“BOTTLE SHOCK” (2008) Review

“BOTTLE SHOCK” (2008) Review

If someone had suggested I go see a movie about California wines and its impact upon the business in the mid-1970s, I would have smiled politely and ignored that person. As it turned out, no one had told me about the 2008 comedy-drama, ”BOTTLE SHOCK”. Two years would pass before I found myself intrigued by it, while watching the movie on cable television. 

Directed and co-written by Randall Miller, ”BOTTLE SHOCK” told the story of Jim and Bo Barrett and how their Chardonnay became the first American-grown vintage to win a famous blind wine tasting contest now known as ”the Judgment of Paris”. The contest was sponsored by a British wine connoisseur named Steven Spurrier and held in France. Spurrier wanted to use the contest as a means to be accepted by the French wine connoisseur community. The movie also chronicled the Barretts’ difficulties in maintaining their vineyard, the Chateau Montelena, in the face of mounting debts, Jim Barrett’s reluctance to participate in Spurrier’s contest, and the efforts of a Barrett employee named Gustavo Bambini and his father to start their own vineyard. The desires of the Barretts, Bambini and Spurrier centered on the latter’s blind wine testing competition that made history for the Barretts and California wines.

While reading about ”BOTTLE SHOCK”, I discovered that the movie had received a standing ovation following its screening at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival. Personally, I believe that Miller and fellow screenwriters Jody Savin and Ross Schwartz did an excellent job in creating a heartwarming movie filled with sharp humor, adversity, human drama, some romance and a good deal of warmth and whimsy. More importantly, Miller, Savin and Schwartz, along with the cast, gave the movie such energy and drive that I found myself developing interest in the topic of wine growing – something that would usually bore me to tears. There have been complaints about some of the historical accuracy in the movie. Why bother? ”BOTTLE SHOCK” is a movie, not a documentary. I have yet to come across a movie or play with a historical backdrop that was completely accurate.

Cinematographer Michael J. Ozier did a marvelous job in capturing the warmth and natural beauty of Napa Valley, with its rolling hills and vast vineyards. With different lightning, he captured the cool elegance of Paris and the French countryside. And costume designer Jillian Kreiner had the more difficult job of capturing the basic styles of the mid-1970s. This was at a time when fashion was in a transition from the wild, Age of Aquarius styles of the early 1970s, to the more ersatz elegance of the latter part of the decade and the 1980s. By the way, one should keep an eye on Dennis Farina’s loud, leisure suits that seemed to symbolize the entire decade . . . at least for me.

I had felt a bit confused over the identity of the film’s leading man. I could not decide whether it was Alan Rickman, Chris Pine or Bill Pullman. In the end, I decided to view all three as the film’s leads. And they led a very fine cast that included Rachael Taylor, Freddy Rodriguez, Dennis Farina, Miguel Sandoval and Eliza Dushku. I had a ball watching Rickman’s portrayal of the sharp-tongued wine connoisseur, Steven Spurrier, who found himself dealing with a new culture in California wine country and the possibility that European countries like Italy, Germany and especially France were not the only places to produce fine wines. At first, Chris Pine’s portrayal of the young Bo Barrett reminded me of a possible dress rehearsal for his performance as a loutish James Kirk in 2009’s ”STAR TREK”. Thankfully, his performance as the younger Barrett proved to possess more nuance, as Pine revealed him to be a vulnerable young man that seemed unsure about whether he was ready to embrace his father’s passion for winemaking, as his own. My only problem with Pine was the blond wig that he wore. I found it atrocious and wished that he had been allowed to portray the character with his natural hair. I personally believe that Bill Pullman gave one of the movie’s two best performances as the complex Jim Barrett – the man who originally injected new life into the Chateau Montelena during the 1970s. His Barrett was a proud and stubborn man that was passionate about his vineyard and who masked his insecurities with a great deal of pig-headed behavior.

Also providing top notch performances were Dennis Farina (of the loud leisure suits), who provided a great deal of amusement and wit as Spurrier’s fictional American friend in Paris and fellow wine connoisseur, Maurice Cantavale; Rachael Taylor as Sam Fulton, the free-spirited intern at Chateau Montelena and Bo’s object of desire; Miguel Sandoval, who was deliciously sardonic as Mr. Garcia, another worker at Chateau Montelena; and Eliza Dushku, who gave an amusingly edgy performance as a local bar owner named Jo. At last, I come to Freddy Rodriguez, who portrayed the Barretts’ ambitious employee, Gustovo Bambini. He gave the movie’s other best performance, conveying not only his character’s ambition and wit, but also a raging passion for wintry and a short temper.

What else can I say about ”BOTTLE SHOCK”? I laughed, I cried and I managed to enjoy both the story and the performances, thanks to Randall Miller and the script he co-wrote with Jody Savin and Ross Schwartz . But more importantly, I found myself surprisingly interested in a topic that I would not have usually wasted time even discussing. On that point alone, I would heartily recommend this film.

