Thursday 31 December 2020

My Top 20 Films of 2020

(Note: to be eligible, a film had to appear on the Film Distributors' Association UK release schedule between January 1 and December 31, 2020. Click on individual titles, should you require further persuasion.)

20. David Byrne's American Utopia

19. The Young Observant

18. Tripping with Nils Frahm

17. Being a Human Person

16. Coincoin and the Extra-Humans

15. The County

14. The Assistant

13. The Good Girls

12. A White, White Day

11. Portrait of a Lady on Fire

10. True History of the Kelly Gang

9. The Ground Beneath My Feet

8. Ema

7. To the Ends of the Earth

6. Clemency

5. Shirley

4. Possessor

3. A Hidden Life

2. Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets

1. Parasite [above]

Dutch angles: "All the Vermeers in New York"

Of all the filmmakers who came to prominence amid the US indie renaissance of the 1980s and 90s, Jon Jost has endured as arguably the most prolific and most independent, pursuing a series of signs and signifiers that have led him near-completely off-radar outside his homeland. (Which is one way to guarantee your independence, of course - remain truly marginal.) Revived this week on MUBI, Jost's 1990 curio All the Vermeers in New York meshes with certain early works by Spike Lee and Hal Hartley in suggesting the influence of Jean-Luc Godard on this American New Wave. (Jost had previously made the short Godard 1980, a record of an interview with the French filmmaker around the time of his comeback film Sauve qui peut (la vie).) Godard is everywhere here: in the pans over surfaces lined with texts, newspapers and photographs; in the film's visual puns and editing tics, its unexpected conjunctions of sound and image; in the sporadic deep dives into art history, taken after long run-ups through glorious gallery space. ATVINY is also, as my mum would say, slightly up itself - which, again, is not uncharacteristic of all things Godard, and requires some getting past. For a while, the onscreen activity suffers from a diffuse-to-split focus, introducing us almost at random to French actress Anna (Emmanuelle Chaulet, a graduate of Rohmer and Claire Denis films); her friend and flatmate Felicity (Grace Phillips), a gallerist; struggling artist Gordon (Gordon Joseph Weiss), who presents as an intriguing hybrid of Willem Dafoe and Denis Leary, but proves a red herring in the overall picture; and his polar opposite Mark (Stephen Lack), an artless financial trader. Everything clicks into place when Mark and Anna intersect while browsing the Vermeers in the Met - a terrific setpiece that takes in a clumsy-creepy meet-cute before concluding with the camera lined up behind Mark as he studies Anna as she studies the artist's "Portrait of a Woman". Immediately, you see why this film caught the eye of buyers and sales agents in a way few of Jost's 40-odd other works have: all of a sudden, we pass beyond Godard's droll cataloguing and into a more sensual, seductive, dangerous realm, an obsession worthy of Hitchcock's Vertigo.

Jost finds similarly eyecatching ways of framing this pair's haphazard courtship. Thirty years on, their date on the observation balcony of the World Trade Center has acquired a new poignancy: this could be a rough-edged outtake from the contemporaneous Sleepless in Seattle, anchored in a part of the world that is no longer there. Yet this romance feels secondary to Jost's very Godardian investigation into issues of value: he set out for New York, after a decade of Reaganomics, to think about what objects - and people - are truly worth. Why are dead artists valued over living ones? Can we put a price on love? Jost was ahead of the curve in spotting how relationships were becoming transactional, a sorry development that only intensified as dating apps became big business. New Amsterdam circa 1990 isn't that different, structurally, from the Old Amsterdam of Vermeer's time: it's a place of masters and servants. As stirring as the view from the Twin Towers may be, that date serves chiefly to delineate Mark's lofty perspective, and the disdain he feels for the little people - "ants", he calls them - going about their business below. All the Vermeers in New York has limitations as both a film and an inquiry. Of all the marginalised activity captured by this indie scene - a real rainbow coalition that spanned the inner-city dramas of Lee and John Singleton, the salty minimum-wage scrimping of Kevin Smith, and the sexual experimentation of Todd Haynes, Cheryl Dunye and Rose Troche - Jost's counts among the most highfalutin and, frankly, whitest. A typical scene finds Felicity - and pre-Wes Anderson, Jost and Whit Stillman would have been about the only filmmakers who might conceivably have named one of their characters Felicity - trying to extract herself from an offshore investment scam a relative has embroiled her in. Yet Jost's sympathies lie not with the masters of this universe, but those employed to prop them up (like the increasingly rattled Mark, whose job demands constant wealth generation; he's compared - via one bravura cut - with the stone pillars of a marbled lobby) and those, like Anna and Felicity, who are just struggling to make rent. A panoramic snapshot of a moment, this - and a reminder that not all New Yorkers of that moment were pinstriped devotees of Gordon Gekko and Donald Trump.

All the Vermeers in New York is available to stream via MUBI.  

She works hard for the money: "WW84"

When WW84 snuck onto (very selected) UK screens the week before Christmas, it was the first film of its type - i.e. the first dispatch from one of those Cinematic Universes they have nowadays - for fully ten months. Early viewers cheered the return of a giganticism they wouldn't have been exposed to for the best part of a year. In the film's opening sequence, they would have seen the young Diana Prince - our Wonder Woman-to-be - competing in a proto-Olympics that corresponds to the film's original summer release date, a spectacle that might just have tempted couch potatoes away from the Tokyo Games, had fate not intervened. As mini-Diana runs, jumps, rides, dives and swims, a helicopter swoops around the clifftop playing host to the action; the Hans Zimmer score, meanwhile, merely soars. A hop, skip and a jump later, we're in 1984, witnessing Diana's Amazonian adult form (Gal Gadot) thwarting a jewellery heist inside an all-American shopping mall. This time, what director Patty Jenkins' camera captures, amid its various contortions, is an idea of what the studios would have us believe is our natural, pre-Covid state: spending an hour slouching around the food court before hauling ass up to the Vue to gorge on no less junky cinematic fare. (It's the trash Olympics.) Again, our heroine swings, dashes, leaps and lassoes; two hours later, she's still at it, sprinting at computer-enhanced speed along Washington's Pennsylvania Avenue before taking off like a fighter jet and ascending momentarily into the heavens. All these sequences demonstrate that when in motion, these pictures can be remarkable to behold - and I get why certain colleagues continue to find them irresistible. The trouble with these movies - and this was noted by the counterwave of reviews WW84 was battered by upon its US opening last week - has always been what happens when their forward momentum slows down or stops altogether.

