Video Verdict: ‘Water for Elephants,’ ‘Crazy, Stupid, Love,’ ‘Cars 2’

Robert Pattinson, left, and Reese Witherspoon star in the romantic drama “Water for Elephants.”

This week’s home video releases include an offbeat comedy featuring Steve Carell, the latest animated film from Pixar and a drama starring Reese Witherspoon and Robert Pattinson.

Water for Elephants

3 stars (out of four)
Rated PG-13 for moments of intense violence and sexual content
20th Century Fox
Available on: DVD and Blu-ray

Director Francis Lawrence (“I Am Legend,” “Constantine”) and screenwriter Richard LaGravenese (“Beloved,” “The Horse Whisperer”) have taken liberties with their film adaptation of novelist Sara Gruen’s “Water for Elephants,” but the changes shouldn’t upset anyone, as the result is a well-produced Depression-era love story.

As with the book, the focus is on a young man named Jacob Jankowski (Robert Pattinson) whose parents die just days before he is supposed to graduate from Cornell University with a veterinary degree. Broken and homeless, Jacob hops a circus train that takes him on a life-changing journey.

The most noteworthy difference between the book and movie is that Lawrence and LaGravenese have made a composite of two characters – the circus owner and head animal trainer. That character, a ruthless businessman named August (Christoph Waltz), thinks nothing of beating his animals and throwing unwanted employees from the moving circus train.

Although he despises August’s behavior, Jacob agrees to become the circus veterinarian, in part because he’s desperate and in part because he is intrigued by August’s beautiful wife, a horse trainer named Marlena (Reese Witherspoon). Of course, this attraction puts Jacob in danger because August is more thug than entrepreneur, and he treats Marlena as a possession.

Lawrence does a nice job capturing the essence of Depression-era America, and Pattinson reminds us that he’s capable of more serious roles than that of the brooding vampire he made famous in “Twilight.” As a foil, Waltz is brilliant because his version of August is frighteningly two-faced, moving effortlessly between the guises of charming impresario and brutal sociopath. Witherspoon is also solid, but the movie suffers because the growing emotions between Jacob and Marlena aren’t fully developed on screen. In essence, viewers are told that Jacob and Marlena are in love, but Lawrence does little to establish this fact.

Although the romance could be better fleshed out, “Water for Elephants” remains a good film. Jacob’s story is intriguing, and the movie offers a compelling look at the difficulties of circus life during the 1930s.

DVD and Blu-ray extras include short features on Pattinson and Witherspoon and an audio commentary by Lawrence and LaGravanese.

Crazy, Stupid, Love

3 stars
Rated PG-13 for coarse humor, sexual content and language
Warner Brothers
Available on: DVD, Blu-ray and digital download

With “I Love You Phillip Morris,” the directing team of John Requa and Glenn Ficarra delivered one of the best movies of 2010. Unfortunately for them, the film’s provocative subject matter – it’s about a police officer who leaves his wife to become a flamboyantly gay conman – resulted in less-than-stellar box office numbers.

With their sophomore film, “Crazy, Stupid, Love,” Requa and Ficarra have taken a decidedly more commercial approach, but the movie isn’t lacking in edge. Written by Dan Fogelman, the film centers on Cal Weaver (Steve Carell), a good-hearted businessman who sinks into a depression when his long-time wife, Emily (Julianne Moore), asks for a divorce.

Just before Cal hits rock bottom, a handsome, young womanizer named Jacob Palmer (Ryan Gosling) offers to help him regain his manhood. The requirements for this, at least according to Jacob, are a new wardrobe and a new attitude, both of which he helps Cal acquire. To Cal’s surprise, Jacob’s tutelage works, making him a substantial hit with the ladies.

Although the relationship between Jacob and Cal is at the center of the movie, Ficarra and Requa deliver several nice subplots, the most important involving a young lawyer played by Emma Stone.

Where “Crazy, Stupid, Love” stands out in comparison to other Hollywood dramedies is in originality. Over the years, moviegoers have seen plenty of pictures about rocky relationships, but only the best are as lively and unpredictable as this. The movie has moments where the plot direction seems clear, but Fogelman’s screenplay is filled with U-turns that leave viewers fighting to catch up. And that’s a good thing. Even the finale is open ended and surprising.

Carell’s role is largely dramatic, but he is allowed to exercise his comic timing, and it’s fun to watch him playing across from a young talent like Gosling and a veteran like Moore. Stone is also likable, and the movie gets added star power from Kevin Bacon and Marisa Tomei, who are terrific in supporting roles.

The only down side to “Crazy, Stupid, Love” is an overindulgent finale that takes the previously straightforward film into the realm of melodrama. While this dampens the overall quality, it doesn’t destroy the great moments that came before.

DVD and Blu-ray extras include a collection of deleted scenes.

