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Capsule reviews: `Water for Elephants,' others

The Associated Press, Thursday, April 21, 2011, 9:08am (PDT)

"African Cats" — The first two documentaries from Disney's Disneynature label — 2009's "Earth" and last year's "Oceans" — were a stunning combination of vast, sprawling images and intimate, detailed moments. They provided high tension but also tugged at your heart and offered some laughs in between. This latest film in the series, which is opening on Earth Day like its predecessors, has all the impressive visuals but far less story. Shot over more than two years in the Masai Mara National Reserve in Kenya by directors Keith Scholey and Alastair Fothergill, the film bills itself as a real-life version of "The Lion King." No one bursts into song here but Samuel L. Jackson, as the narrator, does talk. A lot. And that's the movie's major weakness. The images — and the animals' dramatic interactions — should speak for themselves. Jackson's narration is constant and overwhelming. It spells out instincts that should be obvious and assigns human characteristics in a way that's obnoxious. The film follows two families living on either side of a river. One is a pride of lions ruled by the fearsome Fang. On the other side of the river from the lions is a cheetah — named Sita — with her five impossibly adorable and cuddly newborn cubs. G. 89 minutes. Two stars out of four.

— Christy Lemire, AP Movie Critic

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"Meek's Cutoff" — The journey is always the destination in road-trip movies. Director Kelly Reichardt takes that idea to an intriguing extreme: Her characters may not even wind up anywhere, but because of her naturalistic approach and deliberate pacing, we're surprised to find we've experienced more than we could have imagined. This is true of her last two features, "Old Joy" and "Wendy and Lucy," but especially of her latest and most powerful film yet, this stripped-down Western. Reichardt trusts her audience, encourages her viewers to feel comfortable in the stillness and the quiet, and to draw their own conclusions from an ending that's as profound as it is enigmatic. Working with her frequent collaborator, writer Jon Raymond, Reichardt follows three families who are following a guide along the Oregon Trail in 1845. Mr. Meek, played by a charismatic and unrecognizable Bruce Greenwood, talks a big game. But it becomes increasingly clear that they're lost and the families become increasingly frustrated. The tension quietly percolates, and "Wendy and Lucy" star Michelle Williams, as one of the wives, Emily Tetherow, is the least capable of hiding her annoyance. The excellent cast includes Paul Dano, Zoe Kazan and Will Patton. PG for some mild violent content, brief language and smoking. 104 minutes. Three and a half stars out of four.

— Christy Lemire, AP Movie Critic

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"POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold" — It's a genius little gimmick, really: a clever, knowing twist that isn't so obnoxiously meta as to be off-putting. Morgan Spurlock made a documentary about product placement, marketing and advertising, and he funded it entirely through product placement, marketing and advertising — starting with the title. Now, you may not necessarily walk out of the theater craving pomegranate juice — or itching to book a flight on JetBlue Airways, or nibble on some Amy's Kitchen pizza, or drive a Mini Cooper (or fill up that Mini Cooper at a Sheetz convenience store). And those are just a few of the two dozen or so sponsors Spurlock amassed, despite enduring many, many more rejections. But while Spurlock's film is hugely entertaining, unsurprising coming from the likable maker and star of "Super Size Me" and "Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden?," Spurlock also doesn't connect the dots sufficiently to prove that product placement actually influences consumer habits. Still, he has fun trying. Just by being himself, Spurlock is a big reason this is so enjoyable, and his presence is powerful enough to make you overlook the film's shortcomings. PG-13 for some language and sexual material. 88 minutes. Three stars out of four.

— Christy Lemire, AP Movie Critic

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"Water for Elephants" — There are times you should just keep on ignoring the elephant in the room, and this is one. Reese Witherspoon and Robert Pattinson's adaptation of Sara Gruen's bestselling novel about romance and intrigue in a Depression-era circus plods along at a pachyderm's pace. Witherspoon and Pattinson are a three-ring snooze-fest together, bringing little passion to a love story supposedly so fiery, it blows the roof off the big top. Pattinson's a destitute ex-veterinary student who falls in with circus folks, where he and the show's star (Witherspoon) fall in love while making friends with an elephant. The movie's star attraction is Christoph Waltz, who won an Academy Award as a gleefully psychotic Nazi in "Inglourious Basterds" and here delivers another wicked performance as Witherspoon's hubby, the cruel, jealous circus ringleader. Waltz commands every moment that he's on screen, highlighting how dull fellow Oscar-winner Witherspoon and "Twilight" heartthrob Pattinson are. Director Francis Lawrence ("Constantine," "I Am Legend") throttles down from action flicks and sputters through this treacly love triangle (or love quadrangle, if you throw in the elephant). PG-13 for moments of intense violence and sexual content. 121 minutes. Two stars out of four.

— David Germain, AP Movie Writer

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