Category: romance

Sideways – drink! arse! women! feck! And yes, it’s a great movie, too

Paul Giamatti - happy as a lamb (to the slaughter). Photo © Matt Baron/BEImages

As any fan/previous viewer of Paul Giamatti’s acting will know, no one does miserable/depressed/self-loathing/angst-ridden/complicated/face-like-a-slapped-bottom better than him. In fact, when you reflect on some of his notable roles, such as Lady In The Water (2006), where he plays Cleveland Heep, a miserable, depressed caretaker/superintendent; American Splendor (2003) — in which he plays Harvey Pekar, the depressed, famous underground comic book novelist — and his vastly underrated film, Cold Souls (2009), in which his role is a version of his ‘real’ actor’s self, I mean Paul Giamatti’s own, angst-ridden to the maximum degree from losing his actor’s soul, and neatly echoing Malkovich’s angst at the integrity of his own being compromised by others entering his own head, in the marvellous Being John Malkovich (1999) — well, he has clearly been chosen precisely for his ability to convey such negative and complex emotions; his face is a portrait worthy of a hybrid Hieronymus Bosch/van Gogh/Edvard Munch painting).

In other words, he is a master of complex, confused misery; there is no other actor I can think of who does what Giamatti does better than him.

Sideways - click here for's region 2 DVD offer
Sideways - click here for's region 1 DVD offer

Sideways (2006) is a lovely, touching movie, that uses as its springboard a venture into Californian wine country, as a holiday between two male friends, one of whom, a surface-only, self-centred and good-humoured guy who is about to get married and wants to have some last flings before doing so (Thomas Haden Church plays the role very well; he’s probably most well-known for playing the Sandman in Spiderman 3 (2007)), and the other, of course, is Giamatti’s character, an unpublished novelist, depressed and self-loathing, obsessive wine connoisseur, who still suffers from the divorce from his wife two years earlier.

The two female leads are

Virgina Madsen

Virginia Madsen, who plays the love interest to Giamatti’s character, and Sandra Oh,

Sandra Oh
Real men, real wine! (aka: just drink the stuff, mofos!)

who plays the sex/passion interest of Thomas Haden Church’s character. Both of them perform their roles with charm, a sense of humour and a touching, gentle and real grace, for characters that are lively, bright, fun and independently minded – my idea of a real feminist woman; this is refreshing, especially considering they could

have been treated in the traditional Hollywood manner of simply having to act as two-dimensional foils for and second-rate characters to Church and Giamatti; kudos to the male director/co-writer and co-writer/novelist of this film (see two paragraphs below for their names).

While some critics and bloggers have described this as a slow/or slow start movie, I would argue differently and say it’s a drama that builds gradually on a simple premise and, as it does so, it unravels/reveals a mesh of complex themes around love, desire, denial, depression, hypocrisy, friendship, self-respect, integrity and passion. It is a great complement to the road movie and the buddies genres.

I’ve now watched it a good few times, and enjoy it all the more each time. The dialogue is crisp and sharp, the acting from the entire ensemble is top-notch and it’s a joy, joy, joy to imbibe (never mind the wonderful education you get about some terrific Californian wines along the way). The director, Alexander Payne, and screenwriters Rex Pickett (from his original novel), along with Alexander Payne, and the cast, all deserve their accolades and are to be congratulated for such an utterly charming film. Highly recommended to all lost souls, lovers of the pressed grape, romantics at heart and/or under the table (after some great vino, of course). As some say in England when about to celebrate each other’s company and when drinking something fancy: bottoms up!

Memoirs of a Geisha – What makes it such a great movie?

The only thing that’s incomprehensible about Memoirs of a Geisha, the movie, is that it only won three Academy Oscars (for Art Direction, Costume Design and Cinematography). Anyone who watches this wonderful movie, will also, I’m sure, award it Oscars for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress (for Ziyi Zhang, who plays the Geisha at the heart of the film, and Michelle Yeoh, respectively; not only are they truly beautiful, but they are terrific actors), besides the fab performances of Ken Watanabe and Koji Yakusho), and the terrific, touching and – yes! – sentimental– see next paragraph! – musical score by John Williams.

If you have a Region 2/multi-region DVD player, click this image to link you to a Limited Edition special offer for a box set containing both the DVD (Region 2 only) and Golden’s novel. (With apologies to Region 1 users.)

