Thursday 7 January 2021

Contenders: Playing catch-up

As I do each year, I've been catching up with 2020 films I missed when they were originally released, to consider them during the awards voting season. London's latest/ongoing lockdown has definitely helped give me more time at home for filling in these gaps in my viewing this year. They're listed here in the order I watched them, and I suspect I'll have more of these in the coming weeks. My usual Critical Week note is at the bottom...

Saint Maud
dir-scr Rose Glass; with Morfydd Clark, Jennifer Ehle, Lily Knight, Lily Frazer 19/UK StudioCanal 1h24 ***
Filmmaker Rose Glass creates a harrowing atmosphere for this freaky British horror, which centres on a timid young woman whose confidence grows in seriously nasty directions. Morfydd Clark is terrific as Maud, a nurse hired to work for the imperious former dancer Amanda (Jennifer Ehle), who is wasting away with cancer. But Maud's newfound religious fervour means that she's more interested in saving Amanda's soul than helping her in her time of need. Clark plays Maud's dangerous piety with a staggering sense of focus, augmented by some surreal, unnervingly effective effects work. And Ehle is also fiercely committed to her intense role. The film is way over-the-top, as Glass cleverly mashes up references to The Exorcist with stories of fanatical terrorists. It ends up feeling like a lot of style with little substance. But what style!

The Life Ahead
dir Edoardo Ponti; scr Ugo Chiti, Edoardo Ponti; with Sophia Loren, Ibrahima Gueye, Abril Zamora, Renato Carpentieri, Iosif Diego Pirvu 20/It Netflix 1h34 ****
Sophia Loren returns to the screen with a terrific performance in this engaging drama about an odd-couple friendship between an Italian Auschwitz survivor in her 80s and a cheeky orphan from Senegal. It's a lively story with plenty of sharp edges to it as these two characters clash and bond in unusual ways. At the centre is the journey of the quick-thinking young Momo (Gueye), who makes cash dealing drugs while trying to be a good boy for Loren's watchful Madame Rosa. There are terrific relationships dotted throughout the film, including another orphan Rosa is caring for (the expressive Pirvu) and a trans hooker (Zamora), a single mum who's estranged from her family. Yes, it's lively and sentimental, but never gets too sweet. And there are some strong emotional kicks.

Welcome to Chechnya
dir David France; scr David France, Tyler H Walk; with David Isteev, Olga Baranova, Maxim Lapunov 20/UK BBC 1h47 ****
This acclaimed and often harrowing documentary explores reports of a violent gay purge underway in the autonomous nation within the Russian Federation, where police arrest and torture anyone rumoured to be homosexual, recommending that their families kill them. Across Russia at large, hateful homophobic violence isn't prosecuted, so people live in terror. The film centres on two aide workers (Isteev and Baranova) who bravely rescue young people from certain death, then seek sponsorship abroad to spirit them out of the country. We watch several of these cases unfold like heart-pounding thrillers. And the central story features superhero Lapunov, the first person to officially report his assault by officials. He's supported by his boyfriend and family, all of whom also need to get out as soon as they can. All while Russia denies the problem and promotes the violence. 

Dick Johnson Is Dead
dir Kirsten Johnson; scr Nels Bangerter, Kirsten Johnson; with Dick Johnson, Kirsten Johnson 20/US Netflix 1h29 ****
After her mother's death from Alzheimer's, documentarian Kirsten Johnson decides to make a film about her father, focussing on the idea that one day he too will die. Much of this doc is blackly hilarious, as Dick goes along with her nutty ideas, acting out being bumped off in a variety of ways (cleverly deploying actors and stuntmen) and even attending a funeral staged as his send-off (he thinks the coffin is comfy). But along the way, the film also outlines Dick's interesting life and the warmly humorous relationship he has with Kirsten. This makes it hugely entertaining and engaging, even while dealing with issues most of us never talk about. It's a rather low-key, home-made kind of movie, but there are some genuinely big moments, and it's assembled expertly to hold our attention, gently coaxing us into exploring our own mortality too.

