This Nobel takes the prize for its ingenious blending of dark comedy into an insanely clever thriller. Thaddeus James (Shawn Hatosy) kidnaps Barkeley Michaelson (Bryan Greenberg) the 20-ish son of a chemistry Nobel Prize winner Eli Michaelson (Alan Rickman) demanding the prize money as ransom right on the eve of the prestigious presentation in Stockholm. This being a wicked tale of deception and familial dysfunction in the extreme you can probably guess the father doesn’t want to pay his precious $2 million prize money for the return of his son. But beware not everything in this intricately plotted thriller is always what it appears to be. Always watchable and surprising the wonderful Alan Rickman doesn’t disappoint -- delivering a wickedly funny performance as the woefully repugnant ego-maniacal and self-absorbed father who is more concerned with bedding his university students than in forging a relationship with his very intelligent but neglected son well played by Bryan Greenberg. Rickman dominates every scene he’s in with his amusing boorish behavior. As his deceptively smart wife Mary Steenburgen has one of her best acting outings in years. It’s a shame this Oscar-winning actress doesn’t get choice roles anymore because when she does even in a small independent production like this she shows she still has it. Cameos abound but the crux of the movie belongs to Rickman and the two young actors Greenberg and Hatosy who make his life a wreck. Randall Miller who co-wrote the script with wife Jody Savin directs Nobel Sonwith a visual flair you never would have guessed from his previous films Marilyn Hotchkiss Ballroom Dancing & Charm School and this summer’s splendid comedy sleeper Bottle Shock. Here he clearly wants to channel Quentin Tarantino with body parts figuring prominently into the plot yet the director doesn’t let the MTV style visual trickery get in the way of the story he’s telling. Nobel Son mixes a lot of filmic influences but the indisputable highlight is an ingenious caper sequence involving Mini-Coopers that puts the recent The Italian Job to shame. It might not win any awards but it’s a highly entertaining way to spend an evening.
Full of wonderful characters and smart witty dialogue--not to mention the wonders of Napa--Bottle Shock is based on the true story of the beginnings of the California wine industry and its underdog triumph at the blind Paris wine tasting competition of 1976. Using this as a backdrop the film is really a character study focusing primarily on the rocky relationship between novice vintner Jim Barrett (Bill Pullman) and his happy-go-lucky son Bo (Chris Pine). Despite the generational and other gaps between them they both have a common goal of producing the perfect Chardonnay at the Chateau Montelena vineyard Jim in the early ‘70s. By happenstance Brit Steven Spurrier (Alan Rickman) is in Napa on the prowl for the perfect bottle for the upcoming French wine tasting contest he is sponsoring in France which he thinks will boost business for his money-losing Paris wine shop. The elder Barrett passes on the idea but Bo who has just been blown off by their gorgeous intern Sam (Rachael Taylor) in favor of his buddy Gustavo (Freddy Rodriguez) is looking for something to lift his spirits and manages to get two bottles of their wine to Spurrier just as he is about to leave. There’s just one complication: It seems the wine has turned brown a circumstance that seems fatal until some even more astounding facts turn up. The ever-reliable Rickman is absolutely delightful in his role as the enterprising vino connoisseur and leads the perfect cast along with perennially underrated Pullman ideal as the frustrated perfectionist Jim Barrett. The real find of the film however is Chris Pine all raggedy long hair and free-spirited attitude as the love-struck Bo. Pine who’ll play Captain Kirk in J.J. Abrams’ upcoming Star Trek reincarnation is just terrific here totally endearing as he etches a character we root for heart and soul. He is certainly an actor to watch out for. It’s also easy to see why he er pines (pun intended) for Sam a stunning charmer lovingly played by Taylor. Rodriguez (Six Feet Under) is a perfect addition as the romantic threat to buddy Bo. Rounding out the cast in style are veteran Dennis Farina who has a couple of nice scenes and the lovely Eliza Dushku who works at the local bar. Director Randall M. Miller’s last feature attempt was the overly sappy and hopelessly sentimental Marilyn Hotchkiss' Ballroom Dancing and Charm School but what he’s achieved with Bottle Shock is a quantum leap forward in quality. As co-writer (with wife Jody Savin who also co-produced and Ross Schwartz who came up with the idea in the first place) he has infused the film with just the kind of light touch to make this real-life story work as that rare kind of glorious human comedy from the heart. It’s a pure delight that goes down like the finest of wines with a superb look and feel--particularly highlighted by Michael J. Ozier’s eye-popping cinematography. Of course when you have Northern California’s breathtaking wine country as your canvas it would be hard to screw it up. Bottle Shock is on a par with some of the sleeper comic successes of recent years including such Oscar winners as Sideways and Little Miss Sunshine. Like those sleeper hits Miller has unleashed a 100 percent-certified cinematic gem the perfect tonic for a summer night.
As a precious equivalent of a handmade dollhouse Marilyn Hotchkiss is based on a 1990 short film narrated by William Hurt about a Pasadena ballroom-dancing school for preteens in which 10-year-olds Steve and Lisa first meet. Now grown up Steve (John Goodman) is dying on a rural road. With his guts splayed over his chest Steve retells his childhood dance memories of Lisa (Camryn Manheim) to a stranger Frank (Robert Carlyle) who finds him lying there. Coincidentally Frank is also taking the same Marilyn Hotchkiss ballroom dancing class now taught by Marilyn’s prim and proper daughter Marienne (Mary Steenburgen) as an adult. As Steve is leaving life Frank is re-starting his and the two of them connected through dance. Subplots of the ballroom dancers and Frank’s therapy partners are an interesting departure to the colored textures of human anxiety. The actors bring a wealth of experience and professionalism to their roles which are pared down for efficiency. Carlyle (Trainspotting) leads the way with modest conflicted restraint carrying the group’s collective acting abilities on his shoulders. Group scenes allow Oscar-nominee David Paymer to play off Sean Astin while Oscar-winner Marisa Tomei matches seductive physical moves with Carlyle in dancing scenes. Manheim is perfectly ugly for the haggard house-bound adult Lisa smoking cigarettes and unaware of her lifetime effect on Steve. The roster is so tight that Danny DeVito is stuffed into a lower bed bunk as a wise prisoner with about five minutes of screen time. Donnie Wahlberg is the actor to get most excited about. His flamboyant turns on the dance floor--think Dodgeball’s Ben Stiller with a stalker’s sense of violent romanticism--hint at the former NKOTB’s acting ability. Wahlberg in the tradition of his brother Mark could be another brooding Dirk Diggler. Despite the big-name talent Marilyn Hotchkiss is small which may explain its reception (or lack thereof) since its Jan. 2005 Sundance premiere. Its a little rough around the edges coming from director Randall Miller (The Sixth Man Houseguest) whose last work was in late ‘90s television. With Marilyn Hotchkiss Miller creates a time-capsule-like effect with quaint dialogue and close-up camera shots. The director also wrote the script which is limited in its scope. A handful of the same settings (the dancehall the therapy room) create a monotony and lack of momentum; the drama is contained. But the color schemes affect the moods of some shots such as a whitewash over Goodman’s dying scene in the ambulance--and the dance scenes have that certain joie de vivre. Marilyn Hotchkiss might be the movie Miller was born to make but it just doesn’t quite reach the winner’s circle of timeless classics.