Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: Sideways (dir by Alexander Payne)


I’ve never really gotten the obsession that some people have with wine.

Some of that may be because I hardly ever drink.  I’m not quite a teetotaler but I seem to be getting closer with each passing year.  But, beyond that, I just don’t get the whole culture that’s sprung up around wine snobbery.  I don’t get the people who sit around and say, “Oh, this is an amazing Australian wine and, someday, my great-great grandchilden will get to open it when they’re 90 and on their deathbeds.”  Everything that I’ve seen about wine tastings annoys me, from the overdramatic sniffing to the big bowls of spit-out wine.  (I’m not a big fan of spitting in general.)

The 2004 film Sideways is a film that’s all about wine snobs.  It follows two friends as they take a week-long vacation in the Santa Barbara wine country.  Miles (Paul Giamatti) is a depressed English teacher who loves wine and who has never gotten over his divorce.  He’s also a writer, though a remarkably unsuccessful one.  He’s waiting to hear back on his latest manuscript, an autobiographical novel that he fears might not be commercial enough.  Jack (Thomas Haden Church) was Miles’s college roommate and they’ve remained friends, despite Miles feeling that they have nothing in common.  Jack is a former semi-successful actor who now works as a voice over artist.  Jack knows little about wine.  He’s just looking for a chance to indulge in some meaningless, commitment-free sex before getting married.

Miles attempts to teach Jack to appreciate wine.  Jack attempts to get Miles to actually enjoy life for once.  Together …. THEY SOLVE CRIMES!

Actually, they don’t solve crimes.  That’s not the type of film that Sideways is.  This is an Alexander Payne film, which means that it’s essentially a road film in which two different characters consider their own mortality and question whether or not there’s more to life than just what they see around them.  The difference between the two characters is that Miles obsesses on the meaning of it all while Jack doesn’t exactly ignore Miles’s concerns but he’s much better at shrugging them off and blithely moving from one experience to another.  Miles wears his neurosis on his sleeve while Jack is slightly better at hiding them.

During their week-long excursion into wine country, Miles and Jack fall for two women who undoubtedly deserve better.  Maya (Virginia Madsen) is a waitress who is working on her master’s degree in horticulture.  Maya shares Miles’s love of wine and is one of the few people to show any genuine interest in Miles’s book.  Stephanie (Sandra Oh) is as much of a free spirit as Jack and, after spending two days with her and her daughter, Jack starts talking about canceling (or, at the very least, delaying) his upcoming wedding.  Miles, meanwhile, is falling in love with Maya but there’s a problem.  Jack lied to Maya and told her that Miles’s book is about to be published and Jack has failed to tell Stephanie that he’s engaged….

And really, it would be very easy to be dismissive of both Miles and Jack if they were played by anyone other than Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church.  If you ever need a movie to cite as an example of how perfect casting can inspire you to forgive characters who do rotten things and make stupid mistakes, Sideways would be a good film to go with.  Thomas Haden Church brings an unexpected sincerity to the role of Jack, one that keeps him from coming across as being malicious but instead suggests that he just can’t help himself.  If nothing else, Haden Church’s concern for Miles comes across being genuine.  (“I guess because you were wearing your seat belt.”)  Meanwhile, in the role of Miles, Paul Giamatti again proves that he’s one of those rare actors who can take a rather annoying character and somehow make him totally sympathetic.  It help that Giamatti brings a lot of self-awareness to the role.  Yes, Miles can be whiny and self-absorbed but at least he knows that he’s whiny and self-absorbed and he’s just as annoyed with himself as we often are.

The actors even manage to make all of the wine talk palpable for non-wine people like me.  During Virginia Madsen’s lengthy monologue about why she loves wine, I found myself thinking, “That’s why I love movies.”  Just as wine tastes different depending on who is drinking it and when they opened the bottle, how one experiences a movie can change from time to time and depending on each individual viewing experience.  Just as the best wine was cultivated over time, the same can be said of movies, many of which are not recognized for their greatness until years after they were first produced.  Just as Maya thinks about all the people who played a part in creating the perfect bottle of wine, I think about all the people who played a part in creating the movies that I love.  You don’t have to love wine to enjoy Sideways.  You just have to love something.

Sideways was nominated for Best Picture but it lost to Million Dollar Baby.  Amazingly, Paul Giamatti was not nominated for Best Actor.

I Watched The Phenom


The Phenom is a movie that really took me by surprise.

It’s about a pitcher named Hopper Gibson (Johnny Simmons), a kid just out of high school who has a 100 mile fastball and a big future in major league baseball.  However, after a promising start, Hopper is struggling.  He has control issues.  He’s throwing wild pitches.  He’s losing games.  The team finally sends Hopper to see Dr. Mobley (Paul Giamatti), a sports psychologist who say that he can help Hopper regain his focus.

