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The sensitive type: Maguire in Seabiscuit.

Out of the Money
By Laura Leon

Directed 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 felt otherwise.

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.

The House Always Wins

Owning Mahowny
Directed 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 corporate greed.

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.

—Shawn Stone

Catsuit Feminism

Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life
Directed 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.

—Ann Morrow

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