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SIDEWAYS – A REVIEW BY J.D. LAFRANCE

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SIDEWAYS, Sandra Oh, Thomas Haden Church, Paul Giamatti, Virginia Madsen, 2004, (c) Fox Searchlight

Alexander Payne is part of an exciting wave of filmmakers who grew up during the 1970s and were subsequently influenced by the films from that era. His contemporaries include the likes of Wes Anderson, Paul Thomas Anderson, and David O. Russell to name but a few. And like his fellow filmmakers, Payne eschews the Hollywood trend of placing an emphasis on special effects and trendy actors in favor of character-driven, comedy-drama hybrids populated with character actors like Laura Dern, Matthew Broderick and Kathy Bates.

Payne’s About Schmidt (2002) continued his fascination with American cinema in the ‘70s by featuring one its biggest (and most prolific) stars, Jack Nicholson. His next film, Sideways (2004), continued the road movie motif from Schmidt and combined it with the buddy film. Jack Cole (Thomas Haden Church) is a failed actor about to be married. He decides to go on one last week of uninhibited fun with his best friend, Miles Raymond (Paul Giamatti), a grade school teacher and struggling author. They go on a wine-tasting tour through California’s Central Coast and squeeze in a bit of golfing as well.

Miles is an avid (nay-elitist) wine aficionado while Jack is completely ignorant of wine beyond what tastes good to him and what doesn’t. Miles is trying to get his book published with little success and he’s grown cynical and defeated as a result. Initially, he comes off as an unlikable loser not above stealing money from his mother. Jack counters Miles’ repressed nature by coming off as something of an instinctive kind of person who indulges in his raging id. He was on a hit television show… 11 years ago and is now relegated to doing voiceovers for commercials. Along the way, Jack and Miles meet Maya (Virginia Madsen), a beautiful waitress who Miles knows from way back when, and Stephanie (Sandra Oh), who works at a winery and catches Jack’s eye.

Jack and Miles are complete messes as human beings. They lack direction and are hypocrites. Miles says he’s an author but his book is going nowhere, while Jack is getting married but hits on anything in a dress. They are hardly a sympathetic pair. And yet Payne is able to get a lot of comedic mileage from them. Miles is a wine snob who rambles on about the taste, color, and so on, only to have Jack sum up his opinion simply, “I like it,” which comically deflates Miles’ pontificating. They have an intriguing dynamic. While they lie to others – Miles to Jack’s friends about the status of his novel and Jack being nice to Miles’ mother when he clearly wants to get back on the road – they are no pretenses between each other. These guys are getting to the stage in their lives where they’re looking back as opposed to looking ahead. Jack sees marriage as an institution that will stifle his freedom while Miles has a very negative outlook on life, finding any excuse not to ask Maya out despite obviously liking her because he assumes that it will go nowhere.

An interesting thing happens during the course of the film. At first, Miles starts off as an unsympathetic character while we warm up to Jack’s funny repartee as the charming rogue. Halfway through the film they flip roles and it’s Jack who is exposed as a pathetic womanizer and Miles becomes more sympathetic thanks to Maya’s influence. She humanizes him and is easily his intellectual equal. She knows her wine and this clearly impresses Miles. She’s smart and beautiful so why is she even wasting her time with a sad sack like Miles? She gets to know him beyond his looks and liquefies the pretension of his character. Maya pierces his wine-speak armor that he throws up all the time with her easy-going nature and Miles realizes that he doesn’t need to constantly impress her. There is a nice scene where they get to know each other and it is great to see two skilled actors getting a chance to act and really delve into their characters. In this scene, we finally see someone thaw out Miles and get him to open up, stop worrying and thinking so negatively. They use their mutual love for wine as a way to share their passions and aspirations with each other. It’s a beautifully realized scene because you are seeing two people starting to fall in love with each other. Like a fine wine, Maya allows Miles to breathe and he gets better as time goes on. She’s a romantic who is able to cut through his cynicism and soften his hard edges.

