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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
August 3, 2003

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


Horse Movies, Kate, Castles, and Cyanide

I'm not much for horse stories. I couldn't care less about Flicka or National Velvet or even Mr. Ed.

Not that I have anything against horses. An old girlfriend once got me hooked on horseback riding. I love how it feels to be astride a magnificent beast cantering or galloping along. And once I learned to stand up in the stirrups (or wear steel underwear), I even enjoyed trotting.

I don't hold it against horses in general that one of them tried to scrape me off his back on every low-hanging branch. Even when I was in marching band, playing sousaphone so I couldn't see the ground, and had to follow a bunch of cowboys on horses, I didn't hold it against the horses, what happened to my shoes.

I just don't get sentimental about horses. And since most horse movies depend on my having some kind of deep upwelling of emotion at the mere thought of a horse, they never work for me.

So I hadn't the slightest interest in seeing Seabiscuit. I was hearing danger signs about it, too -- you know, Oscar talk. By and large, when a summer movie is talked about as an Oscar contender, it's practically a guarantee that what it won't be is entertaining.

But on Friday night, my wife and I had a babysitter and no place to go. And since my wife's book group will be reading the book Seabiscuit this year, we figured we might as well give it a shot.

Even as I passed the ticket taker at the Grande and she told me to head for theater 14, I found myself asking, "Am I going to wish I were watching Bad Boys II again?"

She assured me that Seabiscuit was pretty good, and in I went. I told myself that if nothing else, it was an excuse to eat a whole package of Milky Way Popables.

Well, you know where this story is going. Because Seabiscuit isn't one of those horse movies. Instead, it's exactly the kind of movie I most wish for and rarely get: A truthful story of good people doing good even when it's hard.

Toby Maguire gets top billing, but it's truly an ensemble movie. Maguire's part is a terrific one (though he does have the curse of having a younger version of his character played by a talented, likeable actor, Michael Angarano, whom I hope we see more of). What surprised me, though, was that Maguire's role was so brief.

But then all the roles are brief. The writer-director (Gary Ross) skips and jumps through time and space in a way that should have been jerky. But between the narrator, the documentary-like glimpses of the Great Depression, the gorgeous Randy Newman score, and the gentle touch of the cinematographer (John Schwarzman), everything flowed together. We were never shown anything for a moment longer than we needed to see it. It was like being caught up in a current and swept along.

Besides Maguire, there are great performances by Chris Cooper (as a wise, loving horse trainer), William H. Macy (as a hilarious radio reporter), and many others.

But the performance that took my breath away was that of Jeff Bridges.

Carrying substantial extra poundage, Bridges seemed at first to be caught up in the stereotype of the self-made man. Even then, there was a depth to his fervor -- you knew he could sell cars because he really loved them.

It's when the character's world comes crashing down around him that you see why Bridges is one of the four or five best -- and certainly the most underappreciated -- actors of our time. There is a moment when he's playing with a child's toy and is suddenly overtaken by grief that I knew I had never seen anyone capture such a moment with greater truth.

And then there's the horse. Here's what they did: They made me care.

Halfway through the film I knew it was going to be on my best-of-the-year list (which up to then consisted of Pirates of the Caribbean, Holes, and Finding Nemo). At the end, it was a dead heat between Pirates and Seabiscuit. How do you choose between the perfect adventure movie and a human story that defies categorization? Seabiscuit is an ensemble drama, yes -- but that might make you think of The Hours, and ... well, there's no comparison. There's plenty of art in Seabiscuit, but not a moment of pretension or showing off.

One very good sign: Toby Maguire is one smart actor. Not only is he talented, but he knows how to choose a script based on the story, and not on the page count. Most actors check to see how big their part is. By that standard, Seabiscuit would have been a terrible choice for the hot new star of Spider-Man. But if you're choosing a film to show him at his best -- including displaying his modesty and earnestness as an actor first, a star second -- there was simply no better choice than Seabiscuit.

Maguire's "executive producer" credit could mean that he was involved in this project early on, working to get it all put together. Or it could just mean he has a good agent who fought for the credit. I'd like to think it's the former. In which case Maguire isn't going to be just a good actor. He's going to be an important filmmaker.

*

A. Scott Berg's memoir Kate Remembered is more than just a nostalgic treat for Katharine Hepburn fans -- a book that was held in readiness to be released the moment she died (which was not at all unexpected).

Berg became Hepburn's friend after her career was already beginning to fade into TV movies, during a time when she was beginning to feel the loneliness of age. With the love of her life, Spencer Tracy, gone, and the isolation of stardom -- which she had worked so hard to achieve -- working all too well, she needed friends, and adopted Berg, who was up to the challenge.

But they began the friendship with an interview, and that part of the relationship never changed. Hepburn intended Berg to be her chronicler, at least to a degree, and this important biographer (of Maxwell Perkins, Samuel Goldwyn, and Charles Lindbergh) heard memories from her that she rarely told to anyone.

