Monday, October 01, 2012

Seen in September 

Champs-Élysées, Paris. FInal stage of the Tour de France, from Hollentour (Hell on Wheels)

This month, I had initially planned on watching all the films in the Sight and Sound top 100 list, but CBC posted a list of movies about cycling and once I noticed there was an 80s movie with Kevin Costner on a steel diamond frame ten-speed with friction shifters and toe clips, it was too late. Watching several films from the 80s has confirmed my belief that unless you paid some of the best musicians of the day to score your film, you should shy away from a contemporary soundtrack and go with something conservative and orchestral. Really good film scores are a little like the editing or directing. If they are good, you just don't notice them. If you do notice them, they are usually really really bad. While superficially, biking and wheels were the themes of this September, it could have easily have been, movies with really terrible soundtracks.

Premium Rush
Joseph Gordon Levitt plays Wiley (sp? "like the coyote? Cute.") who is an unbelievably gifted street cyclist slumming it as a bike courier in NYC, oh and for good measure he's an Ivy League law school graduate who just hasn't gotten around to writing the bar exam yet. Wiley is a modern maverick on a "Fixie" (a fixed gear single speed bike is typically ridden on a closed track in time trials but has lately been the exclusive ride of urban hipsters from New York to London to Tokyo). He's a philosopher who espouses the "purity" of the fixed gear bike but he's also a stand-up guy who's lost his (beautiful) girlfriend due to his own lack of ambition. Now that all the clichés are in place there's still a couple more. The excellent Michael Shannon is an out-of-control NYC detective deep in gambling debt with some Chinese gangsters who wants what Wiley is trying to deliver. Then there's the Chinese immigrant law student who is depending on the delivery of a receipt for a large amount of cash that will ensure her son can be smuggled out of China. Add in a cocky courier rival (who rides a high-end road bike – a Pinarello in fact, which is highly unlikely for any courier to ride such an expensive bike especially without disguising the brand as a protective measure from theft and taunting from their peers). But all of that is just screenwriting 101 to set up a half-dozen or so chase scenes involving stunt riding though the streets of New York. It's all fun enough with the occasional wink to show that the film isn't taking itself too seriously. The movie exploits so many contemporary devices from Fixie bikes, mobile phones with high-powered mapping applications, "flash mobs" and messenger-style bags that it will undoubtedly date itself. It's fun if inaccurate depiction of the often dangerous and non-unionized labour of bike couriers who are poorly paid, injured on the job and really only make the news when their road rage or substance abuse issues lead to their death such as the case of Darcy Sheppard in Toronto.

Food Inc.
Do you really want to know what you're putting in your mouth? If so, this disturbing film — which ends on an upbeat tone of "we can solve this with good old fashioned American stick-to-itiveness" — is the film you want to see. This documentary based on the book of the same name reveals the surreal practices of how our industrialized food system has led to endangering our health. I'm not an animal rights activist but what this film makes clear and plain is that the mistreatment of animals leads directly to dangerously unhealthy food. Even calling what we eat "food" is a stretch. The very existence of "meat filler" is disgusting; all the undesirable parts of the animal, like bones, hooves, organs and entrails are emulsified in ammonia (yes, you read correctly - AMMONIA) and made into a goo that is mixed with other ground meat to double it's volume. Think about that the next time you pick up a box of frozen burgers. Basically, if you eat something that comes in a package, then it's more of a manufactured product more than food. I tend to eat expensive locally butchered meat because I can afford to, I tend to pick produce grown closer over organic (oranges for South Africa? C'mon) but I'm still guilty of buying a few things that I probably shouldn't (soy milk, for one, and the occasional pack of frozen Chinese dumplings). The next time I go grocery shopping I'll picture what the factory looks like before I reach for the frozen pizza or California strawberries.

True Blood: Season 3
What is Sookie Stackhouse? I feel like the creators of this show are cheating by having every episode end in a life or death cliff hanger. At some point I'm going to not care enough to go to the next episode. But for now, I really want to know.

