Movie Review: Argo (2012)

October 23, 2012 in Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

Argo, Ben Affleck’s latest film, proves two things. One, he is still a mediocre actor. And two, he is developing into one heck of a director.

Following on from one of my favourite films from 2010, The Town, Affleck returns to the director’s chair for Argo, a film about the 1979 Iran hostage crisis where 52 Americans at the US Embassy in Tehran were held hostage by Islamist students and militants.

The movie itself centers on a fascinating but lesser-known aspect of a side story to the crisis in which US involvement was not declassified until 1997. Affleck plays Tony Mendez, a CIA operative tasked with finding a way to bring back six Americans who escaped the embassy at the start of the crisis and took refuge at the home of the Canadian ambassador (Victor Garber). At a time where the six Americans would likely be tortured and killed if discovered, Mendez concocted a plan that would have been unbelievable had it not been true: producing a fake sci-fi movie.

The timing was perfect, given Star Wars had taken off and Hollywood producers were scrambling to make rip-offs. But of course, if it were so easy to get them out the film would not be two hours long.

Argo doesn’t have much of that stuff you see in action films these days, but it’s still incredibly tense and exciting all the way through. The background and context to the crisis is swiftly and effectively dealt with at the beginning, and the initial scenes of the civil unrest expertly generate a genuine sense of terror and panic that lingers on for the rest of the film.

It could have been very easy for this film to become dull and stagnant, but Affleck sustains the tension through a series of well-crafted incidents and conversations, ensuring viewers never lost track of what was at stake and the imminent danger the Americans were in at all times. Needless to say, things were probably never that tense in real life, but that’s why this is a movie.

Credit has to go to Affleck for his brilliantly authentic recreation of 1979 Tehran, which as the end credits showed paid painstaking attention to detail. Everything from the architecture, the clothing and the hairstyles brought me back to those times, and I wasn’t even born then!

The performances from the all-star cast were solid. The ever-present Bryan Cranston (sorry, Heisenberg) was subtle as Jack O’Donnell, Mendez’s supervisor, and yet electrifying when he needed to be. Breaking Bad has already proven Cranston to be one of the greatest TV actors of all-time, and I hear maybe Argo has given him some Oscar buzz. John Goodman, who plays Hollywood make-up artist John Chambers, and Alan Arkin, who plays  director Lester Siegel, provide some of the more lighthearted moments and are both excellent.

As for the six US diplomats, the only actors I recognised were Tate Donovan (best known for being engaged to Jennifer Aniston and Sandra Bullock) and Clea DuVall (whom I will always associate with The Faculty), but all of them were very good.

As it turned out, the weakest link was probably Affleck himself as Mendez. Apart from the lack of a physical resemblance (everyone else was pretty spot on), Affleck played Mendez with his usual “blank” face and unlayered line delivery. Perhaps I’m being a little harsh and perhaps the muted performance was intentional, but to be honest I never really felt as much for his character as I probably should have.

Overall, Argo is unquestionably compelling cinema and solidifies Affleck’s reputation as a director who knows how to craft impeccable dramas filled with thrills and style. I can’t wait to see what he comes up with next.

4 stars out of 5

Summary & views on USADA’s Lance Armstrong decision

October 22, 2012 in Sport by pacejmiller

I don’t know much about cycling or doping but I have been utterly intrigued by the Lance Armstrong doping case instigated by the USADA (United States Anti-Doping Agency), which published a Reasoned Decision on October 10 explaining why it was stripping Armstrong of his seven Tour de France titles and issuing a lifetime ban after the retired cyclist refused to contest the charges. The decision was ratified by the International Cycling Union (UCI), cycling’s global governing body, on Monday.

More specifically, I was curious how someone as celebrated and worshipped as Armstrong, who has practically been a cycling god for more than a decade, could have engineered the greatest doping scheme in the history of sport and not “failed” a single drug test, as he claims. I was interested in how someone could continue to vehemently deny cheating in the face of what appears to be insurmountable evidence. And I was fascinated by how there could still be so many people that continue to believe him when he claims that he walked away from contesting charges that effectively destroy his legacy because “enough was enough” and that the toll of the fight on the “unconstitutional witch hunt” of the USADA was not worth it.

A lawyer friend claimed that the decision was a “good read”, and I supposed as decisions go, it wasn’t too bad. For some reason I have just trawled through the 164 pages of the main report and the 33 pages of addendum (on the credibility of the witnesses), plus just a few of the hundreds of appendices.

