before getting into the lack of extras that most streaming or download services offer.

As a consequence of all this, my physical film collection continues to grow.

Dunkirk

Christopher Nolan is clearly one of this generation’s outstanding film makers. From Memento through to his Dark Knight trilogy, to Inception and Interstellar, he does something interesting every time. Not only are his films glorious to watch, shot with large-format film including IMAX for much of his latest, but his films are very successful at the box office. He’s one of the few directors working who can make a $100m+ film not based on a franchise.

Which brings us to Dunkirk – his telling of the story of the evacuation of over 300,000 troops from the beach, where they were pinned down by advancing German soldiers during WWII. This isn’t the first film telling the story of the rescue of so many soldiers against the odds. The 1958 Ealing Studios film was one of their most of expensive, and also one of their last, produced by the famed Michael Balcon. And perhaps the most memorable sequence of Joe Wright’s Atonement, features the lines of troops on a massive scale on Dunkirk beach.

Time is a key component of many of Nolan’s films, from the reversed timelines of Memento to the physics of space and time in Interstellar. In Dunkirk he plays with time once more. Captions reveal that we’re going to see three key stories over a week, a day and an hour.

We follow the troops on the beach across a week, as they are marshalled, amongst others, by Kenneth Brannagh’s naval commander onto the limited supply of vessels able to dock at “The Mole” a wooden pier that allows access to vessels that couldn’t otherwise come ashore.

Mark Rylance and his young crew, are leading a pleasure yacht across the Channel from Dorset, across a single day.

Finally there is Tom Hardy’s Spitfire pilot who’s mission, limited by the amount of fuel he can carry, is limited to just an hour.

These three timelines are played out simultaneously, with the strands linking together at key points.

There’s not a lot of dialogue in this film, but there is a lot of music, much of which is layered within sound. Nolan has worked once again with Hans Zimmer, and even more than in his last two outings with Inception and Interstellar, the music is a vital part of the whole. This is music that is front and centre. And individual music cues run between the different timelines, making the film feel as a single piece. The limited dialogue means that music becomes ever more important. As Zimmer did with Inception, with its deconstruction of Edith Piaf’s Non, je ne regrette rien, so he works skillfully with Nimrod from Elgar’s Enigma Variations.

This is a 12A film, and that’s actually quite important. Saving Private Ryan, for example, is classified as a 15. That films heart-stopping opening changed war films forever, meaning that other films that came in its wake felt the need to mimic its blood soaked verisimilitude. The short shutter speed (actually a 45 degree or 90 degree shutter angle) led to a staccato experience for the viewer. The same effect has since been repeatedly used in large scale action sequences.

But I could never help feeling that Saving Private Ryan was two very different films glued together. That opening, and then a more by-the-numbers war film with a dubious over-arching premise. Band of Brothers, the HBO series that came directly in its wake, seemed to have a more cohesive narrative structure.

Dunkirk has a more even feel to the film as a whole. That’s not to say that you don’t truly believe that anyone could die at any moment. From the opening scene in which Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) and his fellow troops pluck a leaflet from the sky warning them that they are surrounded, the action rarely lets up.

The stoicism of Rylance as he heads into the unknown, with just burning ships on the horizon guiding him towards Dunkirk, and the bravery of the Spitfire pilots as they battle to protect ships in the Channel laden with men and being targeted by German bombers.

There have been complaints that the film doesn’t portray everything completely accurately. French troops are largely ignored despite the fact that many of them were holding up the Germany army while the British Expeditionary Force was evacuated. Then there’s the complaint that there are no faces of colour when there were significant numbers of Asian and East African troops serving. In fact, the film does include some black faces, but admittedly not very many. In the end, I would say that the film concentrates on a small handful of soldiers, and despite the scale of the film in places – thousands of extras lined up on the beach – we are mostly dealing with individual characters.

I was fortunate to be able to see Dunkirk in its IMAX film presentation at the BFI Waterloo. The majority of the film, including nearly all the action sequences, were shot on these enormous cameras. Only the very closest scenes – often below deck on ships – was shot on the “smaller” 70mm cameras. What this means is that the film’s aspect ratio is actually close to square for a lot of the film but on such a large scale that it just fills nearly all your peripheral vision. Then it’s “cropped” to a 70mm aspect ratio for some sequences. But strangely, you really don’t notice this except when you’re looking for it. (I recall seeing the final Dark Knight film in this manner, and there the jumps between formats were somehow much more noticeable). The key thing is that all the big set pieces are simply stunning to look at. The aerial combat scenes are some of the most fantastic I’ve seen. Exactly where real planes were employed and where CGI might have been used is impossible to tell. The credits reveal that they definitely did use real planes, and it does feel as though you’re in there with Tom Hardy as he tries to save the lives of troops, as all the while a lack of fuel means that he doesn’t have enough to return to England.

Similarly, when you see ships being attacked and sometimes sinking, they feel very real. I know that real ships were used on the production – lots of them. But we’ve moved to a point where CGI can make real things look very real indeed.

While the nature of Dunkirk means that we know what will happen in broad terms, that doesn’t apply for individual characters, and we are left on the edge of our seats throughout.

Overall a film that left me wanting to go back in and see it again, because seeing it on the big screen is essential – ideally from a film print. Essential.

The Lost City of Z

I first heard about Percy Fawcett back in the late eighties when a friend told me about him. We’d both read Redmond O’Hanlon’s Into the Heart of Borneo detailing his trip with James Fenton, and I think that In Trouble Again, in which O’Hanlon heads into Amazonia, had just come out. Indeed extracts may have been published in Granta which I certainly read at the time.

Fawcett, as described to me by my friend, sounded like a remarkable chap, spending years exploring the jungle, coming across all manner of travails, from dangerous beasts both great and small, to wild local Indian tribes and an inhospitable terrain.

