49 posts categorized "based on a book"


Editor and publisher: Reining in Mr. Write

Colin Firth, left, as Max Perkins and Jude Law as Thomas Wolfe in "Genius." (Marc Brenner/Roadside Attractions)

In the movie industry and in film critic circles, there's a term called a parking lot movie.

That's a film so good, so compelling or so thought provoking that movie-goers emerge from the creative darkness of a theater into the harsh bright light of reality and talk -- and perhaps argue -- about what they have just witnessed all the way to the car.

Genius, the dramatic verbal sparring match between early 20th century novelist Thomas Wolfe and his editor-publisher Max Perkins, drove me far beyond the aforementioned parking lot.  For the greater part of this morning, I've thrown myself into digging deeper into this volatile relationship between one of the most important writers of his lifetime and the word master who published and molded his work into Look Homeward, Angel and Of Time and the River.

Pairing accomplished British actors Jude Law and Colin Firth perfectly as Americans Wolfe and Perkins, Genius dares to stick closely to something rare in a based-on-truth night at the movies:  truth.  We can thank a trio of filmmakers for that.  The movie is based on A. Scott Berg's biography Max Perkins:  Editor of Genius.  Berg spent nearly a decade developing his Princeton University senior thesis on Perkins into the biography.  Gifted screenwriter John Logan (Gladiator, Any Given Sunday, Hugo) has fought to get this film to the screen for 20 years.

As for first-time director Michael Grandage, also from Great Britain, the respected actor-playwright has the most difficult task of all; combining all the elements into a cohesive biography of two towering forces of literature who may have been forgotten, or almost forgotten by too many.

I like the way Grandage doesn't feel the need to mention the Great Depression in words in this drama set partly in 1929.  His scene where Wolfe and Perkins walk down a New York street and encounter a soup line for the first time suffices nicely.

Genius is a clash-of-the-titans extravaganza not of swords, sorcerers and special effects, but of words.  I can assure you the battles here are just as grisly.  Every word or phrase lost by the loud, grandiose young author who writes furiously in pencil using the top of a refrigerator as his desk wounds Wolfe deeply.

Jude lays the Law down with rare, bombastic abandon as Wolfe, challenging, befriending and fighting with expertly skilled Charles Scribner's Sons editor-wordsmith Perkins.

Firth has the tougher acting chore as the editor who has previously worked with  novelist titans F. Scott Fitzgerald (The Great Gatsby) and Ernest Hemingway (A Farewell to Arms).   The best actor Academy Award winner for The King's Speech in 2010 perfectly corrals Perkins' quiet demeanor into a wordsmith who doesn't just correct spelling and grammar.

Perkins was perhaps the first truly great editor-collaborator.  His keen sense of story structure and ability to pare down phrases to their true essence is at first celebrated by Wolfe, who delivers his second manuscript to Perkins' office in several crates.  The novel that would eventually become  Of Time and the River originally numbered 5,000 pages.

It's not easy for women to stand out in a male-dominated movie.  However, Laura Linney (The Truman Show) and Nicole Kidman (an Oscar winner for The Hours) make the most of their screen time as Perkins' devoted wife and Wolfe's mentally unstable mentor/lover.

It's probably no accident that Genius arrives in movie theaters on Father's Day weekend.  Wolfe's writing, especially in Look Homeward, Angel, was, in his own words, "the search for the father of our spirit."  Perkins, the father of five daughters, nurtures Wolfe at times like the son he never had but always longed for.

If I can fault Genius for anything, it's for trying too hard to include all the elements of the Wolfe/Perkins relationship.  Fitzgerald weaves in and out of the story fairly effectively, but Hemingway's inclusion, brief and sporadic, seems tossed in just to include his weighty novelist reputation.

That's a small flaw, indeed.  Any movie that compels us to want to learn more about the real people behind the characters, is a must-see for everyone. 

Beyond that, Genius is an exciting journey and a true joy for anyone who respects writers and loves the power of words.

