Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Bottle Shock

After reading a review of this little indie flick about Napa Valley's rise to prominence in the wine industry (think Sideways meets Rocky), I decided to check it out yesterday. I wasn't sure what to expect; the name was reminiscent of Wes Anderson's debut, Bottle Rocket but actually refers to a temporary unsettling of wine when it's transported. Sort of like jet lag for grapes...

But the movie had a lot of things going for it: shot in Northern California, based on a true story and starring Bill Pullman, Freddy Rodriguez and Alan Rickman. Okay, I admit it--I went to see it for Alan Rickman. While I have made no secret of my crush on Freddy Rodriguez (aka "Gio" from Ugly Betty), my adoration of Alan Rickman--whether he's the consummate bad guy (Die Hard, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves) or the sympathetic good guy (Sense and Sensibility, Truly Madly Deeply)--knows no bounds.

The year is 1976, the U.S.A. bicentennial, and Steve Spurrier (Alan Rickman), a British Francophile, comes up with the idea to stage a blind taste test between the world dominant French wines and the Napa Valley upstarts. Rickman's role in the film is somewhat limited, but it's like biting into a Godiva truffle everytime he makes an appearance on screen. Effortlessly elitist, Rickman also manages to make Spurrier appealing in his own inimitable way. Except perhaps to Jim Barrett (Bill Pullman) who frustratedly asks, "Why don't I like you?" to which Rickman's Spurrier replies: "Because you think I'm an ass. And I'm not really. It's just that, well, I'm British and you're not."

Co-writer/director Randall Miller talks about how he was inspired to make the film:

"The story of a lawyer who risked everything in the pursuit of an artistic dream (to make fine hand-crafted wine) is what initially hooked me into wanting to make Bottle Shock. I had directed studio movies and some TV before I convinced Jody (my wife and partner) to mortgage our house so we could make a movie we felt passionate about. That movie, our first indie, was called Marilyn Hotchkiss Ballroom Dancing & Charm School. Bottle Shock is the heir to that choice."
The film has its flaws: a dizzying overuse of aerial shots of the Sonoma Valley, a confusion of multiple story lines that leave all the stories a bit undertold, a predisposition for proselytizing and sermons--particularly at the mid-point of the story where we get a passionate outburst by Gustavo (Freddy Rodriguez), a sonorous voiceover by Rickman quoting Galileo ("Wine is sunlight held together by water"), followed by the techical and philosophical musings of Pullman's Barrett as his imparts vinoculture wisdom to aspiring vintner Sam (Rachael Taylor). It's a bit much and weighs down the film. It would have worked much better had the writers interspersed the philosophizing in little sip-like doses throughout the story.

For me, watching people taste wine is like watching sex scenes on film: I personally would rather be an active participant than a passive spectator. My knowledge of wine and my palette are severely uneducated, but I'd rather be drinking good wine than viewing it on screen. Still, it was incredible satisfying (as well as educational) to watch the story of how Napa Valley vintners triumphed over the French--not only in 1976, but again in a 30th anniversary rematch staged in 2006. Go Team U.S.A.! For the American vinophile (I'm thinking specifically of my gourmand sister and brother-in-law), Bottle Shock has a lot to offer: lush scenery, rich characters and a vicarious thrill of a delicate chardonnay.

And Alan Rickman.

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