What to Watch: Film & TV in December 2020
The best of December's new releases, from David Fincher's Mank to Steve McQueen's Small Axe anthology
David Fincher's Mank (★★★) may be arriving on Netflix, but its heart belongs to a world away from streaming: the Golden Age of Hollywood, when America’s great literati were drawn to the glamour and dollar signs of Tinseltown. One such dreamer is drama critic and playwright Herman J Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman), who found himself an indispensable cog at Paramount and MGM in the 1930s. This soon puts him in the orbit of newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance) and his beautiful young girlfriend, starlet Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried).
Mank’s black-and-white photography makes it look like it's been unearthed from Mankiewicz’s own era; the occasional (digital) cigarette burn cue marks in the top right corner suggest it’s being projected from there too. The film’s scattered, cross-cutting structure, meanwhile, recalls the towering work we see Mankiewicz writing in bed with a broken leg: Citizen Kane, a thinly veiled tell-all of Hearst's eccentric life which he's ghostwriting for 26-year-old wunderkind Orson Welles.
The result is a masterpiece, the best thing Mankiewicz has ever written, and much to Welles’ disdain, he wants credit. The same claim can’t be made for Mank’s own screenplay. Beyond our eponymous hero (Oldman is brilliant), the only other character who feels fully fleshed out is Seyfried’s Marion, and it’s telling that the film’s sparkiest scenes are the handful shared between the pair.
Mank is not without its visual pleasures, and Old Hollywood buffs will delight in spotting the references, but anyone wishing to know what drove Mankiewicz to turn on Hearst so viciously won’t get any straight answers in this frustratingly unfocused picture. [Streaming on Netflix from 4 Dec]
A richer trip to the past can be found in Steve McQueen’s landmark Small Axe anthology. We’ve seen two films so far: Mangrove and Lovers Rock (★★★★★) and both are electric. The former opens at the fag end of the 1960s, Enoch Powell’s 'Rivers of Blood' speech still echoing in racists’ ears, and tells the true story of the solidarity that forms in Notting Hill's West Indian community when the neighbourhood's hippest joint, the Caribbean cafe Mangrove, becomes a target for harassment and intimidation by thuggish coppers. The second half of Mangrove concerns the Mangrove Nine trial, the first judicial acknowledgement of racism within the Metropolitan Police, and it’s as rousing as any Aaron Sorkin courtroom drama.
Lovers Rock is even better. This is pure McQueen: a sensual film overflowing with bodies, music, sexuality and textures, all comingling at a sweaty Ladbroke Grove house party in 1980. There’s no plot, we just follow the ebb and flow of the gathering and the spark of attraction that forms between two beautiful strangers (Amarah-Jae St Aubyn and Micheal Ward) who meet on the dance floor.
The handheld camera makes us part of the throng, immersing us as the night moves from the clowning of Kung Fu Fighting to the heat of slow-jam Silly Games to the more lairy part of the night when some of the lads have had too much Red Stripe. For those missing clubbing, Lovers Rock is the perfect substitute. [Mangrove and Lovers Rock streaming now on BBC iPlayer; Small Axe continues Sundays, 9pm, BBC One]
However, if it's a night down your local that you most hanker for, there's rambunctious documentary Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets (★★★★★). The film follows the final day of operations of a Las Vegas dive bar where everybody not only knows your name, but has been harbouring some pent-up grudge that's about to erupt over a night of heavy drinking. Each barfly deserves their own spinoff movie – there's a dancing Vietnam Vet, a singing Australian barman, a grandma who loves flashing her breasts – but the film belongs to Michael, a melancholic former actor whose self-awareness of his own Shakespearean downfall makes it all the more tragic. Imagine Cheers after dark and you're halfway to Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets' punchdrunk mood. [Released 24 Dec via Curzon Home Cinema]
Another intensely sensual director whose work has just landed on the iPlayer is Luca Guadagnino with We Are Who We Are (★★★), his dreamy coming-of-age series following some wayward army brats at an American airbase in Italy. Teen dramas tend to focus on outcasts, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a character as prickly as Fraser (Jack Dylan Grazer) in The OC or Dawson’s Creek.
He's a moody 14-year-old with eccentric fashion sense, a bumfluff moustache and a serious drinking problem that’s practically encouraged by his mom (Chloë Sevigny), who's also the new commander on the base. Fraser’s not exactly pleasant company, but we’d encourage you to stick it out. Fraser becomes significantly more tolerable as the season progresses, thanks mostly to the complex, queerplatonic relationship he forms with Caitlin (Jordan Kristine Seamón), another army base teen exploring their identity. [Streaming now on BBC iPlayer]
At this point of Lockdown 2.0, you’ve probably had your fill of Zoom, but Host (★★★★), a witty and inventive horror that takes place entirely on a Zoom call, is worthy of your time. Director Rob Savage wrings every ounce of tension he can from the now all-too-familiar video conference platform.
Six bored friends decide to crack open some wine and join each other for an online séance hosted by a cheerful medium, but when some of the gang don’t take the game seriously, necking shots every time the astral plane is mentioned and making up stories of dead lovers, they unwittingly get more than they bargained for. As well as being genuinely creepy and nerve-biting, Host is also a fantastic send-up of the retched portal through which we’ve been forced to communicate with our loved ones over the last few months. [Streaming on VOD platforms from 4 Dec]