Cars 2

2 stars
Rated G
Disney
Available on: DVD, Blu-ray, Blu-ray 3D and digital download

Over a 15-year period, Pixar Animation Studios developed such a stellar track record that the thought of the animation giant releasing a bad film became something akin to sacrilege. “Cars 2” proves, however, that even titans can stumble. The movie is beautifully animated, and that fact should cushion Pixar’s fall, but there’s no denying that “Cars 2” is a step down from all prior Pixar releases.

Directed by John Lasseter (“Cars,” “Toy Story”) and Brad Lewis (a producer on “Ratatouille” and “Antz”), the film features many of the characters made popular in the original “Cars.” Once again, the uber-fast race car Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson) is at the center of the action. As “Cars 2” kicks off, viewers learn that McQueen is leading a dual life, spending work weeks in the spotlight at major auto races, then heading back to the tiny town of Radiator Springs for down time with his buddy Mater the tow truck (Larry the Cable Guy).

McQueen allows his two worlds to merge when he invites Mater to accompany him on a major international race. The event takes them from Radiator Springs to Tokyo, Paris and London, and it also places them at the center of an international intrigue. Not long after their arrival in Tokyo, Mater is mistaken for a secret agent, and he ends up faking his way through a mission with a superior British spy car known as Finn McMissile (Michael Caine). It’s in this latter turn that “Cars 2” stalls.

Pixar is, no doubt, capable of making an excellent espionage cartoon. Unfortunately, “Cars 2” isn’t it, and that’s because the whole spy premise seems forced. The beauty of “Cars” was that the automotive stars were always involved in car-like activities. The addition of a spy plot creates a situation where some of the vehicles have the ability to transform from land-based units to planes and boats, and when this happens it seems as though the animators were simply looking to up the ante because they had run out of ideas. What’s more, the storytelling isn’t as exciting as in the best Pixar movies.

It’s sad to see Pixar’s long run of perfection come to an end, but it was bound to happen someday. Nobody’s perfect … not even Pixar.

DVD and Blu-ray extras include an exclusive short cartoon featuring Mater, the “Toy Story” short “Hawaiian Vacation” and an audio commentary by Lasseter.

ALSO OUT THIS WEEK

“Snow Flower and the Secret Fan”: Director Wayne Wang (“The Joy Luck Club”) presents the story of two generations of Chinese women trying to maintain their friendships despite pressures from the outside world.

“Trespass”: Drama about a wealthy family taken captive by extortionists. Nicolas Cage, Nicole Kidman, Cam Gigandet and Ben Mendelsohn star. Directed by Joel Schumacher (“The Lost Boys”).

“An Invisible Sign”: Jessica Alba plays a withdrawn math whiz who gets a new lease on life thanks to a teaching job. J.K. Simmons, Sonia Braga, Bailee Madison and John Shea also star. Directed by Marilyn Agrelo (“Mad Hot Ballroom”).

“His Way”: Documentary film focused on famed Hollywood movie producer Jerry Weintraub. The movie features many interviews with Weintraub as well as appearances by former president George H.W. Bush and actors Brad Pitt, George Clooney, Bruce Willis and Matt Damon.

“The Essential Daffy Duck Collection”: Two-DVD set packed with 21 Daffy Duck cartoons, Including “Porky’s Duck Hunt,” “Duck Dodgers in the 24½th Century” and “The Night of the Living Duck.” The collection also includes a short documentary on Daffy.

“Tabloid”: Documentary filmmaker Errol Morris looks at the story of Joyce McKinney, a former beauty queen who made tabloid headlines after being accused of abducting and seducing a young missionary.

“Warren Miller’s Wintervention”: Miller spanned the globe to capture footage of expert skiers and boarders tearing up the slopes. Featured athletes include Chris Davenport and Linsey Vohn. Narrated by Jonny Mosely.

Miramax debuts on Blu-ray: Lionsgate is rolling the Miramax films “Cop Land” and “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind” to Blu-ray for the first time. “Cop Land,” released in 1997, stars Sylvester Stallone as a small-town sheriff who discovers a mob-related conspiracy in his community. “Confessions” is the film adaptation of game show producer Chuck Barris’ autobiography, and it is noteworthy as George Clooney’s directorial debut.

– Forrest Hartman is an independent film critic whose byline has appeared in some of the nation’s largest publications. E-mail him at forrest@forresthartman.com.

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2 Comments

Filed under Video Verdict

2 responses to “Video Verdict: ‘Water for Elephants,’ ‘Crazy, Stupid, Love,’ ‘Cars 2’

  1. smilingldsgirl

    Cars 2 was a bummer. I so look forward to the Pixar offering each summer. Hopefully they will rebound next year. One movie you didn’t get a chance to review was Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. This movie made me mad. What a way to ruin an imperfect but respectable book. They tried to turn it into the Joy Luck Club but failed bitterly. Too bad. Lisa See’s writing deserves a better adaptation.

    Like

  2. Yeah. I plan to watch Snow Flower when I have a chance, but wasn’t able to write a full review for this week. As you state, though, I’ve heard that it’s not great.

    Like

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