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Column Fri Apr 22 2011

Water for Elephants, The Greatest Movie Ever Sold & The Bang Bang Club

Water for Elephants

I'm not even sure where to begin with this one. I know a weirdly disproportionate number of people who not only have read the Sara Gruen novel upon which this films is based, but also loved it. In watch the film, I can almost see moments where having insight into various characters' thoughts and emotions would make the material quite good. But as adapted by the usually more reliable screenwriter Richard LaGravenese and director Francis Lawrence (I Am Legend, Constantine), this version of Water for Elephants is a surface-level melodrama that never allowed me access into the hearts and minds of its subjects. Feelings don't seem to exist in this movie unless they're actually spoken aloud, and I finally realized that it's because Robert Pattinson simply isn't a strong enough actor to carry this material.

I don't mean to dump on the guy who has pretty much been the butt of all jokes since he starred in the first Twilight movie, but Pattinson's entire method of expressing any level or type of emotion is putting on an angsty face. At least I think that's what it is. He may just be constipated. But that only explains Pattinson's part in this debacle. There are some good actors in this thing too, and they have fewer excuses beyond the writing. I tend to enjoy the works of Reese Witherspoon, but she's practically a background player in Water for Elephants as Marlena, a circus performer married to the ringmaster and head of the operation, August (Inglourious Basterds' Christoph Waltz). Pattinson plays Jacob, a veterinary student at Cornell who is pulled out of his final exam with news that his father has died and left him nothing. Rather than return to school, Jacob chooses the life of a hobo and hops a train that just happens to belong to the circus.

Rather than kill him by tossing him off the train, August decides to take advantage of Jacob's animal doctoring skills and hires him to be the circus' vet. When Jacob puts down Marlena's star horse because the animal is in pain, he gives August the opportunity to bring in a new animal to the circus, an elephant that Marlena and Jacob must train so she can ride it. And its during these training sessions that the two fall in love... I think. At least, we're told they fall in love. There's a lot of telling and very little showing or believing in Water for Elephants. On top of that, there is almost no chemistry between the leads, and it's almost a distraction how the film asks us to simply accept their feelings when they barely seem to like each other. Waltz's character does a much more convincing job at expressing his love for Marlena, even if he is a drunken, jealous man prone to violence.

What's even more frustrating is that, aside from their being an elephant in the midst of this love triangle, the story of Water for Elephants is so damn conventional. It plays out with no surprises, no interesting twists, and practically no drama worth mentioning. It doesn't help that the film is bookended by a sweet but unnecessary modern-day story involving Hal Holbrook as "Old Jacob" trying to get a job in a circus by telling his tale to Paul Schneider. At the very least, we know Jacob doesn't die right off the bat, even though his life his threatened a half-dozen times by August. Give me an episode of HBO's long-defunct series "Carnivale" for great insight into the shady lives of circus folk, and give me just about anything else to stir my emotions. Hell, I'd take a Nicholas Sparks adaptation over having to watch this movie again.

The problem that keeps Water for Elephants from working is that no one seems inspired enough to even try. I know that Witherspoon's last film How Do You Know didn't go over like gangbusters with audiences or critics, but at least she was giving that performance everything she had. Waltz comes the closest to breaking free of the shackles of a crummy script, but under the ham-handed direction of Lawrence, he transforms into a paint-by-numbers screen villain whose ranting and outbursts probably come from a place of real pain in his life, but you wouldn't know that from the screenplay. The film certainly was shot nicely, and everyone's costumes and well-groomed hair are on full display. But the elephant in the room is the bad writing and the off-key performances that result from it.

The Greatest Movie Ever Sold

To be accurate, the real title of the latest and probably funniest documentary by Morgan Spurlock is POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold. I mean, POM did put up $1 million to get the before-the-title name rights, so I should respect that, right? The truth about Spurlock's wildly entertaining and somewhat informative film about product placement on TV and in movies, and the broader topic of advertising and marketing, is that this isn't so much an exposé on the practice as it is an exercise in it. Spurlock decided early on that he was going to finance his entire film using sponsors. So the movie ends up being much more about Spurlock the pitchman and personality than it is about the outrageous and sometimes despicable ways ad firms get their message into our field of vision.

There's no denying that Spurlock is an entertaining guy to watch, especially in his ground-breaking doc Super Size Me, as well as Where In the World is Osama Bin Laden? and his extraordinary television show "30 Days." Because of that, it's kind of fun watching him not be able to get by on his charm as he cold calls hundreds of potential sponsors and is shot down with machine-gun regularity. He meets with ad companies and marketers who specialize in getting their clients in movies, and most of them want nothing to do with his idea, probably because pulling the veil back on this process would reveal some pretty disgusting and laughable practices.

