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Sideways (2004)

Sideways

Directed by Alexander Payne

USA, 2004, 126 min

“No, if anyone orders Merlot, I’m leaving.  I’m not drinking any !@#$% Merlot!” – Miles Raymond

Two men spend a week in California’s central wine country in advance of one of their weddings the following Saturday.  In some ways, Sideways is a fairly standard buddy, road movie.  It is, however, an exceptionally good one with absurdly funny situations, mostly sharp dialogue, and well developed characters, including the California wine country itself.

It is a bit hackneyed to say that the setting is a character.  One can make that statement about any film set anywhere remotely interesting.  But the laid back, friendly wine country stands in stark contrast with the film’s main duo – the neurotic and depressed Miles (Paul Giamatti) and the amoral, sex-addicted train wreck, Jack (Thomas Haden Church).  The movie doesn’t play up the fish out of water situation, but it is clear from the beginning that neither character truly belongs.

Miles certainly comes close.  His often clobbers his dim-witted friend over the head with his knowledge of wine, and he is depicted as a regular to the area and a friend of the locals.  He is also constantly on edge, afraid of defeats that he has already conceded, and pining for the past.  It becomes clear that he doesn’t particularly belong anywhere, at least not until the movie’s ambiguous ending.

Jack on the other hand is a monster.  Miles sets up the week in wine country for his own selfish enjoyment certainly, but Jack’s selfishness exists on another plane of existence.  His actions are reprehensible, and if wine country were nastier turf he probably wouldn’t have made it out alive.  Needless to say he’s not welcome back there by the end of the movie.

While I enjoyed Sideways, it suffers from two issues.  First, in the few places where the dialogue is weak, it’s really weak (we get it – Miles sees himself as a Pinot grape).  Also, its two main characters are so unlikeable that it may turn some moviegoers off.  Otherwise, it’s worth a couple hours of your time.

Rating

You may like Sideways if: You are in the mood for a clever, mostly well written buddy comedy, or you absolutely love wine.

You may not like Sideways if: You get annoyed by occasionally weak dialogue, or you are turned off by unlikeable protagonists.

(c) 2012 D.G. McCabe

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Movies

Vertigo (1958)

Vertigo

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

United States, 1958, Color, 128 minutes

“Alright I’ll do it.  I don’t care anymore about me.”

– Judy Barton

Like many of Alfred Hitchcock’s (1899-1980) best films, Vertigo examines a man who ignores the real world in favor of what is portrayed as a fantasy world.  Hitchcock often vindicates the protagonist’s obsession, or at least explains it as being the result of mental illness.  What is most unsettling about Vertigo is that there is no such justification for the disturbing behavior of the protagonist, and we’re actually made to sympathize with him.

To begin, Hitchcock introduces us to John “Scottie” Ferguson (Jimmy Stewart), a retired detective who suffers from a crippling fear of heights. Ferguson has been hired by his friend Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore) to follow his wife Madeline (Kim Novak) around San Francisco.  Elster suspects that his wife has been possessed by a dead woman, or at least she believes that she has, and he needs Ferguson to help him confirm those suspicions.  As he follows Madeline, Ferguson grows increasingly obsessed with her.

Ferguson appears to be the typical, everyman protagonist that Jimmy Stewart (1908-1997) played in many of his earlier films.  Stewart’s performance forces the audience to sympathize with Ferguson, even as his obsessive behavior becomes increasingly dangerous in the second half of the film.  While Stewart is convincing the audience to trust Ferguson, Hitchcock is busy using every tool available to him to try to convince the audience that Ferguson is descending into madness.  As I watched, I couldn’t decide whether Ferguson was an obsessive maniac or a brilliant detective until the very last scene.

If Vertigo has a weakness, it is the somewhat stilted performances of its supporting cast.  I find it hard to hold this against the actors themselves.  Hitchcock’s minor characters are often little more than devices he uses to push his plots forward.

Still, Hitchcock was not attempting to create a richly layered world of interesting characters in Vertigo. Instead he was examining one question: how far will we go in pursuit of our fantasies?  I don’t think I like the answer.

Rating:

You may like Vertigo if: you’ve ever enjoyed a thriller in your life.

