26 January 2007

90. sideways

everyone loves this movie, right? i honestly don't understand the pact with satan alexander payne made to have this movie work the way it does. the main character is an ugly, alcoholic failed writer who spends the movie depressed about his book and his ex-wife. and yet, somehow -- maybe because its paul giamatti playing him -- we care about miles. he can, in the first fifteen minutes, steal money from his mom's secret stash in her dresser, and for some reason, we let him get away with it.

getting an audience to sympathize with such an unlikable character is an extremely tricky thing to do. its one of the reasons phil hoffman won the oscar for "capote". his truman capote was also an alcoholic, but a liar and a manipulative oppurtunist. but when he descending into his own private hell, we felt for him. joe pesci's character in "goodfellas" is much the same: he's a sadistic murderer, a loud-mouth, a straight-up gangster. but when he gets shot in the head, blood pooling around his body, we feel like de niro does -- shocked, upset, a little bit empty. so its a testament to paul giamatti's acting skills that he's able to be such a loser, yet still charasmatic enough that we empathize.

there's a lot of other good stuff in the writing here as well. the movie is basically a riff on the odd couple: two old friends who don't hang out much anymore, stuck together for an extended period of time. they want different things: miles just wants to get away for a bit, have a relaxing time, forget about his struggles with his divorce and book deal. jack wants to get laid, get drunk, sow his oats one last (we hope) time before he gets married. this is very felix and oscar, but done with such specificity that we don't mind.

i also like that the movie is about wine. they use wine in many ways: as a way of talking about themselves, as in when miles discusses why he loves pinot noir; as a way to break the ice, talking about how they "got into wine"; as a way to discuss class or taste, such as visiting "frass canyons". and in the process of watching the movie, the audience learns a lot about the wine world, which envelopes them in the world of the story. audiences, i believe, love this. people love coming out of a movie feeling smarter than they were before, having learned about a new world. as long as the filmmakers aren't didactic, don't bang something over their heads, the audience comes out craving more. and that's why wine sales increased after "sideways" came out, pinot noir sales in particular.

there's some other great stuff going on in the movie as well. the use of local color, using the ideal of "wine country". the photography is excellent, lots of natural light and blown out street lights at night. the production design goes for a very natural, lived-in look, particularly shown with sandra oh's country home with blankets on the couches and miles' mom's condo, strewn with medicine bottles. and of course, the acting is fantastic, without exception. payne uses four relatively obscure actors and gives them great stuff to work with -- great monologues, a vivid world, lots of real-world conflict -- and they all do a great job.

alexander payne is so good at endings. as i've written previous on this blog, the ending to "about schmidt" is so cathartic and rewarding, and this ending is no different. miles has a string of awful luck in the last fifteen minutes or so of the film: his car gets wrecked, he meets his ex-wife's husband and finds out she's pregnant with his kid, he slips back into the old familiar funk of his unfulfilling teaching life. but, like in "about schmidt", he gets contacted by someone who he touched, even in a small way, and that sastifaction spreads, opens him up.

and despite being what i wrote earlier -- a failed writer, an alcoholic, ugly -- despite all those things, miles ends his story with a glimmer of hope. and he deserves it.

18 January 2007

91. the verdict

this one had to be good, right? sidney lumet, paul newman and david mamet? are you kidding me?
this had to be good and it was. it was made in 1982 but it could have been made 40 years earlier because it is old-fashioned in the best sense of the word: the writing is crisp and clean, setting up a character and a setting vividly and efficiently: in the first five minutes we know frank and we know what is at stake. and mamet gets a lot of accolades due to his idiosyncratic dialogue, but the reason he's remained more than just a curiosity is the fact that he knows how to drive drama. he understands that good drama is sometimes nothing more than a power struggle -- character who want conflicting things, and do their damnedest to get them. and often what they want is something as simple as a bunch of money.
so he has that, he uses that, he makes that plain. and then he adds layers to it -- his aforementioned dialogue, which create great moments for all the main actors: "he's the prince of fucking darkness"; "she threw up in her mask. now cut the bullshit, please. just say it: she threw up in her mask"; "you're mister independent. be independent now."; "i believe there is justice in our hearts." and also adds to it with all the ins-and-outs of how law in our world really works: we see the backroom deals, the powerful lawyers who can make a witness disappear, how the jaded judge affects a trial; we learn all these details about the law without being talked down to. and finally, the most important layer of the story is alcoholism. it minds me of raymond carver's quote about being a drunk: "it takes a lot of time and effort to do it right." we see newman being drunk, why he is drunk, and we get a little bit -- just a little -- redemption at the end.
the question that remains during that last shot is this: will frank drink away all his earnings?

05 January 2007

92. psycho

the script for "psycho" is as schizophrenic as its main character, norman bates, and hitchcock is so good at giving the audience what they want, then pulling the rug out from under them, over and over and over, that we never really mind and ride right along with every twist and turn.

the movie starts out as a standard melodrama, with marion crane and her boyfriend wanting to be together, but unable due to financial constraints. so when money gets put almost literally in her lap, she takes it and runs off to him. then marion takes a wrong road in the rain and ends up at the bates motel, a blinking neon sign from out of nowhere. she gets a room and meets cute with a handsome but shy young guy named norman. the script switches genres again. he invites her to eat with him. it could be the start of a romantic comedy. but there's an undercurrent of menace to norman, and, in a stroke of unexpected morbid genius, marion, our main character, is killed.

that shower scene! it is so famous for a reason -- killing a main character and a movie star so early in a film just was not done in those days. the killing seemed to come out of nowhere, after a simple argument between norman and his "mother". and it is fucking vicious -- several stabs, and she's left with her body slumped over, her mouth open on the floor.

technically its marvellous as well. hitchcock uses great suspense and irony in marion being unaware of a shadowy figure approaching her. and the use of sound is great too -- near silence, then those squealing violins. tons of angles and cuts to show confusion and chaos (not to mention, if you look closely enough, tits). and finally, a great metaphor -- blood swirling down the drain with a match-cut to marion's eyes, the life draining out of them.

and then the movie switches genres again. norman deliberately cleans up and we assume still that he didn't do it, and the movie moves to a private dick and marion's sister and boyfriend. it becomes a police procedural. we see arbogast investigating, getting leads, snooping around. then he snoops around a little too much and gets -- again, unexpectedly -- murdered by norman's "mother".

and then the movie becomes something different again. it becomes a psychological drama, an expose of what happened to norman bates and how he ended up so fucking crazy. and just like in real life, we will never know. maybe it is as he says: "we all go a little mad sometimes."

some more than others.