Thursday, 3 December 2015

Movie Review: Kidnapping Mr. Heineken/The Program (2015)
One of the main pledges I made when it comes to what gets watched/reviewed on this blog, aside from anything new I watch that was released from 2012-onwards gets reviewed without question, is that I watch everyone that gets released at my local. For the sake of sincerity, this would be the Hoyts cinema in Westfield Warringah, a place I have probably more time in than I ever did at school. Given the frequent grammar/spelling errors in these reviews, it shows. However, at some point down the road earlier in the year, I became slack. There was a string of new releases that, out of laziness, I didn’t end up checking out before they stop screening.  As we approach the end of the year and I am doing my usual round-up of the films I didn’t get a chance to check out before, it would only be logical to right old wrongs and get to those films I missed. However, given both the exceptionally brief cinematic run it had coupled with the woeful approval ratings it has garnered, maybe this was one of those that I should be glad that I missed first time around. This is Kidnapping Mr. Heineken.

The plot: Small-time Dutch crooks Cor (Jim Sturgess), Willem (Sam Worthington), Cat (Ryan Kwanten), Brakes (Thomas Cocquerel) and Spikes (Mark Van Eeuwen) are tired of their standards of living so, in an effort to get some fast money, they plot to kidnap beer tycoon Freddy Heineken (Anthony Hopkins). However, as the ransom payment takes longer and longer to be made, they start to question if they can stick it out for the long haul, even if the money could get them out of their current circumstances.

The acting is pretty decent, even considering the slapshod casting that features British and Australian actors portraying Dutch characters. However, their acting isn’t suitable for this kind of story, as everyone save for Heineken’s chauffeur (David Dencik) reacts way too calmly to everything going on around them. Hopkins acts like he’s doing a reality show on dodgy hotels with how he mildly reacts to the conditions of his cell, as if he heard he was going to be spending most of the film in a cell and decided to bring back his Hannibal Lector performance despite the actual tone of the film. As for our mains, Worthington gets some moments of rage but quickly regresses into wimp personified in record time, and Sturgess is given the most character motivation for the heist but never ends up acting on any of it. Other than that, none of the other actors stand out enough to be worthy of singling out.

This might be the least gritty crime thriller I’ve seen in quite some time. Everything about it just feels so clinical which, since it features two people being kept prisoner in sound-proofed cells for weeks on end, most definitely shouldn’t be the case. Everyone is way too blasé about the situation and the motivations for doing so are thinly portrayed at best. We get a mild sense of crime driven by poverty, through their differing encounters with the local bank, but the actual crime itself is treated with the least urgency possible. This doesn’t help by how the characters are written or, rather, aren’t written since they just fulfill roles without any real nuance to them: Cor is the leader, Willem is the muscle, Brakes is the naïve kid, and the other two are the other two. The only potentially decent idea is how Heineken and Brakes start bonding during his captivity. But even then, all it results in is Hopkins reminding audiences of his performance in a far better film. Maybe if they didn’t go with the decision to have Brakes be mainly silent whenever they interacted, this could’ve resulted in something interesting. Then again, the fact that they didn’t is just a side-effect of the film’s biggest problem: The pacing.

This is rushed beyond all reasonable doubt. The set-up for the kidnapping itself is miniscule, with the rationale for the whos and whys barely being established. Now, this would be understandable under regular circumstances: Chances are that the filmmakers wanted to get the preliminaries out of the way so that they could focus on the kidnapping itself and the supposed conflict the characters go through during that time. Well, that fails rather badly when both the kidnapping and the aftermath are dealt with in a fashion where all the true-to-life details are being adhered to, but without any of the drama or emotion that makes what’s happening interesting or investing. Wow, déjà vu all over again. It’s kind of baffling to understand why people still write with this mindset, but it bears repeating: If you half-arse it when it comes to connecting the audience to the characters that we are clearly meant to sympathize with, don’t be surprised if our whole-arses don’t stay in our seats for the running time.

All in all, this is just yet another boiler-plate crime thriller that is way too focused on the events and not on the people that they affect. The acting is perfectly fine, and of course Hopkins is great, but their characters are bland and nigh-uncaring in their approach to their given scenarios, the writing is bare bones and the pacing feels like the filmmakers got equally bored with the main premise and just wanted to get it over and done with. Considering director Daniel Alfredson made two excellent Dutch crime films with the follow-ups to The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (the original, not the Fincher version), maybe his salvos have dried up after that colossal effort and he’s just running on fumes. Might explain why he hadn’t made a film since then until now. It’s better than Kill Me Three Times, another weaksauce criminal outing, as this didn’t annoy me nearly as much with its blandness; blame the far better score this time around, I guess. However, regardless of its overall quality, The Dressmaker still made for a more engaging watch, even if it was as a result of just how insane its contents were.


