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Raise your glass

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For Alexander Payne, the wine that endlessly flows in his film Sideways is as celebrated and reviled as his characters. Each time a glass is raised --- in celebration, in jest, in anger, or in sadness --- this "character," this bottle of wine, moves from the depths of the subplot to the forefront of the film.

And every time one of his actors waxes poetic on the vulnerability, the resilience, and the personality of a fine vintage, we wonder how far they are from describing themselves. Or how far Payne is from musing on his film career. The comparisons between a fine, aged wine and the gently maturing aspects of Payne's work are impossible to ignore.

As a director working within the confines of the Hollywood system, Payne has managed to do the seemingly impossible: he is making films on his own terms. This was what he set out to do from the beginning, and each of his four films displays a progression toward increasingly better work.

Payne's early films were made under the severe pressure and auspices of creative executives. Election gave him a chance to work with a significant budget, but without control over the final cut. Still, the film earned a slew of Independent Spirit Awards and an Academy Award nomination. In many respects, he was on his way. By the time he completed his third film, About Schmidt, Payne had earned some well-deserved breathing room and the critical and box-office success that would lead to his current and perhaps finest film.

On its surface, Sideways (adapted from Rex Pickett's book) might not appear to be much more than a buddy film. The impending marriage of Jack (Thomas Haden Church), an aging B-list actor, propels ex-college-roommate Miles (Paul Giamatti) to propose a week-long roadtrip to the Santa Ynez Valley for wine tasting, golf, and whatever else might arise.

The subtext of the film, which revolves literally and symbolically around wine, would be reason alone to single this work out. But the inspired choices of Giamatti and Church --- neither of whom present marquis names, both of whom are perfectly cast --- is perhaps the greatest example of the power the director now wields.

If Payne's directing is the soul of this film, then Giamatti's performance is its flesh and blood. The strength of Payne's work as a filmmaker is his writing, and Giamatti delivers every line with an intensely dry wit. Beyond the humor is a melancholy and pain that is not at all subtle yet somehow subverted.

The idea that Payne is an actor's director becomes even more pronounced when Giamatti's delicate performance is juxtaposed against that of Church, who plays a boorish yet sympathetic womanizer. Excepting the pointlessly crude sex scenes he inexplicably includes in all his films, Payne draws from these actors a layer of complexity rarely seen on screen.

For all of Payne's strengths as a writer and director, he still lacks a level of understanding when it comes to some aspects of filmmaking. The richness of Payne's dialogue cannot hide the fact that he has not mastered the art of cinema. In some ways he borders on a visual illiteracy, as his sense of storytelling, beyond the written page, has yet to emerge. Split-screens and flat composition of the highly photogenic Northern California wine country are some of the more unforgivable examples of his inability to comprehend ways to use the camera to translate emotion and tell a story.

As the film selected to open the High Falls Film Festival, Sideways might leave viewers with a fair question: what role did women play in the project? The woman being honored by HFFF is production designer Jane Ann Stewart (she's worked on two other Payne films, and she'll be at the screening). And then there are the notable performances by Virginia Madsen and Sandra Oh, playing two wine-savvy waitresses. Whether or not these make the film an obvious choice for a spotlight at a women's film festival, let's just be glad that it is.

--- Christopher Nakis and Katie Papas

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