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Friday, Oct. 15, 2010
'The Vintner's Luck'/'Bitch Slap'
Fey winemaker no match for hell's angels
New Zealand director Niki Caro made a name for herself with 2002's "Whale Rider," a canny mix of Maori myths and naturalistic performances, driven by a gifted young actress, Keisha Castle-Hughes, who was only 12 years old at the time. After going Hollywood with the sexual-harassment lawsuit drama "North Country" in 2005, Caro is back in the realm of the mythic again with "The Vintner's Luck," and — even more promising — she's also got Castle-Hughes in her cast.
Based on the novel by fellow kiwi Elizabeth Knox, "The Vintner's Luck" follows the travails of a 19th-century French peasant named Sobran (played by Jeremie Renier, a regular in the Dardennes brothers' films), who works on a Burgundy cha^teau tending the vineyards. Despite his lowly position, Sobran is convinced he knows his wine, and that he can make a better one than his masters. One drunken night he encounters an angel, Xas (Gaspard Ulliel, "A Very Long Engagement"), who encourages him to plant his own vines.
Sobran is convinced that with his guardian angel watching him nothing can go wrong, so he marries his forbidden love, Celeste (Castle-Hughes), then marches off with Napoleon's army to earn some money to finance his own winemaking. After nearly dying in the war in Russia and returning home to find that his father has perished, Sobran is furious with Xas; why didn't his protector warn him? Well, it's not that simple, says the angel, and the pair's relationship takes even stranger turns.
We're clearly in magic realist territory here, and it's up to the cast to keep things grounded and not too flighty. Renier is great as the headstrong, demanding winemaker, and Vera Farmiga ("Up in the Air") adds some nuance to the bog-standard role of haughty baroness who eventually melts under a rough pair of hands. Castle-Hughes is largely wasted as Celeste, getting stuck with the one-note role of jealous shrew for most of the film. Most problematic is Ulliel, who comes across just a bit too fey in a role that's already underwritten.
Caro has a good touch for the film's rhythms, grounding her story in the earth and the passing of seasons. When Sobran leaves for war, it takes Caro but one sobering shot — set during Napoleon's retreat from Moscow — to let us know it's all gone wrong. When Sobran returns to his home, the look on his face says all that's needed.
Less convincing is author Knox's insistence that you can taste the winemaker himself in a glass of red. The French have long insisted on the concept of "terroir": that certain land, certain regions, bear characteristic tastes, and are as influential in winemaking as the grapes themselves. What would they think of an author who wrote a novel on French vineyards without ever once setting foot on the terroir she describes?
"The Vintner's Luck" opens at Tokyo's Bunkamura theater, which caters to those besotted with the charms of "old Europe," and with the film's loving shots of the sun-mottled fields and candlelit chateau interiors, Europhiles will definitely find some enjoyment here. F or those seeking less refined pleasures, let's turn to "Bitch Slap," a neo-grindhouse flick that also features an angel, but more of the "Charlie's" variety: She's named Trixie, wears stripper heels, and has a mean way with a katana (sword).
When it comes to exploitation cinema, the only thing more popular than sex or violence is sex and violence. "Bitch Slap" keeps things simple: Cast three statuesque actresses whose talents are barely constrained by their tops, and proceed to have them kick the living crap out of every man who appears on screen, with a few cat fights thrown in for kicks. It's the kind of uber-dominatrix action flick pioneered by breast-fetishist Russ Meyer's "Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!" (1965) back in the day, although the influence of Quentin Tarantino is clearly apparent, in both the film's scrambled narrative structure and it's use of stunt coordinator Zoe Bell, who starred in "Death Proof" (2007).
The story involves some sort of diamond heist/double-cross, but it really doesn't matter. "It just keeps getting hotter and hotter," purrs angelic stripper Trixie (Julia Voth), and the viewer will be inclined to agree, even before she proceeds to pour a tubful of water over herself and her accomplices in crime Hel (Erin Cummings) and Camero (America Olivo), in what is some kind of extended slow-mo wet T-shirt/beer commercial scene. When your three lead characters are billed as "the sexbomb," "the stripper," and "the psycho-slut," clearly political correctness is not on the agenda.
With a fistful of American TV actors from series such as "Xena: Warrior Princess" and "Hercules," and a director who worked on the "Spartacus: Blood and Sand" and "Baywatch" series, "Bitch Slap" looks and feels like straight-to-video fodder — indeed, it barely opened on the big screen in the United States — but it actually has a great sense of humor, verging on knowing self-parody.
With credits that include "Casting Couch" and a disclaimer that warns, "Any similarity between our story and the classic and timeless works of William Shakespeare is purely coincidental," "Bitch Slap" earns an extra star for attitude. And who can not love a film that has the line, "Oh my God! You're a wicked cool covert operative masquerading as a sex-toy tycoon?!"?