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Sunday, October 1, 2023

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MoviesScreen GrabsScreen Grabs: An intimate appointment with Dr. Fauci

Screen Grabs: An intimate appointment with Dr. Fauci

Plus: Political intrigue and dark thrillers from Argentina, Romania, and Colombia. This week's new movies!

With no end to the COVID epidemic in sight, that situation has gone on long enough now that there’s a new documentary viewing one illustrious 50-year-plus career in medical science largely through the lens of that ongoing crisis. John Hoffman and Janet Tobias’ Fauci is an informative appreciation of a man who is no stranger to controversy. Still, recent events have directed a hitherto-unprecedented amount of slander and bile at him simply for trying to safeguard the public health in an era when a
certain sector brands any news they don’t like as “fake.”

This is why we can’t have nice things: Because we’ve become a nation dumb enough to blame the messenger over a virus that has so far killed (at minimum) nearly two- thirds of million Americans. Trumpians would apparently rather die in denial than take seriously a threat they find inconvenient. Or as Dr. Anthony Fauci puts it, “I’m the bad guy because I represent something uncomfortable, which
is the truth.”

The National Geographic documentary charts the Brooklynite’s path from early Jesuit education (where he
absorbed a sense of community service) through med school and a Vietnam-era military draft he was allowed to fulfill at the National Institutes of Health. By 1984 he’d risen through the ranks as a scientist, physician and public health official to become director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Fauci was among the very first researchers to take note of AIDS (in 1981, before it even had that acronym), which became his major focus for years. From the start he used his role to combat the
bigotry and paranoia that flourished around it.

Even so, anger particularly from the gay community at the government’s perceived slow response to a major public heath crisis found him targeted for criticism, especially once ACT-UP was founded. (The documentary errs in not asking Fauci to what if any extent the Reagan and Bush administrations’ callous attitude hobbled development/ implementation of AIDS-related treatments.) His answer to those understandable if sometimes misguided attacks was to engage with activists, actually bringing them to the table alongside researchers and drug companies in determining paths forward.

Though choking up briefly at the memory of that era’s merciless death toll, it’s his dedicated imperturbability that impresses here: Given our increasing climate of political petty-grudge-keeping, Fauci’s disinterest in returning slung mud (even when the inimitable Larry Kramer called him an “incompetent idiot”) now seems valiantly old-school. “What keeps me grounded is the enormity of the problem and a very deep sense of responsibility,” he says.

That unflappable plowing-through nature has again proved invaluable of late, as the soon-to-be-80-year-old found himself attempting to curb a new “plague” despite a Presidential administration that hoped it would go away if ignored. Faced with a national health emergency, Trump was (as ever), impulsive, irrational, and could not admit being wrong—even as he recommended daft anecdotalCOVID “cures” Fauci was forced to disavow on the same dais.

Soon that POTUS turned his tantrums toward Fauci himself, whipping up conservative anger at supposedly “confusing” intel that simply reflected fast-changing medical scientific knowledge about a brand-new menace. The man, his wife and grown children are still getting death threats from “dark web activists” mad about contagion realities they choose to disbelieve, while many of the same folk apparently do believe in liberal pizza pedophile rings and chemtrails.

This is the kind of movie that makes you grateful not just for expertise but for sanity in high places—something we used to take for granted, but which now seems precious as gold. Anthony Fauci appears in vigorous good health, yet as with RBG, one worries what will happen when he “goes.” Do they even make ‘em like that anymore? Why do there seem to be fewer grownups like him in the corridors of power every single day? Fauci opens this Fri/10 at the Vogue in SF—and yes, you need to show proof
of vaccination for entrance. (Director John Hoffman and interview subject Peter Staley will participate in a Q&A after the film at the 4pm Sun/12 screening.) It will also be streaming on Disney+ as of October. 6.