I made a mental note to track down the book he’d written, Exploration Fawcett, and a few years later I came across a copy published in the Century Traveller imprint with an introduction by Robin Hanbury-Tenison. But the book looked like it may be heavy going, and despite my interest, it was always on my, “I must get around to reading that…” list.

In 2009 I heard about David Grann’s book, The Lost City of Z, seeing him interviewed by Jon Stewart on The Daily Show. While it’s clear that there has been much literature – indeed an entire industry – about Fawcett over the years, this was perhaps the most mainstream title to date. I picked up a copy.

But I still wanted to read Fawcett’s own book (actually edited by his son Brian) first. So Gann’s title too joined the book pile.

In due course I heard that James Gray was making a film of the book. From time to time you’d hear a little more about it until finally its release was imminent. And so, nearly thirty years after I’d first heard about Fawcett, I read Exploration Fawcett.

It’s a fascinating story detailing briefly Fawcett’s early life in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and Ireland as a British Army officer, before he was chosen to carry out some work for the Royal Geographical Society, delineating the borders of Bolivia and Brazil. At the time there was a “gold rush” in rubber production deep in the forests of the Amazon, and knowing which country you were in was suddenly important.

Fawcett’s book begins with some detailed stories he’d picked up over the years, relating to stories that the first Europeans heard about mystical cities of gold. Although the book then leaves these behind, it’s always clear that they remain in the background of Fawcett’s thoughts, as his ideas about the Amazon’s native tribes change into something less Victorian. They are not necessarily “savages”.

Fawcett went on a number of expeditions over a period of nearly 20 years, funding them in different ways, and Exploration Fawcett has a useful map (curiously, neither Gann’s book, nor the film including any maps, which is a shame because they’re really helpful). It’s clear that this part of the world was a real wild west in those early years of the twentieth century, with all sorts of individuals and groups making a fortune from the “black gold” that was rubber. This was the money that ended up building a remarkable opera house in Manaus, the Brazilian city within the Amazon rainforest. Marble was transported from Italy and the building of it must have been a gargantuan task. In due course, rubber trees were grown in Asia, and the bottom dropped out of the market, meaning an end to the rubber economy deep in the inhospitable Amazon.

It is always remarkable that no matter how deep into the jungle, Fawcett was always running into random Europeans who were trading in rubber or otherwise just existing in this remote part of the world. Eveyln Waugh would pick on precisely this, for his novel A Handful of Dust, his protagonist Tony Last becoming a virtual prisoner of Mr Todd, deep in the jungle, where he’s forced to read Dickens novels out loud!

Waugh aside, Fawcett would have quite an impact on popular culture of the time. He knew Conan Doyle, and claims with some justification that The Lost World was based on some plateaus that Fawcett had himself reported seeing. He also knew H Rider Haggard, author of the Quartermain and She novels.

The outbreak of World War I meant that Fawcett had to return to Britain, and onwards to France where he served with bravery throughout the war. Notably he was there are the Somme where so many lost their lives. Like so many others, the war left him a changed man.

Now money for expeditions was harder to come by, and Fawcett felt almost imprisoned living back in Britain. He would eventually move his family to Jamaica, while he returned to Brazil to raise more funds.

Finally, he raised money in the US from a consortium of newspapers and a Rockefeller, allowing him to return to the jungle for the expedition he really wanted to do – and find the city he had named only “Z”.

David Gann’s book essentially retells the story that Fawcett’s younger son Brian had previously edited together in Exploration Fawcett, but adds lots of colour and context. In particular, Fawcett could be very damning of people he didn’t get on with, and Gann is able to fill out those parts of the story. I’m not even sure that Fawcett mentioned his wife by name in his book, while a particularly despised person is simply called the “botanist.”

There’s also the wider picture of what else was happening at the time. In 1911, the American Hiram Bingham discovered (or at least was shown) Machu Picchu, proving that there were indeed still undiscovered cities in South America. And another American, Alexander Rice, was able to lead enormously well funded expeditions into the Amazon, taking shortwave radios and even a plane with him. While Fawcett might not have approved of those methods, taking vast numbers into the rainforest, sometimes leading to massive losses of life, he was probably a bit jealous too.

“Amateur” explorers like Fawcett were slowly becoming a thing of the past, as professionals with anthropologists and archaeologists becoming more important.

Reading Fawcett’s own account, you couldn’t help thinking of his wife, at home bringing up his children, and not seeing her husband for years at a time. Gann tells us that she did a lot of marketing for him, keeping his fame alive.

Which all brings us to the film of The Lost City of Z.

While Gann’s book is retelling of Fawcett’s life, it also details Gann’s own trip to the Amazon. But the film is very much a period dramatisation of his life, with Charlie Hunnam as Fawcett. We open in Ireland where Fawcett is generally frustrated at life in the army, at a time when “getting on” was still very dependent upon your family. Sienna Miller plays Nina, his wife, with his first child already on the scene.

He wins a position mapping the Bolivian/Brazilian border and brings with him across the Atlantic, a man he has recruited via a newspaper advertisement – Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson). They travel to South America, and begin their surveying work amidst a beautiful landscape, Colombia doubling as the various Amazonian jungles.

Guided by some jungle finds, and stories he’s told, Fawcett begins to develop his theory of a civilisation that was far more advanced, and much less primitive than was widely thought at the time. His party is always small, and the jungle vicious with men dying along the way.

Writer and director James Foley does not present a glamourous Amazonian adventure – you can feel the sweat, the heat, and and most of all, the insects. There are perils to be had everywhere, although while everyone else was suffering, Fawcett seems to have had a fairly charmed existence, never coming down with anything major.

The film details three of his expeditions, although in reality there were seven. But there is only so much that you can fit into a two hour film. Foley does take liberties with the story, Costin becoming a constant companion when in fact, different people travelled with Fawcett at different times.

