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Saturday, June 10, 2023

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Arts + CultureMoviesScreen Grabs: A great artist takes the opioid-peddling Sackler...

Screen Grabs: A great artist takes the opioid-peddling Sackler Family to task

Plus: Ukrainian benefit at Other Cinema, left-field twists in 'Nr. 10,' an aspirational Indian rapper goes bad in 'Four Samosas.'

This weekend provides a few opportunities to consider other things in the world besides Christmas-related ones—even the movies will render that difficult for December’s remainder. Nonetheless, life often unpleasantly goes on in a fashion resistant to that “Yuletide spirit” for many around the globe, one obvious example being the conflict spotlit at Other Cinema’s Ukrainian Benefit this Sat/3 at Artists Television Access.

A collaboration with war-refugee-aiding nonprofit Humanity Now, the evening will feature the brand-new finale of famed British documentarian Adam Curtis’ Fall of Democracy series, this episode (“TraumaZone”) examining Putin and the Ukraine invasion as leading examples of that decline worldwide. There will also be excerpts from films by Evgeny Afineevsky, Oliver Stone, and Aleksandra Simonova (who’ll be present) on the same subject, as well as a prescient 91-year-old celluloid missive from Dziga Vertov. For more info, go here.

A catastrophe much closer to home that’s been pushed down into the lower depths of the news cycle lately is the opioid epidemic, even though it is still a huge problem in the US. (It is estimated that today about 11 million Americans abuse oxycodone alone.) Many addicts fell into that trap by way of an initial painkiller prescription for some legitimate medical issue. The reason these drugs got vastly out of control—ensnaring individuals, families, even whole communities who’d never had such trouble before—was because they were given a giant marketing push amidst poor regulation by manufacturers who denied their addicting properties… though their own research had duly warned them of exactly that.

Famously, the worst miscreants by far in this regard were the Sackler family, whose pharmaceutical fortune was largely built on minimizing the dangers of one popular new pill (Valium). It was then vastly increased a generation later by recklessly fueling a national epidemic to maximize profits from OxyContin. Over half a million Americans have died from opioid-related overdoses. “Old-school” drugs like heroin are now part of the same problem, since many turned to illegal substances when regulatory measures finally cut off access to the prescription drugs they’d gotten addicted to. Through most of the last quarter-century, as all this transpired, the Sackler clan struck postures of “Who, us? But we’re just innocent, generous benefactors of the arts!!,” when not hiding from public view entirely.

As it happens, one person who fell prey to the crisis is famed photographer Nan Goldin. Initially prescribed painkillers for an injury, she wound up nearly dying from a fentanyl overdose. Upon recovering, she formed the activist group P.A.I.N. (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now) to target the Sacklers’ continued wealth and social prominence.

In many ways, Goldin was the ideal person to spearhead such a campaign: The Sacklers have long “washed their blood money through the halls of museums and universities around the world,” as it’s put in the new documentary All The Beauty and the Bloodshed, funding expensive art acquisitions and exhibition halls that duly bear their check-writing name. Many of those institutions also boast works by Nan Goldin in their personal collections, and would prefer not to have such a prominent artist drawing public attention to the Sackler taint.

Much of Laura Poitras’ Beauty and Bloodshed is about P.A.I.N.’s protest actions, often dramatic ones with a performance art angle staged at high-profile museums themselves. (Not with their consent, however.) Such activism bears significant fruit, as the Sackler name starts disappearing from, and their donations declined by, various lofty temples of culture. But as you may have already learned from news reports, TV shows, and last year’s incendiary book Empire of Pain by investigative reporter Patrick Redden Keefe (an interviewee here), there is also considerable frustration, because the Department of Justice ultimately allows the Sacklers to escape with future legal immunity, and most of their wealth intact.

That angers Goldin, who seems to have always been driven to a degree by anger: At abusive relationships, starting with her parents; at the tragic fate of a troubled older sister who was shunted in and out of institutions till she committed suicide; at the AIDS epidemic that decimated her community of NYC artists, gender-role rebels, and lovers, who themselves had fueled her often discomfortingly personal imagery. (Among those intimates/subjects were late John Waters star Cookie Mueller, and an extremely glam person I knew socially for a while in early ’80s Boston.)

