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REVIEW: Sideways


At long last, a buddy movie for the aging and disaffected. Alexander Payne (Election, About Schmidt) has created another wryly comic portrait of an American adrift: in Sideways, it’s heroic sad sack Paul Giamatti as Miles, a divorced, would-be novelist and teacher who takes his callow college roommate Jack, a former soap star, on a weeklong bachelor party.

    Well, party is hardly the right word. Miles, an oenophile with a drinking problem, is massively depressed, artistically frustrated and hates his job. He’s planned a relaxing trip to California’s wine country for golf, wine tastings and male bonding with Jack. The engaged Jack, played pitch-perfectly by Thomas Haden Church, plans to get laid. A lot. Once in wine country, Jack seduces a sales clerk named Stephanie (Sandra Oh) who sets Miles up with the waitress he’s admired from afar, Maya (Virginia Madsen). In the hands of any other writer or director, this movie could have become a conventional Hollywood buddy movie about two opposite friends who get into trouble, have “wacky” adventures and still make it back for the wedding. Payne, however, has created a film that is observant, precise, and manages to be funny while exploring the fear of failure, the death of dreams, and the mystery of friendship.

    This is challenging territory, but Payne has a gift for casting. Sideways is, without a doubt, Paul Giamatti’s movie. Giamatti has become the reigning King of the Schlubs and he brings an enormous depth and sensitivity to the part. Whether he’s looking in the mirror at his mother’s house, resignedly watching the blithe and fair-haired Jack get away with yet another seduction, or admiring Maya out of the corner of his eye, Giamatti powerfully telegraphs his inner life.

    In one almost-love scene, Giamatti’s Miles and Madsen’s
Maya talk about the origin of their love for wine; he waxes rhapsodic about
Pinot grape and she fantasizes about the lives of the wine-makers — using
wine as a metaphor for their deep intimacy issues. And yet the film remains surprisingly
funny and light. Scene after scene is punctuated with small sight gags or verbal
sparring that remind us that there is humor in even the darkest and seemingly
emptiest of places. — Andy Horwitz

REVIEW: Undertow

David Gordon Green’s highly stylized new thriller is so gorgeous it’s hard to imagine bad things could happen in a landscape so lush — or to men so pretty. But happen bad things do, specifically to the two sons — one young and eccentric, one adolescent and coursing with lust — of melancholy widower John Munn (Dermot Mulroney).

   In fact, the boys only get to spend so much time in their depressing rural home sparring angsty-young-man style with their father and, later, his criminal brother Uncle Deel (Josh Lucas, looking startlingly like Matthew McConaughey, only hot), before violence sends them off as prey in a movie-long chase sequence.

    Along their fright-a-minute journey, the pair learns lessons delivered with at times exhaustingly heavy-handed mythic symbolism, but even being hit over the head with River Styx metaphors, you can’t help but jump a mile in the air when the bad guy starts to gain. — Ada Calhoun

Date DVD #4: Harvie Krumpet
For that wild-man-megalomaniac-paranoid-Vietnam-vet date, turn off the lights, board up the windows and pick up all twelve films of The Ultimate Oliver Stone Collection. (Why? Because despite labeling his collection “the ultimate,” Stone doesn’t quite deserve to be hated on so much.) But at the other end of the spectrum, for the date that’s a bit more humble — or a little less addled by conpiracy theories and testosterone — there’s the little marvel Harvie Krumpet.

    If you won last year’s Oscar pool, you may already have this short Claymation film to thank. At just twenty-three minutes, this tiny Australian film upset Disney and took home the Best Animated Short award, with its oddball fairytale about a goofy, big-eared Polish guy with a case of Tourette’s and an awful streak of bad luck.

   Narrated by Geoffrey Rush in hushed, story-time tones, Adam Elliot’s film follows introduces Harvey as a kind of sensitive, foot-scuffing, muckety-muck hero: a kind of plasticine Paul Giamatti, navigating a world of terror. Bemused and easily confused, the good-natured goof suffers as townsfolk pelt him with stones, only to watch his lumberjack dad and lead-poisoned mother freeze to death while riding bicycles.

   From there, things get worse. He moves to Australia, finds a job in a dump, gets struck by lightning, and laid low by testicular cancer (yes, the clay is anatomically correct). But even as his head is split open and repaired with a metal plate, the true romantic endures, and finally finds love in the arms of a nurse. With his dumb heart wide-open, he even adopts the cutest Thalidomide baby ever animated. (Of course, everything he loves is eventually ripped away, as he suffers from Alzheimer’s and nearly commits suicide. But, really, I swear, this is great, optimistic stuff.)

   The best part, of course, is that you can lure a date home with this DVD — which includes three other fine shorts by Elliot — and then feign surprise when it’s over in less than thirty minutes, leaving you with an extra hour to explore your own bonus features. — Logan Hill

©2004 Nerve.com.