The film is gorgeously sentimental.  Not, I hasten to add blech-icky-saccharine-swallow-a-cup-of-cold-sick-yuckiness-type sentimental. Yes, I confess I’m getting defensive here, because I think there’s a vogue for disdain and ridicule about the term and I believe this misconstrues its meaning.  The majority informal view, it seems, is that it means a somehow frivolous, fake and over the top expression of emotions, thereby demonstrating a shallowness and hypocrisy of personality; that there’s an absence of any real feeling or depth of such; that it comprises an excess of emotions, all of which are fundamentally piffle and surface stuff only (akin to the emotional verbal diarrhoea and personality of the monstrous Mrs Bennet in Pride and Prejudice). But I prefer to side with the definition given by a hugely popular online dictionary – 50 million unique monthly users worldwide, besides other impressive stats about the use of their site –  as being expressive of or appealing to sentiment, especially the tender emotions and feelings, as love, pity, or nostalgia.  So, while there is vulnerability in such feelings, there is clearly no justification for the term and experience itself to merit ridicule. Instead, it is a genuine expression of powerful, deep feelings, as defined. Well, that’s what you experience with this film. Fair enough? Hope so!

Considering the power of the film to make you suspend your disbelief – a rare ability nowadays of many Hollywood films – so that you believe you actually are witnessing the real world of Geishas from the period of the 30s-40s – it is all the more remarkable that none of the writers/producers/director is in any way Japanese: they’re all American.  And I don’t mean this to sound patronising about the abilities of Americans to understand other cultures – eek – I appreciate some of the most famous anthropologists to date have been American. Anyway, as you’ll read in a few seconds below, two of the most important people to impact positively upon the film’s quality are also American (well, three in fact, when you take into count John Williams’ sumptuous music).  Moving on from Williams, since he’s now been cited, how then did the movie manage to do this? First, because it’s based on the wonderful, compelling novel by Arthur Golden, of the same title and, just as importantly, if not more so, is the influence that Liza Dalby, cultural consultant to Memoirs, academic and memoirist, had on the film.

Back in 1975, Dalby was the first female outsider – i.e., non-Japanese woman – in fact – yes! – she’s an American – ever to gain training as a Geisha. (The only other outsider accepted, it seems, was Fiona Graham, an English woman, who entered the world of the Geisha in 2008 – and you’ll see from that link that she was misrepresented as being the first outsider to do so in 400 years of Japanese  history;  in 2011 she was compelled to leave that world and role, apparently, due to ‘clashes with fellow members’.) Not only this, but Dalby went to Japan in 1975 because of her Degree studies in anthropology and because she wanted to research the world of the Geishas.  Not only did she succeed in being accepted into their world to do her research, she was also trained as and experienced the life of a Geisha, and even had a successful career as one. And, of course, all of that led to her highly successful memoir.

So because of her ability, her lived experience in that unique and closed world, and the huge benefit gained from her anthropological perspective, she was brilliant at giving sound advice, training and mentoring to the cast – most especially – and crew about all the elements that go into making a successful Geisha.  From manners, personality, dance, charm, singing, voice, body language and movement, conversation, the culture and atmosphere of entertainment, the patterns of life in an okiya, Geisha dress, make-up, etc., Dalby seems to know it all inside-out and back-to-front. As a result, she was really able to empower the cast and crew to learn about and appreciate the detail and depth of thought and action that goes into that world – if you watch the feature documentaries included with the DVD, you will see the justification of this claim – and thereby the movie is even more convincing than it may otherwise have been without her co-operation (because the world of the Geisha is still effectively closed to outsiders, despite some memoirs).  Thanks to Dalby’s mentoring, she ensures added depth and conviction to the acting, sets, cinematography and music.

The plot

The film focuses on the life of Chiyo, who we see at the start as a girl (nine years old), living with her sister, Satsu, their mother (who is dying from ill-health) and father, in an isolated Japanese village.  The father sells the two girls because he is too poor and desperate to take care of them.  Taking a long train journey, they arrive in Kyoto city and are then sold into two separate Geisha boarding houses in Gion, a renowned Geisha district. Over the course of the movie, we witness her many trials as Chiyo grows up, from being bullied and treated as a workhorse by Hatsumomo, a Geisha of the okiya, to facing the challenges of learning and mastering the ways of the Geisha in a ridiculously short space of time – thanks to being trained by Mameha, a famous Geisha, until Chiyo becomes the most famous of them all in Kyoto.

When Chiyo’s world changes because of the onslaught of WW2, we continue to follow her difficult journey until, at last, years later, she finds true love with a Japanese business man – the very same one whom she first met as a child living in Gion, when at that encounter she felt especially forsaken, sad, and hopeless for her future, and then for a time as a Geisha in training with Mameha, who introduces her to him and his co-business partner – and who was also the only one at that time to treat her with loving kindness.

So is it worth watching? Hello?! (ahem)

The acting, photography, pacing, script – all, and more – make this a sumptuous film to absorb, fall in love with, and absolutely sigh with happiness by the end. It is a touching, passionate (in every sense), romantic, wonderful love story, and for me it inspired the same intense emotions I experienced from reading Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre (Wordsworth Classics), and her sister, Emily’s Wuthering Heights (Wordsworth Classics). The stunning visual beauty of kimonos of the Geishas and their remarkable talents and traditions are all amazing and fascinating to behold. In all ways it is a memorable film and is one of those rarities that, on its own – filmic – terms, not only complements and does justice to the original novel, but also transcends it through its impact on one’s other senses. So is this truly glorious, romantic, inspirational film, filled with tension, heartache, and – ultimately – love requited and achieved – worth watching? Ahem! And it’s much more, besides: it deserves the ultimate accolade of cinema: it’s a movie classic.

