Tag Archives: alexander payne

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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Nebraska – Review

17 Feb

At this point in my life I’m focused on looking towards the rest of my life sprawled out in front of me. For the other group of people in the twilight of their lives, it’s a matter of looking back, but also keeping your eyes on the rest of the time you have left. I can’t really imagine what that must be like, but it is part of what Nebraska is about. Another thing I need to say about Nebraska is that I have never been so torn on a movie. There is plenty that I really love in this movie, but than there’s a lot that I really couldn’t stand.

Nebraska poster

 

Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) is an aging alcoholic who has received a letter saying he has won a one million dollar sweepstakes prize and that he is to collect it in Lincoln, Nebraska. David (Will Forte), his youngest son, recognizes the prize to be a scam to subscribe to the magazine, but in order to spend time with his father before the inevitable happens, he decides to drive him to Lincoln. Along the way, they stop in his old hometown of Hawthorne and stay with his brother Ray (Rance Howard) while his other son Ross (Bob Odenkirk) and wife Kate (June Squibb) comes down for an impromptu family reunion with the rest of the family. As rumors spread about Woody’s newfound wealth, family members and, more importantly, his old friend Ed (Stacy Keach), begin asking for him to return their monetary favors, but as David knows, Woody has no riches to speak.

Now, this movie really doesn’t have a sweeping storyline. In fact, it’s pretty minimal when you really think about it. And aging man becomes part of a family reunion while he’s on his way to collect sweepstakes money. This is actually something I love about the movie. It’s an excellent story, and it’s impressive that someone was able to weave a full length movie around it. What’s more important than the story is what’s going on beneath the immediate surface. It’s a quiet movie about a dysfunctional family trying to get by, and also a cynical look at getting old and the years of memory loss that people must endure. While director Alexander Payne and writer Bob Nelson give a little bit of hope, it’s not really enough to satisfy or ease you in any way.

still-of-bruce-dern-and-will-forte-in-nebraska-(2013)-large-picture

While I was at first not pleased with the black and white cinematography by Phedon Papamichael, it has really grown on me, much like this movie in general. IT says a lot about the character of Woody and the time period he is in in his life, but it also beautifully accentuates the bleaker and plainer parts of the American Midwest. While these images may seem sparse and a little depressing, it is beautiful to look at. Unfortunately, Nebraska suffers from the same problem 12 Years a Slave suffered from. It spends too much time looking at the surrounds in some scenes and occasionally loses track of the plot altogether just to focus on landscapes. It’s beautiful, but doesn’t need to go on for quite so long.

In a sense, Bob Nelson’s screenplay is really great. The story is there, but a lot of his dialogue is really, and I mean really, terrible. He hits all the notes for the character of Woody, but when it comes to the supporting cast, it really left me with an awkward feeling. Will Forte really seems to be trying here, but he sounds like he’s reading his lines right off the paper, and I feel like some of that has to be attributed to Nelson. When it comes to Squibb’s and Keach’s characters, they come off as so over the top sometimes, and don’t really fit into the movie when they get so crazy, especially since Nebraska is such a toned down movie. Bruce Dern, however, was incredible and deserves his Oscar nomination for Best Actor.

Nebraska was something else. I can’t quite pinpoint my feelings towards it because of how split I am between how great the story is and how well Dern plays his part, between how crummy a lot of the dialogue is and how awkward the supporting cast can be. I love the themes of this movie, and I can’t say that it’s bad because I know, deep down, that it’s a really good movie. Still, I’m completely split and I really can’t give you an exact feeling because I honesty don’t know. I may have to watch it again to get a more precise idea, but I don’t know if I really want to.

I really just don’t know…