Monday, March 4, 2013

Recent good and bad movies

Over the past few weeks I've been working a lot, but when I get home from work, I never am able to buckle down and work some more, as I usually plan to.  First I set about making dinner, and then I usually get entangled in reading or watching a movie or something.  I have mentioned before that Netflix in Colombia tends towards a pretty bad selection of films.  But within that precondition, I try to find some worthwhile films to watch.

Pumping Iron:  This was an in-depth, serious look at a sector and a pursuit I myself don't take very seriously.  I'm talking about bodybuilding.  Pumping Iron follows a young Arnold Schwarzenegger and other bodybuilders during a season of training and eventually competing in a major bodybuilding event.  As I watched the film, especially during an eloquent explanation of the sport by Arnold, I came to the realization that bodybuilding is an interesting cross between sport and art.  These huge, hulking guys are aiming for a certain ideal of beauty, and as Arnold points out, their task is in many ways more difficult than that of a sculptor, for they sculpt and shape themselves through complex biological processes, not simply a hammer and chisel.  So in that sense I gained some respect for bodybuilders.  I can't totally get away from the idea of bodybuilders as part of a generally superficial current in US culture, especially when I think that Schwarzenegger's uncritical, appearance-centered vision of what the US is and should be drove him to migrate there, seek fame, and eventually to govern worldly affairs in the most populous state of the Union.  His "contribution" to US culture is an excruciating stream of vapid, violent movies that made him the biggest star of the 1990s.  I don't know if we'd have been worse off if he'd stayed in Austria and an industrious farmer from there would have come instead to the US to make an honest living.

In addition, the status of Pumping Iron as a vanguard of a genre called "documentary fiction" makes me dislike the film and what it's about.  I didn't know this term until reading about it recently on wikipedia, but documentary fiction describes a work that purports to be a nonfiction documentary, but incorporates staged elements to add more interest.  This seems intellectually dishonest to me, and happens to be the defining feature of a whole way of being that I feel has unfortunately pervaded our lives in the US.  Documentary fiction is the vanguard of reality TV, and reality TV is the godmother of a generalized attitude whereby everyone is acting as if they had a camera in front of them all the time.  Many people exaggerate and magnify their everyday actions and speech so as to make them more "interesting", but the end result is a generalized insincerity.

Khartoum:  This was a classic big-budget epic adventure movie about the Mahdi rebellion in 19th-century Sudan.  Laurence Olivier talking funny and wearing blackface, and Charlton Heston clenching his teeth and being heroic.  Not a very moving plot, but good orchestral score.

Red Dawn:  I just saw this last night.  The premise is absurd when stated in just a sentence.  The Soviets and Cubans invade the US, and a group of teenagers takes them on.  There are many improbable occurrences explained in a text blurb at the movie's start that try to make the situation more plausible--Europe has demanded that US nukes be removed, and is subsequently invaded by the USSR.  Cuba and Nicaragua build up troops and invade El Salvador and Honduras (which, aside from the unlikelihood of a beleaguered and besieged Nicaragua doing anything in the 1980s besides just trying to stay together as a country, would probably be a good thing for farmers, union leaders, Catholic clergy, and other targets of right-wing death squads in El Salvador).  And so on and so on.  But despite this silly setup, it's actually a decent film, really a prime example of science fiction, which is at its best the use of future counterfactuals to set the stage to explore essential human traits.  The teenagers are not happy-go-lucky, and do not take on huge invading armies as such.  They mount a series of desperate guerrilla actions that gradually increase in sophistication, though they never attract many others to their cause.  There is even a nuanced depiction of a Cuban general's doubts and conflicts at being an invading occupier as opposed to a liberating insurgent (though the actor depicting him looks unfortunately similar to Oscar D'Leon, corny salsa singer of the 1980s and 90s).

Red October:  Another Cold War flick, but this one very sensitively done, about people willing to compromise loyalty to homeland in order to assure the survival of humankind.  Much better than the Harrison Ford films depicting Jack Ryan.  I especially liked the cinematic device of having the actors portraying Soviets speaking only in Russian, until one point where a trick of camerawork lets the viewer know that they are still obviously speaking Russian, but that the movie is going to have them speaking English so as to be easier to follow for actors and viewers alike. 

Sum of all Fears:  Another Jack Ryan movie, and not the silly, horrible mess I'd expect from a collaboration between Ben Affleck and Tom Clancy.  It again explores the insanity and danger of nuclear standoffs and Cold War mentalities.

Two films I cannot see on Netflix, nor on the free PBS website (because it doesn't stream video outside of the US, apparently) are the Interrupters, a documentary about Chicagoans who are working to prevent bloodshed on the streets, and a recent film about the abolitionists.  I miss seeing serious fare like this from time to time.

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