Secretariat is Walt Disney Pictures answer to Universal’s Seabiscuit in that they are both stories about prize-winning thoroughbreds and their owners/trainers/jockey’s overcoming incredible odds to change the world of horse racing forever. They often look and sound similar despite being set nearly half a century apart. And although their narratives ultimately follow the same trajectory they can be compared and contrasted by the characteristics of the studios the made them. True this is an odd way of looking at a film but bear with me for a moment.
While Seabiscuit ends on an uplifting note the human drama at its core involving “Red” Pollard and Charles Howard their relationship with one another and the triangle of friendship between Pollard Howard and his wife and the horse is paramount in making the rousing conclusion heartfelt. Universal Pictures is a company that has thrived on some deeply dramatic works of film-art and made sure that it produced something more than just another sports movie. It worked and Seabiscuit went on to receive seven Academy Award nominations.
Secretariat though an equally inspiring tale doesn’t hit all the strings that its predecessor does because in true Disney form the tone of the film is sentimental and borders the line between that and schmaltz. Every time director Randall Wallace uses events of the era (like protests of the Vietnam War) or secondary storylines (like the family drama that ensues when Penny Chenery [Diane Lane] decides to split her time between her Denver home and the Southern ranch where her super-stallion resides) to layer the story the film slips back into feel-good mode marked by 70s soul and the generic golden glow that seems to be a DP’s choice in shooting scenes from “a better time.” This takes away from Secretariat’s legitimacy as cinema leaving behind just another sweet product of the Mouse House.
That’s not to say that the cast and crew don’t get a few things right. Though Lane’s Penny at first appears to be a cookie-cutter homemaker overwhelmed by the responsibility of tending to her aging father’s ranch she quickly proves that she’s a tough cookie. I thoroughly enjoyed John Malkovich’s performance as Lucien Laurin the down-on-his-luck trainer who needed to win just as much as Penny as he was the only one to shake things up a bit. The horseracing sequences executed by seasoned cinematographer Dean Semler (who won an Oscar for shooting Dances With Wolves) are standout scenes that are very exciting thanks to some nifty editing.
Secretariat could’ve been good but producers Mark Ciardi and Gordon Gray aimed to make an easily accessible family film that rarely challenges its viewer; because of that it’s just okay. Historians may be interested in some of the special features including a conversation between Wallace and the real Penny Chenery (who has a brief cameo in the film) and a closer look at the real Secretariat and his triumphant 1973 Preakness run while film enthusiasts will rather listen to the filmmaker’s commentary or watch a brief featurette on the choreography of the races. It’s worth renting for a carefree night with the family but there’s not enough bonus content or replay value to warrant a purchase.
The story of the most dominant racehorse of all time does not easily fit into the standard inspirational sports flick mold. Such films typically require its protagonists to overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles be they competitive (Hoosiers) personal (The Natural) societal (Ali) or some combination of all three (Remember the Titans). But by all accounts the greatest challenges to Secretariat capturing of the 1973 Triple Crown were not rival horses — indeed Secretariat had no true rival — but a pair of slow starts and an abscess. And abscesses — apologies to dermatologists — simply aren’t all that effective as dramatic devices.
Lacking most of the vital ingredients of the traditional underdog movie formula Disney’s Secretariat is forced to synthesize them. Its screenplay written by Mike Rich and based rather loosely on the book Secretariat: The Making of a Champion by William Nack adopts a conventional save-the-farm framework: When her parents pass away within months of each other Denver housewife Penny Tweedy (Diane Lane) is advised to sell off her family’s Virginia-based Meadow Stables a beautiful but unprofitable horse-breeding enterprise in order to pay the onerous inheritance taxes levied by the state. But Penny her deceased father’s hackneyed horse-inspired counsel fresh in her mind (“You’ve got to run your own race ” etc. etc.) is loath to depart with such a cherished heirloom. So she concocts a scheme just idiotic enough to work betting the farm — literally — that her new horse Big Red in whom she has an almost Messianic faith will win the Kentucky Derby Preakness and Belmont races in succession.
Of course Big Red under the stage name Secretariat goes on to do just that but only after the film subjects us to nearly two hours of manufactured melodrama. Lane grasping all-too conspicuously for awards consideration treats every line as if it were the St. Crispin’s Day speech. Her character Penny exhibits a hair-trigger sensitivity to the sounds of skeptics and naysayers bursting forth with a polite rebuke and a stern sermon for anyone who dares doubt her crusade from the trash-talking owner of a rival horse to her annoyingly pragmatic husband (Dylan Walsh).
