2016 was seen as a weak year for comedies, unless they were animated. Possibly the most overlooked gem of 2016 was the Irish musical comedy Sing Street. I passed it up when it first came out, but I finally saw it recently. I’m glad I did.
We see Conor Lawlor strumming his guitar in his bedroom. Conor is a 15 year-old boy living in a shabby suburb of Dublin in 1985. Right now, Ireland is going through difficult times. It’s economy has been hit hard and many young people are fleeing to the UK, most notably London, for a future. His family is also going through difficulties as his father is struggling in his architecture practice and is struggling in his marriage and drinks excessively. Because of that, Conor is taken out of his high-class Catholic school and put into an all-boys free state school in Synge Street. A move older brother Brendan objects to, knowing how terrible the priests are there.
Things don’t go well for Conor on the first day. Being the new kid, he gets bullied. On top of it, he has the principal Br. Baxter giving him a hard time because he’s wearing brown shoes instead of black shoes in the dress code. Conor does end up with a bully name Barry but he makes a new friend in Darren who has big-time entrepreneur dreams. Conor also meets a 16 year-old girl named Raphina living at the orphanage nearby the school. He learns that Raphina is a budding model who’s headed to London. Conor impresses Raphina saying he’s in a band.
Now it’s up for Conor to create the band with the help of Darren. Darren is quick to act as Conor is introduced to Eamon: an awkward looking teen with a passion for music and can play many an instrument. Conor is able to meet a local black teen who is mostly shunned away from the others and two other awkward but musically-inclined students from his school. They start out pretty flat together and create a demo tape of popular 80’s songs. Conor gives it to Brandon but he’s unimpressed. He instructs Brandon not to be a cover band but do their own original stuff. That helps Conor to meet with Eamon to compose a song about his infatuation with Raphina: The Riddle Of The Model. The boys try on various costumes for filming a video and Raphina even volunteers to be their makeup artist and ingenue.
The song and video impress Brendan, feeling they’re off to a good start. However Conor’s rocker image of dyed hair and makeup gets on the nerves of Br. Baxter who insists in turning all boys into men at the school. Baxter even grabs Conor and washes the makeup off his face in a bathroom sink with hot water. But Conor and the band are undaunted. They continue making music and Raphina even advises that Conor be known as Cosmo. Conor develops the self-confidence to stand up to school bully Barry. The romance between Raphina and Conor heat up too, despite Raphina claiming an older man is her boyfriend. Conor even talks of sailing to London with Raphina.
However things soon take a turn for the worse. Conor’s parents are on the verge of separating with the mother moving in to her new lover’s place. Plus Raphina doesn’t show up when Sing Street are shooting a Back To The Future style video for their song Drive It Like You Stole It. Raphina later revealed she was set to leave for London, but her boyfriend abandoned her. A disheartened Conor breaks up with her. The breakup affects Conor in writing new songs for the band.
However it’s Brendan who encourages him to get back with Raphina and get back into playing. It’s through Brendan’s own personal feelings of past failures that drive him to give Conor the advise. Sing Street have a chance to perform a gig at school. Conor even offers Barry a chance to become a roadie for the band to escape his abusive household. The band performs their gig to the delight of the school and a condescending Br. Baxter looking on in disappointment, but they saved the best for last. The film ends not as one would expect but one that would leave the audience happy and hopeful.
I won’t deny this is a common story you’d expect to see in a film. I’m sure the story of a person growing up in a trash-bin of a city starting a band has been done before. The thing with this story is that for a common story like this to work again, the characters have to connect with the audience. They have to make the audience want them to succeed. The film succeeds in making the audience want Conor, or should I say ‘Cosmo,’ and Sing Street to succeed. The film succeeds in making the audience want Conor win Raphina’s love. The film succeeds in making the audience want the bullying of Barry to Conor to end and for Conor to get even with Br. Baxter. The connection of Conor with the audience is one of the biggest elements of magic in this story.
It’s not just the connection of Conor with the audience. It’s the connection with Raphina too. You get a sense Raphina is the right one for Conor, despite being confused about her love to her older boyfriend. However you get a sense that Conor will win her love. Raphina believes in the band and believes in Conor. You can see it in her eyes. Also Raphina shares Conor’s dreams of leaving for London. Seeing how unpromising Ireland looked with its economic drabness back then and the people seeing the priests as ‘rapists’ leaves you sensing life would be better for the both over in London.
It’s also the connection with Brendan with the audience too. Brendan is the first character in the film outside of Conor that’s easy to like because Brendan believes in Conor’s talents. Brendan’s also the type of brother that would be honest about how Conor is doing. Even after he disses what Sing Street does at first, he will give Conor words of encouragement. He will give Conor music albums to give him a sense about what makes rock and roll. It’s Brendan’s embrace of music in both its past influences and future directions that become a huge boost for Conor. However it’s also Brendan’s past failures that we get a better understanding. We see why Brendan pushes Conor in that scene after the parents’ separation and he throws a violent fit over his past failures. Because Brendan views himself as a failure who doesn’t have a chance, so he wants Conor to chase his dreams and be the one that has what it takes to go to London. It’s easy to feel for Brendan. It’s also easy for a viewer to see their own feelings of failure and regret in Brendan too.
With this being a film about a rock and roll band, the music has to be as important as the story itself. Brendan’s embrace for music is a big quality of the film, but it has to rub off on Conor as he’s the one with the gift of music. The film gets focused on the themes of music like themes of love, themes of heartache, themes of frustration, themes of emptiness and themes of hope. We learn about the ‘happy-sad’ feeling that we all get, but may not know it. The ‘happy-sad’ element is definitely influential in music. Now once all the themes and elements of music are put together, the film has to have catchy songs. The film succeeds in doing so with songs like Riddle Of The Model, Drive It Like You Stole It and Brown Shoes. Brown Shoes made the perfect end-number for the school show. Even music from other musicians like Duran Duran, The Cure, The Jam, and many others add to the theme of music in the film. The film is as much about music as it is about love and dreams.
Writer/director John Carney succeeds in delivering an enjoyable film to the big screen. Music has been a common theme in past films of his like Once and Begin Again. He succeeds here again in delivering a film that’s enjoyable and keeping you engaged in the story. The film featured a very good debut performance for Ferdia Walsh-Peelo who was 16 years old when this film debuted at Sundance 2016. Ferdia is actually a singer who has performed professionally as a child in Ireland for years. This is his first acting role and he does an excellent job. Lucy Boynton also did a very good job in playing Raphina. The best thing is she made Raphina appear older than she really was. Jack Reynor was also very good as Brendan. He made Brendan into a likeable character, but also made you feel for him too.
Sing Street is a musical comedy that delivers excellently. It delivers a story and characters that connect with the audience very well. It also delivers entertaining music, which is what a film about a rock and roll band should do.
Most of you have already seen my first summary or even my second summary. This last summary will have a look at the last three Best Picture nominees I saw. They were Lion, Hidden Figures and Hell Or High Water.
Lion is one of those films which came out of nowhere to surprise everyone who has been lucky to see it.
We have seen many against-all-odds stories in the past. This is something because this is a true story of something that really was against all odds. It wasn’t just about making it happen but also of the family relations Saroo has developed over his lifetime. What will happen? Will he leave the family he’s always known? Is the family he’s searching for still alive? The best quality of this story is that it keeps us intrigued and hoping Saroo reunites, but also has us concerned of what will happen after.
Another quality of this story is that it does not forget the cause of the problem. Saroo is seen as the lucky one who was able to reunite with his family after all these years. However throughout the film, especially at the beginning, we see the cause of the problem. Saroo was unsupervised when he boarded the express train. The language barriers caused problems. Even Saroo’s mispronunciation of Bengali words caused problems. The train stations of Calcutta are loaded with stray children ready for abductors to prey on, and station police looking the other way. Even the missing posters advertised before his adoption were no good as his mother is illiterate. India failed Saroo and Saroo succeeded thanks to Google Earth and his fierce will. The film at the end lets people aware of the problem; 80,000 children go missing in India each year. The film’s website informs people of how they are making a difference in aiding to protect children in India.
This film is an accomplishment for the Australian film industry. I don’t know if Australia has ever had a film nominated for Best Picture before. This is director Garth Davis’ first ever feature length film. Bet you wouldn’t believe that. Luke Davies did an excellent job in adapting Saroo’s biography into a winning screenplay that keep the audience intrigued and hoping for the best in the end. Dev Patel’s performance as Saroo was the highlight as he did a great portrayal of a young man who’s angry on the inside and knows what he needs to do. Nicole Kidman was also excellent as the mother who appears grateful on the outside but has some inner hurt waiting to come out. Young Sunny Pawar was also very good playing the young Saroo. He was cute but he didn’t take it overboard. He played his part well. The film also featured top notch cinematography from Greig Fraser and excellent original music from Dustin O’Halloran and Hauschka.
Lion is an excellent film featuring a story you won’t forget. A surprise contender this year and a worthy one.
It’s good that we have a film like Hidden Figures to tell us about a piece of history that we never knew about.
The film comes at the right time as it deals with a lot of situations that are relevant in our world. This may be set in the early 60’s and revolves around a moment in space history but it has a lot of situations relevant to today. One is of workplace racism. It’s not as bad now as it is then but there are still a lot of unsolved problems. The second is of technology being so good, it can replace workers. These three women had iron wills. They knew they had potential, they knew they had what it takes and they wouldn’t let racism or the threat of modern technology stop them from reaching for their achievements.