From this aisle seat, sublimely crafted words are the real special effects.

MPAA rating: PG-13 ( Some thematic elements and suggestive content)

104 minutes

Jalapeño rating:  3½ (out of 4)



'Whiskey Tango Foxtrot,' an intoxicating war drama

Lance Cpl. Andrew Coughlin (Evan Jonigkeit) and Kim Baker (Tina Fey) use their weapons of choice in a "Whiskey Tango Foxtrot" firefight. (Paramount Pictures)

Here’s my only real beef with Whiskey Tango Foxtrot: It’s a witty, gritty war-correspondent drama posing, or more appropriately being marketed, as a comedy, which it is not.

Is it because Tina Fey, one of our most gifted comedians, is out front as a stateside cable news producer thrown into the explosive turmoil of the Afghanistan war zone in the early 2000s?

Could it be because the co-directors, Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, co-wrote the hilarious darkly comic Bad Santa and aimed for something like the late Robert Altman’s comic-war drama MASH of 1970?

Well, “Atten-hut,” film-making soldiers. What you have marched to the screen here is a superbly nuanced drama (with occasional comic turns, granted) about a cable news desk jockey.

Kim Baker (Fey) is a producer so mired down in a life where she “writes news copy for dumb pretty people to read” that she’s willing to venture to a war-torn country where fecal matter actually permeates the air. She’s not quite as emotionally bottomed-out as Tom Hanks’ character was when he agreed to leap into a fiery volcano in Joe Versus the Volcano (1990), but she’s close.

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is based on print journalist Kim Barker’s 400-page The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Screenwriter Robert Carlock, an Emmy winner for his work on NBC’s 30 Rock, which also starred Fey, focuses on the author’s sometimes horrifying adventures in war-ravaged Afghanistan.

Baker, asked point blank by fellow war correspondent Tanya Vanderpoel (Margot Robbie of Focus and The Wolf of Wall Street) if she can borrow Baker’s video crew for sex, is tossed first into the Fun House, a sex, booze and caustic comic dormitory of sorts for war reporters, then the war itself. Fitting in as a seasoned journalist is out of the question at first. She marches off to war with a bright orange backpack and fatigues that still have a store label on the pants leg.

But a funny thing happens once Whiskey Tango Foxtrot gets past all the slightly irritating stabs at dark war comedy. A beautiful drama emerges. Fey, as so many comedians are, turns out to be a superb dramatic actor. She plants her feet solidly in this conflicted character who becomes a seasoned war reporter in a hurry and may just become a little too intoxicated by the rush of real explosive danger.

In fact, this is a film overflowing with funny folks who are also gifted dramatic actors. Billy Bob Thornton, who played (and will play again next Christmas) the title character in Bad Santa, is outstanding here as Marine Col. Walter Hollanek, a leader with a constant 2,000-yard stare and a devotion to his men and duty.

Even though this film was shot in New Mexico, it captures the filth, the poverty, the desperation and the conflict of the Middle East extremely well. One of the things it does best is reveal Baker’s view of what she witnessed there as a journalist embedded in the chaos.

Extremely gifted actor Alfred Molina (Love is Strange) is so immersed in his character of budding government official Ali Massoud Sadiq that he’s almost impossible to recognize. Up-and-comer Christopher Abbott (A Most Violent Year) might just find that his performance as Fahim Ahmadzai, Baker’s fixer (interview arranger) is a catapult to stardom.

Martin Freeman (Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit series), as flirty, quick-witted photographer Iain MacKelpie, and Fey create some real screen magic as two lost souls flailing about trying to find some direction in their lives amid the madness of war.

Despite the fact that the filmmakers even make a feeble inside joke with the first letters of the military lingo title, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot (You get it, right?), this film excels as what it is; an extremely well-acted drama about flawed humans fighting to keep even a loose grip on humanity.