My thoughts? Incredible.  Just as there is no doubt that Armstrong, a cancer survivor, has done a lot of good with his cancer charity Livestrong, raising almost US$500 million (though this is contested), there shouldn’t be any doubt that Armstrong doped and is a colossal prick — if, of course, the USADA report is to be believed. And really, even taking into account problems with the report, the quality and credibility of the evidence and the potential of ulterior motives and so forth, I can’t find any reason not to believe the report’s central argument — that Armstrong is a drug cheat.

The Reasoned Decision

To be honest, I found the Reasoned Decision a strange document to read at times. The USADA is not a government body nor a court of law, so the document was not written like an objective case report but more like a one-sided submission.

I also found the tone and wording to be uneven as it was at times quite opinionated and made statements that made me feel like I was reading an editorial.

That said, the substance of the report was all there, and it’s clear that a lot of work was put into establishing an iron clad case against Armstrong, including explaining the credibility of all the witnesses that stepped forward to provide evidence against him. I had problems with some of the things I read, but when taken as a whole, the Reasoned Decision is a very strong document.

The charges

The charges against Armstrong included that he:

– possessed, used and attempted to use doping drug EPO, blood transfusions, testosterone, corticosteroids and/or masking agents;

– trafficked in these illegal substances and offered and administered them to teammates; and

– actively and systematically covered up the evidence of the doping.

What was shocking was that the USADA claimed that Armstrongwas not merely a participant in the doping, but that he was one of the ringleaders of the whole thing and had encouraged and assisted others in cheating to give himself a better chance of winning (as competitive cycling is, as I discovered, very much a team sport designed to benefit its “star”).

The evidence

The USADA’s accusations are largely based upon the sworn testimonies of 26 people, including 15 cyclists of which 11 were Armstrong’s former teammates on his US Postal Service Team. The testimonies are backed up and corroborated to some extent by documentary evidence including financial payments and emails. And yes, there is some scientific data and laboratory test results as well. A lot of it does rest on the reliability of the witnesses, the testing procedures, circumstantial evidence and inferences, which some may find unsatisfactory, but as I explain below, I think it all adds up.

The report also describes in detail how Armstrong refused to contest the USADA’s charges against him and that the evidence would have been even stronger had the case been brought to trial, including witnesses that would not have come forward unless subpoenaed  and the ability to cross-examine opposing evidence.

The USADA’s standard of proof is “comfortable satisfaction” bearing in mind the seriousness of the allegations. However, the agency specifically and repeatedly said in the report that the evidence was “overwhelming” and that it was “beyond a reasonable doubt” — the standard for criminal cases — that Armstrong was guilty of doping. The report even made the bold statement that the evidence was as strong as or stronger than any case brought by the USADA in its 12 years of existence.

Witness evidence

The strongest witness statements and affidavits came from Armstrong’s former teammates such as Tyler Hamilton, Floyd Landis and Frankie Andreu, as they were in his UPS team and remained close with him until they admitted to cheating and implicated him, upon which Armstrong turned on them with a vengeance. Five of the eight riders from Armstrong’s 1999 team produced witness evidence against him and admitted to their own guilt.

From what I read, the statements are so detailed and comprehensive (and supposedly non-contradictory with each other as well as proven facts) that it makes it highly unlikely that they could have simply been concocted out of thin air. They claim that doping was openly discussed inside the team and that each rider was on a special doping regimen. They also recount various specific incidents where it can be strongly inferred that Armstrong was doping. And they say Armstrong was the undoubted leader of the doping movement in their team.

Armstrong and his team have viciously attacked the credibility of just about every single one of these witnesses in the media, claiming that each of them had “axes to grind” against him, mostly out of jealousy or a fallout. He also points out that they were given “sweetheart deals” of six month suspensions in exchange for providing evidence against him, which is potentially another reason to doubt their claims.

If it were just two or three people, then okay, I might be able to imagine a situation where a few former teammates fabricated stories against Armstrong together in order to receive lighter sentences. But first of all, there are 11 former teammates, which makes that highly unlikely. Is it more likely that they are all in some massive conspiracy together to bring down one person out of jealousy or other petty disagreements, or is it more likely that one person is lying?

