What to Watch: September Songs
A quiet week for new movies, with a sweet and complex documentary about Zimbabwean wine tasters your best bet.
Labor Day weekend is the last gasp of summer and the last gasp of the summer movie schedule before the awards-season heavy hitters get rolled out at the “big four” fall festivals, which are finally returning as in-person events after two years of COVID-enforced digital screenings. The Venice Film Festival got underway Thursday, opening with Noah Baumbach’s glittery adaptation of Don DeLillo’s 1985 novel “White Noise.” (Adam Driver, Greta Gerwig, and Don Cheadle star; early reviews were respectful.) The Telluride Film Festival starts today and runs through Monday – it’s a boutique affair, showcasing a carefully curated 31 features to a well-heeled crowd of movie lovers, industry insiders, and a smattering of press. By contrast, the Toronto International Film Festival, which starts Thursday September 8th and which I’ll be attending and reporting from for the Watch List, is a groaning board of 260 feature films, including some of the most anticipated titles of 2022: Steven Spielberg’s autobiographical “The Fabelmans,” a striking comeback film for 1990s leading-dude Brendan Fraser called “The Whale” (see photo below), and new work by Martin McDonagh (“The Banshees of Inisherin”), Sam Mendes (“Empire of Light”), Todd Field (“Tár,” with Cate Blanchett), Sarah Polley (“Women Talking”). Also: “Glass Onion,” Rian Johnson’s sequel to “Knives Out,” with Daniel Craig returning as the chicken-fried master detective Benoit Blanc – joy.
How does one absorb it all? One scampers from movie to movie with both eyes on the screen and one ear to the ground, taking notes and taking fliers on out-of-nowhere audience favorites. (I manage four to five movies a day for six days and then come home and sleep for a week.) The New York Film Festival wraps up the month starting September 30, by which point most of the major end-of-year releases will have made their premiere bow at one or more of the four fests. There’s always a competition to see which festival gets which film exclusively, but there’s enough overlap to send everyone home happy, no matter which event you’re lucky enough to attend.
Until then, things are quiet in theaters and on demand. How quiet? Two of the weekend’s three wide releases are re-releases: the most recent “Spider-Man” movie (with extra footage and titled “The More Fun Stuff Version”) and 1975’s “Jaws.” No one will be going in the water after this weekend, anyway. Besides, there’s greater entertainment to be had at the moment in watching The Former Guy and his clown car of lawyers dig themselves into an ever deeper hole of sedition and malfeasance – like many, I am hoping for a sequel set in a courtroom and a prison cell, and I’m hoping for it soon.
The third wide release, “Honk for Jesus, Save Your Soul” (** stars out of ****) is a blunderbuss mockumentary about a Southern Baptist megachurch in the throes of scandal, with Sterling K. Brown (TV’s “This Is Us”) as a duplicitous pastor and Regina Hall (“Support The Girls”) as his wife, standing by her man with gritted teeth. The two leads go at their roles with gusto, and I’m happy to watch Hall in anything, but unless you’re truly surprised by the idea that there’s corruption and hypocrisy in organized religion, this is a case of shooting Jesus fish in a barrel.
Appearing in select theaters and also available on demand is a feel-good little documentary called “Blind Ambition” (for rent on YouTube, GooglePlay, and elsewhere, *** stars out of ****) about a team of Zimbabwean competitive wine tasters. That sounds bizarre but it shouldn’t: The four men -- Joseph Dhafana, Pardon Tagazu, Tinashe Nyamudoka, and Marlvin Gwese (in photo above) – are refugees from the 2008 Zimbabwean economic collapse who have all gone on to become professional sommeliers in their adopted homeland of South Africa. Representing their birth country, they enter the 2017 edition of the World Blind Wine Tasting Championships in France as one of the few teams of color, hoping to identify the grapes, countries, regions, and vintages of twelve unidentified wines by taste alone.
The movie’s a treat for oenophiles and/or anyone familiar with Bianca Bosker’s delightful 2017 book “Cork Dork,” but directors Robert Coe and Warwick Ross cast a wider gaze on diaspora, detailing the struggles of each of the four as they face an often-harsh new culture with inspirational drive. It’s a tricky balancing act and “Blind Ambition” doesn’t always pull it off – at times you feel the padding as the film stalls the big event at Chateau de Gilly in Burgundy. Further suspense comes with the introduction of the team’s coach – a blustery, eccentric, half-deaf Frenchman named Denis Garret, who may be more hindrance than help. But the wit and determination of the four men keeps the movie on an even keel, and it’s hard not to be moved when Dhafana marvels at the whims of fate that have brought him here: “I’m living a life I never actually planned.” “Blind Ambition” may not be great moviemaking, but it has a rich and satisfying subject — enjoy it with a nice Sangiovese.
While still in some theaters, “Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris” (**1/2 stars out of ****) is now available for premium rental on Amazon and elsewhere, and prices will soon come down further. A pleasing, predictable, and well-mounted adaptation of Paul Gallico’s 1958 bestseller about a London cleaning lady who becomes smitten with the idea of buying a Christian Dior dress, it benefits from the breathtaking couture of three-time Oscar-winning costume designer Jenny Beavan — dresses the movie treats as sacraments worthy of slowing down time — and for Lesley Manville’s performance in the lead. Manville (above) can do just about anything — see her bottle-blond crime matriarch in last year’s “Let Him Go” — and here she keeps the sentimentality of the role expertly under control as Mrs. Harris befriends and plays Miss Fixit to a Sartre-reading model (Alba Baptista), a shyly handsome accounts manager (Lucas Bravo), and even the snooty directress of the House of Dior (Isabelle Huppert, stooping to conquer).
For all the obvious reasons, “Mrs. Harris” begs comparison with “Phantom Thread,” the 2017 Paul Thomas Anderson drama set in the 1950s in a fictional London house of fashion. In that film, Manville plays the cool, controlling sister/manager to Daniel Day-Lewis’s mercurial designer — it’s the Huppert role, essentially — and she got an Oscar nomination out of it. She won’t for the new film, which is sweet, high-end corn served by experts. Anyway, go ahead make it a double feature, since “Phantom Thread” is currently available for streaming on Netflix. You haven’t seen it? It’s one of my favorite movies ever, four stars out of four — a gorgeously filmed love story about two control freaks who deserve each other and only each other. If you have seen it, well, see it again, because the movie truly reveals itself as a comedy on a return visit, once you’ve got the weirdness under your belt, and it gets funnier with each fresh viewing. If nothing else, put on Johnny Greenwood’s soundtrack album, pour yourself a Manhattan, and swoon. Just steer clear of the mushrooms.
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