WW84 has the notional advantage all superhero sequels have encoded in their DNA: with the potentially laborious-torturous business of origins out of the way, they're theoretically freer to crack on with the action and adventure, to serve up nothing but spectacle. That's what the opening twenty minutes here promises. Yet Jenkins and her co-writers Geoff Johns and Dave Callaham then decide to spend a full ninety minutes setting up new characters for their heroine to tussle with as the end credits approach. First up: Kristen Wiig, yanked through a flatly obvious rerun of the Selina Kyle arc as Dr. Barbara Minerva, a klutzy Smithsonian functionary who removes her outsized spectacles and is suddenly possessed of the ability to turn heads while walking in heels. Secondly: Pedro Pascal as Maxwell Lord, a suspiciously slick oil man connected to that early failed heist in a way it takes almost two hours for our heroine to puzzle out. For Diana, alas, is a distracted soul, busy pining for her old flame Steve Trevor, who apparently died in the last one of these or in the years between the events of the two films, and is initially represented on screen by a watch that - judging by the way Jenkins keeps lingering over it - presumably means Something Significant to people with a lot of time on their hands. The sentimentalising of that watch I could deal with, to be honest, but in what feels instinctively like a failure of nerve a $200m-budget movie shouldn't suffer - or, more simply, a desperate attempt to recapture the chemistry Gadot shared with Chris Pine in the first movie - Diana starts seeing Steve reincarnated in some poor, helpless other chap. So she jumps on him. Erm, what?

Now, look: I'm all for superhero movies that take the light-fantasy route over the dourly "gritty". That's why the first film was so diverting: it carried us away from the heaving solemnity on display elsewhere in the DC universe. Yet the lightness of WW84 soon becomes indistinguishable from weightless nonsense that connects with very little else around it; it's a movie fashioned from isolated thought bubbles attached to vast clouds of cash. Once Steve is "revived", he steals off with one of the Smithsonian's planes, and pilots it through Fourth of July fireworks. Wiig takes her revenge on a man who's been harassing her before turning into a big cat, for some reason. (Apparently very little of that $200m was spent on feline make-up.) Pascal, meanwhile, is setting off for the Middle East, clutching some magical stone that is now standard operating nonsense for movies such as this. If this were committed nonsense, you'd merrily go along for the ride, but too much of WW84's connective tissue is made up of what-ifs, script notes and incomplete drafts, and I found myself falling through those gaps clutching questions big enough to bring even a blockbuster down. Wouldn't it have been more satisfying to have one full-strength baddie, rather than these two half-measures? And wouldn't it be better if WW84 gave its heroine something more urgent to do than fool around with a guy who isn't even the guy she thinks he is? (At the very least: shouldn't WW84 pay a few scenes' lip service to the plight of a minor character who's found Gal Gadot leaping on him under the impression that he's really Chris Pine?) Suddenly, you realise why there's so much running around whenever the film goes into runaround mode: everyone has so much further to travel to make the connections a more logical superhero movie could take in its stride. Gadot has never appeared so athletic - Jenkins looks at her with an understandable mix of admiration and astonishment - but then she has to be, as the film she's vaulting through seems hellbent on employing Diana Prince as an on-the-spot script editor, to lasso and lend coherence to a flyaway ragbag of ideas. That's why WW84 briefly soars again with Diana's late ascent into the stratosphere: it's practically the only moment in this absurdly cluttered, oddly mismanaged follow-up that the dame gets to herself.

WW84 is now playing in selected cinemas; it will be available to rent from January 13, 2021.

Tuesday 29 December 2020

Krippendorff's tribe: "Cocoon"

Nothing at all to do with Wilford Brimley, Leonie Krippendorff's Cocoon follows a close-knit group of teens negotiating a long hot Berlin summer. This gang's most outgoing representatives are the brunette Aylin (Elina Vildanova) and the blonde Jule (Lena Klenke), foul-mouthed, free-flirting, forever available on social media. Yet Krippendorff's focus is on Jule's auburn-haired younger sister Nora (Lena Urzendowsky), an impressionable soul who watches these tribal elders with the fascination you'd expect of a younger sibling. She's vaguely like Anais, the overlooked younger sister in Catherine Breillat's À Ma Sœur!, but she's far more innocent than any Breillat characterisation would allow, keener to tend her childhood caterpillar collection (hence the title) than any Instagram account, or to stoke the attention of boys. There are reasons for that, and they're clarified upon the arrival of punkish new classmate Romy (Jella Haase). What follows is a familiar coming-of-age narrative, given a reasonably fresh millennial overhaul. Krippendorff shoots in Andrea Arnold-like Academy frames, with sporadic iPhone inserts, a soundtrack of floaty electronica, and a multicultural cast sporting tiny, possibly self-applied tattoos. If you'd told me nothing about it going in, I'd have sworn blind this was a debut feature; as it is, it's this filmmaker's second after 2016's Looping. The imagery (particularly those caterpillars, returned to time and again as our heroine spreads her wings) feels overly on-the-nose, and the contrast between the delicate Nora and her raucous peers is hardly subtle. (There's also a sequence involving a plastic bag that you'd hope all those American Beauty parodies would have rendered unthinkable; only a young adult could find it profound.) Cocoon is at its strongest when Nora is feeling her way into a whole new state of being, and the second half, which succumbs to occasional longueurs, seems overly reliant on Urzendowsky's sympathetic performance. For a while, though, those sundappled square frames do have the effect of creating a hothouse, which may just be comparable to the experience of adolescence: the film's flesh is right there in our face, and its hormones sit close to the surface. I suspect older viewers - the Brimleys among us - will emerge newly thankful they're long past such vacillations; but Cocoon could yet provide an education for anyone undergoing a similarly transitional moment.

Cocoon is available to rent via Prime Video, Curzon Home Cinema and the BFI Player.

Monday 28 December 2020

On demand: "I'm Your Woman"

In the main, the American indie scene of the past 40 years has been most keenly influenced by the Scorsese of Mean Streets: that's why there have been so many films in which men watch men hanging with other men, for better and worse. (This strand's dominance has been maintained by the insistent reissuing of Scorsese's most masculine endeavours: not just Mean Streets, but Taxi Driver and Raging Bull.) Julia Hart's new film I'm Your Woman feels like an attempt to channel Scorsese's feminine side, and the undercirculated Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore in particular. Here is a 21st century indie that unfolds within a 1970s criminal milieu, but which finds a new way into and through it by focusing on a woman who's been left on the sidelines. That woman is Jean (Rachel Brosnahan), a housewife with no particular domestic skills who's literally left holding the baby - furthermore, a baby who isn't even her own - after her no-good crook of a husband is taken out of the picture one night. As she's forced out on the lam in the company of Cal (Arinzé Kene), the driver who's been assigned to her, we find ourselves watching a character study wrapped in a thriller, centred on a figure remodelling herself on the run. At an early juncture, Cal and Jean are woken up in their car by an apparently aggrieved patrolman, who's only appeased after our heroine spins the tall tale that her travelling companion is, in fact, her husband. "I didn't know I could lie like that!," Jean exclaims, as the pair of them (plus babe-in-arms) pull away once again. Yet people can, and people do; sometimes it gets them a little further up the road, and sometimes it gets them killed.

