Monthly Archives: February 2014

What Just Happened (2008)

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After making Sleepers (1996) and Wag The Dog (1997) in quick succession, it would be another eleven years before Barry Levinson directed Robert De Niro again. The result was What Just Happened (2008), a movie that takes a look behind the curtain of the movie industry. While Wag The Dog featured a film producer determined to take credit for his part in a huge spin operation, What Just Happened goes to show that film production, with all its stresses, is a thankless task.

There’s plenty going on in the life of Ben (De Niro), one of Hollywood’s most powerful producers, whose star power is beginning to lose its twinkle. His recent movie tested poorly with audiences and its director, despite not having final cut, is keen to preserve its artistic integrity despite the studio’s pressure to apply loss limitation by changing the ending. Ben’s forthcoming movie is also under threat, this time of never being made if its star, Bruce Willis (as himself), won’t shave off his massive beard. And if his professional life isn’t hectic enough, there’s the domestic issues to contend with also, chief among them a second ex-wife who he can’t quite split with despite her sleeping with a married screenwriter on the side.

The two weeks of the movie’s timeframe sees Ben negotiate all these issues with different levels of success. De Niro contributes an unmemorable performance, which is disappointing in the context as, with his long filmography, there must be a line of producers to take inspiration from. It may be that he keeps it all in — his first ex-wife notes that secrets seem to be the family business — and that’s why he remains practically blank throughout, although it just feels that there’s little to work with. Indeed, it’s the supporting cast that adds colour.

Stealing the show is British film director Jeremy Brunell (Michael Wincott‘s blend of Keith Richards and Sid Vicious) who cares only for his artistic integrity in fierce opposition to the Hollywood machine, represented by Catherine Keener‘s bottom-line obsessed studio executive. Or, as he puts it: “you can make a film that has a bit more profundity to it and somehow people actually remember, or the same old load of bollocks”. John Turturro, Stanley Tucci, and, Kristen Stewart do well with their occasional appearances. But it’s the actors playing themselves that appear to be relishing their roles. Sean Penn, star of Brunell’s movie (its contentious finale showing a dog getting shot in the head), worries that the film will still have “edge” after the cut for Cannes changed the finale. And Bruce Willis relishes sending himself up while simultaneously mocking the pompous behaviour of an overpaid Hollywood prima donna.

As a comedy What Just Happened throws up the occasional laugh without really being funny and as a satire it doesn’t cut deep enough, but there’s a perfectly decent, if lack-lustre, story here. Based on the memoirs of Art Linson — incidentally also the screenwriter and producer here — this study of Hollywood politics perhaps suffers due to Linson’s overbearing closeness to the material. It certainly brings up issues of art versus money but it doesn’t quite burst the bubble that Hollywood has made for itself. There are many subtle in-jokes (such as a Jewish agent who, like many others before him, has changed his name to something more Gentile) or hints at the industry’s lust for money and the audience pandering it will do to bring in dollars. But, in the course of the movie, What Just Happened turns out to be not that much. It just shows that even those deemed powerful within the system still answer to someone.

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Mondovino (2004)

Mondovino (2004)

Every story needs its good and bad, and for one to triumph over the other. In the world of wine the good guys are those versed in the traditional ways, passed down through generations; the bad guys those larger corporations that transcend a modest few hectares in favour of homogenising wine on a global scale. In Jonathan Nossiter‘s Mondovino (2004, 131 mins), the world is not so clear cut and the truth lies somewhere between.

One of the few documentaries ever considered for the Palme d’Or, this film takes a look at the globalisation of wine by getting global itself and travelling the world to interview its subjects. From the Old World to the New; through sprawling Napa valley vineyards onto humble uprofitable patches in Argentina; and from tradition to modernity. Nossiter gets access to an excellent range of high profile interviewees and his cinéma vérité style, while a bit hyperactive at times, works well in opening up the industry and being alert to its problems.

What we see is two distinct worlds: one of class, heritage and terroir; and another of democratised brand-led wine production pioneered by the American Mondavi family, its ripples felt around the world. In this first world, Nossiter meets with aristocractic families of France and Italy, their vineyards preserved through periods of fascism by collaboration and support, something for which descendants seem happily unapologetic. And in the other world, wine as a brand is considered, where Californian wine producers have led the capitalist charge to commoditise wine — the faster, better, cheaper approach.

To see how wine has changed in the last fifty years, it’s little surprise to hear that “wine is dead” from Aimé Guibert, the owner of 40 hectares in Languedoc. Where, for millennia, wine has been about the relationship between man and nature, today it is different. What once was about terroir is now about manipulation. The patience once required in maturing a vintage can now be hastened. Guibert is one of the handful of traditional vintners featured — a dying breed in this new world of wine — who will be lost to modernity.

But what is modernity in wine when considered against a timeless culture of grape fermentation? Where one may expect it to be the unrelenting march of technology, the answer in Mondovino appears to lie in the closeness of tastemakers. As the interviews progress the name of Robert Parker comes to the fore, a writer who, with his casual — some might say American — style and easy-to-understand ratings cut through the stuffiness of prior wine writing to become the world’s preëminent wine critic. Parker comes across rather well, a victim — in so much that he’s practically deified — of his own success, perhaps. But should you, as a supposedly independent writer, stop if you could be responsible vicariously for the death of wine.? Are you really to blame for those that hang on your every word?

If Parker is a tastemaker in print, the influence of Michel Rolland is not overlooked either, and Nossiter spends plenty of time chauffeured around with him. Consultant to hundreds of wineries around the world, Rolland offers his advice and improves the fortunes of those using his services. In effect they are moulding wines to his taste. Learning that Rolland shares tastes with Robert Parker, the world of wine begins to feel smaller, more restricted. As Rolland advises in one direction, wineries adapt their wine to the palate of the one man who will sing its praises and make its fortune. A damning epiphany, although it begs the question as to where wine is headed once these men are gone.

Although Nossiter, for the most part, sticks to simple lines of questioning and allows the interviewees to expound on matters oenological, political, and geographical, it feels likely that his mind is made up and that the subjects are there to confirm suspicions that globalisation is detrimental to wine. Subtle hints come when he notices a French press attaché use the English term ‘winemaker’ in a stream of Gallic dialogue; or less subtle such as the moment when Parker talks of his “candid, democratic way of tasting” and the camera turns to underscore this with a Burger King advertisement.

At over two hours there’s so much to Mondovino that it only hints at so much else. And its no surprise to learn that, with 500 hours of original footage, there’s so much more. Fringe characters add further colour, such as the New York wine importer despondent at the changes in the industry and the Christie’s Wine Director who, with the quiet grace of a butler, pines for a return to the 19th Century where England played its part in the French wine industry. Or even the Burgundian di Montille family, where the daughter decides to quit her job at a larger rival for dishonest practices and join her father’s independent concern.

This last one is indicative of much of Mondovino. Whether it be long and morally suspect lineages or siblings working together (or against!), families are important in wine. In this ever globalising world they seem to be the one thing that keeps it human. And it seems to be the one thing that keeps them looking to the future. One of the Mondavi clan dreams of growing wine on Mars fifteen generations from now. And globalisation is bad enough, as Nossiter’s film convinces, without the threat of universalisation lying in wait.

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