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COMMENTARY

Jeff Simon: Netflix, for some, is a never-ending holiday

Jeff Simon

In the new Netflix series "The Kominsky Method," Michael Douglas plays an aging Hollywood acting coach whose acting career had a brief flareup and then left him a revered professional pedagogue. He's having prostate problems and his urologist is played by Douglas' old roommate in their young and wild years, Danny DeVito. You can bet your lunch money that's a very rich private joke between the two--one that it behooves us not to know too much about.

Hipper folks in the audience will note with knowing approval that Kominsky's first name is Sandy, another knowing joke in "The Kominsky Method." One of the best-known Hollywood acting coaches was Method renegade Sandy Meisner, whose students included everyone from Gregory Peck and Grace Kelly to Tom Cruise, Alec Baldwin and Diane Keaton.

Sandy's agent and best friend Norman is played by the incomparable Alan Arkin in the eight-episode Netflix series. Norman's wife is dying of cancer. He "wakes up every morning and my first thought is 'what's not working today?'" That's when he'll change the subject and ask his friend "how's your love life? Are you still seeing Triscuit?" (Her name was actually Tristan.)

Douglas was as charming and charismatic as can be plugging the series on Stephen Colbert's talk show earlier this week. Compared to the very idea of "The Kominsky Method," such ballyhooed network sitcoms as "Murphy Brown" and "The Conners" seem like distant also-rans.

We are in a major and premium upgrade on a standard TV sitcom here, but one brilliant enough to know that a major-level Hollywood acting coach was a terrific TV sitcom subject just laying there fallow for many decades until someone came along to grab it. Enter writer/producer Chuck Lorre, of "Two and a Half-Men," "Mom" and "The Big Bang Theory."

Let me confess that I haven't seen "The Kominsky Method" yet. But then it's the sitcom I've most wanted to see in the past six months. Just as the movie I haven't seen yet and most want to see is the new Coen Brothers movie "The Ballad of Buster Scruggs," a six-episode anthology film. In the first episode, Tim Blake Nelson plays a singing cowboy who doubles as a very touchy and proficient gunslinger. Liam Neeson, in another episode, plays a fellow who travels the West presenting an armless and legless performer who quotes Shelley and Shakespeare. (Movie lovers will remember Shakespeare-quoting Victor Mature as Doc Holliday in John Ford's "My Darling Clementine.") Because this is a Coen Brothers movie, Neeson longs to trade his partner in for a mathematically adept chicken.

Add Tom Waits as a resourceful prospector and a stagecoach full of people including Brendan Gleeson and Saul Rubinek and you've got a Coen Western characteristically full of gleeful jaundice and Hollywood satire. The six little movies that comprise "Buster" have been in the Coen Brothers script notebook for years, they say, but for the greater glory us all, here they are to join "Raising Arizona" and that unique Raymond Chandler pastiche "The Big Lebowski."

Movies and TV at the moment don't get more tantalizing than "The Kominsky Method" and "Buster Scruggs." That's on top of proven Netflix hits "Orange is the New Black" and "House of Cards."

There's a ton of amazing streaming entertainment. No one is more proficient or productive doing it than Netflix.

And therein lies the major problem with all TV and streaming movies in 2018--none of us can dream of keeping up.

When I had a clear shot at raiding Netflix' treasure chest recently I felt I had no choice but to watch one of the most important and awaited films of the past half century--Orson Welles' "The Other Side of the Wind" which was left incomplete at Welles' death in 1985 and was awaiting the Welles faithful's solution to the problem of amalgamating 1,000 reels of film left chaotically in a Paris vault at Welles' death.

But with the death of the film's chief Iranian investor and Netflix' guiding hand, they did it. Editors Bob Murawski and Mo Henry spent a year piecing together a working version, helped by Frank Marshall and Welles' acolyte and friend Peter Bogdanovich. (When Rich Little bolted the project, rather than deal with Welles' "circus of scattered souls" when it was in progress, Bogdanovich took over Little's role of acolyte "Brooks Otteerlake.")

The fictional film director at the center of "The Other Side of the Wind" was played by Welles' friend John Huston with the fictional name Jake Hannaford. (Note the final syllable; Welles' own cinematic idol was director John Ford.)

"The Other Side of the Wind" isn't easy for audiences to handle but it's unique, to put it mildly. It is Welles' ongoing life project during all those years when the big money Hollywoodians were unwilling to share their largess with him. An American Film Institute Lifetime Achievement Award? Sure. But big money. Nope. Let him tell a commercial camera that "no wine should be served before its time." Let him contribute his booming laugh to a Dean Martin Celebrity Roast amid all those Las Vegas lounge acts. Let's not talk about a subject as difficult as cinematic genius.

At the same time Netflix is presenting "The Other Side of the Wind," it is showing "They're Going to Love Me When I'm Dead," a documentary on "Wind" by Morgan Neville that explains the Herculean task.

The film stands, more than anything, as both a defiance of Hollywood and a rich and acerbic satire on the film culture of the '60s and '70s, especially in its film-within-a-film where Welles satirically blows to smithereens Antonioni's "Zabriskie Point" and, along the way, contains the most erotic scene he ever filmed featuring his collaborator and life partner Oja Kodar.

Nor is Welles' life project the only big movie of 2018 to come from Netflix' inspired leadership. Alfonso Cuaron's "Roma," whose post-festival reputation at the moment is that of the year's great film masterpiece, will premiere on Netflix on Dec.14 after theatrical runs. The title refers to the neighborhood of Mexico City where Cuaron grew up, not the ancient Italian metropolis. It's a semi-autobiographical film almost as personal in its way as Welles' "The Other Side of the Wind" or the Coens' latest brazenly misfit fantasy "Buster Scruggs."

So is Netflix the answer to every problem a crass and timid Hollywood ever had? Or is it, as many think, a brand new problem, where the greatest new things in its lineup are presented indistinguishably along with a torrent of mediocrities.

Never have good critics--and reliable critical guides--been more important than in the TV and movie world of 2018. Unfortunately, they're continually disenfranchised by the Internet's way of overrunning everything with critical mediocrities.

This is where we all are in 2018 in movies and TV and books and music and politics and journalism, among so many other places. Mediocrity abounds and triumphs. A genuine love of excellence persists, but is left to wheeze and wither in the shadows unless accompanied by ironclad profit.

Just as critics have never been more important than they are in the Netflix era so are audiences.

The ones looking for quality can find a paradise if they're active and tenacious. And connected to their sisters and brothers all over the world of social media.

As Dorothy so memorably put it to Toto, I don't believe we're in Kansas anymore.

 

 

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