USA

Bottle Shock (2008)

Americans might not be in the mood to stick it to the French these days, now that we’ve moved on from “freedom fries” and into a slow-motion constitutional crisis. If you’re itching for a throwback though, Bottle Shock will take you to that time when America was looking to achieve better things, when it was a real underdog, at least in the wine world, and you could feel good about cheering them on, in the wine world.

The film is set in 1976, before California wine was a thing on the international scene. Jim Barrett (Bill Pullman) owns Chateau Montelena in Napa Valley, but is struggling to keep it afloat. He could use the help of his son, Bo (a shaggy Chris Pine), but the latter’s hippie lifestyle renders him useless in most matters, except when it comes to fighting racist truck drivers. Things occasionally get so heated between father and son that they resort to boxing matches in the vineyard. Both get a chance at redemption though when a stranger comes to town.

Well, two strangers. One is Sam (Rachael Taylor), the intern who knows a hell of a lot more about enology than the Barretts. The other is Steven Spurrier (Alan Rickman), a self-proclaimed wine snob and Brit living in France. Spurrier’s wine shop is also struggling, and his only customer on any given day is his American neighbor (Dennis Farina), who slurps up free samples. In order to bring in business and earn some notice from the even snobbier French wine circle, he decides to host a blind tasting, pitting French wines against American ones. No one doubts that the French will win, but first Spurrier needs to get his hands on some of that sweet American grape juice.

The story is predictable because it’s based on real events and follows the classic underdog formula, but that doesn’t make its feel-good moments any less rousing. In fact, some of the most enjoyable scenes are the ones that play out just as you’d expect. The last few scenes are like a roller coaster, albeit a milder one. You can see what’s going to happen to Jim’s batch of brown wine and who will emerge victorious in Spurrier’s blind tasting, but it’s still exciting to watch the events unfold.

The build up isn’t as strong as that ending though. The script is in need of a major rewrite or two with some important storylines half-formed. In particular, Gustavo (Freddy Rodriguez), Bo’s friend and one of Jim’s hired hands, struggles to get off the page. Rodriguez gives his character plenty of emotion, but there’s not enough background about his father and relationship to the Barretts to figure out how he fits into Chateau Montelena. Even important plot points, like Spurrier’s initial proposal for the tasting, are oddly missing. It’s as if the filmmakers expect us to infer the details of his plan based on a sly smile with a fellow sommelier.

Bottle Shock offers many positives, but overall, the film is more miss than hit. The only constant is Rickman, who is delightfully foreign whether he’s drinking by himself in France or navigating his Gremlin through California. Napa Valley is occasionally pretty to look at, but then again, you could point a camera in any direction for breathtaking views. Like this story though, it lacks the texture you’d expect and fails to truly draw you in.

Released: 2008
Prod: Randall Miller, Jody Savin, Brenda Lhormer, Marc Lhormer, J. Todd Harris, Marc Toberoff
Dir: Randall Miller
Writer: Randall Miller, Jody Savin, Ross Schwartz
Cast: Alan Rickman, Chris Pine, Bill Pullman, Rachael Taylor, Freddy Rodriguez, Eliza Dushku, Dennis Farina
Time: 110 min
Lang: English, some French and Spanish
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2019

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Life of the Party (2018)

Life of the Party goes in some unexpected directions but doesn’t always end up where it maybe should. The film, the third collaboration between star Melissa McCarthy and her husband, Ben Falcone, tries a different approach with the college comedy, opting for something gentler instead of your typical rude and raunchy house party. The result is both fresh and surprising, but it’s also not very funny. McCarthy and Falcone, who serve as writers and producers with the latter taking on directing duties, seem to have their hearts in the right place, but that’s hardly enough in this case. The meandering plot doesn’t give the story or comedy much structure, and the movie fails to live up to its promise.

