Seen at the Movies:

Seabiscuit

is a big, broad-strokes film version of a book that was notable for its loving detail as well as its scope. Where author Laura Hillenbrand artfully wove in her portrait of a Depression-era America and its captivation by the little horse that could, the film’s writer-director Gary Ross comes down hard on the theme, employing a David McCullough narration and WPA-style photos of bread lines and migrant workers. There’s also little subtlety in Ross’ treatment of the principal characters—Seabiscuit’s wealthy owner Charles Howard (Jeff Bridges), his crusty, idiosyncratic trainer Tom Smith (Chris Cooper), and his jockey Red Pollard (Tobey Maguire). All identify with Seabiscuit’s damaged spirit, and all participate in his rehabilitation and triumph—his second chance. This is all there in Hillenbrand, but Ross, predictably, shoves it in our faces.


Seabiscuit races to victory. Photo: Francois Duhamel/Universal Pictures

Yet the story Seabiscuit tells is so good, so made for the movies, that it comes across despite this over-reliance on Hollywood convention (not to mention Randy Newman’s surging music). Though Smith’s character disappointingly fails to come through, the film’s casting and acting are generally impeccable. Bridges dominates the movie with a wonderful portrait of exuberance and generosity that’s essential to the character and the theme, and Maguire, though not quite the gaunt, old-before-his-time figure we see in photos of Red Pollard, acquits himself admirably. The movie is lovingly crafted, from the period race tracks, cars, trains, and rich-toned locations overseen by production designer Jeannine Oppewall, to the beautiful 1930s costumes, with threading that’s as important a texture in the film as Seabiscuit’s coat, by Judianna Makovsky. DP John Schwartzman brings the same feeling for Americana to Seabiscuit that he did to last year’s The Rookie, and comes up with more ways to shoot the racing scenes (including close-ups on riders whose mounts are actually Equicizer machines) than anyone has previously. Even so, Ross robs some of their impact (especially in Seabiscuit’s match race with the mighty War Admiral) by cutting to shots of people listening on the radio, etc.—he gets too caught up in context when what we care about is the thrilling meat of the matter. But in a season of sequels to movies nobody I know wanted to see in the first place, Seabiscuit at least knows what the word context means.


Buffalo Soldiers. Photo: David Appleby/Miramax Films

Buffalo Soldiers, which was made before 9/11, is a startlingly scabrous treatment of the military to emerge from the flag-waving platitudes of 2003. ("Steal All That You Can Steal" is its tag line.) The setting for Gregor Jordan’s satiric take on American enterprise is an army base in West Germany, just prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall. Joaquin Phoenix, in a devilishly sympathetic performance, plays a military clerk who uses his position to turn a profit on the black market, dealing in guns and oversupplied items like Mop ‘n’ Glo. Phoenix is never really redeemed, but we love him anyway; after all, he’s surrounded by soldiers and officers who are either just as corrupt as he is, or distracted and buffoonish (Ed Harris, as an ineffectual colonel), or a martinet out of Dr. Strangelove (Scott Glenn, as a man’s man sergeant). Buffalo Soldiers doesn’t achieve the impudent heights of Three Kings--which, with each passing year, looks more like one of the great key films of the 90s—but it’s consistently entertaining, and bracing in a way that we need right now. DP Oliver Stapleton provides an appropriately dark, almost harsh look to the film, and the setting is well appointed by production designer Steven Jones-Evans.--John Calhoun

Seen Off Broadway: Edge, at the DR2, is another entry in my least favorite genre—the solo about a dead celebrity. This time, however, all possible objections are overruled by the sheer neurotic intensity of Angelica Torn as Sylvia Plath. Paul Alexander’s script (he also directed) is set on the last day of Plath’s life, as she makes the case for her impending death. It’s a nerve-wracking portrait of the artist as a young suicide; scarred by feelings of rage and abandonment, Plath recounts the events that have led her to this terrible decision: her father’s bizarre, preventable death; her suicide attempts, her psychotherapy; her brutal relationship with Ted Hughes. (In a neat bit of dramatic irony, Alexander has gifted Plath with the ability to see in the future, allowing her to comment on how her death will reverberate in the years to come.) All of this is brought to horrific life by Torn. Not only does she bear a remarkable resemblance to Plath; her characterization is built out of an array of mannerisms (lightning-fast changes of tempo and volume, inappropriate giggles, disturbing pauses, sudden outbursts of rage) that are deployed with ruthless discipline to convey the poet’s clinical depression. For the first ten minutes, it’s all too much, then, suddenly, you find yourself hanging onto every word. Alexander’s script suffers from structural problems—too much of the second act is spent marking time until the inevitable happens and I counted at least three moments that could have served as an ending. Nevertheless, this is a gripping evening. Design is not a major factor here: There is no credited set design and Gabrielle Hamil’s single costume, Joe Levasseur’s lighting, and Dennis Michael Keefe’s sound are discreetly executed. What counts is Torn, who skillfully keeps the audience on edge from beginning to end.--David Barbour