Mud


Matthew McConaughey explains to his protégés that the secret to getting chicks is taking off your shirt.

Matthew McConaughey explains to his protégés that the secret to getting chicks is taking off your shirt.

(2012) Drama (Roadside Attractions) Matthew McConaughey, Tye Sheridan, Jacob Lofland, Sam Shepard, Reese Witherspoon, Michael Shannon, Ray McKinnon, Sarah Paulson, Joe Don Baker, Paul Sparks, Johnny Cheek, Bonnie Sturdivant, Stuart Greer, Clayton Carson, Michael Abbott Jr., Kristy Barrington. Directed by Jeff Nichols

 Florida Film Festival 2013

Love is not everything it’s cracked up to be. Sure it’s beautiful – it can raise us up to be better people than we ever thought we could be, inspire us to do amazing things. It can also turn on us in a heartbeat, savage us without warning, stab us in the back and leave us to bleed to death on the cold, hard ground.

Ellis (Sheridan) is a 14-year-old boy living on the Mississippi river in Arkansas. He and his good friend Neckbone (Lofland) have river water flowing through their veins; they are most comfortable on the river or it’s many tributaries and they know their way around an outboard motor. Neckbone has never really known his parents; he lives with his genial Uncle Galen (Shannon) who makes a living harvesting oysters from the riverbed and likes to have sex to the immortal strains of “Help Me, Rhonda” by the Beach Boys.

Ellis’ parents Senior (McKinnon) and Mary Lee (Paulson) fight more than they talk; Ellis takes most after the laconic, drawling Senior while Mary Lee – whose houseboat they live on – is tired of the life and wants to move into town. Ellis is torn up about this but takes solace in pretty 17-year-old May Pearl (Sturdivant) whom he is more than sweet on and who, against all odds, seems to return his affections.

While exploring an island on the river, Neckbone and Ellis find a boat that had been incongruously washed up into a tree during a bad storm. Even more incongruously, they find a man living in the boat. He introduces himself as Mud (McConaughey), and has driven nails into the soles of his shoes in the shape of a cross to ward off evil. Mud is a big believer in luck.

He is waiting on a girl, he tells them – the lovely Juniper (Witherspoon) who is graceful and beautiful and has tattoos of nightingales on her wrists. But Mud is no saint – he killed a man in Texas who abused the lovely Juniper and now is hiding out from the law and from bounty hunters sent by the deceased’s rich and relentless father (Baker). Mud is in a bit of a spot and needs some help. Ellis, generally suspicious of such things, is moved by his chivalry and charm and agrees to help.

That sets into motion a chain of events that none in the drama can possibly foresee. Ellis will learn that love doesn’t cure everything and that sometimes, that good isn’t always good enough. He will grow up much faster because he has to, but what will he truly become?

Director Jeff Nichols, who has helmed such films as Take Shelter and Shotgun Stories, is rapidly turning into a really terrific filmmaker who captures the modern South – particularly the rural aspects of it – better than anyone. Sort of a modern day Tennessee Williams without the melodrama, Nichols makes a movie about decent but flawed folk who may not be well-educated but aren’t dumb.

Matthew McConaughey has taken his share of critical lumps but in the past couple of years has really been on a hot streak. I haven’t seen Killer Joe yet and I’m assured his performance there is every bit as good as this one, but for my money this is his best performance on film yet. It utilizes his natural charm but McConaughey knows how to play the flaws well – Mud is a bit of a bovine poo artist, and he is rather impulsive. Mud however is basically decent at heart and Ellis recognizes it. Mud’s hopelessly in love with Juniper who he has idealized quite a bit; it becomes evident early on that she’s simply not worthy of him.

Sam Shepard’s character Tom Blankenship recognizes that. Blankenship is a father-figure to Mud and Shepard gives him the rootsy, folksy feeling that Shepard is well-known for. Blankenship has some skeletons in his closet which play into the film’s climax, but more on that in a bit. I’ve always loved Shepard as an actor since I first saw him in The Right Stuff and he’s still just as good now.

Sheridan is a big find. He gives Ellis a really good heart although he is sorely pressed by his world coming apart around him with Ellis unable to do a single thing to stop it. He becomes invested in Mud’s world and when that world implodes it becomes more than he can bear. Ellis is given some fairly emotional scenes to play and Sheridan plays them honestly. It’s a rare trait among juvenile actors.

Witherspoon’s recent personal and legal problems unfortunately surfaced just as the movie was hitting theaters which is a shame as her performance has tended to be overlooked in lieu of the more gossipy aspect of her life. I’m not sure why we feel the need to follow the mistakes and errors of celebrities – I get the feeling that she just had a bad night and given the opportunity to relive it would likely do things differently. I’ve done things that I regret – it’s just that I get to suffer the consequences of those actions privately.

This is the kind of movie that has a powerful emotional effect on you and when you leave the theater you know immediately that you’ve seen something profound. While I wasn’t a big fan of the film’s ending – it seemed a little Hollywood rote to me – still there was plenty of catharsis to go around.

The South has always had its share of literary giants – besides Williams there was William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor and Eudora Welty – but we are beginning to see some very strong directors coming out of the South and Nichols is one of the vanguard of a new Southern cinema that I believe is going to make its presence felt over the next couple of decades and beyond. Mud is a movie about the South but it is a movie that will resonate with anyone, even those who don’t live a rural existence. Mud is about love and life. We’re all said to be created from the clay and what is that besides dried mud?

REASONS TO GO: Really well-acted. Captures rural Arkansas to a “T.” Literate. Ellis is one of the best juvenile characters in years.

REASONS TO STAY: Ending could have used some work.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is some violence, some sexual references, a bit of smoking, a fair amount of foul language and some adult thematic elements.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Chris Pine was originally considered for the title role but couldn’t work it in to his busy schedule.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/2/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 98% positive reviews. Metacritic: 76/100; the movie is doing well from a critical standpoint.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Eye of the Hurricane

FINAL RATING: 9/10

TOMORROW: The Brass Teapot

The Forgotten Kingdom


An African road trip.

An African road trip.

(2013) Drama (Black Kettle) Zenzo Ngqobe, Nozipho Nkelemba, Jerry Mofokeng, Lebohang Ntsane, Moshoshoe Chabeli, Lillian Dube,  Sam Phillips, Jerry Phele, Reitumetse Qobo, Silas Monyatsi, Leonard Mopeli, Jabari Makhooane, Khotso Molibei, Mokoenya Cheli, Stephen Mofokeng, Harriet Manamela. Directed by Andrew Mudge. 

