November 2022 Round-Up – Part 1

Argentina, 1985(11/7/2022)

From 1976 to 1983 Argentina was taken over by a brutal military junta which engaged in a “dirty war” characterized by state terrorism, repression, and “disappearances.”  Eventually democracy was restored and that is where this new Amazon produced prestige film Argentina, 1985 picks up and follows Chief Prosecutor Julio César Strassera as he is tasked with prosecuting these former dictators for war crimes in civilian court.  This is no easy task as these people still have strong ties to the military and the police and still have their supporters in the public.  It’s such a “hot” case that most experienced lawyers don’t want to touch it, forcing Strassera to assemble a team of young law students to act as his assistants.  Much of the film is focused on the toll all of this takes on Strassera, who is constantly being threatened by anonymous callers and the like and who also needs to prevent his witnesses from being intimidated.  The film’s courtroom scenes are at times wrenching, with witnesses giving detailed accounts of the horrors these dictators put them through, though I would have perhaps liked a bit of a better understanding of some of the details of how Strassera managed to tie all of this to the generals.  My understanding is that their main defense was to claim that these actions were undertaken by rogue elements in the military and the crux of the prosecution was in proving that the crimes were too widespread and too coordinated for that to be plausible and I would have liked more about that.  The bigger issue here for me is just that it kind of lives in the shadow of another recent film about the end of a Patagonian dictatorship: Pablo Larraín’s No, which looked at the plebiscite which ended Augusto Pinochet’s reign in Chile from the perspective of the campaign’s advertising agency.  That movie had the more creative angle to take on a story like this and it was also a bit bolder formally with its integration of stock footage and also had a really strong performance by Gael García Bernal at its center.  By contrast this movie feels like a more conventional prestige courtroom drama, but that isn’t to diminish its strengths as a decent historical film about an interesting moment in the history of the titular country.
***1/2 out of Five

Wendell and Wild(11/9/2022)

Animation is often a difficult field to truly make a name in.  Most animated films’ identities tend to be defined by the studios and production companies that make them rather than the names of their directors and one of the victims of this is probably Henry Selick, who’s recently discussed being kind of bitter that the most famous movie he directed (The Nightmare Before Christmas) has Tim Burton’s name all over it making people assume he was its director.  His next most famous film, Coraline, also tends to be associated with the Laika brand too so it’s really not easy out there for him.  It probably would have been easy (and from a marketing perspective, savvy) for his latest film Wendell and Wild to have been marketed as being more the work of his co-writer Jordan Peele but Selick himself seems to have gotten top billing.  Unfortunately I’m not sure that this is the movie he’s going to want to be the most associated with because it’s kind of messy.  On the positive side, the film has some cool character designs and an impressive voice cast but I find the world building here to be rather deficient; the whole thing is some kind of romp back and forth between the afterlife and the real world but it never really makes this conception of such things interesting.  Worse than that, I can’t even really say I was entirely wowed by the stop motion animation here, which feels noticeably cruder than what Laika has gotten us used to nor would I say does it have the detail of something like Wes Anderson’s stop motion efforts.  In many ways it might be a good indication of how much Selick maybe needs a visionary behind him like a Tim Burton or a Neil Gaiman in order to really have that complete vision.  Jordan Peele by contrast, is a sharp filmmaker but one who mostly seems rooted in the real world rather than abstract fantasy land and I’m not sure he was the right person to partner up with Selick.  I’m perhaps being a touch picky about this and am maybe underrating the film through expectations and that if it had caught me a bit more off guard I’d be more impressed. 
**1/2 out of Five

My Policeman(11/12/2022)

The new film My Policeman has been almost entirely talked about in terms of its star, Harry Styles, and the fact that it features him playing a character in a gay romance.  That logline is probably enough to get quite a few AO3 writers into the theater door, but there hasn’t been much else said about the film’s story and production.  The film is directed by a guy named Michael Grandage, who’s had a pretty long and successful career in theater direction but has only made one film before and that debut did not make much of a splash.  His work here is pretty close to what you’d expect from a period piece directed by a stage director: dignified and actor centric.  The film follows a policeman in 1950s England who marries a woman despite being a closeted homosexual and ends up starting an affair with a local artist, leading to something of a love triangle with the wife.  In broad strokes that’s not dissimilar from Brokeback Mountain: dude in a typically masculine job has a secret bond forbidden bond which leaves the woman he was in a sham marriage with in the dark.  That’s not necessarily dissimilar from how a lot of gay romances played out in the times before homosexuality was accepted by society, so it may be unfair to compare every such scenario to Ang Lee’s modern classic but the comparison doesn’t really help this one.  The film has a somewhat awkward framing story as well which turns the whole thing into a sort of flashback narrative with two different casts and I’m not sure that ever quite paid of satisfactorily either.  Still there are some good performances here as well as some decent period detail, so if the cast and plot interests you it’s probably worth a look.
*** out of Five

All the Beauty and the Bloodshed(11/13/2022)

What do you do when people you hate make great art?  “Hate” might be a strong word but I think director Laura Poitras has not been a good influence on the world.  The outlet she founded, The Intercept, along with her co-founder and sometimes subject Glen Greenwald have pioneered a very poisonous brand of paranoid and grievance-based politics whose reflexive contrarianism is completely counter-productive and frankly ignorant of the real stakes of electoral politics.  They have at best been useful idiots in helping the rise of the global right and at worst… well, they seem awfully willing to advance lines of argument that are rather helpful to Vladimir Putin.  However, this is not to say that Poitras is a bad filmmaker, and when her attitude is directed at the right topic there is a use for it and she probably has found an appropriate target in the Sackler family of Purdue Pharma “fame,” who are almost singlehandedly responsible for the opioid epidemic out of sheer greed.  The Sacklers are not necessarily the sole subject of her new documentary All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, but they’re certainly in the mix.  Rather, the film follows an acclaimed photographer named Nan Goldin, who has recently become known for her work for an organization called P.A.I.N, which has been instrumental in the movement to remove the Sackler name from the wings of various museums where they had been donating over the years. 

The film cuts back and forth between these recent protest activities but is also uses Goldin’s photographs to tell her life story.  Goldin lived a life that began with a traumatic childhood in which her sister committed suicide and her narcissistic parents essentially abused both of them.  She then moved to New York and lived within that bohemian arts community during the 80s and began presenting slideshows themed around feminist themes and also went on to curate gallery shows.  In the latter role she came to be involved with the NEA fights of the 90s and was also part of the ACT UP movement, all while dealing with her own struggles with domestic abuse and addiction.  Needless to say, she’s someone who has a lot of “cred” for hanging out with the right people at the right time within her generation and championing the right causes and her recent advocacy around the opioid epidemic and the Sackler family will also age pretty well.  The movie does not feel like a hagiography though, or at least not a shameless one.  Much of Goldin’s story is simply told in her own words and with her own photos and it doesn’t feel a need to include a bunch of talking heads to back up and worship her history.  On some level this actually does resemble the “profile documentaries” that I usually decry in which it intercuts a few weeks in the life of some famous old person with biographical background, but even the most overdone formulas can still work when done correctly like this one is.  Goldin’s modern exploits aren’t just being documented to prove that said senior citizen being profiled is still “vital and relevant” and the biographical background elements catch the audience up with the somewhat prickly story of someone who isn’t already a household name and her life intersects with a lot of interesting developments in recent American cultural history.

The film is not really meant to be a primer on the larger story of the opioid epidemic, at least not in any detail.  If you’re looking for that you will probably be better served by Hulu’s “Dopesick” miniseries.  This film is more narrowly focused on the actions of Goldin’s activist group, which entered into the story once the Sacklers’ wrongdoing had already been uncovered and they were trying to eke out some justice that “the system” likely wasn’t going to be able to deliver.  At first it feels like this modern story is kind of disconnected from the narrative of Goldin’s earlier life but by the end of the film it all does connect together kind of beautifully.  We see the anti-Sackler advocacy as a result of her earlier ACT UP experience, which by extension was a something she was involved in because of her life in the New York art world, which was itself the result of how she became isolated from her family early on.  There is thematic linkage as well, with many of the themes of Goldin’s early life (stigmatization, the tyranny of politeness, art world gatekeeping) coming very much into play during the opioid epidemic and the challenges Goldin eventually faces as an activist.  One can also certainly see the connections to Poitras’ own politics and philosophy in all of this, specifically its militant anti-establishment attitude, very personally directed anger, and fears of surveillance, which as I’ve established are all things that can become very unproductive if misdirected but which work well for this story and make the whole project feel like a much more personalized expression than it might otherwise.  Without using any gaudy gimmicks the movie manages to be both a strong character study, a strong political statement, and a story about trends in humanity all at once and I think it’s a pretty big achievement within the modern documentary form.
****1/2 out of Five

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