Hopper has a lot to deal with.  He’s still just a teenager but he feels like he has the weight of the world on his shoulders.  He promised his mom that he’d buy her a new house and, at the same time, the press is constantly hounding him and demanding that he give them a good quote every time that he loses a game.  Meanwhile, Hopper’s father (Ethan Hawke), who has always put tremendous pressure on his son, is failed ball player himself and a drug dealer.  Hopper finds himself torn between two philosophies, his father’s belief that winning is the only thing that matter and Dr. Mobley’s more gentle approach to the game.  The problem is that, with everyone wanting someone from him, Hopper doesn’t know who he can trust.

The Phenom is a baseball movie and the main character is a pitcher but hardly any of the action takes place on the mound.  Instead, most of the movie takes place in either Dr. Mobley’s office or in Hopper’s head.  The Phenom does a good job of showing the type of daily pressure that Hopper is living under.  All of his life, everyone has told Hopper that he has a special gift and now, he’s so scared of not living up to his potential that he can’t get the ball across the plate.  At the same time, the film is also critical about the the emphasis that society puts on celebrities and professional athletes.  While Hopper goes into the major leagues straight out of high school, his valedictorian girlfriend struggles to pay for college.  Because Hopper can throw a fastball, no one has ever cared about whether or not he actually got an education.  But what’s going to become of Hopper and all the professional athletes like him when they can no longer play the game?  Hopper is a kid who was always told that he would never have to grow up and now, he’s expected to make adult decisions about the rest of his life.

Johnny Simmons does a really good job playing Hopper and the film really makes you think about the pressure that society puts on professional athletes to constantly win.  Most people can get away with having a bad day but, if a pitcher or a quarterback does it, the whole world wants their head.  The next time I want to yell at whoever’s pitching for the Rangers, I’m going to remember Hopper and this movie.

The Phenom was directed and written by Noah Buschel and it is currently streaming on Netflix.

Film Review: The Catcher Was A Spy (dir by Ben Lewin)


I was so impressed with Paul Rudd’s performance in Avengers: Endgame that, last night, I decided to watch another Paul Rudd film, 2018’s The Catcher Was A Spy.

Based on a true story, The Catcher Was A Spy tells the tale of Moe Berg (Paul Rudd).  When we first meet Moe, it’s towards the end of World War II and Moe has been sent behind enemy lines to investigate just how close the Nazis are to building an atomic bomb.  Intelligence suggests that physicist Werner Heisenberg (Mark Strong) is leading the Nazi effort and, if the intelligence turns out to be true, Moe has been ordered to assassinate Heisenberg.  As Moe considers whether or not he’s actually capable of killing a man, we get flashbacks to how Moe eventually ended up working as a spy.

What we learn is that, in the 1930s, Moe Berg was a major league baseball player.  He was a catcher and, though he was never a great player, he was famous for being far more educated than the average professional athlete.  At a time when open anti-Semitism was socially acceptable among America’s upper classes, Moe Berg managed to get an Ivy League education.  Not only does he keep up with current events but he can also speak several languages.  The other players aren’t quite sure what to make of Moe, nor does Moe ever seem to make much of an effort to open up to anyone, including his girlfriend, Estella (Sienna Miller, playing yet another girlfriend in yet another biopic).

Because he can speak Japanese, Moe is selected to be a part of a delegation of players who will be sent to Japan.  While the rest of the players hang out around the hotel, Moe hangs out with an intellectual named Kawabata (Hiroyuki Sanada), discusses inevitably of war, and — for reasons that the film deliberately leaves unclear — decides to shoot a film of Tokyo Harbor.

Five years later, with the United States now at war with the Axis powers, it’s that film that leads to Moe getting a meeting with the head of the Office of Strategic Services, Bill Donovan (Jeff Daniels).  No longer a baseball player and apparently bored with coaching, Moe wants to become a spy.  Donovan notes that Moe has never married and asks him flat out if he’s gay.  Moe smiles slightly and says, “I’m good at keeping secrets.”

And indeed, he is!  Unfortunately, Moe is so good at keeping secrets that we never quite get into his head.  It’s hard not to compare this film to the superficially similar The Imitation Game.  But whereas that film made you feel as if you were seeing the world through Alan Turing’s eyes, The Catcher Was A Spy always seems to be standing outside of Moe Berg.  In the film’s final title cards, it refers to Moe as being an “enigma” and that’s pretty much the way he is throughout the entire film.  We like him because he’s played by Paul Rudd but we never really feel like we know him.  The closest the film comes to suggesting what’s going on inside the head of its main character is when Moe — who has described himself as non-religious — attends a Kol Nidrel service at a Zurich synagogue and, for a few minutes, Moe lets his guard down.  But, for the majority of the film, Moe remains unknowable.

