Friday Flicks September 6: “One Child Nation,” “Official Secrets” & “It Chapter Two”

M.V. MoorheadSeptember 2019
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At Harkins Shea:

One Child Nation—This is a riveting, deeply personal documentary on an epic, and appalling, theme: China’s one-child policy and the human rights outrages, little understood in this country, that it wrought. The director, Nanfu Wang (in collaboration with Jialing Zhang) was born in the rural Jiangxi province in 1985, but has lived in the U.S. for many years. Inspired by the birth of her own child, she returned to her hometown to talk with her family and neighbors about the population control social engineering effort.

She talks with her mother, who still defends the policy as a necessary measure against widespread starvation (although she herself had a second child, the director’s brother); with her uncle, who left his own child out at the marketplace; with a local government official, now retired, who was in charge of forced abortions and sterilizations; with the local doctor who performed these procedures and now works exclusively with infertility patients in an attempt to atone; with human traffickers; with propagandists. She even talks to a photographic artist who finds, photographs and in some cases collects aborted late-term fetuses.

Some of this is hard to watch—not just the graphic horrors but the uncomfortable, Marcel Ophuls-esque eye on ordinary people trying to explain their role in a historical evil—but it’s also hard to look away from. Nanfu Wang’s manner toward her subjects is non-judgmental, even sympathetic, and when she shows us montages of people repeating the same stock phrases—“The policy was very strict”; “There was nothing we could do”—you may find yourself auditing your own social collaborations.

At Harkins Camelview:

Official Secrets—Kiera Knightly plays Katharine Gun, a real-life Brit intelligence analyst who leaked a particularly slimy top-secret document during the run-up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, to which Tony Blair and his advisors were toadying accomplices. After the memo, which described a plan to blackmail U.N. delegates in return for votes for a resolution on the war, ran in The Observer, Gun confessed to her bosses, was arrested, and stood to face serious prison time for violating the Official Secrets Act.

Directed with fierce efficiency by Gavin Hood, the film shifts between Gun’s struggles and the work of the Observer journalists to verify a story they’re fairly drooling to run. It’s a lean, taut-as-a-drum political thriller with a blood-boiling theme and a fine cast that includes Ralph Fiennes, Matt Smith and Rhys Ifans, among others.

But it’s built, mostly, around the superbly stricken performance of Knightly, as a seemingly ordinary person unexpectedly driven by conscience to extraordinary acts. When she flashes that unmistakable, mischievous smile here, it’s touched with desperation and panic.

In wide release this weekend:

It Chapter Two—2017’s movie adaptation of Stephen King’s 1986 doorstopper focused on the pre-teen, ‘80s-era version of the “Loser’s Club,” a band of misfits battling the fanged, fear-eating, shape-shifting Pennywise the Clown, who lived in the sewers beneath their town of Derry, Maine. This second entry, also directed by the Argentine Andy Muschietti, takes on the adult side of the story, when the Loser’s Club reunites in Derry, 27 years later, to take on a resurgent Pennywise (Bill Skarsgard).

The adult versions of the Loser’s Club are played by a pretty glamorous-looking bunch—almost like the “reveals” on a daytime talk show—including Jessica Chastain, James McAvoy, Jay Ryan and ASU’s own Isaiah Mustafa, with Bill Hader as the nattering comic relief. Just as the first film’s appeal lay at least as much in the adolescent friendship as in the drippy horror gimmicks, the pleasure of reuniting with friends from youth is the source of much of what’s enjoyable in this movie.

At close to three hours It Chapter Two is absurdly overlong, but on balance, mostly because of the excellent cast, it’s a fairly entertaining saga. What the movie isn’t, or at least wasn’t for me, is seriously scary. The big special-effects excesses keep you from taking it seriously, or even semi-seriously. Early on, for instance, there’s a macabre little episode, entirely low-tech, involving fortune cookies, that manages to generate a little chill. But Muschietti can’t leave at that; it pushes on into an icky, silly CGI extravaganza that is, at best, good for a laugh.

Still, as usual with King’s stories, It Chapter Two has its heart in the right place, and, as with It the First, I doubt I’ll be the only person, times being what they are, unable to resist a political reading: The grown-up versions of a kid with a disability, a smartass kid, a fat kid, a Jewish kid, a black kid, a kid with health problems and an abused, slut-shamed girl join forces against a clown who feeds on fear, and who grows stronger still by dividing them. Now more than ever, Losers: Unite Against the Clown!

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