Uncorked – Netflix

Written & Directed by Prentice Penny

USA/2020/104 minutes

On the subject of wine, The United States not only seems intent on procuring a namesake for their product, but American cinema too has a steadily dripping reserve of films where vineyards sit as a central theme. For every Bottle Shock or Sideways, which take a predominately middle-class approach, there has been little in the blend of wine culture into black communities, so it’s time for a shake-up in the form of Prentice Penny’s feature debut Uncorked.

In a competent challenge of preconceptions surrounding a black man’s (Elijah) relationship with his father, primarily as their aspirations clash, Penny’s script subverts a traditionally bleak narrative where the context of race is present but underlying. Uncorked focuses on Elijah’s determination in becoming a sommelier, no small feat given the intricate examinations, costs and his father Louis’ disapproval. Disapproval which stems, not from ignorance or misunderstanding, but from a man who places his entire being into a staple of the community.

It isn’t difficult to understand why Elijah wouldn’t wish to disappoint Courtney Vance, who exudes charm throughout Uncorked as Elijah’s father Louis. Helping to balance the extreme expectations placed on his son, his position within the story reflects the importance of food culture, especially at the heart of communities. Vance carries weight to what could easily have been an antagonistic role, conveying Louis’ reasons for maintaining the restaurant and sacrificing his dreams, all with a degree of humour, calmness and excellent repartee with Niecy Nash as wife Sylvia. 

Now, on the whole, Uncorked is remarkably straight-forward, with little in the way of complex narrative techniques or cheap dramatic tricks. Carrying the film is Mamoudou Athie as Elijah, a young man who grinds against the groove of the men in his family and has little desire to run the Smokestack restaurant his father, and fathers before him have operated. Elijah has ambitions, but Athie maintains an earthiness in the role. He forges chemistry with each actor, and a relatability with the audience, regardless of their background or goals.

In a standout performance, driving a substantial portion of the films warmth, Niecy Nash captures the soul of Uncorked as Sylvia; a vivacious force who is criminally underused, particularly in the film’s latter third. A survivor of cancer, her remission forces Louis and Elijah’s reconciliation, and completes her story-arc as she strives to teach both of the men in her life one final, heartfelt lesson; reminding them that in the pursuit of ambition, never to forget to check on those we leave behind. 

Uncorked is as much a foodie film as it is a wine flick, with Elliot Davis’ cinematography agitating the tastebuds. As shots slow, Davis highlights the simplicity of life’s pleasures, with a steadfast focus on the smoking meats or colour contrasts of deep-bodied Merlots, against the pure, almost crystal clarity of a young Riesling. This is Uncorked’s strength, focusing on life, rather than politics. Much which can be read into Uncorked’s meta is from the audience’s mindset, with only minor pushes on commentary surrounding the elitism of wine, or the predominately white hiring of sommeliers. 

Penny’s Uncorked is precisely the change of pace many will welcome, refusing to inject false pretence or overt emotion. Uncorked, for lack of a less pun-fuelled description, requires savouring. It thrives on time, slowly allowing the story to breathe and bolster its cast who, able to inhabit their personas, give dimension to most roles, with only the occasional side-character feeling contrived. A palette cleanser, there are notes of tenderness, but for those expecting melodrama or lacerating commentary, a sour taste is left in the last mouthful.

Review originally published for The Wee Review: https://theweereview.com/review/uncorked/

Uncorked is availabe for streaming on Netflix

The Breadwinner

Directed by Nora Twomey

Written by Anita Doron, Deborah Ellis

Gloriously direct, “The Breadwinner” (2017) turns the patriarchal trope of a sole provider into an unflinching tale of a young Afghan girl’s determination, fear and resilience under Taliban rule in 2001. Based on Deborah Ellis’ bestselling novel, who returns to write the screenplay, “The Breadwinner” is a gut-wrenching reminder of the violence that women experience under the shadow of modern histories vilest patriarchal systems.

As the boys play solider, it is women who endure, women who spend their days attempting to find semblance amidst the chaos. Both the original novel and the screenplay have been written by Deborah Ellis, with the screenplay in part co-written with Anita Doron. With such a wealth of female filmmakers behind the film’s production, it’s little wonder how “The Breadwinner” manages to encapsulate female oppression from the most tyrannical of archaic patriarchies for verdantly. More importantly, how it refuses to victimise these mothers and daughters, instead, matching the strength they display with the losses they suffer.

