Monday, April 30, 2012
I had not intended to write about "Who the *$&% Is Jackson Pollock?", a 2006 documentary that was to be one of the pitifully few movies experienced for pure pleasure. But I found the doc, about a retired truck driver who claims to have bought a genuine Jackson Pollock painting for $5 at a thrift story, too stimulating to ignore.
In the end, to me it's less interesting as a story about whether the painting is genuine than about the clashing of the art world against other segments of culture it deems unworthy of sharing its company. In the end, one is uncertain about whether Teri Horton's painting was made by Pollock, famous for his seemingly random paint drippings. But you can be sure that the curators, collectors and critics who are at the heart of the insular art community desperately need for it to be a fake.
Why? Simply because, having denied the authenticity of the work for over a decade, it would be mortifying to admit they were wrong. Over and over they insist, Jackson Pollock paintings don't just pop up out of nowhere. Their argument essentially seems to be, "There's no way that painting could be real, because if it was, we would have known about it already."
Never mind that Pollock was a mercurial artist, one who faced lifelong problems with alcohol and mental instability, and was known to give away his paintings to friends and visitors, or throw finished works he wasn't satisfied with in the trash.
One genuine Pollock was saved from a local dump near his studio, only because a businessman decided the back of it would make for a good sign in the window of his store. Is that tale really more outrageous than an elderly trucker discovering one in a thrift store?
Certainly, the piece appears to be in Pollock's distinctive style -- a mesmerizing swirl of colors and shapes, with no form other than one the viewer chooses to impose. A close friend of his thinks it might be genuine. Other experts are doubtful.
Their skepticism is based on two factors: provenance and connoisseurship, two things vital to the judgment of works of art and antiquities, and both as ephemeral as the mist. Provenance simply means the ability to track possession of a painting from an artist to the present. By having a solid chain of custody, it helps prove a work of art is by the artist in question.
But provenance is something easily faked. Even Thomas Hoving, the legendary former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, admits that the provenance for many acknowledged works of great art are known to be false.
But because Teri lacks anything beyond a receipt from a now-defunct thrift store, her provenance is lacking. After years of being ignored, Teri invents a wild story about the painting being created during a wild weekend Pollock spent partying with Hollywood stars, which finally convinces some art experts to look at it.
It's total bullshit, she happily admits, but it's telling that it required a BS tale to pique their interest. A faked provenance is better than the absence of one.
As to connoisseurship, this is essentially a word to codify the arrogance and exclusionary nature of the big-money art community. 'We are the experts,' they tell the world, 'and our expertise trumps any other evidence.'
No doubt Teri herself clashed with their definition of an art collector. Stubbornly blue-collar, with plain speech decorated liberally with obscenities and insults, Teri's idea of culture is hanging out with her friends at the VFW with a row of whiskey shots in front of them. At 73 she's had a long, tough life, and it becomes clear in writer/director Harry Moses' portrait that the battle against the art snobs has become the sole reason she carries on.
The title comes from Teri's self-reported statement of what she said when a high school art teacher told her it might be a Pollock. The fact that she bought it only as a lark gift for a friend, who refused it but suggested they use it to throw darts at, helps certify Teri's "country bumpkin" bona fides.
Teri insists over and over it isn't about the money, it's about having her painting recognized. But she's clearly fibbing, or self-deluded. As the documentary reveals, at two separate times she was made large offers for its purchase, for $2 million and later for $9 million. But because someone once told her Jackson Pollock paintings sell for $50 million and up, she refuses to part with it for a penny less than this figure.
Perhaps she refuses to undersell what she thinks it is worth because doing so would mean it is anything less than 100 percent genuine.
Teri also doesn't help herself with sometimes erratic behavior -- such as hiring to represent her in the sale one Tod Volpe, a former art dealer to the Hollywood glitterati who went to jail for fraud. Volpe's crimes involved taking money for works that were not delivered, not misrepresenting fake art as genuine. But still, Volpe has the mood and manner of a huckster, and no doubt Hoving and his crowd turned up their noses a notch higher when they found out he was repping Teri.
The latter part of the film explores forensic evidence supporting the painting's authenticity. Peter Paul Biro, a European forensic expert, is brought in and finds a fingerprint on the back of the painting. He compares this to another fingerprint on an acknowledged Pollock, and finds a match. Then he travels to Pollock's barn studio, preserved as a museum right down to the actual paint cans and brushes he used, and finds another fingerprint that matches the first two. A footnote states that after filming concluded, a fourth fingerprint on a genuine Pollock painting also matched.
The experts protest that Teri's painting contains acrylic paint, which they insist Jackson Pollock never used. But Biro scrapes up paint samples from the spattered floor of Pollock's studio and finds acrylic.
It's funny to watch in the film as the connoisseurs struggle to invalidate this evidence. They sputter dismissively about crime-scene techniques being brought to bear in the world of painting and sculpture. They continue to cling to their illusory staples of provenance and connoisseurship, rather than hard facts.
Finally, one of the art experts makes a telling admission. When you're dealing with pieces of art worth tens of millions, or even hundreds of millions of dollars, it becomes a big business deal rather than a pure appreciation of art for its own sake. In these sorts of high-stakes games, investors are notoriously risk-averse. They want a sure thing, otherwise they're not going to put their money down on the table.
So a painting with a lot of evidence to support its authenticity is rejected as too risky, because the art experts are not willing to give their stamp of approval. After so many years of denying not just the painting but Teri Horton herself, the connoisseurs find their reputations are at stake.
Real or fake, genuine or inauthentic? Is it Teri, or those who would deny her and her painting, that is obscuring the truth?
3 stars out of four
Thursday, April 26, 2012
Just a quick review; Nick is handling the main review over at The Film Yap, so make sure to swing over there to get the "official" take.
"The Raven" takes a bold and innovative concept and does a good, not great job of executing it onscreen. It's a fictitious account of poet Edgar Allan Poe's final days, mixing lots of plots and dark imagery from Poe's writing with an entirely modern-feeling whodunit involving a serial killer. The murderer is acting out killings from Poe's own stories, to taunt the writer into pursuing him.
Think "Seven" or "In the Line of Fire," with lots of poetry quotations.
The result is a Gothic thicket of black cloaks, pecking birds with blood on their beaks, R-rated gore and scowling men shouting at each other in Victorian lilt. It's all quite absurd, but certainly engaging, and features John Cusack in one of his best roles in years.
Cusack plays Poe as a mordant, bombastic man frustrated that his amazing talents -- he'll tell you how amazing they are -- have left him penniless and alone at the age of 40. He presents an aura of pure confidence to the rest of the world, but privately he laments "the dark and morbid melancholy that has followed me like a black dog all my life."
If you like that sort of dialogue, you'll get plenty more of it from the screenplay by Ben Livingston and Hannah Shakespeare, which piles on the brooding mood with a frenetic plot of twists and turns. Plenty of them don't make much sense, but director James McTeigue ("V is for Vendetta") keeps things tripping along at such a brisk pace the audience won't have time to contemplate the film long enough to spot the holes.
Some other standout lines: His editor (Kevin McNally) says of Poe: "I believe God gave him a spark of genius and then extinguished it in misery." Poe quips that if he'd known his writing would have inspired such a terrible admirer, "I should have devoted more time to eroticism."
A fellow writer and literary adversary of Poe's who is captured by the killer and forced to face the swinging pendulum bellows, "I'm only a critic!!" And as things really get tense, Poe fumes of the killer, "Even his prose is barbaric!"
