Monday, May 2, 2011
Circus, Trains and Romance
Circus, Trains and Love in “Water for Elephants”
By Skip Sheffield
If you love the circus and you love trains, you are already halfway to loving “Water for Elephants.” If you love an against-all-odds love story, then you are virtually guaranteed to love this movie, based on the best-selling novel by Sara Gruen.
Reese Witherspoon and Robert Pattinson are the lovers: circus star Marlena and veterinarian Jacob Janowski.
The story is told by the elderly Jacob, played by Hal Holbrook in the present. Jacob alludes to a young circus employee that he knows about the terrible Benzini Bros. circus disaster of 1931. Not only does he know about it; Jacob was there when the disaster happened and he knows what caused it.
So begins Jacob’s yarn and a movie that careens from dramatic adventure to comedy, romance and melodrama, and back again under the direction of Francis Lawrence (“I Am Legend”).
It is the depths of the Depression and Jacob is taking his final exam to become a Doctor of Veterinary Science at Cornell. Jacob never takes the test, as he is interrupted by the terrible news both his parents have been killed in a car crash. If that weren’t bad enough, Jacob’s generous veterinarian father has mortgaged everything for his son’s education, and now the bank is taking everything.
This has a very 2011 ring to it, but that is one of the attractions of a story set in that terrible time in America. Everyone is needy, hurting and growing more desperate.
On an impulse Jacob hops on a train that turns out to be the Benzini Bros. circus train.
Jacob has the good fortune to fall under the protection of a genial alcoholic called Camel (Jim Norton), and that’s a good thing. August (German actor Christoph Waltz), the cruel, autocratic circus owner, regularly has his employees thrown off the moving train for reasons as simple as he can’t afford payroll.
Yes, August is a very bad guy and he is married to the very beautiful star of his show (Witherspoon), an expert equestrian and gymnast.
My opinion of Reese Witherspoon has shot up at least 30 points for pulling off this role and making it look easy. Reese rides trick horses, flies through the air, twirls on metal bars, and as a coup de grace, rides a 4-ton elephant named Rosie.
The pachyderm is as impressive as Reese. Where did they ever find an elephant that understands Polish?
Robert Pattinson is less impressive. His character is younger than Marlena’s and less sophisticated, but he seems a bit out of his league. The least successful part is his romantic scenes with Reese. I felt uncomfortable for him.
On the other hand Waltz is one dandy villain, full of pride, vanity and rage. The German accent doesn’t hurt either.
“Elephants” has many delights visually and dramatically. I loved the dwarf actor Mark Povinelli, who played Walter, a clown who loves his little dog.
So while this movie appeals more to women than men, I’m with the girls on this one.
Bill Cunningham’s New York
So you think you are frugal?
After seeing the Richard Press documentary “Bill Cunningham’s New York” you may not be so smug.
Until recently Cunningham lived in a tiny artist’s apartment above Carnegie Hall. He has never owned a car. He travels New York City on a bicycle day and night, in all weather conditions. He always wears the same outfit, topped with a blue street sweeper’s smock he bought in Paris.
Cunningham is a photographer; a world-class fashion and lifestyle photographer for the New York Times. His photos chronicle the rich and famous as well as the poor and unknown. He has an uncanny fashion sense, and for this reason Cunningham is welcome at the highest-level fashion shows of the world. He knows the great designers, socialites and members of royalty, and they sing his praises in archival footage.
Cunningham prefers to find the beauty of street life amongst ordinary people living their lives. Because he has no material desires or social needs, Cunningham cannot be bought. He is 82-years-old, yet he continues to work. For his birthday he is honored at a surprise party at the New York Times. The love and respect for the man is palpable.
“I never miss a good picture,” he says modestly. Bill Cunningham is New York personified.