The first actual film of 2003 opens Friday, and it's also the first potential Oscar nominee.
Gary Ross' Seabiscuit — all about a famous horse, its owner, jockey and trainer — is not exactly perfect. But after the junk we've had to deal with so far this year, Seabiscuit is almost like The Godfather.
The Universal/DreamWorks feature is a conventionally told, old-fashioned fable much like Rocky or Chariots of Fire. Very often it's a corny story, and the acting, though dependable and solid, can also be a bit dull. But there is a potential breakout performance by William H. Macy as a sports announcer and a lot of good work by a rapidly maturing Tobey Maguire.
The movie is based on the book by Laura Hillenbrand about the first celebrity racehorse. Set in the 1930s, replete with excellent attention to detail, Seabiscuit starts out a little like Francis Ford Coppola's Tucker: The Man and His Dream.
This is because Jeff Bridges, who played Tucker so memorably, is cast here as Charles Howard, the auto tycoon and visionary who comes to own Seabiscuit. David McCullough narrates the movie, which cuts back and forth from the horse's story to a pseudo-newsreel about events of the '30s.
Gary Ross, who directed the stylish and much loved Pleasantville (also starring Maguire) knows how to do a period piece well. All the production elements of Seabiscuit ring with authenticity. And even if they aren't perfect, this is not a situation that's going to turn into A Beautiful Horse.
I don't know the minutiae of Seabiscuit's life and I don't want to know it. If it turns out later that he was gay or anti-Semitic or had other girlfriends (he has a steady one in the movie, believe it or not), no one wants to hear it.
In the end, what makes Seabiscuit work so well as a movie is that it never talks down to the audience. It's the old kind of studio film, with soaring music (Randy Newman must have taken cues from John Williams) and lingering close-ups.
The dialogue is mostly smart without sounding antiquated, and the racing scenes are deftly shot. A race in the movie's third act inspired lots of spontaneous applause at our screening.
It's only too bad the movie doesn't end on a big note. But by then, you've gotten the picture.
I predict that Seabiscuit will be a monster hit beginning Friday, attracting audiences of all ages and bringing some of them back for second visits. It's the perfect antidote to this summer's brace of mediocrity.
I could quibble, and I'm sure some will, but what's the point? This one's a winner, and by more than a nose.
The Sopranos cast returns to work after a two-week vacation with some good and bad news.
The vacation for some was pretty lively. Lorraine Bracco and show producer Ilene Landress were spotted over the weekend in East Hampton at the hottest new restaurant in town, Jean Luc.
First, the good news: Famed directors Peter Bogdanovich and Mike Figgis are each directing episodes in the fifth season. Bogdanovich already has a part-time gig on the show as Bracco's shrink, so this will be a homecoming. Figgis is new, but his pedigree should make the show interesting.
And more good news: With a fifth season signed and sealed, a sixth now also looks fairly certain according to my sources.
But the bad news: Dominic Chianese, who plays Uncle Junior, has probably been written out. Reports yesterday that the cast shot a funeral scene for Uncle Junior appear to be true.
Uncle Junior suffers from cancer, so story-wise it's not a surprise. But the recently remarried Chianese, who toiled for 30 years in obscurity, became quite a star thanks to the Sopranos. If his character is gone, Chianese will have plenty of opportunities now to capitalize on his new fame. He deserves all the good things that have happened to him, too. He's a nice guy.
Sean 'P. Diddy' Combs hits No. 1 this week with his compilation album, the soundtrack to Bad Boys II.
Combs produced the album, which features lots of well-known artists drawn from his label, Bad Boy, and other labels as well.
First-week sales will be about 300,000 copies, which isn't bad at all considering the murky state of the record biz.
For Combs, the good sales should be a relief. His Bad Boy Records was dropped by Arista last year. And it seemed that he had lost most of his important artists as well. Of course the bottom line for the album will tell more than the charts.
Artists on the soundtrack include Jay-Z, 50 Cent, the late Notorious B.I.G., Justin Timberlake, Nelly, Mary J. Blige, Lenny Kravitz, Beyoncé, Pharrell Williams, Loon, Fat Joe, and Foxy Brown — all of whom will no doubt want a slice of P. Diddy's pie if the album continues to sell well.