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No. 45: “Sideways” (2005)

“Only somebody who really takes the time to understand Pinot’s potential can then coax it into its fullest expression.”
~~Miles Raymond

Alcoholism has many faces in film — Tommy Basilio (“Trees Lounge”), Dixon Steele (“In a Lonely Place”), Joe Clay (“Days of Wine and Roses”), George and Martha “(“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”), to name a few. Alexander Payne’s sharp, touching “Sideways” makes a strong case for adding failed novelist Miles Raymond (Paul Giamatti) to that list. He can stagger along with these boozers; actually, he could put them to shame with his frightful pretentiousness. He’s too busy appraising wines as “quaffable but far from transcendent” to consider that he’s tasting his liver to an early grave.

“Sideways” has a bit of fun at the expense of self-appointed sommeliers like Miles. On paper, he is unappealing: aloof, condescending, persnickety to the nth degree. Miles steals cash from his mother’s underwear drawer. He is that dinner party guest who will march right out the door — hurling insults all the way — if he spies one bottle of merlot in the wine rack. Giamatti has played such men before, so he knows how to suggest the painful vulnerability underneath all the snobbishness. The humanity sneaks out in the little moments, like Miles’ drunk phone call to his ex-wife (Jessica Hecht), or his sadly beautiful speech about Pinot (really a veiled description of his own neuroses and nuances). It becomes more evident, too, the more time he spends with his slick, womanizing old college roommate Jack (Thomas Haden Church). The duo jaunts out to Santa Barbara County wine country for Jack’s bachelor party weekend, which Miles tolerates mostly because there will be wine, and lots of it. Otherwise, these two would have nothing to hold their friendship together but a few years of communal showers and keggers. It’s an Oscar-and-Felix partnership that’s long past its expiration date. But Church and Giamatti are a formidable comedic duo.

Jack’s libido is the cause of many of the hijinks in “Sideways,” most involving slapstick, plenty of enthusiastic sex and nudity. Out to sew his wild oats while the sewing’s good, Jack ends up romancing Stephanie (Sandra Oh), who works at a local winery. That leaves Miles to play the part of the wingman. He doesn’t grumble about that because he’s been quietly in love with Maya (Virginia Madsen), Stephanie’s friend, for years. Giamatti communicates this wonderfully in several scenes, particularly one late night when Maya drives Miles home. As she watches the road, the normally timid Miles gives himself permission to look at her, really look at her. Giamatti’s face and eyes are so revealing that dialogue is superfluous. Rare is the actor who can say everything with a lingering look. Bogart accomplished this feat in “Key Largo”; here, Giamatti matches him. This kind of talent doesn’t come along every day.

“Sideways,” based on Rex Pickett’s novel, might well be a full-blown character study if not for the comedy the Church/Giamatti pairing provides. Their differences are never more obvious, or hilarious, than when Miles tries to teach Jack the art of wine tasting. Jack’s more of a fill-my-glass-to-the-top kind of taster with no nose for subtleties. He’s an actor who’s accustomed to instant gratification, so when he decides he wants to ditch his gorgeous, rich fiancée (Alysia Reiner) and live with Stephanie, he can’t understand why Miles thinks it’s a bonehead move. “Sideways” is jam-packed with those kinds of stupid choices, the funniest being Jack’s dalliance with a waitress that sends him running naked back to the hotel when her husband gets home. Church has a grand ole’ time playing the vapid pretty boy (Church is a good enough actor that he bends our sympathy to Jack) to Giamatti’s oversensitive, smug overthinker. The Giamatti/Madsen pairing fairs even better, with Madsen hitting a career high as the intuitive Maya. Her careful response to Miles’ speech on the merits of Pinot marks one of the film’s most honest moments. For all the comedy, this is what we take away from “Sideways”: that there are people out there willing to coax us to our fullest expression. And when we meet then, we’d better hold on tight.

“Red Riding Hood” is moony PG-13 porn for teens

Seyfried and Fernandez prepare to go "Twilight" on each other in "Red Riding Hood."

