WATER FOR ELEPHANTS
After his where's-my-paycheck? turn in The Green Hornet, I was mildly concerned that, following his Oscar-winning Inglourious Basterds portrayal, Christoph Waltz might be resigned to a career of forever playing Euro-trashy über-villains in Hollywood action dreck. With director Francis Lawrence's Water for Elephants, though - a Depression-era romance based on Sara Gruen's beloved novel - my fears have proved unfounded. As the egomaniacal, possibly sociopathic owner and ringleader of a second-tier traveling circus, enraged by the blossoming affections between his star-performer wife (Reese Witherspoon) and the troupe's young veterinarian (Robert Pattinson), Waltz is every bit as mesmerizing - charming, unpredictable, terrifying - as he was in Quentin Tarantino's World War II opus. Yet fantastic though he is, Waltz's talents here aren't a shock. The bigger surprise is that the movie itself is so bloody marvelous.
Boasting a topnotch script by Richard LaGravenese and splendidly atmospheric, evocative cinematography by Rodrigo Prieto, the movie re-creates a long-gone age with true feeling for both the period and those struggling to survive it; without pushing for its effects, Lawrence's film locates the beauty in squalor and the poetry in the mundane. Pattinson and Witherspoon, against some expectation, make a soulful, absolutely satisfying pairing, his slightly abashed charisma playing off her confident, radiant directness. And in the persona (animal-a?) of the elephant Rosie, whose arrival rescues the failing circus and whose Big Top tricks are literally jaw-dropping, the film provides no end of miracles. Despite its awkward narrative framing device and its perhaps-too-chaotic climax, the defiantly old-fashioned Water for Elephants delivers two hours of near-constant pleasure. It may not be the greatest show on Earth, but with Rango gone, it's currently, definitely, the greatest show at the cineplex.
TYLER PERRY'S MADEA'S BIG HAPPY FAMILY
Because his previous film, last autumn's For Colored Girls, was one of the most powerful and affecting showcases for female talent the movies have delivered in ages, I suppose Tyler Perry can be forgiven (somewhat) for Tyler Perry's Madea's Big Happy Family, in which nearly every woman onscreen is a shrill, vindictive, hateful shrew. This includes Perry's titular, drag-act woman, an oftentimes hysterical caricature in previous Madea titles who, here, has little to do but beat and berate; she's/he's an ambulatory Old Testament with sagging breasts and a speech impediment.
But the auteur's latest - in which, with Madea's "help," a dying woman (Loretta Devine) attempts to unite her dysfunctional family - is still labored and depressingly repetitive, with Perry working his signature blend of slapstick, religious fervor, and lurid melodrama to increasingly tired effect. As ever, I'll concede that I'm hardly the film's target demographic - fellow audience members happily cried "Amen!" and "That's the truth!" following Madea's tough-love platitudes - and Big Happy Family is hardly devoid of good things: There are touching performances by Devine and Shad "The Artist Formerly Known as Lil' Bow Wow" Moss, and Chandra Currelley-Young belts out a glorious gospel number to leave you shaking. But I still found this poorly staged, poorly written endeavor a tough sit, and that's not even considering the exhausted dirty-old-lady comedy of Cassi Davis' Aunt Bam, a bitterly sarcastic yowler in a fright wig and house dress. Really, isn't one Madea per Tyler Perry movie enough?
RIO and AFRICAN CATS
There are so many weak releases designed for the 10-and-under set these days (I'm lookin' at you, Hop) that I'm now just grateful for the ones that manage to not be actively insulting for audiences past puberty. It's a pleasure to report, then, that two of our current options - 20th Century Fox's animated Rio and Disneynature's live-action African Cats - are titles you can take the kids to without, in the process, wanting to take your own life.
A comedy about a Minnesota-bred macaw (voiced, with neurotic glee, by Jesse Eisenberg) who relocates to his native Rio de Janeiro, director Carlos Saldanha's Rio is basically one antic chase after another, interspersed with occasional songs, G-rated danger, and rom-com squabbles with Anne Hathaway's avian love interest. But the colors in this fast-moving, enjoyably unpretentious film are spectacularly vibrant, Tracy Morgan's slobbery bulldog is a hoot, and the Brazilian vistas prove utterly breathtaking in animated form, with Rio's 3D effects put to excellent use; during one amazing aerial shot, you'll feel like you can practically high-five that Christ the Redeemer statue.
As for the beautifully photographed African Cats - Alastair Fothergill's and Keith Scholey's nature documentary that follows a pride of lions and a "single mom" cheetah in Kenya's Masai Mara Nature Reserve - the filmmakers offer consistently stunning, fascinating, and oftentimes scary sights and sounds, and Samuel L. Jackson's narration provides a near-perfect blend of the dramatic and the playful. As is typical with these things, the presentational sameness caused my interest to eventually fade, but it's still a solid, engaging effort, and for kids, a wonderful visualization of maternal instincts in the wild. The film's Earth Day release made perfect sense, but African Cats might make for an even better field trip on Mother's Day.