Film and TV round-up: February 2021

Channel 4 start the year with three sharp shows to help you through lockdown, while MUBI continues to fill the gaping hole left by the closure of arthouse cinemas

Article by Jamie Dunn | 02 Feb 2021
  • It's A Sin

MUBI has always been cinephile nirvana, but as skittish studios continue to shunt their glitziest arthouse titles off to a hopefully COVID-free future (Another Round, Promising Young Woman and Nomadland were some of the films we’d originally planned to review this month before they retreated at the 11th hour) this streaming platform’s continued rollout of sparkling filmmaking from around the world is more appreciated than ever.

The long-anticipated release of Cathy Yan's spiky satire Dead Pigs is worth the price of MUBI's subscription alone this month. Perhaps the fact it’s concerned with a deadly Chinese epidemic is what’s delayed its arrival in the UK, although the victims are not human, but the porcine of the title – thousands of them – who all suddenly drop dead and are dumped in the river by panicked farmers.

That’s not to say that Dead Pigs’ human ensemble don’t suffer. Yan’s freewheeling film skips from candy-coloured screwball to darker modes as it examines the corroding effects of free-market capitalism on a collection of lost souls caught up in the country’s rampant modernisation. Its messy mosaic, acid-in-your-face humour and deft ensemble work reminded me of Robert Altman at his most sprightly, while Yan’s bold visual sense and striking use of colour is often jaw-dropping. It’s no wonder Warner Bros snapped Yan up to direct Birds of Prey, the vehicle for DC’s most vibrantly-costumed heroine: Harley Quinn.

A knockout aesthetic and tart sense of humour is also present in The Twentieth Century, Matthew Rankin's gonzo retelling of the early life of William Lyon Mackenzie King, Canada’s longest-serving prime minister. This is no standard biopic, but you’ll probably have worked that out by the time, in lieu of a general election to decide the new PM, King takes part in a contest of Canadian manhood, the tests for which include log sniffing and baby-seal clubbing. Rankin also plays fast and loose with King’s biography by revealing his erotic fixation with putrid footwear, his repressed horniness for which manifests as a massive ejaculating cactus.

These surreal flights of fancy take place in a highly-stylised world of matte paintings, expressionistic lighting and geometric sets made from MDF. If you’ve not had your fill of spineless politicians with low moral fibre, this wild and imaginative comedy is for you.

TV has also been a saviour during lockdown, and particularly overflowing with gems right now is All 4. In the middle of its Channel 4 run is The Great, the 'occasionally true story' of how Catherine the Great (winningly played by Elle Fanning) seized the throne from her boorish husband, Peter. It’s written by Tony McNamara, who was also behind Yorgos Lanthimos’s similarly raunchy exercise in alternative history, The Favourite. Nicholas Hoult – who's uproariously funny as Peter and proves once again to have a knack for playing narcissistic bastards – is also a common denominator between the two. There are shades, too, of Armando Iannucci in its commitment to exposing the ruling political class as a grubby cabal of craven morons. Needless to say, The Great lives up to its title.

Russell T Davies’ It’s A Sin, the first British TV series to focus on the Aids crisis, should have been made years ago but also feels hugely of the moment. It deftly walks the tightrope of being a joyous celebration of being young and gay in the 1980s and a deeply sad lament to the lives that were needlessly taken in that decade when fear, ignorance and indifference allowed the deadly virus to run rampant.

It centres on a group of friends who arrive in London in 1981 as fresh-faced teens and follows them into the early 90s, which not all of them get to see. Each death hits with a cold, sharp shock and the show fizzes with repressed anger, although it sometimes feels aimed at the wrong targets. One character's clueless mother seems to shoulder most of the rage that a more politically radical series might have aimed at the Tory government and right-wing media’s mishandling of the pandemic (times haven’t changed much). Despite this misstep, this is powerful, heartbreaking, unmissable TV.

Also make time for the return of Back, the delicious sitcom centred on the acrimony between Stephen (David Mitchell), an uptight pub landlord, and Andrew (Robert Webb), a louche interloper who was fostered for a few weeks by Stephen’s parents decades earlier and has now returned to town and ingratiated himself into the family once again. It’s basically a middle-aged Peep Show, but here the mind games and seething resentments aren’t confined to the characters’ inner monologues but out in the open for everyone to hear. It’s a bitchy delight.

Dead Pigs streams on MUBI from 12 Feb
The Twentieth Century streams on MUBI from 15 Feb

The Great screens Sun, 9pm
It's a Sin screens Fri, 9pm
Back screens Thu, 10pm
All available on All 4