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Film Review: Sideways

Where About Schmidt was often morose and slow-footed, Sideways is consistently laugh out loud funny, bathing itself in the paradoxical possibilities presented by its oddly-matched protagonists.

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Alexander Payne’s last film, About Schmidt, followed the cross-country trek of a man whose forced retirement and sudden widowing prompted a (much) later than usual midlife crisis. Having been effectively numbed by the cocoon that was his day-to-day life, the prospects of a life outside the limitations of the one he had known caught him off guard, and forced him to undergo a re-evaluation of his own existence. That personal reflection was metaphorically represented in more than a literal sense, by his dispensing with old burdens and hopping in his brand-new RV for a drive across the nation. Sideways, Payne’s new film, takes Rex Pickett’s similarly themed novel and spins it into a sympathetic, eminently human story that considers the natural shortcomings of the male psyche without making easy fun of it. About Schmidt is Sideways‘ thematic brethren through obvious association, but the emotional path that the central character, Miles (Paul Giamatti) follows here is quite reminiscent of the path that Michael Douglas’s sad-sack professor took in Curtis Hanson’s Wonder Boys from a few years back. Rather than a gray, chilly, damp Eastern college town, though, Miles tries to come to grips with his demons under the bright, warm sunshine of Northern California’s wine country, where the Vitamin D and good vibes are supposed to flow freely. Supposed to.

We first meet Miles following an off-screen knock on the door, his home a typically drab bachelor apartment that just screams “Frustrated Middle-Age Wannabe Author/Middle School English teacher lives here!” Vivid descriptors like “rumpled” and “bedraggled” seem like they were created to describe people like Miles, whom we discover is a divorcee with an overly intuitive knack for critiquing wines. His wine of choice is the Pinot, a wine created from an ornery, sensitive grape that bears more than a stylistic resemblance to its primary connoisseur. Miles’ gift for fiction goes well beyond the page; in reality, his diaries would make a much better seller than the 700-plus page opus he’s trying to get published. His natural inclination is not to deceive, but his vices afford him little opportunity to ever tell the truth.

As a wedding gift to his soon-to-be married college buddy Jack (Thomas Haden Church), Miles offers to take him on a week-long tour of Northern California that would feature nothing but good food, golf and wine, a veritable utopia as far as Miles is concerned. Jack is the Oscar to Miles’ Felix, a preternaturally handsome, strapping fellow whose happy-go-lucky exterior belies the fact that his once-flourishing acting career has been reduced to reasonably paying but artistically void commercial voiceovers. To Jack, the trip is prime opportunity to live the carefree bachelor life once last time, which interprets in his mind to being one last opportunity to get laid by someone other than the woman he’s marrying. He intends a similar purpose for Miles, but Miles recoils at the prospects of the trip’s esoteric value being reduced to a mere chick-chasing romp.

As the trip plods on, Miles futilely attempts to rein Jack in, especially after Jack comes across a fetching wine-pourer/single mother, Stephanie (Payne’s wife, Sandra Oh) as a vehicle for his own carnal agenda. In his attempt to appease his trip mate by humbly-if briefly-weathering his own plans, Jack marshals a connection between a reticent Miles and Maya (the long-time-gone Virginia Madsen), a server acquaintance of Miles at an establishment he has frequented on previous trips. To humor Jack, more out of frustration than anything else, Miles agrees to never mention that Jack is getting married, and that their vacation is actually an extended bachelor party. In their one-on-one moments, Miles appears hesitant with Maya not because of the physical contact being dangled, but of the notion that his true motivation for taking Jack on this wine-sampling journey might be derailed for good.

Where About Schmidt was often morose and slow-footed, Sideways is consistently laugh out loud funny, bathing itself in the paradoxical possibilities presented by its oddly-matched protagonists. They both have huge, gaping flaws; Miles has been clinically depressed since his divorce, which has sent him down a path of veiled alcoholism and situational duplicity, and Jack is a terminal womanizer, a big-hearted lout whose mental astigmatism always short-circuits his better intentions. Payne volleys seamlessly between borderline slapstick and very tender, intimate moments, interjecting moments of equally funny or appropriate dialogue to make the most of their impact (“You didn’t drink and dial, did you?!”). Giamatti and Church are well-matched as the lovelorn schlub and the fading former heartthrob, and while Church has some brutally funny moments himself, Giamatti is the core of the film. He reels Miles in or sets him off at the drop of a hat, punctuated by heartbreaking moments such as when he finally blows a gasket in a winery, or when he comes face to face with his remarried ex-wife for the first time since their divorce. If those scenes don’t bury you, the speechless moments with Miles in the diner will soon after.

