Film Review: Caffeinated

Though coffee has always made the perfect beverage for movie buffs, 'Caffeinated' proves a mild blend.
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Not unlike Les Blank and Gina Leibrecht's All in This Tea, Hanh Nguyen and Vishal Solanki's Caffeinated tells a comparable tale of a hot brew—its history, production and consumption—yet both fall short of forming a lasting impression. At least Caffeinated is the more stylish of the two films, and coffee lovers will want to see it.

With green-buyer Geoff Watts playing tour guide, Nguyen and Solanki's documentary takes us around the world, from North America to South America, from Europe to Asia, visiting a variety of farms, warehouses and specialty shops as a way to better understand how coffee beans are grown, harvested and distributed. Caffeinated features interviews with the growers and workers, baristas and customers, including a couple of "B" celebrity aficionados, and closely follows the process of the production.

Considering how much coffee has always been integral to so many cultures, it is somewhat surprising that there has not been a coffee documentary before either Caffeinated or the concurrent release, Brandon Loper's A Film About Coffee. Nguyen and Solanki dutifully cover how diverse groups connect powerfully to the drink. The main focus, however, concerns the "making of" the product, which would not be as intriguing as it turns out to be if it weren't for Solanki's exquisite cinematography. The co-director seems to be inspired by Jean-Luc Godard's iconic coffee cup-as-universe shot in Two or Three Things I Know About Her, for so many of the images in Caffeinated really belong in a coffee (ahem) table book.

One wishes the other aspects of the movie were as artful as the photography.  Derek Baird's generic score recalls American coffee ads of another era, and while Caffeinated indeed takes a trip down memory lane of vintage TV commercials, the clips and discussion about the past mass-marketing of the product remain scanty at best. (Yes, we see Mrs. Olson briefly, but where is El Exigente, Juan Valdez, or even Robert Young?)

There are no coffee "movie" moments either, during which we might have gained some insight into Western culture by viewing the signifiers of the most popular of pop-culture mediums: How about a few clips of cowboys serving Joe around the campfire, Cary Grant negotiating his morning percolator in Walk, Don't Run, Lee Marvin scalding Gloria Graham's face in The Big Heat, or John Travolta challenging Karen Lynn Gorney's "classy" tea with his proletariat "caw-fee" in Saturday Night Fever? In fact, it would not be a stretch to cite coffee as the pro-revolutionary antidote to English tea, but Caffeinated stays in the rarified strata of specialty houses, where the snooty baristas seek the perfect cup, and doesn't look too far back into history.

If your concern about coffee is health-related, Caffeinated doesn't clear things up much, despite the fact the debate has been simmering for decades. Should we limit our intake? Only drink organic? Or decaffeinated organic? What about those overrated, overpriced Starbucks mega-servings? It might help to hear from some medical experts, yet Nguyen and Solanki fail to find room for debate or controversy. (Remember that it was a scalding-hot McDonald's coffee spill that triggered the infamous lawsuit that helped severely cap damages in personal-injury cases.) At least in the latter stages, worker exploitation and trade issues are touched upon.

Caffeinated never flags completely, but it would not hurt to have a cup of coffee handy while viewing this good-looking but weak concoction.

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