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“ALICE IN WONDERLAND” (2010) Review

“ALICE IN WONDERLAND” (2010) Review

I never understood director Tim Burton’s decision to name his latest film, ”ALICE IN WONDERLAND”. I mean . . . why did he do it? His new movie was not another adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s 1865 novel, ”Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”. It was a sequel set thirteen years after the original story. So why use the shortened version of the title from Carroll’s original title? 

Many of you might be wondering why I had just made a big deal about this new movie’s title. For me, it represented an example of what I consider to be the numerous missteps that prevented me from embracing Burton’s new movie. Before I continue, I should confess that I have never been a Tim Burton fan. Never. I can only recall two of his movie that knocked my socks off – 1994’s ”ED WOOD” and the 2007 Golden Globe nominee, ”SWEENY TODD”. I wish I could include”ALICE IN WONDERLAND” in that category, but I cannot. The movie simply failed to impress me.

As I had stated earlier, ”ALICE IN WONDERLAND” was a sequel to Carroll’s original story. Thirteen years after her original adventures in Wonderland, Alice Kingsleigh has become a nineteen year-old young woman on the verge of accepting a wedding proposal from one Hamish Ascot, the son of her late father’s partner, Lord Ascot. Unfortunately, Hamish is a shallow and self-absorbed young man with very little character. Salvation arrived during Hamish’s very public marriage proposal, when Alice spotted a familiar figure – the same White Rabbit who had previously lured her to Wonderland – scampering across Lord Ascot’s estate.

History repeated itself when Alice fell down into the rabbit hole. However, she soon discovered that Wonderland (orUnderland) had changed during her thirteen years absence. The Red Queen had managed to wreck havoc and assume control over most of Underland, thanks to her new ”champion” – a dragon known as the Jabberwocky. Only the realm of the Red Queen’s sister, the White Queen, has remained beyond the red-haired monarch’s reach. However, that situation threatened to change if the White Queen fails to acquire her own champion. A scroll called “the Oraculum” predicted that Alice will not only be the White Queen’s champion, but she will also defeat the Jabberwocky and end the Red Queen’s reign of terror. But due to her stubborn belief that Underland was and still is nothing but a dream, Alice was reluctant to take up the mantle of the White Queen’s champion.

Judging by the plot I had just described, ”ALICE OF WONDERLAND” should have been an enjoyable movie for me. Granted, Linda Woolverton’s script seemed like a typical ”slay the dragon” storyline that has been used in numerous fantasies. But it still had enough adventure, intrigue and personal angst for me to find it appealing. So, why did it fail to light my fire? Production designer Robert Stromberg created an interesting mixture of Gothic and animated styles for the film’s visuals in both the England and Wonderland sequences. Anthony Almaraz and his team of costume designers created lush and colorful costumes for the cast. And Dariusz Wolski’s photography brought out the best in the movie’s visual styles.

”ALICE IN WONDERLAND” could also boast some first-rate performances from the cast. Johnny Depp gave a wonderfully complicated performance as the Mad Hatter. His Mad Hatter was an interesting mixture of an extroverted personality and pathos, punctuated by bouts of borderline insanity. The Red Queen might possibly be one of Helena Bonham-Carter’s best roles. She struck me as the epitome of childishness, selfishness and cruelty. Crispin was slick, menacing and subtly funny as the Red Queen’s personal henchman, the Knave of Hearts. Anne Hathaway’s delicious portrayal of the White Queen reminded me of a Disney princess on crack. I really enjoyed it. Both Tim Piggott-Smith and Geraldine James (who were both in the 1985 miniseries, ”JEWEL IN THE CROWN”) gave solid performances as Alice’s potential in-laws – the kindly Lord Ascot and his shrewish and bullying wife, Lady Ascot. And Alan Rickman gave voice to the Blue Caterpillar in a deliciously sardonic performance. Despite my positive opinion of most of the film’s technical aspects and performances, it still failed to impress me. Why?

First of all, the movie rested upon the shoulders of Australian actress, Mia Wasikowska as the lead character, Alice Kingsleigh. I understand that Ms. Wasikowska has recently received critical acclaim for her portrayal of a suicidal teen in HBO’s ”IN TREATMENT”. It seemed a pity that she failed to be just as impressive as Alice in ”ALICE IN WONDERLAND”. Some people have labeled her performance as ”subtle”. I would call it ”insipid”. Or perhaps just plain boring. I swear I have never come across such a bland and boring performance in my life. No only did Wasikowska managed to make Alice’s battle against the Jabberwocky seem dull, she still came close to putting me to sleep in her character’s moments of triumph in the movie’s finale.

