Tag Archives: Virginia Madsen

Francis Ford Coppola’s The Rainmaker

The Rainmaker is one of those journeyman courtroom dramas that’s isn’t all flash, sizzle and spectacle. There are those things periodically and in the obligatory final flourish but this is more a piece that shows the dutiful, unsung labour that goes into putting a deposition together, the many hours of stress involved in taking on a class action lawsuit and for once, a quality I admired, focuses more so on the victims who are suing rather than the lawyers themselves in terms of character. Based on a John Grisham novel and directed by a fellow you may have heard of called Francis Ford Coppola, it stars Matt Damon in a humble, restrained turn as rookie lawyer Rudy Baylor, riding on the coattails of amoral hustler guru Bruiser Stone (Mickey Rourke) and backed up by perennial sidekick Deck Shiffler (Danny Devito). Stone’s firm (if you can call it that) is an unabashed ambulance chasing racket until Rudy stumbles into some genuine high stakes cases that matter, namely a lawsuit against an insurance giant for denying treatment to a boy (Johnny Whitworth) dying of leukaemia. This puts Rudy and Deck up against a top dollar team of legal talent led by preening shark Jon Voight, the kind of soulless muckraker who gets ruffled at the very mention of the fact he’s sold out to the wrong side. Also along for the ride is battered housewife Claire Danes, whom Rudy takes a liking to and wishes to protect against her monster of a husband. It’s a fairly sprawling tale with an impressive amount of characters all juggled handsomely, not to mention a dense narrative that is somehow delivered to us breezily and coherently. But character is key here and ultimately wins the day; DeVito is terrific as the chow mein guzzling little curmudgeon who initially comes across as a sleaze but quietly, ever so subtly peels back a hidden and unobtrusive later of compassion as the story draws you, and him in. Rourke is priceless, chain-smoking, chewing dialogue and literally walking out of the film a third of the way through to some tropical beach where he delivers key information over the phone before returning to his all your can drink margaritas. Voight is cold, steely and blusters without getting hammy, something he’s always somehow been able to tightrope pretty damn well. Danny Glover is great as a sneakily idealistic judge, Dean Stockwell as a short lived and quite cantankerous one and watch for vivid supporting turns from Mary Kay Place, Teresa Wright, Red West, Randy Travis, Roy Scheider as the leathery, evil insurance CEO and a scene owning Virginia Madsen as a terrified whistleblower. I greatly enjoyed this because although it’s a big budget, star studded Hollywood courtroom drama, it takes its time, is leisurely paced, lived in, meticulous about character development, sincerely cares and has compassion for the humans who are scared and hurting within its narrative and tells several interwoven stories, all well worth your time and attention. Great film!

-Nate Hill

Jan De Bont’s The Haunting

It amazes me that anyone involved in the making of Jan De Bont’s The Haunting thought they were doing anything that could be classified as remotely ‘scary.’ The film barely deserves its PG-13 rating and quite honestly I’ve seen spookier ghosts in that Eddie Murphy Haunted Mansion thing. Now, having said that: I do recommend seeing it for the absolutely stunning, breathtakingly elaborate production design and set artistry. The visuals are so beautiful they really deserve a better film to showcase, but oh well.

Basically silly professor Liam Neeson wants to study fear and it’s effects on people, so he places an ad and soon a few people have agreed to spend a night in gargantuan Hill House manor under the guise of a sleep deprivation experiment. Lili Taylor, who is no stranger to haunted houses now that she headlined The Conjuring, is someone I usually love but her performance here as the lead is grating, weird, shrill, dull, stilted and bizarre just to use a few adjectives. Catherine Zeta Jones fares better as a sassy bisexual babe who relishes line delivery and whose ornately beautiful aura slinks in nicely with that of the baroque estate. Owen Wilson is unfortunately also cast and gets saddled with the weirdo comic relief thing, falling flat in every scene and just coming across as vaguely neurologically damaged. Others fly by in smaller roles including Alix Koromzy, Todd Field, Virginia Madsen, Michael Cavanaugh, Tom Irwin, M.C. Gainey and Bruce Dern as the cranky caretaker.