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Opening-up with concerns over modern-day political coups, Western interference in the East and the severe imposition of female ‘modesty’, Twomey rejects an outright statement on the religious practises of a culture with which she is not a member. It’s a respectful opener, rife with imagery which speaks more than the words do, like America and Britain’s recent history in the region does not need to be stated when the bombastic annihilations of colour illustrate the point enough.

Reversing the term ‘breadwinner’, in which our first thoughts are of a man, usually suited, for some reason in fifties stylings, as the primary caregiver for the family. In Kabul, a woman isn’t in this role, unless her husband, brother’s, cousins or any other man in the family have died, left or are in prison. After her father Nurullah is taken to prison for hiding books in the floorboards, teaching his daughters, Parvana finds herself the breadwinner for her sick mother, her older sister and baby brother. That is of course after she sheds her headscarf, her hair and disguises herself as a boy. With her newfound ‘freedom’, Parvana discovers that “when you’re a boy you can go anywhere you like”, as suddenly she can hold her head high, walk and purchase goods, all with less fear of scrutiny. Here, Saara Chaudry‘s voice acting moves from the sombre tones to a jovial child who is unearthing the brief joys in life, in an otherwise difficult lifestyle.

And this power of the written word, a resentment from educated women, has references which you can locate in Nora Twomey’s direction and animation. The tool which Parvana’s parents use to educate their daughters, much to the disarray of the Taliban, a storybook, a simple, harmless storybook which offers key weapons in the fight of oppression: imagination and freedom, which offer liberation. Mentioned as a writer, Laara Sadiq’s role as such an educated mother, Fattema is soft-spoken, which as the stakes grow higher, morphs into a matriarchal powerhouse of desperation – a woman for who no man will tie-down, even when threatened at knifepoint, beaten or any other atrocities she suffers in the film.

Liberating a profound level of freedom with the text, Executive producer Angelina Jolie works alongside Ellis and Twomey to reinforce the film’s stringency to the truth. The beating we see Fattema endure, the threats of ‘marriage at her age’, sexual violence, arranged marriages and abuse of both daughters, “The Breadwinner”, regardless of its comedic moments, playful characters or visuals does not shy from authenticity.

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So please take heed, especially from an advocate of children’s cinema, that “The Breadwinner” is not a children’s film. It’s the antithesis of animation’s place as a respectful genre in the cinematic field. Though, I would implore anyone, that if they sufficiently trust their children are mature enough to watch this film, please encourage them to do so. Stripping back the otherness of cinema, “The Breadwinner” places us into the eyes of children in a culture, in a world which we in Western society only ever see through media’s altered vision. Canadian activist Ellis crafts “The Breadwinner” as starkly human, but nevertheless, it is a warming film of family, it will connect with you regardless of nationality, or at the very least we would hope it does. At its most beautiful, this film is a masterpiece in animation which deserves praise for its manipulation of light, layers and dramatic-symbolic storytelling.

Any readers familiar with Twomey and Cartoon Saloon’s previous titles, “The Secret of the Kells” (2009) and “The Song of the Sea” (2014) will have expectations of ‘The Breadwinner’s’ animation style. A wholly unique form than what s presently on offer from the large studios, and even the independents. What Twomey’s style loses in-depth, remaining in the two-dimensional construct the likes Dreamworks and Disney have since abandoned, she makes up for with a palette of immense colour, transforming Kabut into a rich canvas. Injecting the culture with a zest we are unfamiliar with, the landscape a breath of colour propels it into significance, even the darker moments capture the futility of the task ahead for the family with their foreboding monochromatic shadows.

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Quite the opposite, where shadow is the plaything of reality, ‘The Breadwinner’ delves into the cultural stories of Kabul and the Middle East. Snippets of pure escapist storytelling, these blissfully animated segments are awe-inspiring, with a unique blending of multiple formats. They are animated, maintaining Twomay’s two-dimensional style, but they have layers. Almost puppet-like, certainly origami-inspired, as the symbolic jaguars and wolves descend against the young boy, a reminder of so many claimed by war. Ellis so heart-achingly illustrates the maternal vein of the narrative, that it is put upon young Parvana, her mother and sister to keep the family going, their personas reflecting the stories she tells her young brother.