Fresh off the success of American Splendor (2003), Paul Giamatti is one of those actors who make it look effortless as he inhabits the characters he plays so completely. Miles is a neurotic mess; a depressed cynic who is definitely a half glass empty kind of guy. Giamatti is able to tap into his character’s deep reservoir of pain and anger. In a couple of shots early in the film, Payne hints at Miles’ past when he looks at old photographs in his mom’s room. They evoke happier times with his father (now out of the picture) and wife (now divorced). Giamatti’s sad expression in this moment conveys more than any words could. During the course of the film, we find out more about why Miles is so miserable and a lot of it has to do with self-loathing, which explains why he tries to sabotage things with Maya. In some ways, Miles is a variation of Giamatti’s take on the equally acerbic Harvey Pekar in Splendor.

Ever since the short-lived television sitcom Ned and Stacy, Thomas Haden Church has been an untapped resource and with Sideways he was given the role of his career. As Miles’ crass, philandering best friend, he plays Jack as a middle-aged frat boy who still calls women, “chicks.” Haden Church has never been afraid to play abrasive, bordering on unlikeable, characters and he expertly does the same here as a guy who presents a jovial façade but underneath lurks a lot of pain and an insensitive mean streak. Haden Church’s dead-panned delivery of smart-ass lines works well against Giamatti’s uptight straight man. Together, they make an excellent team. After years of playing supporting character roles, it’s great to see Haden Church and Giamatti starring in a film. They play so well off each other that you’d swear they’d acted together before. Haden Church and Giamatti are very believable as long-time friends from the way they interact with each other.

For years, Virginia Madsen has been biding her time in direct-to-video hell and so it is great to see her in a high profile role like this one. From The Hot Spot (1990) to Candyman (1992), she’s always been an interesting actress to watch and with Sideways, Madsen is given strong material to sink her teeth into and she delivers a nuanced performance. Sandra Oh has been quietly building a nice body of work over the years and was unfairly overlooked in the numerous awards that have been lavished on this film. Granted, of the four main cast members, she has the least amount of screen time but she makes every moment she has count.

Producer Michael London was a former Los Angeles Times journalist and studio executive who had become frustrated by the studio development process of shepherding a film from script to screen. He bought the rights to the unpublished semi-autobiographical novel Sideways by Rex Pickett with his own money and gave it to Alexander Payne to read in 1999 while the filmmaker was promoting Election. Payne found himself drawn to “the humanity of the characters” and how it tapped into his desire to make films about “people with flaws,” and “unfulfilled desires.” He was not a wine expert but always liked it and thought that the subculture would be fun to explore and act as a backdrop to the relationship between Jack and Miles. However, he was committed to making About Schmidt next and so he and London kept optioning the book over the years. Then, he and his long-time writing partner, Jim Taylor, wrote the screenplay for free. Payne and London drew up a budget and financed pre-production themselves thereby allowing themselves the kind of creative control they wanted. They only began approaching movie studios once they had the script, budget and a preferred cast in place. Four studios were interested with Fox Searchlight winning out.

Based on the reputation of his previous films, several big name actors campaigned for roles in Payne’s film. Both Brad Pitt and George Clooney were eager to play the role of Jack and met with the filmmaker but it ultimately came down to Thomas Haden Church and Matt Dillon. Edward Norton expressed an interest in playing Miles and Payne seriously considered him for the role. With the exception of Sandra Oh, his wife at the time, all the actors auditioned for Payne and London. Haden Church had auditioned for both Election and About Schmidt (narrowly losing out to Dermot Mulroney on the latter) and even though Payne did not cast him in those films, he had been impressed with the actor. When it came to Sideways, Payne felt that Haden Church “kind of is that character,” and cast him as Jack. At the time, he had moved away from acting and when he read the script in May 2003, thought to himself, “I have no shot at this whatsoever, but I have to answer the call of duty. If I get a chance, then I gotta take it.” When Paul Giamatti auditioned for the film, he had not read the whole script, just an excerpt – the scene where Miles talks about his love of Pinot Noir wine to Maya. The actor found Miles’ obsession with the wine to be “an interesting theme for this guy” who was constantly “striving for transcendence through the wine and the wine milieu, and it just keeps collapsing in on the guy because he’s such a wreck.” After casting Giamatti and Haden Church, Payne insisted that they spend some time together before filming, hanging out and practicing their dialogue so that characters’ friendship would be believable.

