A horror thiiler with a difference, a whipsmart coming-of-age comedy and a film to be cherished as Getintothis’ Chris Leathley picks the best films of the month.
The summer months can yield strange fayre for the seasoned cinema attendee.
Bar the usual slew of summer blockbusters designed to spare parents (I include myself amongst them!) the trauma of 24/7 engagement with their insatiable brood, the cinematic slate for July/August can appear somewhat bare.
Nevertheless, 2019 has continued to offer up celluloid delights, often surprising in tone and content.
Perhaps, we cannot make the claim this time for absolute originality but then, in this writer’s opinion, the ‘new’ is an entirely overrated facet of the Arts.
Rather, what we have seen over the last four weeks are fresh takes on well-established ideas and themes.
New zest has been injected into classic filmic concepts such as ‘the coming-of-age’ feature, the ‘Giallo horror’ and one of the most enduring of them all, the ‘documentary’.
That directors have engineered new appraisals of these excessively utilised genres is a potent reflection of their great ability.
Moreover, this past month has seen minority filmmakers remain at the fore.
Both in terms of gender and sexuality, there have been intriguing forays into filmmaking. Not always entirely successful but promising much for what might be in the future.
That is perhaps the most salient point about this month’s reviews – that to seek perfection in every film is a futile and quixotic quest, one that guarantees disappointment.
If a director is worth their salt, then they should certainly have more than their fair share of ‘failures’ amongst their filmography.
We talked last time about ‘gambler’s luck’ and there is no doubt that some have trusted to this when attempting new perspectives on those entrenched cinematic canons.
More of this should be encouraged, and no doubt would be, were it not for the pesky difficulties of drawing together finance for more risky projects.
In that vein then, here are my latest picks of what 2019 has to offer. I hope that you take them to your heart as I have done…
Film of the Month
Dir: Yann Gonzalez
The era of the Giallo thriller, a kind of European police procedural for those who don’t already know, appeared to reach its peak in the 1970s and early 1980s.
Luridly sexual but more visually sophisticated than American slasher pics, this was a cinema of vibrant sleaze and, sometimes, outright misogyny.
Nevertheless, it remains a cult genre of cinema, one that attracts ardent advocacy from many cinephiles.
Moreover, it made the name of celebrated auteurs like Dario Argento, Lucio Fulci and Mario Bava, to name but a few.
Grindhouse and ‘torture porn’ soon became more predominant, as did supernatural horror (some conceived by those mentioned above).
To a large extent it still is, in spite of successful franchises like Halloween or Scream ploughing furrows not entirely dissimilar from Giallo.
Indeed, Horror’s resurgence in recent years, both in terms of box office and critical acclaim (the likes of The Descent, Get Out, Hereditary, Midsommar, It Follows, Kill List, The Witch and so on) has proffered more opportunities for adventurous directors.
For every big studio haymaker like It, there are satellite films that have something more than the ordinary to say.
Enter Yann Gonzalez, brother of M83 innovator Anthony, and a filmmaker eager to orient his movies in a different context to those that have gone before.
In the case of the exceptional Knife+Heart, Gonzalez turns the tables on past sexism in Giallo cinema by making his horror-thriller a movie centred within the gay porn industry.
Not only does this setting allow for certain sleazy Giallo traditions to be maintained but it makes men the victims and women the bold, complex protagonists.
This setting is also mined for plenty of well-judged laughs by Gonzalez, treating the blue movies of 1979 with affection whilst revelling in their cheap novelty traits and flamboyant identity.
The story revolves around Vanessa Paradis’ anti-hero, Anne, a producer of celluloid gay smut.
She is exploitative, ruthless and intelligent (characteristics that are usually only bestowed upon male leads) but she is emotionally fraught too, despairing in her alcoholism and her recent split from her girlfriend Lois (played deftly by Kate Moran).
Her films are rushed, tawdry but enthusiastic, in many ways reminiscent of the films that Paul Thomas Anderson depicts in Boogie Nights.
As Knife+Heart proceeds, it becomes clear that Paradis is often disinterested in the lives and fates of her performers.
Despite this, we still can sympathise with the talented but bereft Anne as she navigates the marginalised gay community in late 70s Paris.
This navigation becomes much more frightening when her performers start to meet with gruesome ends at the hands of a masked maniac.
The dark sides of Anne’s personality are amply demonstrated by Gonzalez, when she decides to incorporate the first deaths within her films, crafting a farcical detective drama element within her adult cinema productions.
As the body count rises however, Anne is forced to take the mystery seriously as her own life becomes dangerously under threat. It’s at this point that Knife+Heart shifts gear from grotesque set-pieces and comedic parodies towards a more meditative tone, as Anne investigates the possible roots of the killings.
Yann Gonzalez is evidently a director of considerable cinematic erudition.
The influences on show are giddily diverse. Beyond the reverential homages to Argento et al, Knife+Heart draws from Brian De Palma (particularly embodied by Kate Moran’s character Lois, who edits all of Anne’s films) while also touching upon Pedro Almodovar’s splashes of colour and inventive mis en scene.