 Offshoring

Florida Film Festival 2013

 

When one is a young man, one tends to judge the actions of their father quite harshly. We think of our old man as just that – an old man, ignorant in the ways of the modern world, one who doesn’t understand us and what we’re going through, one whose own actions are as unfathomable as a Lars von Trier film. Yet when we get some life experience of our own, most times the sins of our fathers (real or imagined) are brought into crystal clarity.

Joseph (Ngqobe) is a young man, living in Johannesburg, South Africa with a huge chip on his shoulder. He drinks, he carouses, he womanizes and he doesn’t seem to give a damn about anything or anybody. When he hears his father is ill, he’s not too concerned – his father has always been ill. When he goes to visit him in a mean, dirty tenement in a shantytown outside of the city, he discovers that his father (Phele) has passed away.

It becomes apparent that his father wants to be buried in Lesotho, a country completely surrounded by South Africa where Joseph (whose tribal name is Atang, which seems to irritate him) was born. After the death of his mother and after his father contracted AIDS, Dad had sent Atang into Jo-burg, which didn’t sit well with Joseph/Atang – ah hell, Atang – at all. However, he can’t deny his father his final rest so he takes the body back to the village in Lesotho.

The priest (Chabeli) seems to think that Atang’s father was a good man but Atang is having none of it – to him, his father was a coward who abandoned him when he needed him most. Atang is getting ready to go home when he is reintroduced to Dineo (Nkelemba), a childhood friend who has become the local schoolteacher. The two catch up somewhat and Atang realizes that his feelings for Dineo have deepened. However at last he has to go back to Johannesburg.

He gets a job, motivated to make some money and marry Dineo. However, when he arrives back at the village, he discovers that Dineo’s father (Mofokeng) has moved the family to a distant, remote village inaccessible by road or train. Dineo’s sister (Qobo) has also contracted AIDS and the shame has prompted dear old dad to move the whole family away, where he can lock up his diseased daughter away from the world.

With the aid of an Orphan (Ntsane) who happens to have a couple of horses, Atang goes off on a journey across the vast landscape of Lesotho. It is a journey in which he will discover who his father was, who he is and what is truly important.

Putting it bluntly, this is an early contender for the Best Movie of 2013. It is rare to find a movie that packs such narrative impact as well as emotional connection without having to sacrifice one for the other. The cinematography is breathtaking and Robert Miller has contributed a wonderful score that enhances the mood without distracting you from it.

While there are plenty of veteran South African actors in the cast, there are also many local actors and non-actors also in the cast. The performances are all compelling, but particularly that of Ngqobe who undergoes quite a transformation during the course of the film, from a somewhat sullen and self-centered man into one who has become much more self-aware and loving. His transformation is the center of the film, and the journey that he and the Orphan take across the stunning landscape of Lesotho is centered on that change.

Yes, in some ways this is a road picture in the tradition of Hope and Crosby but while there are some moments that are funny, this isn’t a comedy – but the basics are there. This is more of a self-discovery rather than a means to find laughs and as Atang discovers himself, so too will the audience. I can’t speak for everyone, but I felt very keenly the need to explore my own relationship with my father and my son, as well as my own roles as both. I felt my own background wash over me like a warm blanket, followed by the sense of Africa covering me and holding me in a warm embrace.

It is easy to sentimentalize Africa (considering that most of us, myself included, have never been there) but it is the cradle of civilization and evidence points that we all have a connection there in one form or another as human life began there. This movie neither sentimentalizes Africa nor demonizes it; we get a sense of some of the problems there, but we also get a sense of the beauty of the environment and of its people, not to mention the wisdom of their civilization which in many ways far outdistances that of our own. This is a movie everyone should experience and I’m very grateful that I got to see this with my own mother. It’s one that will dwell in both your heart and mind for a very long time to come.

REASONS TO GO: Beautifully photographed and a story that will grab hold of you from beginning to end. Surprisingly well-acted.

REASONS TO STAY: American audiences seem to have a built-in prejudice against subtitled films.

FAMILY VALUES:  Adult themes, some bad language and a lot of smoking.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Both Ngqobe and Nkelemba were cast members in the popular South African soap opera Rhythm City.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/29/13: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet; the movie is just embarking on the festival circuit.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Straight Story

FINAL RATING: 10/10

NEXT: Offshoring, Day 5

Lore


Lore's future looks bittersweet.

Lore’s future looks bittersweet.

(2012) Drama (Music Box) Saskia Rosendahl, Nele Trebs, Andre Frid, Mika Seidel, Kai-Peter Malina, Nick Holaschke, Ursina Lardi, Hans-Jochen Wagner, Sven Pippig, Philip Wiegratz, Katrin Pollitt, Hendrik Arnst, Claudia Geisler. Directed by Cate Shortland   

 Offshoring

Florida Film Festival 2013

 

The Second World War left millions of refugees at its end, many traversing shattered lands as survivors tried to find some semblance of family, often with roughly the same odd of finding a needle in a haystack.

Lore (Rosendahl) is a beautiful young German girl just entering her mid-teens. Her parents are important people and they live in a beautiful home near Buchenwald. She has a younger sister, younger twin brothers and a baby brother. Life is good.

Except that this isn’t modern Germany but Nazi Germany and the war is grinding to a conclusion. Her father (Wagner) and mother (Lardi) are fleeing their home and headed to a rural cabin to hide, hoping for the best but fearing that if the Americans win the war that they’ll be arrested. In fact, that’s what actually happens. Alone, Lore knows she must take the children to her grandmother’s house 900km away. Without any choice, she hits the road.

Once there they are followed by a mysterious young man in black. Lore frets. At a schoolhouse where many have taken refuge, the American soldiers have posted pictures of the concentration camps. Lore is shocked at the horror depicted. Some disbelieve it completely – “they’re actors,” is the general thought. Lore knows better – one of the “actors” peering down at a pit of dead emaciated bodies is her father.

When Lore and the kids are stopped on the road by American soldiers demanding travel papers, she is terrified but the young man, who calls himself Thomas (Malina) and has the necessary papers (not to mention a Star of David identifying him as a concentration camp survivor) intervenes and gets them  a ride for at least part of the distance.

