Sideways (2004) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

Today I am wearing the color yellow.

What the hell am I talking about? Well, if you know your Green Lantern mythology, you'll remember that he has complete control over all time and space, virtually infinite power, except that he has absolutely no power at all over anything yellow. With his magic ring, he can make entire planets vanish without a trace, but he can't pick up a #2 pencil. This probably explains why he got double 200s on his SATs.

As revealed cryptically by the hideous green DVD box, Alexander Payne, the creator of Sideways, must have hired Green Lantern to cast a spell of infinite power over the critics and the Academy, because by any measure of critical approval, this was one of the ten best films of the year, perhaps even in the top three. It received an average of four stars from the major British reviewers as well as our American super-panel. It is essentially a movie about a critic - not a movie critic, of course, but nonetheless a person whose raison d'etre is pronouncing judgments. Given that there is a natural tendency for critics to identify with the main character, perhaps that explains some of their passion for this movie.

And passion there was. Here's a more complete look at its standing by various measurements:






Motion Picture Academy:

Best Motion Picture of the Year
  Other Nominees:
  • Aviator, The (2004) -
  • Finding Neverland (2004)
  • Ray (2004/I)
  • Sideways (2004)




    Rotten Tomatoes:

    1 97% The Incredibles 
    2 97% Maria Full of Grace
    3 96% Sideways






    The Best-Reviewed Movies of 2004
    1. Sideways 94
    2. Before Sunset 90
    3. Incredibles, The 90
    4. House of Flying Daggers 89
    5. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind 89



    The four tables above pretty much say it all. Sideways may have been the best-reviewed film of the year, and it received the Golden Globe for Best Picture, in the Musical or Comedy division. Critics saw it as possessing the heart of Casablanca, the spectacle of Lawrence of Arabia, the wit of Duck Soup, and the cultural significance of Andrej Rublev.

    Green Lantern's powers worked magnificently.

    Except on me. I was wearing yellow when I watched it.

    The real reason I am immune to its charms, I suppose, is that director Alexander Payne actually invokes the powers of wine and whine. The film is a long and rhapsodic elegy to the California wine country and its industry, particularly the vintners of Central California. In the film's seemingly infinite length, about half of the dialogue is dedicated to some kind of wine talk: discussions of favorite grapes and vintages, monologues about wine as a symbol for life itself, parallels between the wine sampling of the characters and their intrinsic natures. When people are not talking about wine, they are staring lovingly at grapes and wine bottles.

    Snobbery and rhapsody.

    Even when not clad in yellow, I am immune to this appeal. Oh, it's obvious that the film is meant to appeal to middle-aged white people from the professional classes, and I am one of those, but I'm just not interested in wine or anything about it. I don't dislike wine; it is simply not a part of my life. I am virtually a teetotaler. My experience with wine is restricted to nursing the half glass of champagne that the family pours for me so I can partake in Christmas dinner toasts. Sometimes, every few years or so, I drink wine with a restaurant meal if somebody else orders the bottle. I think it is cool if you like wine. God bless ya. You have your thing, and I have mine. You like some Pouilly-Fousse and a good meal, while I like to shoot some top-grade heroin and seduce elderly nuns. Since my peculiarities are less acceptable than yours, I have no right to object to your love of wine, and I have no objection to your snobbery when you are amongst one another. Go for it. But I do have an objection to having to listen to your discussions. To me, this is about as interesting as listening to geeks discuss Dungeons and Dragons. I can't tell Chateau Lafitte from Boone's Farm. I don't know jack about grapes or weather or soil or which years were good, and I don't care to know about these matters, any more than I care to memorize all the different types of orchids or to learn the history of European soccer leagues. Wine talk just bores the living shit out of me. Thus, every time the conversation turns to oenological matters, I zone out and wait for somebody to change the topic. Well, guess what? That's what all the conversations are about in this movie.

    Except for some whining.

    When there is no wine lore on the docket, there is whine lore, from the master of malcontents, the titan of the whiny talk-too-much bitches, the live-action Eeyore himself, Paul Giamatti. Life is just treating his character so unfairly because he's such a great guy and such a genius, but his wife left him, his novels are rejected by the publishers, and he is forced to make a living by teaching A Separate Peace to Eighth Graders. Not only is this activity unrewarding psychologically, but it is so unremunerative that he is forced to steal money from his mother's secret stash. So he mopes his way through life. He would like to think of himself as a connoisseur, but he's really an alcoholic using his snobbery as a rationalization to get drunk on wine purchased from the money in momma's coffee can.

