Tag Archives: B+

BIGGER, STRONGER, FASTER*

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B+

One might imagine that a documentary about the crusade against steroid use among American athletes at all levels would be a simplistic cautionary tale, and a rather dull one at that. But “Bigger, Stronger, Faster*” subverts expectations by being not only complex but surprisingly engaging even as it raises serious questions.

Using archival footage and a wide array of interviews with medical experts, activists, politicians and some of the best-known sports figures who’ve been caught up in scandals over “performance-enhancing” drugs that have occurred over the years, Chris Bell—a former WWE employee and bodybuilder who admits to having used steroids in the past (but now uses “legal” supplements)—covers the whole issue in an extraordinarily thorough fashion.

But the treatment is remarkable not only for its breadth, but for its even-handedness as well. It gives ample time to those who describe steroids as a threat not only to the integrity of sport but to the lives of children, offering footage from congressional hearings and observations from figures like Representative Henry Waxman as well as comments by Donald Hooton, a distraught Texas father who blames steroids for his son’s suicide and leads a campaign to inform students about the dangers they pose. But it doesn’t simply accept that side of the argument: it includes data suggesting that the alarmist position is a simplistic exaggeration, and that like many drugs and supplements steroids can cause serious injury if used in substantial amounts over a long period, but can be employed for quite appropriate medicinal purposes and don’t necessarily have irreversible long-term effects.

This description might suggest, though, that while the picture is more balanced than you might imagine, it’s still a dry, full-length equivalent of an educational instruction film. Nothing could be further from the truth. Bell and his cohorts lay out the material with real visual flair, employing adroit editing that juxtaposes a raft of pop cultural and political references to Rambo, G.I. Joe and Luke Skywalker against the scientific data, and a good deal of humor, mostly supplied by ironic clips involving individuals whose public pronouncements don’t quite jibe with their past conduct (like Arnold Schwarzenegger) and interviews in which people don’t say quite what they think they’re saying.

On the other hand, “Bigger, Stronger, Faster*” is no joke. It’s often playful, but it’s poignant too, especially in the sections that deal with Bell’s own family. Christopher’s own recollections about how, as a kid in Poughkeepsie, his idolatrous attitude toward wrestlers (including a fanatical desire to become one) was shattered when he discovered the truth about them, are compelling. But his two brothers take important roles on the cautionary side: Mike, nicknamed “Mad Dog,” and Mark, affectionately called “Smelly,” are both long-term steroid users obsessed with improving their bodies in an obviously hopeless effort to realize their dreams of success in pro wrestling and weightlifting. The conversations Bell has with them, and their parents, around the family dinner table are revealing and touching, and add a personal element to the film that makes it all the more compelling.

And finally, the picture takes a broader view, putting the steroid controversy (and the story of the Bell brothers) within a larger cultural context. The ultimate question it raises involves the hypocrisy of condemning one form of performance enhancement while systematically ignoring others that are arguably more problematic, and of maintaining the fiction of integrity not only in sports but other areas of American life while simultaneously undermining the illusion by emphasizing the importance of winning whatever the cost. Is it right, the picture asks, to punish a few notables for cheating in sports when giving yourself an edge, in various forms, is so pervasive—and blithely accepted—a means of getting ahead nowadays across the spectrum of society?

But once again, though these are serious matters—and one that lifts the picture beyond the conventional diatribe against steroids—Bell and his confederates manage to put them across in a fashion that’s genuinely enlightening, and enjoyable as well as instructive. As a result it’s not just “Bigger, Stronger, Faster*”—it’s also better than most movies.

ALEXANDRA

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B+

In “Russian Ark,” Alexander Sokurov used the cinematic flourishes of a magnificent setting and an army of handsomely coifed, costumed and bejeweled extras—along with a famously hyper-extended tracking shot that lasted the entire film—to paint an eye-popping vision of his country’s imperial history through a tour of the Hermitage museum. In this new effort the style is spare, the locale dusty and drab and the characters solemn and downcast. That’s entirely appropriate to a film dealing with a far less splendid part of Russia’s history (and its present)—the ongoing war in Chechnya—as a commentary on the horror of war in general.

Sokurov tells his very simple but wrenching story—or, perhaps more accurately given that the narrative is so slight, relays his impression—through the figure of Alexandra Nikolaevna, an aged Russian woman played by octogenarian Galina Vishnevskaya, the legendary operatic soprano now gray-haired and elderly but still as imposing as she was on the Bolshoi stage. She’s traveled to a base outside Grozny to visit the grandson she’s not seen in seven years, Denis (Vasily Shevtsov), a captain leading a troupe of young soldiers in the seemingly endless campaign against separatist rebels.

The film depicts her arrival, the time she spends there, and her departure, portraying the different episodes with a striking mixture of brutal realism and almost dreamlike reverie. We watch Alexandra, a no-nonsense woman without illusions who can be brusque as well as sympathetic, as she questions her grandson about such mundane matters as getting married and is given a tour of the base by him and a young private he assigns to look after her while he goes off on an unspecified patrol. In his absence she also takes off for the local market, where she encounters some hostility but also hospitality from Malika (Raisa Gichaeva), a former teacher living in a tiny flat in a bombed-out building, who has her escorted back to camp by a young neighbor with whom the Russian woman can discuss, inconclusively, the rationale behind the conflict. Back at the base, she’s looked upon by soldiers who’ve lost all contact with ordinary life almost like an alien being until her grandson abruptly informs her that he’s been assigned a longer mission and she has to catch the train back to Russia. Malika accompanies her to the station, leading to a final scene in which the women commiserate over the waste that war has brought on them and the men they love.

But the picture doesn’t descend into sentimental bathos. The connections that Sokurov draws between people here are powerful in their simplicity and totally free of melodramatic mawkishness. At the same time, however, his technique isn’t a documentary one: there’s a strange, near-hallucinatory feel to many of the scenes, marked as they are by pregnant pauses and long stares within the context of a realism heightened by cinematographer Alexander Burov’s compositions, which combine images drained of most color (leaving a pale russet aftertaste) with an almost luminous intensity. The strains of Andrei Sigle’s mournful music add to their impact.

“Alexandra” is one of those pure films that’s devoid of excess and overstatement, and its combination of directness and artistry—characteristics shared by Vishnevskaya’s performance—will test the patience of modern viewers accustomed to empty energy and obvious messages. But for those willing to give themselves over to its style and tempo, Sokurov’s picture will represent a simple but searing statement about what the war in Chechnya has done to a Russian generation, but also the effect all war has on our human impulses.

And it’s entirely appropriate that he should have chosen Vishnevskaya as the figure through which his vision is filtered. In an earlier stage of her career, in 1962, she was the Russian soprano featured, along with an English tenor and a German baritone, as soloist in the first performance of Benjamin Britten’s “War Requiem” at the rebuilt Coventry Cathedral—another powerful piece dealing with the futility of conflict. To have participated in two such extraordinary works with similar themes separated by nearly a half-century brings a remarkable symmetry to her career.