Heart-rending documentaries, religious thrillers and more amongst our top cinema picks this month.
Film of the month: Whitney
Oscar-winning director Kevin Macdonald delves deep into the scintillating career and sorrowful life of Whitney Houston
By now, we’re all so familiar with the pop diva’s tragic life story that any filmmaker who decides to try his hand at documenting it on film, puts himself under enormous pressure. Whitney, the latest offering of the topic, comes just a year after the last doc on the megastar, directed by Nick Broomfield, but it stands up to its predecessor in every respect. From the uncompromising interviews to the clever editing, it expertly manipulates our emotional response through a carefully structured narrative, interspersed with perfectly timed tracks.
But perhaps its biggest ace is the never-before-revealed, shocking truth about Whitney’s aunt Dee Dee Warwick who, as the film alleges, molested the singer as a child. While there’s an undeniable exploitative tinge to uncovering this fact, it does add to the ongoing conversation on what led to Whitney’s untimely death. Ultimately though, Whitney reiterates the profound sadness of the strange and isolated lives of celebrities.
In a particularly chilling instance, a close confidant recalls how Whitney would meet her friend Michael Jackson in a hotel room just so they could sit together in silence—because they understood each other’s predicament like nobody else in the world could. It’s a heavy and unsettling watch but an absolute must if you’re a fan of the late diva.
Out on July 6
An abandoned old house—check; a family with dark secrets—check; an all-consuming dread of an impending tragedy—check; Marrowbone is a film embedded in bona fide horror tradition. A mother and her four children move to a dilapidated old mansion to escape their traumatic past, but little do they know that the real trouble is only about to begin.
Not only does the film build suspense with pitch-perfect pace and grace, but it’s also a visually stunning affair: drenched in seaweed-greenish hues, the cinematography resembles 17th-century Dutch painting: disturbing yet utterly gorgeous. Also featuring spectacular performances by young future stars of the silver screen.
Out on July 16
The writer behind such cult classics as Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, Paul Schrader, returns with a razor-sharp, pungent portrait of a Protestant minister amidst a crisis of faith. And before you start comparing it to Dead Man Walking or Stigmata, let us stop you right here and say that it’s nothing like what you imagine.
Taking on religion, climate change, politics and mortality all at once, Schrader sure doesn’t mess around. With an ominous, atmospheric score by none other than the godfather of dark ambient, Lustmord, a severe monochrome palette, and a perpetual feeling of nauseating anxiety underpinning the narrative, it’s one disturbing movie, that never really lets you relax, taking shocking turns when you least expect it.
But the real gift of God here is the film’s star, Ethan Hawke, who delivers one of his greatest performances to date. His weathered, mature face is more expressive than ever, relaying every bit of the vulnerability, heartbreak and madness that Reverend Toller grapples with in this off-the-wall thriller.
Out on July 13
Swimming with Men
Rob Brydon brings us pure cinematic joy in this life-affirming comedy. The story revolves around Eric (Brydon)—a middle-aged accountant who gets stuck in a bit of a rut. But his life’s about to change when he meets a group of mismatched-but-charismatic amateur synchronised swimmers. A bit twee? Sure—but it’s a solid feel-good number to turn to when you’re down in the dumps.
Out on July 6
A Prayer before Dawn
There’s an undeniable appeal to boxing movies—we’re always drawn to stories of athletes pushing themselves to physical extremes. But rarely are they as jaw-dropping as this true story of Billy Moore—a British boxer in a notorious Thai prison, fighting in tournaments to earn his freedom.
Brutal and tactile, this dramatisation is no easy watch, crawling under your skin to the point where you can smell the sweat and blood oozing from the prison corners. Prepare to be blown away by Joe Cole whose central performance is the flesh and bones of this violent, no holds barred tale.
Out on July 20
By Mike McCahill
Jon Richardson Ultimate Worrier: Series 1 (Dave; UKTV Play)
What is it? This perversely enjoyable showcase for likable stand-up Richardson plays something like the BBC’s Room 101, only more neurotic. Each week, two guest comedians are invited to add to the host’s patented Worry Index—a rolling database of niggles that range from the apocalyptically serious to such matters as “green crisps”.
Why should I watch it? The world can seem a worrying place—it’s oddly reassuring to know others share your concerns.
Where did we leave it? One early highlight: the body-themed Episode Two, in which Sara Pascoe’s worries about her wonky walk inspires an empathetic Richardson to walk a mile in ladies’ thigh-high leather boots.
Best episode? Our host’s response, in Episode Four (“Humanity”), to the surgical possibility of printing human organs: “At the moment, I can’t even print gig tickets.”
What to stream this month
Atlanta: Season 1 (BBC iPlayer)
It’s been Donald Glover’s year: May saw his alter ego Childish Gambino’s This Is America video debuting to great acclaim, his Lando Calrissian lit up the recent Star Wars prequel Solo, and his sharp, funny HBO series about misadventures in the regional rap game was bought by the BBC—binge it now on the iPlayer.
The Defiant Ones (Netflix)
Rap also features prominently in this ultra-engaging documentary on late 20th century American music—a vast subject approached from the crisscrossing perspectives of unlikely pals Jimmy Iovine (producer for Springsteen, U2 et al.) and hip-hop supremo Dr. Dre. Inevitably, the soundtrack is superb.
Friday Night Dinner: Series 5 (4OD)
TV’s best played sitcom returned earlier this summer, still managing to find reliably hilarious variations on its basic theme: a North London clan reconvenes to start the weekend with a meal, only for chaos of some kind to break out. Interrupting matters this year: violins, ventriloquist’s dummies, and some very old tinned meat.