The Program  (2015)    70/100

Rating :   70/100                                                                     103 Min        15

Ben Foster gives the performance of his career as disgraced former cycling champ Lance Armstrong. I love how you always see that now – it’s quite an achievement to almost religiously have the word ‘disgraced’ precede your name, and this film focuses on showing exactly how that came to be, detailing how Armstrong actually operated his massive scam on the doping agency in cycling and indeed the public in general, with the secondary narrative of Sunday Times journalist David Walsh (Chris O’Dowd) who is ever suspecting and follows closely on the athlete’s heels with his hunch that something isn’t quite right (the film is based on Walsh’s 2012 novel, ‘Seven Deadly Sins: My Pursuit of Lance Armstrong’).

It’s from director Stephen Frears, his latest film after the Oscar nominated ‘Philomena‘, and despite never personally following the sport I found the story fascinating throughout. Foster not only physically commits himself by undergoing multiple transformations, as we see him go through different physical approaches to cycling as well as his cancer ordeal (do we know if he really had cancer? He probably had like a sore throat or something), but he actually looks a lot like Armstrong to boot. His personal life is very much marginalised here, and the whole affair is a good companion piece to ‘Bigger Stronger Faster‘ which was a great exploration of doping in sports generally.

Armstrong was of course famously stripped of all his Tour de France titles, but, ironically, if everyone else was also doping then you could say he still won fairly. Rather, perhaps, the sport should be stripped of its competition. With Denis Ménochet, Lee Pace, Guillaume Canet, Jesse Plemons and, briefly, Dustin Hoffman in support.

Escape to Victory  (1981)    65/100

Rating :   65/100                                                                     116 Min        PG

This is one of those films that when you learn of it you think to yourself ‘really? That exists?’, and ‘how come I’ve never heard of it before?’. This is a World War II P.O.W. drama in which Michael Caine must train a group of prisoners to form an Allies football team to take on the fully fit German national team in Vichy France. Command in the camp order Caine not to comply but he tells them to stuff it – and guess who’s in goal for the allies? Sylvester Stallone. Oh yes.

Max von Sydow plays the fairly sympathetic Nazi who used to be a professional player in days gone by, and thus he brainchilds the showdown before his superiors hijack it for propaganda. The film is perhaps somewhat light on what living in a Nazi P.O.W. camp was actually like, and when Caine makes the salient point that the set-up is completely unfair given the emaciated state of his players you are in agreement, until you realise the Allies’ team is comprised of Pelé, Bobby Moore, John Wark, Osvaldo Ardiles, Kazimierz Deyna, Paul Van Himst… and the list of international professional football players goes on.

It’s a reworking of the 1962 Hungarian film ‘Two Half Times in Hell’, itself based on the real life death matches played out by Ukrainian teams versus the Nazis, and was directed by the legendary John Huston with a memorable soundtrack highly reminiscent of the ‘Great Escape’ (63) from composer Bill Conti (‘Rocky’ 76), which you may recognise from some of the recent Sky Sports adverts. The sporting moments (some of which were choreographed by Pelé himself) whilst not the most amazing ever filmed are nevertheless continuously engaging, as indeed are the roars and sways of the crowd, and although the camera lingers a little too long here and there, and some of the details feel a little flimsy, this is still a really enjoyable, singularly unique, war sports film.

Southpaw  (2015)    63/100

Rating :   63/100                                                                     124 Min        15

Director Antoine Fuqua (‘The Equalizer‘, ‘Olympus Has Fallen‘, ‘King Arthur’ 04, ‘Training Day’ 01) tries his hand at the boxing genre but alas overcooks the melodrama and when considering the ultimate test of ‘does this film make me want to train?’, the answer is a disappointing ‘no’. Jake Gyllenhaal, Rachel McAdams, Forest Whitaker, 50 Cent, Naomie Harris and Oona Laurence bring the action to life as successful light-heavyweight Billy Hope (Gyllenhaal) suffers personal tragedy, sending his life and career into free-fall and forcing him to fight to regain not just his financial status but his own peace of mind and the respect of his friends and family too.