The setting of the story was very important to Payne as he brought a documentary sensibility to capturing the people that inhabit the area. Before shooting, he spent four months living in the wine country of California, taking notes so that it would be accurately depicted in his film. The actors spent two weeks of rehearsals with Payne, “shooting the shit and indulging in good food and wine,” according to Giamatti. With a budget in the range of $16-17 million, Sideways was shot over 54 days in the Santa Barbara area. For the look of the film, he drew inspiration from the photographic style of Hal Ashby’s The Landlord (1970), screening it for his director of photography, Phedon Papamichael (Moonlight Mile), in order to study the softness of colors and the lack of sharp, vivid lighting that he wanted in his own film.

Payne’s film harkens to Bob Rafelson’s classic character-driven films from the ‘70s, like Five Easy Pieces (1970) and The King of Marvin Gardens (1972), featuring prickly protagonists. Payne rejects traditional mainstream tastes in favor of presenting unsympathetic characters and a conclusion that refuses to wrap things up neatly. He even employs multiple split-screen montages and snap zooms, which were very much en vogue during the ‘70s. Miles is the voice of reason while Jack is the voice of fun in Sideways. However, Miles understands who he is and is honest with himself and his lot in life unlike Jack who continues to live a lie, or rather play a role. Jack lives in a bubble and they always break. Miles doesn’t have to worry about that because he bursts his bubble on a daily basis. These men are idiots and it is the women who are smart and truthful. The men lie, cheat and are forced to face the repercussions of their actions. This provides them with a chance at redemption as embodied in Miles who learns to loosen up and finally let someone new into his heart.

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B Movie Glory With Nate: Oblivion

  
“It’s high noon at the far end of the universe”, the dvd poster of Oblivion states. Years before the underrated Cowboys & Aliens came out, Oblivion came along, and it’s definitely gives the concept a better, and quirkier run for its money. Granted it’s essentially a B movie, and it’s meagre budget shows to the point where it looks like a grade school play. But therein lies it’s charm. It’s got a cast of supremely wacky old west stereotypes played by some surprising, familiar genre faces who you’d never thought to be seen rough housing together in the same flick. It also has some lovingly crafted, creaky stop motion animation that calls Harryhausen to mind and brings to life some super weird alien hybrid thingies that look almost Henson-esque as well. When a lone spaceship lands on the outskirts of an intergalactic desert town, it’s occupant brings trouble along with him. He’s a nasty, one eyed reptilian alien gunslinger named RedEye, played by the inimitable Andrew Divoff. He growling, bad tempered son of a bitch, and his first order of business is to ruthlessly slay the town’s sheriff, and claim it for himself. What he doesn’t count on is the Sheriff’s son (Richard Joseph Paul), a prospector who soon returns to Oblivion looking for answers, along with his Native friend Buteo (the late great Jimmie F. Skaggs). All kinds of townsfolk end up in the crossfire, including drunken Doc Valentine (a priceless George Takei), slinky brothel owner Miss Kitty (Julie Newmar), a cyborg police deputy (Meg Foster), a pawnbroker (Isaac Hayes) and the town’s elegant undertaker, played by Carol Struckyen who some may remember as the giant from Twin Peaks. RedEye has a smoking hot henchwoman and girlfriend named Lash, played by B movie scream queen Musetta Vander, who gets the vibe they’re going for here and sinks her teeth into the material with admirable abandon. The film sticks to its guns despite being obviously silly and somewhat falling apart in a climax that oddly is too darkly shot to make out properly. What it lacks in resources it makes up for in imagination, which it has in spades. Alien scorpions, cyborg deputies, leather clad babes are but a few of the genre mashing treats to be found here. Great stuff. Oh and check out the sequel as well, called Oblivion 2: Backlash, it’s a nice companion piece. 

