Thursday, November 18, 2004



There is a discussion early on in Alexander Payne's film Sideways where the two leads (Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church) discuss whom their upcoming trip to California's wine country is for. Jack (Church) is getting married in a week and is looking for a final sexual escapade as a single man, but Miles (Giamatti) is in need of both an escape from his drab day-to-day world, and a drink--or fifty. In truth, the trip, despite all its winning and failing moments, is for both of them.

Indeed, the case could be made that the two characters only equal one man, and only when they're together. The fact that they were freshman year roommates in college only serves to further this idea. Jack is a formerly famous television actor, with a mind combining that of a child and a frat boy, and a tendency to rely on his instincts. Miles, on the other hand, is a divorced middle-school english teacher with dreams of being a published author, who feels his age all too well and is fully capable of over-thinking himself to death--if his alcoholism doesn't drive himself there first. One man thinks with his gut and loins; the other endlessly ruminates through the lens of his own past failures. The two set out together in a road story that is one of the best films of the year.

Over the course of their week-long excursion to countless vineyards, each attempts to help the other by educating him in the areas he is lacking. Miles expounds on proper wine-tasting etiquette and rattles off so many synonyms for what his palate discerns while tasting that you'd think he had a thesaurus in his pocket. Jack, however, is content to label each wine they sample as "good", and is far more concerned with his quest to pull Miles out of his depression by getting both of them "laid".

The pair end up meeting two local women who happen to cater to the their distinct tastes: Stephanie (Sandra Oh) who is a wild, exciting "pour girl" for Jack, and Maya (Virginia Madsen), a sensitive and insightful divorcee for Miles. It would all seem too stale, but the film manages to pull it off in spectacular fashion.

The beauty of Payne's work here is that you end up truly caring about all four people--something that is sadly lacking from most character-driven films. Because they feel like real people rather than caricatures, Payne and Jim Taylor (his co-screenwriter) are able to get away with wonderful dialogue that would otherwise seem terribly cliché. At one point in the film there is an exquisite pair of soliloquies exchanged between Miles and Maya in which they use their feelings about wine as metaphors to reveal themselves to one another in a dramatic manner. It's a scene that could have easily been tawdry and laughable, but is instead a beautiful example of what is so great about this film.

The movie's pace seems to stutter a bit, and at times it feels like the plot has briefly lost its way, but it only shows how well Payne knows his subject. The film's peaks and lulls expertly mimic those of its protagonist as he scours the California countryside in search of his next glass of wine--a quest that leads to excitable evenings, drunken nights, and groggy mornings. Giamatti and Madsen both deserve Oscar nominations for their work in this film, but Payne deserves recognition for finding the right actors and fueling them to drive the plot without letting his camera get in the way.

Thursday, November 04, 2004

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Wednesday, November 03, 2004

Ray: Right Idea, Wrong Angle

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I must say, that after hearing all of the hype surrounding Ray, I was in the mood for a feel-good, inspiring drama after what I considered a depressing election night.

The concept for the film is simple enough: Follow the tribulations and triumphs of America's most beloved blues master, from his meager beginnings and his personal struggles, to his final absolution and victory in the face of poverty, discrimination, disability, and substance abuse.

Unfortunately, what would seem like a relatively easy target to hit seems difficult for writer and director Taylor Hackford. In his effort to bend a life-spanning biopic into a plot Hollywood would be proud of, he aims far too wide and misses the mark in what could have been a spectacular and heartfelt work. In other words, while searching for a narrative thread to tie the biopic together, Hackford tries to pack too much information in, and ends up detracting from the film's potency. Indeed, the movie lasts over 2 1/2 hours, and still seems unfinished when the epilogue begins to appear on screen.

This is not to say that Ray isn't worth your time. Jamie Foxx delivers a superb (and seemingly easy) performance that nails the unique and iconic facial expressions and bodily movements of the blues great. While all sung vocals are dubbed using actual recordings, Foxx's speaking voice is at times eerily similar to Charles', and his own on-screen charisma works wonderfully with the character he plays. He will certainly be nominated for Best Actor as the awards seasons nears.

The beautiful and powerful parts of Ray make one wish that Hackford had spent more time closely examining his subject rather than trying to cover as much of Charles' life as possible. Where there are a number of unnecessary and sometimes confusing scenes, there could have been less pressure on the editor to fit time constraints Where there is a seemingly endless string of montages to gloss over the passage of time, there could have been more energy spent on some of the stunning visuals that penetrate the heart of the film. Indeed, the beautiful and affecting moments (Charles as a boy going blind and watching the rain, his last argument with his wife, a few flashbacks with his mother) all seem to cut too soon, and left me feeling cheated out of their poignant content. Even the film's impressive resolution jumped to its epilogue before my emotional catharsis was complete.

See this movie for the acting of Jamie Foxx, Kerry Washington (Charles' wife), Regina King (his girlfriend), and Sharon Warren (his mother). See it for the obviously wonderful soundtrack (despite the fact that most songs were shortened to 30 second clips). See it for the movie it could have been, and truly appreciate the touching pieces that cry out from under the smothering biopic blanket.

Friday Night Lights: The Perfect Remedy to Varsity Blues

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Peter Berg's film based on Buzz Bissinger's best-selling non-fiction book belongs on the trophy wall next to other great high school sports movies in Hoosiers and All The Right Moves. Varsity Blues was a pale attempt at a more fictional screen versions of Bissinger's book, full of cliché moments, stylized cinematography and some pretty rough acting. Lights, however, follows the book closely, emulating its journalistic and documentary style until you feel like the players on screen are real, not Hollywood-ized caricatures.