There’s this half baked plot around the guy that built the place, kid’s souls trapped within and something about Taylor’s character being the reincarnation of his wife, which is a horror motif I’m honestly just so sick of. Really it’s just the cast bumbling about these gorgeous sets while things go bump, and occasionally unforgivably bad CGI giant hands reaching out of walls to give them a spank or two. It’s an unrepentant mess. But like I said before, these are some jaw dropping sets they’ve built, full of ornate detail and embellished craftsmanship, from a house of mirrors built into a carousel to a glass solarium complete with spiral staircases to a water featured corridor with book shaped stepping stones to what has to be the world’s largest walk-in fireplace and so much more. Honestly I’d just put it on with no volume, pull up an atmospheric playlist on Spotify and enjoy it sans dialogue or even it’s own score, to saturate yourself in the visual aspect.

-Nate Hill

“Get off my server!”: Richard Loncraine’s Firewall

Harrison Ford does his best to carry a few duds throughout his career, and while Firewall is definitely on the mediocre end of his output, his presence plus a game supporting cast saves it from being a total misfire. He plays a hotshot security expert who designs a foolproof automated protection system for Big Bank, which icy evil mega criminal Paul Bettany and his team of assholes plan to rob the shit out of. Of course Ford didn’t put a feature in that deals with kidnapping, extortion and murder, but no one can see everything coming. Bettany & Co. hold his family (Virginia Madsen, Jimmy Bennett and Carly Schroder) hostage while forcing him to work his magic, break into the servers he designed and leave the proverbial back doors. Naturally, he covertly tries to subvert every tactic they use, doing everything from embedding secret code in the firewall to full on physically attacking them when no one is looking. It’s a pretty routine thriller that serves well as popcorn entertainment without breaking too much new ground. Ford is appropriately all scowls and snarls as he fights tooth and nail for his family, but there should be a clause in his contract that he gets to use the line “get off my airplane” in every film, but just slightly tweaked for circumstances. “Get off my server” it would read here, and somehow his grave delivery would sell it. Bettany is especially nasty in that soft spoken, clear eyed way that he’s patented, finding unique ways to torment this family involving peanut allergies and.. you can guess. The supporting cast is nicely stacked with people like Robert Forster, Alan Arkin and Robert Patrick as suspicious colleagues of Ford who don’t necessarily get to do too much performance wise but their presence always carries a weight in anything. Mary Lynn Rajskub aka Chloe O’Brien of 24 shows up as Ford’s trusty computer expert and hilariously just does exactly what Chloe does, parked in front of a computer hacking into shit, just in another film. Oh yeah Jaime Lannister also randomly drops by as one of the bad guys and gets possibly the best line of the film as Ford’s daughter laments “why do you hate us so much?!”, to which he almost sympathetically replies “I don’t hate you Sarah, I just don’t care about you.” It’s nice little touches like that that save this from being an entirely stale cracker.