The story is a feminist one, but the element of crime gives it an edge that may just draw in film bros and unreconstructed boyfriends: Jean is trying to grow (and nurture another) at the exact point her life is most under threat. If I'm Your Woman describes any kind of liberation, it's a liberation more by default than choice. Brosnahan, who captured the global streaming audience's collective heart as the can-do heroine of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, is far more guarded here than she's ever been in her breakthrough TV role: she has some nicely twitchy scenes early on with a friendly neighbour (Marceline Hugot) who really just wants to welcome her to the area, and the payoff to this strand only confirms the character in her overriding cautiousness. The independence Jean earns is that which only follows when you can't trust anybody: in the hustle from one safe house to the next, she has to learn to stand on her own two feet, and then skedaddle further away from the city, out into the wilderness. En route, Hart makes smart, intuitive use of the AM radio playlist of the period. When Jean lets slip that she's been using her version of Aretha Franklin's "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman" to get her adopted little one off to sleep, we realise - yup - that's the film's destination: getting its heroine to shed one ill-fitting, restrictive skin and feel comfortable in the next. To the film's credit, it's never quite as smooth a process as that signpost suggests, and so the outcome never entirely feels guaranteed.

Hart is sometimes a little self-conscious about her borrowings: in the early stages, there's at least one shot too many of a door being closed in Jean's face. (We get the reference immediately: tonight, we'll be watching The Kay Corleone Story.) Yet she already has many of the right instincts. The backstory here - Jean's maternal longings, her other half's fate - tends to come out in taut, nervy little bursts, only after the speaker has checked over both shoulders to ensure they're not being tailed. I also liked Hart's determination to keep that criminal element at arm's length - to make a different kind of crime movie, in other words, rooted more in character than action. I think that's why some critics have been thrown by the final-reel shift into James Gray-ish thrills and spills. But you can't say those car chases and shootouts haven't been set up: Hart and Brosnahan use the extra time this approach allows to finesse Jean's transformation from stay-at-home wife to self-standing frontierswoman, so that it feels organic rather than contrived. Long before the conclusion, someone who first presented as vaguely remote and anonymous - just another overlooked housewife in a cinema full of them - has come to life, and come to seem worthy of being the subject of an Aretha Franklin song. Instead of men watching men, for once we get an indie film by a woman who knows what she's doing about a woman gradually learning what to do. Around I'm Your Woman's midpoint, Jean sets her son down before the log fire she's just stoked in the woodland cabin the pair are hiding out in, and you can't miss the quiet pride in Brosnahan's voice as she states three simple words: "I did that." Given everything Hart has shown and told us about her heroine up to this point, it really does feel like an achievement - and a restart, and a Promethean passing of a flame, from a promising filmmaker to a newly capable and empowered heroine.

I'm Your Woman is now streaming via Amazon Prime.

Saturday 26 December 2020

For what it's worth...

Top 10 films at the UK and Ireland box office (for December 18-20, 2020):

1 (new) Wonder Woman 1984 (12A) **
2 (1) Elf (PG) **
3 (2) Home Alone (PG)
4 (new) Come Away (PG)
5 (5) Love, Actually (15) ***
6 (4) Superintelligence (PG)
7 (re) It's a Wonderful Life (U) *****
8 (12) The Muppet Christmas Carol (U) ****
9 (7) The Polar Express (U)
10 (10) A Christmas Carol (PG) **

(source: BFI)

My top five films currently on release:
1. Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets

DVD/Blu-Ray/Download top ten: 

1 (new) Tenet (12) **
2 (17) Roald Dahl's The Witches (PG)
3 (3) The Grinch [2000] (PG) ***
4 (4) Love, Actually (15) ***
5 (1) Elf (PG) **
6 (2) Last Christmas (12)
7 (5) Home Alone (PG)
8 (6) The Polar Express (U)
9 (8) The Muppet Christmas Carol (U) ****
10 (11) The Grinch [2018] (U)

My top five: 
1. The Irishman

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. Edward Scissorhands (Sunday, C4, 2.10pm)
2. Point Break (Tuesday, BBC1, 12midnight)
3. The Silence of the Lambs (Sunday, ITV, 10.40pm)
4. North by North-West (Wednesday, BBC2, 2.50pm)
5. Planes, Trains and Automobiles [above] (Bank Holiday Monday, C4, 4.05pm)

"AK vs AK" (Guardian 24/12/20)

AK vs AK ****

Dir: Vikramaditya Motwane. With: Anil Kapoor, Anurag Kashyap, Sonam Kapoor, Harshvardhan Kapoor. 108 mins. No cert.

After an undistinguished pandemic year, Indian cinema closes out 2020 with a postmodern surprise, at once nifty and nasty. Surreptitiously shot, and announced mere days ago, Vikramaditya Motwane’s mock-doc proposes a seismic smackdown between two industry figureheads. In one corner, Anil Kapoor, cuddly patriarch of one of Bollywood’s most illustrious clans. In the other, filmmaker and longtime critic of movie nepotism Anurag Kashyap, going a fiendish extra mile here by kidnapping Sonam Kapoor and giving her dad ten hours to find her. Tailed at breathless pace by Kashyap’s crew, this meta round of hide-and-seek intends to generate what its onscreen orchestrator bills as “the most dangerous hostage thriller in the history of cinema” – words spoken like a true showman.

Bollywood postmodernism is nothing new: Shah Rukh Khan stalked himself through the ultra-knowing Fan four years ago. What Kashyap and Motwane bring to the form, assisted by Netflix’s hands-off censorship approach, is a sharper edge. Though Motwane and co-writer Avinash Sampath slyly reference Taken, a closer narrative precedent would be 1996’s The Fan, with Kashyap in the De Niro role of marginalised malcontent, his schemes updated for an image-saturated age. Kapoor dashes into a police station soon crowded with officers keener to snap selfies than hear the actor’s complaint; when they do, it’s met with applause, and the assumption their hero is rehearsing some monologue. As a thriller, it scarcely lets up, and provides no easy out: Kapoor continually has to hurdle his own public persona.

Kashyap’s experiments in freshening up the Hindi mainstream have enjoyed variable success, but this time, the provocation takes. Yanked into the Mumbai night, Kapoor gets properly rattled, and his on- and offscreen tormentors home in on those compelling cracks forming in his “Mr. India” façade. It’s a little inside-baseball, maybe – you’ll enjoy it more the more you know these careers – and neither AK quite manages to address the role women have to play in this industry tussle, save as pawns in a boys’ game. Still, this is your one chance this Christmas to see a major star and director going at one another’s throats – and a timely reminder that Indian cinema remains capable of flexing and venturing grippingly off-book.

