32 posts categorized "books"


'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.


'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. 


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.


'Harry' morphing into 'Star Wars' with wands

School's out for broom-straddling, wand-waving Harry Potter in "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows:  Part 1."

And so are the ghouls, especially flat-nosed evil force Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes).  Voldemort looks like he was blindsided by a Mike Tyson haymaker back in Tyson's heyday.  You know, before Tyson began snacking on opponent's ears in latter rounds.

Even though the "Part 1" element of J.K. Rowling's seventh and supposedly final (She appears to be reconsidering) adventure of Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and his wizard pals comes as no surprise to the "Harry Potter" faithful, I don't look forward to spending a total of what will surely amount to about five hours of combined screen time for a fifth and sixth sequel.

I also realize that there are legions of "Potter" devotees.  Those who scour every sentence of the books and cherish every second of screen time with the determined intensity of Voldemort's vaporous Death Eaters in search of "the boy who lived."

That would be Harry, of course.  In the first half of "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows," the boy wonder with the attention-grabbing scar on his forehead leaves Hogwarts behind.  The real world provides the backdrop this time.  London and the surrounding woodsy countryside are just as foreboding as the halls of Hogwarts.

Harry, once again portrayed by a noticeably older Radcliffe, joins forces with old pals; fellow wizard Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) and bewitchingly attractive witch Hermione Granger (Emma Watson).

"Part 1" is about as close to a road trip as this trio is likely to encounter.  The quest is to track down various parts of Voldemort's soul, which appears in this episode in the form of a locket.  As jewelry goes, the locket is more of a bummer than a stunner.

Whomever wears it around his or her neck quickly succumbs to a foul mood.  So Harry, Hermione and Ron take turns as they camp out in the woods and shield themselves magically from evil forces, who appear to also enjoy a walkabout through the dangerous countryside.

From this aisle seat, the "Harry Potter" franchise is progressively becoming an Earth-bound "Star Wars" saga confined to the London area.  Wands -- a key element in this semi-final episode -- replace lightsabers as good (or sort-of-good; they are, after all, witches) battles darkest evil.

Frankly, I got a little bored long before "Part 1" tromped anywhere near the end credits around the two and a-half hour mark.  All the principal actors continue to go through the motions well enough, I suppose.

My favorite in "Semi-Ending Part 1" is Helena Bonham Carter as Bellatrix Lestrange, Voldemort's Morticia Addams, of sorts.  Bonham Carter understands better than the rest what it means to portray a witchy woman out for blood in a wildly fantasized cinematic arena.

Whether prodded on by director David Yates (who'll conjure up "Part 2" next summer) or not, Bonham Carter's Deathly Hallows howl provides this "Harry" season's most entertaining spark of dark arts.


The years of living dangerously

Moody and unsettling, "Never Let Me Go" is an offbeat showcase for a trio of fine young actors and a story that may have you pondering questionable moral and ethics issues for weeks.

Beginning like numerous other tales of young friends, "Never Let Me Go" focuses on Kathy, Tommy and Ruth, a trio of curious kids in a British orphanage circa 1978.

While they may seem normal, they have been chosen; not in the "Harry Potter" sort of way to ride off on brooms into adventure.

But in the chilling National Donor Program variation of pre-destiny.  They -- and those sharing the halls -- are being raised as farm animals for spare human parts to be harvested in their mid and late 20s.

The idea certainly doesn't lack eeriness or intensity.  And when director Mark Romanek focuses on the adult version of his key trio, portrayed without flaw by Keira Knightley (Ruth), Carey Mulligan (Kathy) and rising star Andrew Garfield (Tommy), the audience has no trouble grasping the plight of young lives on borrowed time.

Alex Garland ("28 Days Later," "The Beach") adapts Kazuo Ishiguro's novel with style.  If anything is missing in the cinematic version, it might be that the movie hones in on the angst of human spare parts, but lacks an assertive escape plan.

So our three semi-protagonists merely brood through the process.  Friendship turns to love and misdirected emotions, which spills across the screen with visual style.  But if you're looking for a fairy tale ending, you've landed in the wrong multiplex auditorium.  Also, you'll learn a new definition of the word "completion" that includes a morbid slant.

Mulligan ("An Education"), also on screen this week as Michael Douglas's estranged daughter in "Wall Street:  Money Never Sleeps," explores all the possible angles of demure desperation with style.  

Knightley's Ruth is also well-acted.  She's been in splashy money-machine productions (the "Pirates of the Caribbean" franchise) and out front in quality dramas like "Atonement."  Here, though, Knightley gets a chance to be a team player.

The finest performance from this aisle seat, however, comes from Garfield ("The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus") as Tommy, a quick-tempered (for very good reason, as it turns out) young man prone to screaming fits.   Garfield is outstanding in the upcoming Facebook saga "The Social Network."  Before that, though, he has one riveting scene of revelation in this film that cements his position as an actor to seriously be reckoned with.

"Never Let Me Go" lives up to its title.  I'm still troubled by the central theme more than a week after experiencing the bizarre world in which it exists.


Ben Affleck's big score in Bean 'Town'

Ben Affleck, the director, is solidifying the talents of Ben Affleck, the actor.