You may not like Vertigo if: you demand complex secondary characters from every movie you see, or you just don’t like movies.

(c) 2012 D. G. McCabe

Categories
Movies

Metropolis (1927)

Metropolis

Directed by Fritz Lang

Germany, 1927, Silent, 148 min

“No! I must always stay at the Machine!” – Georgey 11811 to Freder Fredersen

Metropolis is one of the most important films ever made, but in many ways it is an outlier.   Fritz Lang (1890-1976) was far more interested in making dark, seedy, modern crime dramas than he was in dabbling in dystopian science fiction.  Lang himself never cared for what many consider to be his masterpiece, and the film itself has been subject to all manner of neglect, censorship, and re-editing.  It was once thought that about a third of the film had been lost forever, but in 2008 a nearly complete negative was discovered in Argentina, and thanks to the F.W. Murnau Foundation (http://www.murnau-stiftung.de/en/01-00-00-stiftung.html), a version of the film that comprises around 95% of Lang’s original can be viewed today (the original film was 153 minutes, the restoration, including inserted credits, is 148 minutes).

That was the version that I watched this morning.  The plot itself is predictable by modern standards (but only because it has been copied so many times) and the central message of the film is a bit simplistic and borderline naive.  That being said, those are the only weaknesses that I can think of, and the film continues to mesmerize 85 years after it was filmed.

Lang’s dark vision of the future takes place in a city where a vast system of machines sustain the prosperity of those who inhabit it, or more specifically, its above ground portions.  There are stadiums and nightclubs, pleasure gardens and terraces, and the people who inhabit these locales are well dressed, well fed, and happy.

This is not the case for the workers who operate the machines. These men and women toil ten hours a day in exhausting and repetitive jobs.  They work non-stop and in hellish conditions, risking certain death if they make any mistakes.  When they are not working, they are forced to live underground in squalid poverty.   The life in “The Depths” is a constant nightmare – a darkness of exhaustion, starvation, and isolation.

The hero of the story, Freder (Gustav Frohlich) is the son of the city’s ruler, Joh Fredersen (Alfred Abel).  One day while he is enjoying his, ahem, female companions (no, that’s not a type-o, there are more than one), Freder’s pleasure garden is crashed by the beautiful Maria (Brigitte Helm) and a group poor children from The Depths whom she has brought to the surface on an apparent visit.  After she and the children are thrown out by security, Freder, who is enchanted by Maria, darts from his pleasure garden to follow her.

While searching for Maria, he witnesses a terrible industrial accident.  An exhausted worker makes a mistake, and causes the massive machine he is operating to partially explode, killing several workers. To demonstrate Freder’s horror, Lang provides us with a hallucination of the workers being thrown into a monstrous oven.   Although the film is silent, Lang’s imagery allowed me to imagine the screams of the workers so clearly that their sound could have scarcely added to the horror.

It is the emotions of the workers themselves, not Freder, that drive the course of the rest of the film.  Maria brings hope to the workers by speaking of  a coming “Mediator” who will bring harmony and understanding between the rulers and the workers. She hopes that she has found that Mediator in Freder. In contrast, Fredersen and his ally, the mad scientist Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Logge), have created a “machine man” to manipulate the workers.  Fredersen hopes to use the automaton to incite the workers’ anger in a plot to maintain control over them, while Rotwang has his own, more devious objectives.

Many silent films have a hard time holding the attention of modern audiences.  Metropolis does not suffer from this problem, and I don’t think the film would be greatly improved by adding dialogue.  The film moves along with such fluidity that the audience doesn’t have time to consider its weaknesses or hunt for clues as to what would inspire films such as Blade Runner, Ghost in the Shell, Gattaca, Dark City, the Matrix, and hundreds of others.  Despite the opinions of its author, it remains a landmark work that every fan of film should view at least once.

Rating:

You may like Metropolis if: You enjoy dystopian science fiction films or adventure films, you are interested in where the techniques used in many of your favorite science fiction films come from, or you are in the mood for a high quality, emotionally charged film with high artistic merit.

You may not like Metropolis if: You absolutely hate all science fiction or silent films, or you get really annoyed with films that use somewhat predictable plot devices, even if the movie is the first time those plot devices were used.

(c) 2012 D.G. McCabe