"Sideways": Punch-Drunk Love
Miles Raymond (Paul Giamatti) is a wine geek, the kind of guy who can lower his nose into a glass of red and discern overtones of "asparagus and ..." — sniff, sniff — "... just the slightest hint of Edam cheese." He can take a sip of the stuff and slosh it around in his mouth and pronounce it subtly tainted by "too much oak and secondary malolactic aeration." He's a short, fussy man in search of the perfect pinot noir. His friend, Jack Lopate (Thomas Haden Church), has less stringent standards: Jack will drink anything that's wet. He's a big, beefy man who's mainly in search of one-night women.
Miles and Jack have been friends since high school, in San Diego, but that was a long time ago. Now middle-aged, they're both watching the dreams of their youth slowly blow away. Miles has failed to become a published novelist, and Jack has failed to amount to much as an actor. Miles is also unhappily divorced; but Jack is about to get married for the first time, and so, to celebrate, Miles persuades his friend to join him on a prenuptial road trip from Los Angeles up into the Santa Barbara wine country. They'll play a little golf, drink a lot of wine and live it up ... maybe — who knows? — for the last time.
From this whimsical premise, director Alexander Payne's new film, "Sideways," opens up — like an uncorked fine wine, you might say — into a resonant essay on the vagaries of love and friendship, the human need for joy and sharing, and, not least, the sun-swept beauty of the Santa Ynez Valley vineyards among which it's set. It's a little jewel of a movie.
Miles and Jack could not be less alike, as is apparent the minute they hit the highway. Miles, who's driving, has brought along a choice bottle of 1992 champagne to be imbibed later in the trip. Jack, a stranger to the concept of delayed gratification, grabs the bottle, rips off the foil, yanks out the cork and, in the process of up-ending it over his mouth, spills half of it down the front of his shirt. Miles is appalled. Pulling in at various vineyards along the way to sample the local wines, Jack looks on in puzzlement as Miles passes high-toned judgments on the wines they try, saying things like "quaffable, but far from transcendent." He fidgets while Miles swirls the wine in his glass, then holds it up to the light, then slides it under his nose, fiddling and dithering with it until Jack has to ask, "When are we gonna drink it?" When Miles finally does take a sip, Jack knocks his back in a gulp. Miles, turning to him with an expression of suspicion and then horror on his face, says, "Are you chewing gum?"
Jack sees this weeklong getaway as his last chance to have lots of random sex before getting hitched. He soon hooks up with Stephanie (Sandra Oh), a wine-pourer at a vineyard tasting room. Stephanie is a live wire and a sexual enthusiast, too, and before long she and Jack are contorting themselves nakedly all over the small motel room he and Miles have rented. Miles finds this distasteful. Although it's been two womanless years since his divorce, he's not so much sex-starved as just plain lonely. Fortunately, he runs into Maya (Virginia Madsen), a waitress at a restaurant he's visited before on previous trips. Maya is bright and pretty and she knows a lot about wine — a subject that has metaphorical overtones in both of their lives. She asks Miles why he's so obsessed with pinot noir. "Because it needs to be protected," he says. "It's not a survivor, like cabernet." Maya, who is also divorced, says she thinks a lot about wine's cycle of life, which mirrors our own: "It's constantly evolving, until it peaks; until it begins its steady, inevitable decline." (On the other hand, she says, she mainly loves it because "it tastes so f---ing good.") Clearly, these two were meant for each other. But oddball complications arise to test their nascent relationship. Will love prevail? The answer, in the movie as in real life, is: maybe.
"Undertow": Barbed With Murder and Mayhem
The 29-year-old writer and director David Gordon Green is a Southerner with a distinctively unhurried sense of pace and a warm regard for his characters. His second movie, the splendid "All the Real Girls," released last year, opened with an uncut, six-minute shot of a young man and woman quietly talking. It was an audacious move and, as slowly became clear, an entirely appropriate beginning for a quirkily detailed small-town love story that unfolded with the unpredictable rhythms of new love itself. His third movie, "Undertow," is a sharp departure: a backwoods chase film barbed with murder and mayhem. It couldn't be more different from "All the Real Girls," and yet it's hard to imagine anyone else but Green having made it.
The story centers on Chris Munn (the English actor Jamie Bell, who played the working-class ballet student in the 2000 film "Billy Elliot," and who here speaks with an unshowy but flawless American accent). Chris is 17 years old, and his life consists almost entirely of hard, dirty work on the remote Georgia hog farm where he lives with his dispirited father, John (Dermot Mulroney), and his sickly little brother, Tim (Devon Alan). John took the boys out of school after their mother died and moved with them into the backwoods to nurse an unspecified sorrow. So far, obviously, this is not an action movie.
