Film review – Water for Elephants (2011)

12 May 2011
Water for Elephants: Jacob (Robert Pattinson)

Jacob (Robert Pattinson)

It’s America in 1931 and the realities of the Great Depression followed by the death of his parents leads Jacob Jankowski (Robert Pattinson) to seek refuge with other outcasts in the circus where he can put his uncompleted veterinarian studies to use. He primarily cares for the circus’s new elephant, who is the real star of the film, and inconveniently falls in love with the wife of the circus’s tyrannical owner. Despite the potential offered by the film being almost entirely set in the transgressive space of the Big Top, where cultural norms were traditionally turned on their heads, and the transient space of the train that takes the performers from town to town, this adaptation of Sara Gruen’s popular novel is simply a pleasant exercise in idealised nostalgia and romance. It’s certainly a far cry from the dark gothic sensibilities of the HBO Depression era circus series Carnivàle.

As the handsome, young romantic lead, Pattinson certainly fits the part and the Twilight Saga franchise star has an undeniable onscreen presence with his brooding James Dean-type looks. Whether Pattinson is set to become the next James Franco or the next Luke Perry remains to be seen, but while there’s nothing remarkable about his performance in Water for Elephants he doesn’t do himself any harm either. Reese Witherspoon is as reliable as ever as the film’s object of desire, and her assertive onscreen persona helps to make us forget that her character does little but react to the men. To complete the film’s Oedipal love triangle is the real standout performance by Christoph Waltz as the villainous circus owner August. Waltz manages to convey the alarming psychotic nature of this potentially stock-standard character who so easily flies between charismatic joviality and violent fury.

Water for Elephant: Marlena (Reese Witherspoon)

Marlena (Reese Witherspoon)

Director Francis Lawrence (who previously made the very different films I Am Legend and Constantine) has generated a mostly whimsical tone for Water for Elephants that only pays lip service to the issues it raises. Exploited workers, crowd grifting and poor treatment of the animals in captivity are all given a romanticised sheen to ensure the film never becomes anything more than an unchallenging love story. August is clearly identified as the villain because he is callous and sometimes wilfully cruel to the animals, but beyond that the film glosses over the more institutionalised neglect and abuse suffered by many circus animals.

Water for Elephants does at times attempt to provide some broader social commentary. An alcoholic character bemoans the social and health effects of Prohibition as a comment about the harm caused by the criminalisation of addictive substances, but the issue is never fully explored. Along with the power of illusion, following your dreams and doing what is morally right instead of acting according to economic necessity are the major themes that run throughout the film. However, this also seems to get lost in the mix when the film increasingly falls back on simply using violence to restore order.

Water for Elephants: Jacob (Robert Pattinson) and Marlena (Reese Witherspoon)

Jacob (Robert Pattinson) and Marlena (Reese Witherspoon)

Water for Elephants is nevertheless a satisfactory midday movie. There is something almost reassuring about its desire to tell a sweet and simple romance story against its fascinating, albeit heavily romanticised, circus setting. It lacks the humour and charm to elevate itself above its modest generic ambitions, but it’s a perfectly enjoyable piece of pulp cinema that successfully repackages archetypal characters and scenarios.

Thomas Caldwell, 2011

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Film review – The Twilight Saga: Eclipse (2010)

1 July 2010
The Twilight Saga: Eclipse - Jacob Black (Taylor Lautner), Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart) and Edward Cullen (Rob Pattinson)

Jacob Black (Taylor Lautner), Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart) and Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson)

In the third instalment of the Twilight film series, the love triangle from the previous two films is still being negotiated. The human teenage girl Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart) is still torn between her vampiric boyfriend and potential fiancé Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson) and her werewolf friend Jacob Black (Taylor Lautner). Once again Bella’s life in under threat by the vengeful vampire Victoria (Bryce Dallas Howard, taking over the role from Rachelle Lefevre), and in order to protect Bella, an uneasy alliance is formed between the rival vampires and werewolves

The core problems with the Twilight films are still very much present in this new instalment including the plodding pace, the trite dialogue and the very regressive subtext. Bella, and a good section of the audience, are supposed to find Edward and Jacob romantic but both male characters present a very depressing depiction of what constitutes romantic behaviour. Edward is an emotionally manipulative, over protective, jealous stalker while Jacob is obsessive, forceful and volatile.

