Lean on Pete


We all need somebody we can lean on.

(2017) Coming of Age Drama (A24) Charlie Plummer, Steve Buscemi, Travis Fimmel, Amy Seimetz, Steve Zahn, Chloë Sevigny, Rachel Perrell Fosket, Alison Elliott, Jason Rouse, Lewis Pullman, Justin Rain, Frank Gallegos, Teyah Hartley, Kurt Conroyd, Dennis Fitzpatrick, Jason Beem, Rusty Tennant, Tolo Tuttele, Francisco Garcia, Joseph Bertot, Dana Millican, Julia Prud’homme. Directed by Andrew Haigh

When we are desperate, it’s like we’re drowning; we reach out for whatever might be at hand in order to save ourselves. Often what we find is the most unlikely of life preservers.

Charley (Plummer) is a typical teen; he’s not high on high school but he is a decent football player and enjoys the camaraderie of the team. He lives with his dad (Fimmel) on the wrong side of the tracks in Portland – his mom has been out of the picture for some time now – and his Aunt Margy (Elliott) has had a huge argument with his dad and the two don’t speak to each other anymore although Charley still remembers Margy with some fondness.

Dad is a bit of a ne’er-do-well who has trouble hanging on to jobs but not, as it turns out, to the bottle. He’s initiated a romance with a married (but separated) woman who is kind to Charley. Charley is more focused on getting ready for the football season – it is the middle of summer after all – and while out running he stumbles into a world he never knew existed.

Del (Buscemi) raises quarter horses for racing on the independent circuit which means fairs and carnivals and on tracks that the English with their peculiar sense of understatement might term “dodgy.” He does so with a mixture of gruff charm and world-weary irascibility. Charley is quite taken with him and manages to get a job mucking out stables, walking the horses and doing whatever menial task Del needs done. Charley becomes enamored with a horse named Lean on Pete who is nearing the end of his usefulness to Del which means the equine is one step away from being ground into pet food in Mexico. Charley doesn’t know that though.

However, things change as they inevitably do and not for the better which Is usually the case for people like Charley. He ends up taking a journey with Pete that will take him to unexpected places as he vaguely searches for his Aunt and some sort of normal life that seems to be completely out of reach for him. This might be his only chance to get one.

This looks on the surface very much like “a boy and his horse” kind of movie in which the horse teaches the boy something about courage and determination and helps the boy turn his life around. This isn’t that kind of movie at all, however. Based on a novel by Oregon-based writer Willy Vlautin, the film has a number of unexpected turns of events that in at least one instance caused a startled “Oh!” to pass my lips That’s not easy to do, I can tell you.

Buscemi who remains an independent film icon has been on a bit of a hot streak for the past several years following Boardwalk Empire. His performances have become less quirky and more grounded and as a result he’s become more relatable as a performer. He in fact has become an actor whose films I will see just by the virtue that he’s in them. He’s absolutely magnificent as a tough guy who quite clearly does not have a heart of gold and is not a father figure; he is a survivor who has gotten that way by not getting too attached to people or horses He’s not a bad guy but he isn’t above cheating to win a race. Del exits the movie fairly early on and when he does, the movie isn’t as good.

Plummer though plays Charley so low-key as to be almost comatose. For good or for ill much of the movie’s success rests on his young shoulders and at the moment, at least for me, he’s not up to the job. I don’t feel drawn to Charley and I was indifferent as to what happens to him. In a lot of ways, I felt like I was marking time while viewing the film which is certainly not the reaction any filmmaker wants but quite frankly there are entire sequences that could have been easily cut without effecting the integrity of the film.The truth is that this is a 90 minute movie in a two hour time slot.

Plummer does get the bond between Charley and Pete just right to be fair, and that might be enough to draw horse lovers into the film and that’s an audience that quite rightly will probably appreciate the movie more than someone like me who is more of an admirer of horses than a lover of them. The movie has gotten some fairly praiseworthy reviews from critics I normally trust but I have to say that I didn’t connect with the film as much as they obviously did. Perhaps it’s just me after all.

