5 things to watch this weekend – 15 to 17 January

Conspiracy, missions behind enemy lines and erotic woodland encounters – what are you watching this weekend?

15 January 2021

By Sam Wigley

All the President’s Men (1976)

Where’s it on?  BBC1, Monday, 12.05am

All the President’s Men (1976)

In the week of Trump’s second impeachment, here’s a timely reminder of the investigation that led to Nixon’s resignation back in 1974. Coming up on its 45th birthday, Alan J. Pakula’s conspiracy thriller is an enthralling dramatisation of the Washington Post’s investigation into the break-in at the Watergate offices. Many Hollywood films of the Watergate era were dyed in disillusionment and paranoia, including Pakula’s own The Parallax View (1974), but All the President’s Men was the first to tackle the scandal head on. Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman bring starry clout as the Post’s reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, and it was Redford himself who’d bought the rights to their book and helped bring it to the screen. Long before Spotlight (2015), the results set a high bar for the investigative journalism movie. It’s a film of forensic attention to detail, even down to recreating a desk-for-desk replica of the Post’s offices after the newspaper denied the right to film there.

MLK/FBI (2020)

Where’s it on? BFI Player

Tapped phones and top secret files are also the order of the day in this new documentary, which brings to light the FBI’s dogged surveillance and harassment of Martin Luther King Jr in the years prior to his assassination in 1968. With access to newly declassified federal files, director Sam Pollard takes us back to the height of the civil rights movement in 1960s America, detailing the threat that King’s campaign for equal rights for Black Americans was seen to pose to the establishment’s status quo. Under the stewardship of J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI went beyond keeping tabs on King to active attempts to smear his reputation, fearful of his supposed ties with communists and his stance against the Vietnam war. This was a sorry chapter in the FBI’s history, and it’s grippingly exposed in a documentary that leaves you to draw your own connections with the present. It’s out today on what would have been King’s birthday.

David Byrne’s American Utopia (2020)

Where’s it on? Blu-ray/DVD/digital

Available digitally since December but out this week on physical media too, Spike Lee’s euphoric document of David Byrne’s stage show American Utopia is a kind of spiritual sequel to Jonathan Demme’s classic Talking Heads concert film Stop Making Sense (1984). Certainly its release late last year felt well timed for housebound audiences starved of theatrical spectacle and hungry for any kind of visual pick-me-up. Electrifyingly staged and choreographed, the show sees Byrne going through a back catalogue of Talking Heads hits and more recent solo work as he stitches together a patchwork vision of modern America. His long-standing themes of alienation and disconnectedness are updated and transposed to our present predicament, with Byrne explicitly tackling the theme of police brutality during a cover version of Janelle Monáe’s protest song ‘Hell You Talmbout’. It’s a magnificent show, though arguably the most exhilarating moment is after the curtain comes down: Lee’s camera follows Byrne out into the New York streets, and in a flash we’re reconnected with the world outside.

Fear and Desire (1953)

Where’s it on? Talking Pictures TV, Saturday, 2.25am

Fear and Desire (1953)

While some great directors wow with their debut films, others take longer to make their mark. Stanley Kubrick was in the latter camp. He’d later refer to this first of his features as a “bumbling amateur film exercise” and make efforts to keep it in obscurity while he was still alive. But it’s been restored and reappraised in recent years and now crops up on Talking Pictures TV. Running little more than an hour long, it’s a Korean War-era lost patrol film in a similar vein to war movies that people like Sam Fuller and Don Siegel were making at the time. The difference is that it was made independently of any studio, with funds raised from Kubrick’s family and friends. A noted photographer, Kubrick shot the film himself on location in California’s San Gabriel Mountains, which stand in for the forest deep behind enemy lines where 4 soldiers crash-land and must try to make it back to their battalion. Although certainly a bit rough around the edges, Fear and Desire does an admirable  job in conveying the psychological impacts of combat, in a way that looks forward to Paths of Glory (1957) and Full Metal Jacket (1987).

Liberté (2019)

Where’s it on? Blu-ray

Liberté (2019)

Albert Serra’s Liberté is also set in a forest, but there the similarities end. In fact, Liberté repels comparison with almost any other film – only Pasolini’s infamous Salò (1975) and the cruising-ground thriller Stranger by the Lake (2013) come to mind. We’re simply set down in a forest in 18th-century France, where a group of libertines who’ve been exiled by the crown have gathered to act out their unrestrained desires in a night of orgy. Against a background hum of cicadas, Serra’s camera takes us from one explicit nocturnal encounter in the bushes to the next, making us a voyeur as these frocked aristocrats test the limits of sexual morality. This provocative Spanish director has made a run of films set against the backdrop of Enlightenment Europe, coming close to a breakout success with his 2016 film The Death of Louis XIV, starring Jean-Pierre Léaud as the ageing Sun King. Resoundingly not a film for everyone, Liberté should help him lose some of those new fans, yet it’s a work so subversively out-of-step with current trends that it inspires a kind of enchantment.