Girls (And Guys) Just Need To Have Fun
Reviews by Ken Burke
Except for a few mainstream reviews in the past few months (Us, Dumbo, Shazam!, Avengers: Endgame), I’ve been more drawn to esoteric fare likely playing more in my San Francisco Bay Area than in most other places in the vast domestic (U.S.-Canada) domain, making it difficult for those trying to ignore spoilers in my reviews (unless you were willing to wait for those films to appear in some video format before reading this brilliance). Well, this week I’m esoteric again with a focus on a couple of offerings many of you will have no theatrical access to, but now you can stream them on Netflix (Wine Country) and/or Hulu (Ask Dr. Ruth), so feel free to find them in their respective cybersites if you wish, then return here for our Two Guys comments. Before we start, though, I must admit that as much as I support works of cinema featuring female actors, focused on women’ issues, written and/or directed by women, etc., I’m not going to have much to say about these 2, the former due to a thin premise, the latter due to being so self-explanatory. Yet, even in my (rare) brevity maybe I can clarify why either or both of them might be appealing to you, especially because they’re easily found (unlike many of my recent choices), probably even cheaper to purchase for a month’s streaming cost than the price of a couple of nighttime-tickets. There’s also very little to note as spoilers about their contents, but I’ll attempt to be discreet wherever it matters.
Wine Country (Amy Poehler) rated R
“Executive Summary” (no spoilers): Old friends gather in wine-renowned-Napa Valley to celebrate a 50th birthday for one of them, with their anticipated good times somewhat strained because of emotional baggage they bring to the event, not helped by the fact they haven’t actually been together for years. You may recognize some main players from their previous work on Saturday Night Live (Amy Poehler [who also has her directorial-debut here], Rachel Dratch, Ana Gasteyer, Maya Rudolph, Tina Fey) while the other 2 in the main bunch (Paula Pell, Emily Spivey) were SNL writers (Spivey and Liz Cackowski [another former SNL writer] created the script for Wine Country); what you see on screen's inspired by an actual wine trip/50th birthday party for Dratch all these women participated in. I’ll find a few spoilers to include below for those of you who’d rather read all about the entire plot here than stream it on Netflix (also playing in a very few theatrical options), but in general, despite some difficulties most of these characters face individually thereby impeding the full potential of their intended-raucous-weekend, be assured what’s mostly a comedy in the presentation of these events (without nearly the serious focus that frequently upends the laughs in another famous [considerably better in my opinion] wine-trip-film, Sideways [Alexander Payne, 2004]) isn’t hampered by the occasional-interpersonal-clashes popping up among these soulmates (with Tina Fey’s sour character on the sidelines of this ultimately-tightknit-central-group).
Here’s the trailer: (Use the full screen button in the image’s lower right to enlarge it; activate that same button on the full screen’s lower right or your “esc” keyboard key to return to normal size.)
If you can abide plot spoilers read on, but as this blog’s intended for those who’ve seen the film—or want to save some bucks—to help any of you who want to learn more details yet avoid important plot-reveals I’ll identify any give-away sentences/sentence-clusters like this:
⇒The first and last words will be noted with arrows and red.⇐ OK, now continue on if you prefer.