Lane isn’t alone in her grandiosity. The entire production reeks of it as director Randall Wallace lines the story with fetid chunks of overwrought Oscar bait like so many droppings in an untended stable even using Old Testament quotations and gospel music to endow Penny’s quest with biblical significance. John Malkovich is kind enough to inject some mirth into the heavy-handed proceedings hamming it up as Secretariat’s trainer Lucien Laurin a French-Canadian curmudgeon with an odd sartorial palette. It’s not enough however to alleviate the discomfort of witnessing the film's quasi-Sambo depiction of Secretariat’s famed groom Eddie Sweat (Nelsan Ellis) which reaches its cringeworthy zenith when Sweat runs out to the track on the eve of the Belmont Stakes and exclaims to no one in particular that “Big Red done eat his breakfast this mornin’!!!” Bagger Vance would be proud. Whether or not Ellis’ portrayal of Sweat’s cadence and mannerisms is accurate (and for all I know it may well be) the character is too thinly drawn to register as anything more than an amiable simple-minded servant.
Animal lovers will be happy to know that the horses in Secretariat come off looking far better than their human counterparts and not just because they’re alloted the best dialogue. In the training and racing sequences Wallace effectively conveys the strength and majesty of the fearsome animals drawing us into the action and creating a strong element of suspense even though the final result is a fait accompli. It's too bad the rest of the film never makes it out of the gate.
Apparently, America's favorite pastime is also Walt Disney Studio's new business model. Not two months after the studio picked up an untitled baseball pitch (no pun intended) with Bradley Cooper attached, it has now acquired a long-in-development sports project titled Million Dollar Arm, says THR.
Based on an Indian reality TV series, the project would focus on two young men from India, one a cricket player, the other a javelin thrower, who are plucked from their rural Hindi villages by a sports agent and join the minor leagues of American baseball. Through American pop-culture they learn how to make it in the sports world and in the United States. Columbia Pictures had been developing Million Dollar Arm for some time, but when the deal between producers Mark Ciardi, Gordon Gray and Joe Roth and parent company Sony began to dissolve, they brought it to the Mouse House - where all three have strong relationships.
Mitch Glazer, who is in post-production on the drama Passion Play, will pen the screenplay for the picture that is aiming for a similar tone to that of Disney's past sports-themed hits Miracle and The Rookie (both produced by Ciardi and Gray). Roth is valued commodity at the studio, having produced the billion dollar Alice In Wonderland and countless other top projects. He's also working on the Wizard of Oz prequel Oz, The Great and Powerful for Disney.
With successful power-players like Roth, Ciardi and Gray involved I should probably have more confidence in this project, but the fish-out-of-water element of this story is the only thing that Million Dollar Arm has going for it. Based on the plot description, it sounds like it's going to be in the vein of Cool Runnings, another enjoyable Disney hit that was set in the arena of bobsled racing. But part of me thinks feels that this is an act of desperation on Disney's part. They have had no luck this year at the box office outside of time-honored properties and family friendly franchises (Alice and Toy Story 3, respectively). Their star player - Jerry Bruckheimer - has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on a pair of "four-quadrant tentpoles" that are top priority for new toppers Rich Ross and Sean Bailey that have barely broke even. The studio is in dire need of something fresh and friendly to audiences and I think that they are just running through the usual motions as they try to produce an easy-to-digest hit. Walt Disney Pictures should take a hint from Warner Bros: grow some balls and take a risk some time - as Inception has proved, it can pay off in so many unexpected ways.
I’ve always been an unabashed fan of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson a magnetic screen presence whose charm and charisma more than make up for his shortcomings as an actor. That said even I’m finding it harder to defend his choices of roles over the past few years including his most recent turn in the family comedy The Tooth Fairy. Striving to produce quality family-friendly entertainment is certainly a commendable goal Rock but could you do us a favor and throw in the occasional R-rated (or at least PG-13) action flick every once in a while? Please?
The plot of The Tooth Fairy is standard kids-movie stuff: Johnson plays a gruff self-centered minor-league hockey player who after crushing the dreams of a few wide-eyed youngsters is sentenced to two weeks of community service as a tooth fairy. Handed wings a magic wand invisibility spray and other standard fairy accoutrements he’s sent to various children’s houses where he must brave all matter of domestic hazards to fulfill his tooth fairy obligations.
The Rock is usually the best part of otherwise underwhelming movies like this but he actually stumbles out of the gate in The Tooth Fairy overdosing on cheese and ham in an awkward first act. What ultimately makes the movie work is British comic Stephen Merchant recognizable to some as the hapless agent of Ricky Gervais’ chronically underemployed actor in HBO’s Extras who plays The Rock’s beleaguered fairy case worker. With his thin frame and his subtle sharp wit he provides the perfect foil for The Rock’s oversized personality creating just enough of a comedic spark to make The Tooth Fairy a relatively enjoyable if altogether unspectacular experience for both the kids and their babysitters.