There is a consistent level of invention in the movie as Gonzalez makes expansive use of his technical knowledge and aesthetic imagination.
Gonzalez’s lighting, cinematographic tints and dazzling compositions are all executed with a painter’s eye alongside an underworld sensibility.
This is married to a soundtrack (composed by M83, unsurprisingly) that soars, from poignant introspection to moodily evocative motifs, all perfectly at home within the milieu on display.
In effect, Yann Gonzalez unites the Arthouse and the Giallo flick without sacrificing the sincerity of the former or the vivacity of the latter.
This marriage of purpose in scenes like those set in the gay club scene of Paris, where neon hues drape everything in an exotic veil, does much to lift this film into something altogether more rarefied and intoxicating.
As adept as these glimpses into the hidden Parisian gay scene might be, they are more than matched by Gonzalez’s surprising penchant for the pastoral.
He develops luscious scenes of rural isolation as (symbolically crucial) contrasts to the urban seduction of Paris at night. There can be no doubt of Gonzalez’s eye as a filmmaker, nor of his intuitive understanding of the potency of his compositions.
That this is all achieved without diverting narrative momentum is impressive.
The screenplay boasts enticing red herrings, a suitably demonic but tortured killer and a genuinely satisfying pay-off.
Knife+Heart does not meander – it is propulsive in its drive towards its end.
The final cinematic cherry of Knife+Heart is a post credit sequence that adds considerable emotional heft to this gorgeous work of cinema.
It’s as if Gonzalez couldn’t bear the thought of an audience taking only a shallow, cynical reading of his film and that he needed to demand more of his viewers. It is an assertive and wholly successful decision on his part.
In Knife+Heart we have a movie that will nourish the wizened heart of the most hardened horror aficionado.
Yet, it will also beguile those Arthouse cineastes jaded by the relentless Hollywood juggernaut. Not many films can claim such a feat.
Best of the Rest
We the Animals
Dir: Jeremiah Zagar
We the Animals is a film title resonant with naïve ambiguity and defiant tribalism.
In that sense then, it is a cinematic moniker that is both apt and true for this slight but gorgeous movie about life on the edge of a living.
There’s a simple delicacy that lies at the crux of Jeremiah Zagar’s film.
The stripped-back cast, spare but naturalistic dialogue and an immediate environment that’s both Thoreau-rustic and bracingly dirt-poor, all combine to devastating effect.
When we use the term ‘dirt-poor’, which is so often used with all sorts of odious connotations, we mean it in an almost spiritual context here.
Zagar often inserts the earthy clay of the soil directly into this narrative of three brothers trying to survive family chaos and impermeable poverty.
In myriad ways, the physicality of their natural surroundings becomes a salve to the wounds wrought by everyday life.
Hands pushing up through clumps of sodden turf.
Lithe bodies submerged in water.
Sunlight on tanned skin.
We the Animals is very much an exquisite exercise in tactile cinematic nostalgia, except there is no rose-tinted affection for the past here.
We the Animals presents no concrete synopsis to speak of.
Averring the straight path, it instead chooses to inhabit the by-ways and rutted tracks of life.
By doing so, Zagar mimics the meandering, vaguely episodic experience of adolescence through the eyes of three brothers.
Alongside this, we get an idea, though no more than an idea, about the adults too.
Parents worn down by a romance come too early, a time and place that promised much but delivered only grinding want and sporadic domestic violence.
At its most reductive, We the Animals is a tale of a family, fractured, tragic but capable still of touching affections and strong fraternal loyalties.
These webs of mutual obligation and dependence are only truly threatened, not by violence or lack of material comforts, but by the youngest brother’s increasing degrees of self-awareness.
His inward search for truths about himself, becomes the central drama of the film.
Despite this, film does not generally wallow in grimness of accent or content.
The bleaker moments of We the Animals are off-set by infant imagination and flights of the soul that lift the boys above multitudinous hardships.
Jeremiah Zagar elects to use oblique poetics rather than blunt snapshots.
The external universe of the boys is not displayed in particularly emphatic detail, at least not those facets which relate directly to their economic condition.
Rather, we get the games, the drawings, the stolen glances, the dead-eyed stares into rear view mirrors. This is a movie of small moments that become gigantic to the interior worlds of all those involved.
To some, We the Animals may appear an insubstantial entry in what has become a year of robust cinema and memorable celluloid storytelling.
We would contend by way of rejoinder, that not every film has to reconstruct our universe for there to be value within.
This is filmmaking designed to elicit emotional catharsis without the artifice of sentimentality.
In an age where acceptance, toleration and diversity appear to be viewed as anachronistic by the leader of the free world, gentle films like We the Animals should not be sneered at.
They should be cherished.
The words ‘Hollywood’ and ‘comedy’ can often lead to visceral reaction in me, somewhat akin to anaphylactic shock.
Much of the material churned out in recent years has been crude and clumsy, far removed from the sly comedies of manners that epitomised Hollywood screwball or the bitter satire of the 80s/90s.