Tim Burton’s direction of ”ALICE IN WONDERLAND” proved to be just as uninspiring to me, as Wasikowska’s performance. Actually, I found myself thinking of the 1992 movie, ”DEATH BECOMES HER”. I was not comparing the visual effects between the two movies. Meryl Streep had uttered a word in the 1992 movie that perfectly described my opinion of Burton’s direction. Flaccid. ”FLA-A-A-A-CI-I-ID!” How did a director with Burton’s reputation managed to take a solid fantasy adventure and make it one of the most boring films in recent Hollywood history is beyond me. His direction lacked any pep. Or spark. I had felt as if I was watching a piece of limp lettuce in action. I even began to wonder if Burton’s dull direction had affected Wasikowska’s performance. Then I remembered that actors like Depp and Bonham-Carter managed to rise above his direction. I might as well dump the blame of Wasikowska’s performance on her shoulders. As for Tim Burton . . . what is there to say? His direction simply disappointed me.

I might as well say something about the movie’s 3-D effects. They were not only disappointing to me, but also a waste of time and the extra cash I had to pay for the movie tickets. I did not care for the 3-D effects in ”AVATARS”, but it was an example of technical wizardry in compare to the 3-D photography shown in ”ALICE IN WONDERLAND”. Speaking of”AVATAR”, I have one last thing to say in regard to 3-D . . . ’Damn you, James Cameron!”. Seriously. I would like to take the man’s head and bash it through a wall for introducing 3-D to the movie going experience. In the two movies I have seen it in, I found it unimpressive. Worse, I had to pay extra movie because movie theaters are more willing to show the 3-D versions of movies like ”ALICE IN WONDERLAND”, instead of the 2-D versions.

In short, ”ALICE IN WONDERLAND” had all of the hallmarks of a solid and entertaining movie experience for me. It was the continuation of a classic fantasy adventure. Talented actors like Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham-Carter, Crispin Glover and Anne Hathaway gave first-rate performances. And I must admit that the movie’s production designs and photography gave it a unique visual style. But all of that could not save a movie hindered by pedestrian 3-D effects, a dull and insipid performance by Mia Wasikowska and an even more insipid direction by Tim Burton. Frankly, I think it is a miracle that this movie managed to become a box-office hit.

“SENSE AND SENSIBILITY” (1995) Review

Below is my review of the 1995 version of Jane Austen’s 1811 novel, “Sense and Sensibility”

 

“SENSE AND SENSIBILITY” (1995) Review

The year 1995 saw the beginning of an onslaught of Britain and the United States’ love affair with British author, Jane Austen. A love affair that has not abated after fourteen (14) years. In 1995, the BBC aired Andrew Davies’ miniseries adaptation of Austen’s most famous novel, ”Pride and Prejudice”. And later that year, Hollywood released its adaptation of another Austen, ”Sense and Sensibility” – which I had just recently watched.

Directed by Ang Lee, ”SENSE AND SENSIBILITY”, starred Emma Thompson (who also wrote the screenplay), Kate Winslet, Alan Rickman and Hugh Grant. The story centered around Elinor (Thompson) and Marianne (Winslet), two daughters of Mr. Dashwood (Tom Wilkinson) by his second wife (Gemma Jones). They have a younger sister, Margaret (Emilie François), and an older half-brother named John (James Fleet). When their father dies, the family estate passes to John, and the Dashwood women are left in reduced circumstances. The story follows the Dashwood sisters to their new home, a cottage on a distant relative’s property (Robert Hardy), where they experience both romance and heartbreak. The contrast between the quiet and sensible Elinor and the extroverted and occasionally impetuous Marianne is eventually resolved as each sister finds love and lasting happiness. This leads some to believe that the story’s title described how Elinor and Marianne find a balance between sense and sensibility in life and love.

Producer Lindsay Doran made an excellent choice in selecting Lee to direct the film. First of all, he drew some excellent performances from his cast – especially from Thompson, Winslet, and Rickman. Lee also effectively drew filmgoers back into Regency England without allowing the film to resemble some kind of stiff painting or a museum piece. Although he initially had trouble with dealing with Western-style of filmmaking – especially in dealing with British cast members who questioned his direction and made suggestions regarding shots. He could be rather authoritarian with the cast, especially with Hugh Grant. The actor ended up calling him ”the Brute” behind his back. But he and the cast eventually got used to each other. Lee was also responsible for insisting that Thompson play the oldest Dashwood sister. And he Lee ordered Winslet to read poetry and novels from the late 18th century and early 19th century in order to get her to connect to Marianne’s romantic nature. And to give the movie its emotional core, he asked both Thompson and Winslet to room together during production. The two actresses remain close friends to this day.