-Nate Hill

David Lynch’s Dune

David Lynch’s Dune is a great film despite what critics, moviegoers, the general consensus and Lynch himself would have you believe. It’s obvious that heavy editing turned it into something of a pacing quagmire, scenes are truncated, oddly conceived voiceovers are added, and yadda yadda. Doesn’t matter. This is still an exquisitely crafted, beautifully atmospheric space opera that takes full advantage of production design, casting, special effects and music, I loved every damn minute of it. I’ve recently been reading Lynch’s semi autobiography and it seems clear that that money shark producer Dino De Laurentiis had final cut and just couldn’t reconcile letting the runtime go past two and a quarter hours. Shame, as there was no doubt way more that we could have seen, but what’s left is still magnificent. I haven’t read the books so I can’t speak for any lapses as far as that goes, but what we have here is a sweeping science fiction fantasy saga about warring royal families, shifting alliances and metaphysical forces all revolving around the desert planet Arrakis, where an invaluable spice is mined and fought over by all. Duke Leto Atreides (Jurgen Prochnow), his wife Lady Jessica (Francesca Annis) and their son Paul (Kyle Maclachlan) travel far across the universe from their home world of Caladan to oversee Spice harvesting and production. Buoyant, herpes afflicted fatso Baron Harkonnen (the inimitable Kenneth McMillan takes scenery chewing to a whole new level) seeks to usurp and steal the operation for his house. So begins a series of wars, betrayals and no end of staggeringly staged set pieces and baroque, abstractly conceived production design that Lynch & Co. slaved over for years to bring us. The sand worms are a visual marvel, as are the gold and silver spaceships, the interiors of which feel both lushly industrial and gleamingly regal. Maclachlan and Lynch had their first team up here, the first of many, and the young actor is a magnetic lead, handling the arc well from a naive prince to a desert outlaw who wins over the leader (Everett McGill) of the indigenous tribe of Arrakis and falls in love with their princess (Sean Young, somehow *even* sexier here than she was in Blade Runner). Lynch has amassed an unbelievable cast here, an epic laundry list of names including Patrick Stewart, Max Von Sydow, Jose Ferrer, Linda Hunt, Virginia Madsen, Alicia Witt, Dean Stockwell, Brad Dourif, Freddie Jones, Jack Nance and more, all excellent. Sting is in it too and I have to say that his is the only performance that’s campy in a bad way instead of good, you should see him leering at the camera like he’s in a second grade play. One of the film’s greatest strengths is the original score by Toto, who dial back their trademark rock vibe and produce something atmospheric and elemental in the vein of Vangelis or Tangerine Dream. Their main theme is distinct and oddly melancholic and the rest is synthesis style, beautiful work. I don’t know what to tell you about the whole editing debacle, I mean I guess if De Laurentiis hadn’t have had to swing his dick around Lynch may have had his three plus hour cut, but would that really have been better, or would there have then been a complete lack of pacing and progression ? Who knows, but the way it is now, admittedly there’s a lack of complete coherency and one can tell certain scenes are missing while others languish and take up too much running time, but the issues are nowhere close to as disastrous as the swirling reputation around this film suggest. I’m just so stoked on it now because I avoided it for years thinking it was some giant cinematic mistake a lá Battlefield Earth. Not a chance, and I think many people are just being a bit dramatic, because this is a showstopper of a fantasy epic and I loved it to bits. Just bought the Blu Ray off Amazon a minute ago, excited for many revisits.

-Nate Hill

Clive Barker’s Candyman

Clive Barker’s Candyman is bar none one of the best horror films ever made. Many factors can take credit for that, but the two chief among them are Tony Todd’s performance as Daniel Robitaille, the hook handed, honey voiced spectre that haunts even the frames he doesn’t appear in, and Philip Glass’s beautiful yet terrifying electronic score that rips through the story like a rogue orchestral piece with a life of its own. Production design and locations are also key here, as they filmed in Chicago’s infamous Cabrini Green Project for real, and it makes all the difference. Candyman is one of those urban legends, the angry ghost of an ex slave who was murdered, and now gets resurrected to raise hell whenever someone says his name in a mirror five times. That someone here happens to be college professor Virginia Madsen, who has heard whispered rumours among the locals and decides to research it a little too closely. Before she knows it she’s seeing Robitaille everywhere, dead bodies are starting to pile up and she begins to look an awful lot like the culprit. With the help of her boyfriend (Xander Berkeley) and colleague (Kasi Lemmons, always fantastic) she tries to get to the bottom of the mystery but Candyman is a tough curse to shake, and the killing doesn’t stop. Many of the actors here are genuine residents of the Green, providing both authenticity and a very human quality to the film. Todd is now something of a household name and has achieved cult status for this role, it pretty much set him up for good in the horror genre and it’s no wonder, he’s a hypnotic dark angel as Robitaille, with both seething menace and a crazy calm lurking behind those eyes. There’s moments of real fright that hold up to this day as truly chilling shockers, such as a kid getting ambushed off camera by Candyman in a park restroom and the horrific aftermath of a dog’s murder coupled with a missing baby, brought to life by Vanessa Williams’s vivid, heartbreaking performance as the mother. This is how you create an effective horror film, by balancing gore with story and character, creating an atmosphere in which we feel both lulled by the sights and sounds but always unsafe as to what could be lurking through that bathroom medicine cabinet or dark, graffiti scrawled hallway. A classic. There’s two sequels that aren’t too awful thanks solely to Todd’s presence, but they come nowhere close to this one.

