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Case Number 15598

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Bottle Shock

Fox // 2008 // 110 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Adam Arseneau (Retired) // February 3rd, 2009

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All Rise...

Juschd Adam Arseneau ish the pichture of surbryity. Hic!

The Charge

Based on a true story of love, victory and fermentation.

Opening Statement

A sappy tale of family, friends, and winemaking in the early days of Napa Valley, Bottle Shock is a charming film, full of great performances from its robust and star-studded cast. You don't have to be a connoisseur to appreciate its full-bodied balance of sweetness and aroma, with a slight oak fish. Serve with fresh fish or the finest local cheese at your next dinner party.

Definitely the cheese…it matches perfectly.

Facts of the Case

Steven Spurrier (Alan Rickman), a prominent (but struggling) sommelier and Parisian wine store owner devises a plan to celebrate the upcoming American Bicentennial. He travels to California—then a largely unkown wine region—and approaches vineyards with a proposition: a blind taste challenge in France, against the best artisan wines of the Parisians. Thinking the Californian competition to be lacking, he feels this is the perfect attraction to drum up business for his failing shop.

Unknown to the snob Spurrier, the California wines are good. Very, very good. Problem is, nobody takes them seriously. Take for example Chateau Montelena, a struggling winery run by lawyer-turned-winemaker Jim Barrett (Bill Pullman), producing some fantastic Chardonnay. Jim's son Bo (Chris Pine) would rather smoke pot, surf, and chase women than perfect the art of the craft.

Despite his failing business, Jim refuses to allow his wine to enter the competition, feeling the wine is "not ready" yet. But his constant search for perfection may lead to the downfall of the entire vineyard. Spurrier, on the other hand, is astonished at the quality and sophistication of the wines in Napa Valley. Suddenly, his contest has become a serious rumble of epic proportions, one that will shake up the winemaking world forever.

The Evidence

As warm and inviting as a sunny day in Napa Valley, Bottle Shock is a delight from start to finish. It amazes me how appealing and approachable the film makes wine to us non-viti and viniculturists. I could give a fish about winemaking, but where other movies that center on the subject of vino as a narrative device make the craft feel alienating and lonely (I'm looking at you Sideways), Bottle Shock gives it a hopeless kind of nobility, a romantic throwing away of all other obsessions to dedicate one's life to the perfection of a craft. It's like any other story in this vein; it matters not what the obsession is, but it's a thing of beauty to see it pay off. In terms of its narrative and structure, Bottle Shock most closely resembles (of all things) a good old-fashioned American sports film. You're rooting for the underdog the entire time, through trials and tribulations, and when they inevitably triumph, you can't help but feel elated. Except they're a bunch of dirty hippies.

Much of the narrative triumph comes not only in the success of the protagonists and their winemaking, but of all California wines, which as most know today are world-class. Back in the 1970s, they were a joke, and the content portrayed in Bottle Shock was for many the turning point. For the first time, California wines were ranked on the same level—even higher—than French wines, long holders of dominance in the field. The victory opened the door for countries like Australia, New Zealand, Chile, and Canada, who said, "Hey, why not us too?" A groundbreaking moment to be sure, and one that holds surprising amount of gravitas here. It's hard not to be swept up in the excitement when watching.

Character development is admittedly on the stiff side, but a lot of this is limited by the adaptation of the subject matter based on real-life people. There's just enough personal drama and growth to make the characters interesting, but not enough to distract from the story at large. Ultimately, the actors are tertiary characters in their own film. The real stars are the wine and Napa Valley itself, captured in vibrant cinematography, windblown and fertile. This is a film inspired by a product and a location, and if that means the characters are a bit clichéd, then so be it. The end result is a bit on the romanticized side, but undeniably appealing. Bottle Shock may be a bit sickly sweet at times, but it's hard to begrudge a film for making its audiences feel satisfied and happy.