But once the first sponsor signs on — Ban roll-on — the rest start to line up, and eventually Spurlock is taking meetings with POM Wonderful, Merrell shoes, Sheetz, jetBlue, Mini (the car), Hyatt Hotels, Amy's Kitchen, and the list goes on and on. He explores the extensive contracts he must sign, and even directs three 30-second commercials that run during the movies. His pitch meeting to POM Wonderful of three different ad spots is one of the film's best moments, especially when you see how they turn down all three ideas — including one spot that emphasizes the male performance enhancement claims of the juice — and counter with a clearly prepared pitch of their own. It's a mildly chilling moment.

In between the sections of the film that have Spurlock in full Spurlock mode, he also attempts to school audiences in a more serious way on the practices of pumping ads into high schools via an in-house television network; neuro-marketing, which involves scanning your brain while watching ads to see what aspects of a commercial the brain responds to (this is used a great deal in testing movie trailers); and the lengths some companies will go to to get their product in the hands of a famous actor in a film.

Although Spurlock doesn't get his hands on actors who have actually been forced to do this, he does have interesting conversations with filmmakers like J.J. Abrams, Peter Berg, Brett Ratner and Quentin Tarantino, whose request to shoot the opening of Reservoir Dogs in a Denny's was rejected by the restaurant chain. Other, more likely interview subjects like Ralph Nadar and Noam Chomsky are on hand to nay-say the practice of product placement (and all advertising in general). I was especially moved by one segment of The Greatest Movie Ever Sold on Sao Paulo, Brazil, a city that has banned all billboards and other advertising signage in a beautification effort (I can't image that idea flying in any major U.S. city).

With The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, Spurlock does what he does best: inform while entertaining. And he doesn't give in to his sponsors demands entirely. He refused any request for final cut approval. I guess artistic integrity and commerce can work hand in hand, although I'm not sure that will be foremost in your mind watching this movie. By the way, Spurlock's nearly completed next film is about Comic-Con. At least he won't be tempted by corporations, logos and people trying to grab your attention with that work. The Greatest Movie Ever Sold opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

To read my exclusive interview with The Greatest Movie Ever Sold writer-director-producer-star Morgan Spurlock, go to Ain't It Cool News.

The Bang Bang Club

It may sounds like the title of a bad porno, but The Bang Bang Club is actually a fascinating look at a group of four combat photojournalists working in South Africa in the turbulent months leading up to that nation's first fully free elections, which resulted in Nelson Mandela's presidency. The war they were covering was not between black and white, but between black South Africans and the large number of Zulu immigrants who had come to the nation to find work. What was stranger was that the better the negotiations between Mandela and the soon-to-be-defunct Apartheid government seemed to progress, the more the violence spiked. This "hidden" war was also fueled by members of the current military/police force syphoning guns to both parties to help escalate the brutal killings that these photographers were chronicling.

Not a documentary, but more a docudrama, The Bang Bang Club stars Ryan Phillippe as Greg Marinovich, who joins the group as a freelancer, and uses his fear to guide him to places no other photographer has seen, including into the heart of a Zulu settlement where he gets photos of a murder. Unfortunately, this will not be the last time he captures such a moment. Taylor Kitsch ("Friday Night Lights" and soon to be seen in the title role in John Carter of Mars) plays Kevin Carter, who befriends the latest addition to the club, most of whom either work for the local South African paper (represented by photo editor Robin Comley, played by Malin Akerman) or freelance for it, with the option of selling the more explicit images to wire services and outlets like Time magazine. Two of the four members of this group received Pulitzers for their work covering these events.

Rounding out the club are Ken Ooosterbroek and Joao Silva (played by South African actors Frank Rautenbach and Neels Van Jaarsveld), who risk bodily harm on an almost daily basis to get the best shot. What's interesting about the movie is that we not only get a look at how these four behaved when they weren't dodging bullets, but we see the behind-the-scenes story of how some of their most famous shots were taken — the most famous of which is probably one featuring a little girl crouched on the ground with a vulture poised a few feet behind her, presumably waiting for her to die. The photo (by Carter) sparked major controversy because it fanned the flames of the age-old debate about whether photographers (or journalists in general) should step in to help those in their pictures or simply act as impartial documentarians.

I've never seen the films of writer-director Steven Silver, primarily a documentary filmmaker, but I found his feature debut quite impressive. The death-defying lives of war photographers have been covered before in film, but The Bang Bang Club is right up there among the best I've seen that captures the psychological toll doing this kind of work takes on these men (and presumably women). I especially liked the enormous amount of detail centering on how each of the four photographers positions themselves when they arrive in a war zone, and it's specifics like that that pulled me in and made me care about these authentically drawn characters.

What didn't make me like them any more was showing us the romance that develops between Marinovich and Comley. It may have happened in real life, but it adds nothing to this movie. But those scenes are a minor distraction, and are easy to forget in light of some truly powerful work on behalf of Silver and his cast. Some may think they've seen it before, but there are some genuinely harrowing moments that I never seen in a film on this subject, and I have a tough time believing audiences won't be sucked into this peak into one of the most dangerous jobs in the world. The Bang Bang Club opens today at the Music Box Theatre.

 
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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »

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