The mysterious killer abducts Poe's lady love, Emily Hamilton (Alice Eve), whose wealthy father (Brenda Gleeson) is none too happy about the attentions from the fantastically failed writer. The murderer leaves a wake of clues, and bodies, with the requirement that Poe write his version of the story as it's being created and publish it in the Baltimore newspaper where he works itinerantly.
"The Raven" is a semi-smart mashup, undeniably entertaining even as we realize that it is, at its core, entirely goofy.
I'm an unabashed fan of stop-motion animation. It is in some ways the purest form of movie-making, since it requires the arduous frame-by-frame photography of still figures blended into the illusion of movement. Compared to that, sitting at a computer screen drawing with a laser stylus seems positively wimpy. It's also the reason why there simply aren't a lot of stop-motion feature films -- they're so darned hard to make.
I give respect to "The Pirates! Band of Misfits" for being one of the best-looking movies of this animation style, combining crisp, exaggerated puppetry with computer-generated backgrounds woven together so smoothly you probably won't even notice where one leaves off and the other begins. Compared to even the wonderful "Coraline" from just three short years ago, "Pirates" registers as a major evolution visually.
But the story just isn't quite there. Considering the painstaking method in which these films are made, the screenplay has a slapped-together feel to it, like the animators started shooting before the script was fully realized.
Based on the first two books of a series by Gideon Defoe, who also handled the screenplay adaptation, "Pirates" appears to pluck disparate story pieces and toss them carelessly into a gumbo. There are a lot of great elements there, but this one needed more time to cook, and maybe a more considered recipe.
As if you couldn't tell from the title, it's about the wacky adventures of a group of seafaring pirates circa 1837. Now, pirates in 1837 were about where buggy-whip makers found themselves in 1920 -- on their way to history's dustbin.
And it isn't helped by the fact that these particular pirates are third-tier swashbucklers at best. Their haul of booty is less than bountiful lately, the ship's parrot isn't even a parrot, and the only thing the crew really has to look forward to is Ham Nite.
Heck, the captain doesn't even have a name -- he's known simply as The Pirate Captain. A decent chap with a bit of a preening nature, the Captain is vexed that he's never won the Pirate of the Year Award after more than two decades at sea.
He wavers on the edge between pomposity and self-defeat, trying to put on a good show for his crew but secretly fearful that he's a lame pirate leader (despite having both his original legs). Hugh Grant provides the Captain's voice, and the best compliment I can give him is that I never would have guessed it was him until I saw his name in the credits.
Other actors providing voices include Brendan Gleeson as a gouty older pirate, Martin Freeman as the noble first officer, Al Roker as a gentle giant and Anton Yelchin as an albino pirate. There's also a crew member who's obviously a woman (voiced by Ashley Jensen) disguised behind a terrible beard; it's pretty much openly acknowledged that she's way too curvaceous to be a pirate, but no one makes much of a fuss about it.
After being mocked by the front-runners for Pirate of the Year -- Jeremy Piven and Salma Hayek included -- the Captain and his crew bump into Charles Darwin and get into all sorts of unlikely adventures involving snooty scientists and Queen Victoria (Imelda Staunton), whose hatred of pirates is obsessive.
Director Peter Lord's last credit behind the camera was 12 years ago with the jaunty "Chicken Run," and I think that's the tone he and co-director Jeff Newitt were going for here: fast and loose. There's a lot of great throwaway jokes -- Darwin's monkey manservant is a hoot, communicating through silent-movie-style title cards.
But the pacing is off, as "The Pirates!" seems to speed up and slow down so we often feel like we're either missing the action, or waiting around for it.
2.5 stars out of four
Wednesday, April 25, 2012
"Delicacy" is a little bit sad, a little bit sweet, and distinctly French. It's also something of a meditation on physical beauty, though not in the sort of way you'd expect.
Audrey Tautou plays Nathalie, one-half of a perfect couple that's sundered when her husband (Pio Marmaï) dies in a car accident. Years later, having grown accustomed to her loneliness, Nathalie suddenly and inexplicably takes up a tremulous romance with a homely, shy co-worker whom nobody thinks is a good match for her.
The subject of female attractiveness is often addressed in the movies, both implicitly and explicitly, but they tend to be pretty oblivious on male handsomeness. Actors like Adam Sandler and Seth Rogen routinely hook up with unaccountably hot onscreen partners.
Because Tautou is roughly France's equivalent of Julia Roberts, it brings an extra layer of attention to the physical disparity between her and Belgian actor François Damiens. Audiences like to look at pretty pairings, and here the filmmakers deliberately underline the incongruity.
Now, Damiens is not actually some sort of bridge troll, just not handsome in a classically cinematic way, and possesses one of those unfortunate balding patterns that makes his head look like it has mange. But Damiens accentuates his character's awkwardness and indistinctness, giving us a portrait of a man people aren't repulsed by, but someone they simply don't notice.
"An ugly, insignificant guy" is how a jealous rival for Nathalie's affections describes him, and that's a pretty spot-on description of how everyone regards him, and possibly even how Markus thinks of himself.
A Swede living and working amongst the French, Markus operates in a seemingly self-imposed isolation. The employees in the office next to his don't recognize his name when Nathalie comes looking for him. His clothes are so bland it appears as if he never changes them.
Their affair begins when Markus reports one day to Nathalie, who is his boss, and in a fog she sidles up to him and plants a passionate kiss. When he comes back the next day and asks her about it, she is unaware of what she did, and apologizes. Needless to say, that doesn't do wonders for his ego.
But eventually they begin a furtive though chaste romance, going to plays and restaurants. Nathalie finds something comfortable about Markus, who is guileless and sweet-natured. This contrasts with Nathalie's predatory manager Charles (Bruno Todeschini), who can accept that she has rejected him but not that it is in favor of the uncharismatic Markus. Nathalie's friends are baffled why she would date someone so unlike herself.
"Delicacy" was co-directed by brothers Stéphane and David Foenkinos, from a screenplay by David based upon his novel. This is their first feature film behind the camera, and they bring a lyrical, magical quality to the story.
The duo often ignore cinematic storytelling conventions, almost as if they find them dull and unworthy. For example, we don't meet Markus until 40 minutes into the movie for that kissing scene, and the next thing we see he's walking down the street to a slow-motion musical interlude where pretty girls are all looking his way. Most filmmakers would feel a need to set up that character more before giving him such a scene, but the Foenkinoses find that shorthand sometimes works best.
There's not a terrible lot of depth to "Delicacy," just a simple story about star-crossed lovers. In this case, they aren't separated by warring families but by everyone's expectations for them. What a sweet way to disappoint.
3 stars out of four
Tuesday, April 24, 2012
A compact, tidy little heist thriller, "Contraband" took in a major score at the box office early this year, raking in $66 million on a budget of just $25 million. And it features Mark Wahlberg being so effective in a role tailor-made for him, as the cool confidence man, the underdog who keeps one step ahead of those looking to do him in.
I must confess that early in his career, I was not a fan of Wahlberg's thespian skills. Truth be told, I mocked him for his wooden line delivery and unyielding sour expression. But he's grown considerably as an actor over the years, and seems to have gotten smart about what sort of parts work best for him.
(As opposed to, say, Nicolas Cage, another talented performer who -- as The Onion recently pointed out -- seems to rely on a 12-year-old to choose his roles for him.)
Wahlberg plays Chris Faraday, a one-time expert smuggler who's decided to go straight. But he gets sucked by into that world when his brother-in-law dumps a large shipment of drugs after the authorities raid his boat.
