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.

Film Review: The Hot Spot (dir by Dennis Hopper)

As befits the title, the 1990 film, The Hot Spot, is all about heat.

There’s the figurative heat that comes from a cast of characters who are obsessed with sex, lies, and murder.  There’s the literal heat that comes from a fire that the film’s “hero” sets in order to distract everyone long enough so that he can get away with robbing a bank.  And, of course, there’s the fact that the film is set in a small Texas town that appears to be the hottest place on Earth.  Every scene in the film appears to be drenched by the sun and, if the characters often seem to take their time from getting from one point to another, that’s because everyone knows better than to rush around when it’s over a hundred degrees in the shade.  As someone who has spent most of her life in Texas, I can tell you that, if nothing else, The Hot Spot captures the feel of what summer is usually like down here.   I’ve often felt that stepping outside during a Texas summer is like stepping into a wall of pure heat.  The Hot Spot takes place on the other side of that wall.

The Hot Spot is a heavily stylized film noir, one in which the the traditional fog and shadows have been replaced by clouds of dust and blinding sunlight.  Harry (Don Johnson) is a drifter who has just rolled into a small Texas town.  Harry’s not too bright but he’s handsome and cocky and who needs to be smart when you’ve got charm?  Harry gets a job selling used cars, though he actually aspires to be a bank robber.  Harry finds himself falling in love with Gloria (Jennifer Connelly), a seemingly innocent accountant who is being blackmailed by the brutish Frank Sutton (William Sadler).  Meanwhile, Harry is also being pursued by his boss’s wife, Dolly (Virginia Madsen), an over-the-top femme fatale who is just as amoral as Harry but who might be a little bit smarter.  Complicating matters is that, while Harry’s trying to rob a bank, he also ends up saving a man’s life.  Only Dolly knows that Harry isn’t the hero that the rest of the town thinks he is.  She tells him that she’ll keep his secret if he does her just one little favor….

The Hot Spot was directed by Dennis Hopper (yes, that Dennis Hopper) and, from the start, it quickly becomes apparent that he’s not really that interested in the film’s story.  Instead, he’s more interested in exploring the increasingly surreal world in which Harry has found himself.  The Hot Spot plays out at a languid pace, which allows Hopper to focus on his cast of small-town eccentrics.  (My particular favorite was Jack Nance as the alcoholic bank president who also doubles as the town’s volunteer fire marshal.)  The film is so hyper stylized that it’s hard not to suspect that every character — with the possible exception of Harry — understands that they’re only characters in a film noir.  For instance, is Dolly really the over-the-top femme fatale that she presents herself as being or is she just a frustrated housewife playing a role?  Is Gloria really an innocent caught up in a blackmail scheme or is she just smart enough to realize that the rules of noir requires her to appear to be Dolly’s opposite?  And is Harry being manipulated or is he allowing himself to be manipulated because, deep down, he understands that’s his destiny as a handsome but dumb drifter in a small town?  Do any of the characters really have any control over their choices and their actions or has everyone’s fate been predetermined by virtue of them being characters in a film noir?  In the end, The Hot Spot is more than just a traditional noir.  It’s also a study of why the genre has endured.

It’s a long and, at times, slow movie, one that plays out at its own peculiar pace.  As a result, some people will be bored out of their mind.  But if you can tap into the film surreal worldview and adjust to the languid style, The Hot Spot is a frequently entertaining and, at times, rather sardonic slice of Texas noir.

A Movie A Day #273: Zombie High (1987, directed by Ron Link)

Andrea (Virginia Madsen) is a small town teenager who has just received a scholarship to attend the Ettinger Academy, a formelyr all-male boarding school.  Andrea is excited because some of the most powerful and wealthy people in the country have graduated from Ettinger.  Her boyfriend (James Wilder) is less excited because he worries that Ettinger is going to change Andrea.  He might be right because all of the students at Ettinger are emotionless robots who read the Wall Street Journal and listen to classic music.  Even Andrea’s new friends, who all seem normal, soon change into mindless preppies who wear sweaters over their shoulders.

A high school version of The Stepford Wives, Zombie High features no zombies and is more of a comedy than a straight up horror film.  The movie’s original title was the far cooler The School That Ate My Brain.  Zombie High is nothing special but it does feature Sherilyn Fenn in a small role, as one of the students who goes from being vampy to preppy in just one day.  Virginia Madsen and Sherilyn Fenn in the same movie?  What 80s or 90s kid could resist that?  Also, Zombie High wins points by proving that heavy metal music is the key to reversing brainwashing.

Film Review: Joy (dir by David O. Russell)


Hi there and welcome to 2016!

Today was the first day of a new year so, of course, I had to go down to the Alamo Drafthouse and see a movie.  What was the title of the first movie that I saw in a theater in 2016?


