Monday, May 13, 2019

TV: NETFLIX continues to underwhelm

WINE COUNTRY is a new movie on NETFLIX and, bad news for director Amy Poehler, it's neither a CITIZEN KANE or a YENTL.  While those first offerings (from directors Orson Welles and Barbra Streisand) showed cinematic skill, WINE COUNTRY just sort of is.


What is it?  A comedy about friendship -- script by Emily Spivey and Liz Cackowski -- that finds Rebecca (Rachel Dratch) turning 50 and five of her friends celebrating with her for three days in California's Wine Country.  The film plays out weakly -- 103 minutes of I'VE GOT A SECRET -- while you wait for each character to offer their big reveal.  'I know I'm married to an ass!' 'I don't have a job, I was fired!' 'Everyone excludes me!' 'I may have breast cancer! I'm afraid to get the results of my test!' 'I'm so desperate for love, I'll be a doormat for this young woman until I learn self-respect!'

"Wait," you say, "that's only five.  There are six characters!"

Are there?  Are there really?

Co-writer Emily Spivey appears to have failed at writing her own character Jenny.  Jenny is completely uninteresting and you forever forget she's even in the movie.  She and Liz should have beefed up her part or cut the character and, in fact, by the time Amy was signed on to direct, that should have been a call she made.

Amy fails a lot.  The opening sequence, for example, is filmed fine but scored with some 4/4 march music that goes on endlessly and is annoying.  It's as though, without that same, never-ending music, Amy doesn't think she can build transitions as she checks in on each character.

And everyone's talking and talking and talking.

This should have been a quick establishing scene or series of scenes but instead it's a dull exposition and yet, despite having set up the premise at the start, characters repeatedly are trotted out throughout the film to explain that they are six friends together to celebrate a birthday.

So much of this could have been fixed in editing.  Why it wasn't is a question Amy needs to answer.

We'd also argue she needs to answer for the casting.  For example, why would anyone cast Jason Schwartzman as eye candy?  It's a nothing role and he's not good looking enough to end up in bed with one of the women.  She does better casting her own brother in a small role but, time and again, you wonder: Where's Molly Shannon?  Or any other SNL alumni?  Cherry Jones is flat out awful as the tarot card reader.  Why didn't that role go to an alumni of SNL?  Laraine Newman, to name but one, could have worked that role into something funny and off kilter.

WINE COUNTRY needs off kilter.  It only gets it from Maya Rudolph.  She almost rescues the film with her performance and her way of making the scripted lines appear to be improvised.  But she's the one saddled with the I-may-have-cancer storyline so she doesn't get to soar.  In fact, this turkey never soars, WINE COUNTRY just runs around the barn flapping its wings and never getting off the ground.

This is especially sad with regards to Tina Fey.  Tina deserves praise for attempting a different characterization with Tammy -- usually she just plays the personality we know as Tina Fey.  And there are moments in her performance that are inspired.  But the director always has the camera too close or lets the scene run too long -- destroying both the laughs and the character that Tina's trying to create.

Why is Amy Poehler directing?

We're honestly confused.  By the time someone directs a movie, they usually do so because they have a passion to tell a story but there's no passion in WINE COUNTRY.  Each scene -- and stereotypical character trait -- is just ticked off.  It's as though Amy's filming her laundry list.

She has no cinematic vision either.  Everything's forever in close up.  Why film in wine country and not use that background?  At one point, they're in a wine cellar but you don't register that until a character notes it and how immense it is.  Amy then gives a quick shot of the cellar and that's it.  This is directed like a single-camera sitcom and we don't mean that as a compliment.

Times have changed and are changing -- which is a good thing.  In Rachel Abramowitz's long love letter to Jodie Foster (that's what fan girl Rachel actually wrote) IS THAT A GUN IN YOUR POCKET?, she rips into Elaine May accusing her of everything but the assassination of JFK.  It's Elaine May's fault -- Rachel insists -- that women didn't get more directing opportunities!  It was Elaine May, damn it!  No, little girl, it wasn't.