The local crime boss (Giovanni Ribisi) insists that Chris cover the loss -- with the implicit threat that his wife and kids will pay if he won't -- and the only way to raise that kind of scratch quickly is to head to Panama on a counterfeiting scheme. Soon his neat little plan gets blown up, and Chris finds himself in a crazy web of intrigue, with threats looming on every side.
Loosely adapted from an Icelandic film, "Contraband" is tightly-wound and a great star showcase for Wahlberg.
Video goodies are decent enough without being ostentatious. There's a feature-length commentary track by director/producer Baltasar Kormákur -- who, curiously enough, was the star of the original film -- and producer Evan Hayes.
There are also two featurettes: "Under the Radar: The Making of Contraband" and "Reality Factor: The Stunts and Action of Contraband," plus a handful of deleted scenes.
Extras are the same for DVD and Blu-ray editions, except the latter also includes a digital copy of the film.
Movie: 3 stars out of four
Extras: 3 stars
Monday, April 23, 2012
Time-travel stories journey through the years themselves, waxing and waning in popularity through different eras. During the 1970s and into the '80s, movies of this ilk were exceedingly popular -- "Time After Time," "Back to the Future," "Time Travelers," etc.
"Somewhere in Time" from 1980 is something different from these other pictures, which play up the science fiction element. Here, the journey back through time is decidedly metaphysical, with Christopher Reeve playing a man who wakes up in 1912 simply because he has willed himself to do so. And he's not tripping through the decades for adventure or scientific conquest, but for Love.
"Somewhere in Time" did not make much of a splash during its initial release, but it's become something of a cult favorite in the intervening years -- even spurring fan clubs, a book and special screenings. It doesn't take much guessing based on the gauzy cinematography, syrupy strings-heavy score by John Barry and starched period costumes to realize that this time-hopping tale is aimed more at the readers of Harlequin Romances than H.G. Wells novels.
I have to confess that I put this flick into my Netflix queue thinking it was actually "Time After Time," a sort of multi-dimensional murder/mystery where Jack the Ripper gets transported to the modern world to ply his gruesome trade. I'm not quite sure if I ever had seen the Christopher Reeve/Jane Seymour romance before, though it's probably not the sort of thing I would have sought out as a preadolescent. If I did watch it, it certainly didn't make a lasting impression.
Watching it recently, I can see why. It's a stiff, stolid affair, with the star-crossed couple existing more as romantic ideals than flesh-and-blood characters. It isn't helped by that tried-and-true cinematic folly, the proposition that two people can fall instantly and irrecoverably in love over the course of a 24-hour period.
The problem with this narrative assertion is that because it's impossible show two individuals intertwining themselves over a period of time, so such a depiction is by definition of telling us that they've found True Love. One of the first rules of writing is to show rather than tell your audience what happens; make them feel it rather than just understand what transpires.
The film is based on a book by Richard Matheson, who also wrote the screenplay, and whose writings often formed the basis for movies: "Real Steel," "The Omega Man," "I Am Legend." I would guess the romantic element was already there, since the whole premise is about a Chicago playwright named Richard Collier who becomes obsessed with the photograph of a stage actress, Elise McKenna. With the aid of an old philosophy professor, Richard resolves that if he dresses himself in period clothing and removes any sign of modernity, he can self-hypnotize himself into slipping backward 68 years.
There's something of a hole in the plot. The story begins in 1972, when a college-age Richard is confronted by an old woman at the premier of his play. She places a beautiful pocket watch in his hands and begs, "Come back to me!" Of course, it is Elise, now ancient and regretful for her long-lost love. Years later, while tooling around the country in the midst of a bout of writer's block, he stumbles upon the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island in Michigan, sees the photograph and becomes obsessed.
Here's the thing: After he does go back in time and spends that magical day (actually, part of two days) falling in love with Elise, at no point does he ever reveal that he's from the future. Other than taking the easy way out of some potentially complicating matters applying to their courtship, it also means that she had no way of knowing what happened when Richard suddenly disappeared. How did she know to seek out Richard's younger self 68 years later?
That's a paradox, wasted.
The method by which Richard is forcibly returned to 1980 is also rather contrived. While emptying the pockets of his suit, he comes across a penny dated 1979. Confronted by physical evidence of his temporal incongruity, he falls down a dark tunnel of perception and wakes up in modern times.
I realize the exact mechanics of time travel aren't the priority for this movie, but this is just ridiculous. Richard would never be able to completely banish from his mind the knowledge that he's from the future. Just because he encounters a token proving what he already knew shouldn't have any effect on his ability to stay where he is.
Also, if he hypnotized himself into the past once, why couldn't he do it again? After a few hours of failed attempts, Richard instead goes into a state of comatose shock and starves himself to death -- where, of course, he is reunited with his beloved Elise. This strengthens the notion that the entire experience was merely a figment of his imagination.
Christopher Plummer has an interesting role as William Robinson, Elise's over-protective and possibly psychotic manager. He hangs around her Svengali-like, whispering instructions in her ear and putting off an and all interference from outsiders.
In the story, Robinson has warned Elise that a man would someday arrive who would change her life forever -- an indication that he somehow had foreknowledge of Richard's time travel. My understanding is in the book the arrival is presaged by a pair of psychics, but it's left up in the air for the movie. I thought it would have been novel if the filmmakers had suggested that Robinson was another time traveler, himself.
Director Jeannot Szwarc, who's still active today, started out and ended up in television, but not before making some truly awful movies: "Jaws II," "Supergirl," "Santa Claus: The Movie." I regret to say I've seen all of those duds, and wish I could go back in time to get that time back.
1.5 stars out of four
Thursday, April 19, 2012
And here begins a new trend in movie-making: fictional films based not on novels, or even works of nonfiction, but on self-help books. "Think Like a Man" is adapted from a tome of relationship advice aimed at women written by comedian/game show host Steve Harvey. (The movie drops the first part of the book's title, "Act Like a Lady.")
Coming in May: "What to Expect When You're Expecting," advice for pregnant women turned into an ensemble comedy about a bunch of horndog daddies and their respective mama wannabes.
(What's next -- "The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People" turned into an action/thriller? "Be Proactive and light that motha up!!")
"Think Like a Man" is pleasant enough, with a gorgeous-looking cast of would-be couples clashing and romancing. There are lots of funny throwaway lines, one or two misty moments to bring a tear to the eye, and some enjoyable buddy-buddy scenes.
It doesn't really add up to much, since the characters are (literally) divided up into stereotypes: The Player, The Mama's Boy, The Dreamer, etc. With such a large cast -- six guys, four gals plus supporting players -- it's impossible to flesh any one of them out into three dimensions ... or sometimes even two.
Perhaps the one who comes closest is Taraji P. Henson as Lauren, a corporate executive who can feel her biological clock ticking, but refuses to settle for anyone less than her equal. To her, that means a power player who makes six figures and drives a car worth more than the average U.S. house.
"All this waiting for better, it's making you bitter," a friend observes.
Eventually Lauren falls for Dominic (Michael Ealy), a starving restaurant worker who dreams of becoming a chef. Of course, when she first meets him he's valet parking a $155,000 sports car, so it's a matter of time before the truth butts in. Lauren finds herself genuinely falling for him, and decides to fudge on her high standards.
On the other end of the spectrum are Zeke (Romany Malco) and Mya (Meagan Good), two players who try to see if they can make a go of a real relationship. Mya is trying out Harvey's 90-Day Benefits Rule -- aka, Zeke has to stick around for nearly three months before he gets "the cookie."
