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Sideways
Tchaikovsky Cultural Center 
Directed by Alexander Payne. Written by: Alexander Payne & Jim Taylor based on a novel by Rex Pickett. Starring: Paul Giamatti, Thomas Haden Church, Virginia Madsen, Sandra Oh. 123 mins. USA.

By Sam Gerrans

Review top sheet: A funny, profound, complex (though not complicated) story. Light-hearted but far from superficial, this film has something to say and it says it superbly.

This is the best film of the year so far. Spend ten bucks to see it. You’ll come out richer than when you went in.

Perhaps not a film to take your fianc?e to if you spend a lot of time away on business trips and your relationship is going through a hard patch.

Will you like this film?

Yes, if: you can do joined-up writing, know what it is to read for pleasure and are old enough to have messed up something important in your life
No, if: you’re a Viz fan, spend a lot of time on Playstation and are really looking forward to your next Club 18-30 holiday
Maybe, if: you have ever really disliked being somewhere where everyone else seemed to be having a groovy time

Comments: I don’t know why Hollywood still churns out expensive rubbish like “Aviator” when for the cost of that one film they can make twenty films like “Sideways”.

Using a B-list (or even C-list) cast, no big explosions or other pyro-frippery, “Sideways” dwarfs the aforementioned film on all points that count.

I came away with a sense of having read a good novel. One of those books you know has to end but wish wouldn’t. One of those rare books.

This is a film for grown-ups. For people who can read and have a bit of life experience behind them. But its themes are accessible and not pointlessly cryptic or “arty”.

Films like this are why I still go to the cinema.

Out-of-five star ratings:

• Story: *****
• Dialogue: *****
• Substance: *****
• Film craft: *****

Story comments: the story is beautifully crafted, balanced and satisfying. It deconstructs, demonstrates and saut?s in a good wine what it is to be male, mortal and less than hugely successful in a society in which only winners go to heaven.

The film’s strength is that it achieves this without resorting to cliches: Gaw blimey, gov’ner, I ain’t nuffin’ but a poor man, but I got a heart of gold. There’s none of that. Life is more complex than that. And so is this film.

Dialogue comments: the relationship between Miles (Paul Giamatti) and Jack (Thomas Haden Church) yields natural, delightful dialogue which sent ripples of pleasure through the core of native speakers in the audience as line after line tickled some portion of the funny bone long neglected by the Hollywood industrial production line.

On-the-nose dialogue is completely absent and the film pays you the compliment of allowing you to engage with it organically and without grinding you through a checklist of set-ups first.

People with headphones or less-than-perfect English tended to leave the cinema early. The stripped-down, reduced-functionality demo version of English which has – for better of worse – become the world language won’t gain you access to this film.

”Sideways” is not a wordy or pretentious art film. It’s a great dramatic comedy with moments of significant pathos. But it is a film for people who genuinely know the English language. Neither the translation nor Headway Intermediate will take you there.

Substance comments: “Sideways” looks at masculinity, morality and personal significance in a refreshingly unpoliticised way. No superfluous or tedious mea culpa diatribes here.

Wine is used wonderfully as a metaphor throughout. Whether you like wine or not won’t matter because the film’s treatment of it – as of everything else – is unpretentious, vibrant and accessible.

All actors and writers over the age of thirty-five who have yet to achieve the recognition they feel is their due should be required by law to see this film.

Film craft comments: the film is shot in a low-key way, is well cut, and has some great five-second wordless vignettes. I suspect a generous budget for film stock and an inspired and hardworking director wise enough to allow a talented editor to get on with his job without interference.

Full marks to the casting director. The screen is occupied by faces which seem to know something personally of the lives they portray. Out are the pretty boys wrestling with questions of universal import (about which they patently could not have the faintest idea) and in are irregular, life-weathered features hacking through a humbler but far more interesting set of circumstances. Even the “hunk” Thomas Haden Church’s strong jaw and good teeth are underpinned by a dog-like quality which makes him interesting.

A taste of the story: a sensitive, negative, recently-divorced and yet-to-be-successful writer Miles (Paul Giamatti) and his bit-part actor friend Jack (Thomas Haden Church) go away for the week under the rubric of Miles showing Jack a good time prior to Jack’s wedding.

The story really gets underway as they negotiate what each of them wants out of the week ahead.


Sam Gerrans is a freelance writer and translator: http://samgerrans.com.

07.03.05
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