Crip Camp
dir-scr Nicole Newnham, James Lebrecht; with Judith Heumann, James Lebrecht, Denise Sherer Jacobson, Neil Jacobson 20/US Netflix 1h46 ****
This important doc traces the origins of the accessibility rights movement back to a summer camp in 1971, where teens with disabilities were able to experience a normal youthful getaway, far from their over-protective parents and segregated schools. No one was "ill" here: each person's distinct physicality was embraced. And as they grew up, many of them began to take a stand for America's marginalised population of people who were unable to access transport, schools and services. Through articulate speeches, protests and sit-ins, they changed the law in America, something that has spread throughout the developed world to allow all people to participate in public life. It's a hugely empowering story, and the filmmakers wonderfully keep reminding us that these are intelligent, valuable members of society, with the same needs and desires as everyone else.

Bloody Nose Empty Pockets
dir Bill Ross IV, Turner Ross; with Shay Walker, Peter Elwell, Michael Martin 20/US Netflix 1h38 ****
A fly-on-the-wall documentary filmed over the course of one night, this traces the closing down of The Roaring 20's, a dive bar off the Vegas Strip. The colourful regulars trickle in expressing their sadness about losing their home away from home, then as they chat and become increasingly inebriated, the crowd gets much more interesting in just about every way possible. There are some mild antics, the threat of a brawl and a lot of bromance going on here. It's freeform and very loose, but is shot gorgeously by the directors to look like a carefully staged narrative feature. So the people really spring to life as vivid movie characters with fascinating back-stories and nuanced interaction. And along the way, there are gentle observations on the nature of dreams, the way we don't always do what we know is right, and the deep need to have a safe bolt-hole.

The Kid Detective
dir-scr Evan Morgan; with Adam Brody, Sophie Nelisse, Tzi Ma, Sarah Sutherland, Wendy Crewson, Peter MacNeill 20/Can Sony 1h40 ***.
This comical mystery centres on a 32-year-old whose glory days as a brilliant teen private eye are long behind him, but he's not willing to give up on his career. Writer-director Evan Morgan packs the film with witty Hardy Boys-style references, while deepening the story significantly. Adam Brody is wonderful in the lead role, a guy who never quite grew up and now takes his first properly adult case involving a brutal murder. The tone is a bit goofy, and the pacing rather meandering, so the details of the case never quite grab hold. But Brody holds the interest, providing an engaging character study that feels strikingly relevant without being pushy about the bigger themes. The film has an askance tone that makes it unpredictable and offbeat enough to be memorable.

His House
dir-scr Remi Weekes; with Sope Dirisu, Wunmi Mosaku, Matt Smith, Malaika Wakoli-Abigaba, Javier Botet 20/UK Netflix 1h33 ***.
There's a fierce topicality to this unnerving British horror movie, which centres on a couple (Dirisu and Mosaku) who arrive as refugees following a harrowing escape from their brutally wartorn African homeland. But as they settle into their grubby government-provided home, they realise that it's also occupied by a vicious witch (Botet) and the daughter (Wakoli-Abigaba) they lost en route. Dirisu and Mosaku are outstanding in complex roles that explode with emotionality, and writer-director Weekes evokes thoughts, ideas, trauma and terror using fiendishly clever filmmaking. Yes, most of the scary bits are rather obvious movie tricks, but because its so underpinned by current events and raw emotions, it gets deep under the skin.

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C R I T I C A L   W E E K

The only regular releases I watched this past week were I Care a Lot, J Blakeson's seriously unnerving comical thriller with Rosamund Pike and Peter Dinklage, and A Stone in the Water, a somewhat clumsy low-budget Misery-style horror film with Bonnie Bedelia. Everything else is listed above. Meanwhile, with nominations ballots due this weekend in two awards, I still have qualifying films to watch over the next week, including Denzel Washington in The Little Things, Daniel Kaluuya in Judas and the Black Messiah and Shahab Hosseini in The Night.

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