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Feature


I’m already two weeks late on this review, so I’m going to make it short and sweet.

Following her mother’s death, housewife and mother Penny Chenery (Diane Lane) agrees to take over the family’s horse stables. Though she has no real knowledge of horse raising or racing, Penny recognizes that the horse trainer is planning on ripping off her ailing father (Scott Glenn). After firing the riffraff, she hires a notoriously ill tempered trainer named Lucien Laurin (John Malkovich), and hatches a plan to breed the perfect stallion. Soon after, a foal named Big Red is born, and shows immediate promise. After Big Red, renamed ‘Secretariat’ for racing purposes, comes to age Penny hires jockey Ron Turcotte (Otto Thorwarth), and goes about entering her horse in the most prestigious horse races in America. Soon after, she’s selling future stud rights to Secretariat in order to pay off bills mounting back at the ranch. Meanwhile, Penny’s family life struggles, and the male dominated world of horse racing threatens to eat her alive.

Secretariat
The horse movie – a tried and true Hollywood formula, taking the best elements of the sport genre and the underdog movie, mixing them, and topping them off with the added value of an adorable critter. The critter, of course, then acts as a stand-in for the human character’s emotions and desires, while the usual period setting (horse racing simply isn’t as popular in modern times) sets up some nice social metaphors. Seabisc—I mean Secretariat is a traditionally told story, with strong, but not Oscar worthy performances from stalwart mainstream standbys. It looks handsome, moves pretty effectively, breaks down into an easy-to-read, textbook three act structure, and is sure to not feature any particularly strong antagonists or negative plot turns to offend the audience. There are very few surprises in this production, but there are just as few genuinely objectionable elements. The biggest shortcoming is the lumpy emotional streak. Outbursts usually seem unnatural, and never really achieve anything. The dialogue devolves into fortune cookie wisdom too often, not to mention the fact that the film’s runtime would be cut to a third if characters weren’t given time to spout wordy inspirational clichés. The film’s refined sense of humour works well though, especially from Malkovich, and director Randall Wallace shoots a good race sequence.

Secretariat

Video


Secretariat features a somewhat generic period look, including vague desaturation, generally soft lighting schemes, and sharply contrasted black and white elements. The 2.35:1 widescreen frame features some nice, deep set visuals, with plenty of foreground and background details (Wallace doesn’t utilize a lot of close-ups). Though stylistically impressive, the strong blacks overwhelm some of the finer details, and bleed out a bit. Darker wardrobe and horses kind of become blobs, specifically when delegated to the background. Colour schemes differ from scene to scene, occasionally reveling in warm sepia tones (especially on internal shots), but usually featuring a slight cool, blue tint (especially outdoor, daytime shots). Contrasting hues do pop against these basic background elements, but there’s nothing overtly vibrant, with the clear exception of Malkovich’s clothing. Skin tones are overly warm, and uncannily similar throughout the film. There’s plenty of fine grain peppered throughout the backgrounds, but no compression noise, and only the most minor haloing effects.

Audio


Secretariat is presented on Blu-ray with an unassuming, but perfectly effective DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack. The mix is normally soft, warm, and floaty with very few obvious directional elements. Basic surround elements include weather effects, noisy animals, and general crowd noise. The race sequences are, not surprisingly, the most overtly loud and hyper-designed sequences on the soundtrack. Hoofs hit the dirt like thunder, rumbling throughout the channels, and vibrating the LFE, but the important moments of whispered dialogue are still perfectly audible. On the bad side, some of the centered, overlapping dialogue is uneven, and often features background fuzz that comes and goes as the actors speak, but this is the biggest complaint I can muster. The score, by Nick Glennie-Smith, is entirely interchangeable with other Disney underdog stories (seriously, you could lift the music from Miracle or The Rookie and deposit it here without anyone noticing), but is the most consistently aggressive aural element, and works quite well.

Secretariat

Extras


The special features start with director Randal Wallace’s solo commentary track. Right off the bat the stereo channels ooze with his pretention-caked, NPR-styled whisper voice. This is what happens when you review DVDs and Blu-rays, you hear so many commentary tracks that the speaking tone of a participant can overpower the actual content. Wallace does fill the audience in on the filming process from time to time (with vocal hesitation, as he doesn’t want to ‘ruin the mystique of filmmaking’), but all too often defaults to melodramatic narration. I lost count of how many times Wallace said something the actors did moved him deeply, and just about died laughing when he described his composer as ‘masculine, lyrical and sensitive all at once’. My advice is to skip to the race sequences, where Wallace actually offers some intelligent insight to the technical elements of filming.

‘Heart of a Champion’ (14:50, HD) is a pretty fluffy EPK at its base, including cast and crew interviews and footage from the film, but does feature quite a bit of actual footage of the title horse, and matching interviews with the real people portrayed in the film. There’s just enough here to make me want a full, feature-length documentary on the subject. ‘Choreographing the Races’ (6:30, HD) takes a look at the process of filming epic race scenes, including casting horses, tricking horses into acting, and timing events to match the original races. ‘The Director’s Inspiration: A Conversation with the Real Penny Chenery’ (21:10, HD) makes a nice companion piece to ‘Heart of a Champion’, and fills in some of the unfilmed background information. Extras are finished out with seven deleted scenes (10:30, HD) including a director intro, and optional director’s commentary, an ‘It’s Who You Are’ music video, a multi-angle simulation of a 1973 race with introductions, and Disney trailers.

Secretariat

Overall


Somewhere there must be an alternate cut of this film from the point of view of Sham, the horse Secretariat kept beating during the Triple Crown events. Sham kept scoring records that were second to Secretariat’s. Any other year he would’ve been the sensation. It’s actually an incredibly tragic story in itself. Sure, the film portrays Sham’s owner as a sexist, self-important jerk, but the horse is never portrayed kicking bystanders or laughing maniacally, so I felt bad for the guy. Fans of the kind of sports movies the Disney studio churns out every year or so should be happy enough with the film itself, and this Blu-ray disc doesn’t look or sound half bad either.


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