Denis Villeneuve’s Enemy: A Review By Nate Hill

  
Denis Villeneuve’s Enemy is one of the most unsettling film experiences you will ever sit through, and the damn thing is only 90 minutes. It’s disconcerting, ambiguous and seems to exist simply to spin the viewer’s anxiety reflex into a storm and make our stomach turn loops. It’s a trim entry into the psychological upset sub genre, and puts a frazzled looking Jake Gyllenhaal through a wringer as he pursues a mysterious doppelgänger through the streets of Toronto, a bustling city that feels oddly desolate as glanced upon by Villeneuve’s camera, adding to the themes of paranoia and mental unrest. Gyllenhaal plays a twitchy college professor who is stuck in a closed loop routine: he gives lectures at the local university, drives home to his emotionally inaccessible girlfriend (Melanie Laurant), rinse and repeat. A chink appears in the chain when he becomes aware of another man in the city who appears to be his identical twin. The other man is a small time actor with a pregnant wife (Sarah Gadon) and a decidedly more nasty approach to the situation than the professor. The two of the, circle each other in a disturbing game of not so much cat and mouse, but Jake and Jake, both of them having not a clue as to what is going on, the edges of madness inching closer to both of their perception. Are they twins? Are there even two? Is it just one of them, losing their mind? There’s very freaky dream sequences with the constant imagery of spiders, both large and small, and what do they mean? Who’s to tell? Denis has stated in interviews that there is both rhyme and reason to his creation here, but whether he will ever divulge them remains to be seen. Perhaps it’s better left illusory, a formula for entrancing audiences that has already proved to work well for David Lynch. The moment that the man behind the curtain reveals the conscious meaning of his very subconscious efforts, the spell is no doubt broken. In any case, it’s a very hard film to process or focus on, our nerves jittering constantly and sabotaging any modicum of rational though that we might employ in deciphering the piece. This may be called style and atmosphere over substance by some, but even in not comprehending what’s going on, we feel deeply that there is some sort of cryptic cohesion if we are able to feel between the lines, maybe coming up empty handed ultimately, but knowing within us that we’ve attained wealth to our soul simply by bearing witness. I can’t say it’s a film that I love, or that I would watch again, but it’s certainly one that won’t leave my memories any time soon, and that is an achievement no matter how you look at it. It’s also got one of the scariest and most unexpected endings to any film I’ve ever seen, taking you so off guard that you feel like you’re going to have a coronary. It’s filmed in sickening piss yellow saturation which adds to the overall disconcerting nature, and quite the striking colour choice as well. I can see why this one was released with little fanfare or marketing, despite the presence of heavyweights Villeneuve and Gylenhaal. It’s difficult stuff, a movie that frustratingly soars above your head, onward towards its intensely personal and psychological destination. It’s up to us to jump, grasp and attempt to reach as high as the piece in order to get what we will out of it. Good luck. 

Victor Nunoz’s Coastlines: A Review by Nate Hill

  

Victor Nunoz’s Coastlines is a nice small town drama with some top players all giving fine work, causing me to wonder why more people haven’t heard of it, and how come it didn’t get a wider release. In any case, it’s low key and really captures the quaint rural vibe of less densely populated areas in the states. The cast is absolutely to die for, consisting mainly of very distinct, frequently garish actors who all play it dead straight and relaxed, which is a huge switch up for most of them. Timothy Olyphant plays Sonny Mann, an ex convict recently released from prison, quietly arriving back to his Florida hometown, and the dregs of the life he left behind. His Pa (the ever awesome Scott Wilson) is conflicted by long simmering resentment, and the love for his son buried just beneath. Sonny reconnects with his best friend Dave Lockhart (Josh Brolin), who has become the town’s sheriff in the years gone by. Sparks fly between Dave’s wife (Sarah Wynter) and Sonny, creating a rift between the two and illustrating Sonny’s unavoidable knack for creating trouble for himself, and those around him. Further tension comes along when the town’s local crime lord Fred Vance (William Forsythe at his most genial and sedated) tries to strong-arm Sonny into assisting with nefarious deeds, using his younger brother Eddie (Josh Lucas) to convince him. Even when tragedy strikes and these characters go head to head, it’s in the most relaxed, laconic way that permeates southern life. Robert Wisdom has a nice bit, Angela Bettis shows up as a girl with a thing for bad boys, and watch for the late great Daniel Von Bargen as the local Sheriff. This one fits nicely into a niche that leans heavily on small town drama, dips its toes ever so slightly into thriller territory, and is a charming little piece that’s worth a look to see these actors on an acting sabbatical.  

