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Miles Raymond is a divorcee, a teacher, and an unpublished novelist, depressed at the state of his life.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.

John Carter (2012)

2014 #131
Andrew Stanton | 132 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

John CarterA box office flop (it made a once-astonishing $284 million worldwide, but that was off a $250 million production budget and a ginormous bungled marketing campaign), John Carter has gained something of a following among those who did enjoy it or caught it later — see this post by ghostof82, for instance. I approached it hopefully, then, buoyed by such positive after-reaction — many a good film has been ignored by the general audience. Disappointingly, I didn’t find John Carter to be one of them.

Adapted from a classic, influential science-fantasy novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs (that being A Princess of Mars, deemed too girly a title for a PG-13 SF/F blockbuster nowadays), the story sees American Civil War veteran John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) transported to Mars, which he finds populated by human-esque aliens, the two factions of which are at war, and giant four-armed green-skinned aliens, who are trying to stay out of it. Of particular interest is the half-dressed princess Dejah (Lynn Collins), promised in marriage to villain Sab Than (Dominic West) in order to end the conflict. Cue simplistic politicking and CGI-driven action sequences.

There have been many reasons cited why John Carter flopped, a good many of them centred around the marketing campaign (reportedly director Andrew Stanton, given power by his directorial success at Pixar (Finding Nemo, WALL-E), demanded a level of control Disney felt forced to give, and his belief that Carter was as renowned a character as (say) Sherlock Holmes or James Bond led to a misaligned campaign, one which the professional marketing people who knew what they were doing weren’t allowed to salvage). Also, the sheer importance of Burroughs’ novel was actually a hindrance — Never seen Star Wars?not because it’s so famous (among Normal People, I don’t think it is), but because its influence means its imagery and concepts have already been plundered (Star Wars and its sequels being the most notable example). A sense of “seen it all before” is not a good thing ever, but doubly so for a movie that is, at least in part, based on spectacle.

That’s why it failed to connect with the general public, at any rate, but none are particularly good reasons to criticise the film for the more discerning viewer. Sadly, I think there are a good few others. The storytelling, for one, a confusing mess of alien names and words that are thrown around with reckless abandon. This may again by the fault of Stanton’s familiarity with the material, a lack of awareness that newcomers (aka the vast majority of the audience) wouldn’t have the foggiest what was going on. Such things are not necessarily a problem — look at the success of Game of Thrones or Avatar, both of which introduce silly names and/or thoroughly alien worlds. The difference there is the new information is either doled out slowly or doesn’t sound too far beyond what we already know — monikers like Joffrey or Tyrion are pretty close to real-life names, for instance. Everything in John Carter has a high fantasy name, however, and dozens of them are hurled at you virtually non-stop for the first half hour or more, making it almost impossible to keep up.

Even with this telescope I can't make out what's going onIt doesn’t help that the film is structurally muddled at the offset. It begins on Mars, a voiceover detailing the conflict — an instant bombardment of names and concepts. I don’t mind things that challenge you to keep up, but it still feels a bit much. Then we jump to New York in the 1880s, where Carter is running away from someone in the streets. Then to his house, where his nephew has just turned up to be told he’s dead. You what? We just saw him in the telegraph office! And then we jump back to the 1860s, where he’s searching for gold and getting arrested (or something) by Bryan Cranston in a wig as some form of army officer. Then it gets a bit more straightforward. If being transported to Mars and meeting four-armed CG aliens who speak in subtitles is what you call “straightforward”, anyway.

This is mostly preamble, and it takes a long time to get through. I presume it’s faithful to the original story, because Cranston and co add virtually nothing to what goes on on Mars. That said, apparently Burroughs’ original book sticks to Carter exclusively, whereas the film keeps darting off to show us what’s going on elsewhere. I presume the idea was to give things a bit of momentum — while Carter’s being dragged around the Martian desert by his captors, we get to see the beginnings of the arranged marriage, etc. To me it just felt jumbled, and undermines Carter’s sense of confusion and discovery. We know far more of what’s going on than he does (if you can decipher it, anyway), leaving us waiting for our identification-figure to catch up.

Big eyesIt feels a bit facile to criticise the quality of CGI these days, but that doesn’t stop John Carter from being over-ambitious in this regard. In fact, it’s not really the sometimes-half-assed green screen or occasional plastic-ness that’s the problem, but the design: those four-armed aliens are just a little too cartoony. Perhaps it’s a hangover from Stanton’s Pixar days, perhaps something just went a little awry during the process, but their design doesn’t look quite ‘real’ enough; a little like someone’s taken a real-life creature and then lightly caricatured it. I think it’s the eyes, which are perhaps a little too big and round and ‘cute’, but there’s something else indefinable there, or not there. These aliens aren’t just set dressing but proper motion-captured characters, played by the likes of Samantha Morton, Willem Dafoe, Thomas Haden Church and Polly Walker, so the lack of connection is regrettable.

The live-action cast don’t fare much better. You may remember Kitsch and Collins as co-stars of the poorly-received first Wolverine movie, where quite frankly they were two of the worst things in it (Kitsch was woefully miscast, for one). Doesn’t bode well for them being the leads, does it? Neither are as bad here, but neither quite click either. They’re surrounded by a gaggle of British thesps (West, Mark Strong, Ciaran Hinds, James Purefoy) who feel like they’re slumming it in roles that are beneath them.

Some of John Carter’s fans have accused audiences and critics of ‘bandwagonism’ — that is, hearing/assuming it’s bad and so treating it as such. I can assure you, that’s not the case here: A princess of MarsI was expecting, or perhaps hoping, to like it; to find a misunderstood old-style adventure full of entertainment value. It may be an old-style adventure, but that’s beside the point, because whatever it is, I just felt it wasn’t particularly well made: poorly constructed, weakly performed, lazily (and wrongly) assumptive of the audience’s familiarity with the material. Disappointing.

2 out of 5

The UK TV premiere of John Carter is on BBC Two tonight at 6pm.