Movie Reviews: Bottle Shock, Man on Wire, The Order of Myths

Man on Wire

GO  BOTTLE SHOCK It’s amazing that it took 32 years for someone to make a movie about the “Paris Tastings,” the 1976 oenophilic Waterloo in which a panel of Gallic wine experts blindly compared their homegrown whites and reds against some upstart offerings from Northern California and — oh mon dieu! — gave the edge to the Yanks. And it’s unfortunate that the someone who has finally filmed this wine-world David and Goliath story turns out to be writer-director Randall Miller, a conspicuous veteran of TV sitcoms and sitcom-like Hollywood movies (Houseguest, The Sixth Man) who, when in doubt, always cuts to a magic-hour helicopter shot of rolling Sonoma Valley hillsides and who pours cheap accordion music all over the Paris scenes just in case the Eiffel Tower looming in the distance wasn’t enough to cue us that we’re in the City of Lights. (All that’s missing, really, is a cameo by Pepé Le Pew.) For the interminable first hour or so, Miller’s Bottle Shock is to Alexander Payne’s Sideways what that watered-down box wine they sell in gas-station mini marts is to a fine pinot noir. But then, just around the halfway point, something unexpected happens — the movie actually gets good. You can chalk that up to the delightful Alan Rickman, who plays the British ex-pat wine merchant Steven Spurrier with the inimitable haughtiness of an Englishman trying to become French, and to Bill Pullman’s performance as the real-life Calistoga vintner Jim Barrett, whose Chateau Montelena winery was teetering on the verge of foreclosure when the Paris Tastings suddenly gave him a new lease on life. Pullman, who’s almost always worth watching, plays against the movie’s feel-good impulses at almost every turn; especially in the final stretch, as his character gives in to despair and considers returning to his former career in law, Pullman almost single-handedly transforms Bottle Shock into a stirring fanfare for the common American entrepreneur. Consider this a test case for a great actor: Miller gives Pullman schmaltz, and he turns it into Steinbeck. (ArcLight Sherman Oaks; Landmark; Monica 4-Plex; Playhouse 7) (Scott Foundas)

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Man on Wire

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The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2

 CANARY Canary begins on the false promise of momentum: Twelve-year-old Koichi (Hoshi Ishida) is on the lam from child-welfare agents, who nabbed him in their crackdown on the Nirvana cult compound, recently linked to headline-news terrorism (and a stand-in for Aum Shinrikyo and their Tokyo-subway sarin-gas attacks). He’s en route to a family reunion, when Yuki, another preteen castaway, starts tagging along. (As Yuki, actress Mitsuki Tanimura is lively and unaffected; her fleeting scenes with nonagenarian Yukiko Inoue give the movie its few indelible moments.) Pimping herself to kill time, she’ll take any excuse to split the provinces. The allure of the cult doesn’t need to be overstated: Any hope of an afterlife beats this sunless concrete world of wretched pederasts. On the road, the brief emergence of some bickering lesbian goths threatens to turn this into another movie entirely but actually marks the last incursion of the unexpected. Writer-director Akihiko Shiota’s dramatic strategies are limited to a workmanlike vocabulary of glum location atmospherics and hand-held hustling for when the yelling starts. Any narrative drive is interrupted by flashbacks and tangential scenes, and I was counting off the minutes long before a silly “saved from the blessings of civilization” non-ending. (ImaginAsian Center) (Nick Pinkerton) 

 ELEGY It’s May-December time again, and for an aging dude who scores one of the ripest young lovelies in cinema (Penélope Cruz), Ben Kingsley looks mighty down in the mouth. Or something — it’s hard to tell because Kingsley is pulling one of his wooden-faced sphinx routines as David Kepesh, a skirt-chasing professor who gets his comeuppance from Cruz’s Consuela, the luscious Cuban-American graduate student with whom he falls in love. Or something. Spanish director Isabel Coixet’s hushed and understated Elegy is a flat, joyless affair, not just because of the total absence of carnal spark between Kingsley and Cruz — absurdly infantilized in bangs and a headband — but because it’s adapted (faithfully, up to a crucial point, by Nicholas Meyer) from The Dying Animal, one of Philip Roth’s least successful efforts to come to grips with male helplessness before what he calls “the tyranny of beauty.” Funereally lit, the movie sags beneath fatally tasteful shots of Kingsley’s profile in half-shadow, remorseful after his departed lover returns with a request he fears will unman him. Their dreary love story is enlivened only by excellent supporting performances from Peter Sarsgaard as the whiny son only a narcissist like Kepesh could produce, Dennis Hopper as Kepesh’s loyal best friend and Patricia Clarkson as his sometime sex partner. The softened ending is a travesty of Roth, even at his flawed second best. (ArcLight Hollywood; Monica 4-Plex) (Ella Taylor)