For story purposes, it’s perhaps understandable that Raleigh Rimell, best friend of Fawcett’s son Jack, was excluded from the story, but I think it’s an omission too far. Only three of them went on that final expedition, and while the father/son relationship is one of the arcs of the film, it’s over-simplification, and Rimell should have been included.

There’s a great turn by Angus Macfadyen as James Murray – the “botanist.” He almost causes catastrophe when he refuses to do as Fawcett says, and becomes a serious drain on resources.

And the standout sequence, is that in which Fawcett’s party come under fire from the arrows of an Amazonian tribe, with Fawcett refusing to return fire with their guns – instead using an accordion as part of his peace process! This is all as he recorded it in his book.

While overall I thought the film told the story superbly, sometimes it felt to me that for filmic purposes exaggeration had to be made. The relationship of Fawcett with, in particular, his oldest son Jack never quite rang true to me in the film. And while his wife must have been long suffering, their relationship in the film just feels slightly off.

Perhaps the sequences I got on with the least were those back in London, where the members of the Royal Geographic Society were almost caricatures of a certain type of disbelieving Victorian gentleman. While Fawcett wasn’t altogether believed, he was well supported by the RGS over the years, and this was indeed a time of remarkable exploits. All their gruff behaviour just felt over-egged.

I said at the start, that my copy of Exploration Fawcett had an introduction by Robin Hanbury-Tenison. While he clearly admires Fawcett greatly, he does admonish him for being a teller of tall tales at times. For example, Fawcett relates killing an anaconda that was 60 feet in length, yet the largest anacondas regularly grow to around 17 feet, with the largest ever seen being 33 feet. That would make Fawcett’s twice as large again!

Fawcett also regularly regaled readers with tales he’d heard told by others, when in truth he couldn’t really verify them.

And Fawcett had some serious fantasies about Atlantis, as well as spiritualism, the latter indeed being popular at the time. No less a figure as Arthur Conan Doyle himself was a believer.

Gann’s book never addresses the idea that Fawcett may have exaggerated a little, and neither then, does Gray’s film. That shouldn’t undermine what Fawcett clearly did do, but sometimes the stories do need tempering.

The Lost City of Z was shot on film, and you can tell. The colour pallette of this film is not overly saturated, and while the Amazon is green, it doesn’t glow orange or “pop” in the way so many would grade their image to look. It’s a more washed out tone, that’s in keeping with the grime and dirt of an expedition.

It’s an absolutely fascinating tale, of someone I think relatively few really know about. There’s a through-line from Fawcett’s life, to the adventure novels of Conan Doyle and Haggard, which in turn lead to action heroes like Indiana Jones. We’re more familiar with Scott, Stanley, Livingstone and Shackleton. It’s definitely time for Fawcett’s moment in the spotlight. This is a film that’s really well worth seeing.

High Rise

Brunswick

I didn’t think about it until during the film, but could there be any more appropriate location to watch High Rise than the Curzon Bloomsbury (née Renoir cinema) in the Brunswick Centre?

In Ben Wheatley’s superb adaptation of JG Ballard’s novel, his production designer Mark Tildesley has created a modernist* marvel of building. The way that the apartments are tiered in the film is very reminiscent of the much lower Brunswick Centre has tiering for its apartments, all in that same modernist style. The Brunswick Centre was designed by Patrick Hodgkinson who died very recently, and for who the centre was his most famous piece of work, long in gestation before finally opening in the ’70s and getting a revamp in the ’00s.

Recently the below-ground Renoir cinema has been modernised and overhauled, becoming the Curzon Bloomsbury. Although the cinema reopened a year ago, this was the first time I’d been back inside. The main reason for holding off was that the previous cinema had featured two screens, but following the 10 month refurbishment, it now features six screens. It does not take a genius to work out that all the screens are therefore now smaller than they were before, and when I see a film on the big screen, I tend to like that screen to be, well, big!

That’s not to say that the cinema was especially good in its old format. It was originally designed as a single 490 seat screen at the time of the centre’s opening in 1972, but as with so many cinemas in the 1980s, it was converted to become a two-screen cinema – essentially splitting the cinema down the middle. That left each of the two neighbouring screens uneven, with more seats on one side than the other. There were also pillars that you obviously couldn’t sit behind.

Now under its new name, it features six screens, of which only the “Premium Screen” is of a decent size with 177 seats. The other regular screens all seat between 28 and 30, making them feel a little closer to a hi-fi dealership’s screening room rather than a full blown cinema. They’re certainly plushly appointed and the chain has named the screens after now re-branded or closed cinemas from around London (Lumiere, Plaza, Phoenix and Minema). The Bertha Dochouse screen is actually larger at 55 seats. It’s a screen devoted documentaries and supported by a number of groups.

I saw High Rise in the 30 seat “Plaza” screen, and while I have no problems with the cinema itself – aside from a couple of late patrons casting shadows on half the screen as they spent too long finding their seats (another consequence of small screening rooms), I do wonder why I’m paying a premium to see a film on the big screen if home cinema screens are getting close to the same size. I exaggerate a little, but it’s an issue of mine. The seats are comfortable, and there are bars throughout, but paying £15 plus a £1 booking fee for such a small screen experience is galling.

But what about the film?

Well it’s really excellent. If you don’t like JG Ballard, then it won’t be your cup of tea, because this one of his dystopian future novels, in a believable future from around the time they were published. High Rise came out in 1975, and begins with Dr Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston) moving into his new apartment mid-way up a brand new apartment block. For him and his fellow aspirant middle-class tenants in the block, this is a self-contained world. They have their own supermarket, a gym and a swimming pool.

But there’s a very rigid hierarchy, within the block. The higher up in the building you are, the greater your social standing. On the very top, in the penthouse, is the project’s architect, Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons).

