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.
In the ever-changing west of 1882 city marshal Virgil Cole (Ed Harris) and his deputy Everett Hitch (Viggo Mortensen) are two tough dudes out to clean up lawless towns a mission that takes them to Appaloosa. This small mining town has been taken over by a ruthless power-hungry land baron Randall Bragg (Jeremy Irons) who along with his band of thugs has run the place into the ground. Although their initial efforts are met with some success Cole and Hitch run into personal and professional conflict when a pretty mystery lady Allison French (Renee Zellweger) blows into town. She complicates the picture walking on the gray line between good and evil and generally making the Marshal and his No. 2 overcome unwelcome obstacles in their fight to bring Bragg and his boys to justice. The film based on the novel by Robert B. Parker smartly details the unique problems inherent in bringing law and order to an unruly West. Guiding his co-star Marcia Gay Harden in 2000’s Pollock to an Oscar Harris the director once again shows he has a natural affinity for steering his fellow actors at least most of them into superlative performances which includes himself. In fact the actor doesn’t seem to be the least intimidated in playing the leading role in a movie he also co-wrote directed and produced. Harris comes off as the embodiment of a dedicated lawman who quietly goes about his business determined to clean up the wild wild West his way with the help of a loyal deputy. Mortensen is wonderfully authentic as Harris’ partner in stopping sagebrush crime looking like he’s lived in those boots his entire life. Mortensen’s demeanor and style in the role of Everett Hitch evokes a true feel for a place and time long gone. Together these two do not seem fake or awkwardly contemporary but instead come off as the real deal. Irons is slippery and fun to watch as the devious outlaw Bragg proving as he did in his Oscar-winning Reversal of Fortune there’s nobody as good at playing subtle shades of bad. Zellweger on the other hand lets her acting show at every turn. To be fair her character rarely adds up but she does nothing to give any dimension beyond the obvious to a woman courting both sides of the law. In only his second outing behind the camera in a decade Harris shows Pollock was no fluke. Clearly enamored with the era he nobly honors the great American western tradition crafting a film that fits in with some of the best examples Hollywood has turned out. Some may complain that Appaloosa is long on talk and short on action but the time director Harris devotes to letting his characters develop is far more satisfying than a lot of pointless violence that many Westerns wallow in. Like Howard Hawks’ 1959 classic Rio Bravo this is an honest tale of the camaraderie between a pair of lawmen simply trying to do a job. This is a director whose emphasis is focused on his cast and he’s picked them very carefully right down to the smallest roles surrounding himself with a lot of terrific character actors. Just as impressive are the top notch production values including cinematographer Dean Semler’s stunning New Mexico landscapes.
More than just the frighteningly awful things that go bump in this particularly nasty fog The Mist is really a morality play about how fear and paranoia feed on a panicked scared group of people looking for some semblance of sanity about what’s happening to them. Set in a small Maine town (where else in a King story?) local denizen David Drayton (Thomas Jane) his young son Billy (Nathan Gamble) and several townsfolk are trapped in a local grocery store by a strange wraithlike mist. Even though they are warned early on that there are “things in the mist” killing people not everyone in the store believes it. But when it becomes evident all is indeed not well terror begins to build fueled by a religious zealot (Marcia Gay Harden) who starts preaching fire and brimstone--and eventually human sacrifice--in order to appease a vengeful God. Rational thought is quickly thrown out the window to the point that David begins to wonder what terrifies him more: the monsters in the mist or the ones inside the store--the human kind the people who until now had been his friends and neighbors. He decides he’ll take his chances in the mist. Darabont has collected a fine ensemble cast starting with Jane (The Punisher) as the film’s capable Everyman just trying to make sense of the horror unfolding while keeping his son as safe as possible. As little Billy Gamble (Babel) is quite affective especially when he turns on the waterworks and calls for his mother who must be food for the gods at this point. Also scarily good is Oscar-winner Harden as the religious nut who inevitably whips her burgeoning flock into a murderous tizzy. Other standouts include: Andre Braugher as one of the non-believers who has a running beef with his neighbor David; Toby Jones (Infamous) as a rational grocery store clerk with a wicked aim; Laurie Holden (Silent Hill) as a kindly newcomer and mother figure for Billy; Sam Witwer (TV’s CSI) as a doomed U.S. soldier who gives the reason why the mist has come upon them; and veteran character actors Frances Sternhagen and Jeffrey DeMunn (who is also a Darabont staple) as David’s allies in escaping the store. All are very capable at their jobs. Maybe Darabont and King are twins separated at birth. No other writer--or director for that matter--has been quite as successful as Darabont in capturing the true essence of a King novel evident in both of Darabont’s Oscar-nominated King adaptations The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile. This is the first time Darabont has tackled one of King’s horror stories but the writer/director innately understands what makes King’s The Mist a terrifying experience. Much like John Carpenter did with The Thing Darabont’s well-written script focuses on the human factor--the fear-feeding frenzy these ordinary people get themselves caught up in showing how human nature can ultimately be more horrifying than any monster. But of course Darabont has to reveal The Mist’s otherworldly creatures or the movie wouldn’t be complete. He visualizes King’s vivid descriptions of the monster attacks as best he can but unfortunately The Mist’s special effects come off a tad sub-par especially in this day and age. Still The Mist should keep you riveted until the final moments--a rather depressing new ending Darabont wrote himself with King’s thumbs-up approval.
