Academy Screenings: Heroes real, and unreal

Stewart Oksenhorn
Paul Giamatti, left, and Thomas Haden Church star in Sideways, showing as part of Aspen Filmfests Academy Screenings series.

What is it about “Sideways” that is leaving so many critics breathless in their praise?”Sideways,” from director Alexander Payne and writer Jim Taylor, the team behind “About Schmidt” and “Election,” breaks the presumed first rule of movie success: the importance of likable characters. From there, it knocks down most of the other current cinematic trends: It has no special effects, it is not set in a far-off time or place, it doesn’t involve extreme characters facing extreme situations.

“Sideways” has the quality that seems out of the grasp of most filmmakers these days: It is real. It takes place in the world of today, creates situations that most any adult American filmgoer can relate to. Most of all, its characters are, in all their flaws and selfishness and stupidity, real. It is also smart, original, funny and extremely well-acted. But above all, “Sideways” reaches emotions and relations that actually mean something to an audience.Miles, played by Paul Giamatti, is a failed novelist, a middle-school English teacher by default, who is on the verge of being rejected as a writer again. To cheer up Miles, and to celebrate – or perhaps escape the thought of – his own upcoming marriage, his buddy Jack (Thomas Haden Church), a vain, two-bit actor, takes him on a tour of California’s wine country. (It may have to do more with expense and proximity to Los Angeles, but I found it significant that, in this case, “wine country” was not the famed Napa and Sonoma valleys north of San Francisco, but the relatively low-grade region around Santa Barbara.)While drinking and dining their way through motels and vineyards, Miles and Jack confront what messes they have made, and continue to make, of their lives. Thanks to a wonderful script and the level of acting, Payne is able to work on a small scale that manages to pack a big punch. The trouble Miles and Jack stir up amounts to petty stuff: drunkenness, inter-buddy bickering, and failed hook-ups with two lovely locals (Virginia Madsen and Sandra Oh). Somewhere along the way, Miles and Jack become heroes – not by doing anything heroic, but by filling out the roles of ordinary guys failing and picking themselves back up to epic proportions.On the far extreme side of the cinematic scales from “Sideways” is “Imaginary Heroes.” Like Payne and Taylor, screenwriter-turned-director Dan Harris aims to make a story about human emotions and interactions. “Imaginary Heroes” revolves around the troubles and foibles of an upper-middle-class family in suburban New Jersey.

But where “Sideways” places its characters in fairly ordinary circumstances, “Imaginary Heroes” takes place in an environment that most of us, fortunately, will only have to imagine. A family tragedy sets the Travises – teenager Tim (Emile Hirsch) and his mom Sandy (Sigourney Weaver) and dad Ben (Jeff Daniels) – off in their own directions, trying to deal with what remains of their lives. But Harris, whose filmography includes a screenwriting credit for the comic-book-derived “X2,” shows a tin ear when it comes to non-mutants. The Travis family might as well be Wolverine and Magneto for how closely they resemble real-world people. Daniels’ Ben Travis, in particular, behaves in no way that is recognizably human, neither when he neglects Tim nor when he finally embraces him. Compounding matters, “Imaginary Heroes” comes off as a pastiche of better past films: a little “American Beauty,” a whole lot of “Ordinary People.””Imaginary Heroes” isn’t altogether bad. Weaver and Hirsch turn in good performances. There are some laughs. But I would have to wonder about anyone who finds themselves relating too closely to these characters.With two of last year’s finest screen performances – as a critically ill, depressed mathematician in “21 Grams,” and as a grieving, raging father in “Mystic River,” for which he won an Academy Award – Sean Penn seems to have mastered the art of depicting emotional turmoil. So where to go next?Back to the same well. In “The Assassination of Richard Nixon,” Penn plays Samuel Bicke, a man in an advanced state of unraveling. Sam is anguished by his separation from his wife (his “21 Grams” co-star Naomi Watts) and children and further disturbed by his alienation from his brother (Michael Wincott) for which he has himself to blame. Compounding his frustration are the lofty ideals Sam carries, practically guaranteeing his disappointment with the world. Sam takes a job as a salesmen in a high-end furniture shop and vows to instill ethical behavior into the realm of sales.

It is no surprise that Sam comes apart. What is surprising, though maybe it shouldn’t be, is how thoroughly Penn embodies yet another tortured soul, but still makes Sam unique, complete and compelling. As he spirals downward toward an assassination attempt on President Nixon that is beside the point, we are drawn into Sam’s way of thinking. First-time director Niels Mueller gives the film, based on actual events, a structure, centered around Sam’s ongoing dialogue with conductor Leonard Bernstein, to pull us deeper into Sam’s head. “The Assassination of Richard Nixon” thrills not because of guns and explosions, but because it’s rare we can go so far inside a character.Aspen Filmfest’s Academy Screenings shows “The Assassination of Richard Nixon” on Thursday, Dec. 30, at 3 p.m.; “Imaginary Heroes” on Thursday, Dec. 30, at 8:15 p.m.; and “Sideways” on Saturday, Jan. 1, at 5 p.m.Academy Screenings continues through Saturday, Jan. 1 with multiple daily features at Harris Hall. For a complete schedule, go to Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is