Jeremy (Jerry Ferrara) is a guy stuck in a college time warp, still dating his girlfriend Kristen (Gabrielle Union) after nine years and not any closer to putting a ring on it. Michael (Terrence Jenkins hasn't cut the apron strings from his mother, and single mom Candace (Regina Hall) insists that she be the #1 woman in his life.
The cast is rounded out by Bennett (Gary Owen), the happily married guy, and Cedric (Kevin Hart), the even happier recently divorced guy -- or so he tells himself. Hart's a pint-sized comedic pistol, and gets many of the movies best lines.
Director Tim Story broke out with "Barbershop," so it's no surprise that the movie's best scenes are the ones involving the sextet of guys hanging out, cracking on each other mercilessly and talking about women. Screenwriters Keith Merryman and David A. Newman give the dialogue a light, improvisational feel.
It's a fun group to hang out with, and even includes a couple of white guys in a majority black cast. The black dudes occasionally make jokes about the white dudes, who return fire happily, but there's a circle of trust and warmth there.
The filmmakers make a curious choice of including author Harvey for awhile, who pops onto the screen spouting lines from his book. It does make the movie seem more like a commercial for the book, but also acts as a clever framing device. Then Harvey just disappears about halfway through.
They should've gone for the Full Harvey, or none.
2.5 stars out of four
Wednesday, April 18, 2012
My opinion of "The Deep Blue Sea" is not dissimilar from that of the recent "Young Adults." Both are well-acted dramas about a female protagonist who is not a pleasant person to spend time with. What's more, she is totally unrelatable to the audience, doing silly and sometimes spiteful things for reasons I could not grasp.
Watching Hester Collyer (Rachel Weisz) dally between two men should be a compelling experience, as we share her anguish over the painful choice she must make. Does she stay in a comfortable but loveless marriage with Sir William Collyer (Simon Russell Beale), a wealthy judge, or choose to be with the mercurial but passionate former RAF pilot Freddie Page (Tom Hiddleston)?
Instead, it's a dreary affair as Hester wavers and wonders, attempts a half-hearted suicide and runs this passive-aggressive campaign to make the callow Freddie commit to her. We don't feel sorry for her, or identify with her, but at best feel pity and more likely feel little.
It is possible to build a film around characters who are not supposed to be liked by the viewer -- I think of Brenda Blethyn in "Secrets & Lies" -- but the power in those characterizations lies in the ability to provoke a strong reaction from the audience. My strongest reaction to Hester is that I wanted her to go away.
It's never a good thing when your main character is the least interesting person onscreen.
Written and directed by Terence Davies, adapted from the play by Terence Rattigan, "The Deep Blue Sea" takes place over the course of a single day "around 1950." The story also shows flashbacks to earlier points in her relationships with the two men, but the transitions are so subtle that the film feels slightly unstuck from time, and we're never quite sure if what we're seeing is contemporaneous.
Plot-wise, there really isn't much to describe. Hester wakes up and tries to kill herself with a combination of pills and gas from the furnace, but is saved by the helpful landlady (Ann Mitchell). Freddie, who must have slept in when they passed out empathy, is enraged when he learns of Hester's suicide attempt, because he thinks it reflects badly on him.
William shows up from time to time to try to lure Hester into returning to him. He's quiet and diffident, but smart enough to know his wife was unhappy. Whereas Freddie externalizes his discontent with Hester, she drives the shy William further into himself with her rejections.
William does have enough pride that he finds it hard to fathom why she would choose the penniless, irresponsible Freddie over himself. I don't understand why you would give up so much for so little, he tells her.
And that's Hester's quandary. She describes herself as "walking between the Devil and the deep blue sea," meaning she faces two terrible choices. She has genuine romance with Freddie, but he'll never love her like she does him, or she can be with William, who clearly adores her, a feeling she cannot return.
Perhaps it's because Hester knows what it's like to be emotionally rejected by the one she loves that she harbors pity for William.
If so, this could form the basis for a truly tortuous story about discarded love. What a shame "The Deep Blue Sea" is such a rudderless tale.
2 stars out of four
Tuesday, April 17, 2012
The "Mission: Impossible" movie franchise had grown moribund, and Tom Cruise's career along with it. Even when he made light, crowd-pleasing movies like "Knight and Day," audiences stayed away in droves. Luckily for both, the newest film, "M:I -- Ghost Protocol" was not only the best in the series and a huge international box office hit, it was quite possibly the best action/thriller in all of 2011.
The big question mark surrounding the movie -- other than audiences' recent disinclination to buy tickets to any movie with Cruise in it -- was whether director Brad Bird, having conquered the field of animation ("The Incredibles"), could translate his skills to live-action filmmaking.
One only has to watch any one of the several stunning action sequences in "Ghost" to end any uncertainty. My favorite was the scene where Cruise climbs the tallest building in the world using only a pair of high-tech magnetic gloves, one of which only functions intermittently. Meanwhile, inside the rest of his team intervenes in the sale of nuclear secrets between two sets of bad guys, simultaneously.
The plot is the usual spy-movie bramble of international intrigue and double-crosses, and bears little relevance to the enjoyment of this excellent flick.
On the downside, video extras for "MI -- Ghost Protocol" are a little underwhelming.
There are two featurettes about the making of the movie, focusing heavily on the fantastic stunt sequences and special-effects creations. There are also several deleted scenes with commentary by Bird.
That's not a bad haul, but compared to the movie accompanying them, these goodies aren't so good.
Movie: 3.5 stars out of four
Extras: 2.5 stars
Monday, April 16, 2012
I started out actively disliking "Objective, Burma!", but the movie eventually won me over. It begins like every other standard-issue World War II propaganda film, with a bunch of swell guys banding together through adversity to overcome the troglodyte enemy. It even stars a bunch of the same actors in supporting roles I've seen in other war pictures, with little variance as to their characterizations: the wisecracking New Yorker (George Tobias) playing a New Yorker, the tall Texan (James Brown) is again a Texan, etc.
Eying its nearly 2½-hour run time, I was ready to settle in for a long and laborious trek through the Burmese jungle with the swell gang. In other words, it looked like a repeat of another Raoul Walsh film recently discussed in this space, "Battle Cry," which amounted to nothing more than a bunch of training footage and smoochy-time with the local females.
But somewhere along the way, "Objective, Burma!" morphs into a gritty and realistic drama that gives audiences a taste of what it was really like to be a G.I. dogface trying to survive in the Pacific theater. No smooching here -- there's nary a female in the flick.
Based loosely on history, the story depicts a raid on a Japanese radar station in advance of the Allied invasion of Burma. It's so loose with the facts, though, that it depicts the invasion as an entirely American affair, when in fact the U.S. played only a relatively small role in the operation. Winston Churchill was so upset about the British forces getting the high hat, the film was banned in the U.K. for seven years.
The picture starts out with achingly slow exposition, as a bunch of officers meet in rooms and point at maps, and then the troops get briefed on the mission. They'll be dropped by parachute, take out the radar station, then be picked up at an abandoned airfield later that same day. The commanding officer, Capt. Nelson (Errol Flynn), is not terribly pleased about being saddled with an American newsman, Mark Williams (Henry Hull), who's a mite long in the tooth and green to boot.
Interesting aside: usually having a character who's a writer acts an obvious framing device, as his or her scribblings form the basis for the recollection of the events portrayed. Curiously, Williams dies about three-quarters of the way through the movie, which begs the question of who it was telling their story. The trailer for "Burma" makes this notion even more explicit, showing Williams' notebook pages being flipped to unspool the tale.