Lore is drawn into a love-hate relationship with Thomas. There’s no doubt that the kids love him and that he is looking out for them as he would his own family, but he is also everything her parents warned her against and was the object of their scorn and hatred. She doesn’t know what to think about him – nor of her own burgeoning sexuality which is beginning to emerge. It’s a long, long road to Hamburg and they’ll have to get through plenty of obstacles to get there.

This is a movie that looks at the other side and not necessarily with sympathy. Lore’s parents are monsters, and the more we see of them the more we realize that they had full knowledge of what was happening in regards to the Final Solution.

The problem I had is with Lore herself. One moment she’s sympathetic, the next intolerable, the following plucky, and the moment after that sensual. Her emotions are like a pachinko machine, bouncing from here to there without any real rhyme or reason. Part of that is endemic to being a hormonal teenage girl, another part is inconceivable stress. Either way, it makes it very difficult for an audience to identify with Lore.

That’s not necessarily Rosendahl’s fault. She seems to be a very capable young actress with a great deal of promise – she’s just given a character to play who isn’t an easy one to pull together and she does the very best she can. I’m not sure that any actress, even a Meryl Streep, could have pulled off this part any better.

Lore is beautifully photographed as we see pristine German woodlands and bucolic country villages which makes the heinous deeds we see even more wrenching. There are unburied bodies everywhere, some dead by their own hand. A misguided old woman who takes Lore’s family in temporarily wails at a portrait of Der Fuhrer “We let him down. He loved us all so.”  It’s disquieting to say the least.

These aren’t perfect kids and the world they inhabit is chaotic and unpredictable. There are no real rules and surviving is not an easy task – just procuring food isn’t a given. Survival isn’t a given. The baby give them a bit of an advantage and Lore knows it but she also realizes that she is becoming a woman and that can be an advantage with certain kinds of men.

Lore grows from being something of a spoiled brat at the beginning of the movie into a cynical woman who is in bare-bones survival mode. Her last actions in the film are of defiance and transformation as she realizes that what she has been through has changed her forever – nothing will ever be the same again. It’s a powerful message.

And yet I didn’t connect with the film the way I think I should have. Perhaps it’s the pacing which is very slow. Perhaps it is the emotional pinball machine that is Lore. Or perhaps it’s just the wrong day and the wrong time for me to see a movie like this. It certainly requires a good deal of commitment from the viewer. It’s a movie whose skill and technique I admire, and whose story I think is one that should be told. I just didn’t fall under its spell the way I would have liked.

REASONS TO GO: Beautifully photographed. Gripping material.

REASONS TO STAY: Lore’s character is all over the map and gives us nothing to hold on to emotionally.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is some violence, some sexuality, a bit of foul language and some adult themes.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The family photographs in Thomas’ wallet actually belong to Shortland’s husband, who is of German Jewish descent and whose family fled Nazi Germany in 1936.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/27/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 76/100; this is a critical hit.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Way Back

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Offshoring, Day 3

The Hunt (Jagten)


The consequences of gossip and lies can be devastating.

The consequences of gossip and lies can be devastating.

(2012) Drama (Magnolia) Mads Mikkelsen, Thomas Bo Larsen, Annika Wedderkoop, Lasse Fogelstrom, Susse Wold, Anne Louise Hassing, Lars Ranthe, Alexandra Rapaport, Ole Dupont, Rikke Bergmann, Allan Wilbor Christensen, Josefine Grabol, Daniel Engstrup, Katrine Brygmann, Hana Shuan, Oyvind Hagen-Traberg, Nicolai Dahl Hamilton. Directed by Thomas Vinterberg   

Offshoring

Florida Film Festival 2013

Western culture has this tendency to idealize children. In our eyes they are truthful little angels, incapable of lying. Well, any parent will tell you that they do lie, through their teeth at times. Sometimes, well-meaning adults  can push children into saying what they think those adults want to hear. We are defenseless against the word of a child.

Lucas (Mikkelsen) is working as a kindergarten assistant in a small town in Denmark (the school he previously taught at has been shut down). Divorced and regularly denied visitation rights with his son, he is nonetheless well-liked and well-regarded in his community in which he has deep long-standing ties. His best friend, Theo (Larsen) has been known to drink himself insensible in Lucas’ company, always relying on Lucas to get him home to his wryly understanding wife Agnes (Hassing).

Theo’s daughter Klara (Wedderkoop), an angelic blonde little girl, adores Lucas…maybe too much. One afternoon when Lucas is rough housing with some of the boys, Klara rushes in and plants a rather adult kiss on his open mouth. Taken aback, Lucas admonishes her never to do that, and promptly forgets about the incident.

Klara doesn’t however. Humiliated, she sulks. Principal Grethe (Wold) finds her and quickly realizes that something’s wrong but she misinterprets and assumes that the reason she’s upset with Lucas is because he touched her inappropriately. She calls in a child services advocate (Dupont) who questions Klara. Klara, eager to be on the playground with her friends and tired of the incessant questioning, finally agrees that is what happened to her.

Lucas finds himself in the middle of a storm that he didn’t see coming. His denials are met with anger – Klara is a child not known for lying, why would she lie about this? He is quickly ostracized by the community, by people he knows well who suddenly see him as a child molester and a pervert. Theo is torn – he can’t believe that Lucas would do such a thing but Agnes has no such qualms. Of course he did – her angel said so and when Klara, seeing the rift developing between her parents and Lucas exclaims that he never did anything wrong, Agnes is sure that she is blocking out an unpleasant memory and tells her daughter so firmly that Klara believes her. And now other kids are coming forward, claiming Lucas took them into his basement and fondled them.

Even Lucas’ girlfriend Nadja (Rapaport) has some doubts about his innocence which causes the enraged Lucas to dump her. Worse still, his visitation rights to his son Marcus (Fogelstrom) are suspended. Rocks are thrown through his window. Klara however doesn’t see the enormity of what’s happened – she shows up at Lucas’ door to walk his dog, something he would normally allow her to do but he gently shoos her back home.

Lucas is shown the uglier side of those he has known all his life as despite there being no evidence of any wrongdoing other than the word of Klara (the other stories are discredited when it is discovered by the police that Lucas’ house has no basement). As Christmas comes, Lucas is completely alone, ostracized and subject to being assaulted when he shows his face in a local grocery store.