As Laing settles in, the high rise takes on a life of its own with an endless stream of parties to which you may or may not be invited. Laing befriends Charlotte (Sienna Miller) and her son who live just above him. But below him are Richard Wilder (Luke Evans) and his heavily pregnant wife Helen (Elizabeth Moss). Wilder is something of playboy, his wife seemingly acquiescent.

Higher up are people like the gynaecologist Pangbourne (James Purefoy), an actrees Ann Sheridan (Sienna Guillory) and Royal’s wife Ann (Keeley Hawes) who manages to keep a sheep and a horse on the top of the building.

Slowly and surely chaos begins to ensue as rubbish chutes are jammed, power-cuts hit the lower floors, and finally there is no water. Raiding parties look out for their own areas, yet there’s still a weird normality as some continue to head out of the building each day, walking out across the enormous car park to head off to their jobs.

The chaos gets worse, and there are assaults and all manner of debauchery. Yet somehow the building contains all of this. There’s an amusing sequence when a police car pulls up and Royal assures the policeman (a cameo from Neil Maskell who previously appeared in Wheatley’s Kill List) that everything’s fine. Revolt is in the air, and it’s uncertain how things will play out. The script is both very much in keeping with Ballard’s novel, whilst not afraid to diverge from it. Invariably there is a lot of compression, and fewer characters on fewer floors. And the timeframe seems compressed compared with the novel.

The performances are all excellent with Hiddleston almost gliding through the film, as Laing does in the book. Irons is right the grumpy architect who sort of knows his designed society is all collapsing around him. It’s fun seeing Hawes in yet another very different role – she’s currently very different in both the third series of Line of Fire, and as the mother in ITV’s new version of The Durrells.

You can’t separate the film from the superb production design. As well as the amazing architecture conjured up in CG, there interiors are beautifully delivered. I especially enjoyed seeing the supermarket with all the carefully labelled products (There’s an excellent article in Creative Review detailing this work) and signs.

And Clint Mansell’s soundtrack is also incredibly important, adding layers to the film. Beyond that there is incidental music such as muzack version of Abba’s SOS, later reprised into a fully-fledged song from Portishead. Sadly, it’s not included on the soundtrack, and the band prefers that you hear the song in the context of the film.

Finally, you can’t ignore Amy Jump, Wheatley’s partner in crime. The film credits her equally at the end, her writing, and he directing – the pair of them editing. The film is very truthful to the book, but Ballard is not the easiest author to adapt – there’s a sensibility to his work.

I loved this film, and can’t wait to watch it again and soak up some of the details.

* Or should that be brutalist? I’m afraid architectural doctrines are a little beyond me.

London in B&W-14

Hail Caesar!

A new Coen brothers film is always a cause for celebration. That’s particularly the case when they adopt more of a screwball tone to their films.

Hail Caesar! is actually more of a group of sketches than a fully fledged film – the plot is slight. We follow the action from the perspective of Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), actually a real person who was a “fixer” for MGM. Here he’s the fixer at the fictional Capitol Studios, and is called upon to sort out problems with the various stars Capitol has on contract. These include Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) who has got himself kidnapped from the set of his biblical epic, DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson) who’s trying to overcome an out of wedlock pregnancy while shooting her Esther Williams-style swimming picture, Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) who’s trying to break beyond the confines of his singing cowboy persona and Burt Gurney (Channing Tatum) who’s making a song and dance naval number!

How the whole story stitches together doesn’t really matter. This film is all about the set pieces. In the cinema where I saw the film, the biggest laughs came from Ehrenreich’s appearances as Hobie. There’s a wonderful scene played with gusto by Ralph Fiennes’ Laurence Laurentz where Hobie is trying to transition to a melodrama but can’t lose his western twang. Later the scene is revisited via a cameo from Frances McDormand who’s editing the picture.

Meanwhile Tilda Swinton plays a twin role as gossip columnists for rival publications in the style of Hedda Hopper, last seen, of course, played by Helen Mirren in Trumbo with the same types of hats, but a very different tone of voice. In fact, the comparisons with Trumbo don’t end there, because the writers who form the group that kidnaps Whitlock, seem to be closely related to the Hollywood Ten. And there was an interesting interview with the Joel and Ethan Coen on Radio 4’s Film Programme last week which suggested that the left-leaning writers of the age really were smuggling in communist propaganda into their work.

While faith becomes a key theme of the film, for the most part the film is more of an excuse to have some fun. And for all the control that studios had when the studio system reigned supreme, the breadth of output must have been remarkable.

This isn’t the best Coen brothers film ever – you feel it could have been structured a little stronger in places. On the other hand, the characters are delightful, and the gentle mocking of the studio productions of the time is wonderful.

Now where can I get the eagle sound effect everytime someone mentions the mysterious events surrounding the movie “On Wings of Eagles”? (Stay until the end of the credits if you enjoy this gag).

Trumbo

I’m fascinated about the period of the Hollywood Blacklist – that post-war period, as the Cold War was getting under-way, when virulent anti-communists including Senator Joseph McCarthy started “investigating” perceived pro-Soviet beliefs and output in Hollywood.

Before I went to see Trumbo, I thought I’d watch Fellow Traveller, a 1990 film made by the BBC and HBO. Written by Michael Eaton and directed by Philip Saville, it received a short cinema release in the UK before showing up in the Sunday night Screen Two slot in early 1991. The film did get a VHS release, but as far as I’m aware, it had a single outing on BBC Two and that’s been it.

More to the point, aside from that VHS release, there’s no way to get hold of the film today. I resorted to digging out my old VHS off-air recording and digitising that to enable me to see it. None of my kit is in perfect order, so it’s not exactly a pristine transfer, but it’s watchable.

[For what it’s worth, this is the sort of thing that it would be good for BBC Store to stock. It’s a little off-beat, I grant you, but otherwise the tape is just gathering dust in an archive somewhere.]