-Nate Hill

“Do we really suck, or is this guy really that good?” : An Interview with Michael Davis by Kent Hill (PART 3)

Shoot 'em Up

I really love this gig. I really do. I’ve had the distinction of being able to converse with many a hero and much admired artist over my time at PTS. There have though, been a few surprises along the way – and this was one of them.

I have long wanted to chat with Michael Davis. Part of it, and I’m sure you’ll agree having seen his films, that here is a man who went from making 100 Women to writing and directing the most-excellent, ballet of bullets that is Shoot ‘em Up. And you just need a few minutes of talking with Michael to understand how this was possible.

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They say Scorsese has a machine-gun-mouth. Well listening to Michael is like standing next to Jesse Ventura firing Ol’ Painless. And – WOW – what a delight, the frenetic and passionate electricity that this man generates in infectious. Michael’s initial overview of the birth of his career is one of the most entertaining I’ve ever heard. From his beginnings as a storyboard artist, to various writing assignments (don’t say Double Dragon out loud), to his eventual directorial debut; it’s a madcap movie marathon coming at you – at high speed!

Our conversation was so enthralling, so engaging, that I would be doing my guest a severe injustice to cut even a moment of it. So I shall be presenting it to you as a trilogy. Each section I promise is as entertaining as the last. So, don’t touch that dial, and prepare yourself to experience the film-making personification of the perfect storm that is . . . Michael Davis . . . . . . PART 3.

FOR THOSE WHO CAME IN LATE :

https://podcastingthemsoftly.com/2018/04/25/do-we-really-suck-or-is-this-guy-really-that-good-an-interview-with-michael-davis-by-kent-hill-part-2/

https://podcastingthemsoftly.com/2018/03/25/do-we-really-suck-or-is-this-guy-really-that-good-an-interview-with-michael-davis-by-kent-hill-part-1/

shoot-em-up-8

“Do we really suck, or is this guy really that good?” : An Interview with Michael Davis by Kent Hill (PART 2)

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I really love this gig. I really do. I’ve had the distinction of being able to converse with many a hero and much admired artist over my time at PTS. There have though, been a few surprises along the way – and this was one of them.

I have long wanted to chat with Michael Davis. Part of it, and I’m sure you’ll agree having seen his films, that here is a man who went from making 100 Women to writing and directing the most-excellent, ballet of bullets that is Shoot ‘em Up. And you just need a few minutes of talking with Michael to understand how this was possible.

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They say Scorsese has a machine-gun-mouth. Well listening to Michael is like standing next to Jesse Ventura firing Ol’ Painless. And – WOW – what a delight, the frenetic and passionate electricity that this man generates in infectious. Michael’s initial overview of the birth of his career is one of the most entertaining I’ve ever heard. From his beginnings as a storyboard artist, to various writing assignments (don’t say Double Dragon out loud), to his eventual directorial debut; it’s a madcap movie marathon coming at you – at high speed!

e73501112002d80ee16c6730f1a665b6

Our conversation was so enthralling, so engaging, that I would be doing my guest a severe injustice to cut even a moment of it. So I shall be presenting it to you as a trilogy. Each section I promise is as entertaining as the last. So, don’t touch that dial, and prepare yourself to experience the film-making personification of the perfect storm that is . . . Michael Davis . . . . . . PART 2.

{FOR THOSE WHO CAME IN LATE . . . : https://podcastingthemsoftly.com/2018/03/25/do-we-really-suck-or-is-this-guy-really-that-good-an-interview-with-michael-davis-by-kent-hill-part-1/}

