Sideways (2004)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #84

In search of wine.
In search of women.
In search of themselves.

Country: USA & Hungary
Language: English
Runtime: 127 minutes
BBFC: 15
MPAA: R

Original Release: 22nd October 2004 (USA)
UK Release: 28th January 2005
First Seen: cinema, 2005

Stars
Paul Giamatti (Big Fat Liar, Shoot ‘Em Up)
Thomas Haden Church (George of the Jungle, Spider-Man 3)
Virginia Madsen (Candyman, The Number 23)
Sandra Oh (Under the Tuscan Sun, Hard Candy)

Director
Alexander Payne (About Schmidt, Nebraska)

Screenwriters
Alexander Payne (Jurassic Park III, The Descendants)
Jim Taylor (Election, I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry)

Based on
Sideways, a novel by Rex Pickett.

The Story
Middle-aged wine lover Miles takes his friend, groom-to-be Jack, up to California wine country for a more mature kind of bachelor trip, but Jack’s lascivious ways lead them to become involved with a pair of women — while keeping Jack’s impending nuptials a secret…

Our Hero
Miles Raymond is a divorcee, a teacher, and an unpublished novelist, depressed at the state of his life. His one love is wine appreciation, though when Jack goads him into getting closer to a waitress he casually knows, Maya, things begin to look up.

Our Villain
Jack, a has-been actor and Miles’ college roommate. Not really interested in wine; very interested in women — even though he’s engaged, he hooks up with Maya’s friend Stephanie, not telling her about his imminent marriage. Not strictly a villain, but his antics bring Miles little but misery.

Best Supporting Character
Maya is a waitress at Miles’ favourite restaurant, and they bond over a shared appreciation of wine. Unfortunately, her friendship with Stephanie and the secret of Jack’s engagement poses a threat to her burgeoning relationship with Miles…

Memorable Quote
“If anyone orders Merlot, I’m leaving. I am not drinking any fucking Merlot!” — Miles

Quote Most Likely To Be Used in Everyday Conversation
See above.

Memorable Scene
Jack hooks up with a random waitress but has to flee when her husband comes home, leaving his wallet behind with the wedding rings inside. He gets Miles to take him back to her house, where Jack convinces his friend to sneak in to find the wallet. Inside, the waitress and her hubby are having sex, but they spot Miles grabbing the wallet — so he’s chased back to the car by a very angry naked man. (It’s not exactly the film’s cleverest bit, but it is memorable.)

Making of
Sideways was so popular, it actually had an effect on the wine market. Miles is famously critical of Merlot (see above), which actually caused its sales to drop in the US and UK. However, there was a bigger impact on Pinot Noir, which he expresses a love for. After the film’s release, sales of Pinot Noir wines increased by over 20% compared to the year before. The effect lasted, too: a 2009 study found that sales volume of Merlot had slowed and its price had dropped, while sales and prices of Pinot Noir were still up.

Next time…
Author Rex Pickett has penned two sequel novels, Vertical and Sideways 3 Chile, but Alexander Payne has said he has no interest in adapting them and, though Fox owns the rights to the characters, they have no interest in making sequels without Payne. Of gossipy interest, however, is that Pickett deliberately wrote Sandra Oh’s character out of the sequels, because the actress made script changes he disliked and he didn’t want to work with her if they did make a sequel.

Awards
1 Oscar (Adapted Screenplay)
4 Oscar nominations (Picture, Supporting Actor (Thomas Haden Church), Supporting Actress (Virginia Madsen), Director)
1 BAFTA (Adapted Screenplay)

What the Critics Said
“how different these two characters are: the crass actor and the sensitive writer, linked by being roommates at college, but by little else these days. Viewers will probably identify with one or the other, but the beauty of the script is that these are rounded, believable people with recognisable failings and strengths — one is not superior than the other. So, while Jack is a bit dim, crude, and thinks largely with his crotch, he’s also enthusiastic, loyal and embraces life. And while Miles is funny, clever, and knowledgeable, he is also timid, drink-dependent, and crippled by insecurity” — Nev Pierce, BBC Movies

