Film Reviews For The Cine-Literate

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Mrs.Harris Goes to Paris

Five years ago, the acclaimed British actress Leslie Manville played a memorable role as Cyril in Paul Thomas Anderson’s drama “Phantom Thread (2017),” a film starring Daniel Day Lewis as a consummate dressmaker. Manville’s Cyril was nominated for an Oscar as a chilly perfectionist, a detail queen who kept Lewis’s business together. Thus we have the versatile Manville twice in the haute couture context of the 1950’s, once as a rigorous administrator and the second as a commonplace women desirous of a truly fancy gown.

Alba Baptista as Natasha and Lesley Manville as Mrs. Harris in “Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris, “ a Focus Features release. Credit: Courtesy of Focus Features / 2021 Ada Films Ltd.

It’s 1957, and Mrs. Ada Harris (Manville), a non-descript cleaning woman and widow who lives in an unfashionable flat in London’s Battersea district, falls in love with a Christian Dior gown in the apartment of one of her clients, the obnoxious Lady Dant (Anna Chancellor) who neglects to pay her wages. The dress ignites in her a desire to own such a treasure for herself—trouble is, it will cost 500 pounds! She resigns herself to raise the money to go personally to the House of Dior in Paris to order such a dress, counting her shillings to pay for the trip. The amount is daunting, until she has a trifecta of good luck in one day—surprise dog racing winnings, a cash reward for returning a lost ring, and the back pay from her husband’s military salary.

She arrives in Paris knowing no one but still finds her way to the House of Dior where she is brushed off by the firm’s condescending and chilly director, Ms. Colbert (Isabelle Huppert). Still, she, with offhand honesty and British wit, becomes adored by all the employees of the House because she has come to pay for her dress in cash! She also happens to be at the House when a lineup of new Dior frocks are being shown and falls hard for a red satin formal number.

Since the gown has to be made by hand over two weeks, she must find a place to stay in the city, which she does at the home of the sympathetic Mr. Fauvel (Lucas Bravo), a clever Dior staffer. She is also befriended by one of Dior young models, Natasha (Alba Baptista), who looks out for her and takes her on a glorious tourist drive around Paris. Soon she has inveigled herself into Parisian society with the help of a suave and amiable widower, the Marquise de Chassagne (Lambert Wilson), who introduces her to Parisian night life, both classy and bawdy. Getting fitted in the designer’s workshop in a parade of dream gowns, she is living her dream. She even gets in on the stitching herself.

Mrs. Harris is thus able to return to London, where her dress, borrowed by one of her clients, is accidentally damaged by fire, though the story ends on a purely positive note.

Unabashedly sentimental and packed with whimsy, “Mrs. Harris” succeeds mainly because of Manville’s down-to-earth, earnest performance. You root for her from the first minute. This film confection could be called the ultimate wish fulfillment fantasy, something we could all use in our turbulent times.

(The film, now in wide release, runs 115 mins. with a “PG” rating).

(July 2022)

Official Competition

An aged pharma multimillionaire Humberto Suárez (José Luis Gomez), celebrating his 80th birthday, is musing on his legacy but rejects the idea of commissioning some kind of routine monument or totem. Instead, he wishes to leave a different kind of mark by financing a major motion picture deemed a work of art. To this end, he looks to hire the best known Spanish film director in the business, the eccentric Lola Cuevas (Penelope Lopez).

Antonio Banderas (as Felix), Penelope Cruz (as Lola), and Oscar Martinez (as Iván) contemplating a rock in “Official Competition.” Photo Courtesy of The Mediapro Studio

The screenplay for this film is to be adapted from an award-winning novel about a man who is unable to forgive his brother for killing their parents in a drunk-driving accident. The two brothers are to be played by the renowned stage actor and drama teacher Iván Torres (Oscar Martinez) and the popular celebrity movie star Félix Rivero (Antonio Banderas), whose varied sensibilities and methods cause them to immediately clash during Cuevas’ lengthy rehearsals.

The film is essentially is made up of that very eccentric rehearsal period (in fact, we never see any shooting of the final film itself). Cuevas has her own idiosyncratic ways of working, starting with a massive, messy scrapbook which is a bursting collage of notes and images. Her aim is to elicit actor’s reactions and assess their skills, starting right off the bat with a lengthy (an arbitrary) critique of Torres’s delivery of the phrase “Good Morning” on the first reading of the script.

