An interview with Penelope Spheeris, the director of the Decline of Western Civilization films

7 March 2016

DOWCIII

Filmmaker Penelope Spheeris made the three films in the music documentary series The Decline of Western Civilization, which are currently screening at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, after having recently been restored for their release on DVD and blu-ray by Spheeris and her daughter Anna Fox. Spherris has an eclectic filmmaking career having made independent documentaries and dramas, as well as studio family films and comedies, including the original Wayne’s World. The Decline of Western Civilization was shot in 1979 and released at the start of 1981 and was her feature film debut, with its raw and often confronting portrayal of the Los Angeles punk scene at the time.

This interview was recorded on Sunday 28 February 2016 and then played on Plato’s Cave (Triple R, 3RRR 102.7FM) on Monday 7 March 2016 as an hour long special that included music from all three films. You can listen back to that special via Triple R’s Radio On Demand service and here:

Alternatively, you can listen back to the podcast version of the show, which just contains the interview with Spheeris:

Download link

Thank you to the Australian Centre for the Moving Image for arranging this interview. The Decline of Western Civilization films are screening at ACMI until 13 March 2016. Go to acmi.net.au/film for screening times.

Playlist

‘Nausea’
X

‘Manimal’
Germs

‘Depression’
Black Flag

‘Let’s Have a War’
Fear

‘Cradle to the Grave’
Motörhead

‘Under My Wheels’
Alice Cooper featuring Axl Rose, Slash & Izzy Stradlin from Guns N’ Roses

‘Smash the State’
Naked Aggression

‘Race To Eternity’
Final Conflict


Films I loved in February 2016

28 February 2016
9

Géza Röhrig as Saul Ausländer in Son of Saul

Son of Saul succeeds on every level. It’s an emotionally devastating drama, which sometimes plays out like a thriller, with a precise focus on one character in a Nazi concentration camp in order to convey the broader trauma and grief of the Holocaust. Its stylistic technique of predominantly filming this character in close-up so that the audience experiences the horrors of the camp through sound and his peripheral vision is confronting and effective. And by making the character one of the death-camp Sonderkommandos, who becomes fixated on a personal act of humanity, the film wrestles with questions of what it takes to survive, when does a noble act in extreme circumstances become reckless or selfish, and how do you measure life and morality when surrounded by death and evil. Son of Saul is a triumph and as the debut feature film by Hungarian filmmaker László Nemes, it heralds the arrival of a major new talent.

BROOKLYN

Saoirse Ronan as Eilis Lacey in Brooklyn

On the surface Brooklyn seems like a modest film about a young Irish woman who immigrates to New York, USA, in the 1950s to start a new life and ends up torn between two men. While the film very much works as romance film, it is also a stirring tale of personal and cultural identity. The excitement and liberation of new experiences, versus the familiarity and emotional bonds with home are both depicted as powerful motivating forces that are to be wrestled with before making major life decisions. As Eilis, the young woman torn between two countries, two sets of friends, and two potential lovers, Saoirse Ronan delivers a beautiful performance of somebody hungry to experience life with all its uncertainties and difficulties. The result is a gorgeous film about love, home and community.

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Tom Courtenay as Geoff Mercer and Charlotte Rampling as Kate Mercer in 45 Years

Brooklyn left me feeling hopeful about love and companionship with its romantic glow, but 45 Years took all of that away with its portrait of a woman starting to realise that her husband of 45 years has never been as emotionally invested in their marriage as she has. In his debut feature film Weekend writer/director Andrew Haigh proved himself to be a master at using subtle film style, especially camera position, to differentiate between the private and public dynamics of a relationship. In 45 Years Haigh again displays his ability of depicting private and public spaces, and a major incident in the film is framed around the circumstances in which somebody reveals their emotions and how that in turn affects the other person. It allows for a devastating final scene where the cut to the credits is so perfectly timed that all the restrained emotion of the film until that point finally bursts free.

