Films to watch during the summer without blockbusters

Blockbusters maketh the summer, but with many postponed because of the coronavirus crisis, these months are akin to a swallowless spring.

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Idea for a horror film: I Know What You Didn’t Do Last Summer, in which a group of former cinema-goers spend most of 2020 not going to the cinema. For those in the industry, the current crisis is scarier than any slasher movie. Blockbusters maketh the summer (and have done ever since Jaws and Star Wars pioneered the saturation-bombing approach to distribution in the 1970s), but with many postponed because of coronavirus, these months are akin to a swallowless spring. Christopher Nolan’s fantasy thriller Tenet and Disney’s live-action Mulan have been playing a losing game of Grandmother’s Footsteps with the pandemic, their globally coordinated release dates shifting repeatedly as infections fluctuate and our anxiety about being in confined spaces with strangers fails to be assuaged by the prospect of Carex with our popcorn.

It was wise, then, for How to Build a Girl (24 July) to choose a streaming-only release. The adolescent target audience for this breezy comedy, adapted by Caitlin Moran from her novel about a teen who becomes a music-press sensation, will be stuck at home and in need of optimism. (Though there should be an adult on hand to answer the questions that will arise from this period piece, such as “Dad, what’s a ‘music paper’?” and “Mum, what’s a ‘job in the media’?”)

Johanna (Beanie Feldstein) is a precocious schoolgirl in 1990s Wolverhampton, friendless save for her gay, fanzine-producing brother (Laurie Kynaston) and the idols on her bedroom wall (Freud, Marx, Elizabeth Taylor) who spring to life like the porn-magazine stars in My Own Private Idaho. If there’s one thing Johanna has learned from her collie-breeding father (Paddy Considine), it is that she is special and the world needs to hear her voice. “We all look for a spark,” a teacher tells her with appalled wonder, “but you’re like Krakatoa.”

Landing a writing job on a national music rag, Johanna boards the carousel of booze, jollies and backstage passes. She becomes stuck on an insipid indie balladeer (Alfie Allen), who spills his guts in response to her penetrating questions (“Why are your songs so sad?”), and reinvents herself as Dolly Wilde, a scarlet-haired, frilly-shirted Willy Wonka figure with a gift for catty copy. As her pen grows poisonous, she abandons the salt-of-the-earth Midlands folk in favour of superficial Londoners who swig champagne in hot tubs but seem inexplicably unaware of drugs.

Moran’s script is sharp on the particular dishonesty of 1990s sexism, glossed as it was with a wipe-clean coating of irony, and Feldstein makes an ebullient ringmaster even if it’s hard not to pine for Helen Monks, who brought more bite to the role of another Moran-a-like go-getter in the writer’s similarly autobiographical sitcom, Raised By Wolves. The film is closer to Angus, Thongs and Perfect Snogging than anything as finessed or insightful as last year’s Eighth Grade, with “build” being absolutely the appropriate verb for its title: the jazz-handed zaniness is churned up in a cement mixer and slapped on with a trowel. But it stands up and that’s what counts.

Among new releases hoping to lead the charge into cinemas instead are two featuring Antipodean avengers. Russell Crowe turns nasty, or nastier, in the road rage thriller Unhinged (31 July), which hadn’t been screened for press at the time of writing. I wouldn’t bet on him being gutsier than Jacki Weaver, the endearing 73-year-old star of Stage Mother (24 July). In this Kinky Boots/Shirley Valentine hybrid, she plays a timid Texan who assumes control of the San Francisco drag club managed by her late son. By the end of the film she has pulled a gun on a bully, counselled drag queens and belted out “Total Eclipse of the Heart” in flowing white robes. Can Russell Crowe say the same?

Anyone craving the primary-coloured pizzazz of blockbusters could do no better than the 40th-anniversary re-release of Flash Gordon (cinemas 31 July, streaming 10 August). Fellini and Nicolas Roeg had been in line to make this adaptation of the 1930s comic strip but Mike Hodges (Get Carter) does a perfectly jaunty job. The edible- looking sets and costumes by Fellini’s collaborator Danilo Donati make the film resemble a Mardi Gras parade under lava-lamp skies. With a squealing rock score by Queen, as well as sights such as Flash (Sam J Jones) facing death in manacles and teeny-weeny leather pants, it has some claim to being one of the campest films ever made.

Its euphoric silliness is worth a million Marvel movies and the dialogue crackles, too. Facing unthinkable trauma, Flash’s girlfriend, Dale, is offered a potion. “Will it make me forget?” she asks. “No,” comes the reply, “but it will make you not mind remembering.” I’ll have what she’s having. 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article appears in the 24 July 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Summer special

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