Monthly Archives: May 2011

Pirates of the Caribbean IV: On Stranger Tides

Pirate of the Carribbean: On stranger Tides posterSynopsis

Jack Sparrow  is in London and he is captured and meets George II to do a deal with Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) who wants to reach the “Fountain of Youth”.  The Spaniards are already searching for it.  Sparrow wants a ship but is abducted by Blackbeard’s daughter, Penelope Cruz.  They need the two cups of a sixteenth century explorer (Ponce de Leon) and the tears of a mermaid.  They capture a mermaid and eventually get to the fountain.  The Spanish want to destroy it because its promise of eternal youth is contrary to their religion.


This summation makes the film seem more coherent than it really is.  It is actually the usual Johnny Depp stand up comedy routine surrounded by sidekicks.  We keep being told that Depp copies Keith Richard’s voice (he makes a brief appearance) but it seems as if Depp has been studying a lot of camp British comedy.  Depp is quite funny and it’s quite something to make such a toe rag of British camp into a global franchise which has outdone Harry Potter.  As long as it keeps on raking in dosh, why stop it?  As entertainment it fills the void left by Indiana Jones.  It’s a board game fantasy in panto drag.  Depp and Rush do a creditable Robert Newton, who used to ham his way through Long John Silver.  It’s quite an achievement when you consider that Geena Davis’ pirate film of the ’90s bombed at the box office.  The pirate films of the ’40s and ’50s were unrealistic adventures, Pirates is a once inspired fantasy, which now just about justifies itself.   I would like to see a film about the reality of pirate life, but it wouldn’t be a money maker would it?  Still, it would have been a great improvement to see a breakaway from the formulaic familiarities.  The love interest is between a preacher and a mermaid, both bland and forgettable.  Keira Knightley and Orlando Bloom have fallen off the treasure map.  There’s the usual list of Brit actors having a ride while they pick up a pay cheque.

Each scene is self contained which makes the film disjointed, so it’s like looking at discarded scenes from the latest Orange mobile phone adverts. The self parodies get tangled up in each other as well.  Depp minces his picaresque way through his slapstick routines and it would be nice to see him attempt some of the stunts that Burt Lancaster could do in The Crimson Pirate.  Depp looks like he’s stolen his clothes off a panto washing line and he does well with his stage props.  With all the money it’s made, Pirates could have been more inventive with surrealism instead of giving us unprepossessing mermaids.  This made it look like a stop gap for Harry Potter and Narnia.

For all Depp’s comic prowess, which makes the other actors look like sidekicks, I feel that Pirates cannot continue this way.  A fifth film would have to be a real change in the routine but I fear that as long as the money comes in it will outstay its welcome.  After the credits, the final scene of Pirates IV would appear to confirm one’s worst fears..


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Howl posterSynopsis

Set in the mid 1950s about Alan Ginsberg the poet and the ‘obscenity’ trial at which his publisher Ferlinghetti was present but Ginsberg was absent.  We see Ginsberg trying to write and then read from his poem Howl to an audience of enthusiasts, some of whom may not have escaped being called ‘beatniks’.  We see Ginsberg’s relationships with Neal Cassady and Jack Kerouac.  We learn that Ginsberg did not want his father to learn that he was gay.  We see him interviewed by an unseen and unheard interviewer as he expands his notions of what poetry is, and what the artist’s relation to it should be.  We see animations expressing the poems.  We see the courtroom drama where Jake Ehrlich (Jon Hamm) defends artistic freedom and Ralph McIntosh (David Strathairn) attacks it.  We see artistic freedom vindicated after Ehrlich and McIntosh question several academics about art. Jeff Davids plays one of the academics.  James Franco plays Ginsberg.