McCarthy plays Deanna Miles, bubbly wife to Dan (Matt Walsh) and mother to Maddie (Molly Gordon). She is living her best life until she drops her daughter off at college and Dan drops the news that he is filing for divorce, selling the house, and marrying realtor Marcie (Julie Bowen). Seizing the opportunity to make lemons out of lemonade, as one character puts it, Deanna joins Maddie to complete the remaining two semesters of her archaeology degree.

You can imagine how this could turn into a nightmare scenario, and it looks to shape up that way at first. Deanna intrudes on Maddie’s social life, giving herself an open invitation to her daughter’s sorority house. Meanwhile, her fondness for mom humor makes her the target of a couple of mean girls in her class. Another film would turn Deanna into the butt of all jokes and find a multitude of ways to tear her down. Maddie would be at odds with her embarrassing mother, a rift that would drive her into the arms of a useless coed.

To my shock, however, Life of the Party does none of these things. Instead it makes Deanna, or “Dee Rock,” well, the life of the party. Maddie’s sorority sisters, not exactly the cool kids but not misfits either, immediately embrace her as their surrogate mother. The group includes Helen (Gillian Jacobs), an older student who was in a coma for eight years, and Debbie (Jessie Ennis), who is always a step or two behind. Both are delightfully offbeat but have no qualms about showing off their new friend. They even take it as a point of pride when she goes out with them. Deanna, likewise, draws inspiration from the young women around her and gains confidence because of their support. It’s not often we see this type of generational divide used as a source of strength rather than division, common and natural as these relationships are in real life.

A novel concept does not make a movie though, and the film isn’t as self-assured its characters. There are a handful of minor conflicts, none of which are important enough to shape the narrative. Sometimes it seems like Deanna and gang are just hitchhiking along to their own story and stumbling from one spot to the next. The divorce and Dan’s general assholery are persistent background noise rather than major plot points while Deanna’s classroom nemeses are put in their place with a brief but wicked 80s dance battle. On the plus side, she has a college fling with Jack (Luke Benward), a fellow student and friend of Maddie’s boyfriend (Jimmy O. Yang in a surprising bit of anti-Hollywood casting). The relationship is sweet I suppose, but it’s not all that sincere, and I suspect it’s played more as a response to the typical narrative of the middle-aged dude romancing a fawning college girl. The role reversal provides some laughs, but like most other ideas in this movie, it isn’t that compelling.

Released: 2018
Prod: Ben Falcone, Melissa McCarthy, Chris Henchy
Dir: Ben Falcone
Writer: Ben Falcone, Melissa McCarthy
Cast: Melissa McCarthy, Gillian Jacobs, Maya Rudolph, Julie Bowen, Matt Walsh, Molly Gordon, Luke Benward, Stephen Root, Jacki Weaver, Jessie Ennis, Heidi Gardner, Jimmy O. Yang, Chris Parnell, Debby Ryan
Time: 105 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2019

London Has Fallen (2016)

London Has Fallen may be unrelated to your worst case Brexit fears, but it’s still a bit of a nightmare and not just because the city gets blown to CGI bits. When the good guywhen the guy you’re supposed to be rooting for…when Gerard Butler barks to the son of a Pakistani terrorist, “Why don’t you boys pack up your shit and go back to Fuckanistan or wherever you’re from,” you know you’ve descended into some jingoistic hell hole. The righteous American fantasy (of a certain sort) is bombastic, aggressive, unafraid to shove its bloodletting in your face, but when the day has been won, the catharsis only comes for some, namely those who agree with Secret Service agent Mike Banning (Butler) that “everyone is a terrorist asshole until proven otherwise.” He operates by the maxim, you can never be too careful so might as well shoot them all.

Then again, Banning might just be trying to prove his mettle after events in the previous film, which saw him regain his place in President Benjamin Asher’s (Aaron Eckhart) security detail following a bout of White House heroics. That’s damn weak justification for such wanton bloodlust. He and Asher are in London for the prime minister’s funeral, a ruse by said terrorist, Aamir Barkawi (Alon Moni Aboutboul), to take out American-aligned heads of state and to avenge the murder of his family. During the initial attack, Banning shoots everything in sight, out of an abundance of precaution one assumes since the security apparatus has been infiltrated from top to bottom. The closer the two get to Barkawi, however, the more Banning the American zealot is fueled by xenophobic rage, killing literally because he can.