The Inbetweeners: Season 3
Young people swearing and it is hilarious. I just read that the film based on this series broke box office records in the UK which to me is an indicator that the quality of humour of the program carried over to a film format but it was box office poison in the States. That means it probably won't expand its distribution enough to play here at all. I don't understand how Americans can understand a Southern US accent but be put off by British ones. The US TV version of The Inbetweeners recently debuted on MTV and was hated equally by fans of the original, viewers and critics alike. In some sense a show like that can only exist in it's original context — the only place in the world with British schoolboys is Britain. Despite it being equally crass as the American Pie movies, it is much more honest and ironic so there's no way it could succeed in the States.
“once I noticed there was an 80s movie with Kevin Costner on a steel diamond frame ten-speed with friction shifters and toe clips, it was too late.”
The Flying Scotsman
Graeme Obree is a Scottish cycling legend and innovator. In the 1990s he twice became the 4k individual pursuit world champion and twice held the world one hour record (longest distance cycled in an hour). This film is the jumbled telling of the years when Obree became obsessed with not just breaking the World hour record but doing so on a bike of his own (peculiar) design. For someone to build a unique bike isn't that unusual (he aimed to emulate the tucked form of downhill skiers - a later refinement of this position "the Superman" is still used in time trials today) but the fact that he made a bike without funding and using bearings from a washing machine and still beat riders on carbon fibre bikes is unusual. He also did all of this while suffering from bipolar disorder (manic-depression? I'm unclear of the nomenclature), surviving several suicide attempts, resisting taking performance enhancing drugs which were so prevalent in the sport and having to deal with the death of his brother. This film suffers from what most bio-pics suffer from. The person's story is so intriguing that it doesn't require the pastiche of movie-making. Obree's story is fascinating enough as it is without the filmmaker trying to depict his athletic focus, his depression or the villainy of professional cycling and the World Cycling Federation. Too much pop-psychology, compressed and extended timelines, the omission of facts, the heightening of others are all hallmarks of the failed biopic which is often in contrast to the life they are trying to depict.

Höllentour (Hell on Wheels)
Documentary that follows the 2003 Tour de France Team Telekom particularly Germans Erik Zabel and Rolf Aldag. It's a year when Armstrong dominated, Vinokurov had a breakout tour and when Tyler Hamiliton shocked everyone with a mountain stage win. Given that we know just how rampant drug use was in the Tour it's surprising how intimate this documentary is. If Zabel and Aldag were doping it would be hard to imagine it wouldn't have been captured on camera. But their surprise when discussing Hamilton is pretty clear — they think something is amiss with that stage win and say as much without saying it outright. One thing you love about the Tour de France is the striking filming from the ground and air so it really is hard for a film to do much better than the HD broadcasts we've become accustomed to but seeing the moments of the cyclists laying around during a massage, seeing the trainer rub copious amounts of chamy cream into their kit or listening to their assessment of other riders while they recuperate in their hotel rooms is priceless. One thing I will say is how some commenters on IMDB love the score of this film yet it is incredibly awful soft electro-jazz. The score sounds like a crap erotic Italian crime thriller from the 80s. I can't express how terrible and distracting the score was. Rather than sound written for the film it sounds like late night royalty-free filler Muzak. Why not just use some Jani tracks you found lying around. I don't even care if the composer's mother reads this — the score was so shite I almost stopped watching. When you think of the musical opportunities that could've been, it just makes you want to tear your hair out. As you can guess from the title, this film was told from a German rider's perspective but I'd almost like to see this story following a rookie French rider because the Tour means so much to the French. Another aspect we see exposed here are how the small villages come to life for the Tour and all fans and loose collection of caravans and campers who follow the Tour up the mountain sides form improvised mobile villages on their own. I'm not sure anyone not interested in the Tour would like this but if you do even casually follow the sport then this is a lot of fun (despite the horrible, horrible, horrible music).

Ride the Divide
A group of riders tackle one of the most difficult bike races in the world over the Great Divide from Banff, Alberta to the Mexico border. The Great Divide Bike Route is almost 4500 km through forest and service roads, trails and goat paths. Less than 100 have attempted the route as a race and less than 40 have completed it. The ride is almost more of a mental challenge as much as a physical one where riders break down more often than their bikes. What makes it unique as a race is that the riders are entirely self supported. Riding from place to place with only enough food or water for a day, sleeping in motels and hotels where available but sleeping more often on the ground in bivy sacks the riders face dehydration, mechanical breakdowns, boredom and loneliness. Another odd part of the race is how much these cyclists want each other to succeed. To be honest, it doesn't seem like a race at all and the "competitors" seem pretty much on par (or even less able) than guys you might ride with on the weekends. I'm assuming if actual pro trail riders took part, they'd be waiting at the border of Mexico wondering what the big deal was. The camaraderie though seems particular to this kind of trail riding and touring in general. Folks are genuinely impressed that you've ridden so far on a bicycle and they wish you well. Other cyclists will just start chatting and asking you questions — clearly very different from the spandex clad egotists that ride dangerously past families on Saturdays on the Lakeshore in Toronto. You may find moments watching this when you wish you were out on the road, grinding the pedals over the tarmac, pitching your tent, making a fire and sleeping under the stars. Yet there are a lot of other times when you wonder, "Why bother?"