Score: 96%

What the Public Say
“This performance made [Thomas Haden Church] a star, earning him roles in everything from Spider-Man 3 to Easy A. By turns charming and crass, his laconic man-child is a perfect foil to the tightly-wound Miles, and their chalk-and cheese riffing is minded to fine comedic effect at times, most notably in Miles’ horrified discovery that Jack has been chewing gum throughout his detailed tutorial into wine tasting. It’s Giamatti’s picture though. He makes Miles vulnerable, sarcastic, grouchy and tender – sometimes all at the same time. He’s capable of expressing a depth of emotion with nothing more than a flicker in his eyes or furrowing of his brow. It’s a performance he’s never bettered.” — Rob D, Random Movie Guy

Verdict

Do you ever watch a film, like it well enough, but then find that, without re-watching or consciously re-evaluating, it sneakily grows in your estimation? That was Sideways for me, after I saw it on its original release. I’ve watched it a few more times since which have cemented my opinion. It’s a pretty perfect example of the comedy-drama, being both very funny but with a core story based in characters going through emotional crises, whether they know it or not. It’s a deceptively gentle film, the kind of movie where it can seem like nothing’s happening, but the cumulative effect builds to a nice, complicated aftertaste. Like a fine wine, then.

I see #85 walking around like regular movies.

Saving Mr. Banks (2013)

2014 #84
John Lee Hancock | 120 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA, UK & Australia / English | PG / PG-13

Saving Mr. BanksTom Hanks is Walt Disney and Emma Thompson is author P.L. Travers in “The Making of Mary Poppins: The Movie”. Disney has been desperate to turn Travers’ fictional nanny into a movie for years after he made a promise to his daughter; Travers has resisted, but now needs the money. She’s brought to LA to consult on the script, and proceeds to make life miserable for screenwriter Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford) and songsmiths Robert and Richard Sherman (B.J. Novak and Jason Schwartzman). At the same time, we see the story of a family in Australia from the eyes of a little girl Ginty (Annie Rose Buckley), as they struggle with the whims of her father (Colin Farrell), a bank manager who’s a little too fond of the bottle. Guess what the connection is!

There’s fun to be had seeing the creation of a classic movie — I’m sure it’s not 100% the honest truth of how it went, but it is based on the tapes Travers insisted were made of the meetings, so it would seem the spirit is faithful. This isn’t a dry “making of” narrative, however, but a lively romp, as the two sides clash over jaunty tunes, characterisation, casting, and made-up words. Whitford brings understated gravitas to the man essentially tasked with giving Travers what she wants while also making a suitably Disney movie. Paul Giamatti turns up as Travers’ LA chauffeur, a role that starts out as bafflingly insignificant before gradually unfurling as one of the film’s most affecting elements.

Hanks not a lotSimilarly, Hanks’ part seems to be little more than a cameo at first, but he steadily appears often enough to make it a supporting role. Reportedly he has perfectly captured many of Disney’s real traits and idiosyncrasies, and who are we to doubt the word of people who knew the man? His performance is not just a shallow, simple impersonation, but there’s not that much meat to Disney’s character arc either.

Instead, the film completely belongs to Emma Thompson. Travers is a complicated woman, a veneer of strictness masking deeper issues. Beneath the comedy of who will win in the battle over the film, there’s an affecting personal drama about the troubled upbringing that led to this human being, and how she’s still dealing with it so many decades later. Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith’s screenplay holds back from being too explicit with regards to Travers’ internal life, but it’s all vividly brought to the screen by Thompson.

In the Australian segments, Colin Farrell’s accent has to be heard to be believed — his regular voice is completely lost inside the character. There’s nothing particularly wrong with the storyline, though it is fundamentally predictable and the intrusions are sometimes unwelcome, interrupting the flow of the main ’60s narrative. Would that story function without them? Is there a better way to structure the telling? I don’t think the answer to either of those questions is “yes”, but I don’t think it’s a “no” either.

