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Friday, May 2, 2014

GENERATION IRON -- DVD review by porfle

Massively muscled Kai Greene opens GENERATION IRON (2013) posing in public for an amazed, photo-snapping subway crowd and appears freakish at first--especially with his long, snakellike braid and expressionless mask--until we get used to him and his exaggerated physique.  Kai, an accomplished painter, represents the "I was a juvenile delinquent rescued by bodybuilding" side of the sport and, as we're surprised to find of many bodybuilders, is quite intelligent and introspective.

Phil Heath, equally large or perhaps even moreso, trains far from the urban scene in an idyllic Colorado setting but, as the current Mr. Olympia, is no less intensely focused on his goal to be the world's greatest bodybuilder.  More of an average family man than a quirky "character" type, Phil is no less singleminded in his intent: "For me as Mr. Olympia, it's not about beating your competition, it's about crushing the dreams of those other guys."

Like PUMPING IRON and its distaff (and even more fictionalized) follow-up PUMPING IRON II: THE WOMEN, this docudrama by writer-director Vlad Yudin offers interlocking segments on several bodybuilders as they aspire and perspire their way to the Mr. Olympia crown, building slowly and surely toward the competition and, little by little, making us care about the guys competing in it and which of them will realize his dream of winning.

Also like the earlier films, this one is as shaped and sculpted by its director as the competitors' bodies themselves.  But as it is, Yudin's manipulation of events for cinematic effect is fairly natural and unobtrusive, giving us a good idea of what these guys' everyday lives must be like.  The men themselves are quite articulate and give us ample insight into their thoughts and feelings, which go far beyond the seeming superficiality of the sport. 

And although they're clearly being directed in many scenes, something occasionally happens which isn't pre-planned, just like in the good old point-and-shoot documentaries.  This is especially true when one bodybuilder, immediately after discussing injuries which have hampered his push toward the Mr. O crown over the years, is involved in a shockingly sudden and unexpected accident which, serendipitously for the film crew, is caught on camera. 

Elsewhere,  we get a sense of the remarkable dedication--training, diet,  mental discipline--which sometimes seems to border on fanaticism, obsession, and the always mysterious desire for extreme body modification.  Which makes it even more remarkable when some of these participants turn out to be such seemingly  ordinary and likable guys.  Well-adjusted, even. 

There are the obvious success stories such as Arnold Schwarzenegger and Lou Ferrigno, as well as muscle men who simply want to excell at this sport while leading otherwise normal lives as husbands and fathers.  Some, like Victor Martinez (who resembles a giant-sized Vin Diesel) use bodybuilding as a means of supporting themselves and their families, while others find it their only viable way out of poverty and/or into something meaningful in their lives.

The low-key and languidly paced narrative is visually appealing and nicely scored with ambient synth music which, as composer Jeff Rona points out, emphasizes the emotional undercurrent of the film.  Mickey Rourke provides the narration in his own strong but understated style. 

The human aspects of the story are well-handled, as in the charming scenes between Roelly Winklaar and his grey-haired trainer,  Sibil "Grandma" Peeters, a former bodybuilder herself who now accompanies Winklaar in both a professional and a maternal capacity.  Roelly's need to first win a European competition in order to qualify for Mr. O provides some suspense along the way.

Arnold,  whose brief appearance in the film closes the circle between his charmingly ruthless PUMPING IRON persona and his current standing as the  absolute pinnacle of success in the sport, at least as most of us perceive it, expresses concern that bodybuilding judges now ignore symmetry in favor of sheer bulk.  In regard to this, a brief but very concise and informative sidestep into the world of steroids rears its head at about the halfway point, just as we knew it would sooner or later. 

Most of the bodybuilders seem to accept them as a necessary evil but express disdain for those who misuse them and expect them to do all the work in building muscle.  As one expert puts it,  "almost all top-level sports professionals take some  form of performance-enhancing drugs", and while they don't make training any easier, they "allow [contestants] to take it to the extreme level."

The film culminates in Las Vegas with the Mr. Olympia competition itself, which is the least "staged" part of the documentary and thus provides the most suspense and excitement. This is especially true since by now we've gotten to know these contestants and their aspirations intimately. 

The DVD from Anchor Bay is in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen with Dolby Digital 5.1 sound and subtitles in English and Spanish.  Extras include a making-of featurette, deleted scenes, an extended interview with Lou Ferrigno, and a commentary track featuring Yudin along with the winner of the film's Mr. Olympia competition.

"Bodybuilders are very self-centered and selfish," admits contestant Branch Warren, but GENERATION IRON demonstrates that there's a lot more going on with these guys, and with the unusual sport that drives them with such fierce determination, than one might otherwise suspect.  With this lovingly crafted documentary, Vlad Yudin has helped portray modern bodybuilding less as a freak show and more as a life-affirming endeavor among some very identifiably human aspirants. 

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TheSurlyMermaid said...

Nice review. Looking forward to seeing this!

Porfle Popnecker said...

Thanks! If you liked PUMPING IRON, you'll probably like this, too.