An intoxicating look at Ginsberg’s big poetic breakthrough.  This film strips away with surgical vigour the mythical accretions of the past century.  It does not go for the easy archetypal routine:  there is no mention of Elvis or James Dean.  The film is as limpidly as light through gin and the pictures of that time get burned and etched through the passion of the poetry.  It conveys what excitement there must have been when so called ‘beat’ writers inspired their listeners  The film avoids easy point scoring at the expense of the ’50s.  Much has been said about that decade’s retentive conservatism, but we can forget the misery and chaos of depression and world war that preceded it and how at least in the early ’50s that conservatism put a lid on what had gone before.  David Strathairn as the prosecuting lawyer in the ‘obscenity’ trial is too easily set up as a philistine figure of fun, and we are certainly not meant to see any sense in his arguments but he comes across, for me, more as a sad dinosaur.  He admits he doesn’t understand Howl though of course that doesn’t excuse his philistinism.  He gives the Jon Hamm lawyer the chance to mount an eloquent defence of artistic freedom against those Eisenhower era pedants who persecuted Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society.  At one stage the defence is reduced to saying that poetry cannot be rendered into prose.  Naturally, we are witnessing the change in attitude which would inaugurate the so-called ‘pop revolution’ of the ’60s  An interesting aspect of the difficulty of art for the general public is that it reflects the alienation of art from industrial society which had been a prominent feature of the 19th century and it continued into the 20th.   Poor Strathairn was making a misguided plea for the accessibility of art.  As for the poetry itself, it is read out in coffee bars and it is illustrated by pastel-like sketches reminiscent of William Blake.  How do you convey poetry in film?  Not really in these sketches which is like trying to express a music composer’s work by playing it on a xylophone.  Snatches from Howl seem Kabbalistic and Whitmanish.    Ginsberg reads it in a sing song tone, James Franco does a good job of this

It’s amazing how the beats actually started out as aspirational middle class.  Throughout the film, Franco as Ginsberg is dressed soberly, his only wildman concession at the end is a neatly trimmed beard.  Indeed, Ginsberg denied the charge of being ‘beat’, he says it was a group of guys who wanted to get published.   Ginsberg in the interviews is much concerned with the relationship of the writer’s life to the work, in that he shares our mania for often irrelevant biographical details.  Franco always makes him likeable and makes you realize that there was an urgent organic need to question the America of Revolutionary Road and Stepford Wives Howl commendably shuns the temptation to mythologize its hero and this puts the career of Ginsbergs’ most famous admirer, Dylan, into an interesting perspective.  Ginsberg remained accessible and he was close to his audience who must have felt like they were in a feisty verbal brawl.  There was none of the distance that fame and money inflicted on Dylan’s fans.  I could appreciate the tangible details in Ginsberg’s poems though when he preaches, his poetry sounds like a precocious but naive fifth former trying to impress.   He is fascinating for me on the street imagery in The machinery of night.  He was also quite bravely gay in an era when it could destroy lives.  Dylan on the other hand lends himself too easily to the bogus mythologizing of I’m not There, the recent biopic which use different oddball personae.  It’s interesting that Howl uses Dylan’s Wheels on Fire for the end credits, you would think something from his earlier work would be closer to the beat spirit, but of course it isn’t.  The 1962-66 period of ‘beat’ Dylan is derivative folksy ballads leading to ’64-66’s whiney voice winding through capriciously collaged snapshots of imagery.

Franco reads Ginsberg’s work like he’s an urgent shaman of the coffee bars.


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Posted by on May 26, 2011 in Film Reviews


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The Wrong Man

The Wrong Man posterSynopsis

Alfred Hitchcock introduces this film of his, which he says is stranger than fiction.  It’s based on the real life story of Manny Ballestrero who is a musician and family man who is wrongly accused of armed robbery.  He is identified as an armed robber by the woman who works in the insurance office he visits.  The police parade him before robbery victims, and they are all fairly certain that Fonda who plays Manny Ballestrero is the culprit.  He is taken to the station, his writing is compared with the robber’s, he is identified in the parade as the criminal.  We see him subject to the Kafka-like alienation of the prison procedures, we see his world cave in, and his 1950’s ‘American dream’ wife go to pieces and be admitted into psychiatric care.  The real robber is found, Fonda’s wife recovers her mental health, and the woman who did for him looks ashamed.


This is a black and white 1956 film, and along side Twelve Angry Men we see Fonda playing the martyr to weakness and stupidity.  Interestingly, we only know of Fonda’s innocence because Hitchcock tells us so at the beginning.  His point is not to make a thriller whose outcome leaves us in suspense, but to show us the effects of wrongful accusation.  The effects, of course, are usually psychologically,socially, economically and morally devastating.

