“If a movie premieres on Netflix, is it still even a movie?” asked the American film critic David Ehrlich last week, stoking an ongoing, still-heated industry debate over the streaming giant’s handling of the new films it exclusively acquires, making them skip the cinema circuit entirely. For more tradition-bound cinephiles, “straight to Netflix” has the same stigma “straight to video” once did, though in the case of so-called Netflix Originals such as Adam Leon’s Tramps, it really shouldn’t.
Leon turned heads at Cannes a few years ago with his sparky urban caper Gimme the Loot; his equally bright-eyed but more woozily romantic follow-up confirms that promise. Like Leon’s debut, it’s a lively run around the fringes of New York City. Callum Turner and Grace Van Patten, both wholly adorable, play hard-up kids scrambling to salvage a botched criminal job to which they’ve been reluctantly assigned. A MacGuffin of a briefcase is switched, the chase is up, puppy love blooms. Leon plays unapologetically on dusty Hollywood templates, but at no expense to the film’s breezy youthfulness. He has a 21st-century eye for street life and an eager ear for chatter. It’s a little film, but with a big-screen soul – the Netflix branding shouldn’t distract from that.
Netflix’s second film premiere of the week, on the other hand, adds little lustre to the “streaming-only” label. The Iraq war drama Sand Castle is proficiently made, proficiently acted and feels proficiently pieced together from a shelfload of previous films about the conflict. Starring Nicholas Hoult as a US Army Reserve rookie fighting his own internal battle of principle on a mission to repair a village well in 2003, it features not one image or line to prompt any fresh perception of recent history. It’s a war movie with a more fluent understanding of war movies than of war itself.
Elsewhere, some of Netflix’s rivals are still compromising with multiplatform releases. The best new film you can watch in your living room this weekend is Mubi’s exclusive The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki, also in cinemas now.
Turning to the comparatively old-fashioned realm of straight to DVD, we’ve waited nearly three years for Sophie Barthes’s Madame Bovary (Kaleidoscope, 15) to surface in the UK. While this limpidly pretty, polished Gustave Flaubert adaptation is a mite too corseted and convention-bound to be entirely worth the wait, it merits a look, chiefly for the wondrous Mia Wasikowska, whose sharp, rigorous reading of an oft-played heroine can stand tall beside her similarly insightful Jane Eyre. It’s in illustrious company on the DVD-first pile, though Werner Herzog’s murky eco-thriller-romance-whatever Salt and Fire (Matchbox Films, 12) is one to be filed in the most shadowed recesses of his filmography. Dazzling Bolivian salt flat vistas aren’t quite enough to compensate for Michael Shannon burbling mystic data theory.
It’s still more digestible than It’s Only the End of the World (Curzon Artificial Eye, 15), a humid shriekfest that comes as a major disappointment from Québécois rebel Xavier Dolan. A dysfunctional, life-in-a-day family reunion that never gets to the root of the breakage, it strands an enviable cast in a sea of hot, emptily furious verbiage, with a jaw-droppingly botched poetic grace note saved for the very end.
If you’re in the mood for good actors shrilly going at each other, you’ll certainly have more fun with the canny, curious Anne Heche and Sandra Oh showdown Catfight (Arrow, 15), which amply delivers on the title’s promise as the two excellent leads bloodily play out a satirically status-driven feud. Or keep things more serene with Dancer (Dogwoof, 12), a straightforward, involving documentary that keeps the raging conflict internal as it digs beneath the beautiful surface of the Ukrainian ballet radical Sergei Polunin.