AK vs AK is now streaming via Netflix.

"Coolie No. 1" (Guardian 24/12/20)

Coolie No. 1 **

Dir: David Dhawan. With: Varun Dhawan, Sara Ali Khan, Paresh Rawal, Johnny Lever. 134 mins. No cert.

It’s a tale of two Bollywoods this Christmas. For Netflix, Anurag Kashyap and Vikramaditya Motwane, representing Indian film’s modernising wing, have engineered the sharp and knowing meta-thriller AK vs AK. Over on Prime, meanwhile, you can watch veteran comedy director David Dhawan renew his IP rights on Coolie No. 1, previously a hit 1995 vehicle for the Sandwell-born funnyman Govinda. Even the latter’s most devout fans would probably concede the original left room for improvements, but that’s an option Dhawan appears unfussed about taking up. This Coolie updates a few reference points and replaces Govinda with latter-day hunk Varun Dhawan - the director's son - then surrounds him with antiquated players and playing, part of a frenetic attempt to pretend the last 30 years never happened.

The plot – lowly railway porter (Dhawan) is hired to woo a society belle (Sara Ali Khan) as part of a conspiracy to disgrace her family – remains stubbornly familiar and predictable. The most immediate change is a result of the recasting. Rather too obviously a handsome, cardio-trained leading man schlubbing down for (not many) easy laughs, Dhawan bounds onscreen with boyish enthusiasm, but trails a lingering note of condescension – and Dhawan Sr. was evidently too busy remembering how best to smash his supporting actors in the gonads to redirect anyone. Khan, sadly, is stranded on balconies looking fetchingly concerned while the men below determine her character’s destiny. In this, Coolie 2020 really does seem so last century.

As illustrated by the well-populated songbreaks – which retain more life and colour than the jokes – it’s a bigger film than its predecessor. Dhawan now has access to sunnier locations and more expensive hotels; the aim was clearly to give those of us in the cheap seats a sniff of the high life. But with the material as thin as it ever was, that just makes this version seem emptier: it goes in one ear, and vaporises before it can emerge from the other. In 1995, and in the absence of more pressing entertainment options, such candyfloss might have passed two hours mindlessly enough. In 2020, it forms the basis for what will almost certainly be the streaming premiere most likely to go unfinished this season – and competition for that sorry title has been notably fierce. 

Coolie No. 1 is now streaming via Prime Video.

Wednesday 23 December 2020

Last chance saloon: "Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets"

Publicans will shed tears watching Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets behind shuttered doors this Christmas. An extraordinarily evocative relic of the old world, the latest in documentarist siblings Bill and Turner Ross's finegrained studies of unromantic, everyday American life parks its camera behind the bar as the Roaring 20's [sic] Cocktail Lounge in Las Vegas opens for its final day and closing night party, and watches as, one by one, the barflies take their seats. Early on, we learn the lounge has fallen prey to Vegas's ongoing gentrification, but it seems as likely to have suffered from a uniquely lax door policy. That phrase "cocktail lounge" raises expectations of glamour and sophistication that the Roaring 20's [sic], a small, garishly lit hole-in-the-wall, cannot meet; its core clientele of straggly-haired, prematurely aged dudes - and, initially at least, it's almost exclusively dudes - bring in their own food and drugs, knock back beers by the crate, and squirrel themselves away among the bar's fleabitten sofas, confident they have nowhere else to go for the day, or the century. One regular resembles Twin Peaks' Killer Bob, if Killer Bob had taken up a weed habit rather than terrorising bobbysoxers. Another suggests a permanently befuddled Einstein. Late in the day, a bearded fellow in suit and tie shows up - from work? - and he looks like Elliott Gould playing an irascible drunk in the seventh best film of 1975. (This isn't the first or last occasion we seem to be trapped under amber nectar, out of regular time.) Bottom line: unless you were feeling very adventurous or thirsty, you wouldn't spend any more time between these walls than you had to. The Rosses, bless 'em, stuck around until last orders, kept rolling, and allowed this bar's true character to reveal itself, shortly before its doors were closed, padlocked and bulldozed for good.

As becomes apparent over the course of a very boozy blowout, the old dive does have character - more so, one suspects, than anything put up in its place. Unlike a previously representative American hostelry, the Roaring 20's [sic] is not necessarily a place where everybody knows your name; more likely, the patrons have been told your name two or three times before completely forgetting it. Nevertheless, they'd slap you perhaps a little too forcefully on the back, offer to shout you a drink, and not grouse unduly if you added your woes to the miseries and regrets piling up on the bar like discarded peanut shells. It's an oddly egalitarian venue: you come as you are - young/old, black/white, cis/trans - and no-one bats an eyelid, though that's less down to a general wokeness than your stoolmates' desire to drink themselves into a stupor. The Rosses, somewhat amazingly, appear to have remained sharp-eyed and sober; they've honed their fly-on-the-wall observation to a fine, discreet art. Maybe it's the alcohol, but beyond a certain point in the afternoon, no-one seems to have noticed the camera(s) patrolling the room, or to have become remotely self-conscious or inhibited. One of the more entrenched patrons, a burly Aussie who's brought tabs of acid as party favours, enlivens the post-prandial session by momentarily lowering his trousers. A hiccuping sixty-year-old flashes her breasts before going flying over a table. 

It's a film of futzing, temporary connections, connections that can't go anywhere and more often feel like collisions: variably broken people, thrown together in the one place that is as eccentric-dysfunctional as they themselves are, talking in variably broken English in such a way as to suggest they might just be able to pull some part of their lives back together if they drank up and stumbled out into the real world before sunrise. On a technical level, it's also a real triumph of sound mixing (raise a glass to Kyle Sheehan and Tom Efinger), ensuring those fractured conversations come through crystal clear while a TV blasts old movies, the jukebox gives up easy listening, and an impromptu Spice Girls singalong breaks out in the corner. There's a pickled wit amid the sloshed waffle (quoth Michael Martin, a writer-actor-regular as gloriously lived-in as some of the furniture: "I pride myself on not becoming an alcoholic until after I became a failure"), and miraculously we hear almost every word of it. You may need a tolerance for such waffle - which at least runs the gamut, from the motives of John Wilkes Booth to the slack of an ex-husband's nuts - but the Rosses have soaked up the ambience in this place as the bar's carpet soaked up Bud, piss and tears. Their film provides one hell of a send-off, for both the year in movies and this fairylit graveyard of hopes and dreams. Farewell, Roaring 20's [sic]: we shall not see your like again.

Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets will be available to stream via Curzon Home Cinema from tomorrow, and is scheduled to open in selected cinemas from January 1.

