Over the last several years, major film directors have made their way to the small screen, making limited series in search of creative freedom and risk-taking with the help of content hungry streaming services.
Slowly but surely, this trend is starting to pay dividends for movie lovers as young, talented television writers and creators are making their way to feature films.
Prentice Penny, show runner and one of the executive producers of the hit HBO series “Insecure,” partnered with Netflix for his directorial debut “Uncorked,” which debuted on the platform last weekend.
“Uncorked” follows a young African American man in Memphis looking to break into a world dominated by white men as he seeks to become a master sommelier, an elite accreditation for wine professionals. Elijah struggles to balance his love of wine with familial obligations, mostly put upon him by his father who runs the family’s popular barbecue stand.
Mamoudou Athie gives a solid, unspectacular performance as Elijah, offering the character the cool civility and demeanor required of a master sommelier candidate but with enough personality to carry scenes in the barbecue stand and at home.
Emmy winner Courtney B. Vance is the ideal choice to play Elijah’s father Louis as the “American Crime Story” star provides immense gravitas and credibility to the project with his understated performance that belies the tremendous amount of work he’s doing with a limited part.
Vance wears the burden of family legacy well in the role as Louis presses Elijah with a stoic, yet heavy hand and the transformation of his character over the course of the film feels genuine and earned.
Veteran comedienne Niecy Nash steals every scene she’s in with her most compelling work to date as Elijah’s mother Sylvia, a cancer survivor trying to bridge the gap between father and son while stoking Elijah’s passion for wine. Her performance has the traditional humorous line deliveries viewers are accustomed to from Nash, but there’s also a refreshing tenderness to her work that helps Sylvia resonate with audiences in a way they can’t get to with Elijah or Louis.
Penny takes liberties with his screenplay to paint a larger picture with broad brushstrokes, often leaving audiences to fill in the blanks as time fluidly progresses at various rates over the course of the film.
For example, the development of Elijah’s relationship with Tanya floats in the background of his larger struggle between wine and barbecue. Landmark moments in their romance are shown – their flirtatious meeting discussing wine as rap artists, a first date at a roller rink, meeting his parents – but their love remains shallow and out of focus.
Penny trusts his audience to fill in the gaps, leaving aspects intentionally unwritten to keep focus on the worlds of wine and barbecue, passion and family, pulling Elijah in different directions.
It’s a bold strategy that doesn’t entirely pay off for viewers, who will occasionally have trouble orienting themselves after unannounced leaps in time.
Visually, “Uncorked” has a smoky, seductive hue that draws audiences in and cinematographer Elliot Davis elevates the film with an engaging energy that pairs well with the rhythmic hip-hop soundtrack transitioning in and out of dialogue scenes.
“Uncorked” was slated to debut earlier this month at the South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin, a premiere cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic that would have provided a much-needed word of mouth boost as it headed toward its release on Netflix this past Friday.
An imperfect film in many ways, “Uncorked” does provide a welcome respite from current events and a promising feature debut from a filmmaker to watch in the future.