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Published: Thursday, 4/7/2005

Wine-country comedy pours glasses for the masses

BY CHRISTOPHER BORRELLI
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Paul Giamatti, left, and Thomas Haden Church in Sideways. Paul Giamatti, left, and Thomas Haden Church in Sideways.
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Within a second or two, Jerry Johnson can tell if his customers have seen Sideways (Fox, $29.98), which arrives on DVD this week. The first tip-off is that he has never seen them before.

The second?

"They ask for pinot noir, but they don't pronounce it correctly. That's usually a dead giveaway."

Mr. Johnson owns the Vineyard wine shop in the Westgate Village Shopping Center, and like a lot of people who sell fermented grapes these days, he is reaping benefits from Sideways. That popular award-season comedy - about two self-loathing buddies on a tour of California's central coast wineries - has been a boon to business since opening in November. But specifically, it's been a boon to sales of pinot noir (pronounced PEE-noh NWAHR).

According to market information company ACNielsen, pinot noir sales are up 16 percent nationwide. (Other surveys put it at 30 percent and higher.) Mr. Johnson said he gets about five new customers a week now who request pinot noir - the light, thin red grapes Paul Giamatti and Virginia Madsen bond over and wax poetic about.

It's no coincidence.

Not since E.T. slurped up a trail of Reese's Pieces and Stanley Tucci cooked a big authentic dish of macaroni in Big Night has a movie done more for a specific drink or cuisine. (On HBO, though, Sex and the City gave the cosmopolitan a second wind.)

To watch Sideways on DVD is to appreciate why: Alexander Payne's melancholy film captures those vineyards in the hazy slanting light of early summer. The pretensions people associate with wine are ratcheted down, and a calm, casualness is substituted. If there's a flaw to the disc - which has a commentary from Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church and a handful of deleted scenes (including a very funny one with a dead dog) - we want to know more about the wine they drink, where they drink it - and how to taste it.

"People who'd never step foot in a winery see this movie and they see average people drinking wine and it demystifies everything," said Jim Heltebrake, manager of the wine department at The Andersons on Talmadge Road.

What about Giamatti's often-quoted line about absolutely, positively not touching merlot?

"That took lots of customers by surprise," Mr. Heltebrake said. "It's popular, easy to drink. People still buy it." (Indeed, according to ACNielsen, merlot sales are up by 3 percent.)

Richard Fortney, owner of Maumee Wines, said he has talked a lot about this with wine distributors and they've decided the interest will be short-lived.

"This is what I'm hearing across the board: A person walks in who has never bought pinot noir. They get sticker shock and don't want to shell out $50 for a bottle. The characters in the movie drink the better stuff, of course. But the customer spends $10 for a bottle and not only do they not like it, they end up missing the point of the movie."

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MAJOR TOM TO GROUND CONTROL: One gripe about the otherwise generous Apollo 13: 10th Anniversary Edition (Universal, $22.98): No Gene Kranz, the Toledo native (and Central Catholic graduate) who served as flight director on that ill-fated mission. (You remember him best as Ed Harris.)

I called his Houston home and asked why the no-show. "I have more eggs in the basket than I can handle," he said. He still makes about a half-dozen public appearances a year with Apollo 13 flight commander Jim Lovell (played by Tom Hanks), who provides a commentary track on the disc with his wife, Marilyn.

Director Ron Howard lends a second yak track. Disc two contains documentaries about the actual disaster along with the re-edited IMAX edition of the film - a vital extra if you also happen to own an IMAX theater.

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THE LAZY BONES: After the Sunset (Warner, $27.95), directed by Brett Ratner, is an interesting movie to reach home video the same week as Mike Nichols' Closer (Columbia, $28.95) and Mike Leigh's Vera Drake (Warner, $27.98). Those last two you watch with a gulp in your throat, start to finish; they're so intense it becomes claustrophobic.

After the Sunset, however, is such a slack, unnecessary heist picture with Pierce Brosnan and Salma Hayek, I was left with one question: Can't these two afford their own vacations to the Bahamas?

Even the names are lazy: Brosnan is a Max, Hayek is a Lola, and Woody Harrelson, as the FBI agent hot on their trail, is a Stan.

Of course they are.

Vera Drake is on the dark side of the moon, comparably. It stars Oscar-nominated Imelda Staunton in the title role as a lumpy, grandmotherly wife in 1950s London who cheerfully makes her rounds, helps shut-ins, cooks meals, and harbors a secret: She provides abortions at a time when the act is mired in a legal gray area.

On the grim subject matter alone, and despite strong reviews, Vera Drake has had no luck finding an audience; but you'd be surprised how fair-minded and engrossing it is.

Closer is engrossing the way a 20-car pileup is engrossing. Starring Julia Roberts, Clive Owen, Natalie Portman, and Jude Law, it's acted as if the studio they're shooting in were on fire. They play lovers who cheat on each other with each other, and when the gloves come off, it's so brutally honest, at one point I actually gasped out loud and then looked around to see if I had embarrassed myself. The audience was too wrapped up to even notice.

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WORKING FOR THE MAN: James L. Brooks' Spanglish (Columbia, $28.95) tells the story of a young Mexican mother (Paz Vega) who buses herself into a wealthy Los Angeles suburb to work as a housekeeper for a celebrity chef (Adam Sandler) and his high-strung wife. She is played by Tea Leoni as if someone were constantly putting firecrackers beneath her seat. Brooks, who directed Broadcast News and As Good As It Gets and produces The Simpsons, is a master of neuroses. His characters have more innate decency than most. Except for Leoni's Deborah, who is all hard edges, clueless, and hard to like (but entertaining anyway). Spanglish has a good heart, and a lot of cultural sensitivity - and little idea of what it's trying to get across.

By the way, is your boss psycho? Perhaps it's in the DNA. Mark Achbar and Jennifer Abbott's The Corporation (Zeitgeist, $29.95) poses a clever explanation: If corporations are legally recognized as people, then what kind of people are they? Their answer: sociopaths.

According to one FBI shrink they interview, many large institutions fit this profile: "Inability to form lasting relationships"? Check. "Disregard for the well being of others"? Check. "Refusal to feel guilt?" Check.

It's a glib conceit for a documentary screed, and Achbar and Abbott play far too much to the chorus, piling on the usual footage of land being gorged by heavy machinery and '50s educational films so cheerful their insidiousness is palpable.

The filmmakers are short on ideas, too. But as a catalog of outrage, and a history of devious corporate machinations, The Corporation has the bite of a good comeback - one you think of two hours too late.

Contact Christopher Borrelli at: cborrelli@theblade.com

or 419-724-6117.



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