The film delights in carnage as a spectator sport. London is turned into a gladiatorial arena, its streets and underground cleared out to showcase all sorts of murderous combat and the players displaying an impressive array of shooting and stabbing skills. When in doubt, director Babak Najafi errs on the side of death. He wastes no opportunity to spill blood, whether it’s a blade through one’s spine or the beheading of motorcyclist or the ever efficient shot to the head.

These sequences contrast with the staid central command units on either side of the Atlantic. The head of the Metropolitan Police (Colin Salmon) and the director of MI5 (Patrick Kennedy) get a little more running around to do but manage to come off as incompetent tools all the while. In Washington, however, the vice president (Morgan Freeman) and the joint security team (Robert Forster and Melissa Leo) are reduced to a state of near helplessness. I don’t know why Freeman and company bothered returning for the sequel given how little they have to do in this film. Their scenes are restricted to the four dark walls that make up the situation room, and their only acting direction is to gawp at one another for hours on end.

There are a few touches that take the edge off somewhat. Angela Bassett once again plays the Secret Service director, who is rightly skeptical of this whole trip and seems to be the one person who can bring down Banning’s temperature. Her role is limited but at least it’s purposeful, unlike Radha Mitchell’s thankless part as Banning’s pregnant, very worried wife. Their presence makes little difference in the overall though. London Has Fallen is what it sets out to be, an angry, reductive, flag-waving celebration of American exceptionalism. I already feel like I need to atone for watching it.

Released: 2016
Prod: Gerard Butler, Alan Siegel, Mark Gill, John Thompson, Matt O’Toole, Les Weldon
Dir: Babak Najafi
Writer: Creighton Rothenberger, Katrin Benedikt, Christian Gudegast, Chad St. John
Cast: Gerard Butler, Aaron Eckhart, Morgan Freeman, Alon Moni Aboutboul, Angela Bassett, Robert Forster, Jackie Earle Haley, Melissa Leo, Radha Mitchell, Sean O’Bryan, Waleed Zuaiter, Mehdi Dehbi, Colin Salmon, Patrick Kennedy, Clarkson Guy Williams
Time: 99 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2019

Destination Wedding (2018)

If we’re ranking distressing weddings, real or imagined, Destination Wedding has got to be high on the list. For me, it’s close to that time I forgot to pack bottoms and a razor and then had sit my single ass through multiple meals with all my engaged friends, but at least I was amongst friends, which is a lot more than you can say for Frank (Keanu Reeves) and Lindsay (Winona Ryder), the half-brother and ex-fiancée of the faceless groom. The two meet on the plane ride over to Paso Robles and immediately decide that they hate each other. One can see why; both are insufferable, passive aggressive energy vampires. Their shared cynicism, of love above all else, is what gradually draws them together – well that and some seriously awkward sex under the watchful eye of a mountain lion – but getting to that end is painful.

Frank attends the wedding out of obligation. He doesn’t seem like someone who would care what his father’s lover says about him, but there he is. It’s harder to justify Lindsay’s presence. Six years after her relationship ended, she’s still searching for closure and somehow thinks she’ll find it at her ex’s nuptials. The two are the only characters of note and the only ones with speaking parts, which isn’t a problem if your script reads like a copy of Before Sunset, elegant in its naturalness and familiarity. Writer-direct Victor Levin’s script, however, is a series of tortured monologues, neither instinctive nor insightful.

His characters aren’t people you want to spend any sort of time around. Frank and Lindsay don’t go the easy route and just avoid each other but proceed to linger by the wayside snickering at guests and moaning about whatever else sticks in their craw. Their conversations meander from the petty (this may include the phrase “balleticly formed penis”) to weightier matters, namely the nature of love. In all their gabbing, just one thought resonated with me, and that was Frank’s position on free stuff, like hotel toiletries.

