At The Movies

Water for Elephants

Directed by Francis Lawrence
In 2006, the novel “Water for Elephants” received critical and popular acclaim, including a long stint on the New York Times bestseller list in 2006 as a hardcover and a top placement a year later as a paperback. It has a large number of passionate fans for a story that, on paper at least, was reputed to be similarly passionate. Unfortunately, the passion doesn’t translate well on the screen.  

The story is centered around the reminiscences of an elderly man who recounts his life working in a circus during the depression. He encounters the traveling company by accident, but is considered a valuable find by the owner as he had had veterinary training in college. However, times are tough and as the owner struggles to pay the staff (while apparently never short of a champagne dinner for himself and his wife), men routinely disappear during the night, thrown from the circus’ moving train with no regard for the safety of their landings.

It’s no real plot spoiler to note that there’s an elephant in the movie – an elephant who enjoys chugging whiskey. But in a movie that demands that the audience buys into the chemistry between its two leads, Robert Pattinson as the young circus worker and Reese Witherspoon as the owner’s wife and star circus performer, it’s problematic for there to be more obvious attraction between the elephant and the whiskey bucket than between the actors. The film is bookended by scenes in which the older character describes his youth, with the older Robert Pattinson played by the wonderful Hal Holbrook. A short time after leaving the theater and pondering the film, I realized that I probably would have preferred to watch two hours of Hal Holbrook simply telling me the story than to have watched the actual movie unfold.

The movie is very well-made, including numerous difficult-to-stage scenes involving animals, but it just seems flat. For such a passionate story, there isn’t enough onscreen passion to fill a pup tent, let alone a big top.

Note: In an odd twist of fate, “Water for Elephants” opened at approximately the same time as the story of an abused elephant in the UK helped prompt new legislation banning circus acts that involve performing animals.

Fast Five

Directed by Justin Lin
There’s nothing very surprising about the plot or action in the latest outing in this caper series that features fast cars and even faster talking. This time around, the central cast (Vin Diesel, Paul Walker, and Jordana Brewster) are on the run in Rio, short on funds, and aggressively hunted by super agent Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. At least he’s aggressive and super when it suits the plot and oddly absent for stretches when it doesn’t. But that’s the kind of quibble that one has to attempt to avoid in a movie of this nature – like the idea of stealing cars that have so little ground clearance you’d want to circumnavigate mild potholes on the street, then driving them rapidly across a rough desert.

But my bigger problem with the movie is that while it seems true to the dynamics and action of its predecessors, and of the characters’ ability to find resources and street racers at the drop of a hat in a foreign city, it seems to disregard the characters’ actual character about as much as it does the laws of physics. The two leads are supposed to be guys who, despite their lawlessness, are inherently good and conscientious underneath – but this film casually displays an apparent wanton disregard for the safety of innocent passersby in a manner that seems entirely uncharacteristic. It may not bother the fast fans, but it furiously bothered me.


The Academy Award and Golden Globe winner for best foreign language film, “In a Better World,” is scheduled to open this week in Sacramento. It’s a troubling but well-produced drama about two Danish families whose lives intersect in difficult circumstances. The story focuses primarily on the relationship and actions of two boys, one from each family, who must come to terms with and react to two separate bullies. In a parallel storyline, one of the fathers, who works for a Doctors Without Borders-like organization, encounters a far greater villain in a medical camp in Africa. At a time when bullying is such a hot topic, it’s interesting to see a film that considers the consequences of fighting back, for both children and adults.  

This Saturday also marks the world premiere of a Sacramento-made feature film “Planet of the Vampire Women,” the latest production from the creative team behind the Trash Film Orgy (TFO) film screening series. It’s a low-budget genre piece and another step on the way to cementing TFO productions as Sacramento’s answer to Troma (think of such Troma titles as “The Toxic Avenger,” “Surf Nazis Must Die” and “Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead”). It may not be everybody’s cup of blood, but this is a group who is making films that people want to see and who are attracting attention from distributors – and Sacramento could use more of that, in all genres.  For more information and ticket details, visit (Full disclosure: Tony Sheppard is an Executive Producer on this project.)

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