The year of 2016 was a crushing year. It was a year that constantly reminded us that there was still a lot of racism to overcome. Despite the improvement over the decades, it was able to show its ugly head with low employment rates and police beatings. This is a film that reminds us that racism can be overcome. When you look at it, the women were doing this all during a turning point in the history of African Americans. African Americans in Virginia had less rights than they do now and discrimination was perfectly legal. Back then there were still separate washrooms for colored people, separate library books for white and colored people, and police beatings during civil rights marches. The women overcame these barriers and they opened doors for other colored people for generations to come.
This is only the second film Theodore Melfi has directed and written. This is the first feature-length script Alison Schroeder has written. Does come across as like something you’d get from Hollywood, but it’s not a weakness. It does all the right moves. Taraji Henson was great as the protagonist Katherine Goble-Johnson, but the show-stealer was Octavia Spencer. She was not only good at playing a woman who wouldn’t let technology kill her job, and the jobs of 30 other black women, but she was a colorful scene-stealer too. Janelle Monae completes the trio as one who just wouldn’t say die to her ambitions. The male actors were mostly supporting roles but Mahershala Ali was the biggest one as Jim Johnson, Katherine’s new husband. The mix of Motown music mixed in with the original score from Hans Zimmer, Pharrell Williams and Benjamin Wallfisch also added to the spirits of the movie.
Hidden Figures showcases a little-known fact about a big moment in American space history. It’s also the right uplifting movie needed at this time.
HELL OR HIGH WATER
I missed Hell Or High Water when it first came out in the theatres in August. I admit I was caught up in the summer fare and I overlooked it. I finally saw it recently and I’m glad I did.
One thing is I miss seeing is crime comedies. You know, the dark comedies featured in crime stories. This film has a good amount of comedy to it with their failures at robbing first. Even the situation where the brothers rob the Texas Midlands Bank and pay the mortgages they have with the bank off with the robbery money is full of surprising irony. It’s not even the robbery spree that has all the comedy. There’s the comedy when the rangers visit the places they question. There’s even comedy with that hard waitress at a restaurant they eat at: “What don’t you want?” The comedy doesn’t last as the story gets darker later on. However it does end on an ironic note as the now-retired Officer Hamilton does meet up with Toby Howard, perfectly free, and inquires of the robberies he and brother Tanner committed together.
One thing about this crime drama is that it has a lot to say. We have two brothers–Tanner who appears to have no redeeming values and Toby who’s as cool as a cookie– robbing various branches of the same bank. You see signs advertising debt relief. You hear from people– both family and people the brothers run into– talking of their own economic hardships. You see the indigenous people, who are still referred to as ‘Indians’ with their own outlook on things. Mostly negative. Looks like this story has a lot to say. Even hearing Alberto Parker say that he believes the true criminal is the Texas Midlands Bank does get you thinking. Maybe it’s the Bank that are the true robbers around here.
This is actually the first American production from Scottish director David MacKenzie. He has a reputation back in the UK with films like Young Adam, Hallam Foe and Starred Up. His first American production is top notch and really delivers as both a crime story and an offbeat Western. This is also an accomplishment for writer Taylor Sheridan. Already having made a name for himself in Sicario, he delivers again in what is actually his second feature-length script. Of all acting performances, Jeff Bridges is the one that was the best. He delivered a top job in character acting from head to toe. He was completely solid in character. Chris Pine was also good as the brother Toby who’s smart, tries to play it cool and possibly the one person in the world who could see redeeming qualities in brother Tanner. Ben Foster was also a scene-stealer as Tanner who a complete ruthless loose cannon who appears to have a bone to pick with everyone over anything and possesses a false sense of invincibility. Gil Birmingham was also good coming across as the wise partner who plays it cool. The country music in both recorded format and original from Nick Cave and Warren Ellis fit the film perfectly.
Hell Or High Water makes for an intense thrill ride that’s big on thrills but also takes you to the heat of the moments. The story even gets you thinking. Now why did I miss it during the summer?
That does it. My final summary of the Best Picture nominees for 2016. After seeing Hell Or High Water, that makes it 16 straight years of seeing all the Best Picture nominees before Oscar night. My predictions for the wins coming on Saturday.
One of my Christmas treats was seeing Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. I’m glad I had my chance because it was an excellent movie.
Now just a reminder to you all, this is not part of the nine-episode Star Wars saga we all know. This is part of the Anthology Films of the Star Wars franchise. Actually this is the very first Anthology film to be released. The film is a triumph for writers of ‘fan fiction’ or ‘fanfic’ as it’s commonly called on the internet. However bringing fanfic like this to wide release on the big screen was no easy task. We all know how Star Wars has become a cinematic phenomenon like no other. George Lucas knows about it. Lucas himself is comfortable with ‘standalone’ films based on the Star Wars stories but wanted to make very clear that any standalone stories could not carry characters between the Saga films.
Here we have a story that is to take place between Episode III: Revenge Of The Sith and the very verse Star Wars film that’s now referred to as Episode IV: A New Hope. It’s a pretty lengthy amount of time between when Anakin Skywalker becomes Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker seeks to become a Jedi. Nevertheless it does make for ample time for any Star Wars fan to create a story of what happens in between. Storywriters John Knoll and Gary Whitta aren’t just any Star Wars fans. Knoll has done camera operations and visual effects supervision for many science-fiction films including four Star Trek films and the three Star Wars prequels. Whitta is a scriptwriter for The Book Of Eli and After Earth.
The adaptation of the story to screenplay had to fall into the right hands as well. Scriptwriter Tony Gilroy may have had his biggest renown with 2007 Best Picture nominee Michael Clayton (for which he himself was nominated for Best Director and Best Original Screenplay) but his he’s also made his biggest impact in writing the scripts for all four Jason Bourne movies. Chris Weitz has an eclectic resume of writing and directing from Antz to American Pie to About A Boy to The Golden Compass to one of the Twilight films. Then there’s the film being directed properly. Gareth Edwards may have not had the most experience in directing but he has developed his reputation in recent years upon films like 2010’s Monsters and 2014’s Godzilla.
Then there’s the story itself. There are possibly loads of Star Wars-inspired stories. The story would have to be true to the Star Wars saga without it being a rip-off. There’s lots of that and even professional writers can make something that’s a Star Wars rip-off. Most Star Wars fans will not go for something insulting. True, there are a lot of people that are Star Wars-crazy but most will not go for something if they sense it’s a rip-off. Don’t forget many felt insulted by the prequels so that’s a reminder.
They succeeded. They provided a very good story about the completion of the Death Star and the family behind it and the rebellion attempting to steal the plans leading to the hope in the end. The story had to be well-researched in order for it to make the right connection between Episode III and IV. Any new characters like the Ursos, Cassian Andor and K-2SO had to fit with the story as well as include original Star Wars characters like C3P0 and Darth Vader properly. On top of that, it had to have the right action scenes and the right battles done. Basically the whole movie had to have it all to work. The story could not be compromised despite the action sequences. The acting also had to be top notch from Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Mads Mikkelsen, Ben Mendelsohn and Forest Whitaker. Even the theme of the story of heroism has to be present. It’s there, but in a way like no other Star Wars saga film does it. For the first time, self-sacrifice is needed for heroism.
The story worked very well. The critics on Rotten Tomatoes gave a total percentage of 85% approval. Many praised it for its depth in the Star Wars mythology and for breaking new narrative and aesthetic ground while paving way to a potential future for other blockbusters. The film scored well with crowds too as it would become the 20th movie to gross over $1 billion worldwide.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is not just an excellent movie. It’s an accomplishment. It’s proof that Star Wars standalone movies can not only be a hit but be excellent in their own right.
Once you see The Lobster, I’m sure it will make you think twice about going to one of those matchmaker hotels. Okay, maybe not but the whole scenario of matchmaking and the single life depicted in the film is downright bizarre.
The film is set in a dystopian future where single people are brought to a hotel in accordance to the rules of The City. The hotel gives people forty-five days to find a match. If they succeed, the couple is given a month to develop their relationship in a special section of the facility. After which, they are freed. If anyone fails in any which way, they are killed and reincarnated as an animal of their choice and sent into The Woods. People can extend their stay with The Hunt: people from The Hotel shoot tranquilizer darts at any of the ‘loners.’ One ‘loner’ capture gives one an extra day.
A man named David arrives at The Hotel. He brings with him a dog whom we learn to be his brother as he too was subject to The Hotel and failed to find a match in due time. David tries to get used to the hotel and its methods. He chooses to be a lobster if he does not succeed in finding a new woman. He even participates in The Hunt. He learns of the other leisurely activities at The Hotel. One awkward rule is masturbation is banned by painful punishment but stimulation from the maid is a requirement.
David first makes friends with The Limping Man and The Lisping Man. The Lisping Man would have to stick his hand in a toaster for masturbating one night. The Limping Man hopes to find a woman with a limp like him. Instead he’s attracted to a woman who has frequent nosebleeds. He fakes nosebleeds to win the love of The Nosebleed Woman.