Picky PamelaSome will find the story lacking in dirt, particularly when it comes to the portrayal of Disney. But it’s not whitewashed either, and do you really think the Disney Corporation would have allowed a movie to go ahead that depicts their founding father in a negative light? For that, I don’t think it’s as twee as it could have been — there’s definite conflict over what’s being done with Poppins, and, even with the film having turned out to be a solid-gold classic, we often find ourselves sympathising with Travers.

With plenty of humour and fun, a solid emotional heart, a first-rate performance from Thompson, and an array of excellent supporting turns too, Saving Mr. Banks is both a worthy tribute to a classic movie and an enjoyable one in its own right.

5 out of 5

This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2014. Read more here.

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014)

2014 #81
Marc Webb | 142 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

The Amazing Spider-Man 2Despite the fact that the first film of Sony’s Spider-Man reboot was a wannabe-hipster over-angsty teen-romance take on the webslinger, which needlessly re-told his origin story and posted unexceptional box office takings, it seems there was some degree of consensus that it wasn’t too bad. I don’t agree. Two years later, this sequel seems to have met with a largely negative response, accused of crimes like navel-gazing and franchise-building. Again, I don’t agree — I think this is the best Spidey movie since the previous Spider-Man 2.

Dialling down the rom-com elements to their appropriate subplot level, ASM2 sees Spidey (Andrew Garfield) having to deal with an electricity-powered supervillain (Jamie Foxx) trying to destroy the city, and the return of his childhood friend Harry Osbourne (Chronicle’s Dane DeHaan), who inherits OsCorp when his father passes away. If you’ve seen Spider-Man 3 (the last one, not the one that’ll be out in a few years… maybe), you’ll know where that’s going…

Fortunately for us, ASM2 has some new twists on the old formulas. Harry’s transformation may be inevitable, but it’s played with different emphasis and motivations. Plus DeHaan is a much more unusual and engaging actor than James Franco, his version of Harry notably different from the previous “pretty young rich kid”. The storyline afforded to Foxx’s Electro is in-keeping with previous Spider-baddies — a fundamentally good person who ends up misguided — but his cool powers keep things visually engaging. Their first big face off in Times Square felt like one of the best effects-driven action sequences I’ve seen for a while, in fact.

Best friends?Then we have the much-maligned backstory about just what Peter Parker’s parents did all those years ago, before they abandoned him with Uncle Ben and Aunt May. There are pros and cons to this: it’s all new, which at least makes it interesting and unpredictable because it has no forebear in comics or films; but it’s also a pretty stock set of circumstances. Worse still, it robs Spidey of a major defining trait: Peter Parker is bitten by a spider by accident — it could’ve been anyone. In this version, it could only have been him. Boo. Sony clearly want an arc plot they can run across a trilogy (or more), so presumably this thread will rumble on… though whisperings that they’re considering some kind of soft-reboot may see it cut short. I wouldn’t complain.

It’s a moderately minor part of the film though, I thought. So too the setting up of some league of supervillains — presumably the Sinister Six, as that’s the first planned spin-off movie. I still think people over-emphasise how much time Iron Man 2 puts into setting up The Avengers at the expense of being its own film; ASM2 does it even less, so I think the complaints are even less warranted. Honestly, there’s so much else going on, why hone in on the one thing you wish it hadn’t done?

That other stuff includes an increased dose of fun and humour — darkness abounds, to be sure, and in everyone’s storylines too; and Webb still dodges the bright-and-breezy tone of Raimi’s movies (which is a shame, because there’s a good argument that that’s where Spidey belongs) — Electrifyingbut it’s more textured, at least. Then there’s Electro, who (as mentioned) may have a familiar story, but is nonetheless perfectly pitched by Foxx. His powers lead to some excellent sequences, including but not limited to the aforementioned Times Square duel. He also contributes to the music, in a way, as Electro’s whispered/sung thoughts ‘bleed out’ into the score. It’s creepy, especially as it’s so subtle in the mix — I wondered what the hell was going on at first. I thought it was a fantastic score all round, in fact, bringing in a modern music element that fits the notion of Spidey as a young character perfectly.