Not only was Lee ably assisted by his superb cast, but also by crew members such as costume designers Jenny Beavan and John Bright, production designer Luciana Arrighi, set decorator Ian Whittaker, art directors Philip Elton and Andrew Sanders; and cinematographer Michael Coulter, whose photography beautifully captured the English countryside in all of its glory. I especially have to give kudos to Coulter’s photography and Arrighi’s production design for a beautiful re-creation of Regency London. I also enjoyed composer Patrick Doyle’s score for the film. His use of John Dowland’s song, “Weep You No More Sad Fountains” as Marianne’s own theme song struck me as very impressive. But I have to especially give kudos to Emma Thompson for her marvelous adaptation of Austen’s novel. It may not have adhered exactly to the novel, but I found it well written, lively and paced just right.

With the exception of two performances, I felt more than impressed with the cast. When Ang Lee had signed on as the movie’s director, he immediately suggested that Emma Thompson portray the oldest Dashwood sister, Elinor. Thompson considered herself too old for the role, considering that Elinor was at least 19-20 years old in the novel. But Lee suggested that she increase Elinor’s age to 27 in the screenplay, which would also make her distress at being a spinster easier for contemporary audiences to understand. Frankly, I feel that Lee made a good choice. Emma Thompson gave a superb performance as Elinor Dashwood, whose practical mind led her to act as the family’s de facto leader, following her father’s death. She also brilliantly conveyed Elinor’s emotional nature behind a mask of reticence via her eyes and various expressions. Kate Winslet had no need to be subtle as the more openly emotional Marianne Dashwood. Winslet was at least 20 years old when she filmed ”SENSE AND SENSIBILITY’. Yet, even at that tender age, Winslet proved that she had the talent and acting chops to portray the very complex Marianne. I found it ironic that although her character was not what I would describe as subtle. And yet, Winslet managed to convey all aspects of Marianne’s personality – romantic, willful, emotional and sometimes a bit self-involved.

I found Alan Rickman impressive as one of the Dashwoods’ new neighbors, the quiet and dependable Colonel Christopher Brandon. I enjoyed the subtle manner in which Rickman expressed Brandon’s reluctance in expressing his love for Marianne, due to her feelings for another man. That other man proved to Greg Wise, who gave a surprisingly effective performance as the dashing, yet rakish Edward Willoughby. Wise has never struck me as an exceptional actor, but I must admit that I consider Willoughby to be one of his two best performances. The movie’s supporting cast also included Robert Hardy and the late Elizabeth Spriggs, who gave amusing performances as Sir John Middleton, the Dashwoods’ cousin and benefactor; and Mrs. Jennings, Sir John’s mother-in-law. Gemma Jones was excellent as the emotional and sometimes girlish mother of the Dashwood sisters. I was also impressed by Harriet Walter, who portrayed the sisters’ shrewish sister-in-law, Fanny Dashwood. And Hugh Laurie gave a hilarious performance as the sardonic and long-suffering Mr. Palmer, Mrs. Jennings’ other son-in-law. And I must say that Imogen Stubbs also impressed me by her subtle performance as the cunning and manipulative Lucy Steele, who seemed to have a claim for the same man that Elinor Dashwood longs for.

Speaking of Elinor Dashwood’s love, I finally come to the two performances that had failed to impress me. One of them belonged to Hugh Grant. He portrayed Edward Ferrars, one of Fanny Dashwood’s brothers that happened to be in love with Elinor and is claimed by the manipulative Lucy Steele as her fiancé. Remember his charming, yet modest performance in the hit 1994 comedy, ”FOUR WEDDINGS AND A FUNERAL”? Well, his Edward Ferrars turned out to be an early 19th century version of his ”FOUR WEDDINGS” role. Grant simply gave the same performance, but with more stuttering and less charm. What had been fresh and original in 1994, ended up as old news a year later in ”SENSE AND SENSIBILITY”. Fortunately, he managed to create some kind of chemistry with both Thompson and Emilie François, who portrayed the young Margaret Dashwood. Another performance that did nothing for me belonged to Imelda Staunton. She portrayed Charlotte Jennings Palmer, Mrs. Jennings’ daughter and Mr. Palmer’s wife. I realize that she was supposed to be an annoying character, but one could say the same about Sir John and Mrs. Middleton. But whereas I found Robert Hardy and Elizabeth Spriggs’ performances amusing, Staunton’s slightly over-the-top portrayal of Charlotte Palmer ended up irritating the hell out of me.

I understand that Andrew Davies had produced his own version of the Austen novel, last year. Since I have yet to see it, I cannot compare it to the 1995 version, directed by Ang Lee. I do know that I am more than impressed with this particular version. It came as no surprise to me that it earned seven (7) Academy Award nominations and won one (1) for Thompson’s Adapted Screenplay. ”SENSE AND SENSIBILITY” is one movie I could watch over again without ever getting tired of it.