David is inspired by this and first attempts to win the love of a woman whom everyone knows to have no heart. He’s impressed by her hunting skills and he’s attracted to her as she’s choking to death. He attempts to start a relationship with her but it turns out to be a disaster even to the point she kills the dog: David’s brother. He’s able to tranquilize her and bring her to the transformation room so she’ll be an animal forever.
It then gets to the point David can’t handle it anymore and escapes. He finds himself with the ‘loners:’ they live a wild life catching rabbits and hiding from the hunt. The rules are not as hard but they don’t permit any flirting or entanglement as they will punish it badly. David wins the affection of a short-sighted woman. This helps since he is short-sighted too. The loners give the two missions to go to The City and pose as a couple but it causes them to become more affectionate.
The loners go on a rampage where they try and split up the couples in The Hotel. David even goes as far as trying to split up The Limping Man and The Nosebleed Woman and others going as far as pulling a stunt with the Hotel Manager. Meanwhile the leader of the loners learns that David and the Shortsighted Woman are in love and blinds the woman. They attempt an escape. This leads to an ending as bizarre and unpredictable as the whole story.
It’s hard to see if this film was trying to make a point about dating life, being single and marrying. This is a very bizarre scenario from start to finish. Plus I would find it hard that such a situation would be for single people with our current human rights. Keep in mind this is set in the future. Hey, depictions of the future like that in The Hunger Games don’t paint a pretty picture. It’s interesting how the army of loners raid the Hotel. Makes you wonder if their mutiny is a form of rebellion or of personal anger.
I will have to say this is the most bizarre romantic movie I’ve seen since Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind. That movie was what you’d call the ‘romance of the absurd.’ I do feel it is about love and surrounding human emotions magnified 100 times. The time limit put on those at the hotel to find love could be seen as the personal time limits one puts on one’s self to find love. The case of the leader of the loners trying to split all the couples up could be a case of one’s unhappiness and how one could try to impose it on others. Even those that end up in the hotel like the limping man, lisping man, heartless woman, nosebleed woman and the short-sighted woman may reflect on people’s insecurities. Meanwhile David is in the centre of it all. He starts out as possibly the most normal of the bunch but it isn’t until the end that he resorts to eccentric extremes of his own for the sake of love.
This is the brainchild of Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos. He has accomplished a lot in his directing career. His film Dogtooth was nominated for an Oscar five years ago. This is his first English-language film. In directing and co-writing the story with Efthimis Filippou, he creates a set of worlds that could easily look ridiculous on screen but worked with careful writing and careful directing. I see many cases with the hunt, the transformation room, the mutiny and even the character of the Heartless Woman that could have easily come across as dumb but was done right and was sensibly done.
Colin Farrell did a good job of playing this bizarrely comedic role well that’s completely different from any of his blockbuster roles of the past. He had to portray a man who treats this bizarre situation as something sane and normal. Even going from the sanest person in the film to committing an insane act for love at the right moment. He does it very well and gives the comedy the right tone. Although Farrell owned the film, Rachel Weisz as the Shortsighted Woman and Lea Seydoux as the Loner Leader were the strongest supporting performers. Some of the other minor characters were also very good such as Ben Whitshaw as the Limping Man, Angeliki Papoulia as the Heartless Woman and Jessica Barden as the Nosebleed Woman.
The Lobster is a film collaboration of five nations: UK, Greece, Ireland, Netherlands and France. It won the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival and was a nominee for the Palme d’Or. It has also won top film awards at the Rotterdam and Ghent Film Festivals.
The Lobster is both bizarre and amusing in its depiction of a futuristic world and its ways of dealing with dating. It’s both bizarre and charming at the same time.
The story begins with what we think is a dead body on the road after an accident. Instead it appears to come alive again and get up. We meet Holly, a young paramedic student who breaks up with her boyfriend because he thinks she’s too nice. While working at her part-time job at a pharmacy, she meets Rob as she comes to help him after an on-the-job accident.
Holly and Rob start a relationship and have sex together but are interrupted all of a sudden by Rob’s deceased girlfriend Nina now undead and bloody. Holly is shocked and Rob is trying to make like nothing happened. They try and go about it and move on but Nina returns again while the two have sex. Holly tries playing seductively with Nina in order to win the battle but it doesn’t work. Holly tries to learn more about Nina and even meets her parents. Holly even tries to get a ‘Nina Forever’ tattoo like Rob’s but Nina keeps on returning. Even the two having sex on Nina’s grave fails to end her recurrences. Moving in with Rob and changing everything about the house every time she returns fails to fix the problem.
It’s then Holly decides she’s had enough and wants out. Holly goes for on-the-job training as a paramedic and a car crash victim she helps save changes her. She even catches the interest of one of her students. She takes him to her place to have sex with him, thinking Nina’s as far gone as Rob only for her and the audience to get a big surprise. The film ends on a confusing note.
I’ve seen films done before of one person in a relationship trying to rid themselves of a past beau before. However this film is something different. This is a case of one person in a relationship trying to move on past his deceased beau. This is no easy task as Nina would even make clear: “We never really ended it.” That adds to the situation and adds to the story. However the story is something funny that it becomes a case of the undead girlfriend unearthing itself. I know the movie is trying to show a bizarre and humorous story on the theme of the difficulties of moving past a deceased beau but this story takes a bizarre and humorous twist.
Overall the film comes across as bizarrely funny and often unpredictable. Even at the beginning, you don’t expect an undead ex-girlfriend to come up from under the bed. You expect the new girlfriend to play along with the undead girlfriend even less. It’s humorous because it’s trying to mesh a romance with a horror movie with a message about human nature. A very unique combination by the Blaine brothers. However there were many areas in the film that didn’t appear to make sense, especially the ending. There were times I had my head scratching. There were even a few times I may have mistaken Rob’s parents as Nina’s parents or if it was a trick from the film makers the whole time.
This is Ben and Chris Blaine’s first attempt at a feature-length film. Both are better known for their television work. Their first effort is good but imperfect and its flaws show. The acting from Abigail Hardingham, Cian Barry and Fiona O’Shaughnessy are very good. They pull all the right moves in making this bizarre film work. Especially the character work of Fiona portraying an undead woman with sexual desires unfaded. The parents were a good addition, especially with them being the ones away from all the supernatural weirdness. The music added to the film also blended in well with the film.
Nina Forever is an original comedy horror film that will get you laughing and even freak you out. However it does have some noticeable imperfections like moments that don’t make a lot of sense. Nevertheless a good first feature film from the Blaine brothers.
Slow West is not your typical western. It also comes off as a love story that’s more than meets the eye.
Jay Cavendish is a sixteen year-old Scottish boy in the frontiers of America. He recently arrived over there in pursuit of Rose Ross, his love from back home who also fled to America along with her father. The frontiers are deadly but Jay is determined to find her. Jay finds himself prey by strangers who were first trying to kill a Native American but is stopped by a bounty hunter named Silas Selleck.
Jay tells Silas his story of his pursuit and even pays him for protection. Silas cooperates at first but when he sees the wanted poster for Rose and her father, he decides to use it for his own pursuit for the bounty of $2,000 and use Jay to get it. During the time, Silas tells Jay about the importance of keeping his guard and why killing is necessary out there. It then becomes evident when a Swedish couple try to rob a store Jay and Silas are shopping at. The man and the owner are shot while Jay is up against the woman. He shoots her, his first murder. That wasn’t all. The couple had their children with them to which Jay and Silas give them food and clothes before leaving them behind.
In the flashback to before Jay and Rose came to America, we learn Jay was a boy of noble birth in Scotland and had a huge love for common girl Rose but deep down Rose thought of him more to be like a ‘little brother.’ One day an intense argument between Rose’s father and Jay’s uncle, the Lord Cavendish, led to the uncle being killed. That’s what led Rose and her father to flee to America with the bounty on their heads.
In a conversation, Jay finds Silas a brute because he doesn’t appear to care about love and seems to only care about ‘surviving.’ Jay leaves one night with his horse and goods but meets up with a writer named Werner who appears to befriend him only to rob him overnight. Silas is able to find Jay and the two return only to be confronted by the gang Silas used to belong to and its leader Payne who plans to beat Silas to catching Rose and her father. Payne even steals their weapons overnight. Unbeknown to Jay and Silas is that Payne and the gang have the orphaned children of the Swedish couple from the robbery.
SPOILER WARNING: The ending will be revealed in the below paragraph.
The two continue on unarmed until they enter a forest. They find themselves prey among a Native American tribe but are saved by the luck of them falling off horses. In the meantime, Payne and the gang pursue Rose and her father who are living in a desolate farm house protected. However the father is shot to death and Silas wants to pursue Payne and his gang alone tying Jay to a tree for his protection. Jay is able to free himself but finds himself in the battle where he is shot by Rose who doesn’t recognize him at first. After a gritty gun battle Silas kills Payne’s gang while a dying Jay is able to kill Payne while comforted by Rose. Silas is shocked to find Jay dead but later on becomes Rose’s love and adopts the orphaned Swedish children.
When you see the whole film, you could easily see it`s not your typical western. Yes, there is gunshooting going on. However the film focuses on motives of the shooting. It focuses on the people and why they`re committing these murders. It can be either for personal greed or vengeance or simply to help themselves and their loved ones survive. Another interesting thing the film focuses on is the wide variety of characters involved in this Wild West scenario. There were your typical villains but there were others like the immigrant couple robbing a store to feed themselves and their starving children. This was a reminder that even the first immigrants the US in the 1800`s had to fight to survive in the New World.