As for the film? Well it’s an interesting story of a Hollywood writer Asa Kaufman (Ron Silver) running away from the McCarthy witch-hunt, escaping to London where he needs to take on a false name to get work. ITV is just getting off the ground, and new companies are being set-up, so he becomes scriptwriter on The Adventure of Robin Hood. Meanwhile in Hollywood, movie star Clifford Byrne (Hart Bochner) shoots himself.

The film flashes back to Kaufman’s time in Hollywood with his friend Byrne, and their friends and family, first during the war when they’re raising funds, and later as witch-hunt gets under way. Imogen Stubbs plays Sarah Atchison, once Byrne’s girlfriend, but now back in a deprived post-war London.

The structure of the film is a little off, with the multiple flashbacks meaning that the film jumps around a lot. We even get imagined sequences from the Robin Hood series, with some deliberately heavy-handed dialogue reflecting real-world events. And the music can be a little overbearing at times, with the same theme used repeatedly.

But overall, the film absolutely bore re-watching, and the story, while fictionalised, is true. The ATV version of Robin Hood was written by a number of blacklisted US screenwriters – there’s a good 2006 Guardian piece explaining this, and noting:

There was also another, more direct threat to the anonymity of potential scriptwriters: betrayal. After the blacklist collapsed in the mid-1960s, [Ring Lardner Jr, one of the Hollywood Ten] explained that a TV show about an outlaw who takes from the rich to give to the poor provided him “with plenty of opportunities to comment on issues and institutions in Eisenhower-era America”. But Steve Neale of Exeter University, who has uncovered the names of exactly who wrote which of the Robin Hood episodes, points out that within the scripts’ emphasis on redistribution of wealth there is “a theme that recurs in the first two series: the probability that Robin Hood or one of the outlaws will be betrayed”.

But what about Trumbo?

Trumbo tells the story of Hollywood screenwriter Dalton Trumbo (Bryan Cranston). Like many others in Hollywood, he had been left-leaning during the pre-war and war period, and had indeed joined the Communist Party of America. The coming of the cold war led to hysteria in the US and further afield – there might be “reds under the beds” everywhere. And so there’s the suspicion that Hollywood might be spreading sympathetic communist views via popular films.

As hard to believe as that might seem to be sitting here in the twenty-first century, that fear was stoked heavily by the likes of popular Hollywood gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren) and the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals, headed by John Wayne (David James Elliot).

And so, Trumbo becomes one of ten screenwriters – the Hollywood 10 – subpoenaed to testify in congress about communist propaganda. Trumbo faces up to the challenge with equanimity and with the support of his family led by wife Cleo (Diane Lane), he goes and treats the committee with the disdain it deserves and in a humbled manner. Yet the death of a Supreme Court judge means that he ends up serving an eleven month prison term.

In the meantime, one some of his friends and colleagues are finding it difficult to support Trumbo and some of the other writers. Notably Edward G Robinson (Michael Stuhlbarg) ends up naming names to protect his career – he’d not worked for a year at that point. ]

The blacklisting is biting at this point. Trumbo’s friend Arlen Hird (Louis CK) is one of several people really feeling the financial pain. And so Trumbo starts to lead a group of writers who will produce scripts, anonymously, for Frank King (John Goodman) – the producer of cheap and lurid pictures. Trumbo would go on to win Oscars under pseudonyms for both Roman Holiday and The Brave One.

Only by 1960, when Trumbo was at first secretly writing Spartacus for Kirk Douglas (Dean O’Gorman) and Exodus for Otto Preminger (Christian Berkel), did his name get made public, and despite the best efforts of protesters.

It’s a terrible period of America and Hollywood’s history, and this film tells the story really well. Trumbo isn’t painted as some kind of a saint. He was difficult to live with, often writing propped up in the bath, and at times having to churn out so many screenplays that he had time for nothing else. He was a champagne socialist, living in some luxury until the time of his prison sentence. And he wasn’t always a good friend. But he stayed true to his causes.

The film is really good, and the acting is excellent – particularly Cranston. This is clearly a superior film to Fellow Traveller, but they do make an interesting pair to see together.

Although the film details activities in Hollywood between the forties and sixties, it’s actually incredibly relevant today. Most overtly, the death of a Supreme Court judge having a substantive impact on his life. It’s incredible that US politics is so caught up in the judicial system that the highest court in the land is largely defined by the political beliefs of its members. Today we have a court with eight judges split evenly between Republican and Democrat, and a determination from Republicans to block any member nominated in the next 12 months while Obama is still president.

And then there’s the “reds under the beds” fear that means some call for anything to go. Today it’s not communism, but terrorism. I find some interesting parallels in the case Apple is fighting with the FBI over encryption and iPhones. Apple is suddenly the bad guy because Tim Cook believes in the right to privacy – something which strong encryption provides users with. Many governments, including our own, want some kind of “backdoor” into devices to allow law enforcement to get into these devices. If we don’t then the terrorists somehow win!

There’s more to write on encryption, but I think that there are definitely parallels to be drawn. In the fifties and sixties it was fear of communism. Early in the 21st century it’s fear of terrorism. There’s may be and have been legitimate threats from both. But do we give up our ideals and ways of life – our own liberties – to fight these threats? Or do we “win” by showing that we can be bigger and better?

Spotlight

Spotlight tells they story of the Boston Globe investigate journalism unit – called “Spotlight” – who investigated the long-term cover-up of child abuse by a significant number of priests within the Catholic Church in Boston beginning in 2001.

The film is based very much on the Spotlight team in the newspaper itself, and details how the arrival of a new editor Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) kick-started an investigation into something that was bubbling under but hadn’t truly been properly investigated.

The Spotlight team – played by Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, John Slattery and Brian d’Arcy James – each take on elements on the investigation, trying to get witness and survivor testimonies, unsealing sealed court documents, and trying to persuade attorneys who have some idea of the scale to let them in.