REASONS TO GO: Buscemi is outstanding in his role. Horse lovers will be drawn to this film without a doubt.
REASONS TO STAY: Plummer plays this way too low-key. The movie is way too long by about half; there are entire sequences that could have been cut without harming the movie.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity, brief violence and a disturbing image.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was shot in chronological order.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/17/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews: Metacritic: 80/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Flicka
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
Back to Burgundy

56 Up


Neil Hughes looks on his life with a bit of melancholy.

Neil Hughes looks on his life with a bit of melancholy.

(2012) Documentary (First Run) Michael Apted, Bruce Balden, Jacqueline Bassett, Symon Basterfield, Andrew Brackfield, John Brisby, Peter Davies, Suzanne Dewey, Nicholas Hitchon, Neil Hughes, Lynn Johnson, Paul Kligerman, Susan Sullivan, Tony Walker. Directed by Michael Apted and Paul Almond (archival footage)

In 1964, director Paul Almond along with a young researcher named Michael Apted who went on to a successful directing career interviewed fourteen 7-year-old children from around England (mostly the London area) from differing social circumstances. The interviews consisted of the hopes and dreams of the children; what they thought their lives would turn out to be. The television show that resulted in these interviews became a wild success in British and was made a feature film that received a great deal of acclaim here in the United States.

Every seven years since then Apted would return to chat with the fourteen subjects (Peter Davies dropped out after 28 Up in 1985 but returns in time for the newest installment, ostensibly to promote his band the Good Intentions and Charles Furneaux dropped out of the series after 21 Up in 1978 to pursue his own documentary career). Remarkably, all 14 have reached middle age with varying degrees of comfort.

The initial series was supposed to be a commentary on the British class system. What it has become is something else entirely. It has become much more of a personal study, looking at the individuals and how their lives have progressed.

Few lives have been as poignant as that of Neil Hughes. He has skirted on the edge of society, on occasions being homeless. There are certainly demons there; he is asked point blank about his sanity and reflects that he has received some sort of therapy although he doesn’t elaborate. He often seems melancholy, as if disappointed by his own experiences and in where his life has gone. None who saw the ebullient young Neil in Seven Up! and Seven plus Seven Up would have predicted this. In 56 Up he is on a town public works council in Cambria (he seems to prefer Britain’s north) and has become an Anglican canon where he gets to do just about everything a priest does. While he doesn’t seem completely satisfied with his life, he at least seems to be more sanguine than he’s been in recent years.

It is hard to ignore the incidence of divorce in the lives of these kids. While some have been blessed with long marriages (some rocky – Tony Walker dealt with his own infidelity but he and his wife managed to work things out without divorcing) five of the kids have been divorced at least once with one having never married (Neil).

Their lives have turned out quite a bit differently than they would have predicted I think. At 56 the gaze is turning more to the past than the future; ahead lies retirement and grandchildren (some of them are already enjoying the latter) and at this time of life one becomes more or less resigned if not content with one’s position in life or at the very least accepting of it.

These movies are a bit of a mixed blessing. They are fascinating on the one hand to see the progression of life from youth to middle age but these are mere snapshots. It’s like taking a Polaroid of a life and extrapolating from it. As Nick Hitchon, now teaching electrical engineering at the University of Wisconsin says that this “is not an absolutely accurate picture (of me) but it’s the picture of somebody and that’s the value of it.”

It is not for me to judge a life and in some ways we are forced to do just that in viewing this. We become as voyeurs, making opinions of these lives and passing judgment on those who have lived them and while that’s inevitable, it’s also something to be resisted. Keep in mind that we are seeing these people through interviews that last approximately six hours out of seven years. We really aren’t getting to know them as people, just the surface facts. And for some of them, it is more compelling than it is for others.

This is a fairly long movie (about two hours) and it can be tedious in places. There is certainly a value to these movies – this was reality television before there was reality television – but it isn’t going to be everybody’s cup of tea. If all you want out of a movie is to be taken out of your own life and transported to more exciting and wonderful places, this isn’t going to do much for you. But those who look to find insight into their own lives by seeing the lives of others will find much value here.

REASONS TO GO: Fascinating, particularly if you’ve been following the series for 49 years.

REASONS TO STAY: Not every life is interesting.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is a bit of foul language but that’s about it.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The series began on British television and continues there to this day; it is in the United States that a compilation has been released as a feature film for almost every installment.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/12/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: 82/100; the documentary got outstanding reviews.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: 49 Up

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Jack the Giant Slayer

Secretariat


Secretariat

Secretariat is neck and neck.

(Disney) Diane Lane, John Malkovich, Dylan Walsh, Margo Martindale, Nelsan Ellis, Otto Thorwath, Fred Dalton Thompson, Scott Glenn, James Cromwell, Michael Harding, Nestor Serrano, Drew Roy, Dylan Baker, Kevin Connolly. Directed by Randall Wallace

There may be no other event as beautiful as a horse race. Something about a horse running down a track takes the breath away; while I’ve never been a huge fan of the sport, I understand the passion it inspires. It’s very easy to get caught up in.

Penny Chenery Tweedy (Lane) is a Denver housewife, raising four kids and living the life of the upper middle class when she gets a terrible phone call; her mother has passed away. She goes back home to Virginia for the funeral. Her father Christopher Chenery (Glenn) is ill, lucid only for brief moments. He runs Meadow Farm, a horse ranch that has fallen onto hard times. Penny and her brother Hollis (Baker) realize that there is a lot of issues to be decided about the farm’s future. Penny decides to stay on and close up loose ends; Hollis means to sell the farm and get what he can for it, but Penny is a little less crazy about the idea.  

Aided by Mrs. Ham (Martindale), the loyal secretary to her father and virtually a family member, Penny begins to take a closer look at the farm and finds that things are dire, but not irretrievably so. One thing they do have that is worth money is a potential foal that was sired by Bold Ruler, a champion sire. There are actually two foals, each with a different mare on the farm. The owner of Bold Ruler, Ogden Phipps (Cromwell), one of the richest men in America, made a handshake deal with her father that a coin would be flipped to determine which foal would go with him and which one would stay with Meadow Farm.  

In the meantime, Penny lets go of the trainer for the farm and at the advice of family friend Bull Hancock (Thompson), she hires Lucien Laurin (Malkovich), a well-respected trainer who had recently retired but was finding retirement doesn’t agree with him. Penny winds up losing the coin flip but gets the foal she wanted; Bold Ruler was known for siring very fast horses but the mare Somethingroyal had given birth to horses with stamina. The combination could create a potential superhorse, but Phipps goes with conventional wisdom and takes the progeny of Hasty Matelda, a horse that had delivered much more successful racehorses at the time.

When Lucien, Penny and groom Eddie Sweat (Ellis) witness the birth of the foal, they are stunned to see it rise up to its feet, something that takes most foals longer. Lucien is in awe; clearly they are in the presence of something very special.

Penny falls immediately in love with the horse whom she nicknames Big Red for its color; initially Lucien isn’t sure of the horse’s work ethic and is suspicious of his tendency to overeat but the horse that is named Secretariat (after ten other names had been rejected by the Racing Association) turns out to be a powerful champion.

Getting him to the Triple Crown races of the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes will be a near-miracle; the farm is close to foreclosure and there is little money left. To make things worse, Penny isn’t taken seriously as an owner in a world that is dominated by men, mainly men from money (like Phipps).

Most people know the Secretariat went on to win the Triple Crown in 1973, the first horse in a quarter century to achieve that feat (Seattle Slew would win it in 1977 and Affirmed in 1978, but no horse has won it since). Some may well know the spectacular fashion he accomplished it in, but most people agree that Secretariat was the most dominant horse of his time, and perhaps ever. Perhaps only Seabiscuit alone was more popular than Big Red.

Like Titanic, the movie’s end is a foregone conclusion. What makes it interesting is the behind-the-scenes look at what was going on and what Penny Tweedy overcame. You can’t really call this an underdog movie, although Disney is marketing it as such; it would be like calling the story of the 1995-6 Chicago Bulls an underdog story. You can’t call the best athlete in his sport an underdog, and Secretariat fit that description to a “T”.

Director Wallace, who previously wrote Braveheart and directed We Were Soldiers and The Man in the Iron Mask, understood the dilemma of having a sports story without an underdog per se, so rather than focusing on the horse, he focuses on the owner and her battle to gain acceptance in the masculine hierarchy of the horse racing world.

Lane plays her as an interesting dichotomy. On the one hand, she’s strong as steel, her daddy’s daughter who is unwilling to give up or give in. On the other, she’s a typical housewife of the late 60s and early 70s, the happy homemaker who cleans house, cooks dinner, raises the kids and supports her hubby (Walsh). Lane integrates both elements of the personality effortlessly (I suspect that she relates to Penny Tweedy very strongly) and makes the character heroic in her struggle. 

Malkovich can be a bit twitchy and he does have his quirks here, most of which the real Lucien Laurin possessed (the loud slacks, the hideous hats and so on). However, Malkovich reigns in his performance (no pun intended) quite well and allows the volatile Lucien to take center stage. Thompson and Glenn both are memorable in their brief screen time. Secretariat’s hot-tempered jockey Ron Turcotte is played by real-life jockey Thorwath and it brings realism to the racing scenes which are well-done in general.

The movie is going to inevitably be compared to Seabiscuit and that really doesn’t do it justice. That horse was an unlikely champion, a horse that didn’t come from bluebloods of breeding, but became a popular attraction as much as a racing champion (although he won his share of races). Seabiscuit was revered; Secretariat was respected.

There has been some complaining, mostly from Andrew O’Hehir of Salon Magazine, that Wallace, an avowed Christian, had turned the movie into a kind of Tea Party manifesto with overtly Christian themes. Quite frankly, while there is a quote from the Book of Job at the beginning and ending of the movie and a couple of hymns on the soundtrack, this is no more Christian than Braveheart was. As for its conservative leanings, well, I don’t think it was particularly endorsing a return to the period as O’Hehir seems to think it does as it was merely depicting that time. O’Hehir complains that no-one in the movie mentions the Vietnam War, and yet Penny’s daughter is shown to be an anti-war activist. Which war did O’Hehir think they were referring to?

Disney is known for their underdog sports stories, from Miracle to The Rookie to Invincible but this one doesn’t really fit the format, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. You can only watch Hoosiers so many times, after all. With the strong performances by its leads, racing sequences that utilize digital cameras to bring viewers closer into the action than ever before, this becomes a solid sports movie that doesn’t really fit the “underdog” label real well, but does fit in as quality entertainment.

REASONS TO GO: Really strong performances by Malkovich and Lane, as well as some compelling racing footage.

REASONS TO STAY: Pales in comparison to Seabiscuit. I never got that sense of overcoming overwhelming odds that other sports movies portray.

FAMILY VALUES: There are a few bad words but mainly okay for all audiences.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The trophy for the Triple Crown seen after the Belmont was the actual trophy won by Secretariat that was loaned to the production by the Kentucky Derby Museum. While most of the racing footage was recreations done for the film, the footage of the Preakness seen on the living room TV set of the Tweedys was the actual race footage from 1973.

HOME OR THEATER: In all honesty I’m really torn. Some of the scenes look really good on the big screen but at the end of the day, I think home viewing is perfectly okay for this one.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Red