Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Suburban cliches, yes, but compelling

As if suburban life hasn’t been ridiculed enough over the decades by all manner of sociologists, novelists, playwrights and filmmakers, leave it to one of Hollywood’s most flaming liberals, George Clooney, to add to the pile. That’s the case with his last year’s Suburbicon, now on Netflix, starring Matt Damon, Julianne Moore, Noah Jupe and Oscar Isaac. It would be easy to dismiss this film as simply another clichĂ©-ridden diatribe against the suburbs and 1950s conformity, and I almost did. And this coming from someone who prefers the idea of downtown living and finds suburban life as monotonous as watching the lawn grow. But the film had something more, just enough edge with enough black humor and some fine performances, that kept me in the pocket. Part of the reason might be that it was co-written by Joel and Ethan Coen, and it does seem like a Coen movie. From the start it’s opening credits are extraordinarily beautifully campy in depicting a dreamy realtor’s welcoming world to the tract house paradise of late 1950s America, replete with housewives in shirtwaist dresses and heels (the costumes, at least on the women, are impeccable). But there is trouble in Middle America when a black family, the Mayers, move in, apparently mimicking an actual incident from the era in Levittown, Pa. The neighbors rebel as only they could in the racism-unchecked 1950s. But that’s a side story and background to what the picture is really about. That’s the plotting by Gardner (Damon) and Margaret, or Madge (Moore), the name a possible send-up of the prototypical 50s suburban housewife Madge in the old Palmolive commercials. Hiring a couple of Mafia types, they eliminate Gardner’s wheelchair-bound wife, Rose (also Moore). But their hoped for carefree life only spirals downward in a series of bleaker and bleaker episodes. While a tired treatise on the dark underbelly of sunny suburban life Suburbicon nevertheless is redeemed by well-drawn 50s tropes (Green Stamps and Gerald McBoing-Boing, anyone?) and veiled humor.

Meanwhile, in Melvin Goes to Dinner (Bob Odenkirk, 2003), also on Netflix, four of that era’s hip Yuppie types find themselves at dinner in a trendy LA bistro. Based on the play by Michael Blieden, who stars as Alex in the movie, the film is a slow reveal or group therapy for the two men and women, some meeting for the first time. I love films like this, like My Dinner with Andre (Louis Malle, 1981), where talk can be so much more than action, though there are flashbacks here to incidents, mainly of a romantic or sexual nature. Cheating, pornography, loneliness, alienation, all get their treatment here, though there were times I wished the conversations could have been more fulsome. 

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Coming to grips with estrangement, and sexual identity

I watched these two movies after being tipped off by an article in The New York Times, which from time to time does columns recommending certain original Netflix films. The first is a Spanish film, Sunday’s Illness, the second a French one, To Each, Her Own.

Sunday’s Illness (Ramon Salazar Hoogers, 2018) is the story of a mother-daughter relationship. The daughter Annabel (Susi Sanchez) shows up one day at her mother Chiara’s (Bárbara Lennie) opulent home. The two couldn’t be more different. Annabel is relatively poor, lives in the backwoods, her mother part of elite Spanish society. But the real issue is the length of time they have been apart. Chiara abandoned Annabel when she was eight. Annabel has a proposition: she asks her mother to come to her rural cottage for 10 days, presumably to bond after all these years but she is coy. Chiara is hesitant but takes her up. She arrives in designer clothes, only to have her daughter, passive-aggressively, accidentally spray her with a garden hose. Annabel also throws some verbal barbs, underlying her long-time resentment for being abandoned, about Chiara’s wealth and materialism, Chiara denies she has been corrupted and says she “sees herself” in her daughter. Chiara also was a hippie and “stir crazy” in her youth, attending what appeared to be Woodstock. But the back story is that Annabel is sick and dying, after a life in contrast to her mother’s. “Nothing stands out,” she says. Despite the sparks between the two women they eventually do get closer. Chiara’s style of dress evolves to that of her daughter. In the meditative final scenes Annabel tells Chiara, “I understand...everything.” The film’s strength is its character studies though we are often left grasping for answers: why did Chiara abandon Annabel, how exactly do the two reconcile their estrangement? We’re left to guess but maybe that’s all we need to do.

To Each, Her Own (Myriam Aziza, 2018) is a film as much about lesbian life as it is confronting one’s family about sexual choices and the myriad stereotypes no ethnicity or race seems immune from. It’s a comedy to be sure but could easily have descended into farce or silliness. Instead it keeps a serious edged and therefore its credibility. Simone (Sarah Stern) lives with her lover Claire (Julia Piaton) but is afraid to reveal their relationship to her conservative Jewish parents, despite the fact her brother is part of an openly gay couple. After all, “with two gays kids they’ll go crazy.” The plot is a series of comic misunderstandings. Simone’s brother runs a Jewish dating site and fixes her up with a male date that she hands off to her goy workplace friend, to who she must explain the complexities of eating kosher. She also falls for a Senegalese chef Wali (Jean-Christophe Folly), confounding her own same sex identity. The film is well-acted, fast-paced, has a delightful score, and there’s good character acting on the part of people like her ever-critical mother Catherine Jacob, who poignantly sings at Simone’s brother’s wedding. For a film that combines romcom, farce, contemporary mores, and life in Paris to boot, you’d be hard-pressed to do much better than this.