MPAA rating: R (pervasive language, some sexual content, drug use and violent war images)
111 minutes
Jalapeño rating: 3½ (out of 4)


Gimme that ol' time religion, a new putter

In a perfect cinematic world, a utopia, if you will, a wise, world-weary Robert Duvall on a horse would be quite enough to ignite dramatic sparks.

Utopia, however, is imagined perfection; an unobtainable, if noble, pilgrimage to a non-existent place.

"Seven Days in Utopia," lensed in the real Texas Hill Country hamlet of Utopia (85 miles northwest of San Antonio), features a somewhat real-life world-weary Duvall on a horse.  

Unfortunately, that is not enough to provide inspirational, not to mention entertaining, cinema.

Based on David Cook's book "Golf's Sacred Journey: Seven Days at the Links of Utopia," the big-screen version is a warm-hearted call to religion with professional golf and the sleepy Texas Hill Country as a backdrop.

It plays like an uneasy mixture of "Tin Cup," which featured Kevin Costner as an imploding golfer on tour, "The Karate Kid" and summer Bible school at the First Baptist Church in Grand Prairie, TX, which I attended in my youth.

Lucas Black, reuniting with Duvall after sharing the screen in "Sling Blade" and "Get Low," portrays troubled golfer Luke Chisholm.

There is no gospel, according to Luke.

Browbeaten by his father into becoming the next young sensation on the pro golf tour no matter what, the Waco native has a meltdown on the course, breaks his putter over his knee and drives off to somewhere, anywhere to heal his deep emotional wounds.

Quite by chance, it would seem, he winds up in Utopia, TX.  Johnny Crawford, not the actor-singer who played "The Rifleman's" son on TV in the late '50s-early '60s, but a beloved town character played by Duvall, takes the young man under his wing.  

Seeing something of himself in Luke, Johnny offers to teach the lost soul in golf spikes the proper way to play golf in a week.  He also tosses in how to get your head right and how to make the Bible a companion and life guide, although the life lessons come semi-stealthly and as an added bonus.

"Seven Days in Utopia" would work better as a G-rated golf ball swatter, Bible-thumper if an experienced director, like Duvall, for instance, took on added duties as director.  Duvall directed himself to a best actor Oscar nomination in 1997 as a Texas preacher in "The Apostle."

First-timer Matt Russell, a visual effects coordinator sliding into the directing chair, appears more concerned with how things look (and there are some gorgeous shots) than how flat and hokey scenes are playing.

Duvall is fine, although uninspired, in a role he could play in his sleep.

Co-star Black, though, acts like he is sleep-walking much of the time.  If Black has another facial expression other than the stone-faced one on display throughout here, I'd love to see it.
Some will call "Seven Days in Utopia" sentimental hokum that means well and speaks from the heart, but -- like the lightning bugs trapped in a jar in a slightly strained life lesson scene -- fails to ignite into memorable cinema.

I, unfortunately, am among those naysayers.

From this aisle seat, this is a difficult stance to take for three reasons.

(1) Duvall has deeply moved me emotionally and intellectually throughout much of my 31-year career as a film critic.  I will never forget Duvall's broken-down country-singer/songwriter Mac Sledge in "Tender Mercies" (1983).  Sledge convinced me when he said, "I don't trust happiness.  I never did, I never will."

(2)  This is a small-budget film obviously made with a lot of love for God, film making and the Texas Hill Country.

(3)  After over three decades offering my opinion on movies to anyone who would listen, read or watch, this is my final review of a debuting film.

(More on that to come soon.)


'The Help' wanted, very wanted

Every once in a while a movie comes along that's daring enough to lift the lid covering the grisly history of mistreatment of black people in this country up just enough for movie-goers to take a clear, often painful look at reality.

In 1985,Steven Spielberg's "The Color Purple" drew an Academy Award nomination for Whoopi Goldberg as Celie, a mentally and physically abused victim of incest first seen as a teenager and followed for 30 years.

"Precious," ironically also about an incest victim having a second child, moved the struggle against social injustice into modern-day Harlem.  Like Goldberg, newcomer Gabourey Sidibe, who portrayed the mentally tortured title character, made the short list of Oscar nominees, but did not win.