Oddly enough, screenwriter Kurt Sutter, for whom this is his first feature film after working on ‘Sons of Anarchy’ and ‘The Shield’ for many years, has stated this is actually the metaphorical story of the latter half of Eminem’s life, somewhat following on from 2002’s ‘8 Mile’, and indeed the rapper was initially set to take on the lead role, with the notion of a southpaw (which means a boxer who puts the power behind the left instead of the normal right, although precious little is made of this element in the film itself) meant as a parallel for Eminem’s position as a white artist in a predominantly black industry. Yes, it’s a rubbish metaphor.

This goes some way to explain the numerous overindulgences, especially so with the heavy overuse of music throughout the movie (Eminem released the singles ‘Kings Never Die’ and ‘Phenomenal’ from the soundtrack) and whilst the performances are very solid throughout, especially so from Gyllenhaal and Laurence who plays Hope’s young daughter, the film never really manages to make you care all that much about any of the characters in the very basic, hackneyed and predictable story, though it remains watchable enough for what it is.

The film will also be remembered for presenting to the world the final completed score by legendary composer James Horner (‘Braveheart’ 95, ‘Titanic’ 97) who tragically died in a plane crash earlier this year and who apparently worked on Southpaw for free after seeing the film and loving the father-daughter relationship, even paying his crew from his own pocket. He had also secretly finished the music for Fuqua’s upcoming ‘Magnificent Seven’ (1960) remake (‘The 33’, a film about the 2010 Chilean mine collapse due to be released later this year, was also scored by Horner but he finished it before Southpaw) so it will be interesting to see how much of it makes it into the final edit, or indeed if Fuqua shoots parts of the film to specifically fit the music itself.

Foxcatcher  (2014)    73/100

Rating :   73/100                                                                     129 Min        15

A finely acted and yet supremely depressing true story about Olympic wrestlers Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) and David Schultz (Mark Ruffalo) and their coach Jean du Pont (Steve Carell), who describes himself as one of the richest men in America at the time and who takes on Mark as a way to engage with the sport that he loves but which he has never competed in himself, we are led to conclude that this is largely because his mother (Vanessa Redgrave) very much looks down on the activity as a ‘lowly’ sport. He’s not much of a coach, his body and mannerisms are more like Monty Burns from the Simpsons than anything resembling an athlete or a figure of authority and respect, and the story focuses on the psychological effects of a lifetime spent futilely trying to please an aloof parent, a situation complicated by wealth and indulgent privilege, as well as Mark’s situation growing up and competing in the shadow of his, loving, brother David.

The first thing you notice about the film is the altered physical aspect that all three central performers have sewn into their portrayals – in fact, the three all hunch to some extent, two of them from muscular strengthening and combat, the other via atrophy, but their look and style are all very well nuanced and delivered. Indeed, for Carell this is not only a rare non-comedic role but an extremely transformative one with prosthetics and a deserved Oscar nod for his lonely and fractious study of du Pont – with Ruffalo getting an equally merited supporting nomination although Tatum is every bit their equal. Set in the eighties and directed by Bennett Miller (‘Capote’ 05, ‘Moneyball’ 11), a slightly grainy texture has been applied to the film, which I think is to the movie’s detraction – it is already somewhat dark and miserable without a further visible layer being applied, but it remains a taught and very believable exploration of the themes and characters, and the real story both intrigues and saddens throughout.

Unbroken  (2014)    45/100

Rating :   45/100                                                                     137 Min        15

Just about everything in this film is broken, from insane casting choices to a host of continuity errors and lacklustre infrastructure. This is Angelina Jolie’s third time directing and so far she’s been met with a lot of opposition – I haven’t seen her other films, but you kind of think to yourself maybe she’s getting stick because of who she is. Well, she is bad. I mean, bad in the sense that she reeks of raw eggs fermenting inside of dead rabid cats behind the camera – she has no idea where to put a camera, how to pace a film, or even assemble and tell a story. It’s all over the place, slow, and is a stark and painful trope of three cinema staples: the bullied kid who trains hard and becomes a successful hero, the survival in the face of physical extremes and certain death flick, and the prisoner of war drama. Sadly, it’s actually based on a real story and you have to feel for Louis Zamperini, whose life story this is, and who alas passed away the year of the film’s release.

