sensitive type: Maguire in Seabiscuit.
of the Money
by Gary Ross
What seems to be the first movie this summer geared toward
adults, Seabiscuit, written and directed by Gary Ross,
is notable in a number of ways. It is lushly photographed,
making one pine for crisp autumns and appreciate the sheer
joy of movement—by human or horse. It features the interesting
acting triumvirate of disarming charmer Jeff Bridges, folksy
Chris Cooper, and sensitive Tobey Maguire. It offers the best
costume design, in terms of beauty and accuracy, of any film
in recent memory. And it is yet another in a long line of
movies based on superb books (in this case, Laura Hillenbrand’s
2001 Seabiscuit) which fall apart in the jump from
page to screen.
To be sure, Ross seems enamored of his subject, and who wouldn’t
be? Seabiscuit—in case you’ve been living under a rock during
the flurry of publicity surrounding the movie’s opening—was
a runty, uncooperative horse who had been all but written
off in the minds of many top trainers. Luckily for the horse,
car dealer Charles Howard (Bridges) decided to renew his interest
in horses, and hired trainer Tom Smith (Cooper), one of the
country’s last true cowboys, to find a winner. Smith, who
rarely spoke and preferred the company of animals to humans,
saw something in Seabiscuit that nobody else had bothered
to notice: that he had great intelligence and, if retrained,
a strong desire to compete. Howard and Smith hired a down-on-his-luck
jockey, Red Pollard (Maguire), to complete the team, and the
rest, as they say, is history.
Unfortunately, Ross’s adulation does not parlay into effective
storytelling. He weaves his narrative around monologues, spoken
by historian and author David McCullough, no less, about the
Great Depression, its effects on the populace, and FDR’s ability
to lead us back from the brink. The effect is very History
Channel. It’s as if Ross wants to give the resonance of Ken
Burns’ Baseball to this particular story, and in so
doing, he takes all the air out of his main plot—the little
horse that could, and did, surmount the odds.
Granted, millions of people in the 1930s followed the pursuits
of Seabiscuit, and perhaps they, a nation of people out of
work and nearly out of options, did identify with this story
of “the little guy who done good.” But rather than let us
feel something close to the thrill of having watched the authentic
Seabiscuit, this movie feels compelled to indoctrinate its
viewers with Significance—as if we couldn’t have figured it
out. Millions of people read Hillenbrand’s pulse-quickening
story, in which she was able to weave the threads of storytelling
and history with aplomb and wit; do moviegoers really need
such a heavy-handed primer as Ross has delivered?
Here is an example: There is a horrible moment in the movie,
which should have been a glorious one, when Seabiscuit, owned
by westerner Howard, goes toe-to-toe with the infamous War
Admiral, who was owned by a wealthy easterner. The race pitted
establishment against rugged frontier, old money against new,
and so on and so on. But as viewers sit tight to see what
will happen, Ross switches to nostalgic black-and-white photographs
of Americans crowded around the radio. To me, this was akin
to the Heidi Bowl. Where are the damn horses? Who is winning?
Of course we know this is a big moment in sports history,
and that Depression-era audiences, hungry for distraction,
were avidly following news of the race. Ross, however, apparently
For all the lushness of the movie’s look and feel, Ross, in
trying to sanctify an incredible story, plays more the part
of dogged image maker than a good writer and director. I can’t
help but wonder what this movie could have been in the hands
of edgier filmmakers like the Coen brothers. For a movie ostensibly
about a horse, we get precious little insight into or understanding
of these magnificent animals.
Other off notes include Cooper’s characterization; perhaps
because this is a movie and not a book, Smith is a little
too chatty and cute in his folksy ways and sayings. The trainer’s
work with Seabiscuit, which clearly remade the horse into
the champion he was meant to be, is given short shrift in
favor of focusing on the relationship between Pollard and
his mount. The scenes in which these two characters, both
hobbled by serious leg injuries, recover together are idyllic
if forced—again, Ross cannot use restraint, but insists on
close-ups of both individual’s casted or bandaged legs. Oh,
OK, I get it now—they both have serious leg injuries.
The one bright spot I could find was the casting of an actress
named Elizabeth Banks as Howard’s much younger second wife,
Marcela. While it isn’t much of a role, requiring mostly that
she hold up trophies or clutch her rosary in nervous anticipation
of a race result or an operation, Banks gives it a life of
its own. Importantly, she looks the part of a chic, yet down-to-earth
woman of that era, and she wears her marvelous period costumes
with great ease and style. But just as significant, she truly
does come across as the kind of woman who would support her
husband’s seemingly lost cause of buying a great racehorse,
and her enthusiasm in watching Seabiscuit run is contagious.
Perhaps because she’s so young, she doesn’t get caught up
in acting as if she’s in a Very Important Picture, and because
of it, her performance is the most refreshing thing in an
otherwise stilted movie.
House Always Wins
by Richard Kwietniowski
This bizarre true-life tale of a mild-mannered, midlevel Canadian
banker who embezzled millions at the office and then blew
them in Atlantic City is oddly free of suspense. It’s not
quite what one would expect of a story set in the supposedly
high-stakes worlds of high finance and big-time casino gambling.