Second of all, what has been forgotten in the attacks is that all these former teammates have admitted to doping themselves. Many of them previously denied doping until the evidence became too insurmountable. While it does not prove that Armstrong doped as well, the fact that so many of his former teammates admitted their guilt makes it a lot more difficult to believe that Armstrong, the star of the team, was not involved as well, and had no idea that they were doping right under his nose for so many years.

Tyler Hamilton

There were also several witness statements from non-riders close to Armstrong, such as Frankie Andreu’s wife Betsy, as well as Armstrong’s masseuse, Emma O’Reilly, who claimed that she once used make-up to help Armstrong cover bruising from syringe-use. These people clearly had less to gain from turning against Armstrong.

Many of the statements from the witnesses are solely their word against Armstrong’s, but they do paint a convincing narrative because most of them are in line with known facts.

For instance, Armstrong tested positive for cortisone in 1999 but was not punished because he had a medical authorization for it to treat saddle sores — witnesses claim that the excuse was fabricated and that the medical authorization was illegally backdated by his doctor.

In 2000, Armstrong dropped out of a race at the last minute —  a witness claims that he only did so after being warned by the witness that testing officers were after him.

Also in 2000, French authorities discovered that Armstrong’s team had dumped a bag of medical waste with syringes including a blood doping product, but dropped the case after being told that it was to treat a diabetic staff member — again, witnesses claim that this excuse was made up.

In 2001, Armstrong’s samples from the Tour Du Swisse were found to be “suspicious for the presence of EPO” (though not positive), but this did not come to light until years later when Floyd Landis admitted to doping. Landis claims that Armstrong used his powerful stature and contacts to make the problem “go away”, allegedly with a “financial agreement” with the UCI. While the UCI official in question denies he was bribed, he did acknowledge that Armstrong visited UCI headquarters at the time and offered at least US$100,000 to help the development of cycling.

One of the most damning pieces of evidence was Betsy Andreu’s claim that Armstrong admitted to doctors at an Indiana hospital before surgery in 1996 that he had used performance enhancing drugs. Armstrong said it was a fabrication that arose out of jealousy after Frankie Andreu was dropped from the UPS team in 2001, though three other people provided witness statements stating that Betsy told them of Armstrong’s admission several days after the incident, undermining his assertion that the story was concocted five years later.

USADA has strongly defended the credibility of all the witnesses in the report, saying that it came at a “considerable cost and substantial risk”, including having years of competitive results disqualified, risking current and future employment, suspensions and competition opportunities.

Documentary evidence

The documentary evidence was not quite as strong as I had expected it to be, as most of it was to back up the witness statements or attack Armstrong’s credibility.

For example, Armstrong claimed that he had severed all professional relations with his former trainer Michele Ferrari in 2004, when Ferrari was convicted of sporting fraud and implicated in doping. Records showed that Armstrong paid Ferrari more than US$1 million between 1996 and 2006, and an email trail between Armstrong and Ferrari’s son, who acted as an intermediary, proved that the two continued to work together post-2004.

Another example is an email chain between Armstrong and Frankie Andreu, which showed that the former had requested the latter to return to the UPS team in 2001, but the offer was declined. This tears down Armstrong’s assertion that the Andreu’s turned on him out of jealousy after Frankie was dropped from the team.

There were also other emails to Frankie which asked him to warn Betsy not to “bring him down” with doping inferences in the press. “There is a direct link to all of our success here and I suggest you remind her of that,” the email said, suggesting that Armstrong was guilty (as he would have simply denied doping or accused her of lying had he been innocent).

Scientific evidence

For me, the most compelling evidence was the scientific evidence that Armstrong doped. They are:

– an expert examination of Armstrong’s blood parameters established that the likelihood of Armstrong’s blood values from the 2009 and 2010 Tours de France occurring naturally is less than one in a million and is therefore consistent with blood doping;

– blood samples from 2009 were also found to be consistent with Armstrong having taken part in a blood transfusion during the tour, which suggests he was involved in blood doping (where riders take out 500 ccs of blood and re-inject it back into the body later on);

– Armstrong’s stored samples  from the 1999 Tour de France tested in 2004 by French authorities found EPO on six occasions (with probabilities of 100%, 89.7%, 96.6%, 88.7%, 95.2% and 89.4%) — however, the UCI overruled the findings on the basis that proper protocols were not followed;

– Armstrong’s 2001 Tour du Suisse samples which tested “suspicious” for EPO showed 70%-80% the parameters of EPO, which meant that the probability of doping was high but not definitive as it could have been produced naturally — however, under current testing criteria the result would have been “positive” as opposed to just “suspicious”.

