Wednesday, June 21, 2017
(October 2004, U.S.)
THE GODFATHER, DO THE RIGHT THING, PULP FICTION; what do they all have in common? The answer is that were you to ask me what I considered to be the single best motion picture of each respective decade, these are the films I would choose. And so, to continue such personal convictions, let me tell you right off the bat that I consider Alexander Payne's SIDEWAYS to be the single best motion picture of the 2000s. I have to say that wasn't a very difficult decision in a decade that was filled to-the-brim with comic book superhero franchise movies that still (unfortunately) continues into today.
Still, what's the appeal? An entire film about wine? A depressing film about two unsuccessful men in their forties who appear to be stuck in the middle of their lives? Well, I suppose that's the "half empty" way to look at the bottle here (pun totally intended!). At it's most heartfelt and optimistic level, SIDEWAYS is the traditional road movie between two buddies who have know each other since college. Miles Raymond (played by Paul Paul Giamatti) is a bored middle school English teacher, a failed writer and a depressed divorcee whose only real optimistic outlook on life is his proud position of being an aficionado of good wine. His best friend Jack Cole (played by Thomas Haden Church) is a once aspiring actor who's now at the point in his life where he's about to be married and subsequently, enter his future father-in-law's real estate business. With one week to go before Jack's wedding, he and Miles hit the road for a trip through California's Santa Ynez Valley wine country. Miles' goal for the week is to drink good wine, eat good food, play golf and send his best friend out in style. Jack, on the other hand, is out to satisfy his need for one last sexual fling before tying the knot and settling into domestic life.
Again, we're forced to ask ourselves, a movie about wine? The answer to that question, in my opinion, manages to pay off in an early scene where Miles gives Jack his first real lesson in wine tasting. This scene takes its time in that we as the audience are taken through the steps of what makes a good glass of wine so pleasurable. Miles teaches us, too, and if we're patient enough, we listen and we learn. In between the wine tasting and the wine knowledge we acquire along the way, we watch the friendship between these two men slowly deteriorate with each passing day as Jack pursues his quest for pussy from attractive local wine pourer Stephanie (played by Sandra Oh) while Miles is left behind in the dust, despite his attraction to local waitress at The Hitching Post II (apparently a real life popular California restaurant) Maya (played by Virginia Madsen), who's also a lover of wine. Even as Miles tries to work up enough courage to get closer to Maya, he's still eating away at himself over his failed marriage and the prospect of his book never getting published (I can personally relate to the fear of that last one). Miles clings to his appreciation and conviction of wine almost as a life-saving weapon against everything else in life he cannot control. While he can tell you everything that's right and perfect about Pinot noir and everything that's so damn wrong with Merlot (and the people that drink it!), he cannot fathom his own heart and ambitions. Even when he's describing in detail, the reasons he loves Pinot so much; the grape's thin skin, its need for constant care and attention, and its struggle to survive, it's easy to recognize that Miles is very likely describing himself and his own life, as well. Still, Paul Giamatti has never been an actor that I equate with joy and happiness. The man has a true talent for portraying the pains and anguishes of life. We can not only relate to, but can also almost respect his need to express his rage and frustration upon learning that his manuscript has been rejected (again) and lashes out by defiantly drinking the entire spit bucket of red wine before him. Hey, life sucks sometimes, and sometimes the only solution is wine...lots of wine!
But even as SIDEWAYS attempts to show us its own "slice of life" through the eyes of four imperfect wine loving people, it also successfully remembers life's hilarity and insanity. Upon having lost Stephanie forever once she learns he's getting married, Jack has no trouble moving on and fucking some overweight redneck waitress at the local rib joint. This time, though, he's literally busted butt naked when he's discovered by her husband with, as he puts it, "My dick in his wife's ass!". And as Miles always seems to be the one bearing the bunt of Jack's bullshit, it's hilarious to watch Miles sneak into the waitress's house to retrieve Jack's wallet that contained two custom-made wedding rings. This little ring rescue and break-in seems just the perfect conclusion to a week that's been filled with life's unanswered questions and thought-provoking issues...all the while in the hands of those who fill their glasses and contemplate their lives through a bottle of red or a bottle of white (whatever mood they're in tonight).
Movies, when done right, can influence our lives, emotions and actions. That's doesn't necessarily disappear with age and maturity. Speaking personally, I have, at times, succumb to the influence of movies and its stars. When I was a kid in the '70s, I wanted to learn to dance like John Travolta after SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER and GREASE. In the '80s, I ran right out and spent my hard-earned money on a pair of Rayban aviator sunglasses after seeing Tom Cruise in TOP GUN (twice!). In the summer of 2005, after having seen and purchased SIDEWAYS, I fancied myself as someone who now loved wine more than he had before the movie. My wife and I toured several wineries in the Hamptons and I took the time to put more care and attention into the process of each and every glass of wine (I prefer red) I savored; with good food, with dark chocolate, whatever. Today, I still can't help but sniff what's in my glass before each sip. Wine, unlike other forms of alcohol, requires such care and attention from the time it's chosen off the shelf, to the food that will accompany it, to the way it looks in your glass and feels going down your throat. Because in a world filled with absolute crap, wine is one of those few things that enables us to stop for a moment and envision life's (few) pleasures that surround its ultimate flavor.