Mind you the shooting in the film isn’t meant to stir up the excitement you’d normally acquire while watching a Western. Instead it focuses on the gun battle’s intensity and gets the audience feel the heat of the friction instead of being dazzled away by the gunslinging. In each case, you’re left with an aftermath that’s ugly. Seeing the bodies on the ground is more disheartening to the viewer instead of satisfaction that the job is done. I guess that’s why the film is called Slow West, because the ruthlessness and friction of the Wild West here is slowed down and the intensity is felt instead of just seen.
The film also focuses on the theme of love during a time and place where it appears people have no heart of soul. Jay is so determined to get back to his love Rose even though her and her father have a bounty on them. It took Jay to convince a bounty hunter who was only interested in using Jay as bait for Rose and her father about what love is. Over time they see the fight to survive and the lack of scruples in the people that surround them during their trip. However it`s Jay that convinced Silas of the power of love even if Jay appeared to be too naïve and deluded for his own good. It`s a common theme in a lot of films that show love in what appears to be a moral wasteland. I’ve seen it before in City Of God where love and hope exist in one of the most brutal favelas of Brazil. Here in Slow West we see love in the lawlessness of the Wild West. Even if Jay`s heart `beat in the wrong places,` he changed the older bounty hunter Silas and his heart. You know it when he says at the end: “There’s more to life than survival. Jay Cavendish taught me that. I owe him my life.”
This is actually the first feature-length film directed and written British director John Maclean. He does a very impressive job by packing a lot of intensity into an 85-minute story. For those who don’t know, John is actually a former guitarist for the Beat Band and The Aliens before turning to film directing. Michael Fassbender does a great job of character acting in his supporting role and Kodi Smit-McPhee is also excellent as the young Jay in capturing both his acquiring of the necessary ruthless grit over time while still keeping his passion and innocence. Impressive supporting performances come from Ben Mendelsohn as Payne and Caren Pistorius as Rose. Even minor performances like the Swedish couple committing the robbery and the Congolese singers add to the story.
The film has already won the World Cinema Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival in the Dramatic category and has above 90% on Rotten Tomatoes but the film has not been successful in winning a crowd. Not even $250,000. It`s not fair to say Sundance winners are declining at the box office, even though such films have shown a lack of buzz compared to 20 years ago or even 15 years ago. However this film was overshadowed by the Sundance hit comedy Me And Earl And The Dying Girl which ad no star power at all. It`s always hard to predict what will win with the crowds. Right now there’s no data on how much online viewing of the film has happened.
Slow West doesn’t have the fast-pace action one would expect from a Western. Instead its slowness and intensity are its best qualities which allows the audient to feel the grit of the situation and the feelings of its main characters. Qualities that make the story.
Normally I don’t see live-action family movies unless the renown for it catches my eye. In the last three months, there were two that caught my eye: Paddington and Cinderella. I’m glad I had the chance to see them.
For the first time, Paddington Bear comes to the big screen. And in live-action format rather than animation. However this did involve taking some chances. The first chance was making a movie that could entertain today’s children. The second was not having to mess with the Paddington Bear people know and love.
The film does a good job of keeping many aspects of Paddington such as his love of all things British, especially marmalade. The film also does a decent job of not trying to resort to too many cheap laughs like one would come to expect in today’s children’s films. It’s not to say there were some questionable moments, like the scene where Paddington thinks the toothbrushes are ‘earbrushes.’ The film also does a good job in presenting Paddington in today’s world and meeting the Brown family who are actually reluctant to adopt at first.
I give kudos to director/writer Paul King and co-writer Hamish McColl for coming up with a very good adaptation of Paddington Bear into a feature-length film. It was no easy task to make such a film especially when Paddington has resorted to being simple children’s books since the 1950’s. The plot where Paddington boats from Peru to London only to find a cold country, a reluctance to adopt from the Brown family and being pursued by the daughter of a poacher whose goal was to make him hers to kill and stuff worked well to entertain crowds. The inclusion of the effects in the film couldn’t be avoided as nowadays family movies have to have some special effects to win crowds. Even though Paddington wouldn’t be the type of movie for a lot of visual effects, the effects included did things right without messing with the story.
I also give them credit for not messing with the spirit of Paddington whose sweet charm is the reason why he has become one of the most beloved children’s book characters in recent decades. He’s even so beloved in England to the point there’s a bronze statue of Paddington Bear at Paddington Station where he got his name from. I also give them kudos for adding character to the Brown family. They may not be much like the Browns in the Paddington books but the character of the Browns do fit well in the movie.
Just as much deserving of respect are the performances of the actors. Hugh Bonneville and Sally Hawkins did a very good job playing the Brown parents. Madeleine Harris and Samuel Joslin also did well as playing the Brown children. They both played their roles well without being too overly-cutesy. Julie Walters succeeded in stealing scenes as the wise Mrs. Bird. Nicole Kidman also did a good job of playing the evil Millicent Clyde without becoming too hateable. Actually Millicent Clyde was rather entertaining as a villain. Finally Ben Whishaw did a very good voice-over as the voice of Paddington. Paddington needed a sweetness in order to make the story work and Whishaw was the right fit.
Paddington is now out on DVD and BluRay. For those that didn’t see it in theatres, it’s worth seeing. I don’t know if it’s the type of family movie one won’t need to see with a family of their own but it is entertaining and very good quality entertainment.
If you think making a film about Paddington Bear is difficult, try making a live-action version of Cinderella. And knowing that it will be Disney doing the work, you can understand they’d be under a lot of pressure. We’re talking about the film company that made their 1950 animated version a staple into many people’s hearts. So it would not be surprising that there would be a lot of questions surrounding the make of the new live action version. Will it have the same Disney spirit? Will it stray too much from the animated version that lives on in the hearts of millions? Or even the book? How will the sets and costumes be done? And will it entertain crowds of today?
There’s no question that making a live-action version of a fairy tale can be expensive in production. Cinderella wasn’t too expensive to make but $95 million is expensive enough. For a film like Cinderella to work, there’s no question that one of the top aspects to focus on would be the technical areas like set design and costuming. Dante Ferretti was a top choice for set design. We’re talking about a set designer whose works have earned him nine Oscar nominations and three wins for The Aviator, Sweeney Todd and Hugo. Ferretti did not let anyone down. In fact his set designs in all scenes worked perfectly for the movie. It was hard to notice a glitch.
Costumer Sandy Powell was another top pick with loads of cred including ten Oscar nominations and three wins. Here she again adds to the reputation by making costumes perfect not only for Cinderella but for all characters in the movie. My favorite costumes were actually the bratty looking outfits for Drisella and Anastasia. It fit their brattiness perfectly. However Cinderella’s glass slippers really caught my eye. They looked more like crystal slippers. The visual effects team also did a top job in adding the necessary visual effects for the film and giving them the magic that will remind people of the magic Disney movies are famous for. They even succeed in making the mice and lizards human enough without being too ridiculously cartoonish.
Credit should also be given to director Kenneth Branagh and writer Chris Weitz. People easily forget that Branagh is as much of a director as he is an actor directing films from Shakespeare (Henry V) to comedy (Love’s Labor’s Lost) to superhero action flicks (Thor). Now he ventures into the territory of fantasy films. The result is excellent. Just as excellent is the writing from scriptwriter from Chris Weitz. He does a very good adaptation by retaining the spirit of Disney and even including some aspects not included in the original. Actually his writing makes you forget he wrote American Pie!
Despite all those efforts, the success of the movie would have to bow down to the roles being done right. The inclusion of the king, the prince’s father, added to the story as did the appearances of Cinderella’s parents. The characterizations of the mice and lizards were well done and didn’t go over the top or even cheesy. The characters of the two stepsisters were very good depictions. They were nasty and bratty but you’ll actually find yourself laughing at how stupid they are rather than hating them. If there’s one character you will hate, it’s the stepmother Lady Tremaine. Cate Blanchett did an excellent job of depicting Lady Tremaine as both cruel and hurting on the inside to the point she feels she should hurt Cinderella. Her depiction also fits within the common Disney theme of featuring a female villain who’s beautiful rather than ugly. Blanchett’s depiction actually seems more like the queen from Snow White rather than the stepmother of the animated version.
There were some radical choices for character depictions in the movie. The first was the prince as being more of an awkward young adult rather than the flawless Prince Charming we come to expect. Even referring to himself as ‘an apprentice’ during the casual contact with Cinderella is something no one would have expected. The most radical of character depictions has to be Helena Bonham Carter as the fairy godmother. I found it very different to have a clumsy fairy godmother this time around. I wasn’t expecting another fairy godmother that sang ‘Bibbity Bobbity Boo’ but this was way different from what I expected.
Finally I focus on the character of Cinderella. Lily James did a very good job as Ella. She’s already an experienced actress in her native England and she does a very good portrayal here. She portrays Ella as a young woman who doesn’t make having an imagination look like a weakness. We shouldn’t forget her imagination has kept her holding her head high during the toughest of times such as the deaths of her parents and keeps her going strong with her stepmother and stepsisters whom even her father described as ‘trying.’ Hah, ‘trying’ is an understatement! However she does not come across as naive as most would come to expect of her or anyone with an active imagination. In fact it’s the scene where she says to her stepmother: “You were never my mother and you never will be.” shows Cinderella to have more inner strength than most thought.