While I don’t advocate a like-for-like repeat of all that in future Spidey films — innovate, don’t replicate (is that a saying? That should be a saying) — I hope there are people at Sony who are aware that things in ASM2 do work, and work very well. As they rush headlong to fix the film’s perceived failings in future instalments, purely so that they can make a success out of their desired Avengers-style multi-franchise franchise, I hope they don’t wind up throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Or washing the spider down the drain. Or some other similar but more apt metaphor.

While ASM2 isn’t perfect, I don’t really see what all the negative reviews were on about — I properly enjoyed it. Is it the best Spider-Man film? No. Spider 'splosionIt lacks the confidence, heart and flair that mark out Spider-Man 2, and the bold originality and clarity of purpose that define Raimi’s first Spider-Man. Equally, it doesn’t suffer from the compromised creativity of the forced Spider-Man 3, nor the fumbled plotting and try-hard hipsterism of Webb’s first Spidey effort. It’s a distinct improvement, but beyond that, it’s an entertaining Spider-Man movie in its own right.

4 out of 5

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is on Sky Movies from New Year’s Day 2015.

This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2014. Read more here.

John Dies at the End (2012)

2014 #28
Don Coscarelli | 100 mins | download (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | 15* / R

John Dies at the EndBased on the cult novel by Cracked.com editor David Wong, John Dies at the End is a bizarre horror-fantasy that defies easy explanation or summary.

It’s definitely an acquired taste — some will genuinely love it, some will genuinely despise it. I often fall in the middle when that’s the case, though I err towards the former here. It’s scrappy and weird and wrong in so many ways, but, on balance, pretty entertaining.

Plus, in an era when every mainstream movie (and many so-called independents) are essentially the same story told the same way, kudos for trying to do something different.

4 out of 5

In the interests of completing my ever-growing backlog, I decided to post ‘drabble reviews’ of some films. For those unfamiliar with the concept, a drabble is a complete piece of writing exactly 100 words long. You’ve just read one.

* What do you have to do to get an 18 these days? The BBFC would’ve cut this to shreds in their scissor-happy heyday! It would seem the fact it’s a comedy allows the extreme gore to pass at a lower rating. ^

Ironclad (2011)

2012 #8
Jonathan English | 121 mins | Blu-ray | 16:9 | UK, USA & Germany / English | 15 / R

IroncladIn medieval times, a group of filmmakers set out to prove you can make a Hollywood-quality historical action epic with independent funding in Britain, while in the present day a ragtag group of seven samurai— sorry, gunslingers— sorry, warriors, defend a small town— sorry, castle, from evil bandits— sorry, an evil king.

I think I got some details confused there.

Set shortly after the signing of the Magna Carta, Ironclad tells the true story of King John not being very happy and, with the backing of the Pope, setting about reclaiming England. Violently. Naturally the men who forced him into scribbling on the famous document aren’t best pleased, so while some set off to persuade the French to invade, others hole up in Rochester castle, vital to John’s efforts as it controls trade routes to the rest of the country or something.

Firstly, I say “true story” — I have no idea how much fact has gone into this. Some, at least. Was John really supported by a Viking-ish army? Dunno. Were the Knights Templar really dead set against him? Dunno. Was Rochester really defended by a dozen men? Dunno. But this isn’t a history lecture, it’s a piece of entertainment — aiming for the same ballpark as Gladiator, Braveheart, Kingdom of Heaven, and so on, albeit less grand; and there’s a sort of connection to Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood too, which I seem to remember included the signing of the Magna Carta.

Say hello to my little friendAnyway, it seems to me its use of facts are probably strong enough to support it as an entertainment. So some of the story structure may be reminiscent of Seven Samurai/The Magnificent Seven, but it’s not the first to use that and it won’t be the last (and I’ve never seen either anyway. Bad me). And so the special effects-driven climax may occur on the wrong tower of the castle’s keep — I think we can live with that level of deception.