ANOMALISA

David Thewlis (voice) as Michael Stone and Jennifer Jason Leigh (voice) as Lisa in Anomalisa

Continuing the theme of doomed relationships, Anomalisa goes one step further to present the world experienced by an unlikeable yet not completely unsympathetic man who has become incapable of forming any type of relationship with anybody at all. While the film’s darkly humorous existentialism is a trademark for writer/director Charlie Kaufman (who shares directorial duties with Duke Johnson) the use of stop-motion puppet animation is both unusual and weirdly inventive in its blandness. However, as the main concept of the film becomes clear so does the rationale for using the animated puppetry, making Anomalisa yet another singular vision by Kaufman that is bitterly funny, uncomfortable and melancholic.

Steve Jobs

Seth Rogen as Steve Wozniak and Michael Fassbender as Steve Jobs in Steve Jobs

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Steve Jobs is that despite how overtly fictionalised it is, it still delivers a convincing and engaging version of ‘reality’. Structured like a three act play, with each act set right before Jobs is about to launch a major new product, the self contained backstage spaces become a microcosmos for the dramas in Jobs’s life to play out. Across the three different time periods he interacts with the same group of people, moving from being a ruthless, arrogant visionary with a messiah complex to a slightly less ruthless, arrogant visionary with a messiah complex. The combination of Aaron Sorkin’s dialogue-heavy script, Danny Boyle’s flamboyant directorial style, the first rate ensemble cast and the setting, give this unconventional biopic the energy of a backstage musical.

Hail, Casar!

Josh Brolin as Eddie Mannix in Hail, Caesar!

My favourite film by Joel and Ethan Coen is still their 1991 masterpiece Barton Fink, a Faustian story set in the classical Hollywood studio system where an aspiring young writer trades his integrity, soul and sanity for a shot at the big time. Hail, Caesar! is a sort-of companion piece by the Coens, although set a decade later in the 1950s and much lighter in tone. At the centre of a sprawling narrative that involves a group of Communist writers kidnapping the star of a new Biblical epic, is a fictionalised version of producer and studio ‘fixer’ Eddie Mannix, played by Josh Brolin. With no shortage of deliberately overt symbolism and references, Mannix is a flawed Christ figure who spends the film taking the sins of the studio on his shoulders, while resisting the temptation of abandoning his flock at the factory of dreams. The Coens manage to have their cake and eat it to with their loving tributes to the films of the classical Hollywood era while also presenting a scathing critique of the studio system as encapsulating the worst aspects of capitalism.

Thomas Caldwell, 2016

Films I loved in January 2016

31 January 2016
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Jacob Tremblay as Jack Newsome and Brie Larson as Joy Newsome in Room

I’ve been a fan of Irish filmmaker Lenny Abrahamson for a while, but with Room he has made his strongest film to-date. The events are mostly depicted from the perspective of a 5-year-old boy who has never known anything else other than the small room he is locked in with his mother who gave birth to him there. The information about the nature of their situation is carefully revealed so that the film never becomes too harrowing, while at the same time it is always clear what the stakes are. Similar to Abrahamson’s 2012 film What Richard Did, a major plot development halfway through the film results in a dramatic narrative shift, but the overall focus remains on what it is like for a child to experience the world after such a traumatic introduction to it. Parts of this film had me wound up extremely tight with its masterful command of tension while other parts were almost overwhelming with its emotional power.

CAROL_3079r_alt_lg_Rooney Mara_Cate Blanchett.jpg

Rooney Mara as Therese Belivet and Cate Blanchett as Carol Aird in Carol

Todd Haynes’s ability to make films that challenge traditional film style and narrative structure is only matched by his ability to make films that are seemingly conventional on the surface, but just as provocative, bold and intriguing. Carol is one of his seemingly conventional films with its mannered story of an affair between two women – with significant class and age differences – in New York, USA, in the 1950s. Haynes used the themes and iconography of Douglas Sirk’s melodramas to great effect in his 2002 film Far from Heaven to explore social issues from the same period with a contemporary perspective. In Carol he overtly references David Lean’s 1945 drama Brief Encounter to tell a love story, which similarly plays out in key scenes through glances, gestures and other moments of unspoken communication. Considering the style, era it is set in and themes, Carol‘s supposed conventionality is what makes it so enjoyably unconventional.