The film isn’t showy in any way. There are no grand-standing performances where characters get overly “emotional.” It’s not even that cinematic. The week before seeing Spotlight, I re-watched All The President’s Men on DVD, and that film has many more flourishes – Deep Throat disappearing into the blackness of an underground carpark; wide shots across a large open plan news floor.

If the Spotlight team’s offices were as they’re presented here, then they were buried away in the building a bit, with just an outer room for the reporters and an office for their editor.

Nonetheless, you begin to feel the heat of the conservative Catholic hierarchy in Boston, with their fingers in most of the political pies. Nobody wants to own up to the extent of the issue, and how much work the church is doing to cover it up.

It’s not a confrontational film. To a large extent the “villain” of the piece is Cardinal Law, the Archbishop of Boston who eventually had to resign his position in covering up the sheer scale of the settlements the church had made. But we don’t meet many of the abusers themselves. One of the few we do seems to be a doddery old fool who doesn’t even seem to acknowledge that “fooling around” was in any way a bad thing. He hadn’t raped them after all! One of the reporters discovers that a building close to his family’s home is where some of these priests have been put out to water – kept out of harm’s way. He simply puts a photo of the house on his fridge door, with a warning to his kids to stay away.

This is a newspaper story, and some of the elements of urgency that we see come from the need to beat the rival paper to seeing documents that should be available to the public. In the aftermath the investigation is temporarily suspended while all hands are on deck reporting on that.

It’s a really fine film from Tom McCarthy, the actor turned director, who also co-wrote the script. Howard Shore’s score is very subtle, and sparsely used. A really good journalism film at a time when newspapers are sadly shutting up shop.

Everest

This film is now out on DVD and download, but I actually saw it in the cinema and then failed to publish my review!

I’d been meaning to see Everest for a few weeks, but there’d been a rush of decent films. I had to see this film however, because it’s a dramatisation of true events from the tragic 1996 ascent, about which much has been written. And I’ve read quite a lot of that material.

Most famously there was Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air. Krakauer was a participant in this story, attending to write a piece for Outside Edge magazine. There was also The Climb by Anatoli Boukreev, also on the mountain, and written I believe, partly in response to Krakauer’s book which he felt didn’t treat him fairly. Another participant, heavily featured in this film, was Beck Weathers, who also wrote about the events in Left For Dead, although I’ve not actually read this one. And then there’s The Death Zone by Matt Dickinson who was climbing the other route up the North Face that day.

There are no doubt other books beyond this. What is clear is that in the confusion of the key 48 hours, the books don’t all tally up with one another. Krakauer’s is undoubtedly the best book, but this film isn’t based on his work – there was a pretty average TV movie that used his book back in 1997. And we have now learnt that Krakauer doesn’t like his portrayal in this film. Instead this film is based on Weathers’ book and some other sources. It’s an amalgam.

But back to the story. Essentially it begins with Rob Hall (Jason Clarke) of Adventure Consultants. They were one of two commercial expeditions tackling Everest that year, Hall having popularised the commercial expedition model. He has his group including Texan Beck Weathers (Josh Brolin), postman Doug Hansen (John Hawkes) and writer Krakauer (Michael Kelly). In base camp is the key figure of Helen Wilton (Emily Watson) running things.

The climbers begin their acclimatisation programme, making sorties up the mountain and to neighbouring mountains, with the May 10 date as being the likely ascent date. But it’s also clear that there are an awful lot of people on the mountain that year, and they don’t all see eye to eye as to how they should space themselves out on the mountain. If they all go at the same time, there’ll be pinch points and time will get wasted – the body doesn’t do well at over 8,000m (the “death zone”), and oxygen is cumbersome and limited.

Long reaches an agreement to merge teams with Scott Fischer’s (Jake Gyllenhaal) Mountain Madness team, but it’s clear that not everyone in either party is quite up to the task in hand. There’s a telling scene where another group is having to explain to its climbers how you attach crampons to your boots.

It’s not worth getting into what happens next, but there is an initial weather window, and many of the team get up. But there are issues along the way. Then there are delays and the weather closes in. Climbers are trapped and they’re short of oxygen.

There probably never will be conclusiveness about absolutely everything that happened over those two days, but the film shows confusion very well. This is a film that you need to concentrate on. Sometimes it can take a moment to work out who a particular character is. I think that Icelandic director Baltasar Kormákur does a decent job of jumping between characters and trying to explain their relativity to one another. The screenplay by William Nicholson and Simon Beaufoy also keeps things moving.

The film looks gorgeous. It was filmed partly in Nepal, but also in the Italian Alps and Iceland. But you don’t see the joins and it always feels very real. I would have been happy to sit and watch the impressive aerial mountain photography even more, although that’s what proper IMAX cinemas are for.

Clarke and Watson are particularly good, and even the cameo from Keira Knightley at the end of an international phone line is very moving. Overall, I must say that I was impressed by this film.

What the film doesn’t really do is get into the rights and wrongs of commercial expeditions. Are there too many people on the mountain? I’m not sure that it properly showed the mess that Everest Base Camp is, with old oxygen bottles and kit strewn around. At one point we do see the climbers pass a long dead body, left frozen at the side of the route. That’s something that I find particularly horrifying. Indeed most of the bodies of those who die on Everest remain there, never decaying because of the frozen conditions. Hence the discovery of George Mallory’s body in 1999, 75 years after his death in a 1924 attempt to summit.

And in some ways I was surprised that the captions at the end of the film didn’t mentioning the continuing danger on Everest. For the past two years, the mountain has essentially been closed after tragedy struck. In 2014 16 Nepalese guides were killed on Everest while fixing lines up the mountain. Essentially without those lines being in place, expeditions would take much longer to get up the mountain. Then this year a massive earthquake hit Nepal killing at least 9,000 people and leaving many homeless. At Everest Base Camp this triggered avalanches that killed at least 19 more people. The film-makers are raising money for Nepal however.

