Thursday, October 7, 2010

Disney's SECRETARIAT wins by three hairs, thanks to Malkovich, Martindale and Lane

If you are going to make movies in paint-by-numbers fashion (and how long has it been since Disney did much else?), then you'd best use thick, rich paint with which to cover those numbers from view. Movie-wise, that paint can be provided in a variety of ways: with witty, sparkling, sophisticated dialog (I'm having trouble remembering the last time Disney did that); using inventive, original visuals (Julie Taymor is awfully good at this); and maybe, easiest of all, hiring top-notch performers able to create memorable characters out of ordinary descriptive material -- if not practically from thin air.

In casting Diane Lane (above, left) in the leading role in SECRETARIAT, which the studio clearly hopes will be the new decade's Seabiscuit, and then choosing John Malkovich to play the horse trainer, along with crack character actress Margo Martindale (shown above, right) for the role of the smart, righteous, right-hand gal (Thelma Ritter might have essayed it a few decades back), the studio has played its hand quite smartly. These three seasoned pros rarely, if ever, misstep -- and they certainly don't do so here. In fact, they bring welcome intelligence, warmth, humor -- even occasional quirkiness -- to otherwise standard fodder.

Don't get me wrong, there's nothing at all bad about Secretariat. So far as screenplay (Mike Rich, who wrote The Rookie) and direction (Randall Wallace, shown at left, of We Were Soldiers) are concer-ned, this is a serviceable, journey-man effort that will get a main-stream audience where it wants to go in exactly two hours and without undue jostling. Each time a problem comes up -- and there are plenty of these,  involving family, money, horse training, the role of women, even death -- it is handled properly and resolved neatly. Sometimes even, as in the scene of the firing of a sleazy trainer, this is executed with a good deal of bridled passion.

Yet over time, this "neatness" tends to drain suspense (forget about the off-hand, problematic quirks of every-day reality) from the proceedings. This sense of life run through the blender and pre-digested is what often distinguishes (if that's quite the right word) Disney's and other mainstream movies. Even the outcome of the horse races (there are three all-important ones) is rather predictable, though I admit to enjoying the spectacle of thumping hooves, crowds cheering and bright, colorful visuals flashing by.

Ms Lane brings great resolve and strength to her role of daughter and heiress to a down-on-its-luck horse ranch, while Makovich (shown at right) has great fun with his character, a man hired, haltingly, to train the horse that will eventually become known as the film's title. And how lovely to see Ms Martindale in a major role again, instead of in one of her usual small but choice character parts. She has not had a role this important since she played that postal worker on a Paris vacation in Alexander Payne's lovely, final and perfect episode from Paris, Je t'aime, for which she ought to have won (or at least been nominated for) Best Supporting Actress. (If you've never seen that film, do.) Well, maybe she'll get an "Oscar" nod this time around -- if only for the choice moment in which she gifts Ms Lane's character with words to live by during especially trying times. (The movie might have used more of this kind of healthy, humorous cynicism.)

In the very good supporting cast, you'll find lots of familiar faces -- from James Cromwell (as a competitive buyer for the best horses), Dylan Walsh (as Lane's long-suffering and mildly sexist hubby), Dylan Baker (as her a bit too know-it-all brother), Scott Glenn (as her ailing father), Nelsan Ellis (above, left, with Ms Lane as the kindly stable boy who tends the horse) and -- providing a welcome dose of high-energy nastiness -- Nestor Serrano (as the smart-ass owner of a competing stallion). Technical credits, by the way, are first-rate. This is often an extremely beautiful movie to view.

Secretariat, from Walt Disney Pictures, opens this Friday, October 8, just about everywhere.  Click here -- then enter your zip code next to Tickets and Showtimes -- to find a theater near you.

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