CoS

Cemetery of Splendour

Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s  Cemetery of Splendour is a suitably dreamlike film, set in and around a make-shift hospital that cares for soldiers who cannot awaken from their sleep. This strange and gentle film does have a narrative, but it’s secondary to the film’s visual and thematic exploration of contrasts such as nature and science, dreaming and being awake, the human world and the spirit world, tradition and modernity. There are moments of sly humour and mysterious intrigue, but suggesting it delivers typical cinematic pleasures would be misleading as the joy of this film is not obvious or easily explained. A sequence where the light slowly changes colour is one of the film’s highlights and no words can do justice to such a sensory moment. The first time I saw Cemetery of Splendour I was exhausted and continually drifted in and out of sleep while sitting in the cinema, which was just as enjoyable a way of watching the film as the second time when I was fully awake and alert!

SpotlightPic#11

Stanley Tucci as Mitchell Garabedian and Mark Ruffalo as Michael Rezendes in Spotlight

Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight is a suburb ensemble drama about the team of investigative reporters from The Boston Globe who in 2001 uncovered the full scope of child sexual abuse by Roman Catholic priests in Boston. The appalling nature of the abuse and coverup in other parts of America and the rest of the world, was explored in-depth in Alex Gibney’s 2012 documentary Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God, but Spotlight is more focused on the how the team of journalists were able to gain trust, uncover evidence and expose the crimes in a climate where their investigations were largely not welcomed. It is also a fascinating look at just how much technology, communication and journalism has changed in the fifteen years since the film was set. Most impressive is how Spotlight avoids being emotionally overwhelming, but allows characters to express feelings of anger, horror, betrayal and loss at key moments to remind us how high the stakes are.

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Christian Bale as Michael Burry in The Big Short

The energy and sense of controlled chaos that Adam McKay brings to the various  Will Ferrell comedies that he has previously directed can be felt in The Big Short, a comedic drama about the people who foresaw and then effectively bet on the financial crisis of 2007-2008. And yet as much as I have enjoyed many of McKay’s previous films, I did not imagine that he was capable of so skilfully presenting the dry and dull details of the financial market in a way that is this accessible, entertaining and alarming. The Big Short joins the ranks of the growing number of excellent narrative films and documentaries to have emerged over the past few years to draw attention to the blend of greed, predatory behaviour, stupidity and egomania that allowed the global financial crisis to not just happen, but to then let the perpetrators off the hook so they can do it again. We should all be very angry and McKay helps us to feel that.

Bone Tomahawk

Kurt Russell as Sheriff Franklin Hunt in Bone Tomahawk

The western genre is undergoing a curious revival in independent cinema and one of my favourites of the recent batch is Bone Tomahawk, which has been released directly onto home entertainment in Australia. It’s certainly my preferred current western that features Kurt Russell in a slow burn narrative that focuses on the dynamics between a group of characters before culminating in scenes of ultra-violence. Combining the traditional storyline from The Searchers, about the search for a kidnapped white woman, with the graphic horror, psychological anxiety and brutal post-colonial social critique of the cannibal film, Bone Tomahawk is a seamless fusion of genres that completely won me over.

Thomas Caldwell, 2016

Favourite Films of 2015

23 December 2015

These are the films that I felt were the most innovative, important and influential; taking into account my own personal response to each one including how likely I was to want to see them more than once. Previously I’ve only considered films with a full theatrical release, but changing distribution models mean I’ve also included films with limited seasons, VOD releases and released direct to home entertainment.