Tellingly, the UCI refused to provide USADA with Armstrong’s stored samples which could have returned a lot more positive results. Some of the samples were refused on the basis that Armstrong refused to give his consent, which is suspicious in itself.

Other evidence

The Reasoned Decision offers a lot of other “supporting” evidence which I did not find particularly material, even though it does help paint a more complete story.

For instance, the USADA used Armstrong’s unlikely dominance as support for the assertion that he cheated, including reports that he intentionally held back at certain stages of races. Personally, I think that’s a little unfair.

The USADA also painted Armstrong as a complete dickhead and bully who would set out to belittle, humiliate and destroy anyone who dared to go up against him. While this is probably true, it isn’t necessarily relevant to the question of whether he actually doped.

More relevant was the fact that Armstrong attempted to prevent witnesses from giving evidence against him, including by intimidating and threatening potential witnesses, both personally and through his lawyers.

Perhaps most damning was the fact that Armstrong surrounded himself with doctors, trainers and staff who have been involved in or at least strongly suspected and accused of being involved in doping. There is a long list, including the aforementioned Ferrari, Johan Bruyneel, Luis Garcia del Moral, Jose Marti and Pedro Celaya. Again, it might not prove that he doped, but it certainly doesn’t help.

How Armstrong managed to get away with it

What I was very interested in was how Armstrong managed to get away with cheating for so many years. To me, being able to plausibly explain in detail how he passed so many drug tests is critical to the USADA’s case.

Growing up, I had always assumed that drug testing in sports was almost foolproof. Even though many high profile athletes in sprinting and baseball have been sprung in recent years, for the most part I still believed that the risks were too high for most athletes to try to dope.

But as the USADA report showed, doping is a chronic problem in cycling and has been for years. Apparently all but one of the podium finishers during Armstrong’s seven-year reign have been linked to or found guilty of doping, which is both remarkable and disgraceful.

The USADA downplayed Armstrong’s claim that he passed more than 500-600 drug tests, saying that he had only been tested 60 times by the USADA and 200 times by UCI, of which many were likely tests for its health test and biological passport programs (which are not actual tests for performance enhancing drugs).

According to the USADA and its witnesses, Armstrong employed the following tactics to avoid being caught:

– avoiding testers during windows of detection — this was easy for Armstrong as the UCI did not have an out of competition testing program. He was also able to evade testers by not answering the door, while his teams had surveillance crews on the lookout for testers. He also often hid at a hotel in Spain when he needed to get away from testers, and his team staff were good at predicting when testers would come. When tested, Armstrong received at least an hour’s notice, during which his team could mask his blood. Armstrong was also accused of providing untimely and incomplete whereabouts information to USADA, thereby making it more difficult to locate him for out of competition testing;

– using undetectable substances and methods — blood doping and human growth hormones, which Armstrong was said to have used, were not detectable back in those days. As mentioned above, Armstrong also cheated the system by getting false and backdated medical authorizations for cortisone, and his team was said to have known very well how long certain drugs would be detectable by testers;

– understanding limitations to drug tests — Armstrong allegedly used hypoxic chambers and training at altitudes to lessen likelihood of detecting EPO; and

– using saline solutions to mask his blood and micro-doping EPO so that it would not come up in tests.

Thoughts

I’ve just realised how bloody long this summary is, and I guess that shows how much evidence there is against Armstrong. It is also telling that Nike, Armstrong’s longtime sponsor, dumped him after the report was released and said that he had misled them for more than a decade. Armstrong himself stepped down as chairman of his Livestrong foundation to spare it of the negative effects of his tarnished reputation.

Importantly, the UCI’s decision to accept the USADA’s findings and officially strip Armstrong of his seven Tour de France titles and enforce a lifetime ban is indicative of the report’s strength and credibility. Having been embroiled in a jurisdictional dispute with the USADA over the Armstrong case and uncooperative in assisting the agency in its investigations, the UCI’s ratification of the Reasoned Decision speaks volumes.

Initially, a lot of people were convinced that Armstrong was telling the truth and that enemies were really “out to get him”. But the question that has never been answered adequately is why? Why would people want to do this to a sporting legend and cancer hero? Why would they be willing to risk or destroy their reputations, careers and futures just to bring down a former close friend and/or teammate with lies, all for something silly like jealousy? Would you lie to risk perjury and ruining your reputation and future just because you despise someone? Would 26 people?