In "The Town," in which the formerly chagrined actor (remember "Gigli") stars, directs and contributes to the script, Affleck shows steady confidence wearing several film-making hats.

Doug MacRay (Affleck), a failed hockey draftee back in his 20s, has returned to the old Charlestown neighborhood of Boston older but not wiser.  He joins the family (and friends) business.

That business, as evidenced by the incredible statistics in real and imagined Charlestown, is robbing banks.

Affleck stayed behind the camera three years ago for "Gone Baby Gone," his initial feature-film directing assignment.  Little brother Casey, also an actor of note, took the lead in that mystery-thriller that also played out on Affleck's home streets of Boston.

Now, perhaps feeling confident enough to face the camera and the editing room, the elder Affleck tattoos up, portrays the leader of a bank robber gang, and even allows himself to fall for a bank manager he forced to the floor during a robbery.

In fact it's Affleck's on-screen relationship with Rebecca Hall ("Vicky Cristina Barcelona") as bank manager Claire Keesey that tips "The Town" into the go zone as a dramatic-thriller.

Affleck's slowly climbing his way back up the credibility ladder as an actor.  When he steps in front of a camera these days, it comes down to -- for me at least -- whether or not I believe him as an actor.

I do in "The Town," which is co-written by Peter Craig and Aaron Stockard ("Gone Baby Gone") and based on Chuck Hogan's 2004 novel "Prince of Thieves."

Director Affleck revs up the dramatic adrenaline with high tension, blazing gunfire and riveting, metal-crunching car chase scenes.  "The Town" may not trash more cop cars in Boston than "The Blues Brothers" did in Chicago, but it would be worth a comparison count.

This is without a doubt a tale of robbers and cops, not the traditional way around.  While TV star Jon Hamm ("Ad Men") displays a knack for knowing his way around a movie set as the determined FBI agent on the case, another actor commands every scene he's in.

Jeremy Renner, a best actor nominee from "The Hurt Locker" (the reigning best picture Oscar winner), is a bulldog and a joy to experience as Affleck's best pal and off-the-hinge career criminal James Coughlin.

In fact, the Oscar race might just begin this weekend.

"The Town" is not a film without some minor flaws, but the sum of most of its parts adds up to mesmerizing.


An 'American' in paralysis

George Clooney, one of the world's most gregarious movie stars in real life, has gone stoic on screen to the extent that it's almost time to check for a pulse.

After diving into such a deep trance in "The Men Who Stare At Goats" last year that it looked like he was auditioning for dream-state status in either "Avatar" or "Inception," Clooney has emerged instead to mope his way through "The American," a hit-man thriller that could have been titled "The Quiet Man's Got a Gun."  

Thank goodness for last year's excellent "Up in the Air."  That drama-with-comedy with Clooney as a corporate ax man was dour and bitter as well.  But it was also quick-witted and cleverly structured.

My problem with "The American" is not Clooney's squinty-eyed acting or the plot about a cold-blooded killer on the run who holds up in a quaint little Italian village.  The biggest drawback is that sophomore director Anton Corbijn allows "The American" to move too deliberately across the screen.

It's almost as if the actors -- especially Clooney, who does stare at goats for a brief moment in this one -- are allowed to reminisce over the scene just completed before moving on.

And there's this.  Corbijn, who used to direct music videos for a living, allows long screen moments to pass with no musical score whatsoever.  Jack (Clooney) rents a room and spends a larger-than-usual time staring out the window.  That passive outlook worked well with "Control," Corbijn's riveting debut musical bio-drama of 2007.  It's overkill here, though.

Make no mistake, Jack has a reason to be edgy.  Even though Rowan Joffe's screenplay (based on the late Martin Booth's 1990 novel "A Very Private Gentleman") gives us no back story, a sudden eruption of violence that turns the snow crimson in some Swedish woods sets the life-or-death tone before we see Jack run to Italy.

"The American" ranks as one of the most somber thrillers I've ever seen.  Clooney speaks in sing-song monotone even when he's caressing a local hooker who's also a looker (Italian actress Violante Placido as Clara).  Strictly business, he tells the local priest (Paolo Bonacelli) he's in town to photograph the countryside for a vaguely spelled-out group of magazines.

Jack plans to do some shooting, all right.  But it's not with a camera.  He's assembling a long-range assassin rifle for a lady of mystery portrayed by Dutch actress Thekla Reuten.  Her sullen manner is equally as dead-pan as Clooney's.

When the plot thickens (it was congealed near-solid from the get-go), "The American" finally gets down to the nasty business.  At some point, a hit man is usually forced take a split-second to reconsider the consequences of that particular chosen line of work.

Now that's a pause I could live with.  Even with Clooney in the lead, "The American" slogs too deliberately through the underbelly of humanity.


Nanny McPhee's back; cures new brat pack

"Little c, big P."

That's Nanny McPhee's standard spelling tip greeting to anyone meeting the magical, big-toothed nanny for the first time.

For many of us, this isn't the initial encounter with the timeless nanny in the dark cloak who speaks softly and carries a big stick, of course.

