Judge George Hatch tawt he taw a puddy...horse?
"A touching story of a young girl reaching for her dreams."—cover line
Hot on the hooves of Seabiscuit, studios were racing to place their own horse-oriented films in the running earlier this year, and they're still trotting them up to the starting gate. Columbia TriStar is gambling that that viewers are willing to pony up and place their bets on Sylvester, one of several recently released contenders. Is he an odds-on favorite, or just another tired old nag?
Facts of the Case
Sylvester adheres to the classic "girl and geezer" formula, and screenwriter Carol Sobieski obviously felt that "if it ain't broke, then don't fix it." Well, it's not only "broke," it's boring and predictable as well.
Charlene "Charlie" Railsberg (Melissa Gilbert, Little House on the Prairie) is a 16-year-old, tough-as-nails tomboy who works as a wrangler for John Foster (Richard Farnsworth, The Straight Story), the cantankerous owner of a horse and steer ranch. Since her parents were killed in an accident, Charlie must also raise and support her two pre-teen brothers and deal with a social worker who wants to break up the family "for the good of the boys." Hmm…it sounds like the geezer's last name is already taking on some familiar connotations. While fighting to maintain her equal status on an all-male staff, she's constantly fending off the advances of Matt (Michael Schoeffling), the local gas station attendant. Wake up, Matt! She's jailbait! Maybe he liked the way she rassled an overbearing ranch hand to the ground and punched his lights out, but when Matt accuses her of "stonewalling" him, I got the impression he might be a lot happier and find what he's looking for behind bars anyway.
Sorry, I forgot about the titular character, a horse named Sylvester…but so does the film. He virtually disappears for almost an hour, making only a few cameo appearances. Charlie spots Sylvester early on in one of Foster's recently acquired herds and thinks he's special. I'll have to agree, because when he "smiles" back at her, like dogs and their owners, he bears a startling resemblance to Melissa Gilbert. Charlie suddenly feels inspired to tame, train, and enter him in the National Equestrian Trials—one of the film's few surprises, as I was expecting her to sign him up for the Kentucky Derby. During Sylvester's absence, Charlie has one confrontation after another with the crotchety Mr. Foster about her job, her life, his life, and those two pesky young'uns the old man just can't stand. Without the horsy hook and the animal's book-ended appearances, this could be a Texas twist on those classic British "kitchen sink" dramas of the late 1950s, with an "angry young woman" in the lead and a watering hole replacing that household convenience. The difference here is that there's no emotional involvement and not one of the characters is worth caring about.
When we finally get to the competition, it looks like an exciting photo-finish may be just around the turn: "The 11-and-a-half miles on today's schedule includes the road-and-track, the steeplechase, and the cross-country that contains 24 of the most difficult jumps in the equestrian world today." Too bad we only get to see less than a mile's worth, with most of it being actual film footage of real horses and riders failing those events. Charlie, however, has somehow managed to acquire so much personal poise and control over Sylvester's cantering in the preliminaries that judge Muffy Hyatt is duly impressed.
Muffy is played by the beautiful Constance Towers, best remembered as the bald hooker bitch-slapping her pimp to unconsciousness in the notorious opening scene of Sam Fuller's The Naked Kiss. Towers does what she can with the stilted dialogue—"Amazing! Charley knows how to do it but doesn't know why she's doing it."—and—"You think you know Charlie? I was Charlie." Muffy, you see, is confined to a snazzy, streamlined wheelchair and zips around faster than the pace of this film, so we're left to assume she was crippled in some horrible accident. It's unfortunate that more of Constance Towers and some of her character's backstory isn't included, as it might have upped the interest level a few notches. Muffy not only wants to buy Sylvester but hire Charlie as his permanent rider, offering a "small salary, living expenses, and the cost of at least a year's worth of serious training so she can become a true professional with a solid reputation. But I'm not running a pony camp," so Charlie's younger siblings are out of the picture.
Will Charlie accept the deal of a lifetime or turn down that "dream she's been reaching for"? Will Mr. Foster assume responsibility of raising those two little brats? Can Matt let her go after a serious tumble in the haystacks? And does what's-his-name—oh, yeah!—Sylvester win the blue ribbon? If you haven't connected the dots by now, then you should probably rent Sylvester and find out for yourself.
There are three trailers for old films, All the Pretty Horses, Legends of the Fall and, for some unknown reason, A League of their Own, which is still advertised as "coming soon to a theater near you." In addition to the welcomed appearance of Constance Towers, the 1.85:1 widescreen anamorphic transfer of Hiro Narita's cinematography is the only other asset this DVD has to offer, but late in the film a short scene in a barn doesn't appear to have been included in the remastering, as it has the look of a worn-out VHS tape. The Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround relegates dialogue to the background so the music and sound effects take precedence. Since no subtitles were provided, I tried several sound combinations with my TV and DVD player but ended up boosting the dialogue and toning down everything else. Lee Holdridge's score is as generic as Carol Sobieski's script, calculated to make scenes feel more exhilarating than they really are and jerk a few extra tears when called for. He also makes annoying use of an electronic drum, one of the reasons I kept lowering the sound. The two leads, Melissa Gilbert and Richard Farnsworth, appropriately walk through their pedestrian roles, though Farnsworth does get to stagger during a "No, I'm-not-drunk!" scene.
I would advise parents to be wary of Sylvester's generous PG rating. With a target audience of teenage girls, I think some of the language is hardcore, and an aggressively attempted rape looks a bit too strong. Melissa Gilbert also has what is now referred to as a "wardrobe malfunction," but I doubt any teenage boys would be interested.
If you're looking for a film in this "early-teen-girl" demographic, stick with the classics like National Velvet or something with a unique take such as Disney's The Horse in the Gray Flannel Suit. The years may make them look old, but they haven't aged at all.
Being an animal rights activist, I can't sentence Sylvester to the proverbial glue factory, but I have to say "neigh" to this one. And someone should take a riding crop to the filmmakers.
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