Suburbia: heaven or hell? We prefer the latter, because what fun is it, otherwise? Here are a few movies available on Netflix Instant that paint a dark portrait of suburban America, featuring Tom Hanks battling devil worshippers, Natalie Portman crying a lot, Jake Gyllenhaal bending space-time and a bunch of high school kids trying desperately to not fall asleep.
The poster for director Joe Dante’s gothic take on the “Weirdos who may be devil worshippers and/or serial killers move into the old house down the block” formula features a scowling, scheming Tom Hanks standing in the middle of a street in his bathrobe, armed with only a spatula and garden hose as lightning crashes behind him. A startling image of a put-upon hero of suburban warfare — and, unfortunately, probably the wittiest thing about the movie. However, as mild and mannered as it is, The ‘burbs is probably better than you may remember it, and it’s always a treat to go back to a time when Tom Hanks seemed to like doing this kind of stuff. It’s minor Dante — certainly nowhere near the likes of Gremlins or The Howling — but it oh so wants you to enjoy how weird and kooky it is. So why don’t you?
Yeah, we don’t buy Natalie Portman as a sad suburban mother of two whose husband went to war and came back a shell-shocked bottle of rage, either. We have a feeling director Jim Sheridan doesn’t, either, so he takes great pains to surround her with blue-collar production design to help distract us from the distraction of watching Natalie play wife/mom. The house is oh so perfectly drab, the playground oh so perfectly run-down, and the snow… dear lord, you’ve never seen movie snow like this! Ultimately, no tricks of the trade can disguise the fact that we’re watching young, attractive, rich movie stars trying to play working class regular joes (in Michigan, at that), but the cast of Brothers still manages to hit the right emotions at the right times, and sometimes when you’re least expecting it.
Sure, time hasn’t been particularly kind to some of the special effects (though we doubt Freddy’s elongated arms were ever very convincing, even back in ’84), but A Nightmare on Elm Street still packs a punch, even after countless sequels, the gradual watering-down of its antagonist until he became little more than a scarred stand-up comedian (and a bad one, at that) and a 2010 remake that failed to impress on any level. Wes Craven‘s tale of suburban terror freaked the hell out of kids and adults alike, and continues to do so — there’s something about the original Elm Street that makes you forget that Freddy eventually ended up not being very scary (at least until his meta-resurrection in 1994’s Wes Craven’s New Nightmare). No matter what the years — or greedy movie producers — have done to it, Nightmare remains a horror classic.
Writer-director Richard Kelly has since proven himself to be a one-hit wonder, but what a one-hit it is! Forget trying to follow the “plot” of this thing, which has something to do with parallel universes and paradoxes and whatnot (with a few jabs at ’80s American suburbia as well, including a daughter annoying her father with her announcement that she’s voting for Dukakis). Donnie Darko isn’t so much a movie as it is a feeling, and we say that proudly and without irony. The whole thing feels like a dream (and it is, sort of — never mind), starting with the very first image of Donnie himself (Jake Gyllenhaal, who’s never been better) waking up on the side of a mountain road, smiling to himself and bicycling home to the tune of Echo and the Bunnymen’s “The Killing Moon.” Kelly hits every moment perfectly (and we have a feeling he had a heavy assist from his hippie producer, Drew Barrymore), even if we’re never quite sure where he’s going with this thing. Ultimately, it doesn’t really matter.
Eric Bogosian’s rambling tirade on, well, suburbia doesn’t quite make a smooth transition from stage to screen (it never feels like anything more than a photographed play), but when you’ve got dialogue this rip-snortin’ and a cast this fun (including Giovanni Ribisi, Parker Posey, Nicky Katt and Steve Zahn), you can forgive its cinematic shortcomings. SubUrbia is about little more than a bunch of young ne’er-do-wells hanging out in the parking lot of a convenience store, where they do their best to keep adulthood at bay and engage in culture clash with the store’s Indian owner. Director Richard Linklater keeps things moving, even when Bogosian’s script starts to get a bit repetitive and exhausting in the third act — indeed, SubUrbia could be seen as the punk younger brother of Linklater’s Dazed and Confused, for better and worse.
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