Vinterberg, known as one of the founders of the Dogme95 movement of minimalist filmmaking with his masterpiece (to this point) Feste has crafted a movie that surpasses even that fine film. I can’t remember a movie in which I felt so emotionally drained after having sat through – some might consider the act of watching it a bit of an ordeal.

But it’s a good kind of ordeal, the kind that reminds us how ephemeral those ties that bind can be and how quickly our whole life can be turned inside out. Part of what draws us into this story is Mikkelsen’s outstanding performance. If this were a studio film (and I defy you to find a Hollywood studio with the guts to release a movie this harrowing) he’d be a shoo-in for an Oscar nomination come January. Because this is being distributed by Magnolia – a fine distributor of indie and foreign films, mind you – chances are it won’t get the notice and the push needed to get him the votes needed to get him on the ballot. Rest assured however that Mikkelsen’s work is as good as anything  you’ll see on the final ballot. It’s searing; Lucas is basically a quiet, good man trying to pull his life back together after a rough patch who is suddenly thrust into a situation that makes everything he went through previously look like a walk in the park. When things go South, Lucas reacts at first with incredulity then with denial and then with rage before finally going into a kind of shock.

The photography is simply exquisite as the bucolic Danish town, covered in snow or shining in the late summer/early autumn sun looks idyllic on the surface but like often happens, the rot is just below the surface. There is a scene near the end of the movie where Lucas stumbles into a Christmas Eve service where he is clearly not wanted. His face bruised and bloodied from a beating earlier that day, he sits in a pew, receiving disapproving glares from those around him. Nearby sits Theo and his family and Theo and he lock eyes several times. Theo gradually realizes that his friend is innocent – because he knows his friend and he sees the truth in his eyes. It’s a powerful scene and one that resonated with me long after the movie ended. I would recommend seeing the movie just for that scene alone.

Fortunately, there’s a lot more going for it than just that scene. Frankly, this is a movie that is as good as anything you’ll see this year. If there’s one flaw, it’s that the intensity might be too much for some. Still, if you are not emotionally fragile, this is the kind of movie that will lift you by the scruff of the neck and force you to see something of yourself whether you want to face it or not. To me, that’s a movie that’s worth its weight in gold.

REASONS TO GO: Emotionally wrenching. Amazing performance by Mikkelsen who should get Oscar consideration for it (but won’t).

REASONS TO STAY: Some people might be uncomfortable with the themes.

FAMILY VALUES:  Very, very, very adult themes. Some violence, some bad language and some sexuality. Definitely not for kids of all ages.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Mikkelsen won the Best Actor award at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival for his role here

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/26/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 91% positive reviews. Metacritic: 80/100; it’s still early yet but the critics appear to be embracing this film.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Scarlet Letter

FINAL RATING: 9.5/10

NEXT: Offshoring Part 2

Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me


Big Star in happier times...sorta.

Big Star in happier times…sorta.

(2012) Musical Documentary (Magnolia) Jody Stephens, Jim Dickinson, Alex Chilton, Ken Stringfellow, Chris Stamey, Rick Clark, Mike Mills, Alexis Taylor, Tav Falco, David Bell, Sara Stewart, John Fry, Carole Manning, Steve Rhea, Andy Hummel, Richard Rosebrough. Directed by Drew DeNicola and Olivia Mori

 Florida Film Festival 2013

In many ways Big Star was the ultimate cult band. They only released three sparsely-distributed albums from 1972-78 before fracturing apart, but those albums! That music! It’s some of the greatest music written during the rock era, and nearly every musician with any reverence for rock and roll in the 35 years since then has been influenced by their sound – from REM and the jangle pop of the 80s to the Replacements and the punks of the 90s to Hot Chip and the electropop of the 21st Century.

The band came out of Memphis, whose rock and roll legacy has tended to lean towards the blues and Southern boogie so when these guys appeared it must have turned a head or two. At the front was Alex Chilton, the boy wonder who had a number one hit in his teens with the Box Tops, and Chris Bell, a lonely and melancholy genius who worked at Ardent Studios (the band’s home base and source of their record label) as an engineer. Bassist Andy Hummel and drummer Jody Stephens rounded out the line-up.

Their first album, #1 Record, got great critical acclaim but Ardent, whose distribution was handled by the soul label Stax which was looking to make in-roads in the pop and rock markets – or should I say mis-handled – often frustrated consumers who read glowing reviews in the press but would then write the band to ask where they could buy the album which very often wouldn’t be in the bins. The band didn’t have a clue where to find them either.

Bell would wind up quitting over the lack of support for the band from their label. He was also hurt about Chilton getting the lion’s share of the attention, despite his own significant contributions to the Big Star sound. He’d go on to a checkered post-Big Star career, recording I Am the Cosmos – an amazing album that is essentially the lost Big Star album – but perishing in a car accident before it was released.

The band soldiered on as a trio, releasing Radio City in 1974 only to see nearly all of the albums that were pressed left in a warehouse that later burned with the albums in them, although some copies apparently survived and made it overseas. Recording sessions for a third album for the band, now down to Chilton and Stephens (with session musicians augmenting the two) showed Chilton’s frustration. He almost deliberately sabotaged the songs and made them unlistenable although a select few of them – like Stephens’ “For You” – were still full of ragged beauty. The third album, variously titled Third and Sister Lovers never got an official release during the band’s lifetime although bootlegged copies were available pretty in a widespread fashion (it finally was given an official release in the 90s by Rykodisc).

The band never got the due that they deserved while they were alive – Chilton passed away in 2010, Hummel not long after and Bell, as I mentioned, in 1978 (Stephens, the only surviving band member, continues to work for Ardent today) although their cult status followed them around for years. Chilton, somewhat embittered by the experience I think, flat-out ignored requests to play Big Star songs during his solo shows and more or less disowned the band until a surprise reunion concert with Stephens (with Posies Ken Stringfellow and Jon Auer filling out the band) in 1993 at the University of Missouri, which led to a tour which led to another album although by then the magic was clearly gone.

Still, their memory lives on in all the music that they recorded (the best-known of which is “In the Street,” the opening title track to That 70s Show and the oft-covered ”September Gurls” which was the closest they got to a hit) and all the music that they inspired.

