Although Sideways is every inch a road movie with two middle-aged men on the requisite quest, these males don't really do much bonding. Filmmaker Alexander Payne's latest indie release, which opens this weekend at the Roxy in Burlington, is more concerned with the issue of growing up. Miles, a sad-sack San Diego writer played by Paul Giamatti, has the potential to do so. His former college roommate Jack (Thomas Haden Church), an unsuccessful Los Angeles actor, may never be more than a wrinkled, ribald Peter Pan.
On their trek through California's lush Santa Ynez Valley, these buddies share a limited agenda: golf and drinking. Miles, a connoisseur, evaluates every drop on their wine-tasting excursion. He waxes poetic about the pedigree of each alcoholic beverage, detecting ingredients -- even asparagus or passion fruit -- with a mere sniff. Pretty-boy Jack just likes to get tipsy.
But the biggest hurdle on this trip, a sort of on-the-road bachelor party one week before Jack's wedding to an upscale beauty, is their divergent attitudes towards women. The betrothed Lothario plans to score as many quickies as possible in advance of a marriage that probably won't transform his wandering ways.
Still devastated by a divorce two years earlier, Miles teaches English to adolescents while awaiting word from publishers on the prospects of his 750-page novel. He is filled with hopelessness, rage and self-loathing -- not unlike the downbeat Harvey Pekar played by Giamatti in the 2003 American Splendor. So this dumpling-shaped schlimazel reacts with sarcasm when Jack urges him to woo Maya (Virginia Madsen), a waitress who reveals a similar appreciation for finely fermented grapes.
But after her saucy friend Stephanie (the director's real-life wife, Sandra Oh) begins an affair with Jack, Maya and Miles are thrown together. Their first "date," on a front porch in the moonlight, involves a discussion of Pinot Noir that's as subtly erotic as it is eloquent.
"A bottle of wine is actually alive," Maya concludes.
Miles punctuates that idea with a more mundane but equally rapt observation: "And it tastes fucking great."
Payne is not interested in an ordinary boy-meets-girl formula. His previous pictures have often examined how people are pushed to the edge by their obsessions. In Citizen Ruth (1996), the drug-addled title character inadvertently sparks an abortion controversy. Election (1999) focuses on a vindictive high school teacher trying to thwart a smarmy girl running for student council president. Last year's About Schmidt is the tale of a dour widower without a moral compass.
Redemption for Payne's beloved losers tends to be a bit murky. The comedy in Sideways is as bittersweet as the pairing of mismatched pals: After many wine-country misadventures, Jack seems headed for matrimony by default. The appropriately named Miles is faced with the challenge of letting go in order to move forward.
The Netherlands has been rocked by a spasm of violence lately. The assassination of provocative filmmaker Theo van Gogh earlier this month by an alleged Islamic militant sparked retaliation against Muslim places of worship across the normally tolerant European nation.
Amid such alarming developments, two local women from the recently concluded Vermont International Film Festival are heading to Amster-dam this week. At a cinematic gathering devoted to documentaries, executive director Mira Niagolova of Essex and board member Deb Ellis of Burlington will meet with fellow representatives of a worldwide coalition of human-rights festivals.
"It helps raise the profile of our own event," Ellis says. "Through this kind of outreach, we got more film submissions than ever this fall."
At a concurrent film market there, she also hopes to find international buyers for her doc, You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train. Coinci-dentally, this profile of historian/ activist Howard Zinn -- which Ellis co-directed with Denis Mueller -- unspools at 7 p.m. Friday, November 19, as part of the Rencontres Internacionales de Documentaire de Montreal at Concordia University.
Ellis plans to attend the Quebec screening before hopping on her transatlantic flight the next day. She anticipates their weeklong Dutch sojourn will be "a great opportunity for some worldwide networking."
The duo also plans to catch as many movies as possible. Ellis speculates that the Amsterdam extravaganza will likely hold a tribute to van Gogh. "We are going there at a very interesting time," she adds. "It's an especially important time for thinking about human rights."