Seabiscuit


Tobey Maguire is dismayed that he has no web to swing from.

Tobey Maguire is dismayed that he has no web to swing from.

(2003) Biographical Drama (Universal) Jeff Bridges, Tobey Maguire, Chris Cooper, Elizabeth Banks, William H. Macy, Michael Angarano, Ed Lauter, Gianni Russo, Sam Bottoms, Dyllan Christopher, Gary Stevens, Royce D. Applegate, Valerie Mahaffey, Michael O’Neill, Annie Corley, David McCullough (voice), Michelle Arthur. Directed by Gary Ross

There are true stories and then there is the truth. Hollywood has a habit of obscuring one for the other. I say this because upon first glance at this movie, one is going to believe that some of the men who are front and center in Seabiscuit were saints, or at least close to it. Be aware as you watch this, that it is more or less an idealized version of the true story that surrounded one of the most legendary racehorses of our time and don’t let that fact get in the way of a truly wonderful movie.

The Great Depression hit some men harder than others. For automobile dealer Charles Howard (Bridges), a car accident that took the life of his 15-year-old son was a forceful reminder that the sunny days of the ’20s were over. Although Howard was able to retain much of his fortune, he found himself searching to fill the empty void in his life, one that cost him his first wife (Mahaffey) although he would later find the spirited Marcela (Banks) while on a trip to Mexico.

For Tom Smith (Cooper), the end of a lifestyle that he loved and an era in American history came hand-in-hand. One of the last of the true range-riding cowboys, Smith found himself in an increasingly mechanized age where the once endless prairies had vanished into subdivisions, towns and fenced-off ranches. A man who had forgotten more about horses than most of the rest of the country combined actually knew, he found it difficult to find a good job utilizing the skills and knowledge he had accumulated over years in the saddle. Adjusting to the 20th century was proving difficult to a man who was born 50 years too late.

Red Pollard (McGuire) had gone through life fighting his way uphill for everything he had, literally. Forced into a foster home after financial difficulties had beset his family, he had a massive chip on his shoulder for most of the rest of his life. He had tried his hand at prizefighting, but wound up beaten, bloody and more often than not, alone. An excellent rider, he was considered to be too big to be a jockey and there were otherwise precious few jobs that involved riding horses.

These three men were united by an unlikely horse named Seabiscuit. Small, ungraceful and none too fast, Seabiscuit’s career on the racetrack had been less than spectacular. But then Howard bought the horse and hired Smith to train him, and Pollard to ride him. And it is this particular confluence of people, time and events that would create magic – and sports history.

At first, Seabiscuit was met with a certain amount of apathy. But as he began to win, the canny publicity hound Howard began to market his horse like no other sports figure in the country (except for maybe Babe Ruth). The right sort of people began to get behind the underdog horse, such as radio reporter Tick Tock McLaughlin (Macy). And Seabiscuit continued to win and win and win.

Off in the distance, coming from the east, War Admiral — thought of as the Perfect Racehorse — had won racing’s coveted Triple Crown. The snobbish Eastern bankers who own War Admiral think at first the undersized horse from the West Coast is beneath their notice. Howard pushes in the press for a match race, leading to an epic confrontation that pitted the two greatest horses of all time, who happened to be at their peaks simultaneously.

Of course, Seabiscuit plays with the heartstrings – unashamedly and sometimes unnecessarily. The story of the great horse is great movie material; it had been done before – in an godawful 1949 tearjerker The Story of Seabiscuit starring Shirley Temple – but the horse with a heart bigger than a nation’s pain deserved a much better biography and this is it. Bridges, Cooper and McGuire all handle their roles respectfully, trying not to succumb to the over-sentimentality of the script, and bringing the essence of the characters to life. They have a good chemistry together which is immensely important given that this is as much their story as Seabiscuit’s.

Director Gary Ross wisely lets the visuals speak for themselves; the racing scenes are well-executed. Although the story is Hollywoodized somewhat, the facts are actually stuck fairly closely to, which is to be commended. They also do a great job of recreating the gait and style of the legendary Seabiscuit.

The movie is inspiring, if occasionally treacly. The story itself lends itself to a big stage, and Ross provides it for his fine cast. Getting past the sentiment can be tricky, but this is a story about perhaps the ultimate underdog and the movie has in ten short years become a sports movie classic.

WHY RENT THIS: Great underdog story. Excellent chemistry among the leads. Inspiring. Terrific racing sequences.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Prone to over-sentimentality.