She also aims to “increase tension” between the duo by having them rehearse under a giant boulder hanging by a rope, then has the two actors throw insults at each other to test their level of ego.

A singular test for Ivan and Felix comes in a weird and sardonic scene that eventually turns excruciating: after collecting many of the awards each actor has won in their careers, she places their hardware on a theater stage while both men sit in an empty audience totally immobilized in plastic wrap (only their noses and eyes showing) while one of Lola’s assistants proceeds to smash the cherished awards to bits. Horrified, the encased actors scream and struggle as their pride is being demolished in front of their eyes.

The actors do try to get back at Lola and each other by using their acting chops to deceive her and themselves. For example, Ivan dolefully announces at one point that he is dying from a lethal disease—effectively killing the project-- only to quickly admit he was only “kidding.”

“Official Competition” was directed by Argentine filmmakers Gastón Duprat and Mariano Cohn from a screenplay by Duprat, Cohn, and Andrés Duprat. The duo of Duprat and Cohn have made ten films together, most of them never seen in the US. This may be—with its famous Spanish leads and its enthralling plot—their chance for a breakthrough to the North American independent movie market. Too quirky to be a blockbuster, it mingles both dead-pan comedy with off-beat intellect to intrigue the thoughtful filmgoer. And the co-directors get wry and rich performances out of their three leads.

Lopez continues to amaze with her range, especially coming off her most recent performance as a bright Spanish activist in “Parallel Mothers,” released just a few months ago. With her tough charm and a mane of fuzzy hair, she keeps you guessing about her next move, keeping you on edge just as much as she does her two actors.

Worthy of mention, too, is the setting of “Official Competition:” shot in the Teatro Auditorio of San Lorenzo de El Escorial, a super-modern building in the complex of the historic Escorial castle outside of Madrid, it offers a futuristic space for its protagonists to glide around in.

(The film, now in theaters, runs 115 minutes and is rated “R.”)

(July 2022)


“Accepted” offers a unique and intriguing look at the world of college admissions and the true cost of getting that first foothold into elite American society. This surprising documentary promises a heartening story of education for the beleaguered, when director and co-cinematographer Dan Chen introduces us to the promise and predicaments of the T.M. Landry College Prepatory school in rural Breaux Bridge, Louisiana.

Poster from new documentary “Accepted.” Image copyright Greenwich Entertainment

Landry Prep (founded in 2005) is housed in a sparse warehouse in a poor town but has gained a reputation for sending its graduates on to elite universities like Harvard, Yale, and Stanford. The students supposedly receive rigorous academic training aimed to meet the intense expectations of the school’s charismatic director, Mike Landry. Co-founder of the school and energizer bunny Landry drives his kids like a drill sergeant, urging them on to their college dreams. Most of the school’s small population is poor Black students with apparent potential to break out into new lives.

While the film shows little clear classwork being done, it highlights the relentless, boisterous demands of Landry, to whom the filmmakers gain unbelievable access. In alta voce, the director exhorts his charges to follow their dream by telling them they cannot fail if they work hard enough within his system. The kids are thrilled at the prospect and follow Landry’s lead by wearing sweatshirts labelled with the top schools they hope to attend. (The film recalls elements of 1980’s “Lean on Me” with Morgan Freeman playing the role of a tyrannical principal.)

Among the school’s students we see preparing for college, we follow the personal stories of four thoughtful students looking to overcome countless obstacles to achieve their dreams. There is Cathy, a bright Latina who is the pride of a single parent household but who has doubts: “This is not a normal school,“ she says. Attractive Alicia lives at the poverty level but hopes she can help bring her family and herself a better future. Adia is another Latina with high hopes, as is Isaac, a handsome junior who carries his dreams on a sweatshirt emblazoned with a “Stanford” logo.

Over the years, the tiny school receives national attention when media report feel-good stories about Landry’s kids attaining admission to major universities like Harvard, but, in November 2018, the New York Times publishes an exposé on Landry’s unconventional methods. In the Times piece, the school is accused of doctoring transcripts and college applications, and Landry is alleged to have physically abused and pressured his students. Investigations ensue.

Each of the students we have followed in the film is left to contend with uncomfortable truths about their school and the overall college admissions system, and all decide to leave Landry for other educational prospects.

“Accepted” may not rise to the quality of other recent excellent film examinations of US high-schoolers, such as “Step (2017)” and “Boy’s State (2020,” but it still fills its more modest role with care and heart.

(The film, released in the DC area on July 1, runs 92 mins, and is not rated).

(July 2022)