Earlier in the year, by sheer luck, I happened to be in the same room as my uncle while he was watching a documentary on Netflix. That doco was Bigger, Stronger, Faster*, a film that looked at the issue of steroid use in professional wrestling and dare to ask if maybe, just maybe, the world was overreacting to performance enhancement just a bit. Since sitting through that, I have been rather dubious about today’s film concerning the infamous Lance Armstrong drug scandal. The reason for that being that, unlike the rest of the world, I don’t see how demonizing his character helps anyone. As such, I am seriously worried about this film devolving into a lot of beating down on an easy target and acting like a slightly more sophisticated Mr. Mackey about how drugs are bad, mkay? Well, there’s only one way to find out if my rather pessimistic expectations are met, and bear in mind that these are even greater than usual. Time to get back in the saddle: This is The Program.

The plot: Cyclist Lance Armstrong (Ben Foster), after nearly succumbing to testicular cancer, is determined to make sure he doesn’t ever lose again. As a result, he seeks the aid of sporting physician Dr. Ferrari (Guillaume Canet) who puts him and the rest of his team on a performance enhancement regimen. As Lance’s winning streak in the Tour de France increases, and it looks like no-one can touch him for first place, journalist David Walsh (Chris O’Dowd) suspects that he may not be winning in the most strictly legal manner. He encounters a lot of red tape and intense scepticism from both his colleagues and his bosses, but he is determined to find out the truth.

Foster is outstanding as Armstrong, portraying his determination, arrogance and repentance superbly, even if the transition between those three isn’t the best handled. O’Dowd almost matches Foster in terms of showing a drive to succeed, not to mention intense passion both in his performance and his character’s ideals. Canet, considering he’s been given what is essentially a mad scientist, plays it as such only without going too overblown as to reduce credibility… that shouldn’t be possible. Jesse Plemons, who is quickly becoming today’s cinematic Waldo in terms of how suddenly he appears in films, gives another good performance here as Landis. Lee Pace, who I’m definitely glad is getting more mainstream attention in films now, does really well as the almost mob enforcer agent Stapleton.

Writer John Hodge, whose collaborations with Danny Boyle such as Trainspotting need no introduction, has a real knack for never taking sides when it comes to conflicting characters. Whether it’s misanthropic drug users, misanthropic teens on vacation, or just misanthropes in general (yeah, he has a thing for writing humans who hate all other humans), he never paints anyone directly as the hero or the villain; he just presents sides and lets the audience take the reins. He’s pretty much the Rorschach test of screenwriters and, thankfully, this film isn’t an exception to that. He presents the justification for why Armstrong went with the program to begin with as well as why Walsh would want him brought down. Now, as is usually the case in terms of biopics, it’s important to understand the biases that went into the final product; namely, what primary source is being used. In this case, it’s Walsh’s tell-all book about his journey to uncover the truth about Armstrong that gets the big ‘Based On’ credit. However, this film doesn’t whole-heartedly take his side and show him as the white knight trying to save cycling, nor does it show Armstrong entirely as someone who is willing to do anything to win; they are both and they are neither.

The big doping scandal is much like any other case involving the darker side of a public figure: There are conflicting perspectives on the merits of the people involved. This is why Hodge’s approach is so important, not just for the people involved in the doping conspiracy but for the conspiracy itself as well. It’s a pretty not-well-kept secret that performance enhancement exists in many realms of professional sport and both its prevalence and the actions made to carry it out end up creating some morally grey questions. Not that the film ever tries to outright answer whether doping is right or wrong, instead focusing on Armstrong’s image as the catalyst for why it got revealed at all. Everyone is doing it but, because he was so high-profile and ended up crossing so many people, it was him out of the entire circuit that got taken down. This also leads to a question that, as always, I can only give my perspective on because it’s that ambiguous a point: Does the revelation that Armstrong was a cheat completely negate his image? The film itself raises this question as well, particularly when it comes to his cancer research foundation. Without a doubt, the strongest point of the entire film is when he’s in the hospital and meets a patient in his bed; barely any words are spoken, and yet it hits the hardest out of the entire film’s running time. Add to this the woman who spoke with him at the book signing and extolled how much of a personal inspiration he was, and that knee-jerk betrayal starts to get a little cloudy. Again, not saying outright that people don’t have a right to feel said betrayal; just that maybe one shouldn’t completely erase the other.

All in all, this managed to meet my expectations in the best way possible, taking a broader and far less biased look at the Armstrong case than I feared. The acting is excellent, if not the best transitioned, the direction is stellar, the soundtrack works really well where it’s used and the writing presents both sides of the conflict as even-handedly as possible, easily the best approach when dealing with a topic like this. It ranks higher than We Are Your Friends, as this film has a far better purpose than simply promoting its soundtrack. Although, to be fair, the classic rock soundtrack here is pretty cool. However, even if it doesn’t hold up to this movie in terms of its script, Everest made for a more investing watch thanks to the acting and cinematography. Even if you only have a passing interest in Armstrong, especially now after all that’s happened, this is most assuredly one to check out.

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