Bro Movies. Films reviewed: Bigger, First Man, Free Solo

Posted in 1930s, 1960s, Biopic, Bodybuilders, documentary, Montreal, Movies, Space, Sports by CulturalMining.com on October 12, 2018

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

It’s Fall Film Festival season in Toronto now, meaning more movies than you can shake a stick at. Toronto After Dark will thrill and chill you with horror, cult and fantasy pics. Cinefranco brings brand new French language comedies, dramas and policiers from Quebec and Europe. And Rendezvous with Madness plays fascinating films accompanied by panel discussions on addiction and mental health.

But this week I’m talking about bro films, two biopics and a doc about men with lofty goals. One wants to climb a sheer cliff, another wants to build the perfect body, and a third one who just wants to fly to the moon.

Bigger

Dir: George Gallo

Joe Weider (Tyler Hoechlin) is a poor jewish kid in depression-era Montreal. On the streets tough kids beat him up and steal his paper route money, and at home his cruel mom beats him for not keeping clean. At least his little brother Ben (Aneurin Barnard) looks up to him. Joe finds inspiration in unusual places: a strongman at the circus and photos of weight lifters he see at newsstands. He begins to obsessively draw pictures of perfect male bodies, copying from textbooks at the McGill library. He wants to promote beautiful physiques, bodies that are muscular, symmetrical and healthy. But fitness for health and looks is still a new concept. In those days people guzzled booze, smoked like chimneys, and thought exercise was a dangerous thing best left to olympic athletes.

Weider challenges all that with self-published magazines, promoting new exercises, diets and weight training, illustrated with glamour shots of barely-dressed muscle men. It’s a smash hit, he gets a US contract and Joe and Ben’s empire expands to bodybuilder contests, weights, and a wide range of magazines. And when business takes him to Hollywood, he spots a bleached blonde pin up model working out at Jack LaLanne’s gym.  Betty (Julianne Hough) is everything he desires: beautiful, fit and smart (he is separated from his first wife). Is this true love? Later he discovers Austrian bodybuilder Arnold Schwarzenegger – the personification of his childhood drawings – and brings him to America.

Bigger is a fun, if idealized, look at the life and career of Canadian fitness mogul Joe Weider. It’s a bit corny, with Montreal-born Joe talking in an unplaceable, choppy accent. And it steers clear of his lawsuits and scandals. But Hoechlin and Hough are enjoyable as Joe and Betty, and there’s even a super villain, a racist, anti-semitic homophobe named Hauk (wonderfully played by Kevin Durand) who is his business rival and real-life enemy. Not a great movie, but an enjoyable one.

First Man

Dir: Damien Chazelle

It’s the 1960s in America, the space race is on, and the Soviets are winning. Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) is a test pilot exploring the skies. He can land any plane, even one about to explode. He’s married to Janet (Claire Foy), a pixie-ish woman with a fierce temper. They have a young daughter they both love. But when the girl dies of an incurable illness, and Neil loses his job despite his skills they know things have to change. So Neil makes a big decision: NASA needs astronauts, and he’s going to be one. They move down to Houston and settle in to suburban life.

First Man follows the career and home life of the renowned astronaut, from Gemini missions, to Apollo’s first landing. Armstrong is portrayed as a strong silent type, a no-nonsense guy who drives off alone to handle anger and depression. It also deals with astronauts and their uncertain lives (lots of them died). And director Chazelle makes you feel like you’re there with them in the planes and rockets. He even inserts showtunes into his astronaut movie. (Wait — showtunes?)  So why didn’t I Iike it? First Man is too heavy, too long, too ponderous. It’s one of those overly stern and patriotic American movies about national heroes. And where’s the suspense? We already know he was the first man on the moon. What’s the point? Ok, there are a few powerful scenes, but First Man consists mainly of rattling cockpits, brooding astronauts and suburban housewives yelling about their husbands.

Ryan Gosling is wasted in this boring example of Oscar Bait.

Free Solo

Dir: Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin

It’s 2016 and Alex Honnold has one obsession: to scale a sheer cliff in Yosemite. Mountain climbers have done it before in teams rapelling with ropes, pitons and caribiners. But Alex wants to do it “free solo”, that is, by himself and without safety ropes. One slip, one miscalculated reach, will send him plunging to his death. But he really wants to climb El Cap, and if it’s not free solo, what’s the point?

Alex is a boyish, wiry vegetarian who cares little for material things. He’s a loner who lives out of a trailer. He’s also in perfect shape, lithe, bendy and incredibly strong. He has to be to hold onto a crack in a rock with just a few fingers while stretching his body sideways to the next outcropping. He intensely studies the cliff, practicing each stage in separate small climbs using ropes. And he is accompanied by the filmmakers, who are accomplished climbers themselves. Alex proves to be a bit camera shy, hesitant to “let go” before the cameras. Is it performance anxiety? And will Alex make it to the top of El Capitan… or plunge to his death?

Free Solo is an amazing and spectacular look at one climber attempting the nearly impossible. I have no deep-seated passion for rock climbing – I even have a fear of falling – but this movie kept me riveted the whole time. Scenes that show Alex’s quirky nature and the people around him —  including other climbers, his family and his girlfriend – help give him a more rounded portrayal. But it’s the climb itself, and the truly amazing photography, that really keeps your attention.

Bigger, First Man, and Free Solo and open today in Toronto; check your local listings.

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning, on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com.

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