PICKS OF THE WEEK
Water for Elephants (B)
U.S.: Francis Lawrence, 2011, Fox
Water for Elephants is an old-fashioned romantic picture done in new-fangled ways, and it's so good for such a long time, that it seems a shame, at the end, to feel so let down by it.
The movie, co-starring Reese Witherspoon, Robert Pattinson and Christoph Waltz as an incendiary circus triangle -- takes place in 1931, in a flashback, in a circus, on a train or under the big top. And it's awash in memory, about the romance of the circus: about the circus as the canvas-tent palace of dreams. It's fitting, in a way, that this movie is set in the Depression, when America's illusions were being progressively stripped away.
The best of Water for Elephants -- directed by Francis Lawrence (maker of I Am Legend) and scripted by writer Richard LaGravenese (of The Fisher King and The Bridges of Madison County) from a romantic bestseller by Sara Gruen -- recalls the ways movies can transport us into visions of the past, and into the ways we want life to be: in this case, a portrayal of the circus world as an empire of escape, a fantasyland of sawdust and tinsel. It's a domain as poor and dangerous, perhaps, as the economically shattered post-crash world around it, and as tawdry and fake. But it's also somehow lovelier and dreamier.
The worst of it though, reminds us of how compromised and awash in clichés and phony glamour movies too often are.
Centering around those three movie star circus people and an elephant named Rosie (played by the amazingly photogenic Tai), it's a triangle drama -- with Pattinson, the melancholy hunk of Twilight, as an idealistic veterinary student who runs away and (accidentally) joins the circus; Witherspoon as Marlena, the lovely, sexy blonde bareback rider he goes crazy for; and Waltz as August, the circus' brutal and egocentric boss, also its master of ceremonies and, unfortunately for Jacob, also Marlena's husband, and the young vet's bad, volatile nemesis.
The movie's story is as simple as a fairytale, which, in many ways it is: a fairytale disguised as a period drama. Sometime somewhat near the present, an old man of 93 or so, Jacob Jankowski (Hal Holbrook), is found wandering in a nearly empty circus at nightfall. The young circus employee who finds him, Charlie (Paul Schneider) is about to return him to where he thinks Jacob came from -- the old folks' home -- when his interest is piqued by Jacob's mention of his onetime circus background and his witnessing of a famous circus catastrophe from many decades ago.
Most of the rest of the movie is Jacob's story, narrated at first by Holbrook (who should have done it all) and then by Pattinson as the young Jacob -- a young man in 1931 with a seemingly promising future (and a hot date), whose imminent graduation from Cornell veterinary college is interrupted by his parents' sudden death by car accident, and the revelation that they've lost all their money, and their home (to the bank of course), because they sacrificed everything to finance Jacob's education.
Abandoning college, heartsore, Jacob hits the road. But the first train he hops turns out to be not a freight car full of hobos, but the circus train of Benzini Brothers, a cheaper, sleazier rival of Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey. Thanks to an kindly old coot who likes him named Camel (Jim Norton), Jacob gets a job, shoveling manure. The revelation that he's been at Cornell and knows animal medicine, prompts his employment by the glib, seductive and very mean circus king August.
The story of Water for Elephants plays out in the obvious way -- which is what a lot of us may want it to do. Young Jacob meets the beautiful bareback rider Marlena, falls in love, and gradually drives August insane with jealousy. All the while, we're aware of that famous catastrophe to come, and aware also that it probably involves the movie's elephant, Rosie (Tai), the new circus star picked up after the previous big animal star, Marlena's horse, has to be put down by Jacob because of a leg injury.
What LaGravenese gives us is a triangle, and a typical Depression movie triangle at that, with prototypical roles. The young poor guy with lots of dreams and maybe a brilliant future, but an eye for the leading lady (Jimmy Stewart or Henry Fonda). The streetwise platinum blonde girl who looks like an angel, but stares like a slut (Jean Harlow, Carole Lombard or Barbara Stanwyck, bleached). The evil bastard with the money and the woman, who gets insanely jealous (Wallace Beery, Edward G. Robinson or Lionel Atwill).
The movie is good, when it's good, not just because of its snazzy direction, or its literate, knowing script by LaGravenese, or its memorably sick and stylish villain (Waltz), or its eye-pleasing pretty girl/pretty boy lovers (Witherspoon and Pattinson), but also in large part due to its sumptuously tawdry period production design by Jack Fisk (Days of Heaven) and the lush, moody color cinematography by Rodrigo Prieto (Amores Perros). But by the end, the cliches have piled up, and the climax seems rushed, contrived, and unfelt.
Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale and Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (B)
Finland: Jalmari Helander, 2010, Oscilloscope
This dark little horror-fantasy-comedy, in the Trollhunter mode, is about an arctic mountain Finnish village/outpost where a horde of wild deadly Santa Clauses invades the town and endangers any humans who's been naughty or nice. It's somewhat like a Yuletide version of Hawks' The Thing. With Onni Tommila as the boy protagonist, Johma Tommila and Per Christian Ellefsen. In Finnish and English, with English subtitles.