    The film is about a one week road trip in which Giamatti's Eeyore is matched with the Tigger of Thomas Haden Church, a constantly upbeat guy who has neither the time nor the inclination for negativity or even for reflection. He just grabs impulsively for whatever he wants at the moment, like a little child seeking gratification of his immediate desires. As you can no doubt guess, his list of priorities is topped by poontang.

    There's nothing for me here. I'm not interested in wine or whine. I am interested in poontang, but the only nudity was supplied by two guys and some fat chick. (If you play for the other team, however, the film is practically a wienerfest - see the nudity report for details.)

    Before I popped Sideways in the DVD player, people told me that this was a brilliant movie, so I approached it enthusiastically and was astounded to discover that I seemed to watch it ... and watch it ... and watch it, tapping my fingers and waiting for something interesting or amusing to happen. When I finally surrendered to boredom and put the DVD player on pause, it read 1:22. What the hell! That's just about the length of an entire movie, and nothing much had happened yet.

    I am also astounded that so many award societies felt that this was the best script of the year. It has its pleasures (especially for wine lovers), but it is also filled with some sophomoric mistakes. Some examples: (1) Tigger comes completely out of character when his English teacher friend says that he doesn't want to be the first author to commit suicide before his first work is published. Without missing a beat, the goofy Church cites the example of John Kennedy Toole, who committed suicide before the publication of A Confederacy of Dunces. Sure, a person could know that ... if he was Ken Jennings! In fact, I would even be surprised if the erudite Jennings could have summoned that fact from his encyclopedic mind without at least taking a little time to ponder it, and the Church character was not supposed to be scholarly, to say the least. (2) The Virginia Madsen character is underwritten and in a couple of instances, miswritten. She is underwritten in that she is basically just an object for Eeyore to pursue. We don't know anything about her except that she's divorced and loves wine. She is miswritten in that we find out about her love of wine from a long, unrealistic monologue which is written with the florid, verbose artifice of a 9th grade girl competing in an Original Oratory competition. Was this pretty speech imagined by the Giamatti character in a drunken delusion about his ultimate fantasy woman, or are we supposed to believe she is a real person who talks about wine in off-the-cuff conversations as if she were delivering JFK's inaugural address?

    "I like to think about the life of wine. How it's a living thing. I like to think about what was going on the year the grapes were growing; how the sun was shining; if it rained. I like to think about all the people who tended and picked the grapes. And if it's an old wine, how many of them must be dead by now. I like how wine continues to evolve, like if I opened a bottle of wine today it would taste different than if I'd opened it on any other day, because a bottle of wine is actually alive. And it's constantly evolving and gaining complexity. That is, until it peaks, like your '61. And then it begins its steady, inevitable decline." So ask not what Montrachet can do for you ...

    To me, the strangest thing about the reaction to this movie is that people seem to like it for the wrong reasons. People strongly identified with characters who seemed to me to be the subjects of the script's merciless ridicule. Alexander Payne was making fun of Miles and Jack wasn't he? I didn't think I was supposed to identify with an eighth grade teacher whose job performance is so perfunctory that he makes the class time pass by having the kids read aloud, a 40ish son who steals money from his aging mother, an unpublished writer who has written a novel which must be 1000 pages long and which he can't describe coherently, a single man who will walk out on a date with a beautiful and sensitive woman if she orders Merlot, a man who walks to wine tastings so he can get sloppy falling-down drunk (I always pictured these things to be more sophisticated), and a man who actually says things like "quaffable but not transcendent" absent any irony. Do people really talk like that? Do other people really not laugh at them? What a world! I thought the character was being ridiculed, but perhaps Paul Giamatti did such a good job at making Miles a living, breathing person that he single-handedly lifted the film beyond satire and into character study, beyond contempt and into sympathy. Good actors can do things like that, and Giamatti is very good at what he does. In fact, Matthew Broderick and Jack Nicholson accomplished very similar things with other Alexander Payne characters in Election and About Schmidt, so the elevation of a total loser on the page to a sympathetic character on the screen seems to be what Payne is striving for in his direction.