The film follows Zamperini’s life, from being a troubled kid through to becoming an Olympic runner and then war hero who was singled out to endure extreme brutality whilst interred in a Japanese P.O.W. Camp during World War II, and it opens with a perilous mission in a bomber over the Pacific with scenes even less convincing than the ones in ‘Memphis Belle’ (90). We see, for example, Zamperini show us he is a hero by caring for one of the wounded gunners – instead of grabbing the bleeding vacant gun and trying to help shoot down the plane threatening to kill the rest of them. The lame attempt at believability is continued with such fare as showing some of the men adrift at sea after a few days and they have all allowed the skin on their faces to burn badly, despite having ample materials to cover up with, then we see them many days later and they all look healthier. The Japs give Zamperini a good hiding and force him to eat gruel on the ground, but then apparently give him a shave before sticking him in a camp to be tortured again, wherein Zamperini is punched in the face by every single other prisoner, and then looks none the worse for ware next we see him (we at least don’t know the time frame in this case, but still, it can’t have been that long), and so on.

There are better moments toward the end of the film, and some of the concentration camp scenes convince, but it takes more than half of the film for them to get there and the rest is terrible. It’s also a casting catastrophe – who would be one’s first choice to play an Italian American war hero who deserves recognition in film? Would it be an actor who thus far has only been convincing at playing violent and sadistic English thugs? No. And yet yes it seems – Jack O’Connell is the man in question and the only time he really convinces here is when he punches a fish right in its beady eye to, I’m not kidding, knock it out. Often seeming to do the acting equivalent of twiddling his thumbs he is exceptionally poor in this – and who is he given to be his all American buddy? Domhnall Gleeson, another actor from this side of the pond who’s character portrayal here is weepy to the point of sycophancy. Then who should show up in the camp, who could possibly make the casting any worse than it is already, but Garrett Hedlund who has still not learned that staring off into space whilst growling neither makes for convincing masculinity nor acting.

The writing is as bad as everything else in the film (from the Cohen brothers, amongst others) – I feel sorry for cinematographer Roger Deakins who has made an effort and received an Oscar nod for it, but it must have been by way of compensation really, I mean in the Olympic Games scenes it’s painfully obvious there is no real crowd thanks to the rubbish digital work. In fact, I didn’t even believe O’Connell was running most of the time, there’s barely a bead of sweat on him and his competitors are clearly allowing him to pass. A tragic film, one which also has two further Oscar nods for sound editing and sound mixing – and alas it could well be these are simply to placate various parties after the movie’s failure to make it into any of the major categories.

A Dangerous Game  (2014)    70/100

Rating :   70/100                                                                     102 Min        PG

A documentary from filmmaker Anthony Baxter and essentially a follow up to his hit 2011 film ‘You’ve Been Trumped’, which showed the effects of Donald Trump’s exclusive multi-million dollar golf course built in the rural landscape of the Northeast of Scotland, Balmedie in Aberdeenshire to be precise, and here we continue that story (he finally even manages to bag an interview with Trump himself after the shock waves the first film caused) whilst it is expanded to look at the environmental and economic impact of building courses in other areas of the world, in particular the historic seaside town of Dubrovnik where one is planned for the summit of the hill overlooking the town and would require syphoning off huge amounts of the town’s water supply, and indeed the issue sparks the first local referendum in Croatia’s modern day history.

