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movie review: "dreamer"

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de-VICE #1

dreamer.jpg

'Dreamer' hurdles the schmaltz

By Andrez Bergen / Special to the Daily Yomiuri

Director: John Gatins

Cast: Kurt Russell, Dakota Fanning, Elisabeth Shue, Kris Kristofferson, Luis Guzman, David Morse

I never quite understood America's fixation on equine cinematography. Recent outings like Hidalgo and Seabiscuit are the tip of the steed's whiskers - Hollywood history is littered with a whole host of horse movies like National Velvet, The Black Stallion, Horse Feathers, My Friend Flicka, Mr. Ed, Francis the Talking Mule, and The Lone Ranger (remember his four-legged sidekick Silver?).

Okay, okay - Francis the mule was only half a horse. But the point is that Americans do love their stallions; maybe it has to do with that idealized cowboy tradition the Wild West (and its lesser brethren, the Midwest) is famous for.

So the new Kurt Russell and Dakota Fanning saddle-up, Dreamer, has a lot to live up to, and a whole heap of horse movie cliches to live down. And there are some worrying facts behind this movie.

Kurt Russell hasn't acted in anything particularly riveting since the Disney comedies he made as a kid in the '60s - and even they've been put out to pasture. Remember The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes, anyone?

Meanwhile, 12-year-old Dakota Fanning (War of the Worlds) is better known these days as she of the terrific screams, but the not-so-pitch-perfect movie choices.

And writer-director John Gatins?

He's responsible for last year's lackluster Samuel L. Jackson vehicle Coach Carter, and has donkeyed around as a bit-part actor in a string of disastrous sequels to equally inane horror movies, like Leprechaun 3 and Pumpkinhead II.

Last, but certainly not least, Dreamer boldly declares that it's "inspired by a true story." Ye gods.

In fact, this tale relies on a bevy of sporting-saga formulas, familiar to anyone who's watched National Velvet or The Natural.

A racehorse called Sonador is rescued from lethal injection when she breaks her leg in the opening minutes; thereafter it's an against-all-odds, come-from-behind romp that's full of high-drama, redemption, disaster, a reconciled family, and pretty shots of ponies hoofing it.

There's even a Darth Vader-like villain represented by cold corporate type David Morse, and a duo of bickering Arabs - though in this case Hollywood has cast them as rich princes rather than crazed terrorists.

The dialogue? At times appalling.

People here say things like, "It's in her blood," or, "They're men - they've got names." Who writes this manure, anyway? Couldn't they at least put new spin on the tired old cliches characters in mainstream American movies always seem to utter?

And yet - and yet.

Somehow, in spite of that manure, and the odds against both cast and crew, they connive here to pull it off. In spades.

Russell smolders as Ben Crane (the jaded trainer who saves the racehorse from being put down) and Fanning is perfect as his idealistic, introverted daughter, Cale - who adopts the filly and in the process resurrects the family's faith and fortunes.

Excellent support comes from Elisabeth Shue, as Ben's wife Lily, and Kris Kristofferson, as Ben's pop - his best performance since he headed up Alan Rudolph's Trouble In Mind an eternity ago.

From the start it's a cinch that the fractured family will nurse Sonador (and themselves) back to health, overcoming the mandatory obstacles and the evil fiends responsible for putting both mare and family in dire straits in the first place. It's also obvious how it will end.

Yet Dreamer, this feel-good family drama that'll never break any box office records (and never intends to) exudes a simple, old-fashioned charm that's completely disarming, even to this cynical ol' writer who - shock, horror - was right there with them all at the finishing line.

And I never thought I'd say that about a horse movie. Go figure.

The movie opens May 27.

(May. 27, 2006)

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