Monday, November 08, 2004

Random bits of business, done sideways

I don't have much to say about Sideways (B+/B). Alexander Payne, a native Cornhusker, clearly understands his Blue Staters here much better than the Red Staters in About Schmidt, and the result is a funnier and more heartfelt study of a guy who bears the weight of realizing he's accomplished nothing he wanted in life, and without the kind of condescension that marred Schmidt. It's the difference between a movie about Reds for Blue consumption and a movie about Blues for Blues. One entails a certain Animal Planet approach; the other works on pangs of recognition, which is necessarily more subtle.

As in Schmidt, the production design is especially sharp, full of little details (such as the little blue ceramic mug that Madsen drinks out of) that feel exactly right on. But I found the buddy dynamic and the themes awfully familiar, and Payne's not very good at the old Lubitsch trick of having the audience stay ahead of the characters. The reaction shots (eye-rolling, nudging) are too obviously cued to the audience, whom Payne labors to have clued in to the joke/deception/whathaveyou, rather than the characters observing the reaction. As terrific as Giamatti is (and he's mostly brilliant), he's often too aware of the camera, obviously showing his character's disgust for the audience. The movie's key image is a profile of Giamatti's Miles snarling, with his eyes peering at a spot just off the lens, playing to the viewer. Thomas Haden Church, who plays the frat-boy lummox, is pitch perfect ("ha ha, here I am!", he'll announce with that cackling self-confidence of a man totally unencumbered by self-awareness.) as Miles' foil. Ultimately, it's a fine, beautifully-observed character study of two familiar types, but nothing over which to jump up and cheer. Payne's unable to locate the revelatory in the ordinary, the way Richard Ford did in Independence Day, his excellent road novel of a middle-aged writer treading water. It's the margin between good and great. Perhaps the Rule of the Bandaged Nose comes into play. (The rule is that any movie where a character walks around with his nose bandaged is automatically accorded masterpiece status.)

Back to politics. A week after the election, the future of the Democratic Party isn't nearly as urgent a priority for me. Hence, I'm starting to rethink my plans for a multi-part tract. Okay, I lie. Electoral triumph remains my overriding obsession, even while we wage the ever-so-predictable post-election assault on Fallujah (a necessary move long overdue, but I fear the carnage) and one of the major historical figures of the last fifty years lie dying. So that will still be forthcoming, along with a lengthy review of I ♥ Huckabees, and possibly even some super tardy thing on Eternal Sunshine and Before Sunset. (Announcing potential posts publicly is really for my benefit -- it provides some incentive to get shit done.)

For those of you dizzy from the fast-changing conventional wisdom regarding why the Democrats couldn't beat a failed president (it's values no it's Kerry no it's lack of a party message no it's mass ignorance), you're already aware of Slate's circular firing squad. (Best pieces by Robert Reich and Robert Wright. Most honest assessment courtesy of Jane Smiley. So it's shrill; fuck you, too.) Flying somewhat under the radar, New Donkey provides a nice summary of CW with links, and some good discussion can be found on the, yes, increasingly shrill MyDD. Also, here's a nice summary from Kevin Drum, who's just a bit shrill.

On the nominally non-political end of the blogosphere, Mike D'Angelo finally caved in and started a blog that will focus exclusively on the virtues of magical handwear. Most of you reading this are already aware of the blog, no doubt, but those who aren't are advised to check it out. On the flip side, Mike's Doc Ock, aka Himey, has also turned bloggy. It's worth a look, especially the early, funnier stuff.