The actual raid goes off without a hitch, or even any American fatalities. The men are jabbering away about their easiest mission of the war, and I was bored to tears.
But then a huge Japanese force comes after them, forcing the planes to pull away just as they were about to land. The cakewalk turns into a death march, as they must traverse through the steamy jungle, depending on supply drops from planes to keep them alive as the Japs are never far behind in their vengeful pursuit.
I was struck by how much the screenplay -- by Ranald MacDougall and Lester Cole, story by Alvah Bessie -- focuses on the minutia of the soldiers' experience. We see what sort of food they eat (dry, tasteless rations), setting booby traps using grenades and wire, taking "salt pills" to help keep them from getting dehydrates, and putting water purifying tablets in their canteens to make the swamp muck drinkable.
Movies of this era generally gloss over the unpleasant details of life in the military, so I was impressed by the verisimilitude.
The disposition of the men changes, too, as their numbers dwindle and their odds grow worse. The swell-guy shtick pretty much goes out the window, and they get more and more surly. There's even one occasion where the men refuse to get up at Nelson's orders -- a display of insubordination that one hardly ever sees in movies of the 1940s.
"Objective, Burma!" came out in early 1945, not terribly long after the fate of the war in the Pacific was still in doubt. By this point, the Allied forces were beginning to wrap things up against the Japanese. I think that's why it was possible to release a movie that showed how grim life in the Army can be -- Hollywood realized it was no longer in the business of recruiting new soldiers. That makes it the sort of unglamorous movie you probably wouldn't have seen from the big studios in 1942 or '43.
One more note: Unless I'm mistaken, I believe non-Japanese actors were used to mostly portray the enemy. They certainly don't look or sound Japanese. It's possible they were supposed to be soldiers of other nationalities commanded by the Empire, but it's still a little off-putting.
3 stars out of four
Wednesday, April 11, 2012
I do not conceal my disdain for martial arts films. Privately I refer to them as "kicking movies," since that's all it seems they contain: I kick you, you kick me, I kick again and it goes on until we're all kicked out. The fact that they usually contain wooden acting and slender plots hasn't endeared them any further.
But "The Raid: Redemption" is a cut above the standard chop-socky flick. This Indonesian drama/thriller contains plenty of bone-crunching fight scenes, but also some distinctive characters and a fairly meaty storyline.
If most martial arts films feel like an over-spiced appetizer lacking any complementary flavors, then this movie is more of a complete meal.
Part of the reason it's successful is that it doesn't initially present itself as being part of the martial arts genre. It's about a police SWAT team infiltrating a towering apartment building to take out the crime boss living in the penthouse, ruling it like a king in a castle who's untouchable by the authorities.
They're armed to the teeth with assault rifles and body armor. But the raid becomes a trap, as the team faces an army of the mobster's minions. The bullets soon run out, most of the police officers are killed, and it's up to the small band of survivors to fight their way out in brutal hand-to-hand combat.
The main character is Rama (Iko Uwais), a young rookie with a wife and a baby on the way. He's the proverbial shining knight in a system where many on the police force are taking bribes from Tama (Ray Sahetapy), the crimelord they're after. Tama sits in his command center, watching an array of video surveillance monitors and giving orders to the building residents over the PA system. We get the impression he's like a snail in his shell, never leaving this protective cocoon.
Other members of the raid team include Wahyu (Pierre Gruno), the older lieutenant who ordered the mission; Jaka (Joe Taslim), the fiery sergeant giving the orders; and Bowo (Tegar Satrya), the slightly unhinged veteran who's always popping off.
On the opposition side are Tama's two main underlings. Writer/director Gareth Evans (a Welshman) performs a little misdirection regarding the duo, having the sergeant explain to his men prior to the mission that one of them is a martial arts master, while the other is the quiet cunning one. But when we finally meet them (Yayan Ruhian and Donny Alamsyah), it's deliberately left uncertain which is which.
The form of martial arts employed in the movie is Pencak silat, which is native to Indonesia. I couldn't describe how it differs from karate or kung fu or any other discipline, other than the movements are very fluid and beautiful to watch, even as the men bash each other to a bloody pulp.
Evans has a fine eye for capturing the intricate choreography of the fights, especially when Rama is fighting multiple enemies at once, making such confrontations seem if not totally believable then at least plausible. The director uses the confined spaces of the building's corridors and small rooms to his advantage, putting his camera in corners or at an overhead angle to best capture the kinetic ballet.
One terrific sequence has Rama and a wounded teammate hiding in the apartment of a helpful resident, pursued by a machete-wielding gang. They hide behind a loose piece of wall, and the gang leader starts skewering holes in it with his sword. The trapped men can do nothing but watch as the blade draws ever closer ... and then the tension gets ratcheted up a little further.
I retain my old objections about the lack of reality in martial arts movies, which are not dissimilar from my complaints about boxing films: people who get hit that hard fall down after one or two blows. They don't keep fighting on and on. It doesn't matter how much physical training a person has; the human body can only take so much punishment before it shuts down.
But the extended fight scenes in "The Raid: Redemption" are more palatable -- in part because they're executed so well, and partly because there are more than paper-thin characters doing the punching and kicking.
3 stars out of four
Tuesday, April 10, 2012
With a lot of biopics I see starring a tremendous actor in an Oscar-worthy turn, the performance often trumps the movie around it.
Movie stars by their definition get the most screen time and the best lines of dialogue. But when it's a film about a historical figure, with lots of big events and emotions, oftentimes the performer can be so dominant that the story can't get any air. Think Philip Seymour Hoffman in "Capote" or Jamie Foxx in "Ray."
"The Iron Lady" follows in this tradition, featuring Meryl Streep in a role so meaty -- as seminal British prime minister Margaret Thatcher -- that the rest of the movie occasionally turns to mush.
Streep is so good, she carries the picture during the insipid stretches, such as when she's battling her government underlings like a schoolmarm fussing at some ill-behaved boys in knee pants.
The film reaches a brighter note when Thatcher is communing with the spirit of her deceased husband, Denis (Jim Broadbent). It's not delusion; they both acknowledge that he's dead. It's just that neither one wants to lose whatever argument they're currently having.
In the end, "The Iron Lady" is worth watching just to see the way Streep nails the iconic Thatcher, from that swoop of sprayed hair to the commanding screech of a voice. There's greatness in that performance, if not the movie that contains it.
Video extras are fairly minimalist, and are the same for both DVD and Blu-ray editions.
There's a making-of featurette and four mini-featurettes: “Recreating the Young Margaret Thatcher,” “Battle in the House of Commons,” “Costume Design: Pearls and Power Suits,” and “Denis: The Man Behind the Woman.”
Call me old-fashioned, but I think the real Margaret Thatcher would deem this video release as lacking proper ambition.
Movie: 3 stars out of four
Extras: 2 stars
Monday, April 9, 2012
I've occasionally seen well-known movie critics reverse themselves -- almost invariably, giving a second positive review to a film they dissed the first time around. Never the other way around. Roger Ebert famously gave "Unforgiven" an indifferent review, then changed course shortly thereafter when an overwhelming preponderance of the critic corps lavished it with praise. He begged off that he was distracted by his upcoming marriage. A decade later, he went so far as to include it in "Great Movies," his compendium of reviews of masterpieces.
Personally, I have never seen a movie I deemed bad that I later changed my mind about enough to view it positively. More often, films I adored once upon a time diminish when seen years later with a different perspective. Frankly, I'm more than a mite suspicious of anyone who totally changes course when they find their negative opinion of a film leaves them all alone.