And that is the important part of this film. The groundbreaking book showed America what is very wrong, and indeed right, in the most high-stakes football played at the high school level. The wonderfully understated acting by the entire cast fits perfectly with Berg's concept of the book. In order for this true tale to hit home actors have to be believable; they have to be real.

As for Berg, he does a good job using the camera to enhance the energy and the emotion of the film without getting in the way. There are few stylized camera movements if any, and the simple quick cuts during the games work effectively. At the same time, he doesn't feel the need to cut from a shot if it's bearing in on one of the characters, because we as an audience need to take long looks at these players who are treated--and abused--like professional athletes, but are in truth only seventeen years of age. The lingering shots help remind us that these are just kids, that they're young and fragile, despite how tough they may seem on the gridiron.

While the film is shot in a semi-documentary style, it does have some big hints of Hollywood in some parts of the dialogue and unspoken narrative. For the most part these scenes don't get in the way, and at the conclusion of the last game a very touching moment between two characters seems right in place. The emotion of the movie is heightened because of its authenticity, but the sentimental scenes just serve as a perfect garnish for the film's affect on its audience.

Rabbit-Proof Fence

Originally written: 9/17/04

Director Phillip Noyce spent months scouring the back-country of Australia to find his three young actors, and the effort certainly paid off. Their understated, credible performances drive this film which poignantly tells the Australian portion of much larger, global tale concerning the West's imperialism and disdainful belief in a "white man's burden." Be sure to watch the "making of" featurette to see the commitment Noyce, a very Hollywood director, put forth in a project that was obviously a labor of love.

Noyce's camera never gets in the way of the story. He is smart enough to realize that this is a character-driven film, and his ability to hold his camera at bay (especially considering his past films) is just as important a decision as any he made on this project.

Peter Gabriel wrote a tremendous score for this film, drawing on some of his earlier work in addition to writing a soundtrack that he hoped would sound "like it was coming from the earth".

The Day After Tomorrow

Originally written: 9/15/04

Human beings, especially we Americans, love disaster films. As if Hollywood remembers this fact every few years, the movies come in bunches, one after another, made for insatiable audiences dating back to King Kong and before. News networks looped footage of the 9/11 terror attacks endlessly after they happened, but only did so because they were simply fulfilling the unconscious, morbid desires of Americans. Some even say that 9/11 was the realization of our own latent disaster movie desires, when an American landmark was destroyed before our eyes.

There are plenty of American landmarks obliterated--or at least covered in ice--in this film, which makes copious use of computer generated images. From the first frames of the credits as the CGI 'camera' sweeps over a rendered Antarctica, to CGI wolves chasing our protagonist, to the films final sweeping shot, the movie relies heavily on special effects.

Unfortunately, they are not enough to make up for a tediously formulaic script and extremely mediocre acting. I find that CGI works much better in theaters, where the projector and film reels add enough 'filmy' quality to the image, but on DVD it looks fake enough to be distracting. Not to mention a few terrible composite shots that looked about as good as the famous (and dated) scene in Die Hard when Alan Rickman falls to his death.

The subtle jabs at the Bush administration's environmental policy, as well as its suspected hierarchy (this film's Vice President is clearly in charge) were surprising coming from Fox. All in all, the film's 'environmental message' was not as powerful as many politicians this year claimed. Be sure to watch the two deleted scenes, however! They are perhaps the best examples of why scenes are deleted from films, with some TERRIBLY bad acting from Dennis Quaid and a completely superfluous subplot which was eventually dubbed over.

In America

Originally written: 4/24/04

Jim Sheridan wrote and directed this semi-autobiographical film, and the intimacy with which he knows his subject makes this one of the best works of 2002. The film tells the story of a family struggling to move forward, emotionally and physically, after the death of a child, and their attempt to do so in a land of promise and possibility--the promise of fulfilled dreams and the possibility of an emotional catharsis following their family tragedy.

Chronicled through the eyes of the family's daughter--the film begins through the viewfinder her camcorder and is narrated by her as well--the immigrant's story is told from a unique point of view which captures both the charming naïveté and startling wisdom of children. The two child actors are actually sisters, and their presence on screen gives the film the levity it needs as it handles some heavy topics. The girls are fabulous together.

This is a tremendous effort, and while American-born viewers are easily cynical, the film is powerful in its portrayal of America as a land of extraordinary promise and resilient spirit.

Fahrenheit 9/11

Originally written: 7/1/04

Michael Moore's full-out assault at the Bush administration is more a rallying cry for support than a true indictment of his target. With fuzzy facts in places and plenty of Moore's more typical stunts for laughs, this documentary did not strike me as hard as it did others.

The truth is that Michael Moore, while quite passionate about his views and the direction in which this country is headed, would fail a middle school class on essay structure. He has no true thesis, no supporting argument, and no real meat to chew on beyond the film's initial glitz. He skips around from point to point with little or no segue, often showboating rather than discussing real issues.

A large portion of the movie early on is devoted to making fun of President Bush. Honestly, no one truly thinks the man is smart, so why waste screen time with low-brow cracks? By failing to spend significant time on the true issues of the film--the socioeconomic draft of poor and minority Americans into the military, the true power of fear-mongering, and the corporate corruption via lobbyists in this country--Moore simply brings us a well-cut flash in the pan. Less satire and more depth into serious issues threatening true democracy would have made this film truly great for years to come, rather than just a pre-election stunt.

New Site

I've decided to create a 'sister site' to my regular blog, so I can put all my movie thoughts in one place. Rear Window Ethics is still my main site, and will be updated much more regularly. When I write a review, I'll post it here, but I will also announce that posting in Ethics. Got it?