In the Federal Court decision granting the USADA jurisdiction to arbitrate Armstrong’s case, concerns were raised about the motives of the USADA in going after Armstrong, claiming that “it is difficult to avoid the conclusion” that it is “motivated more by politics and a desire for media attention than faithful adherence to its obligations to USOC (United States Olympic Committee).”

It is true that the USADA has relentlessly pursued Armstrong for allegations as far as a decade ago and has more or less forced him to arbitrate. However, it seems highly unlikely that the USADA would frame an innocent man and make others lie about him just so they could build a compelling case. There is no logical reason for them to pick on Armstrong of all people if he had nothing to hide. The bottom line is that they were convinced Armstrong doped and had strong reasons for believing so.

I suspect the number of die-hard Armstrong supporters who still insist that he is innocent and is the victim of a massive conspiracy is very low right now — the evidence is simply too overwhelming to deny or rebut. But what remains puzzling to me is all those people who try and defend Armstrong’s doping with his contributions to cancer research. I don’t get it because the two are completely separate issues. He can still be a hero for cancer even as a drug cheat. People who supported Livestrong need to remember that they are supporting a cause, not a person.

The other thing I find appalling is how people could defend Armstrong’s doping on the basis that pretty much everyone from his era doped, so the playing field was actually level. Some have even gone as far as to suggest that people should just be allowed to dope in any sport. I don’t think I need to explain why this is appalling.

The oft-used assertion that Armstrong is innocent or at least deserves the presumption of innocence because he “never failed a drug test” is no longer tenable. First of all, Armstrong has failed drug tests, but the results were explained away with medical authorizations and elaborate stories — which witnesses now say were fraudulent. Further, there may have been cover ups of test results through bribes, as some of them claim.  From the very limited number of samples the USADA could get their hands on (as the UCI refused to hand theirs over), they have scientifically shown that it is virtually impossible that Armstrong did not dope. And remember that a lot of Armstrong’s former teammates, ones that have admitted to doping after years of denials, managed to pass all their drug tests for years as well. George Hincapie, who is believed to be one of the most credible witnesses in the case, has admitted to doping with Armstrong even though he has never “failed” a drug test either.

I used to believe that athletes can only be proven guilty with definitively positive drug tests, but as the last few years have shown, the biggest drug cheats rarely get sprung during their prime, and it is only through improving technologies and the vigilance of anti-doping authorities that the truth ultimately gets uncovered.

So while Lance Armstrong continues to maintain his innocence, what we know for certain is this:

– as a historical fighter, he refused to contest the charges and mountain of evidence against him, preferring instead to acquiesce to whatever punishment the USADA, and now UCI, issued;

– 26 witnesses, including 15 cyclists and 11 teammates, have voluntarily given evidence saying that he doped; the number of witnesses would have been higher had Armstrong contested the charges;

– almost all of his former teammates on the UPS team have admitted to doping despite having passed years of testing themselves, and yet Armstrong claims he had no idea anyone on his team doped;

– he “passed” a combined 260-280 drug tests from the USADA and UCI, not the 500-600 claimed; many of the UCI tests were health as opposed to drug tests;

– former teammates and witnesses have offered credible explanations for how most of the drug tests were avoided, masked or explained away; many doping methods he allegedly used were undetectable at the time;

– in 2000, his team suspiciously drove 60 miles to dump used syringes in roadside trashcans, which they claim were to treat a diabetic member and road rash;

– he tested positive for cortisone in 1999 but was not punished because he later provided a medical authorization;

– 1999 samples retested in 2004 tested positive for EPO six times but the results were ignored by the UCI;

– his 2001 blood, “suspicious” for EPO back then, would produce a “positive” under current testing standards;

– the odds of his blood being natural in 2009 and 2010 was one in a million; his 2009 blood was also consistent with having received a blood transfusion during the tour;

– he has worked with or has been closely associated with doctors, trainers and staff who have admitted to, convicted of, or strongly suspected of being involved in doping, and he lied about his ongoing association with one of them;

– he and his legal team have intimated, threatened and publicly lashed out at anyone who has spoken out against him, including potential witnesses;

– the UCI, which has had a massive financial interest in protecting him for years, affirmed the USADA’s findings despite fighting the same agency earlier over jurisdiction; and

– major sponsors such as Nike and Oakley, who have supported him and defended him against doping allegations for years, have dumped him and called him a cheat.

