'Win Win' is just that — a winning film

First things first: "Win Win" is not a sports film, although the title and ad posters seem to promise a plot that revolves around a team and its coaches. It's much more.

While it does focus on high school wrestling, the film is never formulaic. It is not about winning on the mats, or about a weak team transformed into a group of wunderkinds; rather, it is about flawed yet decent people who fashion, out of kindness, an improbable family.

Begin with Paul Giamatti. If you've not seen him in "Sideways," then make a point of renting the film. It was his breakthrough movie, and it launched his career as more than a minor character actor. Giamatti would be the first to acknowledge that he is not your typical leading man: sad-eyed, overweight and balding. Yet he is so good — brilliant, really — at portraying certain characters that it's always a delight to watch someone so talented work.

Giamatti relishes the role of Mike Flaherty: a struggling lawyer with few clients; a volunteer high school wrestling coach; married to Jackie, nicely portrayed by Amy Ryan; father to two girls; and living in a modest home.

While the movie has been billed as a comedy, it is much more. "Win Win" is essentially about good people and those situations in which they do the best they can while realizing even their best, at times, might not be enough. Until it is.

Unexpectedly, into the Flaherty home comes a teenage kid, Kyle, played by Alex Shaffer. As Mike soon discovers, he is a gifted wrestler who is also troubled — his mother is in rehab and his grandfather is living in a nursing home. He has run away from home, hoping to move in with his grandfather no matter that he is a stranger to him.

Mike convinces Jackie that they should take in the boy until his mother can be found. She, of course, believes they now have Eminem living in their basement, a delinquent rapper who is beyond help. However, as it turns out, writer/director Tom McCarthy does not portray Kyle stereotypically, which only makes the movie far richer and engaging. The film soon evolves into a soft, subtle, very human tale, serious and comedic.

The ensemble of actors also is superb, to include Kyle's mom, Cindy, nicely rendered by Melanie Lynskey, as well as the veteran actor Burt Young, who plays the aging grandfather suffering from early dementia.

"Win Win" is proof that small movies that exemplify excellent story-telling, that are deeply human, filled with delightful, well-intentioned, imperfect people are still being made, though they don't appear nearly as often as we'd like.

Water for Elephants

"Water for Elephants" is a solid adaptation of the 2006 best-selling novel by Sara Gruen.

The film opens with an old man (Hal Holbrook), standing out in the rain, watching the circus, now loaded on trucks, preparing to leave and move onto the next town. One of the owners brings him inside, and over a glass of whiskey, curious about the old guy, encourages him to tell his story.

And so the tale begins, told at first by the old Jacob, but then his voice over soon morphs into that of young Jacob (Robert Pattison), who is sitting for his final veterinarian exam. He is called out of the test and told that his parents have just been killed in a car accident.

Devastated, Jacob packs his things and leaves, jumping a train, one that turns out to be carrying the Benzini Bros. circus.

August Rosenbluth (Christoph Waltz), the circus ringmaster and boss, hires Jacob as a circus roustabout, at least until he finds out that he is a vet. August's wife, the lovely Marlena (Reese Withersoon), immediately captures Jacob's attention. She performs center ring, of course, and the film soon telegraphs that a relationship is in the offing; the only question is how it will secretly evolve.

There is much that makes this film more than just passable. One is the setting, the circus in 1931, during the depths of the Depression. It was a time when people were desperate for any form of entertainment, anything to take them out of the reality of that stark economic period.

The Benzini Circus is replete with all manner of interesting characters. It is a world apart from the ordinary life led by those who live in the towns and bring their children to see the extraordinary.

The circus also is a culture unto itself with a language and mores that are more than interesting. Unfortunately, the film only briefly touches on this world, though the opportunity is offered when an old veteran, Camel (Jim Norton), takes Jacob on a tour. He is dazzled and in awe of all that he sees.

The circus is vibrant and alive, full of color and magic and music. But there also is a dark side, one that Jacob comes to understand and even fear. August, he discovers, can slip from friendly and welcoming to cruelty that borders on the insane.

Waltz, the Oscar-winning actor who starred in "Inglourious Basterds," delivers a superb performance, one that is powerful and captivating. He provides an interesting contrast to Pattison's Jacob. Pattison's face is not one that emotes. He doesn't seem capable of changing his expressions from scene to scene, his remoteness ever consistent. It was a quality that worked nicely in the "Twilight" series, where he portrayed a stoic vampire; however, in the role of Jacob he is asked to do more. Unfortunately, he seems somewhat at a loss.

Witherspoon and Waltz are consummate actors and able to transform themselves. Waltz chews up every scene he is in, as he did in "Basterds" where he convincingly portrayed a malevolent Nazi officer. Witherspoon is resilient and fragile with a touch of trapped desperation.

"Water for Elephants," in the aggregate, is fine entertainment, far better than most of the romances offered up by Hollywood month after month.

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