Invincible is Rudy and The Rookie all rolled into one. Set in the mid-‘70s Mark Wahlberg stars as the real-life Vince Papale a blue-collar Philadelphian down on his luck after his wife leaves him. His only solace is playing football with his cronies and rooting for his beloved Philadelphia Eagles who are in a real rut. Newly hired head coach the legendary Dick Vermeil (Greg Kinnear) decides to infuse some new blood into the team by holding open tryouts. All of Vince’s friends think he’d be perfect and urge him to go for it. He does makes it and is soon playing with some of his idols much to their chagrin. I mean who is this punk anyway? Sure he’s got some excellent instincts but can he really be a NFL player with no experience? Yes in fact he can proving to all those regular Joes out there you can live the dream. Yeah yeah. Unfortunately none of the actors really add anything either. Wahlberg is definitely a natural to play this kind of role having already done so in Rock Star. At least in Invincible he gets to show off some of his athletic abilities rather than just his bare chest in black leather pants. But the performance is run of the mill. As is Kinnear who as Vermeil takes on the headaches of turning a losing team into winners all while his supportive wife sweetly reassures him he’s doing the very best he can. Seen it. To their credit some of the supporting actors—including Kirk Acevedo (The New World) Michael Kelly (Dawn of the Dead) and Michael Rispoli (Mr. 3000)—paint a convincing picture of genuine camaraderie between local Philadelphians. And Elizabeth Banks (The 40 Year-Old Virgin) rounds things out as Vince’s cute love interest (and eventual real-life wife) who knows a few things about football by golly. You’d think Invincible would be a no-brainer feel-good kind of sports flick. It’s based on a real-life person has that whole underdog thing going for it and it’s football. What could go wrong with that? Nothing really besides the fact it’s been done about a hundred times over—and has now been left in the hands of newbies. First-time director Ericson Core a former cinematographer and writer Brad Gann are clearly green doing things by the play book line for line. It’s scary helming a feature film for a big studio like Disney who had such sport hits like The Rookie and Remember the Titans. Perhaps Core wanted to go more out on a limb but was reigned in. Who knows? The football scenes are definitely the highlight and Core handles the action well. I mean you do want Papale to prove himself the natural athlete he truly is and make all his homies proud. But the rest of it is just blah.
Dizzy (DJ Qualls) is already what you could call the epitome of pathos at his school but his reputation as a loser and social misfit is cemented when the aging school librarian breaks his penis--in front of the entire school. He thinks there is no hope until a prank lands him in jail overnight and his cellmate Luther (Eddie Griffin) teaches him a few tricks that will guarantee him popularity. The only problem is he needs to start with a clean slate which basically means switching schools. Dizzy eventually gets his wish and enrolls at East Highland High School. He changes his name to Gil Harris and religiously follows Luther's rules which include making a grand entrance (which he does Dr. Hannibal Lecter style) and beating up the biggest guy in school. Although the entire geeks-vs.-popular crowd theme has been done countless times before scribe David Kendall manages to supply a few good lines making it a bit more entertaining to watch.
DJ Qualls who was drop dead funny in Road Trip carries on the tradition in The New Guy mostly due to his reactions and gut-busting facial expressions. For example when he tosses away a lighter he's playing with to look cool and inadvertently sets a statue on fire he displays this expression of pure shock as he walks away calm and collected. (And in case you are wondering he's not a deejay: his initials are short for Daniel Joseph.) As the inmate Luther Eddie Griffin (John Q) is also pretty funny thanks in part to some great lines such as: "High school is a lot like prison. The sex you want you ain't gettin'. The sex you gettin' you don't want." He also does the buggy-eye thing eerily well. Lyle Lovett has a small role as Dizzy's father and is mostly the butt of the joke in all his scenes including when he gets hit in the eye with a flaming marshmallow. Keep your eyes peeled for a multitude of cameo appearances including former Black Flag frontman-turned-poet/actor Henry Rollins former "Ice Ice Baby" rapper Vanilla Ice and the commercially successful skateboarder Tony Hawk.
Ed Decter makes his directorial debut here but he's no stranger to comedy: he helped pen the 1998 comedy There's Something About Mary and last year's Head Over Heels. The New Guy is nothing to boast of visually. It's ugly and sloppily pieced together. There's a great soundtrack to the film that includes The Offspring Mystikal Cypress Hill and Outkast but the tracks are loud and overpowering (I am still convinced that Qualls' character mumbles something about chili before he kisses the film's heroine towards the end of the film.) Qualls' performance however turns the film into a more enjoyable experience than it otherwise would have been with his shooting-daggers stares--complete with whipping sound effects--and his "radical" transformation which consists basically of a haircut. Considering the film is already a cliché some of the laughs might have gone over better had Decter avoided the crass toilet bowl humor and midget jokes that have become so antiquated.