What Happens: This movie’s about a group of 6 long-time-friends (they met a couple of decades ago while living in Chicago, working at Antonio’s Pizzeria): Rebecca (Rachel Dratch), Abby (Amy Poehler), Catherine (Ana Gasteyer), Naomi (Maya Rudolph)—all these actors were sketch-comedy-performers on NBC TV’s Saturday Night Live—Val (Paula Pell), Jenny (Emily Spivey)—both of whom were SNL writers. These women have stayed in contact over the years but don’t gather all that often so they decide (through Abby’s meticulous [if irritating] scheduling) to meet in California’s Napa Valley (just north of San Francisco, an easy day’s drive from my home) to celebrate Rebecca’s 50th birthday, staying in a large house rented to them by cynical, world-weary-widow Tammy (Tina Fey, famous as well for writing/performing on SNL), who’s also peddling a line of artisan (as well as edible [!]) soaps. Over the course of their weekend (in a story with a meandering plot at best, often sidetracked into various pairings to give these women opportunities to showcase their individual comic talents in smaller than full-group-settings—see the second listing for this movie under Related Links much farther below to appreciate this strategy) they drink, they laugh, they drink, they argue, they drink without paying much attention to the wine-experts failing to impress them with intricate knowledge about what’s in their bottles. They also shop, snip at each other over past or present problems (all of them hound Catherine for being too work-obsessed, always on her cell phone), visit expensive tarot-reader Lady Sunshine (Cherry Jones) who’s got lots of negative prophecies for them (“It’s later than you think”), and have various interactions with chef/van-driver Devon (Jason Schwartzman) who comes with their house, still hasn’t finished the huge paella he’s cooking when the movie comes to closure. ⇒By the time this is all over (at a merciful—or amusing, depending on how you look at it—103 min.) lesbian Val’s failed to make her intended connection with wine-pourer/artist Jade (Maya Erskine) although our gals attend Jade’s gallery show but get into a hassle with the Millennials crowd until the older women’s comments begin to be appreciated as performance art; Naomi’s relieved to learn she doesn’t have breast cancer; all of her friends agree Rebecca’s husband is a jerk; Devon sleeps with Abby (apparently also with Rebecca, maybe some of the others); out in the countryside Nomi’s bitten by a (non-poisonous) snake followed by all of them sliding/rolling down a steep hillside (curing Rebecca’s injured back—chiropractors may file a class-action-complaint), with everything all lovey-dovey (except for Val and Jade) at the ending.⇐
So What? Wine Country’s based on an actual Napa Valley 50th birthday celebration for Dratch held by the women in this cast (including co-screenwriter Cackowski [who also plays Lisa, owner of Morgan Jorng, the “you-should-be-so-saintly” organic winery—it's also fictional, as are the names of the other places they visit, but you can get info on the real sites shown in the movie if you'd ever like to see them yourself]), although no one’s admitting what events—if any—found their way into this revised-version of that wine trip, a gathering of women whose time on SNL overlapped considerably (Pell 1995-2013, Gasteyer 1996-2002, Fey 1997-2006, Dratch 1999-2006, Rudolph 2000-2007, Poehler 2001-2008, Spivey 2001-2010, Cackowski 2003-2006). If nothing else, this movie could set the standard for passing the Bechdel Test (even though it's not listed on this site so I added it, although it still wasn't there yet when I posted this review) because there are plenty of named women in it who talk to each other about something besides a man ⇒(as best I recall, about the only time men are even mentioned in these many conversations are in general dismissals of Rebecca’s [unseen] husband, Brian, and quick confessions about sex with Devon).⇐ Further, while I wouldn’t want any negative connotations to emerge about Wine Country if I should refer to it as a “woman’s movie” (a term often used by my wife, Nina, to designate a film which she seems to have greater empathy with than I do, without this intending to be derogatory to either of us)—although, given the cast, predominant filmmakers, and script content, it might be difficult to call it anything else—I’m just not sure I’m the ideal target audience for it (despite my love for wine [red especially], women [in principle, Nina in particular], song [the movie group enjoys some rousing-singalongs at times], and Northern California), nor do I think watching it via Netflix streaming vs. a theater (an actual choice in our area) had anything to do with my reaction; Nina agrees it’s not anything spectacular as a story, but for her it has the added value of bringing back warm memories of high-school/junior-college days of group frivolity, non-judgmental-attitudes about anyone’s actions (at least within the group), true bonding among a cluster of friends that’s now largely evaporated over the years (I’ll admit, that perspective brings back fond thoughts for me too of clusters of high-school-pals in Galveston, TX, college-chums in Austin—guys and gals in both groups [with only Facebook connections remaining to a few of them now, no return trips to Texas for me for quite awhile], so maybe I should embrace this movie more than I do). Still, Wine Country feels too much like what I understand it to be: The opportunity for people in show business with appropriate money and connections to turn their private fun into a public memoir others supposedly can relate to. Maybe that worked in a grand manner for Federico Fellini, but I don’t see it at nearly that level for Poehler and company. Esther Mobley, the San Francisco Chronicle’s wine critic, has some qualms also, about stereotypes of marketing wine to women along with observed plot hits and misses.
