It’s been a while since I’ve done one of these, mainly because I’ve been busy and writing about other stuff. But here are some shorter takes on movies I’ve seen recently, on DVD and at special screenings.
How to Survive a Plague — This Oscar-nominated documentary played at Proctors on Saturday, plays again on March 21 at The Linda at WAMC, and is very much worth checking out. Directed by David France, it documents the history of ACT UP, the activist group that formed shortly after the AIDS epidemic began, and fought for the rights of people with AIDS/HIV. Much of the film focuses on ACT UP’s efforts to get the government to expedite the testing of drugs to treat AIDS, and to make such drugs affordable and widely available, but it also highlights the group’s more controversial and confrontational actions, which included a protest during mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City, and wrapping North Carolina senator Jesse Helms’ house in a giant condom.
“How to Survive a Plague” is a vital reminder of just how awful and deadly AIDS was, particularly in its early days, when far too many public officials ignored what was happening, simply because the vast majority of its victims were gay. The outrage and anger that drove ACT UP are palpable, but the film is also humorous (the giant condom is very funny) and moving. France focuses on a handful of members of ACT UP, including Peter Staley, a bond trader who quit his job after he was diagnosed with HIV to become an AIDS activist, and speaks quite openly about his belief that the disease will kill him. At times, the film feels like ancient history, and at times its relevancy is startling: Footage of people chanting “Healthcare is a right!” looks like it could have been filmed during Obama’s first term. If you’re like me, and Larry Kramer was your favorite character in “And The Band Played On,” you will definitely want to see this film.
ALSO WORTH WATCHING: Good as “How to Survive a Plague” is, I’m not sure it’s any better than another recent documentary about ACT UP: “United in Anger: A History of ACT UP,” which I caught late last year at The Sanctuary for Independent Media. Like “How to Survive a Plague,” “United in Anger” mixes archival footage with present-day interviews. And it does a better job of giving voice to women and minorities and highlighting the ways in which different groups of people were impacted by AIDS/HIV.
Stay Hungry — Considering this 1976 Bob Rafelson film was filmed in Birmingham, Ala., where I lived and worked right out of college, I don’t know why it took me so long to get around to seeing it. And it really is something special — an eccentric, character-driven drama, about a rich young man (Jeff Bridges) who starts hanging out at a downtown gym, befriends a bodybuilder played by a very winning Arnold Schwarzenegger in his feature film debut, and hooks up with the pretty young receptionist (Sally Field).
The film’s early scenes feature footage of the cast iron statue of the Roman god Vulcan that overlooks the city of Birmingham. Because I love Vulcan, I watched these scenes several times, and reminisced about my friend Hanna bringing me to see Vulcan when I visited the city to interview for a job, and my friend Leigh Anne’s wedding reception at Vulcan park. But the film has a lot more to offer than Vulcan. It’s humorous and observant and also quite eccentric — there are scenes of bodybuilders running around downtown Birmingham that are unlike anything I’ve ever really seen before. The film isn’t perfect, but it provides meaty roles to a trio of young stars, and might just feature Schwarzenegger’s best performance.
ALSO WORTH WATCHING: Do you want to see even more footage of Schwarzenegger striking body building poses? Then you should watch “Pumping Iron,” the 1977 documentary that follows Schwarzenegger as he competes for his sixth Mr. Olympia title.
Holy Mountain — I caught this 1973 psychedelic head trip at EMPAC a couple weeks ago, and I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. I had seen two of director Alejandro Jodorowsky’s other films, one of which, “El Topo,” I hated, and the other, “Santa Sangre,” I loved.
Well, I pretty much loved “Holy Mountain,” a mesmerizing provocation crammed with bizarre and beautiful imagery and bursting with philosophical and religious ideas. The film tells the story of a thief who is crucified, but later joins an alchemist (Jodorowsky himself) and his band of hand-picked leaders in a search for immortality. While the first part of the film could be construed as a sacreligious attack on organized religion, the middle section is a no-holds barred assault on capitalism and war profiteering, while the third satirizes the quest for transcendence.
Anyway, “Holy Mountain” is a strange, unforgettable journey — one of those films that provokes wildly differing reactions. However, any film that features a reptile circus reenacting the conquering of the New World is probably worth a look.
ALSO WORTH WATCHING: “Santa Sangre.”
Despicable Me — I finally got around to watching this 2010 animated film and found it quite delightful. Steve Carrell is the voice of Gru, a super-villain who adopts three girls as part of his plan to outwit his rival and steal the moon. You don’t have to be a psychic to predict that the three girls will turn Gru into a devoted father figure, and that he’ll grow to enjoy watching their dance classes and having tea parties with them, but the film makes this journey a lot of fun: “Despicable Me” is filled with zany visual flourishes and verbal wit, and Gru is an easy character to root for.
When I worked at summer camp, I played an evil super-villain in our nightly skits, and there were always a handful of kids who cheered for me, and booed the super hero, the virtuous Captain Spunk. Anyway, “Despicable Me” understands the appeal villains sometimes hold for kids, and taps into it quite nicely, before ending on a note of uplift and good feelings.
ALSO WORTH WATCHING: “The Incredibles,” the animated film by Pixar about a family of super heroes.
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