Netflix’s most popular genre seems to be the kind of rom-com that rarely see the indie of a cinema in 2019. Isn’t It Romantic had the best or worst of both worlds in that it was a cinema release in the US, and was released straight to streaming elsewhere. Either way, Todd Strauss-Schulson’s spry and colourful comedy should find an audience. Dialing back from shrill performances in Pitch Perfect 3, Wilson plays Natalie, a New York girl who gets hit on the head and wakes up to find she’s in an all-singing , all dancing rom-com with Liam Hemsworth and Adam Devine as potential suitors, and all other details, including her gay best friend, as expected. Wilson has lots to do here, showing how Natalie switches from being down-trodden to the incredulous benefactor of a new reality that’s everything she dreamed of. Isn’t it Romantic? Isn’t saying anything new, but it’s a big step up from How To Be Single; Wilson doesn’t have to be the brunt of fat-joke stereotypes anymore, if she ever did, and takes a giant step forward here.
Amy Poehler’s debut as director is a Netflix comedy drama that’s a female-driven Big Chill number as a group of women set out for a 50th birthday retreat in the luxurious environs of Napa, with Poehler, Rachel Dratch and Maya Rudolph all trading on their Saturday Night Live fame, with support from Jason Schwartzmann as a paella-chef and Tina Fey agreeably playing against type as a caustic widow who rents out the property. Wine Country manages to get the right mixture between maudlin where-did-my-life-go sentiment and some amusingly comic business; a scene where Poehler and Dratch taste wine with a snooty host is exquisitely times. In fact is Dratch who makes the biggest impression; too often side-lined as a goofy extra, she shines here as the birthday girl who doesn’t feel she has much to celebrate. Poehler has fun as well as the over-organised creative behind the weekend, sending up her own Parks and Recreation image; Wine Country is a smart, sensitive comedy and a smart bit of business by Netflix.
Taika Waititi’s influence is felt in New Zealand’s chirpy comedy The Breaker Upperers, which deals wit two women who run a private agency to, for a sum of money, break up your relationship in style. Jackie Van Beek is Jennifer, Madeleine Sami is Mel, and the service they provide is to break up relationships. They might arrive disguised as cops, or just accidentally impart the wrong information, but one way or another, they get the job done. . Tensions arise between the two women, and they embark on separate relationships, one with an old flame, the other with a young footballer who still has a girlfriend and posse in tow. Delivering on a feel-bad-to-feel-good premise, The Breaker-Upperers is a deliberately tricky as the title is to say, with a dark view of humanity and relationships, but still one with potential for redemption.
Comedy is a tricky business, but trusted names bring audiences in. Jermain Clement of Flight of the Conchords is exactly such a name. Aubrey Plaza from Parks and Recreation is another. Matt Berry aka Stephen Toast in Toast of London means a full complement of talent. None of them seem content to rest on their laurels, and An Evening With Beverly Luff Lynn seems to be the result of some kind of experiment. A series of characters decend on a hotel where a Scots singer (Beverly Luff Linn) is due to perform. Linn is highly strung, and each night his performance is rescheduled leaves time for more intrigue, notably between Clement’s hit-man and Plaza, on the run for an erratic Emile Hirch. As comedy, the intention frequently seem to be intended to alienate, and yet there are gems, a monologue about birds, a dance to FR David’s Europop smash Words, and Beverly Luff Lynn’s show-stopping performance of Matt McGinn’s primordial anthem ‘I wish that I had never become a football referee.’
Nick Offerman has plenty to offer as an actor; his character in Parks and Recreation had a layer of officious stiffness that he shrugs off nicely as the cool and funky dad of Sam (Kiersey Clemons), a teenage girl about to go to college. Her dad’s life is music, owning and closing Red Hook’s best record shop and playing the guitar at home. He’s still in mourning for Sam’s mother, killed in a cycling accident. The gentle pace is key here, allowing the music in the film to breathe, as do support turns from Toni Collette, Ted Danson and Blythe Danner. Hearts Beats Loud deals cautiously and lightly with bigger topics, before doubling down on the father-daughter relationship. Creating music that fits the story well is Keegan deWitt, who makes the characters’ enthusiasm for music feel understandable. Hearts Beat Loud has got the simplicity of a good short film, and the music fills the cracks and makes it fly.
Brit Marling is a good fit for Netflix, the streaming channel that never saw an inter-dimensional portal it didn’t like (Stranger Things, The Good Place). Together with her regular cinematic collaborator Zal Batmanglij, she created one of TV’s most idiosyncratic shows in The OA, a weird and often wonderful sci-fi drama about an ordinary angel. Except there’s not much ordinary about Marling’s character Prairie, who we meet when she returns home to a small community, and recovering from blindness. Flashbacks indicate that Prarie’s background is Russian, but the narrative takes in a more recent period where she and a few other unfortunates are revealed as the scientific experiment of Dr Hap Percy (Jason Isaacs). Now released, Prairie uses her skills to teach a diverse group of people what she knows, for the purpose that isn’t clear until the end of the final episode. After that bombshell, series two goes off on a wild tangent into an alternate universe San Francisco where the populace use a Pokemon-style video game to seek out clues, and a giant octopus puts on a sexual show in a nightclub. The OA takes it’s time, and the second episode closer is something of a head-scratcher, but it’s all good stuff; more Sapphire and Steel than Dr Who. Yes, there are frustrating moments, but Marling is such an original creative force as well as a compelling performer that The OA marks her successful transition from cult film-star to mainstream powerhouse.