Teacher and unpublished novelist Miles (Paul Giamatti) takes his best friend Jack (Thomas Haden Church) on a trip to the wine country of California for to celebrate Jack’s last week of freedom before his wedding on Saturday. Miles is a wine connoiseur, and his plan is for them to eat good food, play some golf, and sample the finest wines the vineyards’ have to offer. Jack, a rogueish C-list actor, has a simpler and less sophisticated goal: to have a last fling before tying the knot. And he wants to make sure that Miles gets some, too.
This basic set-up could serve as the plot for a brash and farcical buddy movie, but Sideways emphasizes the drama over the comedy. Miles is badly depressed over his marriage that broke up two years ago, and over his chances of ever selling his novel, and he drinks too much. Jack manages to hook the two of them up on a double date, and while Jack practically hops straight into bed with Stephanie (Sandra Oh), shy Miles struggles to find the right things to say to fellow wine lover Maya (Virginia Madsen).
In a meandering series of events, the week plays out with Miles getting ever more frustrated with his inability to progress his infatuation with Maya, and ever more infuriated with Jack’s shameless infidelity. There are a few big laughs, but most of the humour is softly sarcastic, with a touch of bitterness. It’s not a fast-moving story, and in places the film does feel slow and over-extended. But like a fine wine, it’s meant to be savoured and appreciated for its many nuances and flavours rather than downed in a single Hollywood gulp.
There are some films that are so bad, they’re good…. This isn’t one of them. The writing team should be ashamed of themselves. You can almost see Nicolas Cage and Sean Bean cringing with embarrassment as they chew through their interminably dull, and impossibly contrived lines in the first half hour. Does “show, don’t tell” mean nothing to screenwriters these days? Gaahh. At least there’s less talking and more action in the rest of the film.
Plot-wise, the parallels between National Treasure and The Da Vinci Code are obvious. The heroes follow a trail of clues to an ancient treasure, all the while pursued by rival treasure-hunters, and the FBI, who think that the heroes are the bad guys. The big difference between The Da Vinci Code and this film is equally clear: Dan Brown’s book is an entertaining thriller, whereas National Treasure is just a stupid piece of crap.
Australian comedies often display a certain sense of humour that, to the unaccustomed eye, can come across as plain silliness. Most modern Hollywood and British (romantic) comedies try to be quite serious about their humour; filmmakers want you to appreciate their jokes as well as just laugh at them. So it usually takes me a few minutes to change gears whenever I watch an Australian comedy. At first, the lack of pretentiousness strikes me as somewhat immature. It’s only after the first few scenes that I start appreciating it for what it is: plain, honest, and easygoing.
Danny Deckchair is just like this. It starts off a bit silly, with eternal daydreamer Danny Morgan becoming so frustrated with his life and his girlfriend that he implements one of his hare-brained ideas: to see how many helium ballons it takes to lift him and his lawn chair into the sky. And he really does get carried away.
But once the opening act is over, the film gives way to a sweet love story, and a heart-warming tale about finding yourself and following your dreams. I had never really pictured Rhys Ifans as a romantic lead, but opposite Miranda Otto he really shines with an innocent, playful quality that is totally endearing. It’s definitely worth a look.
It’s easy to see why The Da Vinci Code has become so popular. As one of the characters in the book says, “Everyone loves a conspiracy.” This one, involving a secretive Church organization trying to steal the Holy Grail from an ancient society that has been protecting its whereabouts for centuries, taps into a universal suspicion of authority. Cleverly, though, it keeps the paranoia focused on a small goal–the Grail itself–and doesn’t try to draw other fringe theories into its web. It’s paced extremely well, with new plot twists and revelations jumping at you in nearly every chapter. Many of the revelations tie in with pieces of art that almost everyone is familiar with (Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, and the Last Supper, for example), which piques your interest by making you doubt your own memories of those things. The puzzles and cyphers presented to the hero and heroine are tricky, but not so arcance that they disappear into boring abstraction. It’s a cracking page-turner.
However… The characters are paper-thin; the identity of the hidden mastermind is painfully obvious; and the amount of background detail that has to be filled in (sometimes in preachy infodump asides to the reader, sometimes in “as you know, Bob” style dialogues) is enormous. Brown does his best to keep it all simple and interesting, but all the lecturing gets tiresome rather quickly. Overall, I found it very entertaining, but I don’t think I’m ready to read anything more by him just yet.