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Writer/Director Alexander Payne may not yet be a household name, but don’t fall into the trap of underestimating his talent. A relative unknown when he helmed the grossly underrated black comedy Election, Payne was soon on his way to being able to pick and choose his art. The relative critical hit About Schmidt followed, and it was only then that he really stamped his mark as one of the most creative writers going around.

Sideways sat firmly among the top ten lists of most critics come the end of 2004. Their choice was vindicated a month later when the film, script, director and co-star were all nominated for an Academy Award. The monumental snub given to star Paul Giamatti is an issue unto itself, but there’s no doubt Payne’s latest was a critical darling which would always occupy a soft spot in the hearts of audiences worldwide.

Sideways (Rental)
The film tells the tale of Miles Raymond (Giamatti), a struggling author and depressed English teacher who is so desperately looking for a book deal. Miles still pines over his ex-wife, and has been bitter on the world ever since she left. The only outlet he has is an undying passion for wine, which is arguably also his greatest vice. So when his good friend Jack decides to join him on a wine-tasting week away, firstly to celebrate Miles’ pending book deal and Jack’s upcoming marriage, things finally start looking a little rosier.

Jack (Thomas Hayden Church) is almost the complete opposite to Miles. Confident, brash, outspoken and an absolute philistine when it comes to wine, you wonder how the pair became involved with each other in the first place. That is precisely where the comedy element lies. We see Miles cringe when he spots Jack chewing gum during a wine tasting session, while Jack bemoans Miles’ negative attitude to having fun, particularly with women.

The pair soon meet Maya (Virginia Madsen) and Stephanie (Sandra Oh) on their travels, with Maya and Miles having met previously during Miles’ frequent visits to wine country. Jack takes an instant liking to Stephanie and before long they all hit it off and begin a brief but eventful week of wine and meaningful conversation.

There is actually little else to the film on the surface. The script is so powerful there isn’t any need to tamper with the basic narrative. Payne has managed to weave some very clever comedy elements into the film, including some subtle references to his previous films (the principal from Election makes a cameo as the same character), a gag about Jack having appeared in a couple of TV shows years ago (Haden Church is best remembered for his roles on Ned & Stacey and Wings) and an hilarious scene involving a rather large girl, Jack’s wallet and a stark naked, angry husband.

Sideways (Rental)
The performances of the cast members are simply outstanding, and go a long way to making the film as heartfelt as it turns out to be, rather than just another drama with some familiar stars. Paul Giamatti must have done some pretty bad things to the Academy, considering he was overlooked for his role as Harvey Pekar in American Splendor and again for his outstanding work in this film. Clint Eastwood may be cut from the finest cloth, but he’s no match for Giamatti at his peak here. Thomas Haden Church did raise the interest of the Academy and deservedly so. He is the perfect fit for Jack, so much so that you can’t imagine anyone else in the role once you’ve witnessed his pitch perfect performance (rumour has it that none other than George Clooney took a shot).

The two women also more than hold their own among the big boys. Virginia Madsen slots perfectly into the role of Maya, and it would be a shame if she doesn’t land some more roles of significance on the back of her turn here. Sandra Oh (Payne’s real life wife) is serviceable without having too much to do. But Virginia Madsen is the real soul of the dramatic side of the film. The scene on the porch with Maya and Miles is outstanding, purely due to the poise of Madsen and the vulnerability of Paul Giamatti. And with a strong script behind them from self-confessed wine connoisseur Alexander Payne (who chose the wine list himself) there is an incredible balance between drama and comedy that is rarely achieved in mainstream film.

Sideways (Rental)
There is no doubt the film isn’t for everyone, particularly because there is probably only one showcase sequence to keep the less attentive on their toes. But there is such a genuine feel to the story, with a quartet of likeable characters (each in their own unique way) that makes this film a real standout. It’s hard to find a modern drama in the same mould, which says as much about the talents of Payne as a writer/director as it does the state of mainstream film when it comes to good, clean, meaningful tales.

Thankfully the film receives a more than serviceable transfer with this release from Fox. The 1.85:1 widescreen presentation comes up a treat, although you’ll find it has been softened somewhat to fit the relaxed nature of the film itself. Sharpness isn’t perhaps what it could have been, but this is more than made up by some incredible colours and a print that is free from any imperfections whatsoever. Grain is kept to a minimum so you’ll be concentrating firmly on the action as opposed to any problems with the transfer itself.

Included in this release is a Dolby Digital 5.1 mix which performs quite well without having too much to do. The most pleasing aspect is the delivery of the musical score, a jazz-laden, unobtrusive mix from experienced composer Rolfe Kent. Sounding uncannily like the Being John Malkovich score (which Kent had no apparent involvement in), the music sounds great coming out of the surrounds. The rest of the action sits in the front stage mainly, using a few directional effects here and there. Little else to report from a sound mix that doesn’t need to do much to be sufficient.

Sideways (Rental)
A neat little extras package has been assembled here, giving the disc some added value for fans of the film. First up is the commentary track with Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church. The pair seem quite relaxed and feel happy to joke around for the most part. Both of them are great to listen to from a voice point of view, which is a bonus because the bulk of the track is filled with little anecdotes and snippets of information which are great for fans of the film. Well worth a listen for those who want more insight into what the pair went through during the film.

The next major piece is a collection of deleted scenes. There are seven in total, which can be played together as a whole. Alexander Payne includes some text-based notes on the scenes before they are shown, which is kind of a make-up for no commentary on either the film or the deleted scenes package. There are some quality pieces included here, especially the gag involving Miles and a dog, which gets called back again in another scene which was cut from the final version.

The only other piece is a behind the scenes featurette, which is the kind of show you’d usually see on late night television during the film’s opening week. There are a lot of clips from the film, interviews with the major players and a general analytical tone to the whole piece. It has a very familiar structure to it that we’ve seen countless times before, so you wouldn’t watch this more than once, that’s for sure.

While the extras package lacks a lot in quantity, at least you can rest assured the commentary track and deleted scenes really do add some value to the disc. Haden Church and Giamatti are great to listen to, while the deleted scenes are well worth a look. There is definite potential for a few add-ons with the retail release, but one wouldn’t anticipate there being many changes to the package overall.

Sideways (Rental)
There is an undeniable quality to this film which justifies its position among top ten lists from last year. Alexander Payne has firmly established himself as one of the most talented writer/directors going around, so future projects will almost certainly be highly anticipated following his trio of quality features so far. The video transfer does the job quite well, while the audio is propped up by a neat little jazz-based score. It’s a shame the extras package isn’t bulked up a little, but thankfully what we do get is largely top notch. Bear in mind that this is the rental version, so things may change when the retail release hits shelves in a few months. Overall you can’t go wrong with the film, and the disc is sure not to disappoint.