BINGE-R #15: Santa Clarita Diet + Streaming Oscar Nominees
SANTA CLARITA DIET S1
Streaming Service: Netflix
Availability: All 10 episodes now streaming
Played with an exaggerated tone that is sweetly sardonic, Netflix’s enjoyable Santa Clarita Diet stars Drew Barrymore as Sheila Hammond, a mousy Californian real estate agent whose life changes after it ends: she has no heartbeat, but possesses an insatiable hunger for raw flesh. Consulting an expert, a.k.a. the brainiac teen boy next door, Eric (Skyler Gisondo), Sheila is told she’s a zombie. “I feel the opposite – totally alive,” she insists, and the show is similarly contrary: when you expect horror tropes Santa Clarita Diet mines domestic hope, and if you foresee a moral lesson it goes full bloodbath.
Created by Victor Fresco (Better Off Ted), the series celebrates Californian reinvention. Once she tastes human flesh that’s all the ravenous Sheila wants to eat, but she’s also suddenly possessed of a forthright manner and burgeoning enthusiasm; her heart may have stopped, but some of Sheila’s other organs are working overtime, as her husband Joel (Timothy Olyphant) discovers. She sells houses, hope and herself, which leaves Joel and the couple’s teenage daughter, Abby (the terrific Liv Hewson), trying to hang on despite the binge eating and body disposal.
This is a bloody comic fantasia – Sheila and Joel have a long discussion about her only eating bad people – and in the first two episodes Zombieland director Ruben Fleischer barely calls attention to the camera and maintains a neutral colour palette. It makes the eruptions and outbursts, whether a Meaning of Life-worthy vomit scene or Sheila disembowelling a colleague, pop with transgressive glee. The new Sheila upends all the assumptions she and Joel have fallen into, and Joel’s dedication means that the plotting is twisted between his helping her and trying to find both a cause and a cure.
The half hour episodes can be gross but also gregarious, and it wouldn’t work as well as it does without Barrymore, a gifted comedienne who elevated too many Adam Sandler movies. Once Sheila becomes all id Barrymore’s sweet inflections pepper the back and forth. When a misguided Lothario tries to seduce Sheila she licks his fingers and then bites them off – “I know, weirdest foreplay ever,” she declares, chewing heartily. Barrymore tweaks the mood for what is another example, alongside Stan’s aliens-in-politicians-heads comedy BrainDead [review here], of the everyday new American weirdness. Santa Clarita Diet isn’t screwball, it’s screw loose.
>> Bonus Binge: For more zombie-related laughs, Netflix has Edgar Wright’s 2004 horror-comedy Shaun of the Dead, a peculiarly British pleasure starring Simon Pegg and Nick Frost.
STREAMING OSCAR NOMINEES
As a communal viewing experience I like the Academy Awards – a shared couch commentary is great fun. As an accurate reflection of the previous year’s best cinema it is a narrowly cast and crassly over-commercialised contest. That said, some exceptional films have made the cut this year, so here are the streaming possibilities for a pair of deserving nominees. If they win, you’ll be able to drop some movie wisdom.
Isabelle Huppert (Best Actress for Elle): It’s not easy to prove to someone in Australia that France’s Isabelle Huppert is one of the very finest screen actors working today. Virtually none of her films get local cinema distribution, and often it’s oddities like the retrograde 2013 crime thriller Dead Man Down (Netflix), in which Huppert briefly plays Noomi Rapace’s jittery mother, that reach the streaming services. But there are some exemplary examples you can find of her ability to inhabit a moment without preconception or judgment, notably Michael Haneke’s coruscating 2001 drama The Piano Teacher (Stan) where Huppert plays a Viennese piano professor trapped by her masochistic desire and self-repression. She also has an elemental desperation in Claire Denis’ uneasy 2009 Central Africa-set drama White Material (SBS On Demand). Prefer a deadpan comedy? Huppert plays a nun turned virgin pornographer in Hal Hartley’s droll 1994 quasi-thriller Amateur (SBS On Demand). It should run off the rails, but Huppert’s commitment to the truth holds it together.
Denis Villeneuve (Best Director for Arrival): The French-Canadian filmmaker didn’t really hit his stride until his early forties, when he found the ability to convey, with a brimming menace that can fray nerves, the sense that everything a character understands is moments away from chaos. Villeneuve’s worked non-stop since, and whatever the genre is that unsettled air is stoked by his implacable technique. In 2015’s Sicario (Stan) an FBI agent (Emily Blunt) learns the reality of the drug wars when she goes on assignment in Mexico, while in 2013’s Enemy (Stan) an unfulfilled history professor (Jake Gyllenhaal) obsessively pursues his doppelganger after sighting him in a movie. The former picture is propulsive and terrifying, a horror film about Blunt’s capable woman fighting to stay alive in a male domain, while the latter is an elliptical study of psychological attraction and repulsion. But they’re both tops and they’re both clearly made by the same filmmaker.
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