Elephants, 'Blu' birds and Screams: Latest movies reviewed
Here's reviewer Susan Granger's take on the new movies being screened in area theaters this weekend:
"WATER FOR ELEPHANTS"
Given the quality and popularity of its visually rich, romantic source material, this screen adaptation disappoints. But it's not a total loss.
In a prologue, an elderly man (Hal Holbrook) stands in the rain outside a circus and recalls in a flashback what brought him there. In Depression-era 1931, Jacob Jankowski (Robert Pattinson) was a veterinary student about to graduate from Cornell when his Polish parents were accidentally killed. Bereaved and penniless, he jumped aboard the Benzini Bros. Circus train. When the sociopathic, often sadistic ringmaster August (Christoph Waltz) discovers his background, Jacob's hired to care for the animals, particularly those of star performer/wife, Marlena (Reese Witherspoon). And when August buys an elephant named Rosie, it became Jacob's job to train her for Marlena's act.
Unfortunately, screenwriter Richard LaGravenese has so condensed Sara Gruen's best-seller that many pivotal scenes are simply glossed over by director Francis Lawrence. The melodrama would have been better served as an atmosphere-rich TV mini-series, like "Mildred Pierce." What's lost is the complexity of the gritty circus milieu and subtle, suspenseful character development.
Sulky, miscast "Twilight" vampire Robert Pattinson seems almost passive in his anguish, achieving zero chemistry with far-too-ladylike Reese Witherspoon. As a result, Christoph Waltz ("Inglourious Basterds" Oscar-winner) and Hal Holbrook deliver the most confident performances.
Tai, the huge pachyderm who plays Rosie, steals the show. Middle-aged at 42, Tai grew up at a Florida animal park until she was 8, when she was purchased by trainer Gary Johnson, owner of Have Trunk Will Travel in Perris, Calif. Tai's resume includes appearances in "George of the Jungle," "Larger Than Life," and "Operation Dumbo Drop," along with music videos, TV shows and live appearances. While working, Tai has her own custom-made 48-foot-long trailer. She receives daily baths and once-a-month pedicures, along with treats like apples, carrots, jelly beans and coconuts.
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, "Water for Elephants" is a compressed, stilted 6. Circus-lovers should re-visit Cecil B. DeMille's "The Greatest Show on Earth" or "Trapeze" with Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis.
Among the flock of family films comes the fine-feathered saga of Blu (voiced by Jesse Eisenberg), a rare blue macaw snatched from his exotic rainforest home by poachers before he can learn to use his wings. Winding up in a snowy Moose Lake, Minn., he's rescued by young, bespectacled Linda (voiced by Leslie Mann). Because he was so young when he was domesticated, Blu never learns to fly.
Flash forward 15 years, when Tulio (voiced Rodrigo Santoro), a Brazilian ornithologist, visits Linda's bookstore and informs her that Blu may be the very last male of his species. For that reason, he wants Linda to bring Blu to his institute in Rio de Janeiro to mate with his female blue macaw Jewel (voiced by Anne Hathaway).
But feisty Jewel is unimpressed by pampered, uber-nerdy Blu's efforts to win her affections. She's far more interested in escaping from the bird sanctuary. Their floundering courtship is abruptly interrupted when they're stolen by another gang of avaricious bird smugglers, led by Marcel (voiced by Carlos Ponce) and his cohort, a cannibalistic cockatoo named Nigel (voiced by Jermaine Clement). Ever-bickering yet bound together, Jewel and Blu escape on foot, since Blu can't fly, and make their way in extended chase sequences through Rio's streets during Carnival celebration with its festive music and dance. Eventually, of course, earthbound Blu succumbs to his natural wild instinct and Jewel realizes his worth.
Utilizing iridescent 3-D CGI, Brazilian-born director Carlos Saldanh creates a flamboyantly colorful, tropical frolic, demonstrating why Fox's Blue Sky ("Ice Age" franchise) has joined DreamWorks and Disney/Pixar in the cartoon-boom. Animation has proven a box-office winner so expect "Cars 2," "Kung-Fu Panda 2," "Happy Feet 2," "Puss in Boots," "Hood vs. Evil" and "Hoodwinked Too!"
For kids, on the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, "Rio" is a swaggering, splashy 7, even though its predictably stereotypical banality prevents it from ever achieving full flight.
Back in 1996, when sardonic screenwriter Kevin Williamson and inventive director Wes Craven devised this humor-tinged concept, it was a new and totally different type of horror picture, as the characters rattled off self-reflective meta-commentaries, often in the form of rules. There were two sequels, one in 1999 and another in 2000 -- and innumerable copycats. In the interim, the horror market has changed radically -- favoring torture-porn and gory, graphic violence. As a result, this fourth installment of the franchise seems rather archaic.
As this story begins, three pairs of attractive young women (Lucy Hale and Shanae Grimes, Anna Paquin and Kristen Bell, Aimee Teegarden and Brittany Robertson) receive those familiarly frightening phone calls and fall victim to what seems to be the Ghostface Killer (voiced by Roger Jackson with the body of stuntman Dane Farwell).
That coincides with the return to Woodsboro of Ghostface's original prime target, Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell), who has written a self-help best-seller, her memoirs about being a survivor, and is now concluding a promotional tour, accompanied by her smarmy publicist, Rebecca Walters (Alison Brie). Forced to stay in town due to investigative procedures, Sidney interacts with Sheriff Dewey (David Arquette) and his wife, frustrated reporter Gale Weathers (Courteney Cox), along with deputies Perkins (Anthony Anderson), Hoss (Adam Brody) and Hicks (Marley Shelton). Under police protection, Sidney moves in with her Aunt Kate (Mary McDonnell) and young cousin Jill (Emma Roberts). That's where she meets Woodsboro's current crop of ill-fated teenagers: Jill's best friends, Kirby (Hayden Panettiere) and Olivia (Marielle Jaffe), her stalker-like ex-boyfriend Trevor (Nico Tortorella), and the high-school film-club geeks (Rory Culkin, Erik Knudsen).
The updated, self-referential script includes references to contemporary social-media obsession with Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, along with spoofs of the new wave of horror pictures, but the cast includes far too many extraneous characters. As a result, they emerge as archetypes, making it easy to calculate who will succumb when.
On the Granger Movie Gauge, "Scream 4" is a stale, silly 4, with multiple false endings becoming monotonous far too soon.