 HELL RIDE In the post–Pulp Fiction ’90s, one could randomly throw a rock and hit a two-bit Quentin Tarantino knockoff — all chatty gangsters with showy monikers doing the slo-mo “let’s go to work” swagger. Now, with this hypersexualized, spaghetti-westernized, vulgar homage to the cheapie biker movies he starred in as an AIP contract player decades ago, actor-turned-filmmaker Larry Bishop (Mad Dog Time) updates the useless Tarantino derivation for the post-Grindhouse ’00s. Adding two-tone credits, sun-bleached retro camerawork and a Morricone-goes-rockabilly score to the chatty, showy swagger, Bishop trudges through a perfunctory premise about familial revenge and rival gangs. Street cred can’t save the pic, not even with Dennis Hopper and David Carradine cameos, and QT himself exec-producing and initiating the project. Bishop’s jumbled, wholly unexciting throwback has little on its mind beyond mythologizing its own director-star as a badass biker named Pistolero. When he’s not leading the pack in far too many desert-road montages, trippin’ on peyote or spouting Zen-stupid puns, Bishop lives out fantasies of fucking his frequently full-frontal female cast, most of whom look like FHM sexbots. (Villainous Vinnie Jones shows up sporting a crossbow and tattoos based on the types of pussy he’s eaten: menstrual, crab-infested or dead — yes, it’s that kind of movie.) Maybe if we were given our own pleasures to indulge in, we’d be able to handle these boys getting theirs. (Selected theaters) (Aaron Hillis)

 GO  MAN ON WIRE Part–caper movie, part–real-life superhero saga and entirely engrossing, James Marsh’s Man on Wire recounts in Rififi-like detail how a Parisian street performer and wire walker named Philippe Petit dodged cops, fought the elements and defied seemingly impossible logistics to pull off a feat of death-defying frivolity: an illegal, hastily rigged tightrope walk on Aug. 7, 1974, across the 1,350-foot plunge between the World Trade Center’s twin towers. Still lithe and trim, with a mime’s precision of gesture, the now middle-aged Petit animates the movie with his impish presence, retelling the six years of struggle and the myriad complications en route to the fateful walk. The tale makes for gripping cinema: The visual medium conveys not only the terror and wonder of Petit’s feat but also its airy surrealism — a defiance of gravity made even more elating by its life-or-death consequences. Man on Wire is also haunted by the story it doesn’t tell: Although the movie relies on present-day interviews with its subjects, the date September 11 is never uttered. But that void turns Marsh’s film into a ghostly meditation on the transience of human accomplishment. All monuments, someday, end up tombstones. But for the duration of this exhilarating doc, the towers stand — and so, atop and between them, does Petit’s once-in-a-lifetime achievement. (Landmark; Playhouse 7; Town Center 5) (Jim Ridley)

 THE NEIGHBOR In this English-language adaptation of the 2003 French film Mon voisin du dessus (My Upstairs Neighbor), Michèle Laroque reprises her role as an uptight businesswoman and landlord at loggerheads with her downstairs tenant (Matthew Modine), an architect and part-time painter, who refuses to relinquish his apartment. Laroque has starred in dozens of these featherweight comedies in France, but this material forces her to new grades of mildness. Even during shouting matches with Modine, her emotional pitch rarely exceeds a middling 25 MPH. Modine himself is woefully miscast as an unrepentant bohemian, pouring his soul into painting by night while holding down a high-paying job at an architectural firm by day. The only believable thing about the character are his scenes as a cool dad, although it’s problematic for any movie when the male lead has more sexual chemistry with the actress playing his precocious teenage daughter (the foxy Gina Mantegna, daughter of Joe) than with his even-aged female co-star. The Neighbor’s treatment of its setting says a lot. Although director Eddie O’Flaherty wants to show Los Angeles as a city of light every bit as enchanting as Paris, how romantic can a movie be if its favorite way to see the city is from the balcony of a remodeled condo? (Sunset 5) (Sam Sweet)

 GO  THE ORDER OF MYTHS “I think you’ll learn a lot of history,” says a grim-faced dressmaker (black) to Mardi Gras queen Helen Meaher (white) early in The Order of Myths. Mobile, Alabama, has two separate Mardi Gras carnivals — one white, one black — and if Meaher is aware that her ancestors brought in the very last American slave shipment to Mobile in 1859 (including her black Mardi Gras counterpart’s ancestors), she’s not letting on. No one in the film admits to learning anything they haven’t known for years; Margaret Brown’s documentary zeroes in on the ways words like culture and tradition can become poisonous euphemisms — to wit, the defense for Mobile’s last true bastion of segregation. But Brown hasn’t made agitprop or a heavy-handed exposé of the obvious (viz., Southern racism is alive and well, just more genteel and better disguised). Quietly shocking, The Order of Myths is a deft, engrossing cross section of Mobile life, heavy on local color and insight — from the old-fashioned debutante balls of the white Mardi Gras and the rowdier black dance, all the way down to the Mobile Mystics, a group of Larry the Cable Guy look-alikes whose idea of a proper greeting is throwing beer cans at their president. (Nuart) (Vadim Rizov)