The documentary is clearly a labor of love; they had very little archival footage to work with and so as a result it has a bit of a talking head feel to it but the interviews are in the main, incredibly interesting and moving – there was a lot of pain associated with the band and when you watch Chris Bell’s sister Sara Stewart break down a little, saying in a soft, hurt voice “I hated the band” to which her brother David Bell said in a comforting voice “I know. You’d rather have him back than have the music out there,” your heart breaks just a little. Still in all, you can listen to the music of Big Star – most of you probably have never heard it – and be dazzled. I hope that a lot of people get to see this documentary mainly because it would be ironic and fitting that this wonderful, inspiring music be exposed to a greater number of people long after the band that recorded it is gone.

REASONS TO GO: Incredible soundtrack. Some heartfelt and heartrending interviews.

REASONS TO STAY: Not a lot of performance or archival video.

FAMILY VALUES:  Some mild bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The name Big Star doesn’t refer to Chilton’s success with the Box Tops nor is it an egotistical prognostication of the band’s future – rather they named themselves after a Memphis-area grocery store chain, one of which was near Ardent Studios.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/25/13: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet; the movie has embarked on the festival circuit after a strong start at SXSW.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Control

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

NEXT: Off-Shoring Part 1

Free Samples


I think Jess Wexler looks like Winona Ryder but she just doesn't agree.

I think Jess Wexler looks like Winona Ryder but she just doesn’t agree.

(2012) Drama (Anchor Bay) Jess Wexler, Jesse Eisenberg, Jason Ritter, Tippi Hedren, Halley Feiffer, Keir O’Donnell, Jocelin Donahue, Whitney Able, Eben Kostbar, Jordan Davis, James Duval, Matt Walsh, Craig Gellis, Suzy Nakamura, Cory Knauf, Joseph McKelheer, Montre Burton, Madison Leisle, Joe Nunez, Angel Parker. Directed by Jay Gammill

 Florida Film Festival 2013

We all go through periods where we just seem to be treading water. Inertia deserts us and life is happening to everyone around us but not to us. We flounder in the current, not really moving anywhere and praying to God we don’t drown before we figure out which direction we need to move in.

Jillian is in just such a phase. She’s dropped out from Stanford Law School and is taking a break from her fiancée. She is adrift in Los Angeles, trying somewhat diffidently to become an artist (which is a lot harder when you aren’t particularly talented at anything) and engaging in a series of all-night binges and one night stands, the latest ending up with a cowboy hat-wearing dude that Jillian knows only as Tex (Eisenberg) in her bed. Well, it’s not really her bed – it’s her best friend Nancy’s (Feiffer) bed and she’s just sleeping in it, apparently with Tex’s hat. Tex isn’t in it at the time.

Jillian is experiencing the mother of all hangovers but since she slept in Nancy’s bed and mutual friend Wally (Ritter) – who’s in a band along with the half of L.A. that isn’t in the movies – has urinated on her couch in his alcohol-induced blissful slumber, Jillian owes her a favor; she needs to cover for Nancy at work. Jillian is oh-so-reluctant to do this, but is eventually coerced into it.

Work happens to be standing all day in an ice cream truck handing out free samples of the most godawful excuse for artificial ice cream that you’ve ever had the sorrow to try – you might well get a cup full of chilled sour cream instead – to the freeloaders and nutjobs of a neighborhood not far from hers. It’s excruciatingly boring, like having bamboo shoved up your fingernails while your genitals are sprinkled liberally with napalm, except I would assume those pursuits would probably not be strictly classified as boring. Not by me, anyway.

As she stands in the cramped confines of the truck, handing out samples to all who request one – vanilla, or chocolate (one to a customer, no exceptions) the things that are driving her life – the motivations that persuaded her to drop out of college and her relationship – are brought into focus and not in a vague, diffuse allegorical way but by the serendipity of bad luck and crushing coincidence.

Not all of it is bad. She meets Betty (Hedren), an actor of some fame who is retired, living alone in a small apartment with TCM blaring old movies (“It’s like a reunion,” Betty asserts when a heartbroken Jillian comes to visit her) whose daily highlight is a walk to the truck for a bit of free ice cream. It’s not the ice cream she craves (“it’s really awful” she confides to Jillian) but the company.

As the day ends and Nancy shows up at long last, Jillian has had an epiphany and maybe her life is about to change for the better. You know, you can gather a lot of good karma by handing out free samples.

This is mainly Wexler’s movie and for a young actress with limited experience, it can be a daunting task to carry a movie on one’s slender shoulders but Wexler – who cut her cinematic teeth in Teeth, to date the best movie about vagina dentata ever made – is up for the task and she really has two strikes against her from the onset. Jillian is something of a bitch who whines constantly, complains repeatedly and always seems to be flipping life a mental bird. She has been compared facially to Uma Thurman and I suppose I can see what they’re saying, but I think she looks and sounds more like Wynona Ryder and carries some of that actress’ spunky attitude in her demeanor.

One of the things I love most about this movie is the synergy between Jillian and Betty. Movies rarely show mentor relationships between older women and younger women that aren’t related which I’ve always found to be quite odd – older women can be friends with younger women just like older men can be friends with younger men although Hollywood doesn’t seem to have a problem with those sorts of relationships among men. Women seem to only be allowed those relationships when it’s the younger woman’s grandmother or great-aunt or some such.

The soundtrack, provided by Indie Rock wunderkinder Say Hi is one of the best I’ve heard thus far this year, one which might give the slackers who dug Juno a run for its money. At least from my admittedly non-slackeroonie perspective.

There are some flaws here, some inherent. For example, nearly all of the film takes place with the lead in the claustrophobic ice cream truck. There really are only so many ways you can shoot that, so we get a lot of standard two shots and it does get a trifle repetitious. And Wexler does such a good job as Jillian that there are times you want to give the girl a major foot in the behind with an admonition to stop complaining and start living. Of course by the end of the film she pretty much does that without the need for a boot to the ass.

It was lovely to see Hedren, the star of Hitchcock’s The Birds in the film and I was astonished at how good she looks for a 83-year-old dame. She hasn’t gotten any work that I could detect; she’s just blessed with good genes. How often do you see an 83-year-old woman that you’d seriously think of doing? Not that I actually would sweetie (ducking from the inevitable bonk on the head from Da Queen’s scepter). But if I were single…(sigh). And it was thrilling to see Ms. Hedren at the Florida Film Festival screening we attended. Such beautiful diction. (sigh)

Anyway, that aside this is a terrific indie film that takes some of the indie clichés that we’re so bloody used to and turns them on their head. At the end of the day this is about relationships and redemption, with the object lesson that rehabilitation truly comes from within. Surviving being lost in the current is one thing but swimming for shore and rescuing ourselves is quite another. Me, I’d pay for this free sample – not for the ice cream though.