While director Poitras’ prior films (CitizenfourRisk etc.) were almost exclusively political in focus, this one thus combines a similar indicting inquiry into power with a biographical portrait-of-the-artist—one who’s been famously self-portraitizing for decades, despite an otherwise often reclusive profile. (I saw her envelope-pushing first photo slideshow, The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, at the Pacific Film Archive close to 40 years ago.) The combination might well have seemed strained, and occasionally one detects the editorial influence of Goldin herself, who is a producer here. But her life, art, politics, and activist rage are so deeply intertwined, All the Beauty and the Bloodshed’s two hours feel organic, as well as highly compelling. It opens Fri/9 at the AMC Kabuki 8 in SF.

If the above sounds like an overdose of harsh reality to you, there are two new narrative-feature arrivals in theaters that definitely travel in the opposite direction:

Nr. 10
Alex van Warmerdam is apparently a painter and experimental theater veteran in addition to having written, directed, and (often) acted in films for the last several decades. Coming from entirely different disciplines might help explain the very individualistic freedom with which he approaches narrative-feature cinema. It wasn’t until 2013’s Borgman that his imagination attracted much attention outside the Netherlands, and this latest is not as successful as that, or 2015’s Schneider vs. Bax. But his first film since then is nevertheless a bracingly eccentric construct that reminds you how conceptually conventional most movies are.

It starts as a sort of deadpan Dutch Noises Off, with discord on and offstage while a company of actors rehearse a new play. That isn’t going well, in part because senior thespian Marius (Pierre Bokma) cannot seem to remember his lines anymore. Also adding complication is that relatively youthful cast members Gunter (Tom Dewispelaere) and Isabel (Anniek Pheifer) are having a secret affair—and she’s married to the director (Hans Kesting). When he finds out about it, things go from depressingly bad to vindictively much, much worse. But then there’s also weird business going on involving Catholic clergy, and mysterious strangers who appear to be following Gunther, who in turn is being followed by his disgruntled daughter (Frieda Barnhard) from a prior relationship.

Van Warmerdam’s specialty is springing surreal, left-field plot twists. I’d advise anyone planning on seeing Nr. 10 to avoid other reviews that recklessly spoil the very big twist occurring here at about the 2/3 mark. It is a doozy, and lifts this amusing but relatively Earth-bound tangle of barbed backstage intrigue into a very different kind of storytelling stratosphere. Does it entirely work? No—certainly not as well as in in some of his previous films, where equally outre ideas nonetheless fit together more smoothly. Still, he is an original, and even this lesser work is not quite like anybody else’s. The film opens at Alamo Drafthouse New Mission on Fri/2, then launches on digital streaming platforms Dec. 9.

Four Samosas
Likewise aiming for humor of the quirky kind, albeit in a broader mode, is this indie comedy from another writer-director-actor, Ravi Kapoor (of 2015’s Miss India America). His protagonist is Vinny (Venk Potula), a sari salesman and aspiring rapper with a James Brown ‘do. He’s toiling in the stripmall trenches of Artesia, California, a Greater Los Angeles outpost notable for its large Indian-American population. Three years back he broke up with girlfriend Rina (Summer Bishil), and is nowhere near over it, particularly after hearing she is engaged to jerk Sanjay (Karan Soni). This cannot stand. So Vin convinces his friends to participate in the terrible idea of robbing Rina’s father’s supermarket, because…erm…well, just because. Needless to say, it all goes wrong.

Four Samosas feels like it’s aspiring toward the tone of something very like Napoleon Dynamite. An imitative air hangs over not just its general stylistic presentation, but also the climax of a talent show dance exhibition just like the one in you-know-what. This movie is like a puppy desperate to be petted: Adorable at first, but pretty soon it wears you out. It’s got a case of the cutes that won’t quit, and the incessant high energy of the editing and performances eventually exposes rather than conceals the fact that there just aren’t many clever or funny ideas in the strained wackiness here. It’s the kind of admirably resourceful but not-particularly-enjoyable joint you want to give an A for effort, then a C- for way too much effort. It opens Fri/9 at The Lot City Center in San Ramon, simultaneous with launch on VOD platforms.Attachments area

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