"The Help," based on Kathryn Stockett's best selling novel of 2009, operates in the same downtrodden arena. This time, though, there's a buoyancy of levity to ease the blows as snooty white society "ladies" mistreat their nannies and maids in 1960s Jackson, Miss.

Here's what those who dearly love Stockett's novel need to know first:  Don't worry.  "The Help" is, in my semi-humble opinion, one of the finest films of 2011.

If you don't fight back tears, laugh out loud and want to stand up and cheer more than once, it might be a good idea to have someone check you for a pulse.

Director Tate Taylor worked with Stockett, his longtime pal on this project.  They grew up in Jackson, Miss., so capturing the mood of the era is never a problem.  And there's this.  This project was churning along as a movie-in-the-works before the author even found a publisher for the novel.

For that reason, "The Help" deserves a break from the usual concerns the transition from novel to big-screen of hugely popular books ("Harry Potter," "Twilight," "Eat, Pray, Love") usually stir up.

Viola Davis, who earned an Oscar nomination for brief screen time opposite Meryl Streep in "Doubt," graces this inspiring tale of courage throughout.  Davis turns in a brilliant, understated performance as Aibileen Clark, a Mississippi maid and nanny who has raised 17 white children of employers.  During that long stretch of low-pay servitude, Aibileen saw her only child die needlessly.

Reluctantly, Aibileen reveals the secrets, struggles and sacrifices it takes to be a black servant in white households in the racist '60s Old South.  She gradually opens up to Eugenia "Skeeter" Phelan (Emma Stone), a recent Ole Miss grad who dreams of being a writer.  Skeeter, gradually standing up to her racist grownup of childhood pals, might just have an ear for a novel about black maids willing to tell all.  A New York City magazine editor is intrigued.

This may sound like grim subject matter, and it certainly is at times.  Armed with a smart, inspirational script he co-wrote, however, director Taylor ("Pretty Ugly People") uses the comic talents of Octavia Spencer ("Dinner for Schmucks"), who plays Minny (Aibileen's best friend), and others to garnish the difficult subject matter with effective Southern fried humor.

"The Help" is what I used to call a station-wagon movie.  We can update that now to call it an SUV movie.  That means gather as many friends and family members as you can pack into your car, van or sports utility vehicle and get to the movie house to see a spectacular crescendo of emotions likely to sweep you off your feet.

When you steady yourself, you might discover you're in a better place; a place of acceptance, compassion and understanding.


Yep, 'Cowboys & Aliens;' Git over it

Whoa, hold on a minute Western movie purists.

Before you get a burr under your saddle because Old West gunslingers take on high-tech aliens from outer-space in the sci-fi Western "Cowboys & Aliens," you should know that uneasy genre saddle bag-fellows have gotten into dust-ups before.

It's been a while, but left-handed outlaw Billy the Kid took on none other than Dracula himself in 1966 in a horror-Western titled "Billy the Kid vs. Dracula."  That same year, the West got a little wilder with another odd pairing.  How many of you remember "Jesse James Meets Frankenstein's Daughter"?

I didn't think so.

"Cowboys & Aliens" is a genre hybrid.  Granted, it's a far-fetched one, or at least it appears to be until you realize that in fiction there are no real boundaries except the limit of one's imagination.

Scott Mitchell Rosenberg, who concocted the comic book this film is based on in 1997, obviously can go off the usual grid when it comes to storytelling.

And so can director Jon Favreau (The "Iron Man" franchise) and, for that matter, co-stars  Harrison Ford and Daniel Craig, who draws top billing.  In today's ruthless Hollywood, James Bond trumps Han Solo apparently.

Set in New Mexico Territory circa 1875, "Cowboys & Aliens" begins with a jolt.  A camera pan across the dust and scraggly brush soon reveals a startled former outlaw named Jake Lonergan (Craig).  Jake awakes from some sort of unexplained trauma that has rendered him with no memory, but with some sort of newfangled bracelet that, to say the least, "ain't from around here."