This was made during the paranoid 50’s, what with its ‘un-American activities’ conjured up by McCarthy and the threat of nuclear war, but there is an ironic inversion here:  instead of Fonda being a threat to citizens, they are a threat to him.  Their well intentional stupidity is destructive and alarming, as was the paranoia of the anti-communist hysteria.  I’d like to think Hitchcock was attacking such mean minded politics, but maybe not.  Interestingly his leading lady, Vera Miles, is ‘Mrs American dream’ at the start of the film, then she goes insane, unable to take the ostracism her husband suffers.  Whatever Hitchcock’s real intentions, he was exposing the fragility of the American dream.  It was okay as long as people behaved themselves; the paradise of the new washing machines could be easily upset.  This was the era of the Douglas Sirk film.

We see the slow pressure working on Fonda’s own sanity and self respect:  the suspicion surrounding him, the writing tests that seem to confirm his guilt, the identity parades all turning the screw on his self doubt.  Hitchcock is much better at showing ‘ordinary’ people trying to hold on to their sanity than he is at cod psychology in films such as Psycho and Marnie.

Anthony Quayle plays the lawyer defending Fonda, and you can see that he doubts Fonda but tries to battle his doubt.  This accentuates the loneliness of the accused person, if there’s so much accusation, surely there is something in it?  This is the nearest that Hitchcock gets to the genius of The Trial by Kafka.  Only Fonda, and we the onlookers, know that he is innocent, the implacable righteousness of his accusers is as terrifying as the intractable enigma of The Trial and its agents.  They are well intentioned people who think they are doing good but their very conscientiousness is appalling in its sense of right.  This fascinates Hitchcock, the process over which we  have no control and how it manipulates us:  it can be a psychotic’s mind, a flock of birds gone mad, people caught up in Cold War spy games.  Remember the mistaken identity of James Stewart  in North by North West and his helplessness in the face of sinister manipulation.  None of this is as bad as a real life case of mistaken identity.  Hitchcock traces the disintegration of this victims’ life with almost sadistic respect for detail, made worse by the fact that we don’t know the exact ending.  Mistaken identity or the search for an authentic identity are big factors in Hitchcock films like in Vertigo and there is no consoling redemption through love.  The Fonda victim is vindicated by accident, he could have easily gone to jail battling the indifference and suspicion of his lawyer and family.

This is Hitchcock at his best and yet amazingly is one of his least known films.  Note how the camera lingers accusingly on Fonda’s face like it did through the window of the hotel room at the start of Psycho or in Rear Window. We know Fonda is innocent but the camera wants to catch at any weakening of resolve, or at any doubt of self in the face of consensual slander abetted by the sort of bureaucratic processes which ensure the guilt of the accused.  An uneasy film, and scarier than the fictions of his other works of this period.  Hitchcock’s gaze is full on in this movie.


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Biutiful posterSynopsis

Javier Barden plays Uxbal, who gets jobs for immigrants for a fee.  At the start of the film we see Uxbal talking to his Dad in a snowy forest.  He’s talking about owls spitting out fur balls.  Then he talks with his daughter about a ring.  Uxbal is diagonised with a terminal illness, he has only a few months to live. Uxbal is also involved in illegal activities among immigrants, we see the police rounding up some African immigrants.  He provides bad heating for the Chinese immigrants and they die from the cheap gas.  Uxbal is also a psychic who sees the dead and is paid to tell grieving relatives what the deceased is saying.  He has a wife who is an alcoholic and suffers from depression, he takes his two kids from her.  He and his brother exhume their father’s corpse and have it cremated, they need the money from his plot.  Uxbal seeks advice from a fellow psychic and prepares for death.  At the end of the film we are back at the snowy forest and the dead owl.