Purposely ambiguous, the film’s ending is bitter-sweet, though refrains from outright misery. “The Breadwinner” earns a spot as a monumentally important piece within the last decade, not only for having a team primarily made up of women, but also for Twomey’s championing a genre which suffers from a hugely lacking diversity. As animation slowly gains a foothold with dramatic representation’s, Hollywood would do well to remember the roots of the genre with the ink-artists of Walt Disney, all women, whose storytelling capabilities continue to manifest limitless story-potentials in ways other film-forms cannot.

Review originally published for In Their Own League: https://intheirownleague.com/2019/11/19/itol-top-50-films-of-the-decade-entry-no-32-the-breadwinner/

A Taste of Honey – King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

Written by Shelagh Delaney

Directed by Bijan Sheibani

Tickets Available from Capital Theatres: https://www.capitaltheatres.com/whats-on/taste-of-honey

It might seem grim up north, or this could be the skewed view thanks to a series of kitchen-sink realism pieces emerging throughout Britain in the ‘50s and ‘60s. A prime example is that of Shelagh Delaney’s gritty, but enriching play A Taste of Honey.

Touching on the subjects of gender, race, sexual orientation and family, Delaney struck a flame in the depiction of the vulnerabilities and strengths of working-class women. Returning for a new touring production, before settling into the Westend for the first time in 60 years – Edinburgh can regain a taste of this bitter-sweet production.

Always one for a flit, Helen and daughter Jo find themselves in their new louse-ridden abode. To describe their relationship as tense would be understating the rapier-like slashes, they take at one another. There’s a unique Northern skeleton to the characters, how they display a love/hate relationship like no other. Helen, Jodie Prenger, does what she can for Gemma Dobson’s Jo – but of course, that won’t stop her desire for a few toddy’s and suitors. 

Abandoning Jo once again, Jo finds herself besotted and naive to the world around her, and the advances of sailor Jimmy. Pregnant, unwed and living with gay best friend Geoffrey, Delaney’s piece is early commentary, though growing stale rather than advancing a narrative or tweaking the overall depictions. 

Dobson’s vigorous encircling of those she chooses to do battle with – be this her mother Helen or caddish booze-soaked Peter (Tom Varey), offers just enough youthful brass insecurities to maintain a naivety, heightening the visceral comments from her mother. Varey’s Peter, verminous in approach, conducts the character with an air of flea-ridden sleaze, helping raise Prenger’s role away from antagonistic.

Prevalent for her talents in musical theatre, the tumultuous respect for Prenger as a performer is promptly growing from her origins and into a realm of dramatic integrity. Her take on Helen is far livelier than previous incarnations of Delaney’s venomous Helen. Notably the film version with Dora Bryan, with Prenger’s character evolving from comedic vaudeville villain into a complex mother who shows signs of the sharp cruelty within. Bijan Sheibani takes a notion with Prenger’s direction, attempting to maintain a virtue without vilifying – though Prenger knows precisely where to twist the knife.

The atmosphere is a sharp point for A Taste of Honey, though sought uniquely. With blurring lines of a musical score, it’s easy to see the influences of a theatre director with a background in Opera. Sheibani conducts the stage with an infusion of this score, Prenger lending her superb vocals to the show’s opener. As she stands, cigarette in hand, bottle to one side – David O’Brien’s jazz trio supply an excellent underscore live onstage, entwining the cast.

Pistols at dawn are put aside, relying on verbal assaults for the make-up of the production. Hildegard Bechtler’s set shifts itself, accordingly, transforming Helen & Jo’s flat into an open coliseum for the two to do battle. The general division of the piece is a conversation between two characters, from Jo and her mother to Jo and her lover to the domestic bliss with Geoffrey, and reverting to Jo and Helen. What we gain is a demonstration of Delaney’s volatile language, concealing itself beneath the humour.

Straying from the monochromatic drear of Delaney’s post-war drama, Sheibani’s production tries to brighten the room – not overstating the comedy, but in moments, leaning away from the emotion. The result is a series of encounters, flourishing when able, incorrect in reading the tone on occasion. A Taste of Honey seems unwilling to define itself by its roots as a kitchen sink drama, choosing instead to develop with time – admirable, but requiring a touch extra care in how it develops for new audiences.

Runs until September 28th 2019. Tickets available from Capital Theatres at: https://www.capitaltheatres.com/whats-on/taste-of-honey

Photo Credit – Marc Brenner