By the time you reach those heart-wrenching final moments in the film’s coda, you almost feel guilty for having laughed yourself silly through most of the entire movie. Therein, though, lies the beauty of Sideways. It operates with traditional cinematic platitudes, but wraps them in a crisp, well-written, well-executed story that is driven forward by its compelling stars and some very smart, astute direction. It’s not escapist entertainment by any means, in fact, it might hit a little too close to home for some guys who realize that they’re already a little too familiar with one or either of the lead characters. We’ve seen these guys before, in different places with different names. It’s a film about ordinary people trying to live through their mistakes, but don’t dread the premise. Sideways is an extraordinary film about ordinary people. It does have a couple of minor flaws, but then again, so do Miles and Jack.

SIDEWAYS
Directed by: Alexander Payne
Cast: Paul Giamatti, Thomas Haden Church, Virginia Madsen, Sandra Oh
Distributed by: Fox Searchlight
Runtime: 127 minutes

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Film Review: It Chapter Two

The sweet spot between Stephen King fans, horror fans and (believe it or not) comedy fans

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The final installment in the It saga is a clever, scary, probably-too-long allegory about the power of friendship — complete with a 20-foot clown spider. Sure, it’s probably a half-hour longer than it really needs to be — but It Chapter Two is still a fantastic film that hits the sweet spot between Stephen King fans, horror fans and (believe it or not) comedy fans.

It’s a story about friendship, and just like the first film, it’s those relationships that make this story so compelling and keep it woven together in a way that you really care about what’s happening to all the folks Pennywise has been menacing across these two films. Sure, Bill Skarsgård’s absolutely terrifying performance as Pennywise is what puts butts in the seats, but at its heart, this is a story about the power of friendship to win out over pretty much anything. If we work together, we can overcome fear, loneliness, doubt, depression — and yeah — even a supernaturally godlike killer clown. Thankfully, all the blood keeps that message from getting too sappy along the way.

The first It in 2017 was a surprise, monster hit — but for good reason. The Stephen King adaptation by director Andy Muschietti is pretty much a horror masterpiece wrapped in a compelling coming of age story. Think Goonies meets a face-eating monster flick with jump scares galore to keep the blood pumping. But, despite a decently-closed ending to the first chapter, the story was always conceived as a two-part film run, which is pretty much the only way one could hope to possibly wrap up King’s massive tome (the studio actually briefly considered splitting Chapter Two into two films, because there’s just so much material). 

It Chapter Two makes a wise decision to keep the stellar younger cast from the first film involved via ample flashbacks, while still providing space for the adult Losers to live and breathe (and, ahem, die) while bridging the gap between who they were and who they all grew up to be. It also embraces the inherent silliness and insanity of its premise to laugh, now seen through the lens of middle-aged adults as opposed to middle school minds. It’s a hard tone to hit, and it arguably might come off with more laughs than scares, but it’s true to the inherent madness of Pennywise.

The adult cast is also a home run by and large. James McAvoy makes for a capable adult Bill; Jessica Chastain is the embodiment of adult Bev; James Ransome nails grown-up Eddie; and Isaiah Mustafa does a capable job providing the necessary info-dumps as adult Mike. But the real breakout is Saturday Night Live alum Bill Hader as grown-up Richie. There’s scattered buzz that Hader could be worthy of an Oscar nomination for his performance, and he deserves every bit of it. We knew Hader had comedy chops, and he uses them plenty to keep this dark tale from getting too dark, but he really taps into the emotion of what it’d be like to go through something so traumatizing. And the moments that break Richie will almost certainly break you, too.

As for the changes to King’s original novel, sure, they’ll certainly be noticeable for fans. That said, the book itself — especially the ending — is absolutely wild and arguably impossible to adapt in a way that could work on the screen. The ending on-screen largely stays true to King’s themes built into the novel, and for the story that’s been told across these two films, it really does work. Hell, even King himself shows up in a cameo to make a joke about just how hard it can be to get an ending right.

Thankfully, despite a few bumps, It Chapter Two pretty much nails the landing. In a world filled more and more with King adaptations, this two-film run will stand as one of the best.