Focusing on Cinderella lastly seems appropriate because she is essentially the epitome of the theme of the movie. The movie showed two people who had a lot of tragedy in their lives: Cinderella and Lady Tremaine. One was bitter about it. The other did what her mother said: “Have courage and be kind.” Cinderella’s courageous positivity upset Lady Tremaine to the point she had to hurt her however she can. Cinderella stayed strong. There were some points where her courage was tested but she still stayed strong. I guess that’s what this version of Cinderella was trying to say. That staying positive is not being oblivious. That having an imagination is not a weakness. That’s what was not only shown in Cinderella but almost every Disney movie.
Both movies have had their own box office success stories. Cinderella has grossed $197 million in North America and over $500 million worldwide. Paddington was not as big of a hit but it did have its own success with $76 million in North America and $259 million Worldwide. Impressive since it was done with a $55 million budget. The marketers of Paddington did a common job but a smart job in releasing it in most of Europe, South America and Asia first during the latter weeks of 2014 before releasing it in the US on January 16th. That’s a common technique used to plug movies with characters common in European pop culture. They did that with Tintin back in 2012.
Paddington and Cinderella are two family movies that have pleased the critics and will also please audiences alike. Both have what it takes to entertain children but they both also have elements that will please adults.
I’ll admit that I’m one of those people that went out to see Gone Girl later than the huge crowds. I will admit I was lax at it because of the tight times I was experiencing. I finally did see it just a while ago and I was impressed.
I usually do a run though the plot in my reviews. I have decided to skip it since most of you have already seen it. Instead I will focus on some of the unique elements and why this movie stands out.
One noticeable thing of the movie is that there is a big focus on the media, especially as it surrounds a murder story. There’s no doubt the message is about how the media takes on crime stories by being its own judge and jury, typing people and packaging them as good people and bad people. This was especially seen on how Nick is typed not only as the bad guy but as the murderer even though no body was found. This was also seen on the police as they eventually felt the pressure to make a move and arrest Nick for the murder. There was also the focus of the egos in the media behind it all and epitomized best by Ellen Abbott who mercilessly defames and slanders Nick as the murderer. Even before the interview of Nick and Amy after Amy’s arrival, you can tell Ellen shows no regrets about it all. Even as Nick confronts Ellen about how she dismissed him as a murderer, she simply says “I go where the story goes” without any noticeable remorse or apology. I guess it shows what it takes to be a talking head in the news.
Despite the exploitative judgmental ego-driven media being a major theme, it’s not the main focus of the film. The main focus is on Amy. Amy first comes across as a warm charismatic person with a lack of confidence but lives her confidence out through the character of Amazing Amy in her Amazing Amy books. As the story goes through the search for Amy day by day, the story flashes back to the first signs of their marriage falling apart. The marital troubles appear so much like millions of marriages before that hit rocky moments during hard times and even face ugly moments like infidelity and even physical abuse. That’s what the first half is all about.
It’s the second half that we see the twist in the story that Amy is not the sweet thing we think she is. She’s conniving, very clever and smart enough to make things work for her revenge plan to have Ben framed for her murder that never happened. Even faking things like her pregnancy, Ben’s alleged credit card debt and agreement to a huge life insurance payout was as clever as it was shallow. Her cleverness especially intriguing that she’s even able to make a calculating change of plans even after some neighbors of her getaway place rob her. She’s able to get Desi back into her life and appear to rekindle the romance only to have another thing up her sleeve after seeing Nick’s interview on the television. Her tricks are even crafty enough to get Nick trapped into the relationship without him being able to escape thanks to a pregnancy. Her tricks are even clever enough that there’s nothing Nick, Margo, Tanner Bolt or even Detective Boney can do to bring out the truth, even though they know it.
The funny thing is I’ve been watching a lot of crime shows like Forensic Files where they show of people committing murders and attempting to cover it up only to have advancing technology over time uncover the truth slowly but surely. They not only tell of people committing the crimes but what they do to get away from it all and even cop a new identity. Seeing Amy go about her charade not only reminds you of those diabolical minds but gets you intrigued in Amy’s own diabolical ways. Throughout the movie I was waiting for the moment for truths to be unraveled and Amy to get caught. Funny thing is that over time, it appears her new actions and tricks appear better executed than the ones Amy had planned on Nick from the start. It appeared Amy’s new plan to have Nick in a loveless marriage raising their child was a better form of torture on Nick than her original plan of having him convicted and executed for her fake murder. It’s like she told him after he hit her: “I’m the c*** you always wanted.”
I think that’s what makes this movie so winsome. Amy is a diabolical mind who’s not only that good but appears to get better and craftier over time. Funny thing is it’s one of those movies that had me leaving the theatre wondering how Amy gets away with it all? How Amy’s able to keep it all covered up even with all this modern technology and in control of everybody else involved including the law? That’s like the same wonder I had at the end of 1999’s Arlington Road of how a couple could pull off a terrorist explosion framing their neighbor and being a step ahead of everybody in every which way to get it done. That’s also like the same wonder I had in 1992’s Basic Instinct when Beth kills Gus with an ice pick and minutes later confronts a gun-wielding Nick with a normal pulse rate and no stress level at all. Then I remind myself it’s the movies where they can make anything happen and make us believe it at that moment.
Top kudos to Rosamund Pike. She delivered a character that made the movie. She gave a feel for the character right from the start and kept us intrigued right until the end. She had to be the top factor on why this movie is so winsome. Ben Affleck did well but he didn’t own the show the way Rosamund did. Carrie Coon was very good in the supporting role of the sister who knows the truth but is helpless to do anything. Tyler Perry was good as the lawyer. Missi Pyle came across as cartoonish as the Ellen Abbott but it fit well with the movie as I will reflect on later.
It seemed like the right thing for Gillian Flynn, the writer of the novel, to also write the screenplay too. It makes sense since she’s the one who knows Amy inside out. It’s also great to see her deliver an ending possibly unlike anyone would anticipate. David Fincher does an excellent job of directing the story. I know there were many times that the people in the murder scenario came off as cartoonish in the film but it seems fitting because all too often, people in the middle of a trial that involved heavy media attention often come off as cartoonish or like drama queens. Even as we read murder stories or murder dramas about real-life murders, it’s as much about personalities as it is about the people. David did a good job of making it the focus in the movie. You could say David delivers another winner. In addition kudos to the music of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross that added to the feel of the film.
Gone Girl is a story that keeps you interested from start to finish. You think it will go one way but it goes the other way. Even after you leave the theatre, you’re left wondering how she was able to make it work. I guess that was the secret of the movie.
A Field In England is intended to be a historical drama/dark comedy. This makes for a unique and daring combination but does it work?
The story is set in the British Civil war of the 1600’s. Whitehead, an alchemist’s assistant, flees from his strict commander and meets a deserter from his own side and two other deserters from “the enemy’s” side. They all try to leave the war behind in search of an alehouse. Meanwhile they have a stew made with the mushrooms they found along the ground. Along the way they meet with an Irishman whom Whitehead had been sent to hunt down for stealing his master’s documents.
The Irishman however tries to get control over the group by letting them know of a treasure in the ground underneath. Whitehead is able to locate the area while the other three are digging or supervising. The exhaustion if digging takes its toll on the two diggers as they get into a fight and one is shot by the one supervising. After all the others run off, the one who did the supervising must now do the digging himself where he learns there’s nothing more than a skull. The Irishman then shoots him and then goes after Whitehead and the one surviving deserter. The two manage to escape and head back to the camp. However one of the deserters originally thought to be dead returns only to get embroiled in a shooting with the Irishman. After an ensuing shootout between the others, Whitehead is the one left standing and he buries the four. After burial, he returns to the hedgerow he originally deserted and finds the three soldiers still standing.
The thing about this movie is that it often appears clueless. All too often I’m sitting there in the theatre wondering what the point of the movie is or what the point of certain scenes were. Was his point about the British Civil War? Was his point about the warring factions: the Royalists and the Roundheads? Was it about the attitude the deserters shared? Was it to be experimental as noted by the many bizarre images? Was it another case of Ben Wheatley getting into his violence obsession? I was left very confused. The violence and even the alleged sodomy part really had me questioning. Even the special visual effects like the exploding sun and the strobe images had me wondering if Wheatley was trying to be experimental in his work.
I will admit that this is just my judgment from watching as I am unfamiliar with Ben Wheatley’s work. He has established a reputation in England with seven years of film making and video making under his belt. He is also primed and ready for the mainstream as he has already been slated to make an American-made film Freakshift and a sci-fi series for HBO in the future. Nevertheless I’ve been left assuming that A Field In England, which is directed by Wheatley and written by his wife Amy Jump, is an experimental picture for Wheatley. I saw nothing in the storyline involving any facts or factoids about the British Civil War and more of a focus on torture, violence and hallucinations. Even the language used in there didn’t sound like talk that would be used from the 17th Century but contemporary times.
The film has already received some acclaim. It has already won a Special Jury Prize at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival and was a Crystal Globe nominee at that festival. It has also made its round of film festivals and has already been released on DVD.
A Field In England appears to be more of a trip of psychedelia and violence than historical documentation or historical fiction. The best I myself can classify this film is an experimental work.
