Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Four short movie reviews

This weekend my wife and I saw 3 movies (or at least parts of them) on TV, and watched one movie on DVD. I wanted to comment on their merits and other thoughts they inspired in me.

First is "Before Sunrise", which follows Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke as a young pair that meets on a train, get off in Vienna on a whim, and spend the night talking and falling in love. This has long been one of my favorite movies, though I'm glad I saw it when its sequel, "Before Sunset", was already out. That way I didn't have to wait ten years to resolve the ambiguous ending! Anyway, I think that this is one of the finest, realest depictions of two people getting to know each other, from superficial conversations to deep connection.

Second was the last X-Men movie. I had never seen the other ones, and frankly we saw less than half of this one, since we tuned in late. I'm not big on action movies with lots of posing, cool lines and facades, and magical finger-waving and facial expressions of profound superpower exertion. But this was a good flick. I especially liked how it imagined the plights superhuman mutants would face in modern US society. There was a mix of apprehension and awe on the part of the general public towards the mutants, and the movie posited a US Agency for Mutant Affairs, as well as the dilemmas arising when a "cure" for super mutant powers is discovered. Many mutants considered it an affront to their identity, and didn't feel they needed a cure for what wasn't an illness. But others, fed up with not being able to lead a normal life, jumped at the opportunity to rid themselves of their powers. Anyway, a nerdy movie, but I felt it did what science fiction does best--use a fantastic premise to explore real-world societal issues.

The third TV movie we saw was Rocky IV. Beyond the bad 80s synthesizer music, and the Cold War propaganda, it's got an interesting message. Basically Rocky, in this film, as well as in the original and the last films (I don't remember parts II, III, or V), represents what I think the US used to stand for, and should still strive for. He is a guy with some special ability, but moreover with a good work ethic, who makes a decent life for himself by working hard in his chosen field. In the first movie as well as the most recent, his great achievement isn't an improbable victory over the reigning champion, but simply lasting 15 rounds against him. He fights honestly and with great determination, and in the process gains the respect of those he comes in contact with, including the arrogant champions in the two films. In the fourth film his opponent is an arrogant, evil Soviet, and Rocky eventually beats him. But Rocky doesn't gloat, and again he teaches the Soviets and his boxing opponent a lesson about humility, endurance, hard work, and tolerance. When Rocky starts making for a hard fight, the Soviet (played by Dolph Lundgren) doesn't comment on his skill or his punches or anything. He exclaims, "This is not a man. He is made of iron!" His surprise is at Rocky's tenacity, his resistance to adversity and abuse.

So I feel like the Rocky films, as formulaic as they often are, represent a good ideal: excellence through hard work, without arrogance. Rocky avoids two ugly phenomena that are prevalent in popular culture in both the US and the world. One is the glorification of fame and wealth, which justifies dishonest means of reaching them, and an ugly gloating in the unlikely event that you do achieve them. The other ugly trend is a cowardly celebration of mediocrity, saying that just trying is good enough. Rocky avoids this too--he reaches the upper echelons of his field, never giving up or being happy with mediocrity.

The film we watched on DVD was "Paris, Texas", a Wim Wenders film from 1984. I was reluctant to watch it, because it looked to be one of these depressing, bleak German-directed films my father-in-law seems to favor. But I was wrong. It turned out to be a touching portrait of a father trying to connect with his son after years apart. It also had a lot of striking panoramas of the 1980s southwestern US, scrubland and desert interspersed with prefab buildings and general postindustrial decay. It made me nostalgic for a time when the consumerization of US culture wasn't as far advanced as it is today.

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