Favourite ten films released in Melbourne, Australia, in 2015

Birdman
1. Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (Alejandro G Iñárritu, 2014)
Released January

 

Inside Out2. Inside Out (Pete Docter, 2015)
Released June

 

Inherent Vice
3. Inherent Vice (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2014)
Released March

 

FRD-25474.TIF
4. Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller, 2015)

Released May

 

The Salt of the Earth
5. The Salt of the Earth (Wim Wenders and Juliano Ribeiro Salgado, 2014)
Released April

 

The Lobster
6. The Lobster (Yorgos Lanthimos, 2015)
Released October

 

2014_09_17HTM_0124_Tim Conigrave (Ryan Corr), John Caleo (Craig Stott) copy
7. Holding the Man (Neil Armfield, 2015)
Released August

 

Wild
8. Wild (Jean-Marc Vallée, 2014)
Released January

 

Far from the Madding Crowd
9. Far from the Madding Crowd (Thomas Vinterberg, 2015)
Released June

 

ItFollows5LARGE
10. It Follows (David Robert Mitchell, 2014)
Released April

 

Honourable mentions

Twenty more films I loved this year, listed alphabetically:

'71
‘71 (Yann Demange, 2014)
Released March

 

A Most Violent Year
A Most Violent Year (JC Chandor, 2014)
Released February

 

A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on ExistenceA Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (En duva satt på en gren och funderade på tillvaron, Roy Andersson, 2014)
Released October

 

Amy (Asif Kapadia, 2015)
Released July

 

CloudsClouds of Sils Maria (Olivier Assayas, 2014)
Released May

 

EXM_D018_02784Ex Machina (Alex Garland, 2015)
Released May

 

LeviathanLeviathan (Leviafan, Andrey Zvyagintsev, 2014)
Released March

 

London RoadLondon Road (Rufus Norris, 2015)
Released September

 

Love & MercyLove & Mercy (Bill Pohlad, 2014)
Released June

 

MarshlandMarshland (La isla minima, Alberto Rodríguez, 2014)
Released June

 

Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (Christopher McQuarrie, 2015)
Released July

 

still_252359Taxi Tehran (Jafar Panahi, 2015)
Released December

 

The AssassinThe Assassin (Nie yin niang, Hou Hsiao-Hsien, 2015)
Released November

 

The Diary of a Teenage GirlThe Diary of a Teenage Girl (Marielle Heller, 2015)
Released September

 

THE DISAPPEARANCE OF ELEANOR RIGBYThe Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Him and The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Her (Ned Benson, 2013)
Released March

 

The DressmakerThe Dressmaker (Jocelyn Moorhouse, 2015)
Released October

 

Jason Segel copy 2The End of the Tour (James Ponsoldt, 2015)
Released December

 

still_252410
The Look of Silence (Joshua Oppenheimer, 2014)
Released November

 

The MartianThe Martian (Ridley Scott, 2015)
Released October

 

The Tribe by the Ukrainian writer-director Myroslav SlaboshpytskiyThe Tribe (Plemya, Miroslav Slaboshpitsky, 2014)
Released May

Special mention

Most of the other notable films I saw this year will be released in Melbourne in 2016, so I’ll include them on next year’s list rather than here, but I do want to give a special mention to one glorious film, whose fate in Australia outside of the festival screenings it received throughout 2015 seems to remain unknown:

Song of the Sea
Song Of The Sea (Tomm Moore, 2014)

This list was compiled for the Senses of Cinema 2015 World Poll

 

Thank you for reading my monthly summaries throughout the year and thank you to those of you who listen to my various radio spots. I was sad to finish up on the Breakfasters on Triple R (3RRR 102.7FM) a few weeks ago, but I decided that after being their Thursday morning film critic for the past six years, it was time to move on. However, Plato’s Cave keeps going from strength to strength and will return in 2016, and hopefully there will be a few more things that fall into place too.

But for now, I will leave you with the poem I was inspired to write after seeing Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation:

Cruise Control

Cruise Control (click to enlarge)

Thomas Caldwell 2015

Films I loved in December 2015

19 December 2015
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Jafar Panahi in Taxi Tehran

Ever since Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi was banned from making films, he has created highly meta docufictions  that are playfully defiant, intellectual musings on what film is and means to people, and mournful laments about political oppression in Iran. Taxi Tehran continues along similar lines and sees Panahi playing himself (or appearing as himself?) as the driver of a taxi picking up passengers around Tehran. While it’s tempting to assume the entire film is a construct you are never too sure and in the end it doesn’t really matter as the joy of this film is spending time with such a humane, charismatic, thoughtful and innovative filmmaker.