When you list all the known facts like this, the case against Lance Armstrong becomes pretty compelling, doesn’t it? Imagine you were on a jury and was presented with all of this — would you still believe there is enough “reasonable doubt”?

I don’t think Armstrong, who has proven himself to be a dick and a half in the way he has handled the controversy and those who have spoken up against him, will ever publicly admit that he doped. He just doesn’t seem like that kind of person, and plus there are potentially dire financial ramifications. His lawyer even suggested a few days ago that he could undergo a lie detector test to prove his innocence. I actually think he would pass that test. As George Costanza once said, “It’s not a lie if you believe it.”

Movie Review: Taken 2 (2012)

October 21, 2012 in Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

The moral of the story is simple: don’t f*&% with Liam Neeson.

After getting a thorough ass-whooping in the first film, which I declared was one of the best action films of the past decade, those pesky Albanians did not learn their lesson. The father of one of the human traffickers wanted revenge, and he was going to make Bryan Mills pay with a lot more inept henchmen. Bad idea.

I may sound like I’m teasing, but I actually enjoyed Taken 2 a lot. It was impossible to live up to the original anyway, which surprised just about everyone with its brutal efficiency and the total badassness of Neeson’s Mills, a former CIA operative who can kill you in just about every way imaginable. True, Taken 2 is a lazy and completely unnecessary sequel that is even more far-fetched than the original, and let’s face it, was made with only $$$ in mind, but it still manages to thrill by re-captivating some of the magic of the original.

The premise ofTaken 2 is about as unimaginative as it gets: the father of the dude whom Mills electrocuted in the first film in Paris promises to avenge his son’s death. Mills is in Istanbul for freelance security work and is visited by his ex-wife (Famke Janssen) — who is conveniently having “problems” with her second husband — and their daughter (Maggie Grace, who is surprisingly convincing as someone young enough to be going for her driver’s licence). Nasty henchmen try to “take” them all (and succeeds with two of them, hence Taken “2” — get it?), unleashing the killing machine in Mills once again.

Taken 2 steals shamelessly from its predecessor without really attempting to do anything new or different. Liam Neeson shows off some incredible secret agent brains in addition to killing enemies with guns, melee weapons and his bare hands, and Maggie Grace has a much larger role, but that’s about it. Director Olivier Megaton (surely that cannot be a real name), whose previous efforts include Columbiana and Transporter 3, replaces Pierre Morel, but I didn’t really feel that much of a difference in style. There are gun fights, hand-to-hand combat and car chases galore, all of it happening at break-neck speed after the predictable initial set-up.

The script, written again by Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen, is lazy — there’s no way to deny that. It assumes we know what Bryan Mills is and what he and has family have been through, and character development is essentially provided through flashbacks to the first film. The bad guy is pretty pathetic and is driven only by revenge, but at the same time he has some strange reasons for not wanting to kill Mills when given the opportunity. The Albanians also sometimes speak to each other in what I presume is Albanian, and at other times in English with Eastern European accents — none of it makes much sense.

But on the other hand, there’s nothing quite like watching the captivating Neeson — who is 60 years old in real life, by the way — run around beating up and killing a whole bunch of bad guys. It’s brainless entertainment but it’s fun and exciting while it lasts.

In other words, if you enjoyed Taken, there’s a good chance you’ll enjoy parts, or at least elements, of Taken 2. It’s no secret that the film was cashing in on the success of the original, which is vastly superior in every way, but watching Liam Neeson go on a rampage for an action-packed 91 minutes is still preferable to the majority of action films these days.

3.5 stars out of 5!

PS: If there is going to be a third film, which is highly possible given the loose ends in the script, I’ll definitely be watching.

Movie Review: End of Watch (2012)

October 16, 2012 in Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

I initially wasn’t planning on watching End of Watch even though it was directed and written by David Ayer, the same guy who gave us Training Day (as well as SWAT and Street Kings) — which was fantastic but also emotionally draining and exhausting to get through because it was so heavy duty. The trailer made it look like just another gritty cop drama, which I usually prefer to catch on DVD rather than at the cinemas. But in the end, strong word of mouth won me over.

The film stars Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena as two police officers working in South Central LA, which is one nasty place filled with drug dealers, gangs and drive by shootings. Gyllenhaal’s character is doing a film project for class, which requires him to carry around a camera whilst on duty.