Oh, to be a teen-age girl in a Catherine Hardwicke film these days. What a pip it must be to be lovely, hormonal and saucer-eyed and feverishly desired by not one but two handsome lads! And at the mere tilt of your pretty head they’ll squabble over you like starving hyenas over a rotting zebra carcass! One guy to dash in and defend your honor, and one to bat his bedroom eyes, unbutton your blouse and round second base … this must be the stuff dreams are made of.

Actually, “Red Riding Hood” is more like the stuff the “Twilight” films are made of — and considering Hardwicke directed the first of that franchise, anyone who’s surprised by these similarities likely has spent the past five years living under a rock. “Red Riding Hood,” sadly, is exactly the kind of film Edward/Bella fans wanted Hardwicke to produce: sexually charged but tame enough to garner a PG-13 rating; overflowing with Longing Glances of Forbidden Feelings all set to an unapologetically pheremonal score; rife with strained performances (mostly by the men, who aim for “sexy” but actually hit “constipated”); and a truly, unforgivably horrendous CGI werewolf.  Fans of Hardwicke’s “Thirteen” and “Lords of Dogtown” hoping for a return to that form are in for a letdown. Whatever promise there seemed to be in the concept of updating/reimagining a well-known fairy tale has left the building. “Red Riding Hood” is just more porn for the tween-something serial texting and forever-14-at-heart sets.

The major problem with Hardwicke’s update has little to do with the plot and everything to do with the execution. Gone is the naïve red hood-wearing child of bedtime story fame. She has been replaced by Valerie (Amanda Seyfried), an alluring young woman besotted with poor/oh-so-dreamy woodcutter Peter (Shiloh Fernandez, who affects a bewildering wannabe Elvis lip snarl). Her parents — Suzette (the forever-rigid Virginia Madsen) and Cesaire (Billy Burke) — have different plans. They have arranged for Valerie to marry Henry (Max Irons, who should wear a sign that reads “Nice Guy Without a Prayer”), the son of the village’s wealthiest blacksmith. This burgeoning love triangle is interrupted by tragedy — the dreaded werewolf that plagues Daggerhorn kills Valerie’s sister and stalks the townspeople. Attempts to capture the beast end badly, so Father Auguste (a twitchy Lukas Haas) calls in famed witch hunter Father Solomon (Gary Oldman), who brings his own torture chamber. He intends to catch the werewolf, alright, but only if he can persecute a few witches in the process. Father Auguste, as Oldman plays him, is a megalomaniac who delights in shoving his mythology down people’s throats.

This isn’t a totally inaccurate description of “Red Riding Hood” as a whole. Because there’s little nuance to be unearthed anywhere in David Johnson’s script, in Hardwicke’s direction or in the actors’ performances. Visually “Red Riding Hood” is attractive, even magical, with its wood cabins made shadowy and sensual by roaring fires and swirling snowflakes. The mystique begins and ends here, though (excluding the reveal of the werewolf’s identity, which is genuinely surprising). The acting sinks the whole production. Fernandez, saddled with the sexy bad boy role, snarls and squints his way through the film while exhibiting almost no personality. He never feels like the right choice. What’s worse, neither does Irons, who thinks looking surprised is the antidote to Fernandez’s slitty glances. Henry’s just as wooden and uninteresting as Peter, and neither seems worthy of empathy. Burke and Oldman, who gets perhaps the juiciest parts, does too little and too much with the characters, respectively. Oldman treats “Red Riding Hood” like an all-you-can-eat buffet, devouring whatever scenery appears in his way. Only Julie Christie, as Valerie’s mysterious grandmother, and Seyfried make much of an impression. Seyfried, at least, offers some ingenuity and simmering sexual energy. As far as damsels go, Valerie is a far cry from the foolish, simpering Bella Swan, yet the story forces Valerie to make senseless choices.

Yes, this is the mortal sin of “Red Riding Hood”: It takes a cunning heroine and turns her into a lovelorn fool. For shame.    