Jason Segel  copy 2

Jason Segel as David Foster Wallace in The End of the Tour

An adaptation of David Lipsky’s book Although of Course You End Up Becoming YourselfThe End of the Tour depicts the conversations Lipsky had with David Foster Wallace that formed the basis of Lipsky’s profile on Wallace for Rolling Stone magazine. A sort of road movie version of My Dinner with Andre, the topics covered during the film include detachment, loneliness and spiritual starvation in the modern era. It’s also a very entertaining portrayal of two contemporaries – one far more successful and talented than the other – engaging in petty rivalry, intellectual oneupmanship and ultimately a genuine attempt for mutual respect and friendship.

Carey_Mulligan_as_Maud_Watts_struggle_against_police

Carey Mulligan as Maud Watts in Suffragette

Suffragette focuses on one group of working-class women in England at the start of last century to tell the story of how the members of the Women’s Social and Political Union, who were campaigning for the right for women to vote, became increasingly militant in their activities. By depicting the injustices, unfairness and cruelties that the women in the film endure, it is a powerful reminder of how institutionalised discrimination can only be overcome when equality is demanded not politely requested.

JOY

Jennifer Lawrence as Joy Mangano in Joy

While Joy doesn’t reach the same heights as David O. Russell’s brilliant mid-career films Three Kings and I Heart Huckabees, it’s my favourite film of his from the past five years. Based on the true story of inventor and entrepreneur Joy Mangano, it is a rags-to-riches film about a woman who against all the odds turns her life around. But with an excellent cast that includes Jennifer Lawrence in the lead and Russell’s assured direction, this is a tense and emotional film with the potential to be a feel-good Christmas classic.


And finally… yes, I’ve seen Star Wars: The Force Awakens and I loved the experience of seeing it with a bunch of fans who like me I suspect have treasured memories of how large the original trilogy loomed in their childhoods. And while I’m not sure how much it holds up as a film in its own right, it delivered some wonderful rushes of nostalgia and the promise of a rich new set of characters for future instalments. I had a ball seeing this film and I suspect I’m not alone.

Thomas Caldwell, 2015

Films I loved in November 2015

2 December 2015
The Assassin

Shu Qi as Nie Yinniang in The Assassin

It becomes clear very early in The Assassin that Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-Hsien is more interested in mood and impression than traditional narrative storytelling. Following the actions of an elite assassin in 9th century China during a period of political turmoil, Hou’s film is a sensory experience placing greater emphasis on moments of stillness rather than the brief snippets of superbly choreographed action. Audiences willing to embrace Hou’s austere visuals and meticulous style will be overcome by the beauty and harmony of this film.

The Look of Silence

Adi Rukun and his mother in The Look of Silence

In many ways Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Look of Silence is superior to the surreal and confronting The Act of Killing, his previous documentary about the 1965-66 Indonesian killings. This personal focus on Adi Rukun, as he confronts some of the people directly responsible for the brutal death of his brother, allows many moments of quietness and stillness where what is unspoken carries just as much repressed pain, guilt and grief as what is spoken.

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Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2

The excellent Hunger Games film series comes to an end with The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2, a film that builds on the previous instalments’ critique of violent spectacle, reality television, propaganda and celebrity culture as products of authoritarianism, to also explore how violent resistance is capable of becoming as barbaric as what it seeks to overthrow. The result is a film that is not only immensely exciting and entertaining, but contains complex observations on the nature of violent conflict, far more so than most films made for adult audiences.

Spectre

Daniel Craig as James Bond in Spectre

Speaking of which, I tend not to think much of the Bond films so to my surprise I really enjoyed Spectre. I suspect it is because it addresses many of the issues I have with the franchise by exploring the idea that Bond is little more than a robotic assassin/hedonist who has become obsolete. I enjoyed the surveillance themes, the inclusion of a love interest who is a relatively developed character rather than a conquest, and the presence of so many genuinely exciting action sequences. This is a film that is actually about something and for the first time since On Her Majesty’s Secret Service in 1969 seems to develop, or even evolve, Bond as a character.