Maybe it’s me being horribly cynical, but this film gets up my nose and then gives me a pain in the neck.  Recently there was an article on arthouse films and one journalist jokingly said that any film in Spanish is considered arty, especially when it’s got Penelope Cruz in it, or in this case Javier Bardem.  Sitting through this film felt like being in a UN workshop: ‘here’s a film about me helping out the poor in Barcelona’.  Inarritu, who directed this film is the guy who did 21 Grams, as you would expect, he’s hairy and wears a leather jacket. He is the thinking person’s Danny Boyle, without the hectic split screen or rock music, but he does have soulful shots of the Barcelona skyline (with the Sagrada Familia cathedral in tasteful silhouette), the mandatory guitar solos, the soulful piano music.  We also get shots of the chattering classes’ favourite martyrs: the immigrants living in poverty, overcrowded Chinese. I half expected a Pablo Nerudo poem to make us sob.  This is coffee table poverty for the smart set, the sort who get to know the Vickys and Christinas of this world in Barcelona.  This is poverty-ridden Barcelona for those who visit the tourist bits so they can wallow in their arty concern for the downtrodden.  I bet the actors and film company sat in an arty studio around a barbed wire coffee table swapping solemnities and concerns for the poor.  No doubt somebody had a Miro on the wall.  The film waves its camera under the nose of poverty in the most self congratulatory manner.  It gave us overhead shots of the slummy areas of Barcelona, how very arty, darling.

Uxbal ‘helps’ and exploits immigrants from China and Senegal but when his negligence leads to the deaths by asphyxiation of some 30 Chinese immigrants he seeks absolution from his psychic chum instead of turning himself in on a manslaughter charge.  Well, he’s dying anyway so we get terminal illness chic to add to the poverty, so he’s a good egg anyway, isn’t he?  No he isn’t, he’s a petty criminal making easy money from a desperate underclass.. We get a scene where Chinese immigrants are washed up dead on a beach, that’ll make a good poster won’t it?

Uxbal’s wife is called Maransra and naturally she’s dysfunctional, she thinks she’s interestingly tasty.  She thinks she’s a gypsy, she boozes, she takes drugs and she glories in being a feckless mother.  She has sullen arguments with Uxbal and chucks her wedding ring at him, naturally, she’s one of Hollywood’s favourite house pets: the passionate Mediterranean woman.  She is also bi-polar of course, what self respecting member of the coffee table slums wouldn’t own up to a colourful mental disorder?  She flounces around, proud in her human wreckage status.  She acts like a baby woman, not even bothering with the hygienic essentials in a poverty ridden house.  This woman has obviously been to the ‘Penelope Cruz Academy for trashing Javier Bardem’s oil paintings in arty films’.  Maramsra is obviously frustrated that Uxbal is a mere psychic rather than a painter whose works she can sell or trash.

There are some vivid scenes in this film which no doubt the broadsheet critics will call “poetic” and “elegiac”.  No director who wants to be considered arty can possibly avoid succumbing to the stereotypes of metaphor.  Here we get the wintry landscape where Uxbal meets his dad and we get arty stuff about dead owls and he makes onomatopoeic noises of the sea and wind.  Ooh-er, pass me the poetry book.

Uxbal is too much the orthodox beloved of contemporary values:  he’s fiercely protective of his family and will kill his brother if the said brother gets near his kids.  Perhaps this is the film giving Uxbal absolution.  It will appeal to the arty liberal mentality from which pluralist monoculturalism has grown:  don’t judge, just try to look and understand.  I think there could be a good dissertation on the infantilization of cinema since the Second World War.  We seem to be steeped in a narcosis of adolescent posturing in films like this.  Unlike Haneke,  Innarritu seems unfazed by our easy vicarious enjoyment of shameful social reality, he opportunistically feeds it while we gratify ourselves on the patience of our intelligent perception.  The very alienness of poverty to the affluent makes it colourful of course, we can surf it like sociologists.

The scene at the cemetery when they take out their father’s corpse is quite weirdly vivid, it looks like a ghostly vision all stark blue and white and makes me forget the general crassness.  It’s quite a riveting scene.

The title of the film is cute and coy, it comes from Uxbal’s daughters’ misspelling of the word ‘beautiful’ and gave me a clue what to expect; well heeled artists tripping through art studio poverty.


