The Hands of Bresson

Sundry observations on the art of cinema and world film culture

Reviews: Patti Smith: Dream of Life, Bottle Shock

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Patti Smith: Dream of Life. Dir. Steven Sebring. 2008. 109min. Palm Pictures.

If you don’t know who Patti Smith is (New York poet, punk-rock legend, friend to Robert Mapplethorpe, William Burroughs, Bob Dylan, and countless other cool cats), and you’ve never heard her raucous, iconic 1975 album “Horses,” then don’t go looking to Steven Sebring’s devotional docu-portrait for a crash course. This is purely a fan’s film, but even Smith zealots might be wary of its diffuse, meandering textures and narrative inertia. Sebring, a commercial photographer, spent 11 years trailing Smith to create “Dream of Life,” an artsy, abstract profile of the down-to-earth musical maven, who appears here looking weathered but still vital in middle age. Grafting choppy (and irritatingly meager) concert footage onto impressionistic visuals overlaid with Smith’s hoarse, Jersey-accented renditions of her post-Beat poetry, “Dream of Life” comes off at certain moments like an overstylized (and rather expensive) home movie. Yet it has a remarkable intimacy, too: Smith sits amid the clutter of her apartment musing about Blake and Rimbaud. She frolics backstage with Michael Stipe and gives Jesse Jackson a hug at an antiwar rally. In one scene, she strums blues guitar with Dixie playwright Sam Shepard and later trades best pissing-in-a-car stories with Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea on an unidentified beach. But what does it all add up to? An enervating encounter with greatness. Sebring adopts a loose, loving eye for all things Patti, including nostalgic rambles and dinner with the folks, yet provides too little context about her cultural significance for anyone unfamiliar with Smith’s legacy. Nor does he delve into what makes the tempestuous singer of “Gloria” and “Rock N Roll Nigger” tick, or why she chose to leave the stage after marrying late MC5 guitarist Fred “Sonic” Smith. It may have taken a decade to make, but the impact of “Dream of Life” is gone in a flash.

Bottle Shock. Dir. Randall Miller. 2008. 110min. No distributor.

A film about wine and the people who make it. By the helmer of “Marilyn Hotchkiss Ballroom Dancing,” no less! How … intoxicating. Too bad this corked concoction has none of the shaggy-dog charm or cathartic hilarity of Alexander Payne’s “Sideways,” the film it will inevitably be compared to. Based on a book about the “Judgment of Paris,” a historic 1976 blind-tasting competition that put little-known Napa Valley on the map (and humiliated the French winemaking establishment), “Bottle Shock” is a reprise of old themes and familiar terrain: father-son conflict, French-American rivalry, best friends at odds, hicks vs. urban sophisticates. Alan Rickman plays Stephen Spurrier, the snobby British oenophile with a Paris wine shop who travels to California in the mid ’70s hoping to make a world-class discovery. Bill Pullman is the lawyer-winemaker in danger of losing his vineyard—and his dream—to lenders while trying to perfect a new vintage. His handsome surfer-son Bo, played by Chris Pine, and ambitious local assistant Gustavo (Freddie Rodriguez from HBO’s “Six Feet Under”) are close buds helping in the effort, but they soon get tangled up in a messy three-way affair with Pullman’s luscious new intern, Rachael Taylor. Unfortunately, Miller fumbles both his subplots and character development, so his sun-drunk, hamfisted take on these real-life events is livened only by Rickman, who plays the insufferable Spurrier with priggish gusto. One can imagine Robert Parker falling for this perky but undistinguished blend of romance and light drama, a kind of feature-film equivalent to mainstream Merlot set to a Doobie Brothers tune. But for the Hugh Johnsons of cinema out there, “Bottle Shock” is pure plonk.

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Written by eyemaster

January 31, 2009 at 4:09 pm

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