This month I also enjoyed the cinematic impressionism of Terrence Malick’s Knight of Cups, a film that once again explores Malick’s preoccupation in the ongoing philosophical struggle between the way of nature and the way of Grace, as explored most successfully in his 2011 film The Tree of Life. I was also extremely impressed with the tense drama 99 Homes, where its tale of an opportunistic real estate operator taking advantage of the US housing market collapse allows it to successfully function as Wall Street for the contemporary era. And finally, I was very pleased to see the New Zealand horror comedy Deathgasm released on home entertainment as I had a ball seeing this love letter to heavy metal and schlock horror earlier this year at a late night festival screening.

Thomas Caldwell, 2015

Films I loved in October 2015

31 October 2015
The Lobster

Colin Farrell as David and Rachel Weisz as Short Sighted Woman in The Lobster

The social satire The Lobster, by Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos, is an absurd and droll film that is specifically about the way we define ourselves according to our relationship status, but more broadly about the ridiculousness of any form of tribalism or absolutes. It mocks both the imposition of established social norms and the imposition of rules resulting from reactionary rebellion. It is violent, depressing and cruel, and the funniest film I’ve seen this year.

A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence

A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence

Similarly melancholic, absurd and darkly funny is A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, the final film in the loosely defined ‘Living Trilogy’ by Swedish filmmaker Roy Andersson. A series of bleak and dead-pan scenes that are immaculately composed visually, there is still something strangely humane in this film even when it contains confronting imagery. The message I took home is that life is short, painful, depressing and thinking about atrocities done in our name can be unbearable, but in between all the terrible and banal bits, there are moments of joy and there are plenty of moments of humour.

Kate Winslet as Myrtle 'Tilly' Dunnage in The Dressmaker

Kate Winslet as Myrtle ‘Tilly’ Dunnage in The Dressmaker

The film adaptation of Rosalie Ham’s novel The Dressmaker continually shifts between being a grotesque and camp comedy about small Australian towns, and being a dark insight into the hypocrisy and double standards of a small community where judgement is passed on the undeserving while perpetrators of abuse and oppression get away with their cruelty. Australian filmmaker Jocelyn Moorhouse handles the dramatic tonal shifts magnificently, resulting in a film that combines stylistic flairs from gothic romances and westerns, and a brilliant homage to the iconic ‘Put the Blame on Mame’ scene from Gilda.

Matt Damon as Mark Watney in The Martian

Matt Damon as Mark Watney in The Martian

It wasn’t all dark, cynical, existential social critiques this month, as October saw the release of two excellent Hollywood crowd-pleasers by established directors doing was I felt was their best film in years. Ridley Scott’s faithful adaptation of Andy Weir’s novel The Martian maintains the Arthur C Clarke-inspired combination of hard science with a probable futuristic story and likeable human characters. The resulting science-fiction/survival film not only privileges and promotes intelligence, ingenuity and knowledge as heroic character traits, but is a celebration of human resilience and resourcefulness.

Mark Rylance as Rudolf Abel and Tom Hanks as James B Donovan in Bridge of Spies

Mark Rylance as Rudolf Abel and Tom Hanks as James B Donovan in Bridge of Spies

And the other big Hollywood film of note from October is Steven Spielberg’s inspired-by-a-true-story Cold War film Bridge of Spies, where the contribution Ethan Coen and Joel Coen made to the script is both noticeable and welcome. As well as beautifully recreating Berlin in 1957 as the Berlin Wall was constructed and being an effective spy thriller, this is a film that champions justice, diplomacy and mutual respect as the key factors for ensuring that what you are fighting for doesn’t become compromised.


In brief, I was very impressed by the Australian documentary Putuparri and the Rainmakers, where the personal story of one Indigenous man’s struggles with his own demons is used as a launching point to tell a broader story about a compelling land title claim in the Kimberley’s Great Sandy Desert. And on a completely different note, I really enjoyed the independent American film Results, a sort of anti-romantic-comedy involving personal trainers that while undermining many of the conventions of the genre, was still sweet, charming and funny. All the performances are great, but Guy Pearce deserves a special mention for making his fitness guru character so endearing and adorably sincere.

Thomas Caldwell, 2015

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