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The Adjustment Bureau

The Adjustment Bureau posterSynopsis

Based on Philip K Dick’s 1954 short story, it’s about an aspiring.politician played by Matt Damon.  He meets Elise (played by Emily Blunt) but he should not marry her, this is decreed by the guys in suits and hats.  These are a sort of guardian angel who watch over humanity.  These angels have details of all our lives which must be lived according to the plan.  Elise must become a great dancer and Matt must become the President of the USA.   They end up running away from Terence Stamp, the chief angel, who tells Damon about the sorry state of unaided humanity and how angels must rescue people from themselves.  It turns out that Damon and Blunt should be together after all but they run through doorways into different places to do it.  One of the angels helps.


This would be a decent Twilight Zone story but it’s stretched rather thin over a film, so the film makers of this have decreed that Blunt and Damon’s romance is the central part of the story.    They are fairly good as the central leads, each with a great future yet with the decency to topple ideas of ambition.  In a way the film is a sort of anti-Faustian pact, Damon wants nothing to do with the future the angels, or higher ups, have planned for him.  He inadvertently came upon them re-arranging human thoughts in accordance with the ‘plan’.  These higher ups wear ’50s hats and suits in plain grey and look like benevolent renegade Kafka bureaucrats.  It’s as if Philip Dick is satirizing the bland bureaucrats that have been a recurrent 20th century nightmare even though they work for the human good.  They work in huge Victorian buildings and their insistence on the protocols of destiny make them look unsympathetically pernickety.  Freedom of will is dismissed as a consumerist myth.  Stamp does his usual paternalistic man of wisdom, trying to be patient with Damon raging against destiny.  You could say that this is an updated Sliding Doors, an experiment with alternative outcomes.  It fits with the fad for the supernatural through a very earthly setting.  Blunt and Damon end up in a tower block as if to be shown the riches of the world: John Slattery from Madmen plays one of the angels and he looks indistinguishable from his role as a grey suited executive in the Madmen series.

The film also seems concerned with what motivates people to get into politics “the showbiz of the ugly” !!  Is it really disappointment in love or lack of it?  Certainly Damon is being groomed to be a successful congressman and he rails against the dishonesty and corruption that go into making a US politician.  He excoriates the image makeover that is supposed to appeal to different constituencies.  He experiences a Damascene conversion to truth and authenticity and this means that he is fighting the decrees of the angels.  Familiar stuff this, the power of lerv !!! This makes him a sort of sophisticated Mr Deeds.  He is not rebelling against politics, just its corruption and it doesn’t concern him in the least that he could ask the angels to manipulate the world for his benefit. He stands for decency, and whatever freedom we are capable of, and he will not have anything to do with manipulation for good or ill.

The film pointedly takes us round New York with its post-twin towers resonances.  It seems timeless though set in present time.  The plot really falls apart when we learn that there are no higher ups above Stamp, it’s us and our free will after all. Duh!   So all that running around from doorway to doorway is just a chance for us to watch Emily Blunt in a neat silk dress like in some perfume commercial.  A slight story skilfully stretched but reaches breaking point with Matt and Emily’s runathon.


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Posted by on May 18, 2011 in Film Reviews, Out on DVD


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Pina film posterSynopsis

A film directed by Wim Wenders about the work of modern dance guru Pina Bausch who died during the making of the film.  It was decided to continue with the film as a celebration of her art.  The film consists of dances in different settings interspersed with interviews of dancers who must deal with their grief over their inspirer.  The dances are set in studios or at outside locations in Wuppertal Germany, sometimes near the monorail, sometimes in rural settings. The studio sets are often sombre black or grey. There are suited and gowned dancers in experimental, repetitive, and rhythmical dances.  There are expressions of grief, longing, and striving.


One of the most memorable scenes for me is a dancer harnessed to a wall.  She is striving to escape from a desolate empty room.  In the next room a dancer shovels dirt onto another dancer, in the furthest room a performer carries a long tree branch. I can appreciate its symbolism but it prompted comic thoughts of someone mischievously setting fire to it.  There is a sense of humour in these artistic scenarios, right?  The gloomy slate grey archways in this sketch reminded me of a de Chirico painting.  Speaking of Monty Python moments, the dancing sometimes looked like obsessive compulsives getting stuck in a mime act, other times it looked like a setting for a pretentious ballad, maybe by Sting.  Generally, the soundtrack was excellent, there was lots of mesmeric music.  Often it looked like posh mugging in black and grey rooms, the sort of place that invites a sudden inflammation of vivid colour.  When the dancers performed Rite of Spring there was a cloth of vivid scarlet like blood flashing through the tangle of bodies over the wet brown earth.  Usually the dances for me, seemed to illustrate a poem or state of mind.  I can only use visual analogy because I’m not au fait with the art of modern dance.  It also looked like situational theatre, especially in the urban setting of the Wuppertal monorail.  It was like some symbolic street theatre in complicated semaphores trying to break through bodily prisms, the dancers trying to resolve some psychological struggle in dance movement and posture.  It would be great if we could all get into regular dance regardless of place, though of course it would be comical.