The picture comes alive with a jolt, though, when John's sly, strutting brother, Deel (Josh Lucas), walks in the door one day, fresh out of prison. John and Deel have been estranged for years, ever since John took up with Deel's girlfriend and later married her and had the two boys with her. Deel intimates that Chris is in fact his son, not John's; but what he's really come back for is a small sack of rare gold coins that were handed down by their father. John thinks the coins are a curse to whoever has them, but Deel doesn't care, and in a spasm of bloody violence he wrests them away. Then he goes after the boys — but Chris eludes him, barely, and with both Tim and the sack of coins in tow, he bolts into the countryside.
The rest of the movie bears a strong, unmistakable resemblance to the celebrated 1955 film "The Night of the Hunter," which also depicted the helpless terror of two children in flight from a crazed older man. "Undertow" doesn't attempt the self-consciously magical imagery of that earlier picture, but Green has his own poetic approach to the back-country landscape through which Chris and Tim flee — the rickety farm houses, the cluttered junkyards, the drifting clumps of parentless kids making their way through a world that doesn't seem even to see them. Chris refuses to give up hope; he has to protect his brother. But Deel is determined to track them down; and when he does, and he has the coins back, it's clear that he'll kill them.
As a Southerner himself, Green is able to present the South without caricature; there are no simpleminded rednecks in evidence, and the native kindness he finds in his rural characters is presented without emphasis, as a quiet fact of life in a way of life that's rarely captured in movies. The director has elicited fine, carefully calibrated performances from his actors — particularly Josh Lucas, whose slick viciousness as Deel is most unsettling. But the dominant presence in the film is a sensibility — one that values primary human virtues, and flinches with dismay whenever they're violated.
"Final Cut": Nowhere Man
The most striking thing about "Final Cut," a somber new sci-fi movie starring Robin Williams, is that it's the first feature by a 26-year-old filmmaker, the precociously talented writer/director Omar Naïm. It's a polished piece of work, and the story has some of the twisty kick of vintage Philip K. Dick. In the near-but-unspecified future, well-to-do families can arrange to have their children accessorized at birth with an expensive Zoë Chip, an implant that will record every waking moment of their existence. Later, when the children reach the end of their lives and die, the contents of the chip can be downloaded and assembled into a "Rememory" — a carefully edited documentary tribute to be screened at the decedent's memorial service.
Williams plays Alan Hakman, a much-in-demand Rememory editor, or "cutter." Wracked with guilt over an awful event in his own past, Alan is the perfect, non-judgmental auditor of other people's lives, passing over their most repellent memories — a wife-beating scene, or much worse — with a simple click of the "delete" and "splice" buttons. Then one day Alan is called upon to work up a Rememory for Charles Bannister, a recently deceased executive of the company that manufactures the Zoë Chips. Accepting this commission, he is soon targeted by a group of anti-implant protestors, whose leader, Fletcher (Jim Caviezel), angrily tells Alan, "You take people's lives and make lies out of them." Suspecting that Bannister's chip might contain scandalous scenes that could bring down the implant industry, Fletcher offers Alan $500,000 to turn the footage over to him. Alan glumly refuses.
Despite his celebrated skills, Alan doesn't have much of a life. (He barely has a pulse.) Slouching into an antique bookstore, he approaches the owner and asks, "Is 'suicide' under 'self-help'?" The owner, a woman named Delilah (Mira Sorvino), apparently finds this to be an intriguing conversational gambit, and in surprisingly short order she agrees to accompany Alan back to his house. There, flicking on his elaborate editing console, he demonstrates for her what it is he does. She looks at him and says, "You're like a mortician, or a priest, or a taxidermist." Then they go to bed.
The story soldiers on. Fast-forwarding through the Bannister footage, Alan comes upon one scene so disturbing, it strikes a vestigial human nerve and actually gives him pause. Another throws a startling new light on his old childhood trauma, and sends him shuffling off into the anti-implant underground in search of his own true memories. By this point, however, the viewer may be preoccupied by at least one distracting question: How could a woman who looks like Mira Sorvino —or a woman of any kind, for that matter — be attracted to the fusty and recessive Alan Hakman? It's a question made pressing by Robin Williams' slumped and woebegone performance. Williams has been lauded for his comedy-free portrayals of dead-eyed creeps in films like "One Hour Photo" and "Insomnia." But the congealed passivity in which he marinates these characters is becoming tiresome. Alan Hakman's inscrutable anguish is so tediously unrelieved that you weary of watching him whimper. You want to slap him, tell him to snap out of it. Or slip him a self-help book, maybe.