"Nanny McPhee Returns" is the follow-up to the 2005 original.  Like "Nanny McPhee," the sequel is based on Christianna Brand's "Nurse Matilda" children's books that first lined shelves in the 1960s.  

And, like the first big-screen installment, the wildly imaginative script is penned by British actress/writer Emma Thompson, who also lurks behind the disappearing moles (complete with an errant ugly hair), the bulbous nose and the signature snaggletooth.

The two main differences between the first and second screen adventures is that there are five out-of-control kids to corral instead of seven.  Also, this time war rages between two sets of child siblings instead of between a single parent and unruly kiddos.

And speaking of war, the episodic soothing of young rowdy souls unfolds in something resembling World War II England, although the general store and horse-drawn carts look more like the 1920s than the '40s.

Thompson's script, holding nothing back, begins with a barnyard full of poo.  Before this enchanting adventure pulls out all magical stops and concludes in predictable fairy tale form, piglets will climb trees.  They'll also perform snout-spouting syncronized swimming water ballet.

If that's not enough weirdness, a baby elephant hops in bed with one of the kids and some of the most talented actors around take turns either chewing the scenery madly or turning in marvelous performances.

Maggie Gyllenhaal ("Crazy Heart," "The Dark Knight") does a little of both as Isabel Green, a mother of three with a husband off to war, two snooty young relatives coming to visit and a villainous brother-in-law named Phil.

More than likely instructed to do so by director Susanna White, whose experience lies mainly with TV projects, excellent actor Rhys Ifans ("Pirate Radio") is so silly as Phil that I didn't even recognize one of my favorite actors.

Maggie Smith (the "Harry Potter" franchise) takes her store owner character way over the edge as well.  But at least Dame Smith gets a chance to pull it back a little in the final reel.

On the other end of the spectrum, two-time Oscar nominee Ralph Fiennes ("Schindler's List," "The English Patient") is superb and restrained in an all-too-brief scene as military official Lord Gray.

The special effects are marvelous, as is Thompson as Nanny McPhee, the mysterious task master with a golden heart.

We could all use Nanny McPhee, either on a movie screen in one of the most entertaining family films of the year, or -- need I say this? -- at home.


Cyrus adequate, not boffo in dramatic debut

Movie-goers have a right to be a little apprehensive when pop music stars make their dramatic feature film debuts.

Driving to the theater to preview "The Last Song" starring little-bit-country pop sensation Miley Cyrus, the thought of Britney Spears jumping up and down on a bed in the opening scenes of "Crossroads" in 2002 didn't exactly set the stage for magical drama.

Rest easy, Miley Cyrus fans.  The star of Disney's "Hannah Montana" TV series is confident and adequate (although not sensational) in a first love, second chances romance-with-tragedy drama that unfortunately, at least from this aisle seat, comes from the Nicholas Sparks novel mill.

Sparks, of course, has sold millions of weepy novels.  Several have made their way to movie screens with big-name stars attached even.  Films like "Message in a Bottle" with Kevin Costner, Robin Wright Penn and Paul Newman ( 1999) and "The Notebook" (2004) with Ryan Gosling, Rachel McAdams, James Garner and Gena Rowlands, for instance.

"The Last Song" is something else, however.  Sparks says in the movie's press notes that he wrote this script with Cyrus in mind.  In fact, he was apparently solicited to pen something adequate for the teen singing sensation's dramatic film debut.

Although not awful, "The Last Song" sings with familiar Sparks emotional hot points: true, but troubled love, melodrama, predictability and sudden tragedy.

In other words, just be prepared when the lights go down on a Sparks-to-big screen adaptation because somebody's going down.  This is the first time the author writes the movie screenplay, so don't expect any added shock relief from a script doctor.

Cyrus gives it a good-enough go as Veronica "Ronnie" Miller.  A gifted pianist just out of high school in New York, she's planning to reject a scholarship to Julliard.  Why?  Her parents divorced.  

She may or may not have shoplifted back in New York.

"I didn't do it," she pouts to her little brother Jonah (Bobby Coleman) as Mom  (Kelly Preston) pulls the car up to Dad's (Greg Kinnear) Georgia beach house for what looks to be a deeply troubled summer vacation.

Cyrus almost has the Elvis Presley quivering lip pout going until a hunky, shirtless beach volleyball player with rippling abs and a rep as a womanizer (girlanizer?) gets her attention.

Where there's a Will (budding young Aussie actor Liam Hemsworth) there's a ray of hope, a resurgence in her musical interest and -- in true Nicholas Sparks style -- sudden tragedy looming.

The camera loves Miley Cyrus in a feature film concert or even as a slightly rebellious teen shaking her TV persona (not exactly a stretch) in last year's "Hannah Montana:  The Movie."

The camera moves in for the thrill or kill when the role is of the ingénue falling in love with crashing waves beach sand between her toes, however.  The jury, I'm thinking, will wait to count box-office returns before committing to Miley Cyrus, the dramatic leading lady.  

She's not bad, really.  It's just unfortunate that Cyrus is mired down by cinematic cheese in her dramatic debut.  First-time feature film director Julie Anne Robinson does little to keep Sparks from being Sparks, Mr. Melodrama.