Paul Giamatti, Thomas Haden Church, Virginia Madsen, Sandra Oh

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Miles Raymond isn't much of a catch. He is short, dumpy, divorced, past 40 and teaches junior-high English while toiling on a novel that no one seems eager to publish. "My life is half over and I have nothing to show for it," Miles (Giamatti) wails in self-pity. F. Scott Fitzgerald long ago claimed that there are no second acts in American lives, but in this wonderfully humanist film, Miles clearly lays the groundwork for his.

Sideways is another banner effort from director-cowriter Alexander Payne, 43, whose earlier movies include Election and About Schmidt. Payne just may be the single most talented director of his generation. Like his other films, Sideways is bittersweet, full of humor that's alternately gentle and raucous (a rampaging-naked-guy scene is a hoot) and completely accepting of its characters as it reveals their strengths and weaknesses. Miles, an oenophile, heads out on a weeklong trip with Jack (Church), a college pal, to California's wine country. Jack is about to marry and, as he puts it, "this is our week to get crazy." Both men do exactly that, in their own ways, especially after taking up with two women—Miles with a waitress (Madsen) and Jack with a single mother (Oh)—in a town they are visiting.

The cast is superb. No one plays smart sad sacks better than Giamatti. Church perfectly nails Jack's swagger and secret sweats, and Oh delivers another small gem of a comic performance. The surprise here, and hallelujah for it, is the warm, expert turn by '80s starlet Madsen as a mature woman who isn't falling for any man's line. Sideways is one of those rare movies filled with characters so vivid that when the closing credits roll, you're almost disappointed because you so want to keep watching these folks as their lives unfold. (R)

Ben Affleck, James Gandolfini, Catherine O'Hara, Christina Applegate


Since when does Ben Affleck star in remakes of David Spade movies? Last year, Dickie Roberts: Former Child Star showcased Spade as an ex-sitcom kid who paid a family to let him live with them temporarily so that he could experience the childhood he never had. In the barely survivable Surviving Christmas, a wealthy but lonely Chicago advertising executive (Affleck) promises $250,000 to a family now living in his suburban childhood home if he can spend Christmas with them. He wants to join in such holiday rituals as buying a tree, drinking cocoa and hanging stockings. The premise was shaky the first time; in Christmas it just curls up and dies.

Which is a shame, since director Mike Mitchell (Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo, not exactly a credit to inspire confidence) rounded up a solid cast. Comedy goddess O'Hara, playing the beleaguered mom, wrings laughs out of even this limp material. Ditto Gandolfini as the dad; never has anyone looked as grumpy donning a Santa hat. And Applegate sputters charmingly as their disapproving daughter. That leaves Affleck, who speaks rapidly in a squeaky voice and gesticulates broadly, apparently under the misimpression that these are the tools of a farceur's trade. (PG-13)

The Grudge


All who enter a haunted house in Tokyo come to a bad end. Will the same happen to an American visitor (Sarah Michelle Gellar, above)? This is director Takashi Shimizu's lackluster English-language remake of Ju-On: The Grudge, his 2003 Japanese film. We say, "Why bother?" (PG-13)

Happy Hour

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Anthony LaPaglia (TV's Without a Trace) is magnetic as a smart, self-destructive alcoholic, but this romantic drama goes nowhere. (Not rated)



This backwoods tale about two boys fleeing a murderous uncle (Josh Lucas) is weighed down by bloody pain and soggy poetic feeling. (R)

Dawn of the Dead (Universal, $29.98)

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Most horror movies' unrated director's cuts are more trick than treat, but this expanded version of Dead (a remake far scarier than the satirical 1978 original) adds quiet moments with stars Ving Rhames and Sarah Polley that enhance the film's emotional heft. Extras: Three bloody good featurettes on the zombie makeup and effects; breezy director and producer commentary; and an overlong Blair Witch-style video supposedly recorded by a Dawn character and found after the film's events. (Not rated)

  • Contributors:
  • Leah Rozen,
  • Jason Lynch.