This isn’t a drawback, however, but the key to director Richard
Kwietniowski’s cool comedy of peculiar obsessions and bland
Dan Mahowny (Philip Seymour Hoffman, disappearing into yet
another role) couldn’t be more nebbishy. Though he’s just
been given an important promotion at a prestigious Toronto
bank, he wears cheap suits and drives a piece-of-crap car.
He’s very skilled at his job, quietly pushing through a huge
line of credit for a favored client in the face of upper-management
opposition. He has a dark side, though, in the form of an
intense, irresistible gambling habit, an addiction nicely
complementary with his ability to authorize loans in the hundreds
of thousands of dollars. His facility with the ins and outs
of banking—and his lousy wardrobe—keep any suspicion at bay.
The drab Mahowny is nicely contrasted with the flashier types
he has to deal with to pursue his obsession. His bookie Frank
(a very funny Maury Chaykin, aka TV’s Nero Wolfe) has an inflated
sense of both his sartorial splendor and command of the language.
He may be a petty small-time crook, but he’s insulted by the
banker’s big-money sucker bets, like taking all the home teams
in a week’s slate of CFL games. Stylishly gruff Atlantic City
casino boss Victor Foss (an equally amusing John Hurt), however,
doesn’t give a damn what Mahowny bets on. Foss is entranced
by the sight of the portly nobody glumly betting a grand per
poker hand, while refusing the lavish perks—fine European
cuisine, Pointer Sisters tickets, hookers—offered by the casino.
The film is set in the early ’80s, and quietly satirizes that
decade’s greed-is-good mentality. The casino doesn’t want
to know where the schmuck gets his money. The bank couldn’t
care less when they discover that one of Mahowny’s clients
is overdrawn by $5 million (thanks, of course, to Mahowny
and not the innocent client); they just want to get more security
for the line of credit so they can lend millions more. Both
the casino and the bank run a fixed game, and the customer
is always a sucker.
The drama seems oddly absent with a bland guy like Mahowny
as the protagonist; his girlfriend Belinda (Minnie Driver,
wearing a grotesque blonde wig and deploying a dead-on parody
of a Canadian accent) is even blander than the banker. Both
characters’ motivations go unexplained (is he getting any
fun out of gambling?) and unfathomable (why does she stay
with him?) until the very end of the picture, when all becomes
clear. The revelations are as sly and witty as everything
else about this winner of a film.
Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life
by Jan de Bont
If for no other reason than its humanly athletic—as opposed
to frantically computerized—stunts, Lara Croft Tomb Raider:
The Cradle of Life is the best of this summer’s thuddingly
leaden action spectaculars. In the sequel to the movie that
brought Lara Croft, the video game, to the big screen via
Angelina Jolie (a special effect unto herself), our heroine
is off once again to save the world—and to resume the derring-do
left undone by Indiana Jones. What makes The Cradle of
Life superior to Lara’s first archeological foray is the
replacement of misogynistic director Simon West with Jan de
Bont, whose superior action skills made something out of nothing
with Speed and Twister.
This time, Lara’s globe-trotting quest starts in Greece, where
an avalanche unearths a legendary temple from the ocean floor
(making Lara a temple raider rather than a tomb raider). The
temple is believed to contain Pandora’s Box, and according
to the enviably erudite Lara, the box has been responsible
for plagues throughout history. But instead of the source
of all infectious evil, she discovers a glowing orb. Just
as the temple is imploded by shock waves, submersible Chinese
mobsters raid her raiding party and make off with the artifact.
The Chinese are in league with a mad but urbane scientist,
Jonathan Reiss (Ciarán Hind), who wants the box so he can
kill millions in an epidemic and then sell the antidote to
the highest bidders.
To recover the globe, Lara needs a guide to penetrate the
mob’s remotest-China stronghold, and so she uses her status
as an aristocrat to spring from jail a traitorous old flame,
Terry Sheridan (Gerard Butler). Butler, a Scottish hunk who
played the titular Hun in the British miniseries Attila,
hasn’t exactly been cast against type, and once freed, Terry
keeps his options open. Although their flame still smolders,
Lara knows going in she may have to dispatch her partner with
extreme prejudice. Theirs is a truly Old Testament romance.
Though the film shamelessly plunders adventure tales old and
new, de Bont takes a fresh approach to the thievery, leaving
the highways for the airways and employing hang gliding and
rope dangling to elevate the standard thrill-a-minute plot.
There’s also a rather breathtaking horseback scene that might’ve
been written by a tomboy Barbara Cartland. And as Lara’s extreme
adventure to reach “the cradle of life” ahead of Reiss takes
her from the commercial district of Shanghai to the highlands
of Africa, the locations and their locals add nicely to the
storyline instead of merely serving as show-offy backdrops.
The requisite fantasy creatures are also a distinct improvement
on the original’s: These savage guardians of antiquity appear
to be primates who took a very strange turn somewhere along
the evolutionary ladder.
But what really makes the film stand out from the season’s
glut of artillery overkill and butt-kicking babes is Jolie’s
super-serious interpretation of the action vixen—Lara’s feminism
comes across as having been earned at a price, and she exudes
just enough ethical grit to make The Cradle of Life
just a little more involving than sheer escapism. Even if
it is the kind of movie that Lady Croft wouldn’t deign to
waste her time on.