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Sideways – Review

17 Aug

I like to think of myself as a pretty open minded guy when it comes to movies. I try to soak in all sorts of films from all around the world and from different points of view. That being said, some genres just don’t impress me as much as others. I like comedies as much as the next person, but I’d much rather watch a mystery or a crime thriller. Comedies have to work really hard to win me over, and a good place to look is the work of Alexander Payne. Throughout the years, Payne has walked a thin line between comedy and drama and has garnered a lot of respect. The first movie I’ve seen of his was Nebraska, and I have to admit that I really couldn’t get into it. I’m revisiting his work with an earlier movie from 2004, Sideways, which was also met with many accolades. While I do like this one better than Nebraska, I still just don’t think his movies are for me.

Miles (Paul Giamatti) and Jack (Thomas Haden Church) have been best friends since they were room mates in college. They’ve been through various ups and downs together and, despite their efforts, haven’t really made much of an impact on the world. With Jack finally getting married, Miles sees this as a time to take him on a trip through California’s wine country where they will spend quality time together and drink a whole lot of wine. Along the way, the two come across Maya (Virginia Madsen), a waitress at one of Miles’ favorite restaurants, and they also meet Stephanie (Sandra Oh), a wine pourer at a local vineyard. Jack immediately starts an affair with Stephanie who is oblivious to the fact he’s getting married that weekend. Meanwhile, Miles becomes close with Maya, but has a hard time holding in the secret that Jack is keeping from Stephanie. This affair in the middle of wine country will force these best friends to examine who they are, what they are becoming, and how to finally feel fulfilled.

I want to go ahead and talk about what I really loved about this movie, and it has more to do with the way the characters are written than the actual story. Paul Giamatti’s character has been through a lot of terrible things, and a lot of it has to do with decisions he’s made. By the time this movie starts, he’s a broken man trying to find something special to hold onto, which is why this week long trip with his best friend means so much. Thomas Haden Church’s character is the exact opposite. He’s a loose cannon who feels like he hasn’t lived his life to the fullest, and he doesn’t realize that his bad decisions are the same things that completely ruined his friend’s outlook. It’s an interesting friendship that I don’t think has been explored this well in movies like this. I feel like Payne really fleshed out these two characters to the point where I understand their feelings without them needing to vocalize them, which is a very strong film making technique. Miles sees a lot of his past in Jack which scares him and Jack sees a potential future in Miles which also scares him. I really can’t stress enough how much I enjoyed these two characters and the depth of their connection.

The setting for this movie also really helped put me into the story. Road trip movies now seem to always go for the extreme party cities where shenanigans are bound to happen. The fact that shenanigans occur in the California wine country is certainly different. While the setting is fun and different, I can’t really say the same thing about how the story progressed. While there are things that set Sideways apart, at it’s core it still follows the same formula set down by buddy and romantic comedies. The movie didn’t really throw me any curve balls or offer me any sort of dramatic surprises, which is weird considering how deep Payne worked to make his characters seem unique but he couldn’t really do the same with his story. There are some good moments of humor that do feel very original and that helps the story from becoming too stale. While I did chuckle at the movie and laugh out loud pretty hard once, it didn’t really strike me as hilarious. I can’t help but look at Sideways as a drama more than it is a comedy.

As far as the comedy did go, Giamatti was spot on as always. This is the kind of actor that can naturally find the perfect tone for a movie and strike it without even seeming to try. I wish the same could be said for Thomas Haden Church. I can’t really tell if his character annoyed me or his performance annoyed me. He just seemed over the top at times and, while it was a good foil for Giamatti’s character, he just didn’t have the same effect on me. Virginia Madsen is good in her role although there is one scene where the writing felt a bit too unnatural. Unfortunately, Sandra Oh’s character exists solely for an affair to happen. We get glimpses into her life, but she’s never really fleshed out to her potential, unlike Madsen. For a movie that’s so focused on character development, it’s easy to notice when one of them gets next to none.

Sideways is a good movie. I don’t think anyone will say otherwise. My only thing is that it isn’t really my cup of tea. I found it easy to find flaws because it just struck me as pretentious quite often and unfortunately predictable. Paul Giamatti and Virginia Madsen are excellent while Thomas Haden Church has moments of brilliance but also moments of over the top annoyance. I can’t say much for Sandra Oh since she didn’t have much to really contribute. Sideways works best as an examination of friendship, aging, and trust while also being a strong character study. It doesn’t really hold up quite the same way in the narrative department. As a comedy/drama it still holds up better than many.

Final Grade: B

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The Master – Review

14 Oct

One statement I don’t think I’m ever going to have to say is, “That new Paul Thomas Anderson movie sucked.” I just don’t think he has it in his genes to make anything less than spectacular. I guess you guys all know where this review is headed now. Yes. The Master was a great movie and definitely a contender for multiple Academy Awards, hopefully even to win Best Picture.

 

Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) has survived World War II, but not entirely. During the war, he became an alcoholic, and even went so far as mixing poisonous chemicals into his drinks. With the war over, he can’t seem to find a job due to his violent outbursts and manic  tendencies. After scuttling a yacht during a party, he meets Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the leader of a group called The Cause. Dodd immediately sees potential for experimentation with Quell and aides him in beating his addictions and behavior. But is he helping Quell or himself? Does he really mean what he says?

First things first. If Joaquin Phoenix doesn’t win an Oscar for his performance, I will get out of town, jump in a lake, and swim myself into oblivion. Wow, that’s weird, but that’s the equivalent of how I’d feel. I never got the feeling that I was watching Joaquin Phoenix. I felt like I was watching the life of Freddie Quell unfold before my very eyes. He was absolutely fantastic. I’d say it’s not just the best performances of the year, but one of the best performances of all time.

 

The genius of this movie is the way the story presents itself. There isn’t a huge dramatic climax that completely changes the direction of the story. Besides a couple scenes, many of the dramatic beats are very subtle and down to earth. That’s the best way to describe the movie. Down to earth. As a viewer, I felt like I wasn’t watching a conventional narrative, but more just a chronicling of a point in this man’s life. It’s never hard to believe or far fetched, which goes hand in hand with the subtlety of the entire thing. This proves that a movie doesn’t have to be loud or in your face to be intense.

Speaking of, this was a very intense film. Hoffman and Amy Adams play their roles to the best of their abilities and it shows. Hoffman seems like he could start a real movement if he wanted to, and Adams is a quiet storm of boiling anger. The set design and costuming are also very authentic without being extravagant. To top it all off, Johnny Greenwood’s soundtrack thumps and screeches in the background like a lurking malevolent force. Anyone who has seen There Will be Blood knows that Greenwood has this strange way of making off tempo music work perfectly in a scene.

 

The Master is a phenomenal work of artistic fiction that I think is destined to become a classic that’s studied for years to come. It is packed with controversial thematic material that is bound to spark heated discussion. It’s intense, expertly made, and at the risk of being corny, proves that Paul Thomas Anderson is a master at his craft.