Bottom Line Final Comments: I realize Netflix had no intention of a wide theatrical release for Wine Country, instead hoping whatever attention it would get from various reviews would help bring viewers to their streaming service (which is how Nina and I decided to watch it, trying to get our monthly-money’s-worth for something in addition to the latest episodes of Arrested Development), but it seems to be in such narrow release it doesn’t even appear on Box Office Mojo’s list of the 106 top-domestic-grossers from last weekend, so I have no idea how it might be doing regarding ticket sales nor do I ever see much about audience reach via streaming (it’s not among RT’s current top 79 for such viewing, however they measure that). It’s not going to get an awful lot of encouragement from the CCAL (Collective Critics At Large [my term]) either, with Rotten Tomatoes offering only 66% positive reviews (where their internal arbiters sometimes have difficult determining whether the published comments rate a tomato or a splat, at least as I’ve tried to decipher those decisions at times) while the usually-more-restrained-responders at Metacritic yield a 56% average score, a bit low even by their snobby-standards. Certainly it’s a pleasant romp a good bit of the time, with the characters thumbing their noses at wine snobbery (rather than savoring all those supposedly-delectable-flavors in their glasses; Rebecca offers “canned peaches” as an opinion to a disgusted server)—although there’s angst included just to give some heft to the paper-thin-plot: Abby’s recently lost her job, worries about the current state of the world, has sleep apnea because she sleeps with a CPAP machine (as do I); Rebecca’s mourning her increasing age (just wait until you’re pushing 72, Toots!); Catherine’s obsessed with her career to the level of annoyance for her friends; Naomi’s quietly worried about a breast-cancer-test; Val’s still lookin’ for love in all the wrong places (I know, it’s about time for the Musical Metaphor, but Johnny Lee’s tune isn’t it); Tammy’s picked up Dratch’s “Debbie Downer” role; only Emily seems to be fully enjoying the ride (unless I’ve forgotten something). However, they all “come together” (as John Lennon once sang—but not in the manner I’d say he was referring to—getting us ever closer to that Metaphor) in the end, so I’ll come to an end as well about these “good hearted women” who don’t need the love of “a good timing man” (Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings; look it up yourself if you like, just like with those others) but instead just a steady diet of "Wine, Wine, Wine" (1959, from a Dallas band, The Nightcaps, on their 1961 album named for the song [probably not that easy to find for purchase but you can listen—33:07—with brief accompanying text, a few photos here, if you should care to]).
You might think the hetero-oriented-debauchery-implications of “Wine, Wine, Wine” aren’t fully appropriate to Wine Country, but if you consider the lyrics of “You get your girl and I’ll get mine We’ll go out and buy some wine Drinkin’ wine, wine, wine Drinkin’ wine, wine, wine Drinkin’ wine, wine, fine wine all the time” to be about these 6 friends, so that “your girl” is just Catherine, Naomi, etc. rather than a date (not even Devon), this silly song (which I heard a lot growing up in Texas; maybe it wasn’t much of a nationwide hit as I found scant reference to it except on YouTube) has some relevance for Wine Country (Come on, y'all; flow with me as I pour out these insightful observations—with hints of Ripple and Thunderbird). Nevertheless, a more appropriate Musical Metaphor to put all of this into final context would be Carole King’s “You’ve Got a Friend” (from her ultra-smash-hit 1971 Tapestry album, for awhile the all-time-best-seller) at https://www.youtube. com/watch?v=2ZI3kLrHK80, a duet with James Taylor (who, like King, also had a hit single with this song; his version’s on the 1971 Mudslide Slim and the Blue Horizon album); he won a Grammy for his rendition as Best Male Pop Vocal Performance, King also got one of those awards, hers for Song of the Year (Taylor provides background vocals on her recording; Joni Mitchell contributes background vocals on both of their records). As the women in Wine Country find both ease and difficulty in their relatively-rare-regrouping, they ultimately would find solace in these words: “Now ain’t it good to know that you’ve got a friend When people can be so cold? They’ll hurt you, yes, and desert you And take your soul if you let them Oh, but don’t you let them.” That’s good advice for friends everywhere, no matter how distant—by geography or emotions—even if the contacts just remain on social media rather than a lavish getaway to a wine-soaked-reunion. (One final bit of intertexual reference to note is Nina and I watched this movie last Saturday night while the latest episode of SNL was recording for our later viewing; somebody should write an SNL skit about that.)
