Sunday, April 24, 2011

2 Brief 2011 Movie Reviews: Water For Elephants and The Conspirator

Water For Elephants (2011)
Director - Francis Lawrence
PG-13; 122 Min
Reece Witherspoon - Marlena
Robert Pattinson - Jacob
Christoph Waltz - August

In 1931 America the depression and prohibition were in full force.  For some the way to stay employed was to travel the country by rail with the circus, and in the case of this film that circus was the struggling Benzini Brothers, direct but not very formiddable competetors of the great Ringling Brothers. There is a back story which frames the film in the same style of Titanic, but you can cast that aside and just enjoy the film for its story-telling and well acted performances.

I've never watched a Robert Pattinson film (I know who he is and what he has done and he was in a Harry Potter film so I guess I have seen him once) and I thought he did a pretty good job holding his own as the young vagabond Jacob finding his way in this circus against seasoned lead Witherspoon as Marlena, the lead attraction of the Benzini Brothers circus.  Marlena also happens to be the wife of August, the owner and operator of the circus and played wonderfully by Christopher Waltz in a very nice follow up to his mesmerizing performance in Inglourious Basterds.) All three actors work well together and Waltz really shows us how amazing he is at switching personalities on call, creating a somewhat likable figure at times who clearly isn't someone we would ever want to cross.

The film takes us along a ride as the circus struggles to make any money.  There is romantic tension between the three leads which ultimately drives the movie.  After Marlena is forced to find a new star act when her horse is injured, August brings in his new idea he is sure will save them all, a majestic elephant named Rosie.  Needing to learn the act quickly Marlena begins to train with Jacob as the defacto trainer due to his years of veterinarian studies.  The film leads up to a climactic ending and I was surprisingly very satisfied with the entire movie, shot with wonderful scope and told in a very moving manner.

**** out of 5

The Conspirator (2011)
Director - Robert Redford
PG-13; 122 Min
James McAvoy - Frederick Aiken
Robin Wright - Mary Surratt
Kevin Kline - Edwin Stanton
Tom Wilkinson - Reverdy Johnson
Evan Rachel Wood - Anna Surratt

Director Robert Redford once again gives us a film with all kinds of political implications which we probably find ourselves relating to current events, but which we don't necessarily like the way it is being told to us.  In the case of the Conspirator, we are asked to view the trial of a woman accused of conspiring to kill President Lincoln in what is clearly a kangaroo court setting, though the ultimate questions concerning guilt are never clear.

In 1865 near the end of the civil war, John Wilkes Booth and several co-conspirators met frequently at a boarding house run by Mary Surratt and inhabited by her son John and daughter Anna.  After the fateful night of the assassination the military higher ups feel it is in the nation's best interest to hold a speedy trial and resolution for the co-conspirators, as Booth perished in a barn fire when cornered.  Frederick Aiken, a young and unproven lawyer, is handed the task to defend Mary Surratt, though he believes from the outset that she is guilty just like everyone else. 

The film mainly takes place in the court room as we see several breaches of Constitutional law take place.  What saves the movie from becoming a bit too high minded is that we are never really aware of the guilt or non-guilt of Mary.  It is well known that her son is most likely guilty, but he has fled and without him to hang the government and the military are willing to put Mary on trial for the same crimes, whether she did it or not.  The film is interesting enough with the subject manner but I had trouble ever really relating to James McAvoy.  I was never really drawn into his character enough to care all the time.  As a fan of history in general the film was a success and I think people will enjoy it if they understand they are going to see a film with no explosions and a lot of dialogue.

*** and 1/2 out of 5

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