“Sooner or later your ability to succeed on natural talent runs out when you run against a chemical barrier. The question became do you take drugs to try to win or do you content yourself with losing forever by staying away from them?”
– Charlie Francis
“I think about it for about three weeks before I say yes. Why should I train hard doing it clean and then these other guys are not clean? Face fear…I was young, in the business and (Jamie Astaphan) was a doctor and he said ‘If you don’t take it, you won’t make it.'”
– Ben Johnson
Back on Tuesday, I posted my memories and thoughts of the big run, the events leading up to it and the aftermath. It made sense since it was the 25th anniversary of that controversial run. Today is another 25th anniversary: the anniversary of the bad news hitting the fan. Here I will reflect on what I’ve learned from watching 9.79* and all that I’ve noticed in doping in the years since.
I know I talked a lot about the ESPN 30 For 30 Film 9.79* in my last article. For those who haven’t seen it, 9.79* is a very informative documentary about the Ben Johnson scandal that not only tells about the process of how Ben got into taking steroids but also about the changing world of track and field at the time as well as the widespread doping amongst those in the track world at the time too. It not only interviews Ben Johnson and Carl Lewis but all eight runners that participated in what’s commonly called ‘the dirtiest race in Olympic history:’
- Lane 1: Robson da Silva – Brazil
- Lane 2: Raymond Stewart – Jamaica
- Lane 3: Carl Lewis – USA
- Lane 4: Linford Christie – Great Britain
- Lane 5: Calvin Smith – USA
- Lane 6: Ben Johnson – Canada
- Lane 7: Desai Williams – Canada
- Lane 8: Dennis Mitchell – USA
It also interviews the coaches of Carl Lewis, Calvin Smith and even the coach of the US Olympic track team of 1988. Calvin Smith is of special focus too as he was the 100m dash World Record holder until Ben broke it at the 1987 Worlds. It also interviews two of Ben’s former teammates from the Scarborough Optimist Track Club: Angella Issajenko and Desai Williams who had stories of their own of what they saw around them and what they themselves did. It also interviews those associated with the USOC Doping programs like Dr. Robert Voy and Dr. Don Catlin from the UCLA lab during the 1984 Summer Olympics. Members of Canada’s Olympic Committee, Robert Armstrong from the Dubin Inquiry and a doping historian are also interviewed as well as Mary Ormsby: a Toronto Star journalist. Mary’s analysis of Ben Johnson and those associated with him as well as Canadian attitudes and even celebrations of Ben during those times really summed it up well and really struck me.
There are many key people who were not present in the film like Ben’s mother, Dr. Jamie Astaphan, human growth hormone Dr. Robert Kerr, Charles Dubin, Alexandre De Merode and Charlie Francis because they’re all now deceased. There is however one film footage of interview of Charlie from 2000. Also Andre Jackson, whose significance I will talk about later, is not interviewed either.
BEFORE IT ALL STARTED
Long before the whole Ben Johnson scandal, I knew about doping in sports. I first took an interest in the Olympic Games back in 1984 in the months leading up to the Los Angeles Olympics. I was a kid back then and with each preview show and each book I read, my curiosity grew and grew and I continued to learn more about the Games. Even seeing shows about Olympians past like The Olympiad widened my knowledge and excitement. However there was one Olympic preview show that focused on the subject of doping and anabolic steroids. They even made mention of athletes from the Pan American Games the year before that tested positive including two Canadian weightlifters.
Later on I’d learn just slightly more about doping. Actually I learned about an Olympic fatality from 1960. It was Danish cyclist Knud Enemark Jensen in the team road race. Two other members of the Danish team also dropped out of the race. The coach later admitted to giving his riders Roniacol. Amphetamines were also found in his autopsy. That would lead to the start of doping tests in 1968. The first athlete stripped of a gold medal for a doping violation was American swimmer Rick de Mont for using an asthma medication. Even though the substance is no longer on the banned list, the IOC won’t give back his gold medal. Steroid use was known in the 70’s and it was actually 1976 that the Olympic Games started testing for them. There were steroid positives in Montreal. Moscow in 1980 had no positive tests but some medalists including two track and field gold medalists had been banned for a positive steroid test in the past.
WHAT LED TO IT ALL
Back to the subject of Ben Johnson, I made mention of how Ben Johnson burst onto the international scene by winning bronze in the 100m dash at the 1984 Olympics. That was a great improvement from the World Championships a year before where we only got as far as the semifinals. His two bronze was rather quiet news for Canada’s athletes as they had their best Olympics ever with 44 medals. Ten of them gold. Our ten golds during those Games were not only a delight but a relief since our last Summer Olympics gold medal came back in 1968. Between that time we had to deal with the embarrassment in Montreal in 1976 of becoming the first and so far only host nation of a Summer Olympics to fail to win gold. We also had to deal with the heartache of our 1980 Summer Olympics team not even making it to Moscow as Canada joined the U.S. in boycotting those Olympics.
What was going on is that the sports world knew what was going on in terms of doping back during the 70’s and 80’s. Just like Calvin Smith said:”(Track athletes) know more than the public ever will.” I guess you can say that about every sport. Charlie Francis, Ben Johnson’s coach, would compete for Canada in the 100m dash at the 1972 Munich Olympics. He would hear rumors of how 80% of the field were on steroids. The crunch of sport being full of people on performance enhancing drugs would get heavier after the 1976 Olympics and the successes of athletes like the East German swimmers and weightlifters from various countries who many knew were doped but they won and passed the drug tests. When Charlie himself took to coaching, he was determined to make champions out of his athletes. However he had to deal with the challenge of an unlevel playing field and felt the only way to win was to encourage his own athletes to use steroids. That attitude: “If you don’t take it, you won’t make it.” He would give them drugs he knew the East Germans were taking at mass level. He even hired Dr. Jamie Astaphan after the 1984 Olympics to increase sophistication in his steroid program.
As for why Ben and his teammates agreed to take steroids, it was more than just about the desire to win. It also wasn’t until I saw the film that his athletes considered him not just a coach but a friend. Ben Johnson, Desai Williams and Angela Issajenko looked up to him very highly. They were Canadian immigrants from the Caribbean who felt like misfits and they took aback to Charlie how he made them feel like they belonged and how he helped them to succeed as athletes. In fact Francis helped coach all three of them to the 1984 Olympic Games where they all came home with Olympic medals. In addition to Ben’s two bronzes, Desai was part of Canada’s bronze medal-winning relay team and Angella was part of Canada’s silver medal-winning women’s 4*100m relay team. It’s that coach-athlete relationship thing that could have a lot to do with why they agreed to take the steroids at his encouragement. They looked up to him that much. Coach-athlete relationships are also of focus in 9.79* as it shows the relationships between Carl Lewis and Tom Tellez and Joe Douglas as well as Calvin Smith and his coach Wayne Williams. One thing the film showed me is that for all the show-off and braggart I always saw Carl Lewis to be, I admire him for the huge respect he had for his coaches and still has. Like he sang in his flop song: “You can’t win on your own.”
I’ll admit I knew a lot about doping even before the 1984 Summer Olympics. I’ll admit, as evident in my article from Tuesday, that I learned a lot of what was going on in the Scarborough Optimists Track Club and other athletic sources around that time. In watching the film 9.79*, the things that stuck most with me were the things I don’t remember or didn’t know about. The mention of the USOC and the drug testing programs back in 1983 were a surprise to me. Even as well the number of noticeable tampered or ‘chemically masked’ samples they attained and how none of the athletes were punished but warned instead. I’ll admit I didn’t pay much attention to the BALCO scandal that came to light in 2003. I knew only partial details and mention of Carl Lewis testing positive for a banned stimulant but I didn’t know all the facts. Also I didn’t know about the missing positive results from the last days of the 1984 Olympics. Nor did I know about Human Growth Hormone being untestable at the time. I’ve always known it to be testable but I forgot there was a time when it wasn’t.
This film gave more information about the doping programs created and the lightweight actions carried out. One of the things I was not surprised about was when Dr. Don Catlin talked about him asking the athletes why they were taking drugs. The answer was obvious: they want to win. Even as track and field was being professionalized, it became obvious that success was winning medals. In fact I remember the USOC conducted a survey in 1988 where they asked athletes who trained at the US Olympic Centre in Colorado Springs the survey question: “If you were given a pill that was guaranteed to make you Olympic champion but would kill you within five years, would you take it?” The result: 52% said “Yes.”
THERE’S MORE TO IT THAN DOPING
The film doesn’t just simply show you thoughts and opinions of those surrounding the event, and especially the subject of doping in track and field. The film also focuses on the sport of sprinting. It shows a lot of the training whether it be old videotapes of Ben’s workouts or even Dennis Mitchell coaching his young athletes. Ben will remind you in his conversations as demonstrated by Dennis Mitchell in his coaching that track athletes push their bodies beyond the human limits to be the best. Desai Williams summed it up well in his own words: “You work every single day, five or six days a week. You’re going to beat yourself into the ground. It’s tough: the sacrifice that every track person makes with no guarantee. None.”