Despite the fact that Joy has gotten some seriously mixed reviews, I had high hopes when I sat down in the Alamo.  After all, Joy represents the third collaboration between director David O. Russell and one of my favorite actresses, Jennifer Lawrence.  (Their previous collaborations — Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle — happen to be two of my favorite films of the past 5 years.)  Add to that, Joy has been advertised as being a tribute to a real-life, strong-willed woman and I figured that, at the very least, it would provide a nice alternative to the testosterone-crazed movies that I’ve recently sat through.  And finally, Joy had a great trailer!

Sure, there were a few less than positive signs about Joy.  As I mentioned before, the majority of the reviews had been mixed and the word of mouth was even worse.  (My friend, the sportswriter Jason Tarwater, used one word to describe the film to me: “Meh.”)  But what truly worried me was that Sasha Stone of AwardsDaily absolutely raved about the film on her site and that’s usually a bad sign.  Let’s not forget that this is the same Sasha Stone who claimed that Maps To The Stars was one of the best films ever made about Hollywood.

And, to be honest, I had much the same reaction to Joy that I had to Map To The Stars.  I really wanted to love Joy and, occasionally, there would be a clever bit of dialogue or an unexpected directorial choice and I would briefly perk up in my seat and think to myself, “Okay, this is the film that I wanted to see!”  But, for the most part, Joy is a disappointment.  It’s not so much that it’s bad as it’s just not particularly great.  For the most part, it’s just meh.

But let’s talk about what worked.  Overall, this may be one of Jennifer Lawrence’s lesser films but she gives a great performance, one that reminds us that she truly is one of the best actresses working today.  I’ve read some complaints that Lawrence was too young for the title role and, to be absolutely honest, she probably is.  She looks like she could easily go undercover at a high school and help Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum bust drug dealers.  But, at the same time, she projects the inner weariness of a survivor.  For lack of a better term, she has an old soul and it comes across in her films.

In Joy, she plays Joy Mangano, a divorced mother of two who lives in upstate New York.  Her mother (Virginia Madsen) lives with Joy and spends all of her time watching soap operas.  Joy ex-husband, a lounge singer named Tony (Edgar Ramirez), lives in the basement.  Meanwhile, her grandmother (Diane Ladd, who narrates the film) is always hovering in the background, offering Joy encouragement and optimism.  At the start of the film, Joy’s cantankerous father (Robert De Niro) has also moved into the house.  Joy, who was the valedictorian of her high school, has got a demeaning job working as a flight booker at the airport.

(“What’s your name?” one rude customer asks, “Joy?  You don’t seem very joyful to me…”)

How stressful is Joy’s life?  It’s so stressful that she has a reoccurring nightmare in which she’s trapped in her mother’s favorite soap opera and Susan Lucci (cleverly playing herself) tells her that she should just give up.

However, as difficult as life may get, Joy refuses to take Susan Lucci’s advise.  She invents a miraculous mop known as the miracle mop and eventually becomes a highly successful businesswoman.  Along the way, she makes her television debut on QVC and becomes a minor celebrity herself…

The film’s best scenes are the ones that deal with Joy and QVC.  These scenes, in which the inexperienced Joy proves herself to be a natural saleswoman, are the best in the film.  These scenes are filled with the spark that I was hoping would be present throughout the entire film.  Of course, it helps that these scenes also feature Bradley Cooper as a sympathetic television executive.  This is the third time that Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence have acted opposite each other and there’s an immediate chemistry between them.  In this case, it’s not a romantic chemistry (and one of the things that I did appreciate about Joy was that it didn’t try to force a predictable romance on the title character).  Instead, it’s the type of mutual respect that you rarely see between male and female characters in the movies.  It’s a lot of fun to watch, precisely because it is so real and unexpected.

But sadly, the QVC scenes only make up a relatively small part of Joy.  The rest of the film is something of a mess, with David O. Russell never settling on a consistent tone.  At times, Joy feels like a disorganized collection of themes from his previous films.  Just as in The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook, we get the quirky and dysfunctional family.  Just as in American Hustle, we get the period detail, the Scorsese-lite soundtrack, and the moments of cynical humor.  There’s a lot going on in Joy and, at time, it doesn’t seem that Russell really knows what to do with all the theme and characters that he’s mixed into the movie.  I found myself wondering if he truly understood the story that he was trying to tell.

Finally, at the end of the film, Joy visits a business rival in Dallas, Texas.  Let’s just say that the film’s version of Dallas looks nothing like the city that I know.  (The minute that the scene cut from her ex-husband discovering that Joy had left to a close-up of a Bar-B-Q sign, I let out an exasperated, “Oh, come on!”)  I suppose I should be happy that Russell didn’t have huge mountains in the background of the Dallas scenes but seriously, would it have killed anyone to do a little research or maybe hop on a plane and spend a day or two filming on location?