I will say, however, that "Ghostbusters 2" was much better than I remembered it. I saw it only once back when it came out in 1989, and watched it again while experiencing some down time (a nearly unrecognizable commodity these days) during a recent trip.
This isn't to say it's great, or even good. But it's a reasonably funny and entertaining movie that, if it existed on its own, would not be seen as the disaster it was generally viewed as at the time. It doomed any talk for a third movie, though that's perked up again lately, with Bill Murray insisting he won't be involved.
I think a couple of things made "2" seem like such a letdown. The first was the relative long interval between the first film in 1984 and the sequel. At least during the '80s, if a movie did very well the sequel almost always came out two years later, three max. Apparently there was some problem getting the cast to all come back with a screenplay they agreed upon, and that's reflected in the disjointed nature of "2."
The biggest reason, though, is what a huge act it had to follow. I really don't think it's possible to overpraise the original "Ghostbusters." Perhaps my views are colored by childhood memories, but for my money "Ghostbusters" is right up there with the all-time great film comedies -- "Some Like It Hot," "Singin' in the Rain," and so on. Other than being raucously funny, it tapped into scientific and psycho-babble neuroses that were flying around at the time. It essentially launched the genre of the big-budget action/comedy, and brought science fiction into the cinematic mainstream by poking fun at it.
Strangely, one of the things I remember most about "2" was the characters of Louis Tully, the Ghostbusters' nerdy attorney played by Rick Moranis, having a romance with their laconic secretary, Janine (Annie Potts). Like most teenage geeks, I was entranced by the idea of a woman throwing herself at a man with no reason to expect such attentions. Plus, their coupling was cute.
The script, by Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis, contains a few good zingers. The courtroom scene is one, where Tully addresses the judge in his opening comments and concludes with the patter, "and one time I got turned into a dog and they helped me." Director Ivan Reitman plays out the comic timing on that reaction exquisitely, cutting back to the judge looking utterly gobsmacked.
Another great throwaway line is where the Ghostbusters pop in on their ostensible leader, Peter Venkman (Murray), while he's having dinner at a fancy restaurant with erstwhile lady love Dana Barrett (Sigourney Weaver). They're covered in ghost goo and make quite a scene, until Venkman hushes them with the classic, "Guys, guys, you're scaring the straights!" This is perhaps one of the first Hollywood movies in which gay humor did not come at the expense of the homosexual community.
I also enjoyed Peter MacNicol's daffy Janosz, the curator at the art restoration museum where Dana is working. He talks in a flighty Eurotrash accent, but when pressed reveals that he's a native-born American.
So why doesn't he film work? Well, the lack of a really good bad guy doesn't help. The villain is Vigo, a long-dead Slavic slayer who is brought back to life when a giant painting of him is reanimated by the negative energy flowing in great churning rivers under the city of New York. He's kind of scary-looking, but just doesn't have a lot of personality.
I also missed the prickly peevishness of Walter Peck, the hostile city bureaucrat so memorably played by William Atherton in the original. Until Gozer arrives on Earth and starts wreaking havoc, Peck operated as the main adversary for the Ghostbusters. Kurt Fuller tries bravely to fill in as the mayor's newest jerk toady, but he just doesn't conjure up the sort of quotidian malevolence personified by Peck.
And of course, the story's finale is a virtual repeat of the one in the original, with the aggressive giant Stay Puft Marshmallow Man replaced by the benevolent Statue of Liberty, brought to life by the boys and ridden to the rescue. One icon blown up to titan size smashing stuff in the Big Apple equals big comedy; the second go-round feels like a cynical, uninspired rehash.
Still, I have to give "Ghostbusters 2" points for exceeding expectations, or at least my wrongful recollection of it as a disastrously bad flick. Time may not have totally changed my mind, but it did mellow out my hostility.
2.5 stars out of four
Thursday, April 5, 2012
Watching "American Reunion" is sort of like going to your own high school reunion: it's not nearly as much fun as it should be.
As nice as it is to see some of the old gang again, the tang of unrealized dreams and squandered potential hangs over the scene like a vapor. The good ol' days are just that, and continuing to chase them feels increasingly pathetic. Rebelling against authority is harder when you're starting to resemble your parents.
The first movie was way back in 1999, which feels like a different era now. Over the closing credits we see photographs of the cast from "American Pie," looking so young and achingly fresh. They're still pretty young -- the youngest of the main cast is 31, the oldest 38. But let's face it: their film careers are pretty much kaput.
(What, you didn't see Chris Klein in "Hank and Mike," a movie about two guys in pink bunny suits -- and he wasn't even one of the bunnies? Or Jason Biggs in "Lower Learning"?)
"Pie" was actually quite funny with some unexpected sentimentalism mixed in with the scatological humor. The sequel was reasonably entertaining, and the third one, where horny geekboy Jim (Biggs) marries high school sweetheart-slash-dominatrix Michelle (Alyson Hannigan) was ... sufficient.
But the last feature film was way back in 2003, and since then there have been four more movies that went straight to video, dubbed "American Pie Presents..." featuring Stifler's cousin going to college, or something. The brand hasn't been so much devalued as pimped out and strung out.
So it's hard to see "American Reunion" as anything other than a cynical chance to cash in on fading popularity.
Original directors Paul and Chris Weitz are long gone, though Adam Herz, who dreamed up the whole thing, is back penning the screenplay. Directors Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg, who previously helmed one of the "Harold & Kumar" flicks, pitched in on the script, too.
The story plays out with predictable character arcs. The gang is back in town for their 13-ish-year high school reunion -- somebody spaced on the 10th, so this is the make-up -- and it's an opportunity for old romances to be reunited.
For Jim and Michelle, that means getting the heat back in the bedroom. After a few years of marriage and a 2-year-old, they're no longer getting their freak on -- at least not when they're both in the same room.
Oz (Klein) is now the famous host of a sports blather show and TV dancing star. He's got a super-hot girlfriend, but still pines for Heather (Mena Suvari). Finch (Eddie Kaye Thomas), having conquered the challenge of bedding Stifler's mom (Jennifer Coolidge), has moved on to a life of international mystery.
Stifler (Seann William Scott), meanwhile, is still the same party-hardy dude who manages to rub everyone the wrong way. Kevin (Thomas Ian Nicholas), the vanilla-ish nice guy, lives in marital bliss until he sees old flame Vicky (Tara Reid) again.
There are a few genuinely funny bits, mostly involving sexual humor, such as when Jim gets caught pantless in the kitchen and resorts to some transparent attempts at hiding his manhood. There's also a gag involving Jim's dad (Eugene Levy) and a bucket of popcorn worth a few hoots.
But mostly, "American Reunion" just feels tired. It's the act of getting back together, just for the sake of being back together for awhile.
2 stars out of four
Tuesday, April 3, 2012
"War Horse" got an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture -- plus five other nods -- but little real love. Box office receipts were respectable but hardly stratospheric. The film won virtually none of the various awards for which it was nominated.
The best way to describe the reception given to "War Horse" was one of respectful indifference.
While hardly one of Steven Spielberg's best directorial efforts, "War Horse" certainly deserves better than the miserly regard it's been afforded. It's a lush family drama, sad but redemptive, the sort of ambitious old-fashioned movie-making not seen in great quantities for at least half a century.
As a bonus, the musical score, by constant Spielberg companion John Williams, is one of his best in years.