Moreover, only recently have female voices been heard in sufficient number and volume.
This is despite the trailblazers like the peerless Elaine May way back in the 70s and the many women who have flourished in screenwriting since the earliest days of cinema in America.
Box office demands and the misogyny that inhabits so many layers of American film production have all exacerbated this calumny of circumstance and prejudice.
Imagine then, the sheer relief, the explosive glee when faced with Booksmart on the big screen.
This is an all-too-rare example of the kind of literate, quirky and garrulous comedy that should be the norm.
Olivia Wilde, in her debut as director, has delivered that rare unicorn of mainstream cinema – an intuitive, frank take on women and men in their teenage years.
Coming-of-age movies are not thin on the ground (after all, there are two reviewed in this month’s column alone!) but their quality is often compromised by lazy stereotypes and complacent writing.
Not so with Booksmart.
Starring Beanie Feldstein (who has already featured in the impressive Ladybird) and Kaitlyn Dever, Booksmart tells the story of two hyper-intelligent, ambitious soon-to-be High School grads called Amy and Molly.
Having spent their school days immersed in study and ambitious plans for the future, Amy discovers that her classmates, whom she treats with snobbish disdain, have got into the very same exclusive universities that she has.
This belated realisation precipitates a crisis of identity on the part of Amy and Molly, leading to the impulsive decision to spend their last night as High School students indulging in every available kind of hedonism.
What follows is a profane, raucous 24 hours, one which will re-shape Amy and Molly’s friendship and enforce re-evaluations of those around them.
Now, I’m not trying to make a case for Booksmart being a nuanced, subtle take on young women reaching the crucible of adulthood.
It isn’t and other films, like Ladybird, Daughters of the Dust and Persepolis have done so previously anyway.
That is not to demean Booksmart because that’s not my intent.
This is not a movie designed to cast an elegiac eye over that mysterious metamorphosis between youth and maturity.
Rather, it is a film brimful of lusty enthusiasm, a giddy attempt to capture the farce and emotional folly that an (almost) ideal end to High School might look like.
To be fair to Booksmart, it doesn’t embrace every sentimental trope like so many other films of this ilk.
The relationships that you might expect to flourish, do not do so.
Characters are reimagined in ways that are not wholly predictable, even if more seasoned viewers may see many of the plot ‘twists’ coming well in advance of their fruition.
The editing is brash and funky, like much of the entertaining soundtrack.
In many ways, Booksmart is keen to have its hyper-literate cake and try to eat it, washed down with the kind of bawdy shenanigans that occasionally veers into American Pie territory.
Perhaps that’s why there are inevitable limitations to this hugely enjoyable movie but we applaud Wilde and co for attempting the impossible anyway.
Yes, the film’s conclusion is too neat, too absurdly tidy after the chaos that has gone before.
The idea that Jocks, Stoners and Popular Sirens would all reconcile with the Nerds and each other by the film’s end, is a level of Hollywood contrivance that Booksmart could have cheerfully done without.
Indeed, there is a narrative synergy throughout Booksmart which stretches credulity to breaking point.
Yet, for every optimistic indulgence, there is plenty of honesty about female sexuality and identity that rings true.
For these refreshingly topical perspectives to be resident in a big studio film is something to be welcomed. Moreover, in the age of Trump and Johnson, we could all do with a few more optimistic movies.
Regardless of its slight limitations, Booksmart remains a joyous example of witty, ebullient cinema.
It deserves a bigger audience and you should all make sure that you are part of it.
Still worth a watch…
Dir: Todd Douglas Miller
This is a marvel of documentary cinema, one based on original restored 70mm footage of the Apollo 11 mission.
There’s no intrusive voiceover, just contemporary audio recordings and media coverage.
Throughout, the public and private dramas of the enterprise are made evident in a way that’s never been achieved before.
Despite the knowledge that all will be well, Miller still manages to generate tension on the part of the viewer.
This was a deeply evocative film that has you glued to your seat until the final credits have ceased. See it.
Dir: Peter Strickland
This is an avowedly weird film.
It wears its cinematic antecedents like a badge of honour, with lashings of retro panache and gothic atmospherics drawn from 1970s European and British Horror.
This is supplemented by a hypnotic score, composed by Cavern of Anti-Matter.
Where it stumbles however, is in its inability to choose a consistent line of diegetic attack – comic or horror?
Pastiche or something more morally murky?
It doesn’t help that In Fabric is split into two quite definite halves, with the first proving infinitely more engaging than the second.
A flawed curio then, but one that may grow in your estimation on repeat viewings.
Recommended Blu-Ray Releases
Come Home to the 5 and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean
Dir: Robert Altman (Eureka)
Dir: Roy Ward Baker (Second Sight)
Marlene Dietrich and Josef von Sternberg at Paramount 1930-1935
Kiss Me Deadly
Robert Aldrich (Criterion)
Pasolini: Trilogy of Life
Dir: John Carpenter (Netflix)
Dir: Ali Abbasi (MUBI)
Dir: Maren Ade (Amazon)