As a legendary Coast Guard Rescue Swimmer Ben Randall (Kevin Costner) was all heart and no regret. But it all comes undone in the span of one night when he goes out to the menacing seas with his crew to make a rescue and he is the sole survivor. Following that fateful night he’s ordered to teach at “A” School--a demotion for a man of his stature and seniority--an elite training program that helps turn the best recruits into the best Rescue Swimmers. Randall teaches the cocky students the only way he knows how and his tough tough love is initially met with skepticism by his fellow trainers who think of him as a has-been. But one student in particular Jake Fischer (Ashton Kutcher) catches his eye and draws his ire. Fischer is cocky hotheaded and highly skilled--just the right pedigree to make a great Rescue Swimmer and a lot like Randall was at his age. Randall rides him extra-hard while Fischer only hopes to one day be in the same boat as his mentor. Be careful what you wish for Jake! Costner's always been an acquired taste--sometimes a downright noxious one on first bite--but there's no denying he slides right in here. Roles that feature him as the aging provider of wisdom are now his true calling and the sooner he accepts it the better. And even still Costner gets to flex his action muscle a bit. As for Kutcher the only thing he shares in common with Costner is the last two letters of his last name--as actors these guys are each other’s antitheses! And in a weird way they strike a nice chemistry because of it one that is borderline exciting to watch. As a standalone actor in The Guardian Kutcher is a bit misplaced and seems to know it. He nails the physicality of the role but while the character's attitude and brashness befit Kutcher the peak dramatic scenes with Costner leave something to be desired. A pleasantly surprising turn from relative unknown Melissa Sagemiller (The Clearing) as Kutcher's girl toy and reliable supporting performances from Sela Ward and Neal McDonough round out the cast. Director Andrew Davis' proximity to his career peak The Fugitive cannot be measured in time: He's a lot further away from the mega-hit than a mere 13 years. But in Hollywood if you have a Fugitive under your belt you'll never run out of chances to replicate it. That's the current juncture for Davis--one last shot at Fugitive glory...till his next last shot. It's hard to say what The Guardian will do at the box office but Davis' stodgy direction doesn't necessarily help its chances. The movie can be boiled down to awful pacing: the first and last 15 minutes are high-octane action and everything in between is low-octane Top Gun (the non-action scenes!). That blame belongs to Davis and writer Ron L. Brinkerhoff. But only Davis can shoulder the other flaws such as a single scene of dubious camerawork--filmed to look like handheld-montage style completely deviating from the movie's context--and the special effects during the somewhat cheesy action sequences which may remind you of a theme-park tour during which you learn how they filmed a boat scene...in the '80s!
The time is the 18th century and with authentic settings steeped in a dense mass of fog Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl succeeds as a predatory period piece. In the Caribbean Sea Pirate Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) has just led a mutiny against the Black Pearl's captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) assailed the colonial town of Port Royal and kidnapped the Governor's daughter Elizabeth (Keira Knightley). Barbossa's motives are simple: a cursed treasure has doomed him and his crew to live eternally as the "undead " human by day living skeletons by night and the only way to lift this curse is to return the last missing piece of the plundered treasure and spill the blood of its possessor. It so happens that Elizabeth is wearing that very piece around her neck--a gold skull-embossed doubloon she took from her childhood friend Will (Orlando Bloom) whom her father rescued from a sinking pirate ship as a boy. Will promptly sets out to save her from Barbossa and finds an unlikely ally in Jack the bumbling and untrustworthy sea captain who just wants his ship back. But since these ghastly Pirates of the Caribbean can't be killed again sending them to Davy Jones's locker proves to be the challenge of a lifetime for Will and Jack.
It is a delight to see Depp in a new film (his last big feature was the 2001 historical horror thriller From Hell) and Pirates of the Caribbean's Captain Jack Sparrow is tailor-made for the former 21 Jump Street teen idol. The most intriguing thing about Depp's Jack Sparrow is the duality the actor gives the character: On the one hand Jack is this lusty fearless man with a deeply defiant streak. On the other his delicate features long dreadlocked hair kohl-rimmed eyes and almost girly mannerisms give Jack a subtly effeminate air that belies his macho antics. Depp who has said he equates 18th century pirates with modern-day rock stars used Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards as inspiration for the role and it comes across clearly in his slurred speech swaying swagger and slack waving arms. He obviously had fun and in the process created a rich multifaceted character; in fact Depp's performance here is so riveting that when Jack does not appear in a scene the film almost drags. The movie's co-stars also do a wonderful job with the material but their performances pale in comparison to Depp's. As the old wily Barbossa Rush brings an air of authenticity to the role of a weathered sea captain. The young Knightley who made her big-screen debut in the sleeper hit Bend It Like Beckham is enchanting as Elizabeth--a sharp-witted damsel in distress who knows how to hold her own--and the 18-year-old actress also holds her own alongside such an experienced cast. Bloom however is a bit bland as Elizabeth's devoted friend Will.
After his successful horror thriller The Ring director Gore Verbinski gives this supernatural adventure pic less terror and more humor. Inspired by the Disney theme park attraction of the same name and produced by explosion maestro Jerry Bruckheimer Verbinski's Pirates of the Caribbean unfolds a terrific tale which when combined with superb performances from Depp and the cast and genuine-looking sets makes for a great moviegoing experience. Verbinski pays close attention to detail here especially when it comes down to the costumes hair and makeup and does so by avoiding the usual buccaneer clichés such as eye patches hook hands and peg legs; with their deplorable hygiene and silver-capped teeth the pirates look undeniably real. Take for instance a scene in which Jack is speaking up close to a commodore: The navy officer slightly shrinks back after getting a whiff of his breath and we can understand why. The most challenging scenes for the director however had to be the fight sequences involving the pirates who turn into skeletons when exposed to moonlight. The characters switch back and forth from human forms to carcasses depending on their exposure to night light and Verbinski achieves this visual effect convincingly. But although beautifully executed the elaborate ship-to-ship battle waged between the Black Pearl and the Interceptor is too time-consuming and with the movie coming in at 133 minutes that could have been whittled down.