As to the point of “why not just go round the castle?”, I presume the answer is more or less, “well… he didn’t…” Somewhat thankfully, the commander of the Danish forces puts this very question to the King, whose answer is some muttered speech about how his family built it and… I dunno. I’m not clear why they can’t just use the massive camp next to the tiny castle as their appropriate base of operations, other than the film wouldn’t be half as exciting.

And exciting it of course is. There are stretches some may find dull — there’s little new to be done with the whole Recruiting The Team bit, and once John gets the castle under siege and everyone’s twiddling thumbs and eating horses some viewers will be doing one of the two as well — but there are regular bursts of sword-swinging violence that achieve the film’s primary aims. The fights are generally well staged, even if many resort to the modern vogue for close-up quick-cut handheld shakiness, and they’re certainly gory.

Violence!I’ve seen some complain about the level of graphic detail in this regard, but this is medieval times, they didn’t just bump each other about a bit; and you don’t think a giant axe swung down on someone’s shoulder with all a man’s weight is going to just leave a scratch, do you? Director Jonathan English doesn’t linger on detail as if this were a horror movie. There’s cleaved bodies, severed limbs, squirts of blood and more, and it all feels gruesomely realistic, but individually each moment passes quickly.

This is as appropriate a moment as any to mention that the film should be in the ratio 2.40:1, but the UK Blu-ray (and presumably DVD) was for some unknown reason mastered in a screen-filling 16:9 — I thought some of the shots looked tight! On the bright side it means English isn’t incompetent; on the dark side it means whoever mastered the UK Blu-ray is. (I’ve seen grabs from the US BD and that’s in the right ratio. Completely different special features too — a director’s commentary may well trump the half-hour of EPK interview snippets we get, for those that care.) I found this to be most blatant in dialogue scenes, where characters are barely squeezed into the extreme edges of the screen, with even the occasional moment of pan & scan required to get everyone who’s speaking on screen. I think it must also hamper the impact of the occasional epic shot — and there are a few — which is a shame because I think that feeling is really part of English’s aim here. PhwoarI imagine it also makes some of those fight scenes even more disorientating, which is a pity. Nothing will help the sometimes-too-obvious use of digital video though, which looks as nasty as ever.

The battling cast — led by James Purefoy and supported by the likes of Mackenzie Crook, Jason Flemyng and Jamie Foreman — all seem to have a whale of a time with their swords and axes and general fisticuffs. Their roles don’t offer too much depth, but only Flemyng (who I never rate) struggles. They’re supported by some talented thesps in the shape of Brian Cox, Derek Jacobi and Charles Dance, quality actors who maybe don’t always have the greatest taste for quality roles (Dance was recently in that direct-to-DVD Tesco-funded Jackie Collins adaptation, for instance) but always offer gravitas. There’s also Kate Mara, who does a fine British accent as an unnecessary love interest for Purefoy’s warrior monk type.

The real star, though, is Paul Giamatti as King John. Petulant, entitled and fundamentally weak, he rants and raves and chews any piece of scenery he can get his teeth into (not literally, but at times I swear he came close). It’s a well-pitched performance — he doesn’t go too far with it, making the King ridiculous and laughable without dragging the whole film down around him. That makes for a good villain.

Despite some occasional cheapness in the cinematography, Ironclad largely achieves its goal of creating a Hollywood-esque historical action movie on British soil (it was shot in Wales). Yes some of the CGI is obvious, and some stuff that looks like CGI was apparently model work, but these are all forgivable, especially when you remember this was made for just $25 million. Villainous villainThe unfamiliar true story also gives it the added edge of not knowing who lives or dies, or whether our heroes even succeed. If the ultimate end feels guessable, I think it’s only in retrospect. Of course, that doesn’t mean any of it’s historically accurate anyway.

And so what? It’s an action movie. And on all points that matter, it scores well.

4 out of 5

Ironclad began on Sky Movies Premiere last night and continues daily throughout the week. I have no idea which aspect ratio it’s in.

It placed 10th on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2012, which can be read in full here.