SHORT TAKES (no spoilers here because it's all public knowledge)
Ask Dr. Ruth (Ryan White) Not Rated
A documentary on the long life (90 years and counting) of Dr. Ruth Siegel Westheimer, born in Germany in 1928, sent away as a child to avoid Nazi atrocities against Jews, later lived in what’s now Israel, then Paris before coming to NYC in 1950, earned academic degrees leading to a long, well-received career as an enthusiastic sex therapist.
Here’s the trailer:
You’d think any film achieving my 4-star-rating (normally as high as I care to go except for the truly exceptional examples of the cinematic arts) would lend itself to extensive discussion, but in this case the combination of historical facts about its subject easily found in a good number of Internet sites (such as biography.com or Jewish Women's Archive) which are summarized quite efficiently in this concise 100 min. film as well as the fact this documentary speaks so well for itself makes it redundant for me to elaborate with extended words what’s already been presented effectively on screen (meaning you should see it rather than just reading about it). So, I’ll encourage you (along with my colleagues in the aforementioned CCAL, where this doc gets an impressive 93% positive reviews [likely easy to tell the tomatoes from the splats for this one] at RT, although a not-as-enthusiastic-as-it-might-be 68% average score at MC) to check out this wonderful account of America’s likely-most-famous, hopefully-most-respected sex therapist, although you’ll probably find it most easily on Hulu because it’s playing in only 71 domestic theaters (3 of them in my area, including Landmark’s Albany Twin where I saw it) but dropping considerably, even though it’s only been released for 2 weeks (as with Wine Country, I have no idea what’s its viewership on line might be), bringing in a mere $188,481 so far. What we have here works so wonderfully because of a simple tactic: Let Dr. Ruth Westheimer either be on camera or provide voice-over to other footage for essentially the entire time because her energetic, upbeat, generously-embracing attitudes and humorous-personality make for a delightful experience even if you’ve never had any previous exposure to her or read any of the 42 books she’s written on human sexuality. The film begins in the present time (well, 2018 when the most current footage was shot, just short of her 90th birthday [Whaddya think of that, age-phobic Wine Country Rebecca?] that June 4 [hopefully, we’ll be collectively celebrating #91 for her just a few weeks from now in 2019]) at the Washington Heights, NYC, apartment where she’s lived for 55 years (a lived-in environment, so stacked with stuff everywhere one of her acolyte/helpers could barely squeeze past the piles to sit next to her at her computer, showing her a disc containing clips of her previous TV appearances), then jumps back and forth between current time (with her many activities including public appearances, teaching courses at NYC’s Columbia and Hunter College) and biographical accounts of her long previous life.
Dr. Ruth was born in Germany in 1928, raised happily in Frankfurt as an only child until the Nazis took control, sent her Orthodox Jewish father to a labor camp; in 1939 she was put on a train along with other German Jewish children to Switzerland (for their own protection) where she lived in an orphanage until she was 17, learning later her parents (and grandmother) had died in the Holocaust, possibly at the horrid Auschwitz concentration camp (I’ve visited the sprawling museum-complex there, a haunting experience), so when WW II ended in 1945 she relocated to British-controlled Palestine (most of which is now the nation of Israel, still in a state of internal war with the occupied Palestinians). I’m moving chronologically here even as the film flows easily from past to present, with those early years rendered in a most-effective-manner through animation, rather than just repeating a limited number of old photos or inserting random documentary footage from the era. In her new home she first discovered the joys of sex (although in the present scenes we meet her true first boyfriend, Walter, from that Swiss orphanage, also lives in NYC), took part in the 1947-1949 Palestine War (during which Israel emerged as a nation in 1948, same year Ruth’s feet was damaged in an explosion but later healed quite well), married her first husband, moved with him to Paris in 1951, divorced when he chose to return to Israel as she continued her academic studies in France; after marrying husband #2 she moved with him to NYC in 1956 but that also ended in divorce so as a single mother she continued her education until receiving an Ed.D. from Teachers College, Columbia U. in 1970. Work at Planned Parenthood led to her interest in sex education (she’s a licensed therapist), an initial 1980 radio show about sexual matters on WYNY-FM in NYC, followed by an escalating-career on radio (huge-coverage-WNYC) and TV, with active reporting of her no-nonsense, sex-positive attitudes in print/broadcast media, leading to immense public recognition, awards, fame, all of which she accepted without turning into a pompous personality (in a marvelous family scene we see her arguing with her granddaughter as to whether she’s a feminist [Ruth says not], which finally results in a compromise with Grandma admitting she’s a non-protesting-feminist not interested in burning anything). In addition to this film simply showing what a wonderful, supportive, non-judgmental human being Dr. Ruth is, there’s a good bit of photo/family film footage of her loving, 40-year-marriage to Fred Westheimer (now dead, stroke). Yet, despite all the marvelous insights into this grand woman to be found in White‘s engaging doc, you can barely find anything about it through Internet searches so I heartily encourage you to watch soon on Hulu.