Nepal is so impoverished that it relies on the licence fees that climbers have to pay to go onto the mountain. Those expeditions also employ Nepalese and bring much needed money into the country (The recent TV series, Walking The Himalayas noted the reduced number of tourists since the earthquake and the effect that was having on the local economy). On the other hand, those same people are working a very dangerous job. There is a real moral conundrum.

I’m not a real climber. I love the mountains, but will never climb Everest. And if I ever catch myself thinking: “Well if I had the money, I could practically be pulled up the mountain by one of these companies,” I can follow this marvellous advice from Andy Kirkpatrick on Alistair Humphrey’s site.

But I do think the film is better than some have given it credit for. It doesn’t have a perfectly structured narrative, but then real-life doesn’t fit into neat three-act structures.

The Hateful Eight

Like many others, I have something of a love/hate relationship with Quentin Tarantino. Actually it’s more a love/whatever relationship. I admire him enormously as a film-maker, but he does have missteps and I don’t worship the feet he walks on. I’ve not actually yet seen his previous film, Django Unchained!

I say this to put some perspective on this review. I wanted to go and see The Hateful Eight in its 70mm Ultra Panavision print because such things are incredibly rare – around 100 screens globally are getting this version. 1966’s Khartoum was the last film shot in this format, with a super-wide 2.76:1 aspect ratio.

In the UK, I believe that only the Odeon Leicester Square is set-up to show a film in this format, with a capacity of nearly 1700 (this is now nearly 1000 more than the nearby Empire which has been recently sub-divided. Although the BFI IMAX has a bigger screen, the Odeon Leicester Square has by far the largest capacity in the UK. So this is the place to watch a film on this scale. (From reports, it seems that the distributor EFD, fell out with Cineworld and its sibbling the Picturehouse chain, and the Curzon group, over the Odeon getting an exclusive 70mm showing. So they’re not showing the film at all, even when the digital print is made available to all distributors. That seems petty and petulant.)

As well as being a film print, the “roadshow” version we were seeing included an overture of music composed by Ennio Morricone, a twelve minute intermission, and around six minutes’ more footage than the multiplex version. In total then, the runtime of the 70mm print is 187 minutes compared with 167 minutes for the multiplex print.

But what about the film?

Well I thought it was great fun. The camera pans slowly across a snow-covered Wyoming (in fact, it was shot in Colorado), and reveals a stage coach carrying John Ruth (Kurt Russell) and his prisoner Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) – being brought in for the bounty. They meet Samuel L Jackson’s Major Marquis Warren who has his own dead men he too has collected for the bounty, and Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins) who says he’s the new sheriff of Red Rock – the town they’re all heading towards. The coach is trying to out-run an oncoming blizzard, and the group finds refuge in Minnie’s Haberdashery, a remote outpost where tired travellers can break their journeys, get a meal and get their horses fed and watered.

The film is divided into six chapters, the intermission coming after the first three, and the film ripples with Tarantino’s trademark dialogue. This is a very funny film.

But things begin to go wrong in the Haberdashery, where much of the film’s action takes place, as everyone gets suspicious of everybody else’s motives. Another stage coach has already arrived there, and its occupants are also deeply suspicious.

It does obviously reference Reservoir Dogs where somebody was the informant, and the casting of Tim Roth and Michael Madsen is likely to be very deliberate. Nobody trusts anybody else.

To say much more would be a shame. But it’s a lovely piece that plays out with a cast that loves chewing on the dialogue they’re given. Tim Roth plays an Englishman, Oswaldo Mobray, who’s plummy voice and behaviours leave everyone laughing. Leigh basically growls throughout the whole film, and Goggins is superb, really standing out on the big screen after so much superb work on television.

The film gets quite gruesome at times, but it never takes itself too seriously, and the set is designed in such a way as to make full use of the widescreen frame. There’s nothing new here, and there obvious comparisons with some of Sergio Leone’s work.

We get a flashback sequence, and even a voiceover by Tarantino himself at one point. But I found this all to work well with the structure of the film, and didn’t get pulled out of it.

A number of people have complained about the length, but even though it’s a bit over three hours, I actually didn’t find it too long. Because we got a twelve minute intermission (seat yourself near an exit at the Odeon Leciester Square if you want to make good use of this), it actually really helps. And at a time when people binge multiple episodes of TV shows, three hours isn’t much of a stretch if the film is this good. I recently saw 2001 A Space Odyssey at the NFT, and that too retained Kubrick’s intermission, although in that instance it wasn’t observed and the film continued immediately. I would imagine cinema chains should be happy with the idea too since it gives them another bite of the lucrative concessions “cherry.”

It’s great to hear another Ennio Morricone score on this film. Tarantino still uses cues from other films, as he’s always done, but this is the first time he’s actually had an original composition written for his work, and it’s to be welcomed. Even though he is now 87 he doesn’t really slow down. He has recently scored a French drama released a couple of months ago, and an upcoming Italian film with Jeremy Irons. And he has a series of upcoming arena tour dates around Europe. (I’m very tempted by the O2, but those ticket prices!)

However I should add that I subsequently bought the soundtrack and unlike previous Tarantino soundtracks I don’t think that including sometimes quite long pieces of dialogue amidst the tracks and Morricone’s cues, really works in this instance. I imagine that I’ll be skipping those elements quite a lot during repeat listens.

Returning to the film’s format – most of the films shot previously in Ultra Panavision have been “epics”, but this is undoubtedly a chamber piece. Indeed a clever producer could probably get a good stage play out of this material. Let’s not forget that a live reading was indeed presented for an audience before the film was shot.