Tuesday 22 December 2020

New perspectives: "Un Film Dramatique"

Eric Baudelaire's Un Film Dramatique could almost be a spiritual sequel to 2002's Être et Avoir. That breakout documentary hit, hewing to the time-honoured fly-on-the-wall tactics of director Nicolas Philibert, pitched up in a small village school as its pupils were patiently instructed in the basics of reading and writing. In Baudelaire's 21st century update, which proceeds from a notably more fragmented and diverse point-of-view, the subject being taught is media literacy: we're following the progress of the young multicultural scholars of the College Dora Maar on the outskirts of Paris as they're handed cameras and the assignment to make a series of films for themselves. The results are both a snapshot of la jeunesse and a teachable how-to. Baudelaire's subjects are encountered as individuals trying to define with words what a film is, then in groups as they discuss what they want their film to show and do, and then as working crews as they call action and push the red button on the handycams they've been assigned. This making-of action is intercut with the rushes, which prove sometimes quietly promising, more often than not subtly revealing (several students use their cameras to search out the Eiffel Tower on the skyline, allowing us to pinpoint exactly how far out of the city we are), occasionally wobbly and wayward. In the early stages of the project, there are a whole lot of rudimentary tracking shots taken through the window of the bus carrying students to and from college, setting us to wonder about the percentage of homework - even fun homework such as this - which gets completed on public transport mere moments before it's due to be handed in.

What can we discern from these directorial babysteps? Firstly, that these are children born into a certain moment. In an early sequence, we watch a group of boys debate - in their own giggling, semi-serious way - the ethics of filming a fake news report about a terror attack, two words schoolchildren wouldn't have been expected to put together at the time Être et Avoir was being filmed. Later, we sit in on a class discussion about Daesh, which one sweetheart seems to think is another subject, as in "they went to Syria to learn Daesh". (She's correct in a poetic way: Daesh as the language and science of hate, a bad education.) If there's an obvious difference between my generation and theirs, it lies in this group's open discussion of difference: in the language they have for it, and the ease with which they're shown discussing it. That discussion is partly a necessity, as individually they hail from such diverse ethnic backgrounds, but these kids also seem to be thrashing out any misunderstandings from an early age; otherness is but a passing phase for them. (One eight-year-old appears more alert to the divisions being opened up by the likes of Trump and Marine Le Pen than some 38-year-olds I know: that bodes well.) What Baudelaire's most interested in, however, is whether or not that difference starts to manifest in their filmed work. 

In theory, handing a dozen kids a dozen cameras should result in a dozen different films. In reality, as documented here, that's not quite the case - or perhaps it only becomes the case with time. Initially, a lot of what's handed in is rather formless: the kids set their cameras up, set them running, and see what comes to pass through their viewfinders. Here are your video artists-in-training and documentarists-to-be. There is also a strain of self-documentation, however, such as youngsters raised on Facebook and Instagram have become entirely au fait with. One comic highlight: the young pup who decides to film herself critiquing TV ads while simultaneously wolfing down a bowl of cheese puffs - part-Baudrillard, part-Beavis and Butt-Head - only to topple off the sofa mid-shot ("I meant to do that"). Yet look at her classmate panning over a wall of family photographs: here's a diarist-essayist in the Agnès Varda tradition - and there is something quietly touching in seeing such first, faltering images in the immediate wake of Varda's passing. With the noteworthy exception of the low-key horror opus we see being shot - noteworthy because it involves one pupil stalking the school corridors with her coat on backwards and the hood up over her face - there's not much in the way of fiction filmmaking on offer, nor the animation a voice speculates about making in the opening moments. All evidence points to the realist tradition holding sway within French cinema over the decades to come.

What's crucial, though, is that the films get stronger as we go along; the pupils become aware of the frame as a concept, and start giving serious consideration to its constituent elements, rather than wobbling the camera around in pursuit of any old shit. We know this project has taken imaginative root when a trio of lads, on a day trip to the beach, film a genuinely clever skit involving a tennis match being played without a ball; the girls respond with a carefully composed and choreographed dance routine that goes far beyond the ambition of the average TikTok. They've realised, as any filmmaker worth their salt must, that what's in the frame and who's in the frame - be that a young Deaf girl conjuring a joke about synch sound, or white and black shoes walking in tandem - is important, and has meaning beyond the simple reproduction of reality. Late on, we get another of those tracking shots from a moving vehicle, only this time it's cued by the sight of homeless people huddled under the Périphérique, and accompanied by a conversation the pupil filming is having with her dad about French immigration policy. They know now what they're looking for - and who they're looking out for. What the students ended up recording - and this is dramatic - was their own growth, not just as youngsters, but imagemakers and citizens, too. By the end - when it does seem important that Baudelaire takes a "directed with" rather than "directed by" credit - one pupil is announcing on camera his ambition to run for public office, while the rest appear ready for subscriptions to Cahiers and La Fémis scholarship forms. Is anyone attempting something similar with our youngsters? If not: is this not a fundamental difference between the British and French film industries?

Un Film Dramatique is now streaming via MUBI.

Monday 21 December 2020

On demand: "The King of Staten Island"

Judd Apatow's first feature in five years is, on one level, a favour for a friend. The friend is Saturday Night Live cast member Pete Davidson, still best known in the UK for being pop princess Ariana Grande's ex. The King of Staten Island is a pretty sweet gig for a twentysomething comedian to have landed, all told: Apatow hands Davidson a two-hour showcase in which he gets to play a version of himself, acting his way past issues he's already processed in reality. His Scott, another of Apatow's beleaguered dudes trying to navigate a moment and grow, is introduced contemplating vehicular suicide; he's driving home to a household left lopsided by the death of his firefighter father, a tragedy that goes underdiscussed by mom Margie (Marisa Tomei), and which we'll witness being worked through in this director's recognisably lackadaisical house style. In the meantime, our boy busies himself giving friends and passing children crappy tattoos, and watching everybody move on but him. In its basics, the movie is Smalltown Drama 101, but Apatow and Davidson give it a little more specificity - they make it about this kid, and this town; as Scott observes, Staten Island may be the only place New Jersey looks down upon - while offering the reassurance that this particular kid will grow up to be well-recompensed by network TV, and have the foremost female popstars of his age throw themselves at his feet. The punchline is this: sometimes it all works out, which in certain cases is pretty funny.