REASONS TO GO: Wexler gives a terrific performance. Shows a relationship between an older woman and a younger woman who aren’t related – a rarity in Hollywood.  Terrific soundtrack.

REASONS TO STAY: A bit claustrophobic. Occasionally you want to give Jillian a shake.

FAMILY VALUES:  Plenty of bad language and anti-social behavior.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The music composer is credited as Eric Elbogen, which is the real name of the person who is the one-man indie rock band Say Hi. Some of that band’s music is also on the soundtrack.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/23/13: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet; this is making the rounds on the festival circuit.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Future

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: Evil Dead (2013)

I Declare War


War is Hell.

War is Hell.

(2012) Action (Drafthouse) Siam Yu, Gage Monroe, Michael Friend, Aidan Gouveia, Mackenzie Munro, Alex Cardillo, Dyson Fyke, Spencer Howes, Andy Reid, Kolton Stewart, Richard Nguyen, Eric Hanson, Alex Wall. Directed by Jason Lapeyre and Robert Wilson  

 Florida Film Festival 2013

War is ingrained in our personality. So many of the games we play are little more than wars without weapons. Capture the Flag, Football, Chess – all utilize strategy and tactics and require a killer instinct to be successful. War is literally bred into us as children.

Among one group of Canadian kids, the ultimate general is PK (Monroe). In a kind of elaborate game of Capture the Flag, he’s never failed to win. In the game PK has set up, there is a rigid set of rules – players “shot” by other players must stay down for a ten count. If they are hit by a “grenade” (a water balloon filled with red paint) they are “dead” and must go home immediately.

Quinn (Gouveia) leads the opposition and PK knows that Quinn is a formidable opponent. In Quinn’s corner is Jess (Munro), the only girl in the game and one who has a superior grasp of strategy and tactics. While most of the players (Quinn included to a certain extent) don’t take her seriously because she’s a girl, she overlooks it mainly because she has a huge crush on Quinn (kind of proving their point). But Quinn’s reign as generalissimo is to be short-lived.

When PK’s best friend Kwon (Yu) is taken prisoner (which isn’t forbidden by the rules but has never been done before apparently) by Skinner (Friend), Quinn sees this as a direct threat to his authority and orders that Kwon be executed. Instead, Skinner takes out Quinn and takes over the team. Jess as well as the other players Sikorski (Fyke) and Frost (Cardillo) somewhat grudgingly go along with Skinner’s play, which is to use Kwon as bait to lure PK out. Most of the others think PK is far too smart to fall for it.

It soon becomes clear that Skinner has an agenda of his own and he’s not above using physical torture on Kwon to get what he wants. PK’s team of Joker (Howes) and Wesley (Reid) is all for storming the enemy camp but PK has an ace in the hole – taciturn Caleb (Stewart) who lurks with his dog in the underbrush, observing and biding his time. But when things come to a head,  it will become less clear who is the hero and who the villain is.

When I saw that there’s nary an adult in the cast, I thought this was going to be one of those insufferable kid flicks in which kids are wiser and more clever than adults and save the day. It’s nothing like that. These are kids who while they do take on some adult characteristics (I think it’s safe to say that few kids think as tactically as the kids in this film do – and to find them all in the same neighborhood really takes a lot of faith to accept) are still essentially kids. They’re very imaginative but they are also deeply vulnerable and insecure.

One of the conceits of the film that I loved is that when the kids are engaged in battle, they have realistic looking weapons in their hands. When they are not, their weapons are sticks and rocks and water balloons. When they deploy the balloons, they turn into grenades. It’s very clever although it did take me a few minutes to pick up on it.

With an all-kid cast you take your chances and the filmmakers have a few kids here who more than hold their own. There are others who simply aren’t as successful as they could be and whether it’s a lack of motivation on the part of the directors or if the kids just didn’t “feel” their roles is hard to say. I don’t like speaking negatively of juvenile performances because at least in the case of adult actors they have the tools to handle criticism whereas kids rarely do but it is also part of my responsibility to tell my readers what to expect if they see this film and frankly, that might be a turning point for some.

I hope not though – because this is really a terrific movie when I honestly didn’t expect that it was going to be. This is an allegory on the savagery of war on one level, and what it does to people who fight and lead in it. On another, it is about the imagination of kids and how the boundaries of reality and play can sometimes be blurred. This really is an intelligent film on a lot of levels and despite the all-kid cast, I’m not sure every kid is ready to see this – there’s a lot of stuff that the kids in this movie do that I’m sure most parents would have a heart attack if they knew their middle school kids were doing too. However, I think the more mature older kids might get something out of it – I know most adults will.

REASONS TO GO: An allegory on the savagery of war but also a parable on the imagination of kids.

REASONS TO STAY: Some of the acting leaves something to be desired. A lot of standing around and dithering.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s some violence and torture as well as a bit of bad language, all perpetrated by and on children.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Caleb’s dog is a Canadian Husky.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/22/13: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet; played Fantastic Fest last year and a handful of film festivals this year; picked up by Drafthouse Films but unsure what their plans are with it at the moment, whether it will get a limited theatrical release or end up directly on home video.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Lord of the Flies

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: Free Samples

Magical Universe


Even in black and white Al Carbee's world is full of magic.

Even in black and white Al Carbee’s world is full of magic.

(2013) Documentary (Wheelhouse) Al Carbee, Jeremy Workman, Astrid von Ussar. Directed by Jeremy Workman

Florida Film Festival 2013

Art means different things to different people. Some prefer the more traditional, others the Avant Garde. Some people will take two blocks of wood, nail them together and proclaim it art. Others will nail those same blocks of wood to their head, film it and proclaim it art. There are some who think that it isn’t art if it isn’t challenging you or pushing your boundaries.

Al Carbee thought a lot about art and the artistic process. You see, he had this thing about taking pictures using Barbie dolls as models. His late wife never really understood it and was actually kind of embarrassed about it but Al just kept things on the down-low. He created these elaborate environments for his pictures and created collages with them. They began to look more and more like art.

Jeremy Workman, a young filmmaker, was vacationing with his girlfriend Astrid von Ussar in the area around Saco, Maine when he got a call from a newspaper editor friend telling him about Carbee, so Jeremy went and shot some video of Al and his work. He made a documentary short called Carbee’s Barbies which you can Google – I believe it’s available on YouTube and if not, he shows it in its entirety during the film.