With the exception of one battle scene, it’s also a rather low-key spy film, one that’s more in the style of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy than SPECTRE.  Again, that may be true to the actual story but, considering that it’s a film about a possibly gay Jew working to take down a homophobic, anti-Semitic war machine, it’s still hard not to regret the film’s lack of big “stand up and cheer” moments.  Clocking in at a rather brisk 97 minutes, it’s hard not to feel that there’s some big pieces missing from the film’s story.

Here’s the good news: Paul Rudd proves himself to be a thoroughly charismatic leading man in this film, showing that he can hold the audience’s attention even without special effects or a punch line.  Rudd does an excellent job playing a character who, to be honest, has very little in common with what we may think of as being a typical Paul Rudd role.  Rudd is always watchable, even while Moe Berg remains an enigma.  Hopefully, Rudd will get more opportunities in the future to show us what he’s truly capable of doing as an actor.

Playing Catch-Up: The End of the Tour (dir by James Ponsoldt) and Love & Mercy (dir by Bill Pohland)


Two of the best films released last year dealt with troubled artists.

The_End_of_the_Tour

The End of the Tour opens in 2008, with a writer David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg) getting a call that the famous and acclaimed author, David Foster Wallace (Jason Segel), has committed suicide.  After learning of the tragedy, Lipsky remembers a few days that he spent interviewing Wallace 12 years earlier.  Wallace had just published his best known work, Infinite Jest.  At the time, Lipsky himself was a struggling writer and he approached Wallace with a combination of admiration and professional envy.  Lipsky hoped that, by interviewing Wallace, he could somehow discover the intangible quality that separates a great writer from a merely good one.

Almost the entire film is made up of Lipsky’s conversations with Wallace.  We watch as both the somewhat reclusive Wallace (who seems both bemused and, at times, annoyed with his sudden fame) warms up to Lipsky and as Lipsky forces himself to admit that Wallace might actually be a genius.  There are a few conflicts, mostly coming from the contrast between the withdrawn Wallace and the much more verbose Lipsky.  Lipsky’s editor (Ron Livingston) continually pressures him to ask Wallace about rumors that Wallace was once a drug addict.  But, for the most part, it’s a rather low-key film, one that’s more interested in exploring ideas than melodrama.  It’s also a perfect example of what can be accomplished by a great director and two actors who are totally committed to their roles.  Jason Segel, especially, gives the performance of his career so far.

The shadow of Wallace’s suicide hangs over the entire film.  Throughout their conversation, Wallace drops hints about his own history with depression.  Much as Lipsky must have done after Wallace’s suicide, we find ourselves looking for clues to explain his death.  But ultimately, Wallace remains a fascinating enigma in both life and death.

Love_&_Mercy_(poster)

Love & Mercy (dir by Bill Pohland)

Love & Mercy opens with Cadillac saleswoman Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks) selling a car to a polite but nervous man (John Cusack).  The man sits in the car with her and rambles for a bit, mentioning that his brother has recently died.  Soon, the man’s doctor, Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti), shows up and Melinda learns that the man is Brian Wilson, a musician and songwriter who is famous for co-founding The Beach Boys.  After having a nervous breakdown decades before, Brian is now a recluse.  He and Melinda start a tentative relationship and Melinda quickly discovers that Brian is literally being held prisoner by the manipulative Dr. Landy.

Throughout the film, we are presented with flashbacks to the 1960s and we watch as a young Brian (Paul Dano) deals with both the pressures of fame and his own relationship with his tyrannical father (who, in an interesting parallel to Brian’s later relationship with Landy, is also Brian’s manager).  As Brian struggles to maintain his grip on reality, he obsesses on creating “the greatest album ever.”

Love & Mercy is an enormously affecting story about both the isolation of genius and the redeeming power of love.  Whether he’s played by Cusack or Dano, Brian Wilson remains a fascinating and tragic figure.  It’s hard to say whether Cusack or Dano gives the better performance.  Indeed, they both seem to be so perfectly in sync with each other that you never doubt that the character played by Paul Dano will eventually grow up to become the character played by John Cusack.  Both of them do some of the best work of their careers in Love & Mercy.

Playing Catch-Up: Straight Outta Compton (dir by F. Gary Gray)


Straight_Outta_Compton_poster

Let’s just start with the obvious.

I am probably the last person who would be expected to appreciate Straight Outta Compton.   In the months leading up to the film’s release last year, I doubt anyone expected me to be a part of the audience.  After all, I’m a Caucasian girl from Texas.  I may have been born in Oak Cliff but, for the most part, I’ve lived in suburbs, small towns, and a few farming communities.  When it comes to music, my taste runs that gamut from EDM to more EDM.  I was less than a year old when NWA formed and I hadn’t even heard Straight Outta Compton or Fuck tha Police until I first heard about this movie.  Going into the movie, I knew who both Ice Cube and Dr. Dre were but, otherwise, I knew nothing about NWA.