As introductions to a performer go, King really isn't bad: Davidson proves as likable an Apatow lead as Steve Carell, Seth Rogen or Paul Rudd. For all Scott's waywardness, we know this performer has a keen mind, because although he has tattoos on every other inch of his body (his torso is as extravagantly detailed as the ceilings of certain Gothic cathedrals), he's left his incredibly expressive face untouched. It's a face that could actually have been drawn by a tattooist: big eyes, lips like a Rolling Stones album cover, at once flappy and lascivious. He has two advantages as a funny person: one, he looks funny - something like a young Steve Buscemi, which gets confusing when the actual Buscemi shows up in the movie - and two, he sounds funny, older than his 26 years, but no wiser in what he's saying. (When his sensible, college-bound sister Claire (Maude Apatow) tells him he has to get his shit together as time passes very quickly, Scott retorts "That's why I smoke weed: it slows it all down".) What's interesting about the character he's arrived at with Apatow is that Scott appears properly messed up by the loss of his father at a formative moment, more so than the Carell character in The 40-Year-Old Virgin was messed up by the absence of human contact, more so than the Sandler character in Funny People was messed up by fame (which at least afforded him the chance to be miserable in a nice house). Maybe it's Davidson's own input, as someone who experienced this loss firsthand, but the writing probes deeper than the Apatow par. Scott's resentment at ma taking in a new man from the same firehouse (stand-up Bill Burr) goes beyond Step Brothers-like comic rivalry, and pushes our protagonist into positions that are at first brattily funny, then weird, then sour. An hour into The King of Staten Island, and the stakes are clear: it's grow up or die.

The question then becomes whether Apatow's arrhythmic direction is a help (fitting, as it does, Scott's haphazard development) or a hindrance to overall enjoyment. Fifteen years after transferring from TV to the big screen, Apatow's strengths and weaknesses have become familiar: he loves situations, but drags his feet like a recalcitrant teenager whenever it comes to plot. Here again, scenes get smushed up against one another without much in the way of finesse; montages are reached for in a desperate effort to hurry matters along; and still the whole thing clocks in over 130 minutes. I can hear the Apatow defence already: hey, it's value-for-money. But he's something like Aaron Sorkin with dick jokes: a supremely gifted screenwriter who as a director hasn't quite found images to match the fluency of his words. (And he's had the collaborators! Funny People saw Janusz Kaminski flooding Apatow's boxy frames with California sunshine; King's shot by Paul Thomas Anderson regular Robert Elswit, who can't do much with Staten Island as a location, and seems wasted lining up endless close-ups and two-shots.) There are tricky tonal shifts to navigate here, too, and Apatow tends to stumble through them, as if looking round for the next ad break. One of Scott's running mates is shot and injured during a robbery, and simply disappears from the movie; and I'm not sure that Scott setting about his bedroom with a baseball bat is as funny as the movie seems to frame it. It's far harder to make comedy about broken homes, and the violence lurking within them, than it is about sex or showbusiness.

What pulled me through finally was the movie's fond, forgiving spirit. He may not care unduly about images, but Apatow likes people, particularly messed-up, bashed about, lived-in, salty, funny people. (Remember that he spent his adolescence haring about L.A. tape-recording the recollections of his comedy heroes.) He's still making hangout movies, bottom line, and those movies are never more relaxed or fun than when a bunch of folks are sat around shooting the shit, because then Apatow doesn't really have to think about story. (This, of course, is where he gets in trouble with story.) There are some lovely scenes here between Davidson and Bel Powley (another funny face, cast as Scott's on-off girlfriend Kelsey), and between Davidson and the great Pamela Adlon (as the Burr character's ex), in which Scott lets down his defences and shows us the man he could become - sweet and nurturing, naive in the best way. There are some even better scenes over at the firehouse, where our gangling delinquent of a hero is honed and tested, sometimes roasted, by the likes of Buscemi, Domenick Lombardozzi and American Vandal's Jimmy Tatro. That location is the movie, much as the comedy club was Funny People; it's just Apatow arrives there very late on, after struggling to get through a whole lot of loose ends. I suspect this production didn't have deleted scenes so much as handfuls of subplots, yanked out after the first cut came in longer than Andrei Rublev, but even the rougher edges left behind serve as evidence of a prevailing human touch. In an era of wipeclean, machine-tooled PG-13 entertainments assembled by interchangeably anonymous company men, there really aren't many films released by major studios that bear many traces of that.

The King of Staten Island is now streaming via Prime Video.

Sunday 20 December 2020

2020: a year in film (Reader's Digest 18/12/20)

The world hardly needed any more division, but 2020 – for obvious reasons – did its best to split us all into two distinct camps: Pessimists and Optimists. For the Pessimists, 2020 was A Very Bad Year, in cinema as much as anything else. The Coronavirus pandemic shuttered multiplexes and independent venues alike, putting jobs at risk, and even when it sporadically relented and cinemas reopened, what had traditionally been perceived as a fun, safe space no longer seemed quite so fun, or so safe. Sitting through an hour of pre-film adverts, always a trial, became only more so while wearing a mask; worse were the fears prompted by other patrons’ failure to mask up.

For the Optimists, however, the year was different in a positive sense. The abandonment of the multiplexes and the absence of their expensively trashy, discourse-dominating junk-movies opened up cracks for more delicate creative endeavours to sprout through, films that might otherwise have been trampled underfoot in the race to see Fast & Furious 38. Independent distributors recognised that locked-down audiences were compelled to gamble on titles they maybe wouldn’t have pre-Covid; consequently, 2020 yielded the most diverse release schedule I’ve encountered in my twenty years as a working critic. “This was a Pizza Hut,” sang David Byrne in Talking Heads’ (Nothing But) Flowers. “Now it’s all covered in daisies.”

The year began with a rare pleasant surprise: Korean director Bong Joon-ho’s satirical thriller Parasite triumphing at the global box-office, and beating more fancied rivals to become the first foreign language film ever to win the Best Picture Oscar. Yet when the film reappeared five months later in a black-and-white version, the world had changed. We were all being outflanked, and quickly. On January 20th, I attended the press screening of The Rescue, an extravagant soap opera intended as the centrepiece of China’s New Year celebrations; within 48 hours, the film had been shelved indefinitely, as the virus swept through China, making cinemagoing – and celebrating – an impossibility.

The West laboured under the illusion of normality for a while. There were multiple costume dramas (Sam Mendes’ WW1 endurance-run 1917, Armando Iannucci’s sprightly take on David Copperfield, a new, well-tailored Emma); a Bad Boys sequel; a savvy Blumhouse update of The Invisible Man. By March, however, it was clear sitting inside with strangers was becoming a non-starter. The new Bond film and Disney’s Mulan were delayed, early signs of a tectonic shift. On March 10th, I watched the knockabout Dave Bautista vehicle My Spy – a fairly shrugging way to send off the old world. I wouldn’t set foot inside a cinema again until August 19th, for a screening of Tenet. (We’ll get to that.)  

So what did we do instead? If this crisis has demonstrated one thing, it’s the importance of rapid, flexible responses. The studios, like some governments, hesitated, panicked or insisted on acting as if everything was normal – big mistake. Streaming services filled the vacuum, providing some measure of escape from the grim business of daily death counts. Imagine how dire lockdown would have been if Covid-19 had been Covid-87 or Covid-94, pre-Internet, pre-iPlayer, pre-Amazon Prime. I don’t doubt there were those throwbacks who retreated with only a book and candlelight to read it by, but the rest of us were blessed with a dizzying choice of options, all without the risks now attached with leaving the house.