The Twilight Saga: Eclipse - Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart) and Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson)

Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart) and Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson)

Caught in the middle with little agency of her own, Bella spends most of the film listening to Edward’s and Jacob’s demands and declarations. In one scene the guys even have a go at nutting out Bella’s future while she sleeps. The only time Bella actively makes a significant decision for herself is when she decides to have sex with Edward but in return gets a lecture from him on virtue and abstinence until marriage. If Eclipse had any degree of edginess or kinkiness then this sadomasochistic scenario may have some transgressive appeal but its representation of this confused morality as romantic just makes it a bit creepy.

Probably the best thing to be said about Eclipse is it is better than the previous film New Moon. Among the dross there are a some good lines of dialogue suggesting that the characters do have a sense of humour and British director David Slade delivers a few genuinely exciting scenes, including an exhilarating chase through the forest and a tense climatic battle sequence. Using one of the historical flashback sequences to depict vampires as European colonialists preying on the Native American werewolves also suggests the hopeful possibility that some of the issues of race and class raised by the previous films, through the depiction of the ultra-white wealthy vampires and the working-class Native American werewolves, will be explored in the series’ final chapter (which will be released as two films).

The Twilight Saga: Eclipse - Jacob Black (Taylor Lautner), Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart)

Jacob Black (Taylor Lautner), Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart)

Given that Slade’s previous film was the much more violent 30 Days of Night, featuring a more traditionally monstrous depiction of vampires from the sparkle-in-the-sunlight ones in Twilight, it is not surprising that his instalment introduces a degree of actual horror. The scenes depicting new vampire baddie Riley Biers (Xavier Samuel) and his bloody recruitment spree throughout Seattle actually delivers a few moments of genuine menace. On the other hand, Slade also uses a lot of unnecessary shaky handheld camera effects and the Michael Bay-style rapid editing is also disorientating. The decision to depict the vampires being shattered like glass when injured is also a bit bewilderingly.

Regardless of what any critics think of Eclipse it will still delight audiences who have come this far with the series. Many fans won’t care about its repressive conservatism and many will even find it appealing. Despite Slade’s directorial presence, Eclipse is still clearly the product of original novelist Stephenie Meyer and she has clearly tapped into something that appeals to many, many people who are content to once again look on at Edward while he furrows his brow, Bella while she pouts and Jacob while he clenches his jaw.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2010

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Film review – The Twilight Saga: New Moon (2009)

19 November 2009

Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart) and Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson)

The second cinematic outing for the emo/tween Twilight franchise continues the love story between18-year-old girl Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart) and 108-year-old-in-the-body-of-a-17-year-old vampire Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson). Edward is still refusing to transform Bella into his kind, or sleep with her, and he has become increasingly concerned that his presence in her life will come to no good. Edward and his family of fellow good vampires take off and Bella is left behind devastated. Bella briefly becomes an adrenalin junkie, is tormented by some of the bad vampires from the previous film and then starts to hang out with a pack of werewolves, developing a second love interest with Jacob Black (Taylor Lautner).

The first Twilight film, directed unremarkably by Catherine Hardwicke, was a chaste and bland addition to vampire mythology that at least was of interest for introducing audiences who hadn’t read Stephenie Meyer’s novels into its world of New Age vampires. About a Boy and The Golden Compass director Chris Weitz has taken over directorial duties for the second film and although Weitz is a better director than Hardwicke there is nothing he can do to save this film from its wet, limp and trite script. The dialogue from this film sounds like it is lifted straight from pulp romance and daytime soaps and it is extremely difficult to accept that writing like this is not only given a green light but adored by so many readers. Humour, subtlety and depth are all sacrificed for piles and piles of angst and empty sentiment.

On the plus side, the incredibly annoying Edward actually doesn’t feature too much in New Moon apart from the occasional absurd ghostly apparition. Like the Angel character from the television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, Edward is a tormented vampire who wants to help humanity, loves what he cannot have, broods a lot, has perfect hair and is played by an actor with questionable acting ability. Unlike Angel, Edward contains no sense of humour, self-reflexivity or charisma. When she isn’t pouting too much Kristen Stewart gives a decent performance as Bella but Robert Pattinson was clearly cast as Edward simply because of his looks.

Bella and Jacob Black (Taylor Lautner)

Audiences who want to embrace New Moon really need to question what ideas this franchise is selling to them. On the surface Bella may be an alternative to traditional teenage girl stereotypes but ultimately she is simply a lovesick girl whose sanity and happiness are dependent on a neglectful male. Bella is also surrounded by men who claim to have an innate desire to kill her, especially if they get angry, and their ‘noble’ attempts to protect Bella from their violent tendencies is disgustingly portrayed as romantic. New Moon is not only a poorly structured and badly paced slog but it contains at its core an incredibly regressive message about male violence and the need for women to accept it.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2009

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