Other new releases this weekend likewise submerge men in perilous quandaries, albeit of a more criminal nature than Fauci has hazarded:

AIDS was hardly the only destabilizing factor in the sociopolitical landscape of the 1980s. Andreas Fontana’s first feature takes place during the “Dirty War” that continued in Argentina during the early part of that decade, starting with the Peronist regime’s collapse in 1976. The subsequent military junta “disappeared” as many as 30,000 perceived enemies, from guerrillas to journalists to dissidents—or anyone suspected of, well, anything. In that climate of state terrorism (which the US, among other
foreign governments, helped support), greed, corruption and violence ran amuck.

This elegantly sinister fiction focuses on private Swiss bank representative Ivan (Fabrizio Rongione). He’s come to Buenos Aires with ambitious wife Ines (Stephanie Cleau) to reassure old clients, acquire new ones, and basically help hustle the financial assets of the nation’s elite to safer harbor abroad. That this is delicate business is underlined by the fact that his predecessor, whom everybody professes to have loved, has been ominously “missing” for some time.

To avoid the same fate, Ivan must walk a tightrope, pleasing the uneasily-coexisting elements that comprise “the cream of the junta”—high military command, wealthy socialites and businesspersons, even church officials, all ruthless in their self-interest. Bred from old-world aristocracy, Ivan’s courtly reticence sometimes seems misplaced here, as his simultaneously supportive and goading spouse is quick to point out. He’ll have to shed more than his inhibitions to play this game successfully, or even get out alive.

Azor may disappoint those expecting an explosion that never quite comes; like The Conformist fifty years ago, it’s about a protagonist’s surrender to institutional amorality, though minus that film’s climactic violence. (The mayhem here is all offscreen, though no less menacing for being hidden.) Ivan starts out as a principled man of commerce. By the end, he is something else—an enabler of the way money moves around the globe so that justice cannot find it. Azor is releasing to limited theaters this month (none
announced in the Bay Area yet), and will soon be available on streaming platform MUBI.

Likewise tense with latent violence is this 2016 Cannes prizewinner from Romanian writer-director Bogdan Mirica. 30-ish city dweller Roman (Dragos Bucur) travels from Belgrade to a rural “wasteland” he’s inherited from his late, shady grandfather. The nondescript if rather vast property is close to the sea and a national border, however, so it has some market value. Roman quickly learns that others
do not want him to sell it, however—particularly once the friend who was going to arrange a sale “disappears.” Grandpa was evidently involved in criminal doings that continue after his demise, requiring just such a “no man’s land” for their more secretive (and homicidal) tasks. Needless to say, Ivan may come to regret feeling he’s tough enough to control this situation.

Despite the prominence of one severed human foot found floating in a bog, Dogs is the kind of very slow-burning thriller that prefers to unsettle rather than jolt. True to cinematic Romanian exports of recent years, even this ostensibly pulpy story is executed in long takes and formal compositions with little or no musical scoring, its minimalism hypnotic rather than patience-testing. It’s a quiet death-knell of a movie that pays off, no matter that the fates of some characters are left to our grim imaginations.

The travails suffered by the protagonist in Harold Trompetero’s Colombian film are all too explicit by
comparison. Misael (John Leguizamo) is thrown into prison after beating to death the neighbor he thinks
molested and killed one of his two young sons. Yet his wife (Adriana Barraza) seems unsympathetic to Misael’s plight, for reasons we eventually discover. Meanwhile, he must deal with the hardships of incarceration, particularly from one abusive guard (Ramiro Meneses). A sole bright spot is the bond Misael develops with the jailhouse dog, though you may wonder why, in this bleak place, the other inmates seem so disinterested in a creature that offers diversion and companionship.

In the mode of something like Midnight Express, albeit with less finesse, Dark Blood often feels overly
sensationalist in tone and style, dwelling on our tormented hero’s suffering with lip-smacking satisfaction. The multitalented US performer Leguizamo (who was born in Colombia) throws himself into a very physical Spanish-language role. Yet there’s little depth of character or narrative for him to chew on, and ultimately his particular gifts seem rather wasted. Brutal yet unenlightening, this movie “ironically” ends where it started. Like its protagonist, we feel a bit like we’ve been pummeled for nothing. It’s available On Demand as of Fri/10.

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