In most cases like this, that would be the end of it but Jeremy and Astrid continued to correspond with Al who’d send long, rambling letters, sometimes with pictures. Soon the idea came up for Jeremy to do a feature film on Al. Jeremy was agreeable and began to do just that. He showed some of the early footage to Astrid who to his surprise was not very happy. “You’re making him look like a crazy person,” she admonished sternly, “You need to put Al in there.” And she was right, Jeremy realized.

Frankly put, it’s pretty easy to go down that road. On the surface of things, Al is pretty much a whacko and I leaned over to Da Queen several times and said so. To her credit she said nothing and held her opinion to herself (until after the movie of course – Da Queen isn’t shy about sharing her opinions with me or anyone else for that matter). As the movie progresses you get quite a different opinion of Al than just a lonely old man playing with dolls.

Much of the film is wrapped around an exhibition of Al’s work at the local art museum, an event which really seemed to vindicate Al and bring him some satisfaction. It’s not that he needed an audience for his work – he mostly made it for himself I suspect – but to be validated as an artist, to be told his pictures have some value. That was important to him.

Throughout the time that Jeremy knew him Al was having money troubles. He was deeply in debt and had to improvise his environments using whatever he could find. Most of his Barbies were found in thrift stores and at tag sales (that’s New England for yard sale or garage sale if you’re reading this on the West Coast).

Although Al had made substantial renovations to his home, they were almost all his own handiwork and to a certain extent somewhat Winchester Mystery House-like in their layout – the house is described as something of a labyrinth by one of the few who were given access to the inner sanctum (Al had also dug a cavern in which he placed Barbies in an atmosphere that was described as “magical.” Unfortunately, Al passed away a few years ago after a brief illness and his landlord, who had waited with baited breath for Al to go, bulldozed the property and much of his art (although his nephew apparently saved quite a bit according to Workman). Mostly, this film remains as a testament to what he accomplished.

Da Queen thinks he’s an artistic genius and maybe he is. I’m really not going to make that determination; that’s something you’ll have to decide for yourself. What I can say is that this documentary takes you inside his world, allows you to experience his art and more importantly, allows you to experience the man as well. In my book, that makes this a crackerjack documentary that is worth seeking out and given the glut of documentaries out there that don’t even do that, that’s pretty solid praise.

REASONS TO GO: Not your standard documentary. An interesting look at the creative process.

REASONS TO STAY: Some people might be uncomfortable with the concept (hopefully they’ll watch the film and come to a different understanding about it however).

FAMILY VALUES:  While the concept of an old man taking pictures of Barbie dolls – some without clothes – is a bit creepy, there isn’t anything here I wouldn’t feel comfortable letting a kid watch.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although Workman has directed several documentary features and shorts, he is best known in the industry as an editor for which he has an Emmy nomination (in 2002 for the Oscar telecast).

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/19/13: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet; the film made its world premiere at the Florida Film Festival and will doubtlessly be hitting film festivals around the country for the foreseeable future.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Universe of Keith Haring

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: 42

The Taiwan Oyster


I wouldn't buy a used car from these guys, let alone let them bury my corpse.

I wouldn’t buy a used car from these guys, let alone let them bury my corpse.

(2013) Drama (Spoonbill) Billy Harvey, Jeff Palmiotti, Leonora Lim, Erin King, Fu-Kuei Huang, Chia-Ying Kuo, Joseph Shu, Sean Scanlan, Will Mounger, Jimi Moe, Hai-Sen Ni, Eva Liao, Michael Jian, Catherine Li, Magnus von Platen, Bob Bloodworth, Bin-he Feng, Klairinette Wu. Directed by Mark Jarrett

 Florida Film Festival 2013

When you’re an expatriate in a country radically different from your own, it’s not that hard to sometimes be caught by the current that flows between cultures, adrift on that current without much effort on your own part. When that happens, ascertaining what the right thing to do is can be murky viewing at best. It’s easy to do the right thing for the wrong reasons in circumstances like that.

Simon (Harvey) and Darin (Palmiotti) are a couple of Americans living in Taiwan. They earn their living as kindergarten teachers by day and put together a very dodgy fanzine by night. Their ‘zine, called The Oyster is their ticket out or so Darin thinks. Simon just wants to write for any magazine. He has an opportunity to return home but he’s unsure what to do. About anything, really.

One night the two of them are drinking with some fellow ex-pats when tragedy strikes. One of their number dies in a terrible miscalculation of his own limitations. He has no family to claim his body and the state will eventually cremate his body and dispose of the remains in some anonymous grave. However, Simon discovers to his dismay that the man signed his “funeral wall” – a wall in the apartment Darin and Simon share in which they and fellow ex-pats have left instructions on what to do if they should die in Taiwan. The two realize they must claim the body and bury it in the right spot, a mournful song by Hank Williams blaring on their boom box.

This is easier said than done. An officious clerk (Feng) won’t release the body to non-relatives and their attempts to disguise themselves as American embassy officials is embarrassing at best. So they steal the body – with the help of a sympathetic clerk (Lim) who Simon quickly develops a crush on, feelings which are reciprocated.

The two then take a journey throughout Taiwan, trying to find the perfect place to bury their countryman, whom they barely knew. As they discover Taiwan, they begin to discover a sense of responsibility that they both have been lacking and figure out that growing up doesn’t have to be so painful after all – but it always is.

Taiwan is one of the most beautiful places on Earth and it wouldn’t be hard for anyone to make a decent-looking movie while filming there but Jarrett and cinematographer Mike Simpson have good eyes and make a great-looking movie. It’s worth seeing for the visuals alone.

Darin, who in indie-quirky fashion rips the sleeves off of all his shirts (which I don’t think he understands how that is the 21st century equivalent of a mullet) and Simon both start off the film as kind of typical young guys who are more interested in their next good time than in making something of themselves. Simon in particular is capable of deciding nothing, preferring instead to drift on whatever wind finds him. Darin is not much better but he at least instigates things, although they are often the wrong things.

Harvey and Palmiotti are pleasantly surprising with strong onscreen presences the both of them. They have good chemistry together and the bickering between them, which sounds a lot like good friends in their mid-20s, is believable. Lim is there pretty much as a love interest and as an audience surrogate; her character is a third wheel at times and she knows it. Still, Nikita (her character’s name) can sense the potential in Simon and while he isn’t ready for a relationship with anyone, he is changed for the better for his relationship with Nikita.