Golf is a hideous game for the rich as far as The Red Dragon is concerned, in theory I have nothing against it and the activity should be a nice enterprise for those who would like some moderate exercise outdoors, in practise it is dominated by snobs and we have, in Scotland, golf courses all over the place – Edinburgh alone seems to have about five or six of them, all areas that could be public parks for general use. When I was young I was told I wouldn’t be allowed onto my local course as, despite turning up with my friends and having saved enough money to play, I apparently did not own enough clubs. I had a driver, a putter and maybe four or five irons – basically they were saying I was too poor to play as, after all, what would it look like if they let local kids that couldn’t afford a full golf set onto their greens? I mean, they can’t be seen to be encouraging young commoners to play, right? We might even beat them, imagine! We got our own back by sneaking onto the course at night for free anyway.

In short, fuck golf.

The game has also recently become one of the new sports added to the Olympic Games, and it beat squash to claim the place, which is just about the most ridiculous thing ever and of course has everything to do with the money that the ‘sport’ will bring to the games. Sad to say golf was invented in Scotland, although it is amazing the number of outdoor activities Britain in general has given the world given our somewhat inclement weather.

The documentary invites poignant discussion on the sheer amount of precious water that is used and wasted to keep the greens green in places where grass does not naturally grow – like the desert in Nevada where we see an exclusive retreat going out of business, or in the Middle East where a Tiger Woods designed course has had to be put on hold indefinitely because IT’S STUPID. We hear an interview with Alec Baldwin who has fought against a new golf enterprise in his native Long Island amid legitimate fears that the chemicals used on the grass can and will sink into the water supply for the area, and back in Scotland we see the effects on the local people of the building of Trump’s monstrosity, as one elderly woman in her nineties is left permanently without any running water and walls of earth are deliberately erected around other homes – and all of these people are constituents of Scotland’s first minister Alex Salmond, who appears to have fobbed off the beleaguered locals and done absolutely nothing to help them. Not content with this destruction, we learn Trump plans a second course beside the first and has the audacity to complain, legally, about the building of an offshore wind farm as he reckons it might ruin the view of the pigs he’ll have over for dinner. Unbelievable.

The Dubrovnik course is another very interesting major part of the film. However, criticism has to be levelled at the documentary as to how balanced a view we are receiving. Here, for example, an important vote is ruled invalid by the mayor of the town as, according to him, not enough people turned up to vote. Baxter tells us that the vote was carried by eighty percent of the ballot voting against the new construction, but the film never actually tells us what percentage of the town’s populace did come out to vote, so we are given the distinct impression that the mayor is corrupt but if ultimately only, say, ten percent of the township bothered to vote then the mayor would be quite right in considering it insubstantial constitutionally. It’s a little subtle with the momentum of the film strongly in opposition to all of the golf courses featured, but it’s important to consider how balanced a story we are being told – we also briefly hear from some people in Scotland who are happy that Trump has arrived to build an extension of his empire, but we don’t really hear why they think that, we are not given access to their insights on the matter. Similarly in the interview with the man himself, Trump repeatedly says the director will probably edit whatever he says in his favour, and no doubt in response to this the interview plays out in a fairly uninterrupted manner – but the same cannot be said of all the other interviews in the film.

Overall though, I think this is a well balanced, passionate and eye opening documentary, and the few areas of uncertainty are ironed over by numerous clips of real reactions to Baxter’s probing questions, as well as copious interviews with the people most affected by the issues at hand and a mind toward the politics of each situation as well, all edited and paced with enough skill that the audience’s appetites are kept suitably wetted throughout, for a subject that initially sounds a little too dry to be especially engaging.

Million Dollar Arm  (2014)    55/100

Rating :   55/100                                                                     124 Min        15

This had a lot of potential – the true story of baseball coaches and sales reps starting a reality TV talent competition, the eponymous ‘The Million Dollar Arm’ tryouts, in India in 2008 to find two cricket players that could potentially make the transition into playing for a major league baseball team in the States. It was the brainchild of main character J. B. Bernstein (Jon Hamm) largely borne out of struggling finances as he fails to sign anyone of any significance to his sports management firm. Unfortunately, it feels too much like a Sunday afternoon live action Disney film with a far, far too traditional character arc for Bernstein (actually, this is a live action Disney film, maybe it’s about time they updated their formula … ), he will put money first but then realise what’s in front of him with regard to his friends, the hot girl next door, and the youngsters he takes from India back to America, before putting money first again and giving everyone else a hard time, promptly getting slapped around by the aforementioned, once more forced to acknowledge what really matters at heart etc. etc.

