'Bottle Shock' is to be sipped, savored

Galileo once said that "Wine is sunshine held together by water." And, of course, wine — its making and its enjoyment — is replete with vintners and connoisseurs, some of whom have turned the pursuit of the perfect glass of burgundy or chardonnay into more than just filling a glass with a hearty red or a woolly white (with a hint of melon and oak). The mere act of sniffing, swirling, wafting, tasting and spitting while uttering a string of adjectives that could describe a saddle blanket stored in an oaken barrel has been elevated to an art form.

What makes "Bottle Shock" (Rated PG-13) such a sweet film is that though it is about a world that often takes itself far too seriously, it never does. In the main, it's lighthearted, comedic, and flavored with moments of sadness and regret and palatable joy.

Alan Rickman, an actor who is seen far too infrequently, is superb as the ex-pat Brit wine snob, Steven Spurrier, who has a small wine shop in Paris. He is convinced by his neighbor, a travel agent, that California's Napa Valley is producing some world class wines. Of course such a statement is rejected outright. But then Spurrier hits on the idea to have a "Judgment of Paris" blind taste-off, so to speak, and heads to California in search of vintners willing to submit their wines for the competition.

The year is 1976. His expectation is that the French wines, gold medal marathoners all, will only reinforce the stereotype that California wines are sold in large jugs in supermarkets for $5 with twist-off tops and consumed like soft drinks.

Arriving in the Valley, Spurrier's assumptions about Napa vintners and their product are challenged and his education makes for some captivating moments, many laced with humor. There are as well parallel stories that make the narrative dynamic if just a tad sentimental. But it all works.

For example, Jim Barrett (Bill Pullman), San Francisco attorney who has left his high-powered law firm, has taken a leap of faith, bought a winery, and as the bills mount, struggles to make the perfect bottle of wine. His 20-something son, Bo (Chris Pine), would rather surf and chase women than get serious about helping his dad realize his dream. They have issues. Gustav Brambila (Freddy Rodriquez), who has walked the vineyards all of his life, yearns to make the perfect burgundy. Samantha (Rachel Taylor) shows up to spend the summer interning and of course her love for wine morphs into her love for Bo. All are committed to turning the grape into sunshine.

"Bottle Shock" is a nifty film, to be sipped and savored. The title? Rather than explain and diminish even slightly one of the surprises of the film, know simply that bottle shock is characterized by a muted color or disjointed flavor and can occur immediately after bottling. It can also happen if the bottle is shaken or subject to rough travels. It also may be a metaphor, but perhaps that's a stretch.

Death Race

In the best tradition of "Mad Max" and "Road Warrior," comes "Death Race" (Rated R). Think of it as NASCAR on steroids. A drawn-out demolition derby with mounted .30 caliber machine guns, flame throwers, Russian missile launchers, smoke and oil slicks. Sure it's a video game. But a cool video game. And sure it's a B movie which should be on academic probation, if you're grading on the curve. Call it film-lite. But it also has no pretensions. It's never cute, and avoids at all cost snappy dialogue, and makes no attempt at even the skinniest of stories. It's just a flat-out ride. Literally.

The year is 2012, the economy has tanked, and crime is through the roof. Private corporations have taken over the prisons and turned them into coliseums where the gladiators/prisoners drive hard-core, heavily armored muscle cars as if their lives depended on it. Which is the case. To make a few million the warden has hooked up with pay-per -iew ($250) TV promising legions of viewers mayhem and death, coupled with the promise that the last man standing goes free. Enter stage left Jason Statham, in prison for murder (he was framed), who also is a famous race car driver. And there's Ian McShane as his wise, cynical and brilliant pit boss.

For a certain audience, "Death Race" works. It's noisy, filled with gnarly gearheads sporting lots of scar tissue and tattoos and buckets of attitude. And not to forget the crashes, followed by billowing clouds of igniting gasoline, punctuated by fire, horrible, enveloping and destructive fire. This is raw, crusty, close-to-the-bone filmmaking. Not for everyone. But there is an audience that will find it a rush. If the movie has legs, they'll be the size of redwoods.

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