dir. Lajos Koltai

Freely adapted from Susan Minot's novel by Michael Cunningham (The Hours), Evening tells the story of Ann Grant (Claire Danes)—an aspiring Greenwich Village singer whose flowing skirts scream "free spirit"—as she ventures into the high WASP territory of 1950s Newport, Rhode Island, for her friend Lila Wittenborn's (Mamie Gummer) wedding. The Wittenborns' summer home, papered in luscious lemons, and its capacious lawn, surreally green, are captured by director and one-time cinematographer Lajos Koltai, who last lavished his lens on concentration-camp victims in Fateless. Everything is beautiful, including Lila's brother (Hugh Dancy), who is also doomed. We know he is doomed because he drinks too much, worships F. Scott Fitzgerald, and has a crush on a small-town doctor (Patrick Wilson) whose father used to work for the family.

As though this weren't enough doom for one story, there's also the present day, in which a dying Ann (Vanessa Redgrave, looking ashen) mumbles about her long-lost loves while her two daughters look on, stricken. This is entirely too much doom. Evening could have been a pretty period tragedy, but instead, the present-day story had to load up on life lessons and coffee mugs and imagined angels. I never thought I'd prefer watching Claire Danes and Patrick Wilson to Vanessa Redgrave and Meryl Streep, but the magic of sex wins out over the schmaltz of death every time.

I hope this imbalance was inadvertent (though given the source material I can't be sure), but when I was watching the present-day I became uncomfortably aware of my eagerness to get back to the '50s. It's one thing to feel lightly nostalgic about a period setting (even one where closeted gays wanted to drink themselves to death); it's another thing when you realize the movie is pushing you to prefer it over the dingy present. ANNIE WAGNER

ShowBusiness: The Road to Broadway

dir. Dori Berinstein

With unprecedented access and bottomless love for its subject, Dori Berinstein's documentary ShowBusiness tracks a year in the life of Broadway, from early-fall season announcements through the late-spring Tony Awards. At the center of the story are three works that will become contenders for the 2004 Best New Musical Tony—the artistic smash/commercial risk Caroline, or Change, the $14 million fairy tale Wicked, the adult puppet extravaganza Avenue Q—and one that won't: Taboo, the Boy George/Rosie O'Donnell collaboration whose production troubles (real and invented) would fuel tabloid reports for months.

Following these four fledgling musicals from workshops through rehearsals to opening night and beyond is the business of ShowBusiness, and for fans of theater in general and musical theater in particular, it's a delightful ride, filled with privileged glimpses into the backstage world of Broadway and blessed with a terrific natural climax in the Tony Awards. For new musicals, the race for the Tony can be a matter of life or death, with winners granted years of sell-out shows and international tours, and losers doomed to dwindling houses and death. Watching Berinstein's players—from the theater-world superstars of Wicked to the goofy underdogs of Avenue Q to the corps of critics whose roundtable discussions punctuate the action—navigate this high-stakes terrain will thrill anyone with a soft spot for the stage.

For nontheatergoers, however, ShowBusiness is probably too immersed in its subject to work as a recruitment tool. By dividing her focus among four productions, Berinstein sacrifices the type of psychotic minutiae that made Chris Hegedus and D. A. Pennebaker's single-minded stage doc Moon Over Broadway so gawk-worthy. Instead, Berinstein makes the cumulative rush of the Broadway season the star of her show. Thanks to vast gambles and stunning upsets of the 2004 season, it works. DAVID SCHMADER