So, who's ready for a drink??
Favorite line or dialogue:
Maya Randall: "I like to think about the life of wine."
Miles Raymond: "Yeah."
Maya: "How it's a living thing. I like to think about what was going on the year the grapes were growing; how the sun was shining; if it rained. I like to think about all the people who tended and picked the grapes. And if it's an old wine, how many of them must be dead by now. I like how wine continues to evolve, like if I opened a bottle of wine today it would taste different than if I'd opened it on any other day, because a bottle of wine is actually alive. And it's constantly evolving and gaining complexity. That is, until it peaks, like your '61. And then it begins its steady, inevitable decline."
Maya: "And it tastes so fucking good!"
Oh, yeah...I hear you, Maya!
Wednesday, June 14, 2017
(September 2015, U.S.)
Over the last eight years or so, there have been a series of great films that reflect (or are inspired by) real life political or criminal situations or crisis that have taken place in our 21st Century world following the events of 9-11. These films have included THE HURT LOCKER, ZERO DARK THIRTY, 13 HOURS and SICARIO. The film, in its own way, I suppose, picks up where Steven Soderbergh's 2000 film TRAFFIC left off in its harsh and realistic depiction of the brutal and powerful Mexican drug cartel.
The film begins in Arizona, where a drug raid by the FBI reveals one of the most graphic and grotesque images of dead bodies I've ever seen on the screen; multiple bloodied and decaying corpses wrapped in plastic and hidden behind the walls (geez!)! Not an easy sequence to watch, but this raid sets things up for the heroine of the film, FBI agent Kate Maser (played by Emily Blunt), as she's asked to volunteer for a special joint DOD-CIA task force to apprehend the Sonora Cartel lieutenant Manuel Díaz, the man responsible for the massacre they discovered. As one would predict, Kate not only volunteers, but enters into this team with a naive sense of morality that her superiors simply don't adhere to. Those in charge are determined to bring Díaz, as well as his bosses in the drug cartel; how they do it and the laws they have to break on the Mexican side of the border are of no concern to them. Kate will be lied to, deceived, and kept in the dark about her true purpose with them until she inevitably discovers it all for herself.
The question one finds themselves asking while watching SICARIO is just who are the good guys in this film and how much do we believe in or agree with what they're doing. Kate is virtuous and honest, and perhaps that just makes her plain stupid in a world of government men who know nothing of such values in the field of war. The men she follows and observes are indecent men in an indecent time of drugs and murder. One must ask themselves if all moralities are forced out the window when dealing with Mexican animals who seems to take pleasure in not only killing their victims, but hanging their decapitated bodies out for display for all citizens to see. Our enemy across the border is pure evil, and it would seem that one must become evil (even just a little bit) to combat greater evil. Good or bad, right or wrong, you decide for yourself.
Kate Maser not only forces herself to cling to her values, but even tries (in vain) to understand the motives of the unscrupulous men she works with, including Alejandro Gillick (played by Benicio del Toro), a brutal hitman who also specializes in torture tactics in an effort for the greater good, as well as avenging the murder of his wife and daughter by Díaz's boss, Fausto Alarcón, whom he succeeds in killing at the film's climax, along with his wife and two sons as they dine outdoors. In the end, the film's mission is accomplished, but Mexico's brutality and violence still looms in the air over the lives of the innocent.
Personally, I've never had any interest in visiting Mexico. Too many movies displaying its violence and corruption, I suppose, whether that's fair or not. SICARIO certainly doesn't help the country's cause, especially when it's accompanied by some of the most menacing music I've ever heard in a motion picture soundtrack. Despite being a tale of fiction, it's based on too much negative press we've become accustom to when hearing about the country south of the border and its ongoing drug war. Mexican citizens were urged to boycott the film upon its release, believing that it represented a negative and false image of its cities. Whether we as Americans believe such a statement is up to each of us. As lovers of film, we can, at best, appreciate a taut, hard-edged thriller like SICARIO for its outstanding performances by all involved, particularly Benicio del Toro, who practically lurks in the shadows of the action throughout most of the story until it's time for him to strike in a form of violence and vengeance that not only leaves the viewer shaken, but perhaps just even just a little grateful that such a hard-hitting man exists to try and rid the world of just a little of the evil that occupies it.
Favorite line or dialogue:
Alejandro Gillick (after shooting Kate in her bullet-proof vest): "Don't ever point a weapon at me again!"
Sunday, June 4, 2017
(May 2001, U.S.)
