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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: Murder Mystery

Murder Mystery is a pretty crap film.

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Murder Mystery is the next film in the long line of terrible Adam Sandler films distributed by Netflix. At this point we’re not sure that Netflix actually watches these movies before they put them on their service but here we are. Murder Mystery, like many of the recent Sandler-helmed flicks, seem less like movies than they do lavish holidays that Adam Sandler and friends go on where filming of random skits tied together loosely by some semblance of narrative occurs. Much of the film is slapped together with the kind of duct-tape storytelling you’d find in all those mediocre SNL movies.

There is star quality though. Jennifer Aniston is back, after working alongside Sandler in 2011’s equally terrible Just Go With It, and they’ve roped in some pretty prominent names, including Luke Evans (Fast & Furious series, The Hobbit), Gemma Arterton, and a happily cashing in his check Terrence Stamp. What happens can be best described as stupid Cluedo, or more blatantly, a dumb Murder On the Orient Express where Sandler and Aniston’s characters, a bumbling New York cop and hair dresser, stumble upon a high-stakes inheritance-grab murder mystery where absurd things happen. It never makes much sense but the biggest problems with these movies are not so much the cartoony skits (Sandler’s cop is so bad at shooting his gun that when he does, it’s a cartoon-like hail of bullets missing their target), but just the insanely unbelievable characters that fill these movies. It’s OK to suspend belief, but at this point, you don’t believe for one second any of the characters would exist in real life or that any of them act like actual humans do. There is also no shortage of cartoon bozos: Fat New York cop sidekick? Check. Buffoony Inspector Clouseau French detective? Check. Overly Spanish Spanish guy? Check. Ali G Indian guy? Check. Even Gemma Arterton’s Jessica Rabbit-esque character would make Jessica Rabbit shake her head in disbelief. At least Rob Schneider isn’t in it.

Is it funny? No, but there are actually some moments worth a chuckle. And that’s already better than Sandler’s previous Netflix outings. Murder Mystery’s jokes are mostly at the expense of the exaggerated caricatures and Sandler’s goofy self, but for the most part, its pretty bereft of humor. To make matters worse, the film has that cheap Netflix sheen to it that makes it even more of a TV movie than it already is. In the end, the movie is such a blatant Murder on the Orient Express rip-off that the end scene literally shows the Orient Express train. Unironically too.

Netflix’s has a serious movie problem- one that we’ve talked about before. Murder Mystery, is no different. You can’t fault Sandler for continuing down this path. Same goes for Aniston. Both have more than established their craft over the years that at times, you can’t help but feel envious of the position they’re in. So what if they just want to put their feet up, cash in a nice pay check, and enjoy the nice sights? Who wouldn’t?

Murder Mystery is a pretty crap film, but it’s what happens when we’ve given this much clout to Netflix. Spielberg had a point when he said Netflix movies shouldn’t be competing for Oscars. It is not only because they eschew theatrical traditions, but it should also be because they’re crap. And not even in the Spielberg Artificial Intelligence sense of being an average movie- but in the Lifetime channel level of crap. So really, when you think about, Murder Mystery is all our fault.

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Film Reviews

Film Review: Booksmart

Booksmart is the wonderful story of complicated, messy but hopeful and joyous young adulthood

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booksmart

Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut Booksmart has had a rough time at the box office since its release a few weeks ago. Pundits have placed blame on poor marketing by Annapurna Pictures (the studio releasing it) but in truth, the film just isn’t a big cinema flick. But there’s nothing wrong with that because, in every sense, Booksmart is a brilliant film. It’s funny, it’s smart, it’s wonderfully written, well-directed, and filled with stories that are relatable across generations. But box offices are intrinsically built on those first weekend numbers, it is why it exists, and it is a shame the team behind the film has made a big deal out of the lack of box office draw instead of building on what will surely make it a cult classic- word of mouth.

The film tells the story of Amy and Molly, two high school seniors who have spent their high school careers being great in class, but not so great socially. The day before graduation they realize that their plan of spending their high school careers buried in books, getting straight A’s, and then transcending into the upper echelon of higher education is thwarted when the very people they thought they were escaping, have, in fact, accomplished the same. The difference is that they all had fun during high school while Amy and Molly didn’t. What ensues is a smart pastiche of college humor comedies and high school coming-of-age flicks that have been a staple of cinema across generations. Taking cues from Superbad and the recent Blockers, Booksmart takes raunchy humor and gross-out jokes but injects them with contemporary social dynamics. Universal stories of high school joy, friendship, and heartbreak are told with the kind of relatable charm that is rare- relatable regardless of age, gender, or sexuality. Its inclusivity has been praised not because it is gratuitous or forced, but because it feels genuine and heartfelt.

The two leads, played by Beanie Feldstein (Neighbors 2) and Kaitlyn Dever, are brilliant. If you watched the sitcom Last Man Standing you always knew that Dever was destined for greatness, so it’s no surprise that Booksmart is a great vehicle for her and Feldstein to show their talents. They both act with enough nuance when it is needed, but both sizzle with chemistry when they need to be riotously funny- the screen becomes their canvas and it is hard to escape their presence. Dever and Feldstein are flanked by an assemblage of funny people- Lisa Kudrow, Jason Sudeikis, Will Forte, Jessica Williams, the funny kid from Santa Clarita Diet– who all contribute to the film’s balanced characters. It is only at times that a few of them seem a little too much like a cartoon that it detracts from the film (still not sure what Billie Lourd’s character is about).

Billie Lourd and Kaitlyn Dever in Booksmart

Wilde’s first turn at directing has proven that she’s got a keen eye for it. Booksmart does all the basics right and when Wilde wants to shoot outside of the box, they get that right too (the scene in which our leads are trippin’ daisies on hallucinogens, in particular, comes off as both funny and well done).

Its strengths, aside from the leads, is the writing and the seemingly truthful way in which the film depicts teenagers (in this case, teenage girls) living through that period of high school transitioning off into college and the so-called ‘real world’. Much has been said about its authenticity, and even if you can’t directly relate, you can still feel and understand the emotions and the relationships. And that is something that is hard to do, and the writers, the cast, and Olivia Wilde have accomplished that.

So what exactly is the problem with Booksmart? And why haven’t people flocked to see it? It still feels like a “small” movie, hindered perhaps by its very Netflix-like production. It doesn’t have that big-budget, must-see-at-the-cinema demeanor that films like Superbad or even Blockers had. Even films like Neighbors and its sequel felt much bigger in scope. Booksmart just FEELS like a television movie, even if it’s not.

Poor box office runs haven’t been the death knell for small-budget, indie successes. There have been plenty of critically acclaimed films that have been dwarfed in the numbers by superheroes, cartoons and sinking ships. Hopefully, ones that fuel conversation (like Booksmart), will keep studios making them. It’s a shame that a lot of the news has relegated Booksmart to “box office failure” because it deserves more. In time, with good word of mouth, and as more and more people see it and realize its resonance, it surely will. It has to because the heart of this movie, the way in which it tells the story of complicated, messy but hopeful and joyous young adulthood will not let it die without a fight.

Booksmart is in US cinemas now and opens in Australian cinemas June 27.

BOOKSMART
Directed by: Olivia Wilde
Written by: Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins, Susanna Fogel, Katie Silberman
Cast: Kaitlyn Dever, Beanie Feldstein, Lisa Kudrow, Jason Sudeikis, Will Forte, Jessica Williams
Released by: Annapurna Pictures
Runtime: 102 mins
Website: Booksmart.movie

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