Nothing that happens as this see-saw continues is particularly interesting, and attempted comedic moments with the likes of grumpy baseball scout Alan Arkin never really work as intended. It’s yet another hopelessly contrived drama based on a real story that, if given the few base facts required, you could probably storyboard yourself in ten minutes and do a better job, and it likely would have worked much better as a documentary given the wealth of primary footage they must have had at their disposal. The acting is fine but essentially fits the entirely humdrum nature of the whole shebang, with support from Lake Bell, Bill Paxton, Aasif Mandvi and Madhur Mittal (‘Slumdog Millionaire’ 08) and Suraj Sharma (‘Life of Pi’) as the two potential superstars Dinesh Patel and Rinku Singh respectively (neither of whom, ironically, like cricket). We don’t even get to see the pair actually play any games of baseball, it just concentrates on them learning to throw the ball the whole time and whether or not they can do it fast and accurately enough – probably not particularly exciting to do, never mind sit and watch.

The Unbeatables / Metegol  (2013)    53/100

Rating :   53/100                                                                       97 Min        U

Animated tale featuring a foosball table whose players all come to life in order to help their owner, Amadeo (Rupert Grint), defeat his town’s returning tyrant who is desperate for vengeance after Amadeo beat him at the table when they were kids, the only time he was ever beaten at anything, and despite becoming a real life international football star he hasn’t been able to come to terms with the humiliation ever since. This is an Argentinian film that has been dubbed in English and bizarrely, the people in charge of doing the English language version have taken the opportunity to play politics by making the winning foosball team English, with a few foreign players, and the side that is always beaten (Amadeo has never lost a game and seems to always play the same side – one could be forgiven for thinking the table was rigged) is entirely comprised of Scotsmen as far as we can tell. The English captain suggests that they have to work as one and are stronger together, which couldn’t be more obviously referencing the upcoming independence referendum next month, and the heavy suggestion that ‘we are better together because you are shite by yourself’ is unlikely to have the desired effect on voters. Why even go there? They could easily have mixed up the nationalities and kept this ‘better together’ theme going, and their direct referencing is surely going to fly over the heads of their young target audience anyway.

It reminds me of a perfectly pleasant and thought provoking debate on the matter I had with a young gentleman from England in the pub the other day, pleasant, that is, until he put his hands on his hips and triumphantly declared ‘And we both know who gets the most money out of the union,’ he smirked, ‘Scotland, haw haw’. Needless to say he wasn’t looking so pleased with himself when I burned him alive and scattered his ashes around Edinburgh Castle. I mean, it’s possible he’s right – but that’s the point, no one really does seem to know for sure.

As a worthy aside since the film attempts to also dis Scotland’s footballing credentials, England’s media love to laboriously mention they won the World Cup in 1966 (although many of you might have picked up on how little they mentioned that fact during this year’s Brazilian tournament – this is a direct result of the looming vote), but they are less inclined to remind people that during the following British Home Championship it was Scotland that was the first to beat that very same team. Nor were they terribly happy when we beat them at the last ever international to be played at the old Wembley Stadium, in fact they were so miffed they fudged in another international to avoid the humiliation (which they also lost anyway, one nil to Germany). Indeed, the Unofficial Football World Cup actually has Scotland sitting at the top of the all time rankings table, and England’s worst home defeat ever was to Scotland, 6 – 1 way back in 1881.

Although it is fair to say Scottish football at this precise moment in time leaves a lot to be desired. Personally, The Red Dragon thinks they should ban foreign players and managers and just focus on the game for the people of the country – levelling the playing field, increasing domestic support and promoting home talent until we have a decent international team again, get rid of the reliance on business and money and focus on the game. They should promote women’s football as much as the men’s too – it’s just as good, in fact they should have a friendly between the two national teams every year.