And yet, with all that in mind, I was in tears by the end of Straight Outta Compton.  That’s proof of how strong a film Straight Outta Compton truly is.  I went into the film with next to zero knowledge of what I was about to see but from the very first minute, it captured my attention and my emotions. From the minute I saw Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell) fleeing from a police raid at a crack house, Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins) dreaming of becoming a success, and Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson, Jr.) being threatened by both gang members and police, I was totally invested in their stories.

Straight Outta Compton is a big film and director F. Gary Gray is obviously interested in a lot more than just telling a conventional musical biopic.  Instead, he uses Straight Outta Compton to explore what it’s like to grow up and live in the shadows of America.  That pre-credits raid on that crack house sets the tone for much of Straight Outta Compton, revealing a world where the only escape comes from money and where the police are essentially an invading army.

The film also deserves a lot of credit for capturing the excitement of creation.  The scene where NWA records their first album is pure exhilaration and even better are the concert scenes, all of which capture chaos in the best possible way.  Perhaps the best sequence comes when a defiant NWA performs Fuck tha Police while a similarly defiant swarm of policeman make their way through the crowd, all holding their badges in the air.  In that scene, Straight Outta Compton captures the feel of a society at war with itself.

Straight Outta Compton is an ensemble film in the best sense of the word, with Hawkins, Jackson, and Mitchell all giving excellent and charismatic performances.  Somewhat inevitably, Paul Giamatti shows up as their manipulative manager, Jerry Heller.  It’s a role that feels as if it was tailor-made for Giamatti and, needless to say, he performs the Hell out of it.

I’ve read that Straight Outta Compton takes some liberties with the historical facts and it’s true that the other two members of NWA — MC Ren and DJ Yella — are both largely portrayed as being bystanders.  (That said, Neil Brown did have some funny lines as DJ Yella.)  Towards the end of the film, whenever Eazy-E said, “I should have listened to Dre and Cube!,” I was reminded of the fact that Straight Outta Compton was produced by Dr. Dre and Ice Cube and not Jerry Heller.

But, historical liberties or not, Straight Outta Compton is an exhilarating and important film and one of the best of the year.

 

Lisa’s Oscar Predictions for September!


Maybe next year kitties...

Maybe next year kitties…

No, the predictions below were not made by cats!

However, it might be nice if they had been.  It would certainly put a lot less pressure on me.  Here we are — it’s September and the Oscar race is still largely up in the air.  Hopefully, the picture will start to become a bit more clear over the next few weeks.  For instance, Beasts of No Nation was just acclaimed at the Venice Film Festival and, as I write this, we are just a few days into the Toronto Film Festival.

But for now, it still looks like it is anyone’s race to win!

Below are my predictions for September!  If you want to see just how confused I’ve been (and how random my predictions have occasionally been) for the majority of the year, be sure to check out my predictions for January, February, March, April, May, June, July, and August!

Best Picture

Beasts of No Nation

Black Mass

Brookyln

Carol

The Danish Girl

Joy

Sicario

Spotlight

Steve Jobs

Straight Outta Compton

Best Actor

Michael Caine in Youth

Bryan Cranston in Trumbo

Johnny Depp in Black Mass

Michael Fassbender in Steve Jobs

Eddie Redmayne in The Danish Girl

Best Actress

Cate Blanchett in Carol

Jennifer Lawrence in Joy

Julianne Moore in Freeheld

Saoirse Ronan in Brooklyn

Lily Tomlin in Grandma

Best Supporting Actor

Robert De Niro in Joy

Benicio Del Toro in Sicario

Idris Elba in Beasts of No Nation

Paul Giamatti in Straight Outta Compton

Kurt Russell in The Hateful Eight

Best Supporting Actress

Jennifer Jason Leigh in The Hateful Eight

Diane Ladd in Joy

Rooney Mara in Carol

Ellen Page in Freeheld

Kate Winslet in Steve Jobs

Best Director

Danny Boyle for Steve Jobs

John Cowley for Brooklyn

Todd Haynes for Carol

David O. Russell for Joy

Denis Villenueve for Sicario

San Andreas Once Again Takes Out the Golden State


San Andreas Banner

With all the rocking and rolling and metal headbanging the site has been on of late it’s just appropriate that we  take a quick intermission with a different sort of rocking and rolling.

The Rock aka Dwayne Johnson will take on the Big One and only one will come out victorious.

San Andreas is set for a May 29, 2015 release date.