Sunday, November 24, 2013

Double Feature at Kendall Square: The Armstrong Lie & Go For Sisters

Getting to this evening of movies was a day of "not the plan, but I'll take it". It started from the morning, where I didn't catch the bus to the office but figured that maybe working from home would be for the best; it's a lot easier to get to Kendall Square in time for a 6:45pm screening of Go For Sisters than it would be from Burlington (especially with a 4pm conference call scheduled to go past 5pm). And when that turned out to be not quick enough, well, heck, I'll just catch The Armstrong Lie and then see Go For Sisters at 9:40pm.

The reason for wanting to catch those specific screenings was pretty simple; John Sayles would be introducing both and doing Q&A at the first. IFFBoston was the group presenting the event, but their Brian Tamm also gave a shout-out to the Roxbury International Film Festival (focused on films by and about people of color) and the Boston Latino Film Festival, which are two rather appropriate groups to bring attention to, given that this is a movie about two black women teaming with a Mexican-American ex-cop.

He didn't stick around long for the 9:40pm show - as he said, it was past his bedtime, and the guy who brings his coat to the front of the theater is probably ready to go as soon as the film starts rolling file starts playing. He mentioned that his previous film, Amigo, didn't play Boston at all, and thinking back, I don't know if I remember Honeydripper playing here either. Looking at his filmography, I'm shocked by how few I've actually seen - Lone Star was a big deal, and I think I remember going to Sunshine State, but aside from that? I haven't even watched the Eight Men Out DVD I've had forever. I feel like I should have seen more; he's clearly the sort of guy I want to encourage, in that he makes movies about the things that interest him even if they are far away from his comfort zone (and that of the usual American audience for independent film).

I actually could have dropped into the Q&A - I bumped into Brian while coming out of The Armstrong Lie and he offered - but I decided to see the movie first, figuring that watching people talk about something built like a detective story might not be the best way to experience it. Maybe I should have taken him up on it; it's not like there were a ton of twists that would have been ruined by hearing about them first. But you never know.

Brian asked how The Armstrong Lie was, and I said it was pretty good, although I didn't jump to "you've got to see this!" It's interesting enough, and the way Alex Gibney acknowledges his involvement in the story but doesn't make it about him is nice, but I think I would have come closer to feeling the anger some are clearly looking for if there were a tighter focus on the cover-up, in part because I just can't get worked up over the use of performance-enhancing drugs in sports. Ideally, sure, I'd prefer a level playing field and wouldn't want someone forced out because they refused to risk their health with something dangerous, but on a certain level, I can't help but wonder if this stuff is really more unnatural than laser eye surgery or baseball players having tendons from elsewhere in their body transplanted to their arms.

Sure, part of this is defensive; Manny Ramirez was the MVP of the 2004 World Series and I am not about to call that October illegitimate, especially to the extent that individual sports like cycling do, where if you go to the Tour de France's website, they show a blank space wherever Armstrong (and, presumably, other competitors caught doping) finished. It strikes me as petty and dishonest to whitewash that part of your sport's history, especially since using transfusions and RBC growth factors was so pervasive at the time.

Ah, well. For all the moments of scolding, I at least was able to find myself surprisingly charmed by the footage of the race itself. It reminded me of the way those who get the day off in the Boston area but don't run the Marathon enjoy Patriot's Day, standing by the street, cheering encouragement to the runners, goofing around, only more so - while the parts of the course actually in Boston have always been cordoned off in my experience, occasionally requiring a long detour (and who knows how crazy the security will be next year), the fans are shown getting right in the road with the cyclists, whooping it up, having a great crazy party. And it lasts for three weeks, with a huge chunk of the country getting to enjoy it!

That's pretty awesome. It can be tough for Americans to kick the idea of the French as snobbish, but it's really cool to watch something like that an remember that there is a goofy, enthusiastic side there as well.

The Armstrong Lie

* * * (out of four)
Seen 22 November 2013 at Landmark Kendall Square #7 (first-run, 2K DCP)

Five years ago, Alex Gibney set out to make The Road Back,a documentary that followed Lance Armstrong's comeback, hopefully to culminate in an eighth Tour de France victory. That didn't happen, but a whole lot of other things did. As a result, when Gibney finished the movie in 2013, it had a new title and a new focus. And yet, the movie it was originally meant to be often pokes through, perhaps more than today's Gibney intended.

By now, the world knows the Lance Armstrong story - a young cyclist who contracts testicular cancer that remains undetected until it spreads throughout his body, but rebounds to win the Tour de France seven straight times while starting what is now the Livestrong Foundation to assist cancer patients, vigorously denies having used performance-enhancing drugs despite their being endemic to the sport, only to later confess and be stripped of all his titles and banned from the sport. His 2008-2009 comeback (he had retired after winning his seventh Tour de France in 2005) was meant to show that he was racing clean, with Gibney documenting it, but...

Like Gibney's other movie to come out in 2013, We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks, the director serves as narrator, and while he seldom shows up in front of the camera, the making of the film becomes inextricably tied in with the events he is documenting. It's not that Gibney's presence changes what his subjects are doing, but we see where he can and cannot go, and there's no question that his relationship with Armstrong has grown complicated by the time the film has been finished. He's become a journalist with a very personal axe to grind that nevertheless still wants to believe in the man who betrayed him. In that way, he is maybe not quite representing the audience on screen, but he is putting the camera right where many viewers would.

Full review at EFC.

Go for Sisters

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 22 November 2013 at Landmark Kendall Square #5 (first-run, 2K DCP)

John Sayles is perhaps the most notable independent filmmaker who falls through the cracks despite being quite accessible. Why is that? After all, he's got Lone Star and Eight Men Out to his name! There are a number of reasons, understandable if not great: He seldom returns to the same themes, genres, and regular cast members. He tackles subjects that interest him which are not only far out of the mainstream, but which he can't own the way someone of the class/nationality/ethnicity of his characters might. And he writes stories that don't feel tight but also don't feel like character showcases. His latest, Go for Sisters, has a bit of all of that going on. That's why people might miss it and also why they really shouldn't.

The title refers to how, back in high school, Bernice and Fontayne were so close that everyone assumed they were family. Twenty-five or so years later, they're reunited when ex-convict Fontayne (Yolonda Ross) is assigned Bernice (LisaGay Hamilton) as her new parole agent. Bernice is aware of the conflict of interest, but before she can get Fontayne a new supervisor, her son Rodney has disappeared and become a murder suspect, so she needs information from the sort of people that she should really be making sure Fontayne avoids. They eventually hire former detective Freddy Suarez (Edward James Olmos), who doesn't look like much but used to be known as "The Terminator", to help them navigate the US/Mexico border.

From the way Sayles presents the detective story, one might be predisposed to think that this is one of those movies where the plot is a necessary evil there to give the cast a reason to talk and, in so doing, act; it doesn't often lead to tricky action or tricky twists. And while the characters' quest to find Rodney certainly does serve as a way to keep the cast interacting with each other, their purpose in following this trail is never far away. There are detours and moments where the ties between Bernice and Fontayne come to the fore, but Sayles actually does a great job of showing how this sort of investigation moves forward by asking the right people the right questions even as the tension and tedium can be tremendously frustrating.

Full review at EFC.

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