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Fox // R // February 3, 2009
List Price: $29.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Jeffrey Kauffman | posted February 14, 2009 | E-mail the Author
The Movie:
I just don't get critics sometimes ("Now you know how we feel," I hear DVDTalk readers responding in unison). According to the analytical cognoscenti, 2005's Sideways was a gut-busting comedy classic. I'm sorry, but I don't feel a dysfunctional road trip through admittedly glorious California wine country by two self-absorbed pathological liars is exactly a laugh riot. If you get past that marketing mishap, Sideways provides an amusing, if disturbing, character study of two misfits, surrounded by some luscious scenery and evidently quite tasty wines.

Adapted from a 2004 novel by Rex Pickett, Sideways features Paul Giamatti as Miles Raymond, a dogeared author struggling to recover from a divorce and his dead end career. Miles may also be as close to an alcoholic as you can get without actually crossing the line into the actual disease, though he couches his malady in the hoity-toity parlance of fine wines. Miles has arranged for a week long trip through California wine country with his about to be married buddy Jack (Thomas Haden Church). What Miles sees as a chance for wine education and male bonding Jack sees as his last opportunity to sow more than a few wild oats before he settles down to a world of domesticated semi-bliss. Soon entering the story are Maya (Virginia Madsen), a waitress Miles has had his eye on but has been too shy to approach, and Stephanie (Sandra Oh), a wine pourer whom Jack lusts after, neglecting of course to mention that he's engaged and less than a week away from his nuptials.

Plotwise, Sideways is, perhaps a propos of its title, a meandering ramble that moves slowly and laterally as it seeks to explicate its sometimes despicable male characters. Director Alexander Payne, who has brought similarly quirky projects like About Schmidt to the screen previously, obviously shies away from the "straight and narrow" three-act paint by numbers routine that so many modern filmmakers cling to, and for that he deserves kudos. The banter between Miles and Jack can indeed be charmingly bubbly at times, as when Miles threatens to leave a dinner party with the women if anyone orders a Merlot, but there's also a subtext of malaise and disillusionment which undercuts the bouquet like tannins. Giamatti is perfectly cast in this role which reeks of self-hatred (overcompensated by with a disdainful elitism), with his drooping face and eyes making the most of Miles' bitterness and disillusionment. The real surprise, in the male department at least, is Thomas Haden Church, who manages to make Jack, a surfer bum teen in a man's body, into someone actually passingly likable, at least at times. Church, who was such an amiable goof on the sitcom Wings, manages to make Jack's lechery less smarmy than it might have been, a tribute to his inherent likability.

Virginia Madsen got most of the critical notice on the distaff side of things, including an Academy Award nomination. The truth is, she's not given all that much to do here, despite one or two very nice, understated scenes with Giamatti. The main "actorly" scene, when Giamatti and Madsen are obviously discussing their own desires while ostensibly carrying on an ultra-sophisticated dialogue about various wine varieties, is, frankly, too mannered to ultimately have the emotional impact that scenarists Jim Taylor and Alexander Payne probably intended. Madsen nonetheless extracts some real feeling and intelligence from a character that is relegated too often to the sidelines of the main story (though, strangely, she really is the semi-invisible focus for Miles' yearnings). After a career of relatively over the top, play to the second balcony roles, it's a pleasure to see Madsen underplaying and achieving a remarkable degree of nuance. For my money, though, the most winning performance is actually by Sandra Oh, who fully inhabits Stephanie and delivers one literally socko scene once she discovers Jack's philandering ways. Oh is a remarkable actress and manages a neat trick here with Stephanie, making her at once incredibly smart and aware while simultaneously depicting the character's blind spot when it comes to a potential love affair.

Miles' slow journey toward redemption hits several snags along the way, most of them Jack-centric, which occasionally gives the film a slightly fractured, dichotomous tone. Though the focus is supposedly on Miles, the detours too often revolve around Jack, leaving Miles the reactor, rather than the actor. That plays extremely well into Giamatti's hands, from a performance standpoint, but it gives the film a sometimes disordered feel that robs it of some of its emotion.

All of this said, Sideways, by the time it winds down, has found a surprising amount of heart in Miles' conniving and acidic persona. Though Jack continues philandering past Stephanie's meltdown, ultimately weaving an unbelievable story when he returns to his fiancée (who of course believes him), Miles, for better or worse, stays fixated on his former wife even as the siren call of Maya continues to beckon. The film actually manages to end on a semi-feelgood note, though the specifics of that conclusion are left up to the viewers' imaginations.

If you can divorce yourself from the hype which built up Sideways as a nonstop laugh riot, you'll actually find an intimate and at times extremely acerbic look at the roundabout ways some (most?) lives take. The quartet of leads are all superb in their own ways, with Oh the unsung standout in a cast playing to their strengths. To cull a few phrases from wine parlance (something this film does repeatedly to variable effect), Sideways delves into the noble rot of its male characters as it develops its extremely dry story. While the going is at times less than heady and crisp, Sideways benefits from an extremely strong finish.

The Blu-ray

Sideways, both in its image and sound quality, needs to be analyzed on two separate tracks--first, in terms of how well this BD reproduces the look of the film, the 1.85:1 AVC transfer deserves 4.5-5 stars. Director Alexander Payne purposefully shot the film to look like a 1970s feature, as he discusses in one of the extras, and so the film is blanched, soft and more than a bit grainy. This BD reproduces that superbly. Taken from a more objective measure, as a BD in and of itself, Sideways suffers from those very elements--colors are not very saturated, the whole look of the film is rather squishy, and contrast, due mostly to the many indoor and night scenes, is on the dark side. My star rating is on the more "objective" level.

Similarly, the sound design needs to be looked at from the same two criteria. This is not a "knockout" film with booming explosions or soaring spacecraft. This is a simple film, from a sound design perspective, built almost exclusively around dialogue. Therefore the DTS-HD MA 5.1 mix may seem to be a bit of an overkill. There's little surround ambience here, aside from some of the scenes outside in wine country, and a couple of the crowded restaurant scenes. What is here is a very clear reproduction of all the dialogue, with excellent separation and fidelity. Also available are Spanish, French and Portuguese DTS 5.1 mixes, as well as subtitles in all the soundtrack languages, as well as Mandarin, Cantonese and Korean.

Unfortunately no new extras are included here, only the extras released on the SD-DVD from 2005. What is here is highlighted by a really funny commentary by Giamatti and Church (in fact, I wish a little more of their humor had made it into the film). There are also deleted scenes and a making-of featurette.

Final Thoughts:
Sideways is not a nonstop laugh riot. You can quote me on that. What it is is an unusual and at times very disarming character study, highlighted by four very good performances. While this BD is certainly at least a modest bump in improvement over the previously released SD-DVD, the film itself really doesn't lend itself that well to the HD medium, so I'm not entirely sure that many people are going to want to upgrade. For that reason, I'm recommending that any fans, or those unfamiliar with the film, Rent It first.

"G-d made stars galore" & "Hey, what kind of a crappy fortune is this?" ZMK, modern prophet

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