WATER FOR ELEPHANTS
It's tempting to refer to Richard LaGravenese as the Doctor Dolittle of screenwriters, as the man who successfully brought Nick Evans' novel The Horse Whisperer to movie houses has now been tasked to do likewise with the adaptation of Sara Gruen's mammoth bestseller, Water for Elephants. But to be fair, LaGravenese is more than just an animal act, as he's known for other lofty cinematic translations like A Little Princess, The Bridges of Madison County and the underrated Beloved.
Water for Elephants follows suit: It's an adaptation that manages to be tasteful, mature, and even on occasion insightful. But that can only take a movie so far when there's no one around to constantly fan those flames of literary respect into something inherently, pulsatingly cinematic.
Robert Pattinson, best known for Twilight, and Reese Witherspoon, not especially known for Twilight (but in a Trivial Pursuit aside, she did star alongside Paul Newman and Susan Sarandon in a 1998 movie with that name), respectively play Jacob and Marlena. He's an orphaned vet-school dropout who winds up landing a gig looking after the animals (including a soulful pachyderm) at a ramshackle circus; she's the big top's main attraction, as well as the wife of the quick-tempered owner, August (Christoph Waltz).
August is already sadistic enough, but when he notices an attraction growing between his wife and this newcomer, his rage becomes even more pronounced, resulting in a jealous fit that threatens to destroy not only the lovebirds but the circus itself.
Waltz's ringleader is almost as villainous as his Nazi in Inglourious Basterds (for which he won an Oscar), but the actor's excellent performance keeps his character from deteriorating into a buffoonish villain. He far outclasses the two stars, whose lack of chemistry undermines the love story that rests at the film's center.
Visually, the picture is exquisite -- the art direction by Terrence Malick regular Jack Fisk and camerawork by Brokeback Mountain cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto immerse us so thoroughly in the circus world that we almost smell the sawdust (though thankfully not the elephant dung) -- but emotionally, it proves to be as airy and insubstantial as cotton candy.
OF GODS AND MEN
The evocative employment of Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake was merely one of the reasons why Black Swan emerged as the best movie of 2010, but director Darren Aronofsky and co. were hardly the only filmmakers last year who turned to the 19th-century Russian composer to service their motion picture. Strains from Tchaikovsky's classic ballet feature prominently in one of the climactic scenes in Xavier Beauvois' Of Gods and Men, and its use functions as an emotional release for both the film's anxious protagonists and its equally worried viewers.
Loosely based on a true story, this thoughtful drama centers on a group of French monks who have devoted themselves to living peacefully among a Muslim community in Algeria during the 1990s. But when Islamic terrorists bring violence to the area, these Christians are forced to decide whether to flee to France -- and safety -- or remain with the needy Muslim villagers and possibly forfeit their own lives. At least two of the men -- Christian, the leader (Lambert Wilson), and Luc, the doctor (the great French actor Michael Lonsdale) -- believe they must stay, but others aren't so sure.
The early passages could use some tightening, since the bulk of the complexity emerges during the second half. Reminiscent of the 1945 Gregory Peck drama The Keys of the Kingdom, which found a devout man of the cloth struggling with his own human failings while embracing his religion in a foreign land, Of Gods and Men takes it a step further by examining the ease with which different cultures and different religions can peacefully coexist (importantly, the monks never try to convert the villagers) as long as politics, proselytism and power plays are kept out of the picture.
Resolutely refusing to be misinterpreted as an anti-Muslim screed (Christian even has a monologue in which he insists on separating the terrorists from the innocent civilians), the movie instead warns against rash judgments, harmful hate mongering and ugly stereotyping -- a film ultimately as much about Rush Limbaugh and his ilk as it is about Osama bin Laden and his.