Director Alexander Payne often uses a tortured male as the entry point in his films. Warren (Jack Nicholson) in 'About Schmidt.' Jim (Matthew Broderick) in 'Election.' These aren't necessarily approachable men. They're often working stiffs trapped in their misery. In Sideways we have Miles (Paul Giamatti), and the stark analogy between people and wine is laid out early on. He's a high school English teacher and an aspiring novelist who is trying to get published. Divorced, and constantly down on his luck, his only enjoyment comes from his love of wine. He particularly fancies pinot noir, which he finds complicated, temperamental, and fragile -- just like himself. And being a sophisticate wannabe, he treats his college roommate, Jack (Thomas Haden Church) to an atypical Bachelor's getaway in one of California's wine hot spots north of Santa Barbara, California.
See, Jack's about to get married and while one of these two is on a hunt for good wine, the other is looking to have as much random sex as he can possibly fit in before walking down the aisle. Jack's a bit actor, and like a merlot, he can lay it on thick and overpower everything around him. Once Miles picks him up from his fiancee's, the lies never stop. Miles says he wants to visit his mother, when in reality he's stealing money. Meanwhile, Jack brags to everyone that Miles' novel has been published (which it hasn't) while turning on the charm for every woman they meet. Like-able guys, these are not.
Caught in their web are two lovely ladies. Maya (Virginia Madsen), a waitress at the Hitching Post, and an acquaintance of Miles from his many visits, and her friend, Stephanie (Sandra Oh), a wine pourer at one of the wineries, who catches Jack's prowling eye and walks right into his bear trap. Jack's not-so-subtle nudging helps Miles discover that Maya, like a wine that catches him off-guard, is truly complex and full-bodied. As Jack's path of deceit grows and he begins to fall for Stephanie, Miles just curls up in his lonely, self-loathing corner. The self-destructive nature of Miles, balanced with his puzzling care for Jack, provides one laugh after another, although not in a side-splitting way. This is dry humor, and if you can relate at all to experiencing life as one big uphill climb, you'll enjoy Miles' plight. The lies eventually catch up to them, and both men pay the price. But how many deceptions can Miles stomach in order to cover for his friend?
The title Sideways can be applied to so many things, like tipping the bottle and pouring oneself into a glass to be sampled and analyzed by others. Holding a glass up to the light at an angle reveals the wine's true color, and once tasted, appearance and aroma can mask only so much. Like people, wine grapes have a history that helps mold them in their matured state. The agricultural conditions of the soil, the weather, the experience, the care (or lack thereof), and the overall process, shape the eventual taste. When paired with the right accompaniments, or just the right occasion, the very best of that wine comes out. And while a person can enjoy different kinds of wine, or just one type, no two bottles are the same. In the two bottles of Jack and Miles, however, their differences, and in particular their weaknesses, are what keep you coming back for another glass.
Payne's intention was to create a movie that looked like it was done in the 1970's, from the music on down to the cinematography. All of that has been maintained in the Blu-ray, so don't expect the grapes and rolling hills of mid-coastal California to have that high definition appearance on your television screens. Sideways has a soft look to it, especially exterior scenes, but indoor scenes, mostly in the restaurants, show improved, slightly more vivid colors. Skin tones are nice, from Sandra Oh's warm, light tan, to Paul Giamatti's fair complexion, complete with pink, irritated worry lines. It's one of those transfers that keep the original design intact, and there's nothing wrong with that, but the Blu-ray doesn't seem to offer a significant upgrade from the DVD.
Sideways comes with a 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track, but don't expect too much from this film. Most of the sound comes from the center channel, with the exception of the music. This just isn't a film with a big surround sound experience. Dialogue is rightly strong with good range and clarity in all of the speaking levels. Again, as in the video, that uniquely high definition experience just isn't to be found here, this track serves the original sound design well for what it is. Also available are Spanish 5.1 DTS, French 5.1 DTS, and Portuguese 5.1 DTS tracks
Outside of some high definition trailers as the disc loads, everything has been ported over, so there's no added incentive here if you already own the DVD. All of the featurettes are in Dolby Digital 2.0 and in standard definition and are MPEG-2 encoded.
'Sideways' follows an odd couple of friends whose last ditch effort to make something of their lives is a disaster worth watching. The humor doesn't dip to the lowest common denominator, and it's balanced by some strong acting by all four actors. Still, this Blu-ray isn't a huge improvement over the DVD, and the lack of upgrades across the board make's it a highly recommended rental. However, if you're a fan and never purchased it, the Blu-ray maintains Alexander Payne's wonderful venture into a sophisticated man's downward spiral, tannins and all.