(After all, if Richard Linklater or Wes Anderson decided to set a movie in David O. Russell’s home state of Massachusetts, I doubt that they would film the Boston scenes in El Paso….)

Joy features great work from Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper and it tells a story that has the potential to be very empowering.  But, when it comes to the overall film … meh.

Sorry Jen

Adventures in Cleaning Out The DVR: Lost Boy (dir by Tara Miele)

After watching River Raft Nightmareit was time to finish watching Lost Boy.  I say finish because, if I am remembering correctly, I actually watched the first hour when Lost Boy had its Lifetime premiere on July 25th.  However, after 60 minutes, I turned over to SyFy and I watched Lavalantula.  At the time, I probably said, “I’ll finish watching this on the DVR.”  And it only took me 3 months to get around to it!

Lost Boy opens with every parent’s worst nightmare.  Six year-old Mitchell Harris is flying a kite in the park when he’s abducted.  Eleven years later, Mitchell is still missing but his mother, Laura (Virginia Madsen), is convinced that he’s still out there.  She continues to put up flyers and, every time the police call to ask her to identify another body, Laura fears that it will turn out to be her son.

In the 11 years since Mitchell vanished, Laura has become a successful and influential advocate for missing persons but it’s come at the cost of her family.  She is separated from her husband, Greg (Mark Valley).  When Greg’s new girlfriend, Amanda (Carly Pope), gets pregnant, Greg asks Laura to finalize the divorce.  Laura is hesitant, not wanting to end their marriage while Mitchell might still be out there and looking for them.  For his part, Greg seems to have moved on and accepted that his son his dead.  Meanwhile, Mitchell’s twin sister, Summer (Sosie Bacon), deals with her guilt and anger by rebelling.

(It wouldn’t be a Lifetime movie without a rebellious teenage daughter.)

One night, a 17 year-old boy (Matthew Fahey) emerges from the shadows and stares at one of Laura’s flyers.  Soon, the boy shows up at the high school, watching Summer.  And then, one night, the boy suddenly appears at Laura’s front door.  When Laura sees him, she is immediately convinced that Mitchell has returned home.

But has he?  Both Greg and Amanda are suspicious of “Mitchell.”  For one thing, Mitchell doesn’t seem to have many clear memories of his family.  As well, he refuses to tell anyone who kidnapped him or where he’s been.  He encourages Summer and his younger brother, Jonathan (Jacob Buster), to do dangerous things and then threatens to hurt them if they tell on him.  Though Mitchell makes a big show of having nightmares about his ordeal, he’s actually awake while he’s tossing and turning.

Perhaps most damning of all, when Mitchell, Greg, and Jonathan take a DNA test, Mitchell switches his DNA with Jonathan’s and again threatens to kill Jonathan…

So, yes, it’s pretty obvious that Mitchell is not who he says he is.  However, whenever anyone points out how strangely he’s acting, Laura makes excuses for him.  She’s so happy to have her son back that she’s willing to overlook all of the inconsistencies in his story.  Or, at the very least, she is until she finds out that Mitchell has been threatening Jonathan.  But, by that point, Greg is convinced that Mitchell is his son and now, suddenly, he’s the one who is making excuses for him…

I liked Lost Boy, even if it did ultimately get somewhat predictable.  Moodily shot and featuring an excellent lead performance from Virginia Madsen, Lost Boy made me wonder what I would do if I ever found myself in a similar situation.  Hopefully, I won’t ever have to find out.

Film Review: Hot to Trot (1988, dir. Michael Dinner)

Don (John Candy)

Don (John Candy)

Before I talk about the film, I need to make some apologies:

1. I apologize to Bobcat Goldthwait for reminding people that this movie exists.
2. I apologize to everyone for reminding them that Bobcat Goldthwait once had starring roles in movies. From what I can gather from IMDb, he did the Sofia Coppola and now works behind the camera. His movies seem to get decent reviews too.
3. I’d like to apologize to anyone involved in the production of the Francis movies.

This is about a moron who came across a movie about a talking horse that had bad ratings on IMDb, then discovered it was available for streaming and thought it would be funny to watch. Oh, wait, that’s my story. The movie is about a moron whose mother dies and leaves him a talking horse. This moron named Fred P. Chaney (Bobcat Goldthwait) works at a stockbroker firm. The firm is run by Walter Sawyer (Dabney Coleman) who really needs some dental work.

Walter Sawyer (Dabney Coleman)

Walter Sawyer (Dabney Coleman)

Let’s apologize to Dabney Coleman while we are here too. Anyways, Sawyer offers to buy the talking horse whose name is Don and is voiced by John Candy. Apologies to John Candy…and horses. This movie really is a blatant ripoff of those movies from the 1950’s about a smart ass talking mule named Francis and his buddy played by Donald O’Connor. Except those are kind of funny. This is painful.