The star of the story is Joey, a brilliantly fast and spirited horse from England who becomes the object of affection for a variety of people leading up to and during World War I. At first he's the ward of Albert (Jeremy Irvine), a poor farm boy, but then Joey is conscripted into the British cavalry.
As the years roll by and the horrors mount up, Joey's fortunes change as often as the landscape, from rolling French countryside to the nightmarish labyrinth of trench warfare.
Even though the film lacks anything resembling suspense, it's still a fantastically emotional ride.
Video extras are good, though there's a wide chasm between the single-disc DVD edition and the top-of-the-line Blu-ray/DVD combo.
The DVD comes with a single featurette, "War Horse: The Look," which concentrates on how Spielberg and his crew achieved the suffused, painterly look of the film.
Upgrade to the two-disc Blu-ray/DVD combo, and you add two more features. There's a making-of documentary featuring Spielberg and all the cast, and a featurette about the making of the movie from the perspective of an extra.
Go for the four-disc package, and there are four more featurettes. "A Filmmaking Journey" concentrates on Spielberg's artistic journey making the movie. Another focuses on producer and longtime Spielberg collaborator Kathleen Kennedy, including her personal on-set photographs. Two more featurettes focus on editing and scoring, and sound effects.
Monday, April 2, 2012
I'm going to try something a little different for this edition of the Reeling Backward column. First of all, as you may notice I'm featuring "Seabiscuit," which came out in 2003. Though this is generally a spot for discussing classic films, I've always stated that I held the prerogative to decide exactly how far backward we shall reel. In this case, just nine short years.
Most importantly, though, I'm going to break down the ways in which the film, written and directed by Gary Ross, differs from the nonfiction book by Laura Hillenbrand. I've always been enamored of this movie, and meant to read the book for many years. I had sort of assumed that when you're dealing with such a well-researched, well-documented story like that of Seabiscuit, the movie would have to hold pretty closely to the historical record.
Having just completed the book, I was struck by the number of ways, large and small, that the film strays from what actually happened. So I'm going to document them, and discuss why I think the filmmakers changed things around for the movie adaptation. It's sort of a dissertation (or bloviation) on the screenwriting process.
Red's other injury
The brilliance of both Hillenbrand's book and Ross' film rests squarely on one thing, in my opinion: to make this the story of three men, each in some way broken, and how they were connected by a downtrodden, over-the-hill racehorse and found not just glory in the winner's circle, but redemption in their own lives.
As such, anything that deviates too much from the tale of the trio -- jockey Red Pollard, trainer Tom Smith and owner Charles Howard -- becomes problematic in terms of cinematic storytelling. Even a 2-1/2 hours film cannot cover everything in a 350-page book, so the primary challenge in adapting any written work to the screen is distilling it down to its purest essence.
The film faced an additional challenge with the real, complicated history. When Seabiscuit won his most important race, a match contest against the heavily favored Triple Crown winner War Admiral, he was ridden not by Pollard but George Woolf, perhaps the greatest jockey of his era. As depicted in the movie, Pollard had suffered a horrible leg injury while giving a workout to a horse owned by an old friend who was down on his luck.
But in actuality, Red suffered two serious career-threatening injuries. While riding a mare owned by Howard, he suffered a horrifying crash and had his chest crushed by the horse. It was only while he was preparing his comeback that the leg incident occurred.
This is a classic example of a screenwriter combining events or characters for the sake of simplicity. If you have a character suffer a sickening injury, it shocks the audience. But if they turn right around again and have another awful spill, it takes away the dramatic impact of the first injury. Now he seems not just unlucky but cursed. An audience will have sympathy for a character who suffers, but not for one who never gets a break. It's the line between compassion and pity, the latter of which is not a good way for your audience to regard a main character.
Horses and riders
There's another very important reason why the film omits Pollard's injury while riding another Howard horse. If this is the story about the special bond three men have with the same horse, then you can't have other horses horning in on the relationship.
In the film, Seabiscuit has one rider, until Pollard is injured, then Woolf takes over for awhile until Pollard comes back for the triumphant race at the end. But while the horse had only two riders (as far as the flick is concerned), the two riders rode other horses -- many of them. As Hillenbrand describes in the book, jockeys in the 1930s were essentially independent contractors who moved from horse to horse according to their luck and the shifting situation. While a typical racehorse might participate in 40 races in their entire career, a top jockey might ride in that many in a couple of months. It was not at all unusual from them to run multiple races in one day.
So even while Pollard was riding Seabiscuit, he was riding other horses -- including others from the Howard stable. The movie makes it seem as if Seabiscuit was the only racehorse Howard owned. Smith the trainer was training other horses, too. In fact, major stables are a lot like factories, with new horses being constantly foaled or acquired, aging horses retired out to stud, and young colts and mares developing to replace the current stars. The Biscuit was the top but certainly not the only horse in the game.
Again, from a storytelling perspective the logic here is pretty straightforward. You don't want Pollard and Woolf to seem like mercenaries. They weren't -- both considered Seabiscuit the best horse they ever rode, or saw, according to the book. And you don't want Smith and Howard to seem like barons overseeing a village of horses, even benevolently.
By cutting out any mention of other horses, it makes the connection with Seabiscuit seem that much more special.
Along those same lines, the movie has two big races that form the dramatic high points: the match race with War Admiral, and the Santa Anita Handicap, known as the "100-grander" for its (for the time) enormous cash prize. Pollard and Seabiscuit lose the 1937 Santa Anita due to a mistake by Red -- another horse closes up on the jockey's blind side (more on that later) and beats them at the wire.
From then on, the 100-grander is presented as their "white whale" -- the big one that got away. After the Biscuit is himself injured and makes an unlikely return to racing, the 1940 Santa Anita becomes their big comeback, and the film's concluding triumph.
But actually, another horse owned by Charles Howard, Kayak, won the 100-grander in 1939, when Seabiscuit was convalescing.
In the book, Howard openly expresses his regret that it was not his top horse who won the '39 race. But still, it's hard in a movie to have a big finale be such a huge emotional catharsis when another horse from the same stable, trained by the same trainer, already won the Big Race.
The movie is generally faithful to Seabiscuit's running style -- he was a "stalking horse" who rarely broke out of the gate well, but ran down the lead horse when it began to tire. But they cheat on the last race at Santa Anita, showing him lagging and falling all the way to the back of the pack before coming from behind to win it.
In reality, the Biscuit never ran lower than third place during the race. But from a dramatic standpoint, it adds to the story of the Little Horse That Could, when everyone thought his return to racing after a serious injury was ill-advised, for ignominious failure to loom so closely.
It was also not Seabiscuit's first race back -- he ran a handful of others before the 1940 100-grander, winning one of them.
"I can't see out there!"
Speaking of Pollard's blind spot: Hillenbrand makes it quite clear that if the fact ever got out that Red had no vision in his right eye, his jockeying career would have ceased immediately. No race official would let him on a track, and any trainer or owner who knowingly allowed a half-blind rider on their horse would probably be banned, too.
So it's highly unlikely that Pollard would have told Smith and Howard, as he does in the movie, about his blindness. And even if he had, they would have felt compelled to turn him in, if only to protect their own positions.
In fact, apparently the only person Red told about his impairment was his wife. (Red had a wife?!? Yep. See next.)
From a cinematic standpoint, having Pollard confess his deepest darkest secret only strengthens the bond between the three men. The movie also romanticizes how Red lost his sight, attributing it to being punched too many times while moonlighting as a boxer during his early, lean years.
