A heartening and needed antidote to the grim news on the environment and society is the documentary film Tomorrow. In it, French directors Cyril Dion and Mélanie Laurent travel the world to learn about progressive programs in five areas: agriculture, energy, the economy, democracy, and education. Some of the initiatives already offer striking examples of superb achievements.

Picking among the inspirational activities in the ten countries visited is a challenge, but among the impressive case studies are the following: urban farming in Detroit, permaculture in France, geothermal energy in Iceland, agri-energy on the French island of Réunion, solar power in Germany, and recycling in San Francisco. Copenhagen's investment in wind turbines pays amazing dividends, already accounting for 60 to 70% of needed energy with self-sufficiency projected by 2025.

For me, the most surprising is the complementary but not competitive local currencies used in Basel, Switzerland; Bristol, England; and Oakland, California, among other locales. Also striking are groups that cooperate to improve their communities, including members of different castes now living side by side in Kuthambakkam, India. In other places, town council representatives are chosen by lot not election, with surprising results. Experts weigh in periodically to add context and helpful information, while songs by Swedish singer Fredrika Stahl punctuate the chapters, adding an update mood and commentary.

The film itself provides an example of the impact individuals can have. When their own financing failed to cover the costs, Laurent and Dion appealed to crowd financing via KissKissBankBank. Over 10,000 people contributed what amounted to more than a quarter of the film's budget. It proves what Tomorrow explicitly argues: only empowered citizens can produce a beautiful democracy and "politics is not just for politicians." It's up to all of us and Tomorrow shows us the way, winning France's César for Best Documentary Film, the equivalent of our Oscar. 

Primarily in English with some French and Finnish with English subtitles. Tomorrow screens at Webster University's Winifred Moore auditorium Friday, July 21 through Tuesday, July 25 at 8:00.

 

A lot of animated films have a sinking spell right about the middle, when the plot has been set up, the characters intro- or re-introduced, and the decibel level established but before the boffo end. Despicable Me 3 never sinks, which means: forget about taking a little nappy-wappy about mid-way.

The plot -- and there is one -- centers on former baddie Gru. He's been fired from the Anti-Villain League but lies about it to his family of darling daughters and to his minyan of minions. Then, surprise!, he discovers that he has a twin. Dru is cheerier and more despicable, and he ropes his twinnie into dastardly deeds. The biggest bad deed is going after the former child star Balthazar Bratt, stuck in the Eighties -- or maybe he just can't through the decades door due to his giant shoulder pads and pomaded hairs. Then there's the bubble gum.

Bratt, voiced by Trey Parker, behaves like a global brat, so Gru has to decide if he's going to go back on his declaration to his partner Lucy and his daughters that he will give up being despicable.

You know which side he's going to come down on. So you can sit back to watch what the film's creators have to show you in terms of cleverness under the direction of Pierre Coffin and Kyle Balda. Listen to the Minions sing "I Am the Model of a Modern Major General" in Minionese. Notice the tattoo of a giant banana on Mel's back. See them nude -- fans of the little golden boys know there's nothing -- nothing! -- cuter then yellow Minion bee-hinds!

There are also plenty of funny plays on words, written by Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio, such as a curse for the Eighties is "son of a Beta Max!" Steve Carrell voices Dru and Gru, Julie Andrews voices their mother, and Kristen Wiig returns as Lucy, making Despicable Me 3 thoroughly delightful, clever, and dear.

 

Do not be surprised by the dropping, ye, verily, blitzkrieging of the F-bomb in The Little Hours. As proof that modern society did not invent that curse, this version of one story from The Decameron produces dialogue that sounds genuinely contemporary to the year 1347.

What may be surprising, however, is that that particular incendiary device is dropped out of the mouth of a nun in the script by Jeff Baena. Many young women were stuffed into nunneries to keep them pure or to pay the church back for favors or to make them wait for a husband, the only other thing to save women from being thought whores.

This convent has the usual flighty, flirty sisters as well as one bemoaning how she cannot go home again. There're a priest (hairy John C. Reilly) and a mother superior (Molly Shannon) and a bishop (Fred Armisen), all vested and virginal. Into this little world lands a worldly lad (Dave Franco), who has been the lover of a lord's lady. The lord (Nick Offerman) wants to send him packing. The priest convinces him to serve as a handyman in the convent. He also convinces the healthy, handsome, hunky young man to remain deaf and mute. That only encourages one nun to confide in him and others to top him, hiking their habits high. 