American Flyers
Pure unadulterated American cheese from 1985. Kevin Costner plays Marcus, a sports medicine physician who had a falling out with his mother and brother after the death of his father, returns home to convince his younger brother Dave to ride in a pro cycling race in Colorado, The Hell of the West. This movie aims for every single emotional button, road movie, buddy movie and of course, every sport movie cliché. It misses most of them. The racing scenes are surprisingly accurate though (despite some loose pelotons), showing realistic race tactics and beautiful Colorado scenery. Yet the clichés pile up too high, the cockey American bad guy nicknamed the "Cannibal", (which is kind of shocking considering the real "Cannibal", Belgian cycling legend Eddie Merckx, makes a cameo appearance in the film), against his international rival, a Soviet? I know this 1985 but where were the Italians and French in this race? In the end it's no "Breaking Away" but the scenery is second to none and why not have a cycling race as a sports cliché. Given that it is 1985, there is a heavy handed synth pop music soundtrack which is crap. What's the connection between road racing and the synthesizer? I mean why do all movies about bike races have to be set to really really crappy synthesizer jazz or pop music? There's also some very bad Bon Jovi-esque type rock 'n roll. If you want to use orchestrated synthesizer in your score for a cycling movie, please consider Kraftwerk or Philip Glass, or in a pinch, why not use Devo or Mark Mothersbaugh? Ugh. No one's listening.

Hell on Wheels
Absolutely nothing to do with bicycles. This AMC series is about the building of the railway across the United States circa 1865. It's about mapmakers robber barons, Civil War vets and recently freed slaves all trying to make their way in post Civil War America. The show has a Deadwood feel about it, but slightly more affected. There's plenty of potential for violence, history and sex and most importantly, drama and interesting stories. Let's hope the show can maintain the momentum from the pilot episode.

Kevin Bacon in Quicksilver. Image via I Love Hot Dogs Note the peculiar reverse mounted front brakes on Bacon's bike in this shot. I wonder if they were just trying to hide it because you really think he's riding without brakes in the film.

Kevin Bacon plays Jack Casey (isn't "Jack Casey" usually a CIA spy or something?), formerly a "hot shot" trader who lost everything, including his parent's savings, in one day of bravado trading. Now, he's slumming it as a bike courier in San Francisco, which must be one of the worst possible cities to be a bike courier. A series of events including seeing a colleague run over after crossing a drug dealer, his father struggling, his girlfriend's superficiality, a friend's modest ambitions, Smilin' Jack Casey decides to "get back in the game". With a tiny loan from a friend he essentially shorts on telecom and tech stocks and has a good day. In one crazy montage of floor trading, Jack makes enough to give a loan for a friend and a down payment on what he owes his father. All he has left to do is avenge the dealer, "The Gypsie", who is harassing young couriers. San Fran was a tough place in the 80s. I would say this movie was the blueprint for Premium Rush (right down to the Latino love interest and Black rival) but how many films like this have there been? Well, at least one too many. The acting is second rate, the score is dated, and the production value is economical. There are some fun stunts but really, how many musical montages does any film need? Apparently, in the 80s, funding for a film was based on a promise of no less than three to five montages. I said the score was dated (in the Flashdance kind of way) but at its best it reminded me of the soundtrack to "Drive" and I guess it was the 80s influence that so many people enjoyed. At its worst, the score sounded more like a bad knock-off of Fame. Still, I'd like to see Quick Rush, a mashup where Kevin Bacon and Joseph Gordon-Levitt race different illicit packages across America as part of a nation wide courier race, like Gumball Rally on fixed gear bikes. Incidentally, I think this movie put me over my data limit with my ISP. Not worth it. On the bright side, Laurence Fishbourne is in this film if that helps your Six Degrees of Separation in any way.

Labels: , , ,


Post a Comment

<< Home