It’s this kind of smallness that I think the movie tries to latch onto. Destination Wedding is anti-romcom. It wants to be awkward, difficult, broken – all the qualities that regular romcoms sweep away or try to make endearing. Frank and Lindsay are of course anything but; they’re not even that relatable unless you have loads of negative people in your life. They are, however, people who find their own strange way to mend their emotionally shattered selves, and the final few scenes show promise of what the film could be if only there had been less talking.

Released: 2018
Prod: Elizabeth Dell, Cassian Elwes, Robert Jones
Dir: Victor Levin
Writer: Victor Levin
Cast: Keanu Reeves, Winona Ryder
Time: 85 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2019

Forever Plaid (2008)

There’s something about boy bands that will get me to the day I die. Whether its Boyz II Men or ‘N Sync or Big Bang, I just can’t shake a group of harmonizing dudes with synchronized dance moves. And so it is with Forever Plaid, a deceased 1950s quartet killed after their cherry red Cadillac crashes into a busload of Catholic teens (or “slammed by parochial virgins” as one guy puts it) on their way to see the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show. Now, thanks to some funny business in the astral planes, they’ve been granted one last performance on earth before going to that big cocktail lounge in the sky.

The movie, a filmed performance of the popular Off-Broadway revue, isn’t as flashy as some of the live versions of musical shows you see today. In fact, the production has a slight home video quality to it, albeit with privileged front row access, but that doesn’t take away from the show’s humor or the impressive talent of its stars. For about an hour and a half and with no intermission, Sparky (Larry Raben), Smudge (David Engel), Jinx (Stan Chandler), and Frankie (Daniel Reichard) settle in for their last hurrah. They sing their cheery hearts out to classics like “Three Coins in a Fountain” and “Love is a Many Splendored Thing,” the opening and closing numbers respectively, while regaling the audience with stories about how the group came to be (the high school AV club) and where they held their practice sessions (the basement of a cleaning supply store).

This was the first musical I ever saw onstage, and a quarter century later, I’m just as delighted by the four lads who make up Forever Plaid. They have a earnestness about them that transcends time and even death. Their premature end seems to have preserved their optimism, and they young-ish men have convinced themselves that things were and always will be on the up and up, never mind that they would likely have been eclipsed by groups such as the Beatles. Their lack of perspective, however, keeps the show light. These are just four dudes happy to be here and with a jaunty set list to match.

The actors all do their parts justice, not only nailing their harmonies but also the group’s tight bond. Raben, as the aptly named Sparky, shows off his character’s skill as a natural performer and the Plaid’s leader. He gently encourages his shyer stepbrother, Jinx, who comes into his own mid-song in “Cry.” Smudge has a similar show-stopping moment when he belts out his feature solo in “Sixteen Tons/Chain Gang.” Both Engel and Chandler are original cast members while Reichard originated the role of Bob Gaudio in Jersey Boys. Reichard, as the young Frankie, gets the show’s most pensive monologue. As their show comes to an end and the Plaids wax lyrical about what might have been, Frankie seizes the moment, imploring them to take pride in what they have accomplished.

I almost wish more somber touches could have been added in between the humor. These days, you can probably take out the Caribbean medley (“Day-O,” “Kingston Market,” “Jamaica Farewell,” “Matilda Matilda”), which cobbles together embarrassing accents and props from a cruise ship gift shop. Instead, maybe the Plaids should ponder their cosmic fate a bit more. I care too much for them to wait until the final minutes when they really open up.

Released: 2008
Prod: Barney Cohen, Benni Korzen, Suren Seron, Christopher Gosch
Dir: Stuart Ross
Writer: Stuart Ross
Cast: Stan Chandler, David Engel, Larry Raben, Daniel Reichard, David Hyde Pierce
Time: 90 min
Lang: English, some Spanish
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2019