Anyway, back to the film – you can often tell the quality of the animation you’re dealing with by looking at how well they render the humans, and here that quality is definitely running at a minimum. The foosball players look much better, but backgrounds and secondary characters are predominantly basic and sometimes even garish, although the creative camera flourishes of director Juan José Campanella do occasionally shine through (Campanella directed best foreign film Oscar winner ‘The Secrets in their Eyes’ 09). The story plods on uninterestingly until the finale is set up – an actual football game between the residents of the town against villain Flash (Anthony Head) and his professional teammates. A match which is to decide the fate of the town, and one that is oddly not as one sided as the recent Germany vs Brazil semi-final. Here the film picks up and delivers a rewarding ending, but there’s not much of value in the rest of the movie, and the animated players spend most of the time just trying to find each other before giving a prep talk to Amadeo, ultimately not doing a great deal over the course of the film.

Senna  (2010)    81/100

Rating :   81/100                       Treasure Chest                     106 Min        12A

An absolutely seminal moment in documentary filmmaking and indeed easily one of the best films of 2010. This masterful film follows the rise to fame of Brazilian Formula One driver Ayrton Senna, focusing on his time with the sport and, unusually, it only uses footage from the time rather than filming interviews now and cutting back and forth, feeling much more like an unfolding drama than a conventional documentary. Personally, I’m not in the least bit interested in F1, so the fact I loved this already speaks volumes. The story it tells has all of the best ingredients that true legends are made from, with high drama that you couldn’t artificially create and a very, very human element at its heart.

In essence the film asks two questions, what to do when you find yourself in a corrupt environment (as Senna does with the FI setup), whether that be a social group or a place of work, and what does it take to be happy, something which is hammered home by Senna telling us he enjoyed himself the most when he was racing for pleasure, with no money or politics attached to it, and we see him constantly chasing the next title never really seeming completely fulfilled – something which is common in many walks of life, certainly to the average person winning even one world title is enough to be pretty satisfied with and yet the reality for the individual can be quite different. Similarly, we watch him fight against the system, but it invites discussion about how to do that effectively without perhaps it getting to you more than you it – is it better simply to leave and walk away?

Not knowing the details of the story makes this all the more compelling so I won’t say anything more, other than give it a go and let its significance play out for yourself …

Next Goal Wins  (2014)    77/100

Rating :   77/100                                                                       97 Min        15

Documentary following the exploits of the American Samoa national football team, against the beautiful backdrop of their capital Pago Pago, as they attempt to qualify for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. America Samoa is a part of the Samoan archipelago which also includes the independent nation of Samoa in the Pacific Ocean and, unsurprisingly given its name, it is one of the foreign territories that are a part of the United States, much like Guam and the American Virgin Islands. With a population of just around 56, 000 we learn the nation’s team are currently residing at the bottom of the FIFA international rankings, and they also have the dubious honour of having suffered the greatest ever defeat in the history of international football – 31 nil by Australia in 2001.

Action, it seems, must be taken, and so the powers that be hire Dutch coach Thomas Rongen to try and lift the team from the doldrums, but will his expertise be enough and how will he react to a different culture at the other side of the world?

The film is divided in good measure between following the action in the games and following the reaction from the players and the coach, and we feel like we are getting to know a few of them quite well, which is of course necessary for the human element to work. We learn, for instance, that Rongen’s daughter tragically died in a car accident and that he and his wife are able to find a degree of spiritual healing in a sense from the island community, the same community that fully embraces Jaiyah Saelua, the transgender player on the team, who also proves gutsy and, ahem, ballsy enough to become one of the team’s greatest assets.

It’s a really wonderful film that perfectly sums up just what sport can mean to people and how much it can move everyone involved with it, from the players and their families to the supporters they are representing. There were more than one or two people sniffling in the audience before the end. Highly recommended.