The film also shows the times in which this was all happening too. The film also reminds us that this was happening at a huge turning point in track and field. Until 1980, professionals were not allowed to compete at the Olympics. If you wanted Olympic gold, you couldn’t make a single penny off your sport. Any money you made had to be a well-kept-secret. In fact track and field had separate amateur and professional leagues. Once professional athletes were given the green-light to compete in the Olympics in the early 80’s, things changed. Athletes who dreamed of Olympic gold didn’t have to accept under-the-table money anymore. Meets run by the IAAF could pay the athletes. Athletes in Olympic sports who had high profiles could hire agents. However professionalizing track and field it didn’t come without its growing pains. Meets hopping on the professional bandwagon had to market themselves. Hence Zurich’s Weltklasse being passed off as ‘The Olympics In One Night.’ Only athletes with big star status like Carl Lewis or Daley Thompson could command big appearance fees. The Carl Lewis/Ben Johnson rivalry was a great boost to the professionalizing of the sport and created a rivalry that drew crowds. Prize money per athlete varied anywhere from big money for the top finishers to chicken feed for the also-rans. It shouldn’t be a surprise that the prize money thing could cause problems in terms of doping.
That was quite an era for track. I don’t think there has been an athlete since Carl Lewis that could be that big of a draw, although I see a rival in Usain Bolt currently. There also hasn’t been a rivalry as exciting as the Carl Lewis/Ben Johnson rivalry. Not even the Carl Lewis/Mike Powell rivalry in the long jump that happened years later was as exciting, nor the rivalry of Carl Lewis vs. age during the mid-90’s. There isn’t a rivalry nowadays, not even Usain Bolt vs. Yohan Blake, that has the same excitement.
WHAT’S HAPPENED SINCE
Also remember how I talked about the East Germans and that being Angella Issajenko’s drive to hop on Charlie’s doping bandwagon? Well shortly after Germany reunified in 1990, just a year after the Dubin Inquiry concluded, the confessions were out that East Germany had a program of systematically administering steroid to their athletes headed by the Stasi, East Germany’s equal to the KGB. They knew which drugs to give which athletes, when to break them off to avoid detection, how often doses were needed to reach top performance and which drugs were undetectable at the time. After the confessions, many former East German Olympic champions have admitted to being part of the program. Some have asked their records be stripped and some are willing to give their medals back. One thing is many are reluctant to give their medals back, giving a common claim: “Yes, I was on steroids but I had the talent to win.” The thing is all of the records held by East Germans, even the world records, still stand and none of the medals have been demanded back by the IOC. That especially bites as a Canadian knowing that in three women’s swimming events in 1976, the fastest non-East German was a Canadian. It’s a shame. Three gold medals from Montreal that could’ve been and should be.
The thing was the intention of the Dubin Inquiry was not just to get to the bottom of Ben Johnson’s positive from Seoul. It was also to expose truths about doping in the sports world and hope to clean up sport not only in Canada but around the world too. If it did, it was quite minimal. You know how there are a lot of things that would eventually defeat their purpose over time like called ID and warning stickers on records? The Dubin Inquiry also defeated its purpose in a lot of aspects. This was the only time in history athletes confessed their doping use under oath. The subsequent punishments to the athletes who confessed caused many athletes to be a lot more protective of their innocence even after they test positive. Some would maintain their innocence to the point of taking their doping situation to court. They know that meets outside of the World Championships and the Olympic Games have doping labs that don’t have the same top-notch consistency and errors in procedures can result. They can use that to overturn their positive. There are even countries that know of positives in their own country but hide it around Olympic time so that the athlete can compete and win. A country like Canada can’t afford to do something like that, not after the embarrassment of Ben Johnson’s positive.
The 1996 Atlanta Games would present a new doping situation. There were many cases where athletes with positives outside of steroids would give explanations of taking medicine given by their team doctor. They’d be exonerated and they’d get their medals back. However it was made obvious at Sydney in 2000 that this kind of forgiveness was over when Romanian gymnast Andreea Raducan tested positive for a stimulant provided to her by the team doctor. Instead of exoneration, the stripping of her all-around gold medal stood and the doctor was suspended for two Olympic cycles. That was it. No more exonerations over a team doctor’s bad medicine. Enough was enough.
Doping still continues to be an issue in sport. New drug discoveries, new incentives or new needs to revamp the testing, new ways of dealing with doping, and even new commissions like WADA: the World Anti-Doping Agency, which was started in 1998 after officials believed the IOC lacked consistency in cracking down on dopers. WADA is headquartered in Montreal and headed by Canada’s Dick Pound who used to be the Vice-President of the IOC. In the 2000’s it was the Americans that were most under fire for doping in sport. If there were cover-ups during the 80’s, the cover-ups weren’t happening anymore as many sprinters were faced with positive drug tests. Marion Jones was the most famous as she would take years to confess her own steroid abuse since 2000. Even while two ex-husbands of hers had already tested positive during the times of her marriages, it still took her until 2007 to confess it all.
There are always new drugs. There are always new ways to try and get them and try to stay ahead of the tests. One thing is that there are some advancements. Out-of-competition testing has increased with surprise tests and even programs sponsored by the USOC where top runners volunteer to have themselves tested. One of which is sprinting star Allyson Felix. In addition, each Olympics takes doping tests to unprecedented levels than from before. Beijing 2008 introduced a new procedure where all tests would include samples frozen for four years and retested to crack down on athletes who thought they could be ‘ahead of the game.’ London 2012 had it so that every athlete in every sport that finished in the Top 5 in each event was tested. Also I don’t think we’ll ever see an equal to the sophistication of the East German doping program. That has to be the most successful systematic doping program of all time. China tried to copy that program in the 90’s but it wouldn’t work as positives resulted.
Steroid use isn’t just limited to sport. It’s also subject to professional wrestlers too and it was made a big issue in the wake of the murder-suicide of Chris Benoit and his family. Many believe ‘Roid Rage to be the cause. Steroid use is even rampant simply with men who go to the gym to work out. Ask anyone that works at a gym. There are even teenage boys and some as young as 11 going to guidance counselors and asking for steroids simply to look bigger. Even after they hear of the consequences, they still want it because they only care about their looks. I know there’s a lot of attention made to young girls and anorexia. I believe there should also be the same attention to young boys and steroids.
Interesting to note is that Track And Field is not the Olympic sport with the biggest doping problems. Weightlifting is. In fact just days before Ben Johnson would make the biggest doping news out of Seoul, two Bulgarian weightlifters who had won gold medals tested positive for diuretics, a drug possibly intended to be a masking agent. Funny how it could mask the steroids but failed to mask itself and caused the lifters to give back their gold medals, both receive the same sports ban as a steroid positive and cause the whole Bulgarian weightlifting team to return home prematurely and in embarrassment. Weightlifting has gotten tougher on doping. They have since changed the weights of weight classes and erased past records to start on a clean slate. They now give lifetime bans on the first steroid positive. They also place bans on nations who have multiple lifters that test positive consistently. One nation currently on that banned list is Bulgaria.
Funny thing is that the sprints are not the events in Track And Field with the biggest doping problem. It’s the throwing events. You’d be surprised how many Olympic medals have been given back in those events. The shot putters however have received the most doping positives and most returned medals. 9.79* presents the doping problem of the 1980’s and portrays it as the heyday of doping in sprints, or as Calvin Smith put it: “a time of big time drugs.” It doesn’t seem as rampant at first but 2013 shed light that it’s still a problem, if not at the same length as back in the 80’s. This year there were three doping positives from sprinters that made news which included former World Record holder Asafa Powell of Jamaica and former World Champion Tyson Gay of the US. In fact Powell tested positive for the same stimulant his Jamaican teammate Sherone Simpson tested positive for. This could cause suspicion over the Jamaican track program which has been so dominant in sprinting and hurdling over the past seven years.
ADDITIONAL NOTES ABOUT THE FINAL
Interesting thing about that final is that all of the runners in that final would have won Olympic medals in their careers. In fact you’ll see in 9.79* footage of the victory ceremony of the 1984 Men’s 4*100m relay: the US won gold with Jamaica silver and Canada bronze. There in that footage you’ll see five of the eight finalists: Lewis, Smith, Stewart, Johnson and Williams. As for the other three finalists:
- Linford Christie who finished third would get his bronze upgraded to silver in the aftermath and would be Olympic 100m champion in 1992.
- Robson da Silva won bronze in the 200m four days later.
- Dennis Mitchell would have to wait until 1992 to win Olympic medals where he won bronze in the individual 100m and gold in the 4*100 relay which Carl Lewis anchored to a new world record.
Also interesting to note is the drug issues the other athletes faced after the 1988 Olympics:
- Raymond Stewart: His doping issues came as a coach after he retired from running. It was made evident he was giving performance enhancing drugs to his athletes. The USADA banned him from coaching for life in 2010.
- Carl Lewis: so far that banned stimulant was the only known violation he did. Had proper doping procedures been carried out, he would have been banned for three months including the 1988 Olympics. However the USOC exonerated Lewis when he showed an official the supplements he was taking and classified it as an ‘inadvertent positive.’
- Linford Christie: he actually tested positive for a banned stimulant after the 100m dash final but was exonerated by the IOC’s disciplinary committee vote of 11 to 10 to keep him from sanctions. He wasn’t so lucky in 1999. An indoor meet in Germany tested him positive for Nandrolone and he was slapped with a two-year ban.
- Dennis Mitchell: he was banned for two years in 1998 for showing high levels of testosterone.