Jake staggers into the saloon in the former boom town of Absolution (gotta love those town names in Westerns).  Before he can enjoy a few shots of whiskey, he's flirted with by a mysterious alluring lady named Ella (Olivia Wilde of "The Change-Up"), arrested and thrown in the pokey.

But not for long.  As the title clearly states, the Wild West is about to get a little wilder.  Strange lights illuminate the night sky, and before the citizens -- good and bad hombres alike -- know what's hitting them, several of the townsfolk are lassoed from flying machines and carried off into the darkness.

In traditional  Westerns, this would be the moment when a posse is formed.  Heck, that even happens when things get down and dirty (and thirsty) in "Rango."

In this one, though, the supposedly good guys, led by ruthless rancher Woodrow Dolarhyde (Ford), form an alliance with the mysterious stranger (Craig) and some equally ravaged Indians to square off against the otherworldly marauders from up yonder somewhere.

A gaggle of screenwriters throw every cliché in the book into this thing.  Dolarhyde, the toughest guy in these here parts, has a bully/wimp for a son (Paul Dano).  Nat (Adam Beach), the rancher's No. 1 hand, of course displays all the traits the old man would want in a son.

As weird as all this is, however, the production value is top notch.  The special effects live up to their title, director Favreau stirs the off-kilter genre melting pot with gusto and the acting gets the job done in all areas.  I do wish Ford had backed off just a little from his over-gruffness a little earlier than he did, though.

Think of "Cowboys & Aliens" as that odd looking, but bright and shiny dangerous ride way back at the edge of the carnival.

Then strap yourself in for a wild ride and go kick some serious alien hiney.


'Harry' goes out with a bang-up finale

Now an adult, Harry Potter prepares for the ultimate battle with Lord Voldemort not as a child but as Mr. Wizard in "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows -- Part 2."

Harry's still quick to hop a broomstick for a quick escape when danger zeros in, as it often does in the eighth and final cinematic outing for the phenomenally successful witchcraft-and-wizard novels from J.K. Rowling.

A bit of disclosure:  I was keenly anxious to see what all the "Harry Potter" fuss was about when the first novel, "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone," delivered three young wizards-to-be to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry in November of troubled 2001.

The original was captivating fun because everything was brand new.

It was as if Rowling and director Chris Columbus were opening up a cinematic theme park and inviting children of all ages to embrace the mirth and myth of the dark arts.  For good, of course, as far as Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) and gal-pal Hermione Granger (Emma Watson) were concerned.

My interest waned more with each increasingly dreary episode through the years, however.

Now, 10 years after it all began cinematically, Harry and his dark lord nemesis Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) face off in what can best be described as a wandfight at the Deathly Hallows corral.  One will die, then live.  The other will live, then die.

If you've been to the movies more than three or four times in your life, I'm thinking you can figure out how this thing's going to turn out.  The good news is that the outcome i's not the important factor in "Deathly Hallows -- Part 2."

British director David Yates, who has called the shots on the final four "Potter" yarns, saves the best of the best for the final episode.  Or should I say the final half episode, since "Deathly Hallows -- Part I" set the stage for the grand finale last November?

Anyone who visits this space on a regular basis knows that I'm not generally fond of sequels.  This one, however, rocks the movie house.

Full of action, the parting shot erupts into a wild battle extravaganza with an extremely plus-sized hissing snake, giants who knock human-sized wizards and wizardettes aside as if they are croquet balls headed for a wicket and fireballs.  Lots of fireballs.

Fiennes manages to do some real acting behind his smashed-in nose as hissing, snake-like Voldemort.

Let's go ahead and put Fiennes, a two-time Oscar nominee ("Schindler's List," "The English Patient"), at least in the running for a supporting Academy Award nomination.  He turns in the best altered-schnoz performance since Jack Nicholson's in "Chinatown" (1974). 