I didn’t like how the film started or where it appeared to be heading. I am sick of these “found footage” or faux documentary films made with shaky cameras that make me want to throw up, and End of Watch initially made me think that the whole film was going to be a frustratingly nauseating ride.

Fortunately, although somewhat strangely, the film more or less reverted back to traditional film-making methods with steady shots, interspersed with these film project cams and other police security cams (such as from their patrol vehicle). On the one hand it was a relief knowing I wouldn’t have to feel like vomiting all throughout the movie, but on the other it begged the question of why those shaky shots were necessary at all, given it wasn’t pretending to be real footage anyway.

Like Training Day, End of Watch is gritty and hardcore, with intense action, edge-of-your-seat suspense and confronting scenes that challenge the audience to not avert their gaze. The key difference between the two films is that End of Watch is driven by the close friendship and brotherhood between the two leads. I like Gyllenhaal and I love Pena (I think he is one of Hollywood’s funniest and most underrated actors), so I guess that helped skew things in the film’s favour for me.

The movie is dedicated to police officers, but it’s not a total suck job like say Act of Valor. The characters are presented as believable people with personality quirks and flaws, real hopes and fears. It’s proof that well fleshed out characters can do wonders in terms of engaging the audience.

The supporting cast is also solid, including the recently omnipresent Anna Kendrick and Natalie Martinez, who play the partners of the two leads, as well as America Ferrera aka Ugly Betty, a no-nonsense female police officer. Special mention goes to Yahira Garcia, who was frighteningly convincing as gang member Lala (at least for someone who has no idea what gang members act like).

End of Watch is a film that creeps up on you. In the beginning I was thought I was going to hate it because of the camera issues. Then for a while I thought it was repetitive and wasn’t getting anywhere — it felt like a Cops marathon, with the two officers going on episodic missions, one after another, with no real sense of a progressive narrative.

Eventually, as the various strands began to become tied together, I discovered that it was actually a very well-crafted film. The final climax, in particular, was riveting stuff, as suspenseful as anything I’ve seen from an action or thriller this year. It was also good to see the film not bow down to cliches and finish on a strong note that tugs the heartstrings by just the right amount.

On the whole, End of Watch wasn’t quite what I had expected, but it turned out to be a satisfying experience largely thanks to the genuine chemistry between Gyllenhaal and Pena. I did have some issues with the arguably unnecessary shaky camera and an occasionally stagnant narrative during the first half, but all things considered it’s still a superior action thriller.

4 stars out of 5!

PS: It’s actually a good thing if you don’t know what End of Watch means (its a euphemism) because it gives away part of the plot.

When you don’t like an editor’s edits…

October 8, 2012 in Best Of, On Writing, Study by pacejmiller

A couple of months ago I was lucky enough, through having done some freelance work earlier with the same magazine, to be given an opportunity to write a profile on a remarkable woman who devoted her life to those less fortunate than her. I was ecstatic because it was going to be published in several languages/countries and would be a great addition to the CV. Most of all, I love doing in-depth profiles, and I was determined to make this one totally awesome.

Initially, the process was not all that difficult, as I had already done some preliminary research during work for a related project. The interview was a blast, and although I would have liked to have gotten more secondary sources, on the whole I had more than enough for a compelling piece.

The writing was a little more difficult as I also had to deal with full-time work, but I found it thoroughly enjoyable to craft. The word limit was 1800 words, but I’ve always been the kind of writer that likes getting everything down on the page first, so by the time that first draft was done, I had almost 4500 words.

Cutting down the length is my specialty, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt to chop away all that hard work. After about four rounds of edits, I was down to 2500 words, and I was at a loss as to how to trim it further.

So I did what every lazy writer would do — ask for more words. To my surprise, the request was granted; 2500 words, no problem — they can work with that, and the editor can work her magic on it if necessary. I even submitted the piece two days earlier.

I thought I was done and it was time to celebrate, but of course, as usual, I was wrong. The first editor I worked with was fantastic. She cast a spell and 300 more words fell away effortlessly, bringing the total to a publishable 2200 words. Crucially, she managed to preserve the essence of the article and all the key points. I was impressed. She also said she really liked it, which felt great.

She had a couple of questions and issues and we worked them out through email over the next day or two. I don’t remember having had to push back on anything. I remember her removing all my carefully planned section breaks, but the flow didn’t feel like it was interrupted, so I let it go.