Sex Doll

That’s a blow up horse sex doll by the way. Getting ahead of myself. After acquiring Don, Chaney is introduced to Don’s family. Apparently, Don’s Mom is curious what it’s like to be facing someone while having sex with them. I say it a lot, but no joke, that happens in this movie. We return to the brokerage firm and Don calls Chaney with a hot tip. Of course it pans out and now Chaney has some dough. This is where another set of apologies needs to be issued:

1. I apologize to Little Richard that Tutti Frutti is used in the movie.
2. I apologize to The Replacements that their song Shooting Dirty Pool is in this movie.
3. I apologize to the Beastie Boys that their song (You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (To Party) is in here too. We now know that the Beastie Boys also divorced themselves from their first album because it was featured in Hot to Trot.

Oh, and Virginia Madsen is in this for some sort of love interest, but when horses are saying things like “Eat shit and die!” you can’t bring yourself to care about it. Don’t believe me that one of the horses says that? Here you go!

Bad Words

The meat of the movie basically goes like this. Chaney gets into some zany situations like hanging from the side of a building while a dove tries to do him in. Sawyer and his friend try and figure out how they can also make money using whatever secret Chaney seems to have discovered. Don has a house party with a dog, a cat, a bird, and probably some other animals. It all comes down to a horse race that Don needs to win with Chaney as the jockey. A stock deal goes south for Chaney and this is some sort of final showdown between him and Sawyer.

Oh, I forgot, Don’s Dad dies. Presumedly because they had already made an animatronic horsefly and needed to have some excuse to use it. Don’s Dad is reincarnated as it.


Of course Don and Chaney win the race. They do it by having Don say things to the other horses. He tells one horse that the winners are being turned into glue. He tells another one, who I guess is Spanish, that immigration is here. The jokes are so awful in this movie. And just for one final cherry on top of this dung heap, we get a short appearance by Gilbert Gottfried. Why? Because Don wants a diamond on his tooth like that bad guy in Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins (1985) and Gottfried is the dentist.

Straight From The Horses Mouth

Straight From The Horses Mouth

The one good thing about this movie is that I don’t even need to put in a final verdict sentence. The movie does it for me.


Film Review: All The Wilderness (dir by Michael Johnson)

All the Wilderness

I recently watched an excellent little film called All The Wilderness.

James Charm (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is a shy and withdrawn teenager who is still struggling to deal with the recent death of his father.  He spends his time wandering around the forest surrounding the house where he lives with his mother (Virginia Madsen).  Occasionally, he makes his way into the nearby city and aimlessly wanders through the desolate streets.  In his spare time, he sketches pictures of dead animals and tells people that he can predict when they are going to die.  When he informs the local bully that he’s going to die in just a few more days, the bully responds by punching James in the face.

Sometimes, James visits a therapist (Danny DeVito) who seems to alternate between concern and indifference.  One day, while sitting in the waiting room, James meets Val (Isabelle Fuhrman), who is dealing with her parents’ divorce and spends her time making and selling eccentric doughnuts.  James likes Val but he’s too scared to open up to her.  Some of that may have to do with the mysterious, hooded figures who occasionally materialize out of thin air and pursue him through the streets.

After sneaking out of one unproductive therapy session, James discovers a mysterious man named Harmon (Evan Ross) playing a piano in a courtyard.  Later, after his hamster mysteriously dies, a distraught James sneaks out of his house, makes his way down to the city, and gets on a bus.  Sitting across from him is none other than Harmon.

Harmon invites James to follow him on a trip into the hidden corners of the city.  Soon, James is discovering that the wilderness is not only limited to the countryside surrounding his mother’s house.  There’s also an urban wilderness and, with Harmon as his guide, James starts to discover it.  And yet, even as James starts to find happiness, those hooded figures continue to follow him…

All The Wilderness reminded me a lot of last year’s underappreciated California Scheminganother atmospheric look at alienation that was full of existential dread.  All The Wilderness is probably not a film for everyone.  Not only is it extremely stylized but it’s also a bit too short.  All The Wilderness is one of the few films that could actually benefit from an additional 30 minutes added to its running time.

And yet, flaws and all, All The Wilderness is a great film and one that everyone should take the time to see.  It is perched so precariously between being insightful and being pretentious that it becomes oddly compelling to watch the film’s valiantly struggle to maintain its balance.  Visually, this is an incredible film just to look at, with the constantly moving camera capturing images of ominous yet undeniably beautiful urban decay.  In small roles, both Danny DeVito and Virginia Madsen are well-cast while Evan Ross is appropriately charismatic as Harmon.  Finally, Kodi Smit-McPhee — all grown up from his heartbreaking performances in The Road and Let Me In — gives a wonderful and versatile performance in the lead role.

All The Wilderness is a film that deserves to be seen.