The package also includes a scruffy-looking print of the legendary bomb Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (U.S.: Nicholas Webster, 1964). In this flabbergasting stinker, probably one of the worst movies you'll ever see, a space ship full of squabbling Martians flies to Planet Earth to kidnap Santa Claus and put him to work back on Mars making and delivering cheesy-looking assembly-line presents. Two cute tots stow away on the return flight to Mars, which proves to be a weird domain of cheap sets, bad lighting and papier-mché-looking caves inhabited by what seems to be a race of idiots. The music is by TV composer Milton Delugg, who contributes the now forgotten (with good reason) song "Hooray for Santa Claus!," irritatingly sung "Hooray for Santy Claus!" by what seems to be a chorus of demented chipmunks. (Sample lyrics: "When we hear sleigh bells ring/Our hearts go ting-a-ling!")
Incredibly awful. I would say that this movie makes Plan Nine from Outer Space look like Citizen Kane, but you probably wouldn't believe me, unless you've seen it. With John Call as Santa and the very young Pia Zadora as a Martian child. (Extras: Writer-director Helander made two wry deadpan shorts about his Rare Exports theme -- wild, evil Santa Clauses -- and they're both in the Oscilloscope package; the festival hit 2003Rare Exports Inc.) and the 2005 Rare Exports Inc. - The Official Safety Instructions; also documentary, featurettes, photo gallery, concept art.)
BOX SET PICK OF THE WEEK
Raffaello Matarazzo's Runaway Melodramas (A-)
Italy: Raffaello Matarazzo, 1949-1955, Criterion Collection, Eclipse
One of the great pleasures of covering a DVD beat is opening another Eclipse set from Criterion, especially if, as in this case -- a four disc box of postwar romantic melodramas directed by the lesser known genre moviemaker Raffaello Matarazzo and starring the then fabulously popular screen lovers Amedeo Nazzari and Yvonne Sanson -- it's an anthology of filmmakers and actors about whom you've barely heard before. Ignorance doesn't matter. You can usually trust Criterion and Eclipse to find something interesting and of high quality, and to pack it with care and with good, knowledgeable notes.
Matarazzo was one of the Italian filmmakers who were liberated by the postwar fall of Italian fascism, though in his case, Matarazzo embraced not the early neo-realism of Rossellini or Visconti, but the kind of glossy, glamorous melodramas from which actor (and matinee idol) Vittorio De Sica had emerged to make his directorial poems of poverty and city life Bicycle Thieves and Umberto D. Matarazzo, like Douglas Sirk (but with a different, less crystalline and impeccable visual style), made, in the late '40s and '50s, movies about romantic trials, quandaries and impossible loves. With his regular screenwriter, Aldo De Benedetti, he kept throwing awful obstacles in the paths of the handsome, mustachioed, a little thick Nazzari and the angelic Sanson, a Madonna of domestic anguish to rival the later Joan Crawford.
Chains. Tormento. Nobody's Children. The White Angel. The titles almost say it all. Love, Suffering. Redemption. These movies were not only popular with Italian audiences on a level that the great neo-realist films weren't. They were genuine smash hits. They seized the public's imaginations and embedded themselves in the pop cultural zeitgeist of the time.
And, in turn, the more intellectual and progressive Italian film critics of the day, mostly rejected and despised them, for mostly political, partly religious reasons. The Matarazzo-De Benedetti-Nazzari-Sanson films all had social consciences, as did the neo-realist classics. The lovers were kept apart by corrupt businessmen, snobbish affluence, legal injustice and prejudiced parents. But, in the end, the hero and heroine looked to God and not social progress for their redemption.
That diminished these films in the eyes of the more socially minded critics of the day, the ones who believed directors like Matarazzo and films like these were perhaps leading the masses astray. Not quite. Instead, indeed, they were entertaining the masses, giving them intense emotional experiences and maybe at the same time implanting a few lessons about the evils of social prejudice. But among some influential cinephiles, these films were ignored or ridiculed in their heyday, only revived and reevaluated when their initial economic and cultural impact had passed.
Now Amedeo Nazzari (he of hotheaded devotional love) and Yvonne Sanson (she of mournful eyes and self-sacrificing heart) can perhaps be appreciated for what they were then: movie icons of the dreams of the common people. And Matarazzo, their good shepherd, can be appreciated too. All films are in Italian, with English subtitles. (Extras: Notes on all films by Michael Koresky.)
Italy: Raffaello Matarazzo, 1949
Rosa (Sanson), though happily married to mechanic Guglielmo (Nazzari), is pursued by an old flame who has become a criminal, then blamed and deprived of her family by the violence that results. A potent tearjerker, and the movie that made the lead actors superstars and Matarazzo a semi-Sirk.
Italy: Matarazzo, 1949
More social constraints and another killing, as Anna (Sanson) suffers from the frame-up (for a murder) of Carlo (Nazzari) and from her stepmother's tyranny. One of the most devastating of these melodramas, with fate tying Anna and Carlo into knots.
Nobody's Children and The White Angel (A-)
Italy: Matarazzo, 1952/1955
Another big hit and its sequel: a two-part look at the torment, dark destiny and religious redemption of a romantic aristocrat, Guido (Nazzari) and his working-class love Luisa (Sanson). With Francoise Rosay as the Countess. The most Catholic of these three tales of man's (and woman's) suffering and God's long silence and final voice.