Girl, Interrupted: A Review by Nate Hill

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James Mangold is a director who takes nothing but top shelf scripts and spins them into gold, and Girl Interrupted is a shining example of this. It’s based on a book by Susannah Kayson in which she outlines an 18 month stay at a mental ward sometime during the 60’s. Mangold adapts her book for the screen, gathers an excellent cast of talented gals and a couple guys, and makes a film that holds up today like it was still it’s release week in 1999. Winona Ryder plays Susanna, a reckless girl who is labeled wayward and unstable by her parents, committed to a facility by her stern psychiatrist (Red Forman himself, Kurtwood Smith). She’s a little rough around the edges, but one senses the innate sensibility to her that perhaps has been buried under turbulent behaviour not by anything within her, but by the constricting nature of the time period she has been born into. In any case, she finds herself thrown into an environment she didn’t expect, with many other girls, some of which she clashes with, some of which she ends up befriending, and one that.. well, defies classification, really. The girl in question is Lisa, played by a fantastically fired up Angelina Jolie who nearly combusts upon herself in her furious performance. Lisa has been dubbed nearly unable to treat, yet simply has the kind of soul that doesn’t fit into a box, let alone lend itself to scholarly dissection. Ice cool one moment, a raging typhoon the next, and holding a dense riot shield over any trace of her true emotions every second, she’s an enigmatic, elemental wild card. It’s the best work I’ve ever seen from Jolie, getting her a well earned oscar nod. She teaches Susanna some lessons that only people on that side of the glass can comprehend, confounding the facility’s head doctor (Vanessa Redgrave) and puzzling a kind orderly (Whoopi Goldberg), two rational people who simply can’t understand the kind resolution and companionship that often comes out of irrational, unconventional interaction that almost always is seen as ‘unstable’. Ryder is pitch perfect and carries her share of the load, but despite being the protagonist, it’s Jolie’s show all the way. She’s unbelievably good and will break the heart of both first time viewers and veterans who put the dvd in every so often for a tearful revisit. The late Brittany Murphy is great as Daisy, another complicated girl, and Clea Duvall scores points as Georgina, the shy and reserved one. There’s also work from Jared Leto Elizabeth Moss, Angela Bettis, Bruce Altman, Mary Kay Place, Kadee Strickland, Misha Collins and Jeffrey Tambor. Tender, patient and non judgmental are qualities which are essential in films of this subject matter, as well as empathy from both viewer and filmmaker, to take a look at these girls and even though we may not understand what is going on with them or their beaviour, to simply bear witness, and be there for them. Mangold knows this and acts accordingly, leading to a beautiful film of the highest order. Viewers are sure to do the same, completing the artistic ring full circle.

John Carpenter’s Ghosts Of Mars: A Review by Nate Hill

  