Instead of a summer of stultifying event movies, nimbler, more imaginative world cinema held sway. From Iceland, two superb dramas, The County and A White, White Day. From the warmer climes of Chile, the shifting, unpredictable dance movie Ema. The streaming platform MUBI laid on a season of New Brazilian Cinema, and several of the most esoteric films ever to appear on the UK release schedule. Seduction of the Flesh saw a writer set about wooing a parrot. Now, At Last! watched a sloth climbing a tree for forty minutes. We weren’t going anywhere fast, either, so why not? That once-hidebound schedule began to assume a look that was – dare I write this, as the UK backs decisively away from Europe? – more than a little French. 

The independent sector stepped up – but then its hardy producers and distributors have long been used to operating in suboptimal conditions. From the US, a run of glittering streaming delights, both tough (The Assistant, Clemency, Shirley) and tender (Miss Juneteenth, Saint Frances). The UK witnessed a run of debuts so forceful that they became a keystone of BBC2’s Saturday night line-up when the channel ran out of new TV to broadcast: Make Up, Perfect 10, Lynn + Lucy. And no filmmaker seized the moment more than Shrewsbury’s Rob Savage, whose inventive Host [above] – accentuating the horrors of lockdown Zoom calls – became a cult streaming hit that earned the film a theatrical release and its maker a gig within the studio system.

Which brings us back to Tenet, positioned upon its UK release in August as a potential saviour of cinema – or at least of a particular kind of cinema. Overlong and mechanically mirthless, spinning us around the globe merely to flaunt its wealth and logistical clout, Christopher Nolan’s film proved no more than a relic of the old world, something for multiplex devotees to cling to, wherever multiplexes were still open. Scraping back its $205m budget, it saved nothing, really: by year’s end, Nolan was blasting backers Warner Bros. over their decision to send their entire 2021 slate to the streaming service HBO Max, in the absence of any full-time theatrical solutions.       

Which is where we are now. A second wave brought a second lockdown, and a funny-strange period where the only cinemas reporting for business were in Scotland and Wales, meaning the UK box office could be topped by a documentary about football managers (The Three Kings) which took £51 on its opening weekend. Last month, the compelling but tough Romanian documentary Collective opened at number 3, just ahead of the residual Liam Neeson actioner Honest Thief. As I write, the box office is being topped by a 17-year-old Will Ferrell comedy, Elf, one of several reissues offered up as the best the mainstream has to offer in the absence of bigger, fresher titles. Welcome to post-Covid Bizarro World, where business as usual really isn’t an option.

There will be an awards season, it seems, although this year’s contenders will have played in fewer cinemas than any of their immediate predecessors. The current frontrunner, David Fincher’s Mank, belongs to Netflix, as do Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods, George Clooney’s The Midnight Sky and Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7. Borat 2 popped up on Amazon Prime. Hamilton went to Disney+, as did Mulan and Pixar’s glowingly reviewed Soul. Cinematic optimists among us will point to a vaccine, and a longed-for resurrection of normality in the Easter, when we’re finally due to meet again with Mr. Bond. By then, cinema as theatrical event will surely need a shot in the arm – though, much like the rest of us, it may have to wait for it.

Saturday 19 December 2020

On demand: "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom"

Having discovered the work of August Wilson via Denzel Washington's honourable 2016 film of the playwright's Fences, Hollywood now seizes upon Wilson's 1982 opus Ma Rainey's Black Bottom. George C. Wolfe's adaptation - again produced by Washington, this time with Netflix assistance - doesn't go out of its way to fix what clearly wasn't broken when the play was triumphantly revived at the National Theatre back in 2016. Although it opens with a light smattering of exteriors locating us in the wilds of Depression-era America, the bulk of its action is confined to one Chicago recording studio, where the eponymous singer - billed as "the Mother of the Blues" and played by Fences holdover Viola Davis - has been dispatched to cut a record with her squabbling back-up band. Initially, we're with the band, spending long enough in their company to notice a marked difference of outlook between slow-and-steady trombonist Cutler (Colman Domingo), trad in every sense, and the cocky, ambitious horn player Levee (Chadwick Boseman, in his final role), keen to push this music and himself forwards, even if that means leaving others behind in the dust. Here, then, is one of the forks in the road American popular music had to negotiate in the first half of the last century: play safe in the South, or strike out for new ground - and new sounds - in the North. What Wilson was interested in was the extent to which these journeymen were willing to cut their roots and sell out to the white men in the hope of making a name and career for themselves. They know how fairly those white folks treated their ancestors; the sorry details are right there in the songs they've been hired to perform. We know all about the forgotten men of the blues, left at the roadside. For ninety minutes, Wilson put them front-and-centre, inviting them to relitigate their contracts and their chances. A conversation is thus revived, as well as a play.

Has Ma Rainey's Black Bottom sold out in the course of being steered Netflix-wards? Not noticeably. The film is doubtless slicker and starrier than any previous stage production - with the possible exception of Ryan Murphy, no-one in history has had this much streaming money to throw at a mere play. Yet Wolfe and screenwriter Ruben Santiago-Hudson have preserved Wilson's idiomatic dialogue and acid, biting punchline, and - as in Fences - the performers really do knuckle down. For Davis, typically cast as strong, silent, sensible women, this is a notable change of pace. Her Ma is a committed vulgarian: we get that within seconds of taking in her panda-thick eye shadow and cantilevered cleavage. She has so much metal in her mouth she makes certain rappers seem shy and retiring, and her permanent sheen of sweat suggests a woman running hot both physically and sexually. (And that's before she opens her mouth and starts to belt out her signature filth.) She's a real movie character, in other words - properly three-dimensional - and Davis visibly enjoys working some of her usual subtleties into the corners of such a broad canvas. Ma makes a great show of descending into a hotel lobby with a young man on one arm and her female lover on the other: here, we realise, is a woman actively pursuing scandal, who wants to be seen, in part because she knows how easily her music, her name and perhaps even her very being might otherwise be erased. As she puts it during the recording sessions: "All they want from me is my voice." Wilson troubled to make Ma's manager Irvin (played here by Jeremy Shamos) not some obvious slavedriver, rather a generally amenable soul simply keen to get this show on the road (or on record) - but we're only too aware that he and unsmiling studio boss Sturdyvant (Jonny Coyne) are here to mine Ma's talent, to produce a product for profits she will as likely never see.