But the film is very good, and well worth seeing – especially in a big 70mm print if you have the chance.

The Program

Right at the beginning of The Program, the BBFC certificate popped up. The film is rated 15 for “strong language, use of performing-enhancing drugs.”

Quite. (And I realise, I’m not the first person to note this.)

The Program is Stephen Frears’ new film about Lance Armstrong, the seven-times winner of the Tour de France, before being stripped of those honours when he finally admitted to cheating and taking drugs throughout a large part of his career.

As such, the film is completely on target for me. As I’ve written in the past, I was one of those people who was essentially hoodwinked by Armstrong, and bought the Kool-Aid. Why would someone who nearly died of cancer, come out the other side and take potentially dangerous performance enhancing drugs? And to be clear, there were dangers. EPO – the drug of choice – increased your red blood cell count, and hence provided you with a performance boost, but they also increased the viscosity of your blood, potentially leading to blood clots and the risk of stroke or death.

But what I’d not at the time really understood is how driven Armstrong was. In many respects, sportsmen and women have to be more driven than the rest of us. We might give up, but they’ll continue, because only that way can they reach the top of their game.

I also didn’t really understand quite how nasty Armstrong was. He was ruthless. He understood the cycling omerta – the code of silence that meant that even if you weren’t taking performance enhancing drugs, you didn’t drop anybody else in it.

Frears’ film, based on the book by Sunday Times journalist David Walsh, and written by John Hodge, follows Armstrong’s complete career. And the film tells the story in fairly basic A to B to C steps. That means that an awful lot of story has to be compressed into 103 minutes.

We start with a relatively novice Armstrong showing up in Belgium where the other riders don’t like the cut of the Texan’s jib. Armstrong was already a World Champion, and his fellow cyclists, including Johan Bruyneel (Denis Menochet) plan to leave him for dead, which they then do.

Armstrong (Ben Foster) realises that he needs to talk to the key doctor working in the field Michele Ferrari (Guillaume Canet) and get on “The Program.” Ferrari takes one look at Armstrong’s physique (a curiously CGI’d body attached to Foster’s head) and declares that his power to weight ratio will be all wrong. He’s too big.

Then disaster strikes as Armstrong suffers from cancer. He recovers and slowly gets back on his bike. One entertaining scene shows him being overtaken by a middle-aged lady on a sit-up-and-beg bike in the US.

From there the story follows, to me, familiar path of Armstrong on the road to recovery, now working with Bruyneel, fully adopting drugs, and then proceeding to win the Tour de France seven times in a row.

Set around this story we have the incident with Armstrong admitting to taking drugs in front of teammate Frankie Andreu, and his wife Betsy. And then there’s the introduction of perhaps the oddest of characters, Floyd Landis (Jesse Plemons), brought up in a strict Mennonite home, but willing to be Armstrong’s number two. We also see how “Mr Moto” drove around dropping off the drugs to the US Postal Team, and how even a soigneaur like Emma O’Reilly became implicated in the lie.

Set against all this is David Walsh (Chris O’Dowd), initially impressed with the brash American, thinking perhaps he can win one day races, but slowly being amazed as he returns from cancer, stronger than ever and taking on the Tour. As he begins to have suspicions, key scenes are played out including Armstrong and Walsh confronting one another at a press conference.

The film follows right through Armstrong’s return to the Tour in 2009, and ends with his admittance on Oprah, that he did indeed take drugs.

If this whole story is new to you, then I think you might enjoy this film more than me. But if it’s not, then the story is better told in either The Armstrong Lie, or one many books on the subject including Walsh’s own.

The problem is that the story is necessarily involving and complicated, and it’s not something that easy to pare down. And that makes the film a bit lumbering. That’s not to say that they’ve not done a decent job of it, and I prefer this to somehow bringing things together too neatly around a smaller stage. But to be honest, the film did need more focus.

Foster is decent as Armstrong – he looks a lot like him for one thing – although I’m not certain he’s totally captured him. We do get the light and dark of his character – willingness to drop everything to spend time with a kid suffering from cancer through to drawing his finger across his lips to “zip it” (on camera no less!) when a fellow cyclist starts talking to an inquiry. But I think books like Walsh’s or even team-mate Tyler Hamilton’s give a deeper picture of Armstrong’s real character. We don’t quite get that here. He’s clearly a driven character who saw winning as more important than anything, but I’m not quite sure we see the sheer ruthlessness.

The film takes an interesting perspective on presenting the actual cycling sequences with a combination of re-staged action and archive footage, including the full Phil and Paul commentaries. It sort of works, and at the same time doesn’t.

There’s a problem just about every sports film I’ve ever seen has – and that’s the fact that the film camera takes you places that the TV camera can never take you. So it just feels odd, because sport is something we’re all very familiar with from its televising. And that’s a bit of a problem in cycling because cameras on the back of “Motos” can take you pretty close. I’m surprised that more films don’t instead recreate a TV experience, adopting the same camera angles and talking the language of sports TV coverage rather than the language of cinema. The problem often there is that they’re desperately trying to avoid showing the lack of thousands of extras in the crowd, by cropping closely. That’s the case here too. We get some great alpine climbs, but it’s all too clear that the budget has not extended to the vast crowds you’d get on such race stages. Indeed it sometimes looks as though we’re watching a rural little cycling event somewhere.

The producers have done very well technically, getting the right jerseys at various points in Armstrong’s career. While what his team is called is hardly important in the scheme of things, you know that they’ve put enough attention to detail to get those things right. But in the end I’m left wondering whether they shouldn’t have just stuck with the archive footage.

Overall it’s certainly not a bad film, but it feels just a little bit average. I think sports films are a hard genre to pull off, and despite the significant milestones in Armstrong’s life, it all feels a little undercooked. I think in the end, you’d be better off seeing The Armstrong Lie if you only had to choose one film. Not a failure, but not great.