What makes heist films work so well? Perhaps it is how they quickly involve the audiences in the machinations of a plot, identifying from the get-go with the underdogs, trying to stick it to the man. Invariably, the characters trying to pull a master plan are disadvantaged against a formidable foe. No matter his power, he can’t quite see what is happening under his nose. As far as crime movies go, that formula is peerless.
There are light examples, like the popular "Ocean's 11" trilogy, developed by Steven Soderbergh as a shiny star vehicle for George Clooney, Brad Pitt, and Julia Roberts. Sometimes, the criminals are desperadoes who can't help getting caught, and the punishment is unyielding. Such is the case of the tragic dramas the French filmmaker Jean Pierre Melville made. His classic films, like "Le Samourai" (1967) and "The Red Circle" (1970), are Art House staples.
As a genre, the heist film is very versatile. Just this week, Argentinian director Rodrigo Moreno surprised us with “The Delinquents,” a luminous existential comedy that will represent Argentina in the Oscar race.
The heist movie can cross genres and even blossom in real life. Check out "Man on a Wire" (2008), James Marsh's Oscar-winning documentary about how Philippe Petit executed "the artistic crime of the century," crossing the World Trade Center towers on a tightrope in 1974. He did not steal anything but the chance to risk his life to perform a spectacular - and illegal - stunt. Just as fun is "Sour Grapes," which you can stream on Popflick, your best destination to watch independent movies online.
This crackerjack real-life thriller by Reuben Atlas and Jerry Rothwell is part investigative procedural, part cautionary tale, following the extraordinary story of Rudy Kurniawan, a mysterious, geeky oenophile who caused chaos in the fine wine market. Crime documentaries don't get more fascinating than this.
Rudy Kurniawan lifts a glass as he defrauds the wine-collecting world in "Sour Grapes" / Photo courtesy of Gravitas Ventures.
Kurniawan presented himself as a moneyed expatriate from Jakarta, following his dream of drinking, buying, and selling the best wines in the world. He ingratiated himself with the exclusive circle of Hollywood wine collectors, who took him into the rarified group of the "Angry Men": a close-knit group of L.A.-based power players whose source of anger was showing up with a prime bottle to a party where everyone else brings cheap merlot. Poor babies.
To stave off the aggravation, they organized periodical dinners where each of the members brought the best and most expensive wine they had in their cellars. Because they all have basements. The group includes film and TV director Jef Levy and producer Arthur Sarkissian, who gives testimony about Rudy's overall coolness. They shake their heads in disbelief at what he did.
Jef Levy is looking for a bottle of wine that may or may not be authentic / Photo courtesy of Gravitas Ventures.
And what he did was counterfeit bottles of wine and inundated the market with them. As far as crime goes, this might sound victimless. This canard is used in fiction to give the protagonist an aura of respectability if not nobility. Whatever they do, it is not out of ruthless ambition but a sense of misplaced justice. The rich deserved whatever they got! The insurance company will cover it! And the banks already screwed us over. The thief of my thief is my hero. Right?
The bigger the target, the richer the schadenfreude. When millionaire Bill Koch shows up on the screen, the scope of Kurniawan's grift becomes focused and takes your breath away.
Koch is not an easy target. He and his brother David are virtual kingmakers of conservative politics in the United States. Donald Trump would not be ready to wreak havoc on another electoral process if Koch had not fallen behind his ruse to become president in the first place. As far as comeuppance goes, a few fake bottles that set him back half a million is some weak tea. But Koch is not content with keeping them as a souvenir. He tasks investigator Brad Goldstein to determine who pulled off this hit on him. Goldstein is only one of the experts who will lead us into the bizarre story of Kurniawan.
Koch Justice: Millionaire and conservative influencer Bill Koch set his sights on Kurniawan in "Sour Grapes" / Photo courtesy of Gravitas Ventures.
“Sour Grapes” is a fascinating time capsule of the early aughts, when the startup bubble and a healthy stock market conspired to create a new generation of nouveau riches, eager to amass status symbols. Wine became a prized commodity. Atlas and Rothwell take us to frenetic auctions that look like orgies of capitalism, complete with models holding cheerleader pom-poms, celebrating the people burning money for one precious bottle. At the same time, an overzealous auctioneer peppers his chants with curse words. Wall Street bros cruise around in plain daylight, sauced in their latest acquisitions, going from cellar to cellar. Hey! At least they hired a chauffeured car and are not driving. The vulgarity in the display will make you rethink any conception you might have about the alleged refinement of the world of wine connoisseurs - at least in the United States!
Then, the filmmakers throw you a curve. They find Laurent Ponsot, a French winemaker, the scion of a family that, for decades, has produced the best Burgundy wine in the world. Through him, “Sour Grapes” rescues wine from the claws of capitalism, re-contextualizing it as a sublime product of human artisanship, bending rock, soil, plants, and the elements to create a liquid work of art. Art that can be consumed and become part of you. There is true pride in his words as he takes the camera through the production process in his vineyards. His unassuming, humble demeanor works as armor when he incursions into the heart of darkness of the US market. Eager to save the reputation of his wines, he crosses to the Atlantic to find out who falsified his wine and how. Just glancing at a catalog photo, he recognizes false Clos St. Denis Grand Cru bottles.
"The Sherlock Holmes of French Wine": vintner Laurent Ponsot follows Kurniawan's tracks /Photo courtesy of Gravitas Ventures.
His efforts run parallel to federal agencies and the legal system that slowly but surely closes in on Kurniawan. The less said about the intricate details of his plot, the better the movie will work for you. Suffice it to say the twists and turns the tale takes are stranger than fiction and will take you on a world-trotting chase that puts Hollywood thrillers to shame.
The filmmakers are ultimately generous with the powerful victims and save them from being mere objects of ridicule. There is a heartbreaking recognition that wine collecting while working as a status symbol, was also a social activity that allowed them to find meaningful, emotional connections to ease the loneliness of modern life. Levy, facing the possibility that Kurniawan filled his wine cellar with thousands of fake bottles, takes umbrage in remembering the amazing adventures he lived with the fraudster. Sarkissian still considers him a friend and fantasizes about reaching out to understand. They are not saving face. They are truly sad about the turn of events. Kurniawan was not just stealing from people. He was trampling on another precious commodity in these dire times: friendship.
Ponsot and his workers celebrate the end of the harvest in "Sour Grapes" / Photo courtesy of Gravitas Ventures.
The celebration of the end of the Harvest in France contrasts with the legal destruction of hundreds - thousands? - of fake bottles from Kurniawan’s cellar. No millionaires are flanking Ponsot. He presides over a large salon filled with the field workers who pick the grapes and the operators who push the buttons, stick the labels on the bottles, and make the precious liquid rich men and gourmands all over the world covet. Wine, and almost everything we trade, is worth the honest human effort behind it and the value we give to them. The distance between a wine collector and a movie buff who treasures old VHS tapes is shorter than we think.
An unassuming young man floods the American wine market with fake vintages valued in the millions in this humorous and suspenseful tale of an ingenious con on the eve of the 2008 stock market crash.Stream Now
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