Beyond Davis, the limitations of this adaptation become more apparent. We're offered monologues where a movie would give us dialogue; and Wolfe has to make careful, considered camera movements so as not to trip over the ensemble or back through the wall of a set. Washington's (longer) film of Fences carved out a sense of a whole working neighbourhood, and gestured towards an idea of America. At the end of its 94 minutes, all Ma Rainey's Black Bottom has established is that this one studio might stand for the entertainment industry entire: white men up top, jobbing Black performers pushed down into the basement. (Like Netflix's other big Oscar shot Mank, it's a slightly self-involved project, the work of a cinema that's been forced to examine its own abiding codes and practices - though clearly Wilson was doing so from a more critical standpoint than Fincher père et fils.) Among those performers, Boseman is a real strong point, playing a dangerous live wire, and thereby demonstrating what a versatile actor he could have been, if the fates had permitted. In the middle of a filmed play, here's a real movie actor, one whose energies refused to be contained by marks on a set. (Witness his attempt to bust through a locked door that leads symbolically nowhere.) Another are the sporadic musical interludes, overseen by Bradford Marsalis no less, which speak to a whole other history: were there more of these on stage? The film might have done better to preserve them, if simply to reshape its copious talk. If - in the head-to-head between late 2020 films based on theatrical phenomena - Ma Rainey's Black Bottom plays as less of a night out (or night in) than Thomas Kail's film of Hamilton, that's probably because movies mainly run on the vulgarity of razzle-dazzle, rather than the subtexts Wilson's theatre traded in. It's nevertheless to Wolfe's credit that he tries, within these limited parameters, to give us a little of both.

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom is now streaming via Netflix.

Friday 18 December 2020

Two rode together: "Let Him Go"

Fifteen Christmases ago, the former Ralph Lauren windowdresser Thomas Bezucha landed a prime studio gig overseeing the lame-duck Sarah Jessica Parker vehicle The Family Stone. Clearly, family ties fascinate him, because he's still picking them over in this week's Let Him Go, a mostly elegant hybrid of Western and period thriller that enters into conversation with a work as totemic as The Searchers and doesn't entirely disgrace itself. Where the Ford movie sent an ageing cowboy to retrieve a kidnapped child, Bezucha's Fifties-set film - drawn from a Larry Watson novel - has a middle-aged couple saddle up, or rather load up their Chevy, and ride out to North Dakota to retrieve their grandson from the clutches of their sometime daughter-in-law's new, abusive husband. The couple are George and Margaret Blackledge (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane), and in something of a twist, it's the latter who's leading this rescue operation. George, a retired sheriff, has agreed to drive, but he seems impatient to get back, in part because his old lawman's instincts are telling him there's trouble up ahead. We sense danger when one of the couple's first points of contact with the extended Weboy family is revealed as Jeffrey Donovan, one of those smirking character actors contemporary movies traditionally cast as trouble. And there's another surprise awaiting everybody when we get to the Weboy family ranch: the shit-talking mother of this black-sheep clan, Blanche, is played at full throttle by Brighton's own Lesley Manville, late of such delicacies as Phantom Thread and Ordinary Love. You'll be as thrown as the Blackledges seem to be when she invites the pair in for a slap-up meal of pork chops with a bristling side of passive-aggression.

So it shapes up as a battle of the matriarchs, an unusual prospect in any film flirting with Western iconography. In one corner, Margaret, still grieving her son's death in a riding accident, and surely travelling this way to ensure she doesn't lose anybody else. In the other, Blanche maintains a whole stable's worth of strapping lads; as Donovan's Bill notes, with barely concealed threat in his voice, "we have numbers on you". There's a third mother, too, in Lorna (Kayli Carter, so excellent in Tamara Jenkins' Private Life), that former daughter-in-law, mutely accepting of what seems an especially sorry fate, very far from her own person. What's striking is that almost everybody else on screen is their own person; you can tell we're deep into awards season, because here is an American movie populated not by squealing pups but grown men and women. Lane and Costner make a quietly wonderful screen couple: even their silences are eloquent, speaking to two people who've long been happy with one another, and with the balance of power in their relationship. We might wonder whether George and Margaret have conceived of this rescue as one last, impromptu adventure together; Bezucha plays up the somewhat elegiac nature of this journey by shooting his leads at sundown, and dotting their progress with a melancholy Michael Giacchino score that recalls Lennie Niehaus's keening Unforgiven cues.

How interested Bezucha ultimately is in those silences may just be up for post-film debate, however. One theme Watson's source borrows from the Westerns of yore is the old civilisation-versus-savagery ringding (the cultivated, articulate Blackledges as the former, the insular, violent Weboys as the latter), and here Let Him Go heads into altogether rockier territory. One problem with The Family Stone was its jolting shifts between limp seasonal farce and heavy-handed disease-of-the-week melodrama. Bezucha's become a subtler director in the intervening years, smoothing the new film's progress from drama to action-thriller, but his latest still feels caught to some degree between sensitive character study and something more openly dramatic, between the subtexts his leads are nailing down like planks to a front porch and the kind of explosive action a studio can sell in trailers. By the final reel, the film has turned into a more conventional, man's-gotta-do kind of Western - not a bad one, all told, but after the filigreed character work of the first hour, Bezucha eventually defaults to nominative determinism, touting the idea the most decisive way to untangle those family ties is to have his characters pull guns out and start waving them around. Still, this is a handsome, neo-classical picture for a major studio to be putting out at the back end of 2020 - and who knows, maybe introducing firearms into the mix would have made The Family Stone a more compelling proposition way back when.

Let Him Go is now playing in selected cinemas, and available to rent via Prime Video.

For what it's worth...

Top 10 films at the UK and Ireland box office (for December 11-13, 2020):

1 (1) Elf (PG) **
2 (2) Home Alone (PG)
3 (new) Little Mix: LM5 - The Tour Film (12A)
4 (new) Superintelligence (PG)
5 (12) Love, Actually (15) ***
6 (6) Honest Thief (15)
7 (re) The Polar Express (U)
8 (5) Two by Two: Overboard! (U)
9 (8) The Grinch [2018] (U)
10 (4) A Christmas Carol (PG) **

(source: BFI)

My top five films currently on release:
1. Un Film Dramatique

DVD/Blu-Ray/Download top ten: 

1 (1) 
Elf (PG) **
2 (2) Last Christmas (12)
3 (3) The Grinch [2000] (PG) ***
4 (4) Love, Actually (15) ***
5 (6) Home Alone (PG)
6 (7) The Polar Express (U)
7 (5) Mulan (12A) ***
8 (28) The Muppet Christmas Carol (U) ****
9 (29) Home Alone 2: Lost in New York (PG)
10 (13) Frozen 2 (U) **

My top five: 
1. The Irishman

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. Dances with Wolves (Monday, five, 1.45pm)
2. Singin' in the Rain (Christmas Day, BBC2, 11.35am)
3. It's a Wonderful Life [above] (Christmas Eve, C4, 2.35pm)
4. Meet Me in St. Louis (Christmas Eve, BBC2, 1.25pm)
5. Casablanca (Wednesday, BBC2, 2.15pm)