Knight at the Movies Archives
A winning indie about the rise of Napa Valley's wine country and the return of the stoner comedy
The New York Times recently ran a very interesting article about the troubled state of distribution for independent films and a
solution that a growing number of canny producers are coming up with. Many of the indie “boutique” houses have disappeared or
are being returned to the major studio fold which in turn has led to fewer bidding wars at Sundance and other name festivals. This
has left a glut of small pictures without a hope of distribution all vying for your attention. The Times article described an unusual
step several producers of these indies are taking to ensure their films get a theatrical release: do it yourself distribution. But without
name casts, a major influx of marketing dollars, and perhaps most importantly, strong word of mouth (thanks to good reviews and
savvy audience members), even these probably won’t make much of an impression.
This recent development in the indie world has long been a very familiar story for queer filmmakers trying to get their movies seen
(self-distribution in theatres before heading to DVD is an old story for gay films). Unlike their straight counterparts the queer films
have usually been made with much lower budgets, no name (but usually very good looking) casts, and get shorter runs if at all.
Usually, sad to say, they’re also not nearly as good as their straight counterparts (the American made ones anyway). I’ve been
waiting all year for an American made queer indie to rave about but haven’t found it yet. In the meantime, I’ll gladly settle for a
non-queer one, Bottle Shock, which is going the self-distribution route. That means the film is going to need plenty of audience
attention and critical hosannas (like the one that follows) to make it a hit – both of which it deserves.
Bottle Shock (the term refers to what happens to wine after it travels a great distance) was scripted by director Randall Miller with his
wife Jody Savin and is based on a true story. It follows what led in 1976 to California’s Napa Valley becoming known as a world class
maker of wines thanks to a blind Paris wine tasting contest (that has since come to be known as the “Judgment of Paris”). Alan
Rickman plays Steven Spurrier, the fussy British owner of a failing wine shop in Paris who knows his wines but can’t get respect from
his snobbish colleagues. With the help of his fellow expatriate (played by Dennis Farina) Steven decides to create a competition
pitting French wines against those in Napa Valley, hoping the results will put his store and himself on the map.
Spurrier arrives in Napa and roams the valley in a beat up yellow Gremlin (leased, apparently from Rent-a-Wreck). After suffering a
flat tire he makes the acquaintance of Jim Barrett (Bill Pullman), a vineyard owner and former real estate attorney who is just about
to go broke. Jim is helped out by his wayward hippie son Bo (Chris Pine), the local ne’er do well and chick magnet and the much
more adept Gustavo (“Ugly Betty’s” Freddy Rodriguez). A pretty blonde intern (played by Rachael Taylor), a comely bar owner who
knows her grapes (Elizha Duzku), and a Maria Callas fixated winemaker (Miguel Sandoval) are also part of the mix.
From the first, Spurrier, a self-admitted snob and the wary Barrett are at odds but Bo and the others see the competition as finally a
chance to put Napa on the map. There are plot complications galore (a love triangle, a father-son falling out, etc.) but this is
basically a David vs. Goliath story – a particularly satisfying one (perhaps because for once, it’s not about yet another underdog
football or basketball team). When things go bad for the characters (as they inevitably do in these movies) – that when they finally
turn back around it feels absolutely exhilarating.
The movie, scored with a jaunty new age sound by Mark Adler and 70s eras hits (by the Doobie Brothers and others) is helped
enormously by the performances of Rickman and Pullman in the leading roles. Rickman is like a modern day George Sanders. He
can annihilate with a syllable (he’s the female equivalent of Judi Dench) while Pullman is taciturn to a fault. When at last we see
Rickman smile and Pullman realize that he’s finally produced a world class wine (in separate sequences), the moments are
priceless. Pine as the young lead is fine if not as memorable – his performance is hampered by his disfiguring shoulder length,
blond hippie wig, so patently fake.
All the while, so much wine is drunk one wonders if Bottle Shock wasn’t funded by the Napa Valley Merchants Association or the Wine
Makers of America. When the movie comes to DVD expect it to be shown in wine appreciation classes and it’s also, naturally, going
to make a perfect pairing with Sideways – though Bottle Shock is a much more accessible movie, much less acidic in tone and much
more traditionally satisfying. A merlot vs. a cabernet sauvignon, in other words. Because Bottle Shock is such a rewarding movie
going experience it’s tempting to trot out all the adjectives generally used to describe a good wine. Not being a connoisseur I’ll just
say that it left me with a very pleasant buzz.
One can also expect a pleasant buzz or rather, a contact high after sitting through the haze of Pineapple Express, the homage to
stoner comedies of decades past (it makes perfect sense that Cheech & Chong, the Godfathers of Pot, announced their reunion just
as the movie was being released). With the rise in popularity of adolescent adult comedies it was only a matter of time before the
stoner flick returned to the local Cineplex. The cult of Judd Apatow (who produced the movie and wrote the story along with Seth
Rogan who stars) which started with low brow laughs continues to find them in this silly and flimsy but too long film that revels in the
glory of reefer madness.
James Franco plays a brain addled dealer who describes his new special weed called Pineapple Express as “God’s vagina” because
it's so good. Seth Rogan is his constant customer, a process server who uses disguises to get his job done. Rogan accidentally
witnesses a drug killing and soon a group of murderous drug dealers and cops gone bad are after the mismatched duo. Gary Cole,
Rosie Perez, and a host of expert comedic performers have small roles. Danny R. McBride is particularly funny as Red, a drug dealer
who seemingly can’t be killed (some of his scenes are as gross out funny as the knight getting his arms, legs and head chopped off
in Monty Python and the Holy Grail). Franco is sweet and daffy and finally registers playing something other than his patented white
bread male ingénues while Rogan is, well, Seth Rogan – the same character he’s played in his previous movies. There’s not much
variety or versatility in his performances but his raucous vitality scores big time with the audience and many of the scenes work
simply because of the offbeat, unexpected chemistry between the two performers.
The movie has the same short attention span as a stoner – appropriate given that it revolves around toking up. And Franco and
Rogan’s character light up in almost every scene (though when the duo sells to a group of street smart junior high kids the result is
funny but ultimately uncomfortable). The final shoot out, however, is much too long and the buzz wears off long before the credits
roll. For maximum enjoyment of Pineapple Express one might suggest audience members indulge in a little recreational activity
before entering the theatre but I’m not sure that will increase your laugh intake all that much. So I’ll advise you to just say “maybe”
instead and leave it at that.
Booze and Dope:
Bottle Shock-Pineapple Express
Expanded Edition of 8-6-08 Knight at the Movies Column
By Richard Knight, Jr.