    Let me soften my comments by saying that I did genuinely enjoy the last quarter of this film, during which the boys finally did something besides visit vineyards. There are some amusing moments as they attempt to recover a wallet lost during a disastrous sexual encounter, as they lose their tempers with some golfers playing behind them, and as they stage a false car crash as a cover story to explain to Church's fiancÚe why he looks like he has been beaten up by an angry husband. (Or in this case, by a particularly feisty lover who caught him in some lies.) If you read all of that back to yourself, you'll realize that the final quarter of the film is a fraternity road trip movie, except that the Deltas are now 40 years old instead of 20. I guess I like that kind of movie.

    I'm not contending that this is a bad movie. Virtually every critic applauded it, and many other people think it is genius. But like a yellow bad guy battling the Green Lantern Society, I am immune to its powers. I thought it was pretty good, but not as good as its reputation, and certainly not strong enough to be among the five Oscar nominees. In short, it's quaffable, but not transcendent.

    A few other notes:

    • It amazes me that so many people found Virginia Madsen's awarded performance to be a surprise. She has always been terrific. I think I've enjoyed everything she has ever done. She's always been sexy, credible and unique. The problem has been that she has done those good things in some very small roles or in some very lame movies.

    • Paul Giamatti is one of the great character actors, but completely clueless on the golf course. What a swing! I would be surprised if he could break 200, and I know he couldn't have made that shot back at the trailing foursome.

    • The over-commercialized "Frass Vineyard", the subject of so much oenological contempt in the script, is actually the vineyard of my boyhood idol, the king of the wild frontier himself, Fort Worth's own Fess Parker. Get out your coonskin caps and remember, boomers! Frass, by the way, is a word for insect droppings. The OED defines it as: "The excrement of larvŠ; also, the refuse left behind by boring insects."

    • The New York Times argued that it was "the most overrated movie of the year." Year, nothing! Maybe the most overrated of all time. Right up there with Bringing Up Baby, Eyes Wide Shut, Titanic, The English Patient, The Piano, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Return of the Jedi, Chariots of Fire, Out of Africa, and The Blair Witch Project. In fact, it is possible to argue that is is more overrated than any of those films, simply because the reviews were just about universally positive while those other films have all had prominent detractors. Thinking numerically, I would still have to lean toward Eyes Wide Shut, a 25/100 suckfest that critics promoted into 75/100, as compared to Sideways, a decent 65/100 film elevated by critics to 95/100



    • the widescreen transfer is anamorphically enhanced (16x9), and is good-to-excellent
    • Commentary by Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church
    • 7 deleted scenes
    • Behind-the-scenes featurette
    • 3 Easter eggs (Here's one. Go to Chapter 15, highlight it, but do not click. Instead, hit the "left" key to see a three minute slideshow.)


    • Full frontal and rear nudity from Thomas Haden Church
    • Frull frontal and rear nudity from M.C. Gainey (a man)
    • Breasts from Missy Doty

    The Critics Vote ...

    • Super-panel consensus out of four stars: nearly four stars. James Berardinelli 3.5/4, Roger Ebert 4/4, Lisa Schwartzbaum A.

    • It was nominated for five Oscars, winning one, for best adapted screeenplay. It won the same award from BAFTA and the Golden Globes, and also won the Golden Globe for Best Picture, Comedy or Musical.

    • British consensus out of four stars: nearly four stars. Mail 8/10, Telegraph 10/10, Independent 10/10, Times 10/10, Sun 8/10, Express 10/10, FT 10/10, BBC 4/5.

    The People Vote ...

    • IMDB summary. IMDb voters score it 8.0/10, in the Top 200 of all time.
    • Box Office Mojo. Its domestic gross of $71 million is very impressive when one considers that it never reached more than 1800 screens. (About half the penetration achieved by blockbusters.)

    Miscellaneous ...

    The meaning of the IMDb score: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence equivalent to about three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, comparable to approximately two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, equivalent to about a two star rating from the critics, or a C- from our system. Films rated below five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film - this score is roughly equivalent to one and a half stars from the critics or a D on our scale. (Possibly even less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

    My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. (C+ means it has no crossover appeal, but will be considered excellent by genre fans, while C- indicates that it we found it to be a poor movie although genre addicts find it watchable). D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well. Any film rated C- or better is recommended for fans of that type of film. Any film rated B- or better is recommended for just about anyone. We don't score films below C- that often, because we like movies and we think that most of them have at least a solid niche audience. Now that you know that, you should have serious reservations about any movie below C-.

    Based on this description, this is a C+. Critically acclaimed as a masterpiece; made for a distinct audience which is more mature and thoughtful than the mainstream fanboy crowd. Or maybe its target audience includes everyone but me.

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