Saturday, August 09, 2008

Bottle Shock

"Bottle Shock" is the new film by Randall Miller, a director whose work I've admired over the last two years. With three films under his belt, I first noticed him in 2006 with "Marilyn Hotchkiss' Ballroom Dancing and Charm School," a sometimes overly sapping romantic comedy, but one directed quite well and with some beautifully dark cinematography. The same went for his second film "Nobel Son," which I saw at the Tribeca Film Festival last year and is being released in October. Done with a very different tone and feel from his first film, it was still quite noticeable what talent that Miller had. Shot around the same time as "Nobel Son" and gathering quite a number of actors from that film, Miller made "Bottle Shock," a unsurprisingly entertaining historical piece with Alan Rickman giving a terrific lead performance as wine snob Steven Spurrier, who in 1976 shattered the myth that the French have the most superior wine in all the world. Not since the 2004 masterpiece "Sideways" have I seen such an wonderful film about wine. While "Bottle Shock" may not be as perfect as "Sideways," it certainly does have more information about the craze of wine, and the passion behind blind wine tastings. 

In '76 Spurrier was living in France, owning his own little empty wine shop, trading snobbish stories with his American friend Maurice (Dennis Farina). Steven decides to go to California to find some competition in a contest where he collides French wine and American. His visit to California has him getting involved with a various group of people. At the head is Jim Barrett (Bill Pullman), whose opinions on the snobby Steven are instantly formed when he helps him change a flat tire. Jim quit his job a while back to open the winery, and he tries to perfect his white wine. However he doesn't get much help from his somewhat slacker son Bo Barrett, who is consistently late and comes to work drunk or on the cusp of a one night stand. There is also Gustavo, a Mexican worker who is secretly creating his own brand of wine on the side. And lastly is the new intern Sam whose good looks cause a jealous strife between the two male friends. And alongside all of this is Steven, collecting wine from the various villages to bring back to France to destroy this myth once and for all.

As with all 'based on a true story' films, there is probably much fiction actually being conveyed to us. The primary one would be the love triangle between Bo, Gustavo, and Sam, which was an added subplot that I had the most problems with. It burdens the film down with this slow and contrived love story, which does not even offer a tied up conclusion with the man that she does not end up with. It was a love triangle created simply for dramatic purposes, and it weighs the movie down. The film really succeeds mostly when Alan Rickman is on the screen, and as Steve Spurrier he commands the audience to watch him. Rickman is terrific at delivering long and drooling speeches, and he does it here in both English and French. And him and Bill Pullman, who have an odd buddy relationship here, play off well and have great chemistry together. Pullman's performance does deserve more script than he gets, and he should have gotten a more solid arc and some back story. I would have liked to see more with these two characters instead of the convenient love story that we are stuck with, and more screenplay could have been written to give us back stories involving the Pullman and Rickman characters, who are the ones that are the most palatable to spend time with. 

Despite that bit that bogs the movie down, "Bottle Shock" is a crowd pleaser tried and true. It may be obvious how the film will end once the main characters present themselves, but its the journey that makes it worthwhile. It's the intensity of making it to that final revelation-during the wine tasting contest itself-that makes Miller such an enjoyable storyteller. And his direction is really quite unique, offering us some rather contrived story lines and genres, but never giving us any conventional camera angles or directorial approaches. Take a shot of Rickman driving-instead of giving us a typical close up of him driving, we get a rather obscure camera angle, as if you camera was by the break pedal. Or a shot of him trying to change a tire is giving more energy by making it a high angle, giving us a beautiful view of the blue sky and green trees of California. 

Miller really has a knack for the moving image, and I really do get quite enjoyment out of his movies. They are never perfect, and at times feel bogged down by contrived plots, but at the same time there is an undeniable charm about them. Perhaps its their look, or their performances, or just characters that are such a perfect blend of the real and the fantastic, that make me want to see what Miller will direct next. "Bottle Shock" is not a perfect film, not at all, but its warm and even oddly magical. By its end it gave me good vibes. To compare it to another wine film, "Sideways," I will admit it does not come close to even touching the masterful film making of that film, but its a nice smaller companion piece to the love people have of wine and how life consuming the cultivation of the grape could be to some folks. And if Randall Miller could make a film that I am able to compare to another which had a strong impact on me, he's on the right track.

*** of ****


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