Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church in SidewaysSIDEWAYS

Alexander Payne's Sideways is so chockfull of good humor and emotional accuracy that you leave the theater overwhelmed and a bit giddy; it feels like a movie that you, alone, discovered, and want to share with friends immediately.

I'm a little startled by just how much I love this film - Payne's Citizen Ruth and Election were both wonderful, to be sure, but his About Schmidt was, I thought, a ghastly, over-extended sitcom, and in none of these works was I convinced that Payne actually had a heart to go with his ironic sensibility. Well, Sideways, funny and piercing though it is, proves to be nothing but heart, yet it's so sharp and focused and real that it feels revelatory. 2004 might have produced a couple of better films, but you'd have to search long and hard for one with this degree of emotional intimacy, generosity of spirit, and laugh-out-loud hilarity. The film should not be missed.

Sideways takes one of the most reliable of movie staples - the road-trip excursion - and turns it into nothing less than a hysterically blunt and honest view of middle-aged men. The film's nominal plot involves struggling author and amateur wine connoisseur Miles (Paul Giamatti) taking his best friend Jack (Thomas Haden Church) out for a week of freedom before his impending wedding; Miles hopes for a week of golf and wine-tasting, and Jack merely hopes for the chance to get laid a few more times before marital fidelity rears its ugly head. Yet the film is an incredibly subtle and powerful study of fear - fear of being trapped in a relationship, fear of being alone, fear of losing your raison d'etre - that anyone who's ever asked "What's it all about?" will immediately identify with. Part of the glory of the work lies in its surprise (numerous friends I've talked to haven't even heard of the movie), so I'll leave the plot synopsis as it stands. Suffice it to say that, as Miles, Paul Giamatti gives a performance as indelible as Kevin Spacey's in American Beauty, but with a more generous spirit; Church, though by no means the actor Giamatti is, provides huge, appreciative laughs; and as the women who enter their lives, Sandra Oh is a saucy hoot, and Virginia Madsen gives one of the most stunningly sincere performances I've seen in many years. Her monologue explaining her reasons for loving wine is unimprovable, and is delivered with such staggering naturalism that, without a shred of melodrama, it might bring tears to your eyes. Blessed by a topnotch screenplay by Payne and Jim Taylor, Sideways is the must-see event of the season, at least until Kinsey gets here (stay tuned ... ); as befits a movie about wine-tasting, it's thoroughly intoxicating.


Annette Bening and Shaun Evans in Being JuliaBEING JULIA

Just how good is Annette Bening in Being Julia? Her grace, bearing, actor's gusto, and exquisitely subtle comic sense take your breath away ... during the opening credits. Playing an English actress in 1938 London who falls into a tumultuous affair with a man half her age, Bening's work is sublime all throughout Being Julia (currently playing at the Brew & View). Her character's conception is both hilarious and tragic: Julia is a woman who, quite simply, can't stop performing, who turns every minor annoyance into an excuse for a major tantrum, and watching Bening run the acting gamut is enormously satisfying; she's a slightly scaled-down version of Faye Dunaway's Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest, but Bening performs with such good humor that Julia never comes off as monstrous. Employing some of the most thrilling low tones since Tallulah Bankhead, yet able to turn schoolgirl-giddy on a dime, Bening has never before been this powerful onscreen; like Julianne Moore in Far From Heaven, Annette Being is both stylized and emotionally overwhelming. (And just watch her unjustly lose the Oscar, too.)

The movie itself is merely adequate. Based on Somerset Maugham's novella Theatre, the story is a wan and wispy thing - a Cliff's Notes version of All About Eve - and Julia's affair with the tepid Shaun Evans isn't believable for a moment; any actress as smart as Julia would have seen through this putz from minute one. And the film's climax is a real botch: It involves Julia improvising her way through the opening scene of her new play, yet while the sequence is good for a cheap laugh or two, it's an absolutely nonsensical twist (even as a comedic one); when the scene ends, you find yourself asking, "How are the actors going to get through the rest of the production?" and you never find out. At best, Being Julia is moderately amusing, yet there are fine supporting turns by Jeremy Irons, Juliet Stevenson (doing a Thelma Ritter), Michael Gambon, and Bruce Greenwood, and, of course, there's Ms. Bening, who turns an iffy work into a terrific one; the best moment might be the film's final shot, in which Julia, for the first time, drops her actor's guard, loosens her facial muscles, and finally becomes real; it's a transcendent tableau after a most astonishing performance.


Johnny Depp in Finding NeverlandFINDING NEVERLAND

Despite an impressive cast and an occasionally magical flight of fancy, Finding Neverland is a depressingly earthbound experience. Marc Forster's film, which shows how author J.M. Barrie (personified here by Johnny Depp) came to write his theatrical triumph Peter Pan, is well-crafted, technically adept, and God knows it's earnest; the movie aims to be both a larkish bio-pic and a tony tearjerker, and it wears its good intentions on its sleeve. Finding Neverland is stately, composed, and ever-genial. It's also pretty damned boring.

Set at the turn of the 20th Century, David Magee's script could be mistaken for one of those predictably stuffy, 19th Century melodramas that Barrie's Peter Pan was, in fact, a direct assault on. Even if you don't know the story behind Peter Pan's creation, you won't be the least bit surprised by the film's barrage of hoary, clichéd sequences: the look-how-loveless-his-marriage-is scenes with Barrie and his wife (Radha Mitchell) sitting at opposing ends of an enormous dining-room table; the forced playfulness of Barrie's bonding with the children of the beautiful widow Sylvia Llewelyn Davies (Kate Winslet); the confrontations with Barrie's shrewish mother-in-law (Julie Christie); the low comedy involving Barrie's skinflint producer (Dustin Hoffman); the lump-in-the-throat finale, with Forster shamelessly filling the screen with doe-eyed tykes overwhelmed by the magic of it all. Finding Neverland, in fact, feels like 19th Century storytelling; it's pleasant and harmless and, above all, nice.

I could have done with a little less niceness. As Barrie, Depp stays in character and is sweet as all get-out, but he comes off as a bit of a dullard; when I read articles about how Johnny Depp has finally found his Oscar role, I can't fathom what the writers are talking about. (He's much more impressive in that amusingly schlocky Stephen King vehicle, Secret Window.) But this is a movie in which none of the performers has a chance to come off all that well - even Kate Winslet, who gives the film's only sustained moments of melancholy, starts coughing so early that she might as well have "R.I.P." stitched into her bodice. The kids are cute; the filmmaking is amiable. The movie is fine. But Finding Neverland remains a bummer; it's a movie you know you should like more than you actually do.

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