Each night the man child and the priest confer over the sacramental wine the women haven't stolen for their 14th-century version of a bunking party. Boccaccio was nothing if not licentious and libatious.

The cast comes from television. There's Alison Brie from Community, who's married to Dave Franco, who's James' brother and who plays the handy, randy lad. Kate Micucci from Another Period plays a nun, sister to eye-rolling Aubrey Plaza, from Parks and Recreation with Offerman; she partners with Jeff Baena, also the director of The Little Hours. This little film is a bagatelle, and a juicy little one. Pray for it.

 

Consider the challenges dramatizing the life of Maud Lewis, a quiet, penniless woman afflicted by acute juvenile rheumatoid arthritis leaving her hunched over with knobby hands. Isolate her in Marshalltown, Nova Scotia, and get her a job as housekeeper to a joyless fish peddler in a twelve-by-twelve-foot house and watch her develop into a famous Canadian folk artist. 

Maud's struggle could be unpleasantly sentimentalized or, at the other extreme, overly sensationalized. But in Maudie director Aisling Walsh and screenwriter Sherry White stand back to observe two down-and-out survivors from a relatively dispassionate perspective, not indifferent but more interested in watching, rather than indulging, beleaguered individuals struggling with physical hardship and emotional limitations. Walsh's presentation of this true story surprises and appeals in equal measure.

In quick succession in opening scenes, Maud, in her thirties in the 1930s, is left, I'm tempted to say "dumped," by her brother Charles at her Aunt Ida's. Maud has no say in this. Yearning for some independence and to escape her oppressive Aunt, Maud grabs an ad for a housekeeper off the local store's bulletin board. When she shows up at Everett Lewis' one-room home, he doesn't welcome Maud Dowley or actually smile at anything. But thus begins a relationship that is fresh, touching, and unforgettable because of the astonishing embodiment of Everett and Maud by Ethan Hawke and Sally Hawkins. 

Maud begins to paint to bring some smattering of color to their literally and metaphorically drab existence. As her talent blossoms, so does an abiding connection between these two. To watch Hawkins and Hawke interact is to know these two consummate actors trust every minute gesture and glance to convey complex thoughts and feelings. 

Director Walsh has said, "I wanted the film to be both intimate and expansive." Cinematographer Guy Godfree and editor Stephen O'Connell achieve that, bringing the locale to life through Maud's paintings and making carefully observed, uncommon lives thrilling. It should revive appreciation for folk art and Maud Lewis. At Landmark and AMC Cinemas. Check local listings.

 

 

 

Like dropping in on old friends, Daniel Cross' I Am the Blues casually celebrates iconic blues musicians. No authoritarian narration and no formal interviews intrude into this leisurely, perfect visit with elderly champions of the blues. Even into their eighties, these men and women express their experiences and emotions lyrically and musically. 

The location matters: from Bentonia, Como, Tutwiler and Mount Bayou, Mississippi, to Lafayette, Louisiana, plus the many juke joints on the Chitlin' Circuit throughout the Delta and Bayou region. Acknowledging this, writer/director Cross begins his salute with cinematographer John Price's camera gliding smoothly through a swamp at water level. A brief voiceover comment describing the feeling of the blues segues into music playing over these introductory shots--a tantalizing invitation to a delightful journey.

Next, and appropriately, at the Blue Front Café in Bentonia, Jimmy "Duck" Holmes explains that he ran his café for forty-three years. We'll also visit the Pool Monkey Lounge, outdoor barbecues, living rooms, churches, and more as individuals calmly and quietly describe the pervasive racism they faced; for example, the railroad tracks that literally divided white from black communities and the curtain that kept the blues band out of sight in one performance so the white audience could enjoy the music but not have to look at the black faces.

But the heart of this wonderful film is just hanging out on the porch with and listening to blues legends play and sing. And can they make music (!!) with guitars, harmonicas, pianos and heavenly voices! They include Jimmy "Duck" Holmes, Bobby Rush, RL Boyce, Lazy Lester, Lil' Buck Sinegal, Henry Gray, and Carol Fran. Barbara Lynn plays her left-hand bass and sings. Little Freddie King -- 81 years old, 326 records, 60 years playing--describes making his first guitar out of a cigar box and a picket fence plank. One asserts, "This guitar's a bible!" and we understand.

The presentation feels effortless, a tribute to Ryan Mullins editing and Cross' design. The only thing wrong with I Am the Blues is that you want more of everything. I Am the Blues screens at Webster University's Winifred Moore auditorium Friday, July 7, through Tuesday, July 11 at 8:00 p.m. 

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