It doesn’t happen often but occasionally a little film comes out of nowhere and creates such a stir that even the major Hollywood studios have to sit up and take notice. In most cases an independent film may make a splash in the Indy community and with those discerning film buffs that frequent their local art houses. Both the studios and the independent film makers play a vital part in forwarding the art of cinema in all its varied forms but most of the time they worlds are separate. In 2004 a low budget flick hit the world with an impact of a meteor. That film was ‘Sideways’ and it helped pave the way for the Indy film to stop being viewed as the elitist cousin of the movie industry. In many cases an Indy film is unable to recoup its modest budget. Many now go direct to video and try to make enough financing back to producer the film maker’s next effort. In this case the film cost about $16 million to make. It took in over $72 million in theatrical sales and a increased that with the DVD sales. In today’s economy a return rate of about 450 percent on an investment is nothing to scoff at. This film also opened the way for another Indy gem that hit big with critics, awards and the public; ‘Juno’ which made an even greater return on a meager budget. Films like ‘Sideways’ legitimatized Indy films in the eyes of the financially bound studio executives not that it wasn’t already a legitimate form of cinema, it just never paid off so well. There is one simple reason for the huge success of this movie; quality. There is not one aspect of its production that isn’t near perfection. The cast is amazing, the writing brilliant and the direction is emotional. It is almost certain that if this was pitched to the studios they would have responded with the old ‘thanks for coming in’ line. The film is about two men making a trip to the wine country. It sounds boring, I know, but watching the movie will grab your heart strings and not let go. The film was obviously a labor of love for all those involved with it. There is a personal touch to it that leaps off the screen. The DVD was released some time ago but now those out there with high definition systems can treat themselves to the Blu-ray release. Fox has been releasing many films form their collection as well as those in the MGM/UA catalogue to Blu-ray and in almost every case that I have seen it is fantastic. This is a movie to have and cherish and now you see and hear it like never before. It is a no lose situation for anyone that is serious about movies.
The film is based on the novel of the same name by Rex Pickett. It was transferred to the screen through the script and direction by Alexander Payne. There is not one weak moment in this screenplay; it is a virtual study in how to make a script work. Payne pulled off the never before achieved tasks of wining all the major screenwriting accolades consisting of best screen play honors from the National Board Of Review in both New York and Los Angeles, the Broadcast and National Society Critics award, the Golden Globes, the Writers’ Guild of America and last but certainly not least, the Academy Awards. Not bad at all for a simple little story about the wine country. This is a buddy movie the likes of which you have never seen. In most stories of this type there is plenty of action and perils as the friends travel around. Here the tone is still dramatic but the pitch is far lower keyed. It is a story of love, friendship and the pleasures of a really good bottle of wine. Payne draws the characters with the finest of brushes possible. They are fully formed and human in every aspect of their presentation. You readily identify with them and bond emotionally with them. This helps us accept the many foibles that reside within the personalities of the protagonists. They are far from perfect; some may call them losers. They really aren’t they are just people trying to figure out the meaningless direction the world often seems to take.
Payne has always been attracted to the odd ball story. His previous works that he both wrote and directed included ‘About Schmidt’, ‘Election’ and ‘Citizen Ruth’ and it is because of these films I have counted myself as a fan of his for years. Payne presents a quirky world view through the eyes of his characters. What makes it off beat is not so much how they think but that often the same thoughts have been unspoken by many in the audience. As a writer he provides the film with witty and well crafted dialogue. In his role as the director he trusts the cast and coaxes incredible performances out of each one of them. Yo0u most likely are familiar with the talent group of actors here but not as A lists stars. Paul Giamatti plays Miles Raymond. He is divorced and is failing in his chosen profession as a writer. The one thing that he can hold on to his is love and knowledge of wine. Giamatti has been in more films than I can readily list. He is a strong and consistently working character actor that is now breaking out as a leading man. Miles’ college roommate Jack Lopate (Thomas Haden Church) is about to be married and Miles plans a trip through the Southern Californian wine country as a bachelor party. Church may be best known as the goofy, slow witted mechanic on the long running TV series ‘Wings’. Here these two men give performances that are memorable. Church would receive an Oscar nomination for his work here, rare for a transplant from television. Some chance for romance is made possible when the men meet up with Maya (Virginia Madsen), a waitress at a local eatery and her best friend Stephanie (Sandra Oh) who works for one of the local wineries. They manage to forget to tell the ladies about the impending nuptials for Jack which leads to a flirtation between jack and Stephanie. Miles is attracted to Maya but realizing that this is a vacation infatuation doesn’t pursue the matter although Jack winds up sleeping with Maya. It seems that marriage is not at the fore of his mind. What was supposed to be a simple trip to play some golf and taste some wine becomes an emotional roller coaster ride for all involved.
The film is touching in a fashion that is so rarely seen. It is nothing like anything that you might expect and this is a grand and wonderful thing. ‘Sideways’ had a major effect on the real life wine industry resulting in record sales for those wines that were favorably featured and decline sales for wines that Miles disapproved of. I have seen this movie on regular DVD and was impressed. Now that I have had a chance to watch on Blu-ray it is a whole new experience. The 1080p high definition video is incredible. The colors are so rich and vibrant that you will watch with rapt attention. The many scenes of the beautiful country side take on an entirely different aspect here. It is overwhelming to see the blues and greens with such accuracy. The audio is in DTS HD, one of the lossless audio formats. It is perfect. The smallest detail of the sound track is crystal clear giving a sound field that wraps you up within it. There is a commentary track with Giamatti and Church that is light hearted, funny and informative. These are men that love their craft and so it. Even if you have this on DVD get it again on Blu-ray; it becomes and even better movie.