shoot-em-up-8

Highlander 2: The Quickening

I have no words for Highlander 2 other than ‘what in the actual fucking fuck.’ I can’t call it Russell Mulcahy’s Highlander 2 because the poor guy tried to have his name removed from the credits, and who could blame him, really. In fact, it’s so thoroughly godawful it shouldn’t even be called Highlander, either. It’s ‘Movie X’, fit only for quarantine and to be blasted off into space so the folks on fictional planet Zeist can keep it. I love the first Highlander, it’s a camp cult rock n’ roll sci-fi sleeper classic, and any sequel would have large shoes to fill. What can be found here? Time travel. Outer space. An artificial ozone layer. Autistic porcupine alien assassins. Michael Ironside ripping off Clancy Brown’s beloved Kurgan villain so blatantly it hurts. Christopher Lambert in old age makeup that looks like it inspired Jackass’s Bad Grandpa. A Sean Connery montage visiting a tailor set to the William Tell Overture. I know all these ingredients could potentially brew up an even zanier cult classic than the original, but nope, no sir. This movie is a badly told story with scant context and zero continuity in both connective tissue to the first film and finding any organic roots of it’s own. Lambert’s Connor McLeod appears to be both old, young and somehow from a different planet, oh and he helped build a synthetic ozone layer to protect earth, a subplot both arbitrarily drawn up and coincidentally concocted around the same time as Total Recall came out, which I’m sure is just one big coincidence, ho ho. Ironside plays some radical called Katana who travels to earth and through time (wat) to kill Connor because there can be only one, a mantra that the film also happily dismantles in its earnest quest to bury the legacy of the first film in confusion and custerfuckery. I won’t even begin to describe Virginia Madsen’s haphazard love interest, a ‘scientist’ who winds up in bed with McLeod like minutes after she’s met him and seen him reverse age randomly and get young again. I’ve heard that Lambert would only do the film if Connery did too, and that the pair formed a bond working on the first film. The studio would have been better off just pitching their bucks in for the two of them to take a fishing trip together, no cameras involved, and save us all the headache.

-Nate Hill

David O. Russell’s Joy

There’s something inherently engaging about a self made success story, an attractive quality that David O. Russell employs to great effect in Joy, his most recent, and my most favourite of his films so far. He’s a fascinating director who’s work always has an oddball quality to it, whether worn obviously on it’s sleeve (I Heart Huckabees, of which I’m not a fan), or subtly funnelled into a genre picture (the excellent war flick Three Kings), there’s just an undercurrent that’s decidedly south of normal humming through his whole filmography. Joy is one part hyper-dysfunctional family drama, one part autobiographical rise to fame with a hefty dose of comedy thrown in the mix. Jennifer Lawrence has beyond proven her solid gold talent as a miraculous leading lady by now, and she’s the acting equivalent of a truckload of C-4 here as Joy, a self made millionaire who’s persistence and strength in spirit led to her pioneering a revolutionary cleaning product. It’s loosely based on several true stories, but Russell is more intent on letting his actors run wild and giving us a frenetic ‘fly on the Wall’ glimpse into Joy’s upended family life. She’s basically the rock to all of her kin, the only one with a sane hair on her head and her priorities in order. Her dad (Robert Deniro) is an irresponsible man child in a tailspin of a midlife crisis, her mom (Virginia Madsen) is an unpredictable basket case, while her ex (Edgar Ramirez) deludes himself about a would be singing career. They all live at home, contribute not a penny to the household, plus she’s got a young daughter to look out for as well. Quite a situation to be in, and the only one standing in her corner is her loving grandmother, played warmly by a brilliant Diane Ladd. The film isn’t so much about plot as a measurable substance and more just how things happen from scene to scene via chaos and commotion. Everyone is so verbose, fired up and out of control that we spend swaths of time simply listening to them argue and rant before realizing we’ve been discreetly subjected to character development the whole time, a clever, patent aesthetic that Russell also used in his American Hustle and Silver Linings Playbook. Joy dreams of a less crazy life for her daughter, and her miracle mop invention may just be the ticket there, if she can avoid her whole unruly clan tagging along for the ride. Bradley Cooper is great as a stern patent kingpin, and the scenes that show how television sales play out at headquarters have a studious, hypnotically meticulous rhythm to them that show Russell in full stylistic swing. The show belongs to Lawrence though, who’s a captivating wonder in every scene, her fever pitched exasperation at the people around her a tangible force of nature, her resilience and determination a source of inspiration. I like this film best of Russell’s filmography because it’s the most focused on people rather than plot. In Silver Linings, which is a lovely film don’t get me wrong,

the characters were believable and true, but they still serviced the plot which was rooted in an obvious theme of mental illness. In American Hustle, The shtick was conmen and their world, the characters sourced from that and existing to run on that racetrack. Joy is about an everyday girl who patents a kitchen mop. It’s benign, barebones and just lets the characters roam in a daily life arena that’s relatable, malleable and feels down to earth.

-Nate Hill

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.