I also like this performance by Radcliffe.  Grim and determined to out-wand evil Lord Voldemort, the boy who matured in front of all of us on movie screens over a decade treats the final outing as grand drama.

At one key moment, Harry asks "Is this all happening in my head?"

Of course it is, Harry/Radcliffe.  You've been in your head and ours for 10 years. 


'Pirates' of the all-too-familiaran

Most comedy-slanted adventure-thrill movies are like theme park amusement rides.

The good ones are exhilarating the first time, exciting and fun the second time around and decreasingly OK each time after that.

In the case of Disney's cash-cow franchise "Pirates of the Caribbean" featuring the wobbly swagger of Johnny Depp as 
amusingly narcissistic pirate-with-a-heart-of-ghostly-booty Capt. Jack Sparrow, it is exactly like that.

That's because, as almost everyone on the planet is aware, "Pirates of the Caribbean" reversed the usual movie trend.

Instead of a popular movie re-tooled as an amusement park theme ride ("Indiana Jones Adventure: Temple of the Forbidden Eye," for instance), "Pirates of the Caribbean" launched as a popular theme park ride and then made the jump to movie screens with Depp out front in 2003.

"Pirates of the Caribbean:  The Curse of the Black Pearl" defied the odds (Really?  A movie out of an amusement ride?) and swashbuckled its way to exhilarating status, not to mention financial treasure.

Movie treasure tends to not remain buried for long, though.  So "Pirates" set sail with sequels in 2005 (subtitled "Dead Man's Chest") and 2007 ("At World's End").

The key word in the title of the 2007 model was "world."  No one said "At Franchise's End."

So this weekend the masses will no doubt line up for "Pirates of the Caribbean:  On Stranger Tides," the latest variance on a fading theme.  On as I prefer to put it adding a snake's hiss, the third s-s-s-s-s-s-sequel.

If "On Stranger Tides" came out of the moviemaking chute first, it would have been -- if not quite exhilarating -- plenty good as a comedy-adventure thrill ride.  

Depp, of course, owns the Capt. Jack Sparrow character so well that when his familiar face is slowly revealed hiding under a judge's wig, the audience greets him with anticipation and glee, as if he's a long-lost weird uncle returning home with expensive gifts.

"Pirates 4" is all about a race to find the Fountain of Youth.  Exceptional actor Ian McShane (Al Swearengen in the "Deadwood" TV series) joins the cast as legendary pirate Blackbeard and is, as you might expect, outstanding.

Penélope Cruz, an Academy Award winner (supporting) for "Vicky Cristina Barcelona," cuts a wide acting swath as Blackbeard's daughter Angelica.  Cruz replaces the departed  Keira Knightley, and is not exactly anyone's definition of a helpless ingénue.

There's no lack of action, or cool pirates costumes or, of course, Depp mugging into the camera.  The beautiful but bloodthirsty mermaids are a welcome addition, actually.

And new director Rob Marshall (Oscar nominated for the musical "Chicago") keeps things sailing along at a decent pace despite the film's overlong voyage of two hours and 21 minutes.

The highly touted 3-D element, though, is not worth the cinematic E-ticket premium price.  All you'll get is a sword or two that appear to be thrust right at your nose.

"Pirates" also sails this time without Orlando Bloom as Will Turner and, more importantly, director Gore Verbinski, who called shots on the first three adventures.

And, oddly enough, the fourth time around is actually based on something other than a theme park ride.  This screenplay, once again written by "Pirates" regulars Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio, incorporates Tim Powers' 1987 novel  "On Stranger Tides."

Once the screenwriters throw the usual "Pirates" suspects (Capt. Sparrow, et all) into the mix, however, the subtitle should read:  "On Familiar Rides."


Kate Hudson's star power on 'Borrowed' time

To quote an often-repeated phrase, "What the heck were they thinking?"

"Something Borrowed" whirls around a tangled romantic triangle involving characters played by Kate Hudson, Ginnifer Goodwin and a semi-Tom Cruise lookalike named Colin Egglesfield.