The death of the dance mentor, Pina, did not weigh too heavily on the film but there was a mildly pervasive sadness, as well as in the psyches of the individual dancers.  The speech in this film is minimal and to the point.  Poetry, visual image, and sound elided through each other to make the whole work of art.  Each word about Pina had a clarity like it was chiselled on all that grey stone.  The dancing among the heavy boundaries of rock, earth, and water was all like a breathless epitaph for Pina, and it made a stunning film.

Seen at Chapter, Cardiff.


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Water for Elephants


Starring  Robert Pattinson as a Polish veterinary student Jankowski who cannot pursue his career because the death of his parents has left him penniless.  The film starts with his older self (Hal Holbroke) telling his own story.  Jankowski becomes a drifter and gets onto a circus train and avoids expulsion.  The Benzini circus boss August is a sadistic autocrat played by Christoph Waltz and his wife Marlena played by Reese Witherspoon.  The leading horse in her act must be put down and August doubts Jankowski’s motives for this.  In place of the horse they get an elephant, Rosie, who responds to Jankowski’s gentle Polish commands but excites August to sadistic treatment because the elephant slipped the leash and escaped to the local town.  This is 1931, the era of economic depression and prohibition of alcohol, and money is a great obsession.  Jankowski and Marlena are mutually attracted, August gets murderously jealous.  They escape, she is kidnapped and August is killed by Rosie.  Jankowski and Marlena work for the rival Ringling circus.


In some ways a conventional enough mainstream film but quite entertaining.  It’s got a good eye for details: the depression era chaos and poverty, Marlena looks like Jean Harlowe, there are police raids on boozy parties.  You could see this film as an allegory about the continuing frontier spirit in the USA (the frontier had only closed a few decades before).  The travelling circus is a slave camp populated by painted raddled faces of wage slaves close to destitution.  There is a fierce territoriality about allotted roles in the division of labour as if to reflect the behaviour of the menagerie animals.  The painted cages might have been used for rodeo circuses in the recent past.

Circuses haven’t been prominent in film since the 50’s with De Mille’s Greatest Show on Earth and Burt Lancaster on the flying trapeze.  Then, circus films were sanitized, there were of course the usual concerns about money and sex but poverty, disease, and violence were ruled out.  Circuses were regarded as showbiz with a hard headed capacity for survival.  It’s almost shocking that there are real human problems in these outfits, anyway the bad guys had to go, and the good guys had to prosper.  De Mille gives his circus films a quasi-poetic introduction, comparing it to a big ‘beast’.  In Water for Elephants the raising of the tents is treated matter of factly, no sentimentality gets in the way.  There is no attempt to disguise the hard brutality of the circus for people or animals so there is nothing to get poetic about.  The circus is a canvas and wooden jungle on wheels.

The relationship between August, Marlena and Jankowski is a conventional story of jealousy and the evil  of power when it can destroy people.  Mercifully there are no obligatorily sad clowns or trapeze jocks, the stars of this film are a love triangle and an elephant.  The elephant dominates the screen as it sways, looking like some mottled mound of gentleness with a sphinxy expression on its face.  When the animals escape their cages it’s gratifying to know that they’re computer images, so we are spared the irony of having real animals performing as (uhm) performing animals in a circus.  The mayhem is exotic and shows us how sadism is always more dangerous than animals on the loose.

In the De Mille film there is an emphasis on Christian morality and the circus people are measured against that, in Water for Elephants there is a crude dog-eat-dog world in which these Barnum shysters battled against poverty.  Watchable but not convinced about the chemistry between Pattinson and Witherspoon.


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