While it's true that Red fought in the ring, he lost his vision through pure, dull accident -- he was practicing a horse when a stone in the turf flipped up and smacked him in the head. Not terribly sexy.
Red's wife and early life
One of the biggest omissions in "Seabiscuit" is that during his long recovery from his injuries, Red Pollard fell in love with his nurse and proposed to her. They were already married by the time he won the Santa Anita Handicap. She stood by him all during his subsequent declining years, after he washed out as a budding trainer and went back to jockeying in the bush leagues.
So why leave her out? I would say it comes down to pure economy of storytelling. Again, the movie is about three men redeemed by an amazing horse. Although you could write it so his commitment to hearth and home is part of his character's evolution from proud loner to someone who relies on and is relied upon by others, you already accomplish that with the horse as the medium. You'd have to spend at least several scenes building up that relationship, and with the movie already clocking in close to 150 minutes, the wife becomes expendable. Also, that would have augmented the amount of screen time spent on Pollard, overbalancing the three-legged story triad.
The film cheats on Howard and Smith's families, too. Though the movie (and to a lesser extent the book) seems to suggest that Tom Smith is a mystery man who just rode in off the plains one day, he had a wife and children. In fact, his son was a trainer in his own right, and actually trained horses for Charles Howard's son, Lin. There's a whole chapter of the book devoted to a foul-plagued race between Seabiscuit and Lin's horse, hyped as a "fathers vs. sons" affair.
The movie also plays with the timeline of the death of one of Howard's other sons, making it seem as if it preceded his interest in horse racing fairly closely. That accident actually happened many years earlier.
There's also the timeline of Red's young life. The film shows his father buying him his own horse at the age of 16. Some time later after the stock market crash, the now-destitute Pollards leave young Red in the care of a horseman -- this would have been at about age 18.
In reality, Red was already a seasoned jockey by that age, at a time when it was not unusual for "bug boys," as fledgling riders were called, to start riding at 15, 14 or even younger. His parents arranged for a family member to be his chaperon, but the man promptly abandoned Red to his own devices.
The filmmakers rejiggered things here because the idea of a 15-year-old kid so wantonly kicked to the curb by the grown-ups in his family would be a major turn-off to the audience. Remember: compassion, not pity.
The movie spends only a little bit of time on Smith's reticence to talk to the press. In fact, he was fiercely secretive, working out his horse in the middle of the night to avoid scrutiny, and even playing games with the press and the public to misdirect them away from the Biscuit.
It went so far that Smith had Howard purchase Seabiscuit's brother, Grog, who had nothing of his speed or spirit but looked exactly like him. Smith used Grog as a decoy so much that it was said that only he and some of the grooms knew for sure which horse was being paraded around as the mighty Seabiscuit at any given time. Even Howard was fooled on several occasions.
So, thousands of people and reporters who'd traveled far and waited long to catch a glimpse of the famous Seabiscuit were often really staring at a counterfeit.
Movie-wise, the reason for omitting this is simple: It's OK for Smith to seem taciturn and stubborn, but you don't want him to look like a total dick.
The one sequence where the movie does show Smith working his horse out in the middle of the night was in preparations for the match race with War Admiral. It depicts them working to train Seabiscuit to begin without a starting gate, using a bell as a cue. It makes for some powerfully disquieting scenes of Pollard, still fragile from his shattered leg, riding around the track in total darkness.
But Smith did all of this training for the match race out in the open, during the daytime for everyone to see. The press witnessed and reported on the progress. Smith generally only worked his horses in secret in order to score a low "impost," or carrying weight from the track official. Since the match race was only against one other horse, who were agreed to carry the same weight, there was no benefit in training in secret.
Also, the movie plays a little footsie with that starting bell. It shows Smith and Pollard offering to buy a bell from the local fire department. At the time of the race, Smith sneaks the jury-rigged contraption up to the starter's booth so it gets used as the actual bell to begin the race.
In actuality, Smith built his makeshift bell out of an old alarm clock and some wood planks. And the starters really did use it to begin the race, but only because the official bell wouldn't work. Hillenbrand slyly suggests that Smith may have had something to do with sabotaging the track bell so the one Seabiscuit trained with would be the one used for the race. Again, this is the difference between gamesmanship and being a dick.
Weighing the weights
A huge part of the game-within-the-game of horseracing is imposts -- the amount of weight a horse carries, including jockey, saddle and lead weights. Short version: horses with winning records and big reputations were assigned higher weights than less successful horses. The difference could be 30 pounds or more -- an astonishing handicap where every extra pound of weight can translate to a horse length over the course of a race.
This would be the equivalent of boxers from different weight classes being forced to fight each other, or one team of baseball players being allowed to use corked bats and greased balls, or weaker golf players getting to use the closer tees. Reading the book, it was astonishing to me that any sport can allow such an obvious and meaningful disadvantage to be pinned to its best athletes.
As described in the novel, owners and trainers spent a huge portion of their time strategizing how to get their horses assigned lower imposts. Howard and Smith on several occasions scratched Seabiscuit from races at the last minute because they felt the high weight assigned would either doom his chances of a win, or risk an injury.
At first I was puzzled by the notion of such an important aspect of the strategy of horseracing being left out. But what it comes down to is not wanting Team Seabiscuit to look like a bunch of whiners. Sports heroes are not allowed, at least in the movies, to complain about the advantages enjoyed by their opponents.
On a similar note, in reality Seabiscuit was not a "mudder" -- a horse adept at running well in wet track conditions. Indeed, he was quite poor at it. Hillenbrand notes again and again in her book that it was Seabiscuit's Achilles heel: his only real weakness as a racehorse. Smith and Howard scratched the Biscuit from plenty of races they deemed too wet, raising the ire of the press and the paying public.
The War of the Biscuit
Which brings us to the big showdown between Seabiscuit and War Admiral, the dramatic peak of the film. Here, Ross plays quite fast and loose with the facts in order to build up the cinematic showdown.
He accurately shows Howard trying everything to set up a match race between the Admiral, the best horse in the East, and Seabiscuit, who ruled the West. What the movie doesn't depict is that there actually was a race set between the two, with all the parties agreed -- but Seabiscuit was scratched due to an injury. Then there were other, regular races with a full field that included both champions, but weather or injuries led to one horse or the other scratching.
Not too hard to figure out the reasoning here -- the bumpy reality giving way to the smooth-building dramatic tension in the movie version.
The film also does a lot to build up the physical dominance of War Admiral: he was taller than the relatively small Seabiscuit, was beautiful to look at compared to the Biscuit's mottled "cow pony" looks, and had the regal bearing of a high-bred champion. Smith goes so far as to call Admiral "a monster" when scouting him before their race.
Reality check: though shorter, Seabiscuit was more muscular, possessed a wider chest and in fact outweighed the Admiral substantially.
Another thing "Seabiscuit" fails to mentioned: the two horses were closely related. In fact, though he was a couple years older Seabiscuit was War Admiral's nephew. They were both descended from the great Man O' War -- War Admiral directly, while the Biscuit was his grandson. They also shared some of their forebearer's personality traits, including stubbornness and a streak of rebelliousness.
So why paper over the horses' similarities? Easy -- when you're making somebody out to the be the Bad Guy, you want him to be seen as The Other: strange, frightening, exotic and threatening.
I should mention that after examining all these variances with the book, I still greatly admire "Seabiscuit" the movie. Though some of Ross' changes might seem like egregious affronts to the historical record, filmmaking sometimes is about changing around the facts to leave the "inner" truth unobscured by pesky realities.
3.5 stars out of four