Want to learn/read more about Geishas, Japanese culture and society?

For those of you who, like me, absolutely love, love love Japanese culture and would like to learn more about their society, including the world of the Geishas, I would recommend the following excellent true memoirs and various cultural studies – books on art, literature, society and aesthetics. They’re all thoroughly enjoyable and full of insight; of course, this is a purely personal set of favourites, so I would welcome any feedback/recommendations from you about great books you’ve read that I’ve not included, if you can find a mo?). FYI, all links for the books are to Book Depository, the online book retailer, as it ships free worldwide and has an outstanding customer service (besides which, I can avoid the need otherwise to cite separate US/UK editions). As to editions listed, I have referred to those I believe are lowest in price while also retaining a durable quality. I hope this sounds fair.

Geisha Memoirs

Cultural Studies


  • Modern Japanese Literature: An Anthology by Donald Keene (note: this was last published in 1994, so there are no authors published after that year. Importantly, however, in his lifetime, Professor Keene was one of the foremost authorities on Japanese literature and he is an excellent guide, with great taste and understanding
  • Two Japanese novelists to cite in particular, out of the thousands (sorry: simple explanation: it’s because they’re my two absolute favourites: they’re both extraordinary and both have been incredibly influential on Japanese literature at different periods, past and present):




  • In Praise of Shadows by Juni’chiro Tanizaki (an excellent, reflective essay by one of Japan’s most famous novelists)

Sandra Bullock’s drug addiction movie 28 Days – a confessional review

I'm cute, have a wickle button nose, wear snuggly-wuggly baggy cardigans in lots of my movies. But don't let that fool you, cos I eat children innit.

I confess that the first pleasure I gained from watching this movie was enjoying Bullock suffer so much (but since it was due to drug addiction, I admit that sounds rather twisted/nasty). I also confess that Bullock is one of my least – no – the least – favourite actresses. Why? Because she’s so incredibly limited, including in her comedy, which mostly comprises her falling over herself and being silly/talking silly, clutzy, and acting through her cute button nose and obsession with baggy cardigans (the latter only when her character is in either a sorrowful or ‘look I’m cute and innocent’ frame of mind, that is. So most of the time, yeh).

However, this movie about Bullock’s character’s forced stay in a drug rehab centre in the US, while curiously unclear about being a satire/straightforward comedy on such a centre, and otherwise a celebration of the quirky (read: drug-addicted) characters, resolves into a film that addresses some interesting issues about different kinds of drug addiction. Having said that, I still couldn’t figure out by the end of the film if the ridiculous American-style chanting among groups in the movie, was sincere (i.e., worthwhile, meaningful) or the opposite. Having been a counsellor in a former life, all I can say is I hope that the chanting was a satiric take on such activity, as I’ve never known it to be effective (besides which, there are no studies, as far as I know, that confirm otherwise).

Still, it is genuinely charming to see Bullock’s druggie-character transition over time to an individual who not only is struggling, but confronts and deals with the trauma in her life (especially in regard to her helping others). On top of which, and this is the best part of the movie, you have the wonderful

I love people you know, but it's like sometimes I think a lot of them are turkeys. Why? Because a lot of them come up to me and are always saying "gobble, gobble". Go gobble someone else.

Viggo Mortensen, playing an alcoholic, yet also endearing, and – surprise, surprise (no! — ahem), Bullock and Mortensen fall in love with each other but – wisely – this is a matter of deep appreciation of each other, not fulfilment for each other’s sake.

Besides the love interest, all the “quirky” characters are well-drawn and amusing and involve strong actors in their own right. While I think it is, ultimately, an entertaining engagement about drug problems, as opposed to a warning or serious movie about the issue – in contrast, one thinks of Hubert Selby Jr’s and Darron Aronovsky’s film Requiem For A Dream (to buy, click here for the UK/Europe version, and here for the US edition). None the less, it still does take time to address seriously some of the issues involved. Especially, given the actors’ efforts to impress their characters as bonding with/as well as challenging each other. Also, especially, Steve Buscemi, impresses as the lead-drug-addicted counsellor. And Viggo is, frankly — as always — thoroughly convincing and gorgeous in his role. No matter whom he plays as a character (in Lord of the Rings, Eastern Promises, A History of Violence), he comes across, just as he does here, as beautifully genuine.

So: my last confession: yes, Bullock can act, but for me this movie is the only proof. And what a charming, thoughtful and even occasionally amusing movie it is. And, yes, it is consistently, intelligently entertaining. Recommended.