I thought we were ready, but a couple of days after that, I received another email from the same editor, passing on the suggestions from the magazine’s editor-in-chief. I was told in the email that the EIC made some changes to the introductory sections, but didn’t really touch the remaining two-thirds.

When I opened up the document, my jaw dropped. I usually love working with editors because they teach me how to improve, but in this case the EIC totally butchered my original intro, which was a sensory anecdote, and replaced it with a more straight-forward, chronological, report-style beginning. It was, frankly, predictable and boring.

It was contrary to everything I had been taught about how to write the intro of a feature, and it was the opposite of what the magazine’s local editor had told me before I started writing. That said, my first impression was — I don’t like it, but it’s their magazine and if this is the way they like to do it, then fair enough. After all, this was the EIC of an international magazine — surely even at her worst she would be substantially better than me at my very best — who was I to complain?

But when I read the edits properly, I got angry. The EIC had gotten the basic facts muddled up, and asked a bunch of questions that were already answered in other parts of the article. Initially I thought perhaps I wasn’t clear enough, or that stuff got lost during the editing process — but after re-reading it and getting other casual readers to take a look it became clear that the EIC simply didn’t pay enough attention.

I could accept differences in style, but not when facts get completely mutilated. So I responded to the immediate editor I had been working with and explained politely that the EIC had gotten the facts wrong. I wrote a lengthy explanation of the facts in detail, filled in the blanks and answered all outstanding questions. In light of the edits, I asked whether they would like me to rework the introductory paragraphs to better match the style that the EIC was aiming for, or whether they preferred to have a got at it themselves using the new information I provided.

The editor responded with the latter, and agreed to my request to show me the article again once they were done to make sure that I was OK with everything.

I knew they were on a tight schedule, so alarm bells started ringing when I hadn’t heard back from the editor after a few days (we had previously been in touch every day). A couple of emails to her went unanswered. I assisted the local editor who called with a few ‘urgent’ fact checking points, but generally speaking I was kept in the dark over what was going on.

I didn’t end up hearing back from the editor until five days later, and by that time the article had already been formatted for publication, with photos and captions and all. I was informed that no more changes would be made, except to correct factual errors. There was absolutely no feedback, no reasoning behind the changes; not even a ‘sorry, we know we promised to make sure you were OK with it, but we’re out of time.’

It was clear why they had been keeping me out of the loop all this time — they obviously wanted to avoid anything that might slow them down, such as dealing with pesky writers who want to have more creative control.

The majority of the near-finished article appeared to be the same on paper except for the intro, but the feel of it was completely different. Key quotes and passages were removed from those initial paragraphs and the remainder of the article no longer flowed on as smoothly as before. It came across as slightly disjointed, especially since new section breaks were inserted at rather unnatural places (presumably because of the formatting). Sadly, the word count was virtually identical to what it was before the EIC got her hands on it.

Being aware that I might have been working too closely to have an objective opinion, I enlisted a couple of other readers to tell me what they thought of the changes. The conclusion was unanimous: the article had lost some of its mojo.

The only feedback I ended up providing was telling them to delete an unnecessary word the copyeditor missed, which they gladly did, but I knew there was no point in giving them anything substantive because nothing would be done.

It’s a disappointing feeling knowing that something you put so much effort into didn’t turn out the way you envisioned it to be, for better or for worse. I appreciate what the editors did and the pressures they must have been under, but the experience left a bit of a bitter aftertaste. I’ve always been receptive towards constructive feedback, and often feedback that’s more negative than anything else (which is a regular occurrence on this blog especially) — I don’t have to agree with it, and it’s never a bad thing to get another perspective.

But I suspect in this case the disappointment stems mainly from my lack of control over the content of something that is ultimately going to have my name attributed to it. That and knowing that the changes I didn’t like were made by someone who didn’t actually read the article properly. It’ll be my most important published piece to date, but unfortunately it’ll be far from my proudest.

My editing lecturer wasn’t shy about telling us all her horror stories in dealing with writers who refuse to budge on every single word and is irrationally defensive about changing things that would unequivocally improve their work. That can be frustrating, I’m sure, but what about the writers who get their hard work trimmed, reshaped and rewritten without even getting a say on the final product?

I still wonder, several weeks on, whether I should have kicked up more of a stink. But what good would it have done other than to give me a bad name? All I can do now is wait a couple of months until the final version is published and hope that when I read it again, I’ll see what I had blown the whole thing out of proportion.

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