Kate Remembered is a delicate mixture of biography, Berg's memories of Hepburn, and Hepburn's memories as told to Berg.

Besides the delightful moment when Hepburn said of Meryl Streep that she was her least favorite modern actress on screen ("'Click, click, click,' she said, referring to the wheels turning inside her head"), which I treasured because, of course, Hepburn agrees completely with my oft-repeated opinion, there's really very little dish. (An absurd criticism of Glenn Close for having big fat ugly feet just shows you she wasn't always right.)

Instead, what emerges is a picture of a woman who, despite stardom -- and the all-consuming ambition and self-obsession that achieved it -- remembered how to be a human being. Her live-in caretaker, Phyllis, aged faster than Hepburn, but Hepburn kept her at her side and took care of her, completely reversing the master-servant relationship by the end. Hepburn was never above wiping up messes and doing handiman tasks on her own, and she kept up her daily any-weather swim in the Long Island Sound long after a sane person would have given it up.

What we saw on screen -- the self-confident woman who breezed past other people's objections but still cared deeply about the people she loved -- was real. And while she often seemed to have famous-person's disease -- the belief that whatever she believes is right and whatever she wants is important -- time after time she proved that in fact she could learn and change and put her own desires in second place when someone else had the greater need.

If Berg sometimes can't resist the chance to show us a few bons mots of his own, that's certainly allowed in a memoir; and he keeps his focus remarkably well, letting few details of his own life into the story, and then never obtrusively. This is a book about a woman we all loved, and if he knew her better than we did, it was always with the full intention of sharing her with us.

*

Marcia Muller was one of the first writers to popularize a female private-eye character in the hard-boiled detective genre (as opposed to the Miss Marple-style "cozy"). But she was feeling her way into the character of Sharon McCone -- she had few precedents to follow. And as a result, the McCone series can be uneven.

So it's a pleasure to see her step outside it to produce a standalone mystery, Cyanide Wells. The premise is intriguing. Matthew Lindstrom knows that he and his wife, Gwen, have problems. In fact, they're in the midst of a divorce when she disappears in incriminating circumstances -- her bloodstained car found abandoned on a highway where Matthew had recently driven. Though many people stand by Matthew at first, gradually even his most stalwart supporters come to believe he killed her.

But he didn't. And years later, after he has established a new life in a new place, he gets an anonymous message: Gwen is alive and well (in the title-named town) -- and when she "disappeared," she deliberately made it look as though Matthew had murdered her.

Talk about an ugly divorce.

What's interesting is that instead of its being a mere revenge novel, or even a novel about clearing his name, this story becomes a tale of love and madness and discovery. Muller is not the best mystery writer working today -- but she doesn't have to be. All she has to do is write good books, which she often does, and this is one of her best.

*

I've long been irritated by the word available in car commercials.

"With available high-performance whiplash-inducing engine."

"With available eardrum-breaking stereo system."

Of course, we all understand exactly what the word available means -- it means that the car you buy won't have that stuff.

Why don't they use the word optional, which communicates far more clearly?

Because everybody already knew that the word optional meant "you can have this if you pay thousands of dollars extra and wait three months for delivery."

So they replaced it with a word that was never used as a pre-positioned adjective, so our brains wouldn't process the meaning. We'd glide right over the word -- but then, in the showroom, when we were about to buy the car and said, "What about that great engine? I thought the ad said ..." the salesman can say, "Right, that's available, but you have to wait longer and pay more. What you can have right now, for a price you can actually sort of afford to pay, is this car with an ordinary engine. But people will think you have the cool car because they've seen the same ads as you, and since American life is all about appearances, what do you have to lose?"

Well, the salesman doesn't actually say all that. But that's what he means, and that's why you buy the car, and that's why the word available is being tortured into serving a new linguistic use in those car commercials.

*

When my nine-year-old went crazy over Hayao Miyazaki, who won the Oscar this year for Spirited Away, and whose Kiki's Delivery Service had long been a family favorite, we naturally looked for all his other work available in English.

That's why we spent a recent evening watching Castle in the Sky, one of Miyazaki's earliest works. (We found the DVD through Amazon.com.)

This wonderfully inventive sci-fi story is like a Roger Dean record album cover come to life. It begins when a kidnapped girl falls from an airship that is being attacked by pirates and floats to earth at a factory where she is taken in by a young apprentice. Together they evade two groups of pursuers, take up with pirates, find the girl's true identity, save the world from a terrible menace, and find the meaning of life.

That's a lot for one movie, but then, that's way more than most animated films ever try for. Remember that this movie was made the year after The Black Cauldron, where the filmmakers took a powerful young-adult novel and turned it into an empty collection of Disney cliches. Miyazaki was already reaching higher.


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