FAMILY MATTERS: There’s a bit of sexuality and there is some violence within the context of the sport.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Sold 5.5 million DVD copies which at the time was a record for a drama.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: There’s a featurette on horse racing in the 1930s which includes not only the Seabiscuit-War Admiral rivalry but also other great horses of the era. The Blu-Ray includes newsreel footage of the actual race and an A&E channel special on the real Seabiscuit.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $148.3M on an $87M production budget; the film fell shy of recouping it’s production costs during its theatrical run although it turned a very tidy profit on home video.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Miracle

FINAL RATING: 9.5/10

NEXT: Now You See Me

 

Advertisements

Sympathy for Delicious


 

Sympathy for Delicious

Prince is looking a little worse for wear these days.

(2010) Drama (Maya International) Christopher Thornton, Mark Ruffalo, Juliette Lewis, Laura Linney, Orlando Bloom, Noah Emmerich, James Karen, John Carroll Lynch, Robert Wisdom, Dov Tiefenbach, Niko Nicotera, Deantoni Parks, Stephen Mendillo, Sandra Seacat. Directed by Mark Ruffalo

Miracles can be tricky things. There’s no guidebook in how to deal with them. If you got the power to heal people with the touch of your hand, what would you do with it?

“Delicious” Dean O’Dwyer (Thornton) was once one of the hotter scratchers – although some would prefer the term DJ – on the underground music scene until a car accident left him confined to a wheelchair. It’s also left him broke and bitter, living in his car on Skid Row. He has a grudging relationship with Father Joe (Ruffalo), a do-gooding Catholic priest who thinks Delicious has it better than most (i.e. his car) which he should be willing to share with others.

Delicious basically just wants to be left alone and says so. But that’s not going to happen when he discovers that he has the miraculous power to heal with his touch – but sadly, not himself. If anything, this leaves Delicious more bitter and angry than before. He takes up with Ariel (Lewis), bassist for an unremarkable metal band whose singer who calls himself The Stain (Bloom) – quite aptly, I believe – sneers at everything and everybody who isn’t The Stain, while their harried manager (Linney) tries to get a record deal that simply isn’t forthcoming.

Father Joe sets Delicious in a hotel and pays him a meager amount – all he can afford – to heal and as word spreads the notoriety of Joe’s mission grows. Delicious though sees all the benefit going elsewhere and none to him, so he sets himself up with the band so that his healing can be part of the show. However, things don’t go quite as planned and Delicious learns that there are down sides to miracles.

This is Ruffalo’s first directing effort and all in all it isn’t bad, but it isn’t distinguished either. He and Thornton, a close personal friend of his, have been trying to get this made for more than a decade. I don’t know that it was worth the wait, but it does have its moments.

Thornton, best known for playing Cliff Cobb on “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” does a pretty good job as the bitter and churlish title character. He also wrote the script, so there’s perhaps some familiarity with the emotional landscape he must traverse. There are times he’s completely unlikable but there’s never a moment when the character seems false.

Ruffalo got a fairly fine cast for a micro-budgeted indie, including his own participation. I’ve always liked Ruffalo as an actor and his laid-back likability has carried him through a number of films. Here his character is still likable, but there is definitely a hidden agenda behind the facade. It’s a bit of a change for him.

Linney is as dependable as ever as the sultry manager, not above using a little sex appeal to sell her band. The cast is in fact pretty solid top to bottom. The story is pretty authentic in how people would react to a genuine miracle, particularly in that specific place and time. Organized religion gets a pretty harsh grade (which I would tend to agree with) in terms of how the miraculous would be used to their advantage. However, the secular world doesn’t escape unscathed either as spectacle and rock and roll get skewered as well.

The problem lies in that the movie is a bit overwritten. The focus between the secular side (symbolized by the band) and the religious side (Father Joe) should have been tighter.  The battle for Delicious’ soul is really the central core of the story and at times it feels like an afterthought. It could have used someone to stop and say “What are you trying to do with all this other stuff?” I would have liked to have found out more about Delicious and where he’s coming from, more about Joe and what he’s about. Unfortunately, the characters aren’t given much depth. They’re given a part to play and there’s nothing really behind them. They have no past and no future, only the present.

I like Mark Ruffalo and I like what Thornton did with his role, but at the end of the day this is merely adequate; it’s not something I can give a ringing endorsement to but neither is it without merit. For those who are picky about what they watch, there are many more worthy ways to spend their time. For those who are movie gourmands who watch a lot of movies, there are worse ways to spend their time. What you get out of this movie depends on which camp you fall in.

WHY RENT THIS: Some interesting digs at the nature of miracles and religion as well as the failings of men. 

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Overwritten. Could have used more focus on the central characters.

FAMILY VALUES: There is bad language throughout, some depictions of drug use and a bit of nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Thornton is actually paralyzed; he was injured in a climbing accident when he was 25.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $13,826 on an unreported production budget; sorry folks but this one lost money.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Resurrection

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai