New Releases for the Week of April 18, 2014


Transcendence

TRANSCENDENCE

(Warner Brothers) Johnny Depp, Paul Bettany, Rebecca Hall, Kate Mara, Morgan Freeman, Cillian Murphy, Cole Hauser, Clifton Collins Jr., Lukas Haas. Directed by Wally Pfister

A brilliant A.I. engineer is on the verge of a game-changing breakthrough when he is shot with a radioactive bullet by members of an anti-technology group. His wife and best friend know his only chance for survival is to finish his experiment – to download his intelligence and essence into a computer. Unsure about the ethics of such an endeavor, they nonetheless proceed – and soon discover their worst fears being realized.

See the trailer, clips, interviews, promos and a featurette here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard, IMAX (opens Thursday)

Genre: Science Fiction

Rating: PG-13 (for sci-fi action and violence, some bloody images, brief strong language and sensuality)

2 States

(UTV) Arjun Kapoor, Alia Bhatt, Amrita Singh, Revathy. A Punjabi boy and a Tamil girl face overwhelming obstacles in trying to get their parents to allow a marriage between the two of them. This is based on the semi-autobiographical novel by Chetan Bhagat.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Bollywood

Rating: NR

Bears

(DisneyNature) John C. Reilly (voice). Follows two new mama bears in the rugged, majestic and often dangerous terrain of Alaska as they try to teach their cubs everything they need to know to survive – while protecting them from the many dangers of the Alaskan wilderness.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard (opens Thursday)

Genre: Nature Documentary

Rating: G

A Haunted House 2

(Open Road) Marlon Wayans, Gabriel Iglesias, Jaime Pressly, Essence Atkins. After exorcising the demons from his last girlfriend, a man starts fresh with his new girlfriend and her two children in a new house. Unfortunately, supernatural trouble follows him as he starts to realize that it may not be the house that’s haunted – maybe it IS him!

See the trailer, interviews, clips and B-Roll video here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard (opens Thursday)

Genre: Horror Spoof

Rating: R (for crude and sexual content, nudity, pervasive language, drug use and some violent images)

Heaven is For Real

(Tri-Star) Greg Kinnear, Kelly Reilly, Margo Martindale, Thomas Haden Church. Based on actual events, this details the story of a young boy who lies near death’s door and makes a miraculous recovery. When he comes to, he claims he has been to heaven and while there are those who are skeptical, his pastor father is disturbed that his son knows things that happened before he was born – things he couldn’t possibly know, providing a challenge to his faith and his beliefs.

See the trailer, clips, featurettes, interviews and B-Roll video here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard (opened Wednesday)

Genre: Faith-Based Drama

Rating: PG (for thematic material including some medical situations)

Le Week-End

(Music Box) Jim Broadbent, Lindsay Duncan, Jeff Goldblum, Judith Davis. A British company, married for umpteen years, returns to the scene of the crime – their honeymoon in Paris. Trying to rekindle the romance that has been missing from their relationship, they succeed and then some as the romance of the City of Lights takes hold.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Drama

Rating: R (for language and some sexual content)

Lotoman 003

(Panamericana) Dalisa Alegria, Fernando Carrillo, Julian Gil, Fausto Mata. This hit comedy franchise from the Dominican Republic makes it’s American debut in select theaters in the U.S.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Comedy

Rating: NR

The Lunchbox

(Sony Classics) Irrfan Khan, Nimrat Kaur, Nakul Vaid, Lillette Dubey.A frustrated housewife cooks lunch for her increasingly distant husband. When her lunchbox is inadvertently sent to the wrong recipient, a correspondence ensues between two lonely souls.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Romance

Rating: PG-13 (for thematic material and smoking)

Make Your Move

(High Top) Derek Hough, BoA, Wesley Jonathan, Will Yun Lee.Two young people from completely different worlds meet in one of New York’s hottest underground clubs and discover that they have common ground in dance.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Urban Dance

Rating: PG-13 (for language including sexual references, and brief violence)

Race Gurram

(Ficus) Shruti K. Haasan, Ravi Kishan, Prikash Raj, Allu Arjun. Two brothers who are polar opposites and constantly squabble and play increasingly spiteful pranks on one another are forced to unite when a corrupt politician wants revenge against the one brother who contested his election.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Bollywood

Rating: NR

Under the Skin

(A24) Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy McWilliams, Lynsey Taylor Mackay, Dougie McConnell.  An alien masquerades as a human woman, using her amazing sexuality to snare human prey. As she spends more time on Earth however, she begins to change as she finds the complexity and joy of human life irresistible, putting her on a collision course with her own kind.

See the trailer, featurettes and a clip here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Sci-Fi Thriller

Rating: R (for graphic nudity, sexual content, some violence and language)

August: Osage County


The calm before the storm.

The calm before the storm.

(2013) Drama (Weinstein) Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Ewan McGregor, Chris Cooper, Margo Martindale, Sam Shepard, Julianne Nicholson, Benedict Cumberbatch, Dermot Mulroney, Juliette Lewis, Abigail Breslin, Misty Upham, Will Coffey, Newell Alexander, Jerry Stahl, Dale Dye, Ivan Allen, Arlin Miller, J. Alan Davidson, Maria Swindell Gus. Directed by John Wells

In the dusty heat of Oklahoma in the dog days of August, tempers can flare and people can be driven to the despair of unrelenting heat and no air-conditioning. Then again, a family can duplicate those same conditions – unrelenting heat and no saving grace of air-conditioning.

Violet Weston (Streep) has cancer of the mouth that causes her intense burning pain. She pops pills like others pop Tic Tacs. She is a feisty curmudgeon who speaks her mind, even if what she has to say is unpleasant – which it often is. There are hints of racism in her and enough self-righteous judgmental pronouncements to fill up several evangelical Christian sermons.

When her husband Beverly (Shepard) disappears, her kids come running home which in at least two cases, is a place they really don’t want to come back to. Karen (Lewis) has flitted from man to man and seems to have found one that she can stick with, slick Steve Huberbrecht (Mulroney) who is going to marry her in a few months and take her on the honeymoon she always wanted – Belize. Barbara (Roberts) is shrill, angry and frustrated; her husband Bill (McGregor) is separated and carrying on with a younger woman and her 14-year-old daughter Jean (Breslin) is withdrawing into a world of pain, pissed off at both her parents but particularly her mom.

Only Ivy (Nicholson) stayed near home and she is worn to the bone, ready to take off with her secret fella to New York City and away from Violet’s grasp. Also coming to the house are Violet’s sister Mattie Fae (Martindale) and Mattie Fae’s husband Charlie (Cooper). Mattie Fae is on the surface the adoring aunt but she treats her own son, Little Charles (Cumberbatch) like an absolute nincompoop which he just might be; he certainly is a jumpy sort. Taking care of Violet is Johnna (Upham), a Native American who watches the chaos around her without comment.

Into this volatile environment comes the revelations of family secrets that will either draw this dysfunctional group closer together or break them apart forever. The specter of abuse will rear its ugly head and the skeletons in the closet will do their ugly heads before it’s all over.

Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Tracy Letts (who has written Killer Joe among others), the movie gets the big screen treatment by director John Wells (known primarily for his small screen work on series like E.R. and The West Wing). Wells does an excellent job of setting the time and place – the acrid, soul-burning prairie heat of Oklahoma, the beautiful but run-down Victorian home of Beverly and Violet and the sunset vistas. He also manages to capture the claustrophobia that can happen at an awkward family dinner.

There are some tremendous performances going on here, by Roberts and Streep in particular (both of which garnered Oscar nominations) although some may find them over-the-top. These are two women, mother and daughter, who are more alike than either would care to admit and both are at the end of their ropes. The disappearance of Beverly has left them with no buffer and with neither Ivy nor Karen willing to get in between them their confrontation becomes inevitable. Both characters aren’t very likable – probably Chris Cooper’s Charlie is the only one who is – and neither one is likely to inspire you to share a meal with them, especially if fish is on the menu.

They both have a great deal repressed inside them and it boils over, leading to a family crisis of dramatic proportions. Drug abuse is part of the issue but there is also a good deal of “truth telling” which is often the refuge of those who wish to be cruel and get away with it which is pretty much where both Barbara and Violet are at. The interesting thing is that this movie really isn’t about Violet so much although Streep’s performance puts her front and center, but the movie is about Barbara – that’s one of the reasons that the controversial closing scene focuses on Barbara. Da Queen, for her part, thought that last scene unnecessary. I for one thought it brought better closure than the original ending which features Johnna consoling Violet on a staircase.

Those aren’t the only fine performances. Cooper gets some wonderful scenes in, as well as Nicholson whose drawn and beaten down demeanor belies the inner strength she possesses. Martindale’s performance is just the opposite; this wonderful character actress plays a woman who is tough and loving on the outside but wounded terribly on the inside. I also thought Cumberbatch was extraordinary as the wimpy, indecisive and overly sensitive son of Charlie and Mattie Fae. The rest of the performances were pretty much adequate.

Some of the scenes are uncomfortable, particularly as family secrets from way back begin to emerge from necessity. Violet, sometimes as malevolent as a cobra but often as vulnerable as a prairie dog caught in the gaze of a predator, rules the roost with an eye that misses nothing.

I know that not everyone shares my regard for the movie. It has often been criticized for having over-the-top performances and for violating the spirit of the original play which was a dark comedy. There are still elements of that here but this is definitely a drama. As for the performances, I think they are also by necessity over-the-top – the people being portrayed here are in the middle of a stressful family crisis who are dealing with repressed emotions that boil over. Of course they’re going to get loud. People get loud when they melt down.

At the end of the day this is the kind of movie that can be hard to watch, particularly if your own family has issues. For me the dynamics of the Weston clan are certainly far from normal but at the same time there was a certain amount of resonance. There is love but this is a family disintegrating and one wonders just how much it was the alcoholic Beverly that held them together. This is at turns fascinating and repulsive, like watching a snake swallow its prey. You learn something of nature in watching it but in doing so you learn something of yourself.

REASONS TO GO: Scintillating performances. Exceedingly well-written.

REASONS TO STAY: About as dysfunctional a family as you’re ever likely to meet. Occasionally uncomfortable.

FAMILY VALUES:  A ton of swearing including sexual references, some mature situations and drug use.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Abigail Breslin had a temperature of 103 degrees when she auditioned for the role of Jean Fordham.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/26/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 65% positive reviews. Metacritic: 58/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Ordinary People

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Lone Survivor

Beautiful Creatures


Now THAT'S a bad case of dandruff!

Now THAT’S a bad case of dandruff!

(2012) Romance (Warner Brothers) Alden Ehrenreich, Alice Englert, Jeremy Irons, Emma Thompson, Viola Davis, Emmy Rossum, Thomas Mann, Eileen Atkins, Margo Martindale, Zoey Deutch, Tiffany Boone, Rachel Brosnahan, Kyle Gallner, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Cindy Hogan. Directed by Richard LaGravenese

There is a special magic in the South. The mist that gathers on warm summer nights, the cicadas whispering their lovely song, the kudzu climbing up the crumbling antebellum facades of mansions of faded glory, the ghosts that live there dancing in musty ballrooms to forgotten tunes.

Gatlin, South Carolina, dwells in that magic. Located conveniently close to a Civil War battlefield whose glories get re-enacted every 21st of December, Gatlin is in many ways a town that time forgot. Ethan Wate (Ehrenreich) would very much like to forget Gatlin and put it in his rearview mirror. His mother died in a car accident not that long ago and his father never leaves his bedroom. Town librarian Amma (Davis) who was also his mom’s best friend looks after him mostly.

As the school year begins, Ethan – a popular athlete who also has a pretty good mind, preferring to read books by Henry Miller and Kurt Vonnegut rather than play videogames and surf the Internet as most boys his age are prone to doing, finds that his girlfriend Emily (Deutch) – who gave him the summer to grieve for his mom – is no longer as interesting and attractive to him, despite her obvious physical charms. Like Gatlin itself, her mind is small and narrow.

The new girl, however, is a different story. Lena Duchannes (Englert) is the niece of town recluse Macon Ravenwood (Irons) whose family founded Gatlin. Macon has little to do with the good people of Gatlin and the good people of Gatlin kind of prefer it that way since as the whispers go, the Ravenwood family are a bunch of Satan worshippers and being smack dab in the Bible belt, the citizens of Gatlin are God-fearin’ Christian sorts.

Despite the scorn heaped Lena’s way, Ethan finds her irresistible; she reads the poetry of Charles Bukowski, has a quick wit and a keen intellect and seems uninterested in being popular. Despite her initial resistance, Ethan’s charms and earnest affections begin to break down her misgivings.

But those misgivings are well-placed. Lena really is different. You see she’s a witch – pardon me, they prefer the term casters, as in spell-casters. As her 16th birthday approaches, her soul will be claimed by the dark side or the light. Unlike male casters who choose which team they’re going to play on, female casters have no choice. They’re either a good witch or a bad witch…..er, caster. Glinda the Good in other words couldn’t have been bad if she wanted to.

Macon is anxious for Lena to join Team Goodness. Coaching the other side is Macon’s sister Sarafine (Thompson) who like many dark casters no longer has a corporeal body of her own; she inhabits the body of a Bible thumping church lady who happens to be the mother of Ethan’s best friend Link (Mann). Sarafine also calls upon Lena’s cousin and former best friend Ridley (Rossum) to help sway her to the dark side of the Force….er, casting.

But Sarafine has a secret weapon which she doesn’t even have to threaten with. There’s a curse on the loose invoked 150 years previously during a civil war battle that will tip the scales on the side of the dark no matter what. Lena, with the assistance of Ethan and Amma, must find a way to break the curse or on December 21st – Lena’s birthday coincidentally enough – the world as we know it may very well come to an end. But when they do find a way, it may be more than Lena can bear.

This is based on a young adult series by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl and there’s no doubt Warners  is hoping to establish a franchise to fill the void left by the departure of the Twilight series to whose army of pre-teen and teenage girls this seems to be aimed squarely at. While the roles are reversed (the male is the human and the female is the one with the powers), the star-crossed quality of the romance will reverberate with those young girls.

Ehrenreich seems a likable enough sort but he’s no Robert Pattinson nor is he a Taylor Lautner. While he’s a handsome young dude, he doesn’t have that brooding wounded quality that young girls flock to and he has a natural advantage – the grief over his mom’s passing would be like catnip to most women who’d be moved to mother him but for some odd reason they really push that aspect of his personality into the background.

My problem is that they choose to make Ethan kind of a stereotype, a cross between Rhett Butler and Larry the Cable Guy. Ethan is far too aww shucks and not enough oh wow. He’s polite and courtly but with a big hunk of redneck served in. The down home country aphorisms don’t really jive with the intellectual posturing; he reads a lot of books but doesn’t seem to be changed by them. Ehrenreich seems a likable actor but this is a part that I’m not sure any actor could salvage.

And that’s a shame because Lena is a lovely role and Englert does a nice job with her. All the brooding that Ethan lacks Lena has in droves. Like most teens, she is aware of changes in her body and she knows those changes are inevitable and irrevocable. What she doesn’t know is how those changes will change her and the thought terrifies her. Englert does a nice job of capturing all those conflicting emotions – her love for Ethan, her fear of hurting him, her terror that she may not be the person she thinks herself to be or the person she wants to be. With a more worthy male role, this would have been a superb film.

Supporting them, Irons and Thompson particularly chew scenery with great gusto. Thompson channels Agnes Moorhead from the old Bewitched television show and is gleeful in her wickedness, although she considers herself honest about who she is. Irons lends gravitas and a bit of jolly good bonhomie in bringing the reclusive but effusive Macon to life.

Viola Davis is a brilliant actress who in the last five years has been as good as any actress in Hollywood, but this is a role that she could do in her sleep. While she gives Amma a maternal quality that blends nicely with her spirited willingness to stand up to Macon and to other casters in the community, Davis adds a dignity that makes the part a bit more memorable than it might have been in lesser hands. Even so, one gets the sense that Davis was hoping for a steady paycheck out of this more than a career enhancer.

LaGravenese chose to go with practical effects more than CGI (although there is some of that here) and while some of the spellcasting resembles films like Dark Shadows and Beetle Juice in tone, there are some pretty nifty moments in terms of the effects.

I can respect a film that wants to appeal to a specific audience and I have no problem with films being aimed at preteen and teenage girls (as well as their moms). I personally have no problem with the Twilight franchise other than I thought that the movies could have been better. In fact this movie is better but will probably not get embraced by that same audience in quite the same way. The rainy splendor of the Pacific Northwest is a lot hipper than the Tennessee Williams-esque gothic forests of the South.

One thing that the Twilight series is more adept at than this film is capturing the high school experience. At least there you get a sense of real kids in school; not so much here. However, I also must admit I like the caster mythology a bit better than that of vampires and werewolves established by Stephenie Meyer.

The box office for this film is unlikely to set studio execs rubberstamping a green light for the sequel, but there may yet be a future for the franchise. The numbers are pretty anemic right now however and unlikely to get any better unless it strikes a chord on the global market. That’s a shame because with the lovely cinematography, some fine performances and a genuinely fine Southern Gothic feel, this has a lot going for it.

REASONS TO GO: Nice Southern Gothic feel. Irons, Thompson and Davis are tremendous.

REASONS TO STAY: A very strange chemistry between the leads doesn’t always work. Turns Gatlin into a Southern-fried Pleasantville.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are a few frightening images for the younger kids, a bit of supernatural violence and some sensuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: During the scene where Ethan fumbles while reciting Charles Bukowski’s poetry to Lena was actually actor Alden Ehrenreich flubbing his lines to Alice Englert’s amusement. Director LaGravenese found the scene to be charming and natural and liked the idea of a Romeo getting the lines of poetry wrong for his Juliet so the goofed up scene was left in although in every other take Ehrenreich got his lines right.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/24/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 45% positive reviews. Metacritic: 51/100. The reviews are truly mixed.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Twilight

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: A Good Day to Die Hard

Win Win


Win Win

This could be a poster for the generational gap

(2011) Dramedy (Fox Searchlight) Paul Giamatti, Amy Ryan, Melanie Lynskey, Bobby Cannavale, Jeffrey Tambor, Alex Shaffer, Burt Young, Margo Martindale, David Thompson, Mike Diliello, Nina Arianda, Marcia Haufrecht, Sharon Wilkins. Directed by Thomas McCarthy

 

We sometimes find ourselves at an ethical crossroads and find ourselves pushing the line out a little bit in order to make things work. Those kinds of boundary pushing have consequences, albeit sometimes unintended ones.

Mike Flaherty (Giamatti) is a genuinely good man who is enduring an especially rough patch. His elder law practice is crashing and burning and the financial fall-out from that is severe, leading to anxiety attacks while out jogging with his best friend Terry Delfino (Cannavale). Mike is the coach of the local high school wrestling team and a more woeful bunch of athletes you are unlikely to meet; their season is going down in flames and although Mike is a decent coach, the writing is most definitely on the wall. Of course, his assistants are Delfino and Stephen Vigman (Tambor) who is a CPA who shares the dilapidated office building with Mike which should tell you something about his good-guy-making-bad-decisions persona.

Mike is representing Leo Poplar (Young), who is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s. The state wants to put him in a care facility but Leo wants to stay home. Mike discovers that Leo’s living will allows for a guardian in the event that Leo becomes unable to make decisions on his own and that the guardianship will pay $1500 a month to cover expenses. Mike petitions the judge (Wilkins) to allow him to be Leo’s guardian since they’ve been unable to locate Leo’s daughter. The judge allows this and Mike then turns Leo over to the facility anyway so he can pocket the expense money which will keep him somewhat solvent.

Then Kyle (Shaffer) shows up. Kyle is Leo’s grandson and came to town hoping Leo could put him up. Mike, feeling a little guilty, takes Kyle in which Mike’s wife Jackie (Ryan) whole-heartedly supports. It turns out that Kyle’s mom, Leo’s daughter Cindy (Lynskey) is in rehab, a drug addict who has been an unreliable caregiver. This sets Jackie’s dander up, but what floats Mike’s boat is that Kyle is also an Ohio wrestling state champion. Mike arranges for Kyle to be enrolled in his high school and adds Kyle to his team, instantly turning the program around. Seems to be a win-win situation for everyone, right?

Wrong. Cindy shows up and she wants to take Kyle back to Ohio. Worse still, she wants guardianship of her father, not so much the responsibility (which she would be unlikely to be able to handle anyway) but the money that goes with it. Of course this turns everything upside-down; Kyle is happy being part of a stable family and he mistrusts and despises his mother but he also wants Leo out of the facility and back in his home where he belongs. Mike’s web is quickly unraveling.

McCarthy has previously directed The Station Agent and The Visitor which are both very fine films, and you can add this to his filmography of movies that will stay with you long after the final credits roll. The characters aren’t indie film archetypes who appear in movie after movie; they are people with their own unique set of characteristics and who behave realistically in realistic situations. Most of us will relate to Mike’s financial predicament because most of us have been there or are there now.

Giamatti is one of those actors who almost always gives a terrific performance and along with his work in Barney’s Version of late seems to be at the top of his game, impressive at every turn. He’s become one of my favorite actors, one who can get my butt into a theater seat just because he’s in the movie. He makes Mike not just an everyman, but a believable one; a basically decent man pushed to the wall to make decisions that aren’t necessarily good ones but expedient ones. I think we all have done that at least once in our lives.

Ryan is also wonderful, playing Jackie as equally good-hearted and supportive but strong – she takes no crap but at the same time her heart goes out to a boy who has had a rough go. She’s like a she-bear whose cubs are threatened when her family – which includes Kyle – is threatened and why Mike leaves her in the dark about what’s really going on is understandable in that he wants to spare her the anxiety he is feeling, but also not in that his wife would be a solid rock. Ryan makes you wish you had a wife like her if you don’t have one, and if you do have one, count your blessings.

Shaffer has been receiving a lot of attention with his performance and for good reason. He is a natural and has great screen presence. You’d never know this was his first feature film, so natural is he before the camera. Like any first-timer there are some rough patches but this kid has some amazing potential and if he chooses to go this road, he certainly is going to be someone to keep an eye on.

The ending was a bit sitcom-ish for my tastes but that’s really one of the few bumps in the road that this movie takes us on. There are some wonderful supporting performances, particularly from Tambor, Young and Cannavale as well as Lynskey who has a pretty thankless role but does it well.

McCarthy is developing an impressive library of movies with his name on them and is a director that is rapidly becoming one who I’ll go out of my way to see sight unseen. He certainly has made another film here that is one of those quiet gems that you don’t hear much about but turns out to be well worth checking out. This is one worth finding at your local video or streaming emporium.

WHY RENT THIS: Giamatti and Ryan are terrific with some good support performances. A sweet film that doesn’t sugarcoat the hard choices. 

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A bit formulaic in the ending.

FAMILY VALUES: The language gets pretty rough in places and there are some allusions to drug use.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Shaffer’s feature film debut; he was a New Jersey State wrestling champion in 2010 as a sophomore in high school but his wrestling career came to a close when he broke an L-5 vertebra.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The DVD edition has a music video from The National for their closing credits song “Think You Can Wait.” The Blu-Ray edition adds a Sundance tour by actor David Thompson and a brief interview of McCarthy and Giamatti, also from Sundance.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $10.8M on an unreported production budget; it is likely that the movie made a good chunk of change relatively speaking.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Elliot Spitzer

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