Like "The Dilemma," a recent buddy comedy that spun way off its axis, "Something Borrowed" flails away madly trying to settle on a genre niche, but never does.

Neither romantic-comedy (too outrageous and plodding) nor drama (much too silly), "Something Borrowed" careens off all possible genres without coming close to anything resembling embraceable entertainment.

Hudson, who did nothing to propel her rising-star mojo with "Bride Wars" a couple of years back, should know better.  Her character in this one, a boyfriend-stealing obnoxious shark of a woman named Darcy, is one of the most unlikable characters to hit movie screens in a romantic-comedy in years; perhaps decades.

It should tell anyone considering a trip to this under-achiever something when it's revealed that director Luke Greenfield lists a Rob Schneider "comedy" ("The Animal") among credits that also include "The Girl Next Door" (2004).

"Something Borrowed," based on Emily Giffin's novel with a screenplay by TV writer Jennie Snyder Urman, launches in New York with Rachel's (Goodwin) 30th birthday party.  Everyone gets smashed, especially best friend Darcy (Hudson).

Rachel ends up in a cab with Dex (Egglesfield), her old law school buddy, whom she had and has a major crush on.  Trouble is, in 61 days he's marrying Darcy, who leaped between them six years earlier like a cheetah on a helpless, unsuspecting gazelle.

"Two stops," Dex (Egglesfield, channeling Tom Cruise with all his might) tells the driver.

But things heat up quickly.  A glance in the rear view mirror at the action in the backseat and the cabbie says, "I'm thinking one stop."

"Something Borrowed" is utterly predictable and loaded with square peg-in-round-hole characters.  TV "Office" staffer John Krasinski sets indoor and outdoor records for contrived double-takes.  And Steve Howey ("Bride Wars") does absolutely nothing to further his career as Marcus, the skateboarding man-child buffoon.

If you must go, you'll see a pretty good performance from Goodwin, who was on screen not too long ago in "He's Just Not That Into You."

That's about it, though.  Advice from this aisle seat:  Move on down the multiplex hall to something better.

That won't be hard to find.  Almost any auditorium will do.  


Circus love is intense, in tents

It may not pitch its tent as one of the greatest circus shows on Earth, but "Water for Elephants" looks and feels like one of them.

Based on Sara Gruen's 2006 bestseller, "Water for Elephants" revolves around three conflicted Depression-era characters: Marlena (Reese Witherspoon), the animal loving star attraction, Jacob (Robert Pattinson), a lost soul who happens upon a circus train chugging through the night, and August (Christoph Waltz) as circus owner and ringmaster.

Wait, what about Big Al?

Sorry, novel lovers, but Big Al, the lion tamer and Marlena's abusive husband in the book, has been combined with August in the movie.

"I just finished the novel last night," one of my Richland College students told me this week. "I can't wait to see the movie."

I hope my student is OK with the transition (and there are others). Like all novel readers, however, she must realize that books and movies are two very different animals.

It all comes down to simple math, really. The book takes about a dozen hours to consume. Movie makers must condense and combine to tell a story in about two hours.

"Water for Elephants" is at its best when it recreates the desperate times of the Great Depression. Thanks to fine work from director of photography Rodrigo Prieto ("Amores Perros"), director Francis Lawrence ("I Am Legend") is able to quickly set the mood.

It's 1931. Jacob, a Cornell University veterinary student, is taking his graduation exam when word comes of a family tragedy. All is lost, so Jacob wanders the railroad tracks. Late at night, a lonesome whistle blows and puffs of approaching smoke offer shelter.

Although he doesn't know it yet, Jacob has hitched a ride on the Benzini Bros. Circus train. Morning reveals the wonders of roustabouts setting up the big top, a beautiful, mysterious star attraction named Marlena and August, who's just as quick with a big smile as he is with jealousy and rage.

I haven't read the book. I prefer to let a movie blossom on its own terms without fretting over combined characters and the like.

