Netflix roundup: Mudbound, Paddington, & The Meyerowitz Stories

Mudbound

Mudbound plays like how it feels to read a great novel. The film is laden with calming voice-over and covered in soft sunlight, and it shifts between characters with an ease that suggests an inevitable coalescence of perspectives. For such a specific story, it’s one of the richest histories I’ve seen on screen.

The story takes place in the American South, during Jim Crow. There’s a lot going on plot-wise, but the film centers on a poor white family, the McAllans, that owns a farm, and the poorer black family, the Jacksons, that works on it. Director Dee Rees gives the film a distinct sense of place, creating a world in which the vestiges of slavery feel much more immediate than the impending Civil Rights Movement. It’s a notable accomplishment for a time and place in American history that is too rarely depicted in cinema.

The film tackles a number of power imbalances concurrently. Laura (a perfectly wistful Carey Mulligan), the matriarch of the McAllans, is consistently subordinated by her boorish husband Henry (Jason Clarke), and the family’s lack of income is always apparent. Ultimately, though, Mudbound is about race. The McAllans are a poor white family whose privilege is more readily recognizable than their financial woes.

The stakes are clearly much higher for the Jacksons. When the McAllans are down on their luck, Henry must go try to find livestock to buy. Meanwhile, a mule getting lockjaw dramatically weakens the Jacksons’ financial standing on the farm. Rees navigates all of this with a slight, almost blasé, touch; the film doesn’t project a moral judgment on these injustices so much as it simply lays them out for us to see.

The film’s most hopeful relationship is that between Jamie McAllan (Garrett Hedlund) and Ronsel Jackson (Jason Mitchell). Both are outsiders in their respective families, because both are veterans, and were not present during the day-to-day tensions on the farm. They spend their days drinking together, reminiscing about the war. It’s a tense relationship; Ronsel doesn’t initially trust Jamie’s friendliness. But it quickly blossoms into a genuine connection. It’s another great performance from Mitchell, who was also one of my favorite parts of Straight Outta Compton as Eazy-E.

Mudbound’s calm tone gives way to a moment of intense racial violence in its climax. It’s shocking, but it shouldn’t be; the threat of such violence existed at the periphery of the film in the outright racism of Henry’s father, Pappy (Jonathan Banks). In this sense, Mudbound serves as a spiritual sibling to Get Out. Both films use a time and place that, on the surface, seems to have escaped slavery, only to bring us a jarring moment of violence that shows the residue of slavery is still wreaking havoc on black lives.

Near the end of the film, the patriarch of the Jacksons, Hap (Rob Morgan), delivers a caustic prayer: “Who can bring a clean thing out of an unclean? Not one. For there is hope of a tree if it be cut down, that it will sprout again.” It’s a message of change, if only by means of a radical overhaul of the structures in place today.

And yet at the end, the story self-reflexively asks over narration by Ronsel: “Should my story end there?” The answer is no, and Mudbound makes a deliberate choice to end on a less cynical note. It’s not exactly a moment of hope, because it occurs in the context of an escape from the situation at hand altogether. But it is something positive, and puts the agency of the story in Ronsel’s hands. The world may seem him as bound to the dirt, but he doesn’t have to be when he’s in control of his own story.

3.5 stars

Paddington

When Paddington (Ben Whishaw) arrives in London, he tries his luck finding a new home at a busy train station. In a lesser movie, a walking, talking bear wandering a busy urban space would have resulted in screaming and slapstick carnage. Paddington plays with this expectation: no one reacts to the bear, let alone notices him. And when his savior family finally happens upon him, they merely remark that there’s “some sort of bear over there.”

It’s one of many moments in the film that play as the opposite of so many modern studio releases aimed at children. There’s no pandering, or fart jokes, or cringy attempts to relate to kids and their parents. Instead, Paddington bets on a slew of delightful, goofy gags that never underestimate their audience’s ability to understand them.

Beyond the laughs, Paddington is also pretty transparently a film with a message on its mind. There are multiple references to Europe’s acceptance of Jewish refugees during WWII, and the film frames Paddington’s journey to London as one of the struggles of an immigrant. The film has a holistic perspective of such an experience. Paddington laments that “it’s not easy being somewhere new,” and director Paul King gives us a magnificent visual flourish showing us how Paddington’s heart is torn between his old and new home.

Paddington’s outsider status eventually puts him in danger by those who don’t want to see him in London. But Mary (a wonderful Sally Hawkins), the mother of the family that takes Paddington in, defends the bear: “It doesn’t matter that he comes from the other side of the world. We love Paddington, and that makes him family.”

Paddington’s commitment to this messaging, though, never gets in the way of its genuine sense of fun. In fact, the two paradigms compliment one another. The film effectively encapsulates its title character: warm and fuzzy, with a heart of gold.

3 stars

The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)

The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) opens with Danny (Adam Sandler) trying to find a parking spot in New York with his daughter Eliza (Grace Van Patten). The bickering between the two is full of energy, and the cramped situation allows us to learn a great deal about these characters right away. It’s an encapsulation of the blend of vitriol and warmth that have made so many film lovers, myself included, fawn over Baumbach’s voice.

Sadly, the rest of The Meyerowitz Stories is not this tight. The film follows a neurotic family reuniting, due to some unforeseen events that I won’t give away. The cast is packed with talent: Dustin Hoffman as Sandler’s narcissistic father, Ben Stiller as his conceited brother, and Emma Thompson as his aloof mother-in-law. But the more of the family we are exposed to, the more grating The Meyerowitz Stories becomes. There’s a lot of fast-paced kvetching, but without any tenderness it quickly becomes exhausting.

The lone source of the tenderness the film sorely needs is present in the father-daughter relationship between Danny and Eliza, easily the bright spot of the film. It’s one of the most charming performances Sandler has given to date. A piano duet by the pair 10 minutes into the film is a true standout scene, and I wish there were more like it.

Instead, we get a lot of abrasive confrontations between family members that only serve to show, scene after scene, that this is a manic, maladjusted group. Hoffman is particularly distracting, not only for his off-screen issues, but because he’s simply a shallow, stammering caricature. There’s a moment in which Hoffman’s character is described as having “a real tolerance for discomfort.” Me, not so much.

2.5 stars