Elaine was working against a system and the system didn't embrace women when she had a commercial success (A NEW LEAF, THE HEARTBREAK KID).  To blame Elaine -- and Rachel found a man -- a Todd, it's always a Todd -- to back her up in a sexist, kill-Mommy narrative -- is to rewrite history and to pretend that Elaine held the power in Hollywood and not the men who were in charge of hiring people.

Elaine made real films.  ISHTAR has been reconsidered critically and it is a hilarious movie.  As Warren Beatty has long noted, the studio was killing ISHTAR before it was ever released.    Elaine directed four strong films and she left her mark -- Rachel can scrub all she wants but Elaine has a legacy as a director.

That's why is so amazing that Rachel tries to tear her apart.  When women fail, it becomes huge news -- as the commercial failure of ISHTAR demonstrates and as the failure of Jane Wanger's MOMENT BY MOMENT demonstrated before ISHTAR.  Which is why, as feminists, we experience an urge to pull a punch or look away when the failure involves women.

It's an urge we try to ignore and, thankfully, these days there are so many more women directors that we can be completely honest when someone fails.

Amy has failed as a director.  That doesn't mean she can't direct.  Failure can be a great teacher as well as a great motivator.  She could come back with a stronger hand and she might.  But before she tries to direct again, she should ask herself why she's doing it?  If she doesn't have a passion for it, it's not going to amount to anything but pedestrian nonsense -- which is all WINE COUNTRY is.

We long ago suggested that NETFLIX needed to build up their own inventory of movies -- we meant good movies.  But these days, they can't even do a series right.  We seriously question what was the point of green-lighting BONDING?

There's no story there.  A show about a dominatrix and her gay male assistant could be interesting if it was the backdrop for a crime show, a mystery/suspense, maybe even a comedy with an actual overall storyline.  BONDING has nothing but boredom as it struggles along.  The only inspired moment was when Alex Hurt's Frank asked Pete (Brendan Scannell) to finger him -- inspired because Frank is supposed to be straight.  But that really didn't justify seven episodes of a show.

Especially one that pretends to be something that it actually isn't.  Zoe Levin plays Tiffany, the dominatrix.  As the show moves along, we learn what a softy she is, what a sweet and misunderstood girl and the whole thing goes icky and gooey.  If you're going to do S&M, do S&M.  We are so sick of the typical treatment: A man is the sub for a few minutes but to reassure the audience he quickly tops the woman.  See BODY OF EVIDENCE or EXIT TO EDEN or any of it.  And add to that list BONDING -- which debuts with the same-old same-old the same year Gregg Araki's NOW APOCALYPSE shreds media stereotypes.

NOW APOCALYPSE is on STARZ.  These days, more and more of what you'd expect NETFLIX to offer can be found elsewhere.  And that's happening as NETFLIX keeps axing favorite shows.  Add SANTA CLARITA DIET to the list of casualties.  After the fallout from the mass cancellations of MARVEL shows, NETFLIX began floating to the press the notion that they really only needed three seasons of a show to be successful.  This was blindly accepted by the press in the same way that they accept NETFLIX's claim of streams for TV shows and movies.

A real press would have pondered that claim.  They only need three seasons?  Then the show is dead.  But it's still attracting viewers?  Really?  Is TV LAND ruling the ratings with reruns?  And do thirty episode shows really make it big in syndication?

NETFLIX is still running in the red and still borrowing money.  As yet, their 'model' has failed to turn a profit.  Why is the media in the US so shy about making that point or about questioning the claims the NETFLIX execs make?  It's almost as though the whole thing is a Ponzi scheme and the press is afraid telling the truth will cause it to all toppled to the ground.

Too much money is going out and too little is coming in.  How is that a successful business model?  And no money should have gone into WINE COUNTRY.  The shooting script should never have made it into production.  That it did -- that BONDING got a green light -- raises serious doubt about the future of NETFLIX.

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