A surprisingly diverse cast fills out this largely low-budget independent film, with Bill Pullman, Alan Rickman, Chris Pine, Rachael Taylor, Eliza Dushku, Dennis Farina, and Freddy Rodriguez all turning out stereotypical performances—strong, but largely derivative of roles they have all played in the past. Farina, the poor guy, I am convinced gets cast in film after film simply because of how gaudy he looks in bad suits and gold jewelry. Rickman is a delight, as the upward nose-turning wine snob come to California like a fish out of water, but Rodriguez probably gives the most nuanced performance as real-life winemaker Gustavo Brambila. His part is secondary to the Barrett family, but his passion for the craft is inspiring. Pine is the real star of the film, as the stoner son turned devotee, bumbling around in a hazy fog of intellectual hippie nonsense. His is the only character that shows any kind of real growth.

Unfortunately, there's a noticeable lack of substance amidst the grape vines, a transparent hollowness that often plagues these kind of feel-good films. Everything just kind of works out and the characters never really get a chance to discover who they are or work out solid pathos, like a chick flick substituting wine instead of shoes. Bottle Shock is undeniably pleasant and enjoyable, but a bit disposable. It tastes good going down, but leaves you wanting more substance, more tannin on your tongue. Okay, I'll stop with the tasting metaphors now.

Technical specs will be brief, because unfortunately Fox sent over a screener copy for review that most likely will not resemble its final retail version. Video on our copy was a mess of aliasing, compression artifacts, and distortion; so much as to make the film almost unwatchable. Audio presented a center-focused 5.1 Dolby Surround track with a melodramatic but beautiful score, clear dialogue, and minimal use of rear channels.

In terms of extras, a commentary track with filmmakers Randall Miller, Jody Savin, Ross Schwarz, J. Todd Harris and Lannette Pabon, and actors Chris Pine, Bull Pullman, and Eliza Dushku is included. A largely subdued affair, the track goes into reasonable detail about the short production schedule and other behind-the-scene details. We also get a featurette, "An Underdog's Journey: The Making of Bottle Shock," a short (13 mins) featurette interviewing cast and crew with behind-the-scenes footage; and "Chateau Montelena: One Winery's Search For Excellence," a hilarious ten minute advertisement for Chateau Montelena, the real-life winery featured in the film. This has all the makings of an actual advertisement for the winery, the kind that they'd send you for free on VHS if you wrote to them—it's so bad, it's good. Toss in some deleted scenes and a theatrical trailer to round out the extra material. Assuming all these features make it to retail, extras are reasonable for a single-disc set, but slim.

The Rebuttal Witnesses

A fun fluffy film, Bottle Shock exchanges profound emotion for simple, unobtrusive narrative storytelling. It tells the real-life tale of a winery struggling to make good wine, but subjects all its characters to the most boring clichéd constructs of screenwriting. There's no narrative depth, no true substance beyond the academic interest of how the wine industry grew in California. It's enough to run a film on, but by the end the dramatic tank is running on fumes. The guy gets the girl, the wine gets the critical acclaim, the birds get the bees, and everyone is happy. It's all a bit cheesy. There's nothing particularly wrong with this kind of happy film per se, as long as you know what you're getting into. Some times, a feel-good movie is exactly what the doctor ordered. Just don't go in expecting something like Sideways and you'll love it.

Closing Statement

A simple, heartwarming tale of family triumph and winemaking, Bottle Shock is both passionate and unpretentious about its chosen subject matter. It may be rife with clichés and one-dimensional characters, but oh, how it warms the cinematic cockles; certainly enough to justify a tasting.

The Verdict

Not…hic! Not gilshty. Five bucks? Get outta here…

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Scales of Justice

Video: 50
Audio: 75
Extras: 60
Acting: 80
Story: 80
Judgment: 84

Perp Profile

Studio: Fox
Video Formats:
• 2.35:1 Anamorphic
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
• English
• Spanish
Running Time: 110 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
• Drama
• Historical

Distinguishing Marks

• Commentary
• Deleted Scenes
• Featurette
• Winery Commercial
• Theatrical Trailer


• IMDb
• Official Site

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