Grade: D

Shriekfest 2010: “[REC],” “Candyman,” “28 Days Later”

“[REC]” (2007)
Starring Manuela Velasco, Pablo Rosso, Claudia Silva, Ana Velasquez

Most horror films try to give us a jolt or two, but the great ones tap into those way-down-deep primitive fears we try to pretend we’re too evolved to have. In the frenetic and chilling “[REC],” directors Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza accomplish this task with not much more than a hand-held video camera, an apartment building and a small cast required to react more than act. Presented as found footage, the film details a routine day of shooting for Spanish TV reporter Ángela Vidal (Velasco) and her cameraman Pablo (Rosso) that turns ghoulish. The pair, getting footage for a documentary TV show, tail a fire crew on a distress call to a Barcelona apartment complex. A crazed elderly woman attacks one of the firemen, the building is swiftly quarantined and the alarmed residents are told nothing. That first chomp-down gives “[REC]” a violent shove into action overdrive, with an infection turning the trapped residents into raving, uncontrollable creatures. The jittery camerawork is an ace fit for the tight setting, and there are off-camera bangs and shrieks aplenty in the dark to keep the terror quotient consistently high. Given the volatile setting and lickety-split pace, the characters-as-types approach works well (there’s no time to care about the people as anything other than humans). And the ending, a sublime combination of claustrophobia, nyctophobia and our fear of unexplained noises, is a harrowing descent into hell. A-

“Candyman” (1992)
Starring Virginia Madsen, Tony Todd, Xander Berkeley, Kasi Lemmons

“Candyman,” with its focus on the pervasiveness of urban legends, tells a familiar story from an unusual perspective. Instead of morality play about the dangers of meddling kids with too much time on their hands and a death wish, Clive Barker’s film spins a bizarre, spooky and downright metaphorical yarn about how these legends not only survive but thrive through the years. Helen Lyle (Madsen), a graduate student, wants to author a thesis on urban legends. There is one in particular – of a murderous spirit called “Candyman” (Tony Scott) who haunts a crime-ridden Chicago housing project and may have killed a tenant there – that intrigues her. She and her friend Bernadette (Lemmons) attempt to summon the spirit, believed to be a murdered slave with an understandable grudge, in her bathroom mirror and laugh nervously when nothing happens. Oh, would that it were that easy. In summoning Candyman, Helen gives him free reign of her mind. She begins to have blackouts, people around her meet gruesome ends and the police hold her directly responsible. And to a degree, Helen wonders if she is guilty – of stirring memories best left slumbering, of feeding Candyman the fear and hysteria he needs to keep killing. Scott’s sinister performance is fodder for permanent night terrors. Deeper and scarier than Scott, though, is the notion that we create such legends and never let them starve. It’s a fate we doom ourselves to over and over. B

“28 Days Later” (2002)
Starring Cillian Murphy, Naomie Harris, Megan Burns, Brendan Gleeson

Just when zombie films started to get that icky, not-so-fresh feeling, along came “28 Days Later.” Danny Boyle has given the genre the makeover it badly needed. For starters, the “zombies” in question aren’t zombies at all, but human beings driven mad in 20 seconds (or less) by an unnamed disease. Replace the ragtag group of anonymous, generic survivors with Jim (Murphy), a London bicycle courier who awakens from a coma to find the world burning; Selena (Harris), whose has learned that surviving an apocalypse is easier when logic squashes feelings; and Frank (Gleeson) and Hannah (Burns), a father and daughter who, out of sheer emotional necessity, open their lives to Serena and Jim. They form an unconventional family and decide to strike out toward Manchester, where a crackly radio broadcast informs him the militia possesses “the answer to infection” – a decision with predictably awful (yet still surprising) consequences. Key to “28 Days Later,” which is part psychological thriller and part end-of-days tale, is the dreary cinematography and the taut atmosphere Boyle creates. He avoids the gore clichés, the “Boo!” scenes and the spare, obvious musical chords of warning, at every possible chance. So when the shocks come, they feel as uncalculated as everyday life gone horribly wonky. Murphy, Gleeson, Burns and especially Harris offer sympathetic — and intensely human — characters that make this situation more poignant than anyone would expect. A