Hold onto the child within

Johnny Depp won my heart in “Pirates of the Caribbean” and now I can’t get enough of him. “Secret Window” looked like it was going to be a cheesy horror film but I went anyway because he was in it and was rewarded with an intelligent horror film.

I was even more apprehensive about Depp’s latest, “Finding Neverland.” I figured it could easily go either way — very good or very bad. Thankfully, Johnny has come through for me again.

“Finding Neverland” is loosely based on the life of “Peter Pan” author J.M. Barrie, whose friendship with a widow, Sylvia Llewelyn Davis (played by Kate Winslet), and her four young sons helped inspire the play. (In reality, there were five sons but the movie’s four provide more than enough chaos to get the idea of what poor Sylvia was up against.)

When we meet Barrie, his latest play is a disaster and he’s in an unhappy marriage. He meets Sylvia and her sons in the park one day and immediately joins them in their world of make-believe. Before long, he is spending more time at the Davis home than his own, raising eyebrows in his social circle and the disapproval of Sylvia’s mother (Julie Christie).

The boys inspire his creativity and he inspires theirs. One of them, Peter, who has suffered the most from his father’s death, begins to write page after page of his own stories, which he then gets his brothers to perform.

Unfortunately, once Sylvia coughs ever so slightly you just know it’s not going to end well. By that time, though, Barrie is too attached to this family to turn back. He’s in it for the long haul.

“Finding Neverland” is never maudlin and the actors are superb. Depp is being touted as a potential Oscar winner. I don’t know about that, but he does a great job, as does Winslet.

Freddie Highmore, who plays Peter, so impressed Winslet, she recommended him for “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” where he is again working opposite Depp.

Although “Finding Neverland” is about the inspiration for “Peter Pan,” it’s not necessarily for children. This is a grown-up story about not wanting to grow up.

Spill the wine

“Sideways” is the terrifically funny story about a depressed failed novelist, written by a depressed failed novelist — failed, that is, until he wrote the book on which “Sideways” is based.

This wonderful new movie from director Alexander Payne (“About Schmidt,” “Election”) follows the misadventures of Miles (Paul Giamatti), a divorced unpublished novelist and wine lover. His pre-wedding gift to his best friend, Jack, a former TV sitcom actor and wild man, is to take him on a wine-tasting tour of California vineyards.

Former sitcom actor Thomas Haden Church (“Wings”) plays Jack. Church may or may not be a wild man. Judging from a panel discussion with the cast at the New York Film Festival last month, he more than likely is.

“I’m probably a lot more like Jack than I’m even aware,” Church says.

Payne agrees. “His humor, his craggy and handsome looks, his goofiness and the fact that he also had a lot of experience in TV,” the director says, “all had an interesting crossover with the character.”

There is a definite comic chemistry between this odd couple of Giamatti and Church, so much so that they were asked if they knew each other before this movie. “I did not know Thomas,” Giamatti deadpanned. “I now know Thomas very well.”

Of course, it probably didn’t hurt that the cast steeped itself in the culture of the wine country before shooting began.

“We hit the wineries,” Church explained, “which was weird because it was 11 o’clock in the morning. [We’d say], ‘Hey, research!’”

“Sideways” is from a Rex Pickett novel by the same name. Pickett based it loosely on his own weekend trip with a friend. At the time Pickett was a divorced, unemployed, debt-ridden screenwriter reduced to getting free tickets to movies through his Writers Guild membership and then selling them later when the lines were long.

As Pickett and his friend tasted more and more wine, Pickett began to entertain him with outrageous stories “about these two guys who come to the wine country and get nuttier and nuttier.” His friend advised him to turn the stories into a screenplay. He failed at that but did turn them into a novel, which found its way to Payne. And a sweet, funny, memorable movie was born.

The film also stars Virginia Madsen and Sandra Oh (Payne’s real-life wife) as the women with whom Miles and Jack become involved.

“I think the story is about examining the male psyche, and also how women deal with the male psyche,” Oh has said. “It’s about two completely opposite men who can’t quite grow up and need each other to survive — and it’s about wondering ‘what have I done with my life and where am I going?’”

Asked if “Sideways” is a comedy or a drama, Payne said, “It’s a movie about people.”

The author can be reached at crummel@pww.org.