In an era when there is such a healthy abundance of film and TV, selecting your evening viewing should be luxuriously easy. However, we have such an overload of choice that sifting through the options can be exhausting. Then when you finally make a decision, it is with more apathy than eager anticipation. I have vowed to be more ambitious and adventurous with my movie and TV watching and thought I’d share my discoveries. I’ll be trying to avoid most mainstream pop culture in favour of reaching into the digital black hole on the hunt for some hidden gems. I won’t always be successful, and there will be plenty of occasions when I indulge in watercooler conversations re popular fare, but I’m going to do my best to be a more omnivorous cinephile.
It has been two months since I last published one of these months in movies, so this will be a bumper instalment. There are stop-motion canines and creepy serial killers, a drug-addled father and big pharma salesman, Nazi-occupied islands and vagrant teenagers. It has been a wild wild few months…
Isle of Dogs (2018), Cinema ****
Wes Anderson’s latest looks undeniably exquisite, with plenty of characteristic dry humour and some truly enchanting sequences. The sum of the voice cast is of colossal reputation and talent – as you’ll already know if you’ve seen the trailer – and it is hard to fault the visuals, but I found myself a bit bored as it approached the third act. This is an admirable film that looks fantastic, but the pacing is a little slow as the film luxuriates indulgently in its own beauty.
6 Balloons (2018), Netflix (Original) ****
This Netflix original is not easy to watch but it feels like required reading. 6 Balloons is an emotional film lead by understated and ego-shattering performances from the modest cast, including the show-stealing girls who share the role of Ella, the young daughter of heroin-addicted Seth (Dave Franco). Writer-director, Marja-Lewis Ryan’s script is painful and precise. In even the briefest and most innocent of conversations – between Kate (Abbi Jacobson) and either of her parents, for instance – the dialogue rings with a lifetime of drama, relationships and family tension, without at any point explicitly laying it out on the table.
Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (2018), Cinema **
Get me to Guernsey, as soon as possible! Although this ridiculously-named film was shot predominantly on the mainland, the visuals do a great job of selling the island. Unfortunately, besides wonderful performances from some – not all – of the reputable cast, the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society did little else for me than to add a destination to my bucket list.
Another film telling the story of life on Nazi-occupied UK soil is Another Mother’s Son (2017) which you can find on Netflix. It’s a charming true story that falls way short of its admirable target, with a bewilderingly big and mostly unknown cast with a robust and frankly annoying lead. Uncomfortable tonal shifts and lethargic pacing leave a lot to be desired, however the film does successfully create an atmosphere of fear, suspicion and hopelessness that you’d imagine would have been palpable in Nazi-occupied Jersey.
The Kings of Summer (2013), Amazon ****
A product of “because you watched Swiss Army Man, you might like…”, and guess what? The algorithm worked. The Kings of Summer was Nick Robinson’s (Love, Simon) first film role and it proves to be an immensely satisfying and refreshing comedy. Nick Offerman plays his best sarcastic dad to defiant teenager, Joe (Nick Robinson), who runs off into the woods with his two misfit friends where they build themselves a house (and grow some pretty unconvincing facial hair). The tagline reads: “Why live when you can rule”, and the trio do their best until it eventually disintegrates into inevitable chaos.
The Only Living Boy in New York (2017), Amazon (Original) ***
This isn’t a spectacular movie, but it is well-performed, and the aesthetic and storytelling structure are exactly the kind of thing that I look for in a film. It is a narrative about a dark and twisty twenty-something (Callum Turner) – soooo relatable – who is trying to push back against the relentless pressure of his father (Pierce Brosnan), striving to make his own way in the world while trying to work out who he is along the way. Its resolution is satisfying, but a little flat. Even so, I really enjoyed its gentle rhythm and it has swum in and out of my periphery ever since.
Charlie Bartlett (2007), Netflix ***
It’s a bit all over the place but Charlie Bartlett is an amusing comedy following the titular awkward preppy teen (Anton Yelchin) as he adapts to his new and unfamiliar surroundings with a unique and unlikely confidence. Yelchin and his fellow high school cast members are all gifted with refreshingly three-dimensional characters, all performed with poise and maturity. Charlie Bartlett is not a patch on Ferris Bueller, but it’s a light-hearted giggle nonetheless.
Detroit (2017), Netflix ****
I thought about adding a new category entitled ‘appreciated but difficult to watch’ for these last two and for the Netflix documentary series Wild Wild Country (below). Detroitcomes from the same mind as Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty, two gritty and compelling real-life stories. Kathryn Bigelow’s latest is one of those films that you know is a great movie, but which is uncomfortable to the extreme.
Hunger (2008), Netflix ****
This acclaimed film from Oscar-winning director Steve McQueen is remarkable, staggering and very difficult to watch. Hunger opens with increasingly uncomfortable snippets of later extended scenes which are slowly and painfully stitched together. It is a brave, raw and uncomfortable film that will leave viewers stinging and bruised with questions and a keen sense of awe for the craft and performance.
As recommended by a friend, I persevered with Wild Wild Country (2018), a Netflix documentary that follows the story of controversial Indian guru Bhagwan Shee Rajneesh. It is a series built on a huge amount of historical footage, an intriguing piece of American history which has to be seen to be believed, even though the viewing experience is not always – even rarely – pleasurable. Safe (2018), on the other hand, is a new eight-part Netflix original (co-produced with Canal+, France) about a widower (Michael C. Hall) whose daughter disappears from their gated community. A story of amateur sleuthing and dark secrets with trust at its core, Safe is a good binge but is at times tonally perplexing.
What else did I watch?
I have had a bit of a Jake Gyllenhaal splurge since his latest film, Stronger, was (finally) released on digital at the beginning of Spring, a powerful and emotional film with stunning performances from Gyllenhaal and co-star Tatiana Mislani. In Zodiac (2007, iTunes rental) and Prisoners (2013, Netflix), Gyllenhaal’s characters are very different. In the former, he plays off fellow heavyweights Robert Downey Jr. and Mark Ruffalo in a manhunt of epic proportions. The film is alarmingly long (2h42m) but quietly controlled and anxious from beginning to end. Prisoners is thematically similar, also dealing with a supposed sociopath, but far more fraught and heart-pumping than it is mind-bendingly uncomfortable. Love and Other Drugs (2010, Amazon), on the other hand, is at the other end of the entire spectrum. Gyllenhaal and Anne Hathaway star in this topsy-turvy romcom with depth, heart and a serious edge, a grown-up take on the formulaic Hollywood on-and-off romantic comedy.
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot (2016), Netflix **
I remember seeing the trailer for Whiskey Tango Foxtrot and thinking, “that looks like I film I could like”. Alas, I almost didn’t make it to the end. The script tries so very hard to be naturally witty but is ultimately overwritten and crosses the line into contrived. The premise is good: a defiant female photographer (Tina Fey) tries to carve out a career in war reportage in the male-dominated, culturally alien and obviously dangerous “Kabubble”. The reality is an overly explicit, self-indulgent mess that doesn’t look good on any one of the over-qualified cast.
Burn Burn Burn (2015), Netflix ***
A sweet and light-hearted road trip movie during which two friends set out on a tour of the country, as demanded by their recently deceased best friend, accompanied by the videos he recorded in his last months. This intelligent independent British film is well worth a watch for its mature performances, dark comedy and emotional authenticity.