You yourself would be interested seeing the reactions of them when they’re confronted by Gordon in 9.79* of their own doping issues. Raymond insists that what he was giving to athletes were Vitamin B12 and insists he’s innocent. Carl Lewis provided me with one of my favorite moments while watching 9.79* When confronted about his positive for the banned stimulant, he gets all defensive and even insists on the fact that the stimulant is no longer on the banned list. Looks like Carl isn’t completely the Mr. Clean he packages himself to be. Linford isn’t questioned about the stimulant from 1988 but he is about the nandrolone from 1999. He tries to make like he’s ‘Mr. Clean’ and denies his 1999 positive even though he never did anything to legally overturn the result. Dennis Mitchell appears to be the only one of the others with a positive test willing to confess his wrongdoings. He admits to making a bad coaching decision and bad choices along the way.
It looks as though the only athletes never to have any doping issues in their careers was Calvin Smith and Robson da Silva, just two. If I had my way, I’d give the gold to Smith, silver to da Silva, get all the semifinalists who failed to qualify together for a run-off and give the bronze to the winner. That should fix everything. That’s another thing about the film is that it shows Calvin to be the one that should’ve been Olympic champion and even the sprinting great that could’ve been. Makes you wonder what would’ve happened had the field been level. Also sad to see that he may have received the bronze medal after Johnson’s disqualification but there wasn’t a second medal ceremony. Reminds you that even after justice was done, that’s the one thing missing.
The crazy thing about the whole doping thing is that the most honest former athletes in 9.79* were the Canadians. Of course, the Dubin Inquiry exposed it all. Ben, Desai and Angella were all punished. The Canadian ones lost the most and they have nothing left to hide and no one left to hide it from. Ben however acts like he still feels he deserves respect for what he did. Almost like he feels that since the field was unlevel and he was just the one that didn’t get away, he should receive some sort of vindication. Even his mention of Andre Jackson and the sabotage he claims–he claims Andre slipped pills in his beers and training water and even admitted it to him years later–makes me question his character. I felt like saying to Ben: “Just admit the truth.” Besides the Dubin Inquiry exposed the facts that Astaphan injected Ben with stanazolol that was called Winstrol before the competition. I want to think that it was the injections from Astaphan that caused the positive in Seoul. For those that didn’t see the film, Jackson responded to Ben’s allegations with an uninterviewed answer: “Maybe I did, maybe I didn’t. What was carried out in 1998 cannot and will not be invalidated.” Nevertheless it does make me wonder how an athlete from the Santa Monica Track Club who never qualified for the Olympics was able to get Olympic credentials to be with the finalists and even be with Ben in the doping room. That claim from Douglas that he was there to see if Johnson was taking a masking agent to cover up steroids in his system even got me thinking.
Desai and Angella however made class acts of themselves in the film by being honest and setting the record straight about themselves, their own doping and about what it’s like to be an elite athlete. I don’t condone sports doping of any kind but can understand the pressure to win these athletes feel. However I now have more respect for Angella and Desai as they have appeared to get wiser over time.
Of the non-Canadians, the most honest Americans were the doping officials Voy and Catlin. Now that the BALCO scandal exposed the cover-up facts starting in 2003, they can tell the whole story. Funny how Carl and his coaches deny everything. Carl’s lifetime coach Tom Tellez insists: “As a coach I wouldn’t want to (encourage steroid use.)You’re not a coach anymore!” Yes, there’s no evidence to suggest Carl used steroids–even coach Douglas’ statement about Carl’s eyes suggest Carl’s innocence–but seeing how defensive Carl gets when the positive at the 1988 Olympic trials is brought up suggests Carl may have something to hide.
Calvin Smith however was a class act as he was able to tell it how he saw it. Robson was another class act too. I like how he made mention of the potential money he lost in that race and mentions: “…but I sleep very nice every night.” You probably can’t say that about those that doped, even those that passed every doping test in their career.
There are a lot of interesting notes about what has happened since that race. 9.79 is no longer the world’s fastest time. It would be 11 years until a runner was able to touch 9.79 and pass the drug tests. It was American Maurice Greene at the 1999 World Championships. For the record, Greene never tested positive in any of his drug tests. 9.79 his either been touched or surpassed by seven sprinters since. In fact 9.79 was only good enough for a bronze in the London Olympic final. The world record is now 9.58 set by Jamaica’s Usain Bolt in 2009. Bolt also holds the Olympic record with the 9.63 he ran in London last year. The Canadian Record is 9.84 and is owned by Donovan Bailey for his gold medal run in 1996 and Bruny Surin for his second-place finish at the 1999 Worlds.
There’s no record whether the Scarborough Optimists club still exists. It wouldn’t surprise me if it folded in the midst of the scandal. Charlie Francis returned to coaching after the Dubin inquiry but was later banned for life when he made it clear he would return to giving his athletes steroids. He would later become a respected personal trainer and in 2003 would secretly train American sprinters Tim Montgomery and Marion Jones who would later face heat for their own doping issues. Francis died in 2010 at the age of 61. Ben Johnson was a pallbearer at his funeral. Dr. Astaphan would continue to face doping and drug trafficking issues for years after the scandal. After a release from a US prison in 1996, he would return to St. Kitts where he practiced medicine until his death in 2006.
Angella Issajenko released a tell-all just two years after Johnson’s disqualification telling her story of how she got into sports and doping. She would later become a teaching assistant and a track coach. Desai Williams now works as a speed coach for the Toronto Argonauts football team and currently trains Olympic track athletes as well. Mark McKoy, who was not interviewed for 9.79*, would later move to Austria in the wake of his steroid admission and subsequent two year ban. He would continue to represent Canada until 1994 and would win gold in the 110m hurdles at the 1992 Olympics. He has since returned to Toronto where he now works as a personal athletics trainer and therapist.
Ben Johnson comes across in the film as a lonely person looking for vindication. Actually he’s not that lonely as he is both a father and a grandfather. Johnson may have tested positive three times as a runner in his career but he has found success on his own as a soccer trainer. He’s trained Diego Maradona and Muammar Gadhafi’s son. He also released an autobiography of his own in 2010: Seoul To Soul.
Many Canadians had felt that this moment made Canada look like a country that dopes to win. I myself didn’t really lose faith in my country’s athletes. In fact I was at the Summer Olympics in Barcelona where Canada won eighteen medals, seven of them gold. I will admit that the Ben Johnson incident did make me suspicious when I saw the men’s 400m hurdles and a new World record set by the US’s Kevin Young. I was also in Vancouver cheering on our winter athletes too. Many want to look at the Olympic athletes as noble people who compete for the honor of their country and that Ben Johnson’s positive scarred their dignity forever. We should also remember they face pressures we ourselves will never face like the pressure to win for their country or for prize money and even face a tainted playing field. Also they face the pressure of people saying they let us down if they don’t win gold. We the fans are guilty of that too. As for Olympians, I know for a fact that there was cheating in the ancient Olympics too. In fact cheaters during the ancient Olympics would have their names engraved on a stone wall to be disgraced for eternity.
Not all was lost since that infamous moment. The Canadian Olympic Team would eventually leave Seoul with ten medals. Three of them gold. Yeah, that’s one thing I didn’t like about the film. It made Canada look like a gold medal-starved country when in fact Montreal in 1976 would eventually become the last Summer Olympics where Canada failed to win a gold medal. Canada has left every Summer Olympics since with anywhere from the one gold won in London 2012 to ten golds won in Los Angeles in 1984. Canada would begin a strong anti-doping campaign of its own. One of the athletes within the infamous Scarborough Optimist ring, hurdler Mark McCoy would win gold in the 110m hurdles in 1992. The biggest treat came the following Olympics in Atlanta where Canada could again claim the World’s Fastest Man. This time it was Donovan Bailey. Like Ben Johnson, a Jamaican Émigré. Unlike Ben Johnson, he had a natural sprinter’s build. Combine that with excellent coaching and he won the 100m dash gold in a World Record time in 9.84. It only took two Olympics for a Canadian sprinter to redeem Canada’s reputation in the eyes of the sports world. Bailey then teamed up with three other Canadian teammates for the 4*100m relay and helped to win another gold. This was a remarkable feat as this Canadian team was the first 4*100 relay team to officially defeat the American team of the gold medal. Officially meaning cause the Americans to cross the finish line after the gold medal champions. Until then, the American team lost the gold only upon disqualifications and the 1980 boycott.
9.79* is one of those documentaries I watch over and over again. I know this blog looks like a mix of a 30 For 30 Film review with talk about doping but the film did remind me about the problem of doping in sport and even make me question a lot of the runners that didn’t test positive that race and still try to pass themselves off as clean even though there’s a lot of evidence suggesting otherwise. It also makes you question the braces on Carl Lewis from 1987 to 1988. Was he on Human Growth Hormone at the time? 9.79*not only gives us answers but it still leaves us with a lot of questions.
Hard to believe that it was 25 years ago the world was in shock. Canada was especially shocked. I too was shocked in disbelief even as I was watching the news that day. We would all receive more shocking news over the years about Ben Johnson, those associated with him and even his rivals at the time. You think that people would learn from this. They may have but probably not much. I remember going on Twitter to an account about sports quotes and one uncredited quote was: “It’s better to lose on principles than to win on lies.” Sadly most young athletes don’t feel that way.