As there’s not much more I can say about Ask Dr. Ruth, because this film is so effectively concise, self-contained, enjoyable to watch (but I do encourage you to see the interview with her as the second item connected to this film in the Related Links section below, along with a good many other videos you can find about her on YouTube), I’ll head straight into the Musical Metaphor which, given the sexual-orientation of Dr. Ruth’s professional life, I think should be the Rolling Stones’ “Let’s Spend the Night Together” (on the U.S. version of their 1967 Between the Buttons album) at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l61MFiIeuVM with lyrics appropriate to this doc’s content, such as “You know I’m smiling, baby You need some guiding, baby I’m just deciding, baby Now I need you more than ever Let’s spend the night together Let’s spend the night together now […] I’ll satisfy your every need And now I know you will satisfy me.” It’s also appropriate because the song’s existence in still-uptight-late-‘60s-American-culture ironically reflected how Dr. Ruth’s frank talk about human sexuality even a couple of decades later still brought on shock, protests, and consternation from some of her audiences despite how unthreatening this 4’ 7” elderly woman with a thick German accent should have been perceived. In the case of the Stones’ song, I remember how the local Top 40 radio station in Austin created their own version where the line “Let’s spend the night together” was run backwards (just as The Beatles were doing intentionally on some of their tracks at the time) so it came out as gibberish while on CBS TV’s The Ed Sullivan Show, Mick and the boys had to sing "Let's spend some time together" (both of these 1967 performances feature the late Brian Jones [founder of the band] on piano, although he played organ on the recording). Decades later, they continue to celebrate this one-time-scandalous-song, as in this 2006 version (I found recent ones also but not nearly of the quality here). Someday, Dr. Ruth will have to endure a funeral, so maybe they’ll play this at the time, just like The Big Chill (Lawrence Kasdan, 1983) cleverly incorporated “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” into its funeral scene. Assuming we’re all still alive next week (or at least had great sex on the way out), I’ll be back again.
Related Links Which You Might Find Interesting:
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Here’s more information about Wine Country:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hZRfepwoy2Y (18:38 very informal rambling chat with actors Tina Fey, Paula Pell, Amy Poehler, Maya Rudolph, Ana Gasteyer, Rachel Dratch talking over wine—and each other some of the time—in a manner like unto the mood of the movie)
Here’s more information about Ask Dr. Ruth:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=47dxtsU6XBw (13:18 interview with Dr. Ruth Westheimer [audio’s a bit low once you get into it])
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https://kenburke.academia.edu, which could really give you something to talk to me about.)
By the way, if you’re ever at The Hotel California knock on my door—but you know what the check out policy is so be prepared to stay for awhile. Ken
P.S. Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, Home in a Texas Bar, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker. But wherever the rest of my body may be my heart’s always with my longtime-companion, lover, and wife, Nina Kindblad, so here’s our favorite shared song—Neil Young’s "Harvest Moon"
—from the performance we saw at the Desert Trip concerts in Indio, CA on October 15, 2016 (as a full moon was rising over the stadium) because “I’m still in love with you,” my dearest, a never-changing-reality even as the moon waxes and wanes over the months/years to come.
OUR POSTINGS PROBABLY LOOK BEST ON THE MOST CURRENT VERSIONS OF MAC OS AND THE SAFARI WEB BROWSER (although Google Chrome usually is decent also); OTHERWISE, BE FOREWARNED THE LAYOUT MAY SEEM MESSY AT TIMES.
Finally, for the data-oriented among you, Google stats say over the past month (which they seem to measure from right now back 30 days) the total unique hits at this site were 28,681 (as always, we thank all of you for your support with our hopes you’ll continue to be regular readers); below is a snapshot of where and by what means those responses have come from within the previous week (Google’s page layout graphics for this info has changed just a bit but they still don’t know where to find the Unknown Region, so I'm beginning to think it is on Mars or maybe the Moon's dark side):