 GO  RETRIEVAL Winner of the Ecumenical Jury Prize at Cannes in 2006 and a subsequent fixture on the European festival circuit, Slawomir Fabicki’s Retrieval is the hardscrabble account of Wojtek (Antoni Pawlicki), a 19-year-old boxer/thug butting up against his disapproving immigrant girlfriend (Nataliya Vdovina), his scarily avuncular underworld employer (Jacek Braciak) and his own encroaching sense of morality. The 38-year-old Fabicki seems to take a lot of his visual and thematic cues from the films of Belgium’s Dardenne brothers: Retrieval is all bobbing long takes (excellent work from cinematographer Bogumil Godfrejow) and omnipresent urban drone, matched to redemption-story machinations. Certainly, the terse, perpetual-motion-machine protagonist owes something to Jeremie Reinier’s L’Enfant lout, and Pawlicki’s performance has a similarly compelling opacity. (Not for nothing is Wojtek known in the ring as the “cement man.”) Retrieval isn’t up to L’Enfant’s level, of course. Its realism feels carefully wrought rather than miraculously captured, and the script frequently lets down the performers: Braciak’s role is familiar from any number of contemporary crime dramas, while Vdovina is straitjacketed by her character’s relentlessly chiding dialogue. Overall, it’s still a fine debut, balancing its more ungainly dramatic turns with an absolutely perfect and poetic (dare I say Dardenne-esque?) final shot: a literal and figurative evocation of a life that’s still in midstream. (Music Hall) (Adam Nayman)

 THE SISTERHOOD OF THE TRAVELING PANTS 2 Resist if you dare, and for as long as you must, but even the hoariest haters eventually succumbed to the girly, cottony charms of 2005’s The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, if in the privacy of their Netflix queues. I foresee a similar fate for its blandly engaging sequel: moms, daughters and faux-ironic 20somethings filling the theaters, the rest of us filling our jammies and DVD players in six months. New director Sanaa Hamri reunites the cast, who keep the more trepidatious viewer’s shame-o-meter in check, with genuinely appealing performances: Back are Alexis Bledel and her primly knitted brow; Amber Tamblyn’s delightfully transparent hardass rap; America Ferrera’s earnest, wounded mother hen; and Blake Lively’s thoroughbred lope. A year at Ivy League colleges has forged some cracks among the foursome, and the theme of that first, painful breach among formative cronies is surprisingly acute, despite the soapy flourishes (multiple false pregnancies, a grandma resurrection, courtly confusions) that its target audience will eat up with a spoon. The conceit of the magical denim conduit quickly fades into the background as the girls — apart now not just for the summer but the foreseeable future — grapple with the implications of losing touch and growing up, and whether those might be the same thing. (Citywide) (Michelle Orange)

 GO  SIXTY SIX Aside from the occasional Yiddish-spewing East End gangster, Anglo-Jewish life has evolved largely off the radar of British national cinema. That’s all changing in the new multiculti England, and while we wait for Mike Leigh to get off his duff and show us how he grew up, Made of Honor director Paul Weiland’s genially autobiographical comedy of 1960s suburban Jewish manners will do nicely. Bernie (a very good Gregg Sulkin) is a well-behaved suburban nerd cast down by the news that his bar mitzvah, which he’d hoped would finally bring him his long-awaited moment in the sun, coincides with the World Cup Final, when all the potential guests will be staying home to root for England. You can guess what follows by way of lessons in manhood, and you’d be right, but Sixty Six is brightened by a strong cast, including Eddie Marsan as Bernie’s timid dad, the hilarious Catherine Tate as his culinary-challenged aunt and (given that she’s about as Jewish as the queen) a surprisingly terrific Helena Bonham Carter in full floral folly as Bernie’s loving mum. The paw print of Weiland’s friend and co–executive producer, Richard Curtis — who wrote both Bridget Jones films and the original treatment here — is stamped all over this chipper movie, which properly belongs on television. But you don’t have to be Jewish to appreciate its uncondescending fondness for the claustrophobic warmth of family life among working-class people apprehensively inching their way toward upward mobility. (Royal; Town Center 5) (Ella Taylor)

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