Mars has been a consistently entertaining setting for films that are all across the board, as far as tone and subject matter goes. Brian DePalma’s Mission To Mars is a thoughtful, exhilarating piece, Anthony Hoffman’s Red Planet makes a fascinating effort, John Carter took the swashbuckling adventure route. And then there’s John Carpenter’s Ghosts Of Mars, which is proudly the silliest of the entire bunch, a slice of sheer lunacy that admittedly serves as a distinct nadir in the auteur’s legendary career, and yet is fun on its own terms. It’s quite a weird little endeavour, and one can at least commend it for taking the brawny B movie route and littering its story with camp and Corman-esque nostalgia, instead of wasting it’s breath by being yet another stupid horror flick that just happens to be set in space. Carpenter is the master of high concept set ups that oddly feel minimalistic and lean when seen onscreen as opposed to paper, or word of mouth. In Carpenter’s vision we follow intergalactic cop Melanie Ballard (Secies beauty Natasha Henstridge) and her crew as they land on Mars to collect uber dangerous convict Desolation Williams (Ice Cube being Ice Cube). Along with her is Jericho Butler (Jason Statham), Commander Helena Braddock (Pam Grier brings with her the class and specificity of the films that Carpenter yearns for and emulates) and Bashira Kincaid (Clea Duvall). Things go swimmingly until a mining team nearby unearths an ancient defensive device used by the warring native clans of Mars centuries ago. The spirits set loose soon possess workers and Henstridge’s crew is faced with ancient, savage ghost warrior zombie things. Quite the chuckle worthy setup, isn’t it? Hell, it ain’t half bad, and there are certain moments of clarity where Carpenter’s early career brilliance flashes through the muck briefly. Ice Cube tries to be badass and comes off just plain silly, which is fine by me, as I love having a laugh at the guy. Clea Duvall fares best and is pretty much the only actor here who hasn’t found herself in a film like this anywhere else in her career. This makes her stand out, along with her immediate likability and charisma. The ghost warriors themselves resemble Moria Orcs with a serious methamphetamine problem, gaunt, vicious bastards that serve to give the makeup artist a good name, and are the best thing about the film, visually speaking. It ain’t Carpenter’s best, but fuck man it’s still Carpenter, and I’ll take all I can get.  

Conviction: A Review By Nate Hill

  

Tony Goldwyn’s Conviction is a searing dramatic tale that’s heavily based on true events, and is essentially the underdog story boiled down to its most effective elements, with inspiration running throughout its truly remarkable storyline. Hilary Swank can be a force of nature in her work, and she’s dynamite here as Betty Anne Waters, a small town girl who is very close with her rambunctious sibling Kenny (Sam Rockwell), who grows up as the troublemaker of the two, running afoul of a nasty local police officer (Melissa Leo). When his next door neighbour is found stabbed to death, Leo sees it as her opportunity to get rid him for good, and tampers with evidence, until he is convicted. Guilty until proven innocent is the mantra with this difficult tale, and because it’s based on a true story that happened in real life, it unfolds at a snails pace of tragic events in which a satisfying outcome sometimes just seems out of reach. With Kenny in wrongfully convicted and rotting in prison while his wife and daughters edge towards moving on, Betty does the unthinkable: with no previous experience in college, let alone law, she decides to study for the bar exam, in order to eventually represent Kenny in court, and prove his innocence. It seems like something from a movie, and here we see it, but this is something that really, really happened, which to me is extraordinary and essential to make known. She persists through many obstacles both great and small, and with the help of a dapper senior colleague (Peter Gallagher), and a perky fellow law student (Minnie Driver) she passes the exam and sets out to defend her brother. It’s a rocky road, beset with the decayed and deliberately lost memories of years before, and the police officer’s longstanding belligerence. Unreliable witnesses, uncooperative testimonials and all sorts of stuff get in her way, but Betty ain’t a girl to quit or back down, a character trait which Swank seems to have been born to play, and is the lighthouse which guides this fantastic film along its track. Rockwell exudes burrowing frustration as a man in a position of incomprehensible sadness, hopeful yet resigned to his fate which has been orchestrated by evil, targeting him in wanton cruelty. Painful is the word for him here, and when Rockwell sets out for a mood in his work, you damn well feel it. Juliette Lewis briefly rears her head as a dimbulb witness who plays a part in Betty’s quest, as does Clea Duvall very briefly as another witness who seems to have no idea what she actually saw. Melissa Leo is an actress who is utterly and totally convincing whether she’s on the good or the evil side of the coin, holding the audience in rapturous awe with seemingly little effort. Here she’s so nasty it radiates off the screen, providing a core incentive for Betty’s struggle, whether or not the events actually played out like that. Director Tony Goldwyn is an actor himself and uses that experience to forge a film with respect and sympathy for its two leads. One of the more underrated films of 2010.