Jarrett characterizes this as a Texas road film set in Taiwan and that’s as succinct an appraisal of the film as you’re likely to get. There is a good deal of insight here into the nature of being a young man with no direction in a foreign land. While the plot is resonant of other incidents (and the very self-aware Darin probably knows it – he’s more interested in becoming a local legend than doing right by a man he barely knew) it also carries with it a kind of Texas feel to it; while there’s no sagebrush or badland prairie to be seen here, Simon and Darin could easily have been traveling from Plano as they were from Taipei. Larry McMurtry, the noted author, would certainly recognized some of his own style here as would Tim Burton – the ending reminded me a bit of Big Fish in some ways (more in the feel of it than anything else – nobody turns into a giant catfish here).

The screening I was attending was plagued by technical problems, causing it to run late into the night and so I was fairly tired when I saw it which might have something to do with me not giving it a higher rating. I have changed my rating upwards since I saw it, something I rarely do and chances are if you ask me a week from now what I’d give it a higher rating still. Some movies grow on you long after you’ve seen it and this is one of those movies for me. That’s certainly something to consider when deciding whether to see it or not yourself.

REASONS TO GO: Gorgeous cinematography. A road picture with insight. Resonates like the work of Larry McMurtry and to an extent, Tim Burton.

REASONS TO STAY: Drags in places.

FAMILY VALUES:  Some morbid humor, a bit of bad language, drinking, smoking and drug use and some sexuality – not a Disney film by any means.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Jarrett was inspired by William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying (which is quoted at the beginning of the film) and his own experiences while residing in Taiwan from 1999-2001.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/18/13: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet; the movie has been on the festival circuit for the past year.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Lonesome Dove

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Magical Universe

SOMM


When it comes to fine wine, it's best not to whine, fine?

When it comes to fine wine, it’s best not to whine, fine?

(2012) Documentary (Goldwyn) Ian Cauble, Dlynn Proctor, Dustin Wilson, Brian McClintic, Shayn Bjornholm, Fred Dame, Bo Barrett, Mercedes Lam, Michael Mina, Peter Neptune, Jay Fletcher, Reggie Narito, Andrea Cecci, Rachael Wilson, Elizabeth Dowty, Michael Jordan, Rajat Parr, Jay Fletcher, Eric Railsback, Whitney Fisher, Margaux Pierog. Directed by Jason Wise

 Florida Film Festival 2013

The appreciation of fine wine is the hallmark of a civilized person. Sommeliers take this appreciation to a new level and master sommeliers are perhaps the ultimate expression in this regard. Their palates are ultra-refined; their knowledge second to none. A great wine can turn a great meal into a memorable one.

Becoming a master sommelier however is no easy task. Since the certification process began in 1977, only 197 people around the world have passed the test. Many spend years in preparation only to be disappointed.

The Master Sommelier examination is administered once a year and is done in three parts; an oral exam on general wine knowledge, a service exam which puts the applicants in a restaurant situation with hostile, ignorant or demanding customers and a blind taste test. The latter can be the most daunting.

We follow four close friends as they prepare for the 2011 exam; Ian Cauble, a brilliant and driven young man who his friends affectionately refer to as “Dad” for his tendency to take a paternal role in getting the young men to study. He is a flash card ninja and possibly the most knowledgeable of the group. Dlynn Proctor is an elegant and dapper young man who is self-possessed and confident; he radiates authority and knowledge.

Brian McClintic is married and badly wants to pass the exam; he feels guilty that he has spent so much time on the exam and wants to give his wife her husband back. He is fully aware that the master sommelier certification opens a whole lot of doors and he really needs to go through at least one of them for the sake of his family. Finally there’s Dustin Wilson, a stabilizing influence on the other two and another very focused individual. He’s the kind of guy who’ll do flash cards on Skype in the wee hours of the morning to help out his friends.

We get to watch these guys as they are mentored by some of the finest sommeliers on the planet including Steve Dame, thought to be the best American sommelier and one of the first grand masters. When he speaks, a young master in training is best advised to listen. That’s pretty much true of all of their mentors although alas, some don’t – one of the applicants has the temerity to question one of the master’s veracity when being quizzed on the wine tasting aspect of the test.

There’s no doubt it’s a grueling process; the movie is very successful in communicating it. While some might question how rough it is to sit back and sample lots of good wine, being able to discern one from the other with pinpoint accuracy requires a finally trained palate and that doesn’t come from sipping a glass of grocery store-bought chardonnay on the back porch.

The filmmakers are also successful in getting us to care and root for these applicants which isn’t always easy; at times they can be a bit arrogant (well, at least one or two of them). These seem to be genuinely decent guys who want to be successful, not just for themselves but for their families.

Where the movie fails a bit is in the choice of us watching them do wine tastings; yes they are in several different venues (from their own homes to a restaurant with their mentors to online Skype sessions) but it amounts to the same thing. We see almost none of the service portion of the test, and even then only one candidate is presented. I would have liked to have seen how all four of them responded in a similar situation and less how each of them can distinguish merlot from one region from another.

You don’t need to be a wine connoisseur or even like wine at all to enjoy the film. This isn’t so much about wine or even about being a sommelier so much as being about chasing a difficult dream. People do it for all sorts of reasons – pride, financial gain, opportunity or even just to prove to themselves that they can. We can all relate to that in some form or another. That is the triumph of the human spirit and the movie celebrates that; of course, any celebration is just that much better with a glass of a good wine.

REASONS TO GO: Involves the audience. Doesn’t require an extensive knowledge of wine. Fascinating insight into the world of the sommelier.

REASONS TO STAY: Could have used some editing – too many wine tastings.

FAMILY VALUES:  Nothing here that should worry any parents about bringing kids to see it – hey get them started early on wine appreciation, I say.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Master Sommelier exam is administered by the Court of Master Sommeliers, who have four levels of expertise – Introductory, Certified, Advanced and Master. Candidates must pass exams for each level before being allowed to progress to the next.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/17/13: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet. Although Goldwyn has picked up the film, it is making the rounds on the festival circuit. A theatrical release is possible for later this year.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: First Position

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: The Taiwan Oyster and further coverage of the 2013 Florida Film Festival!