That said, "Water for Elephants" is fairly predictable. Jacob falls for the married Marlena, of course. August's rage knows no bounds, so danger lurks around every pile of circus animal manure.

This film is so beautiful to look at, though, that it can be forgiven for telegraphing its shots.

Waltz, the Oscar-winning gleefully sadistic Nazi of Quentin Tarantino's "Inglourious Basterds," portrays a similar character here. Don't blame the actor, however. Waltz is just giving his director what the character demands. With that in mind, I appreciated his performance more.

Pattinson, the London-born vampire heartthrob of the "Twilight" franchise, forgoes the pale pallor and the swooning delivery to really dive into an American character. While not exactly Academy Award worthy, Pattinson (who can act) doesn't embarrass himself in the role.

In fact, if anyone in the cast disappoints, it's Witherspoon, the leading lady. Her performance as June Carter Cash opposite Joaquin Phoenix in "Walk the Line" earned her a Best Actress Oscar in 2006.

From this aisle seat, however, Witherspoon never fully connects with Marlena. It's difficult to explain, but she maintains an icy stiffness, even during scenes where she should come across as a warmer individual.

And, let's not forget the elephant in the room, or I should say, the big top. Tai is magnificent as Rosie the Elephant, a booze-lover that steals the show from about the mid-point.


Finally, McConaughey returns to drama

It's good to see Matthew McConaughey acting again.

I mean really acting, as opposed to yanking his shirt off in semi-entertaining comic adventures that, like the shifting sand in "Sahara," have little foundation as solid memories.

In the dramatic-thriller "The Lincoln Lawyer," McConaughey doesn't exactly return to a serious courtroom drama on the level of "A Time to Kill," the crusading lawyer drama of 1996.

Even though he's dressed like an adult -- suit and tie; appropriate courtroom attire -- this time, a bit of the McConaughey swagger remains evident as Mick Haller.  A Beverly Hills ambulance chasing attorney, although that's only implied, Haller operates out of the back seat of his chauffeured Lincoln Continental sedan.

There's a throwaway line or two about when Haller got his license to drive back.  I suspect that aspect of the character is better explained in Michael Connelly's bestseller of the same title.

The adaptation by John Romano ("Nights in Rodanthe") is a little sloppy on details, preferring instead to showcase Haller's coolness in a courtroom, on the streets where a motorcycle gang (led by country crooner Trace Adkins, no less) is prone to pull him over for some lawyer-client chatting and, of course, with the ladies.

This would be a much better thriller if "The Lincoln Lawyer" more closely mimicked -- Sorry, I mean paid homage to -- "The Verdict" and "Fracture," both of which deserve a slice of the profits.

Haller is a hard drinking attorney.  He has has made mistakes in the past, but is honorable enough to fight to try to make things right.  That's just like Paul Newman did in "The Verdict" in 1982, although the case details vary.

The other strikingly similar element is the old attorney/client tete-a-tete.  In this one, a wealthy client played by Ryan Phillippe is up on an attempted murder charge.  As the plot thickens, an all-too-common game of cat and mouse shows signs of becoming deadly.  

If you saw "Fracture" in 2007, you know that Anthony Hopkins admitted to shooting his wife in the head, then dared the assistant district attorney to do something about it.

"The Lincoln Lawyer" works best as an entertainment ride.  Oscar-winner Marisa Tomei ("The Wrestler," "Cyrus") works well with McConaughey as Maggie, his ex-wife and crusading assistant D.A.  (Small world, this.)

By the time the final gavel falls, it's quite apparent that McConaughey, who only takes his shirt off once, is well aware of where he's at.  More important, though, is where he might be going.

The hard-working Texan who began his career Richard Linklater's "Dazed and Confused," then sort of got that way in mid-career, finally appears back on track.

"The Lincoln Lawyer" is flawed cinema at best.  But sometimes, on a purely entertainment level, the old "Lincoln" purrs across the screen.