Even as early as the summer of 2001, I already felt that computer animated family films were coming out too fast and too furious. By then, there'd already been two TOY STORY films, A BUG'S LIFE, ANTZ, CHICKEN RUN, DINOSAUR; geez, the list seemed to be growing and it wasn't showing any signs of stopping. Why I had any interest in seeing SHREK is beyond my comprehension. Perhaps it was the prospect of laughing at the sound of Eddie Murphy's wild and crazy voice. In all likelihood, however, it was probably simply the fact that the film was playing nearby in town and I was still in my enthusiastic days of just getting up off my ass and go to the movies simply because I wanted to.
Clearly, I was wrong, or I wouldn't be writing this post now. I not only loved every minute of SHREK (based on William Steig's 1990 children's picture book), but I actually found myself relating to the ogre's character, if you can believe that. Let me explain. When we first meet Shrek (voiced by Mike Myers), he's somewhat of a recluse character who values the simple pleasures of home, a good meal and a fine drink (sounds like me). Above all else, he values his privacy and not having it violated by anyone unless he wants them to (definitely sounds like me!). When he unexpectedly finds his private life interrupted by endless fairytale characters that have just been exiled to his land and swamp by Lord Farquaad of Duloc (voiced by John Lithgow), Shrek declares that he intends to have them removed immediately. In his quest to fulfill a bargain with Farquaad in order to get the unwanted fairytale squatters off his land, Shrek and his new tag-along, never-shutting-his-mouth Donkey (voiced by Murphy), are off on their quest to rescue Princess Fiona (voiced by Cameron Diaz) who's being held in a castle tower guarded by boiling lava and a fire-breathing dragon. Farquaad wants the princess rescued because he's been told by the "Magic Mirror on the Wall" that in order for him to finally and officially become king of Duloc, he must marry a princess.
When Shrek and Fiona finally meet, they can't stand each other (clearly the start of what will become a loving relationship later). Fiona is a spoiled-brat princess and Shrek is well, an ogre (oil and water, of course). Okay, we know that opposites inevitably attract, but the film's ultimate lesson of not judging those on the outside due to their ugliness without getting to know what's on the inside first may be a wild stretch ever for these two. Still, nothing can make you laugh in your theater seat like the sound of two opposites bickering back and forth like two pissed-off parents, and of course, having Donkey fill in the gaps with his wise-ass Eddie Murphy-style of comedy doesn't hurt things, either. As Shrek and Fiona inevitably find they have much in common and fall in love, it appears that a dark secret of Fiona's may bring them together after all, as she is under a bad spell from her childhood that turns her into a female ogre every night when the sun goes down. In the end, only true love's first kiss will transform Fiona to what will finally be her true and intended self. Will it be lovely human or ugly beast ogre? The answer comes when Shrek bursts in on Fiona's reluctant wedding ceremony with Farquaad (oh, how I wanted the climax of THE GRADUATE to be mocked at this moment with Shrek pounding the glass and repeatedly screaming "Fiona, Fiona, Fiona!") and we discover that love's true first kiss between her and Shrek means that they'll spend their lives together as ogres; misunderstood and feared by the rest of the kingdom, but understood and loved by each other. Hence, the film's intended message of good will, understanding and love (yeah, right, whatever. I came to the theater to laugh my ass off and I did!).
Okay, that's just me being a cynical bastard, but the heart behind SHREK, even as it's true purpose is to be filled with silly and wicked fun and jokes, is clear enough. And really, who better to make a complete and comical jackass of himself (pun totally intended!) than Eddie Murphy, who unfortunately, chose that latter part of his career to become a whole lot more family-oriented after a string of vulgar R-rated hits in the 1980s. The cast of the film is perfect, right down to John Lithgow's delightful wickedness that embraces his longtime love of children's material, as well as pure evil (think RAISING CAIN). Unfortunately, like so many other Hollywood successes, sequels and franchising ultimately takes things to far that it becomes almost a struggle to remember just how simply and originally things began in 2001.
Now a personal story. It may not have too much to do the film of SHREK itself, but it's more about timing and life's circumstances. My wife Beth (fiancée at the time) and I went to see SHREK in Westhampton Beach almost immediately after it opened (like I said before, it was one of those Saturday nights when we just wanted to go to the movies). After the horrific events of September 11, 2001, it was nearly two weeks until we returned to the (former) family home in the Hamptons. Although we (and the rest of New York City) were in a confused and vulnerable state after what had just happened, it was, in reality, one of the best weekends I ever spent at my home. It was late September and the weather was perfect. We went to the beach, we swam in the ocean, we rode our bikes, we grilled outdoors, we made love, and we went to the movies that Saturday night to see SHREK for the second time because the film had just been re-released, along with every other studio comedy that had been previously released that summer of 2001 in a truly noble effort by all of Hollywood to get America laughing again. It was only two days out of my live, but never before had I felt so safe and secure amidst a world-gone-mad that had just made it clear that no one was safe anymore. It was the simple power of home, of love, of knowing that I was just weeks away from marrying the love of my life, and of laughter at the movies with a film like SHREK. I'm grateful for that weekend and that (temporary) feeling.
Favorite line or dialogue:
Princess Fiona: "You didn't slay the dragon??"
Shrek: "It's on my to-do list! Now come on!"