It Chapter Two is in cinemas now

IT CHAPTER TWO
Directed by: Andy Muschietti
Written by: Gary Dauberman
Cast: James McAvoy, Jessica Chastain, Bill Hader, Isaiah Mustafa, Bill Skarsgård
Distributed by: Warner Bros. Pictures
Run time: 169 minutes

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Film Review: Hobbs & Shaw

If you’ve already got the volume at 11, you might as well blast it to oblivion

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Hobbs and Shaw

It is hard to believe that 2001’s The Fast & The Furious was just a film about the underground culture of street racing. Fast forward nearly 20 years later and the films have gotten so ridiculous that the only logical next step for the film series is to blast it into space. Our endless appetite for the series has seen us grown accustomed to cars taking planes out of the sky (Fast 6), cars jumping from one building to another (Fast 7), and cars being remotely controlled to act like a pack of mechanical wild dogs (Fast 8). Ridiculous is not a barrier the film series will ever brake for and so it brings us to this, the biggest spin-off the series has seen, Hobbs & Shaw.

When the chemistry between The Rock and Jason Statham proved magic in Fast 8, it only took The Rock butting heads with Vin Diesel to see that logically, the series needed a freshness to it. Who better than Dwayne Johnson and Jason Statham? Well, as Hobbs & Shaw proves, if you’ve already got the volume at 11, you might as well blast it to oblivion as the film cares not for subtlety, pouring gasoline on the fire. The film sees the addition of Idris Elba as supervillain Brixton Lore and the effervescent Vanessa Kirby as Hattie Shaw, the sister of Statham’s character. Both characters fit in superbly well to the colorful, over-the-top personas of the series, but with one difference; they haven’t worn thin yet and are extremely likable. The film benefits greatly from the absence of Vin Diesel’s dopey head and the majority of the dopey Fast “family”, instead taking the Fast and Furious formula and giving it a spit shine, turning it sideways, and sticking it right up… well, you know the drill.

Hobbs (Johnson) and Shaw (Statham) play the unlikeliest (but most charismatic) buddy cop twosome since the days of Eddie Murphy and Nick Nolte. Unexpectedly, this film is really quite hilarious- with the two swapping one-liners and jibes that keeps the film light and funny. The two are tasked with stopping global genocide at the hands of the megalomaniacal terrorist organization known as Etheon. The “face” of Etheon is superhuman Brixton Lore (Elba), an agent left for dead and turned into a weaponized cyborg-esque villain using genetic engineering. He’s the “black Superman” as he says, and he’s got an array of tech and gadgets (including a transforming, autonomous motorbike that would have found itself at home in a Transformers movie) that are part of Etheon’s plan to rid the world of the “weak”.

Vanessa Kirby
Vanessa Kirby is one of the highlights of Hobbs & Shaw

Etheon are after a deadly virus that is in possession of Hattie Shaw and what ensues is the expected cinematic equivalent of flexing your muscles and undoing the top few buttons of your blouse soundtracked to explosions, fast machines, and zippy dialogue. Director David Leitch (Atomic Blonde, Deadpool 2) keeps things by the book, and visually it’s all very on brand with the film series. But it is the chemistry and likability of the stars- namely Kirby, Statham, and Johnson- that keeps Hobbs & Shaw light on its feet, big with its set pieces, and never a chore. Kirby, in particular, has shown that her action chops are as deadly as her acting chops (is it too late to make her Black Widow? Or maybe just put her in all the action films). She never spends the film waiting to be rescued and is often the one quelling the childish, but hilarious quarrelling between Statham and Johnson.

The film trades the tired Fast family for real blood family, and while we still get the whole “family” and “heart” spiel that Vin Diesel loves to harp on about in these films, there is definitely a welcome change to the last few films. In fact, the Fast films haven’t been this fun in a long time. Unlike the last few, Hobbs & Shaw knows that the stakes of the film are global, but never does it take that too seriously and we the audience never feel too burdened by the ridiculousness of it all. There are some great cameos (two unexpected stars pop up that add the right comedic touches, plus Helen Mirren is always brilliant) and while the changing of scenery to Samoa is reminiscent of the previous Fast family vacations to South America et al, there’s something spiritual about this trip.

In the end, you don’t even have to turn your brain off because the film is soaked in charm and lightness that makes for a fun, smart enough romp that keeps its two-plus hour run time feeling like quite a breeze. Hobbs & Shaw is what this film series desperately needed. And while we can’t say the appeal will still be there when we’re inevitably sitting through Hobbs & Shaw 2, 3, 4, 5… we can say that for now, we’ll live this life one spin-off at a time.

HOBBS & SHAW
Directed by: David Leitch
Written by: Chris Morgan, Drew Pearce
Cast: Dwayne Johnson, Jason Statham, Vanessa Kirby, Idris Elba, Helen Mirren
Distributed by: Universal Pictures
Run time: 135 minutes

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