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Blu-ray Review: Secretariat

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Although it may be heretical to a devotee of the sport, I just don’t see any variety in horse racing. One is just like any other to me. They go around in a circle, they end up at the finish line.

And that’s an apt metaphor for a movie like Secretariat, where one knows for the entire two-hour run time how the film will end (Spoiler alert: Secretariat turns out to be some kind of super horse). There is no suspense here, so a film like this must be highly effective in order to keep the audience’s attention.

The bad news: the film isn’t highly effective. The good news: it’s effective.

This is a family film, in the sense that few people would find anything objectionable in its content. On the other hand, Disney label aside, I don’t think too many kids are going to find it an entertaining watch.

This is also a family film in that it is loaded with “teachable moments.” Kids might not find it enjoyable, but, like vegetables, you may want to make them take it anyway.

The film opens with the perfect suburban life of Penny Chenery (Diane Lane) being disrupted by a phone call news that her mother has died. With kids and husband in tow she leaves Colorado for her parents’ Virginia horse farm. With mom gone and dad in the throes of dementia, it’s up to her to take the reins.

The costuming, sets, and props up to this point seem to have been designed to connote the 1950s. It all looks like some strange, horse-themed episode of Mad Men. And then the shift begins. One character makes a reference to Superfly. Chenery’s daughter plans a Viet Nam protest. And Penny runs face first into a wall of chauvinism.

The film tends to get heavy handed at times. Immediately upon assuming control of the family business, Penny tries to seek advice from a fellow horse owner who is dining at a country club. She’s stopped by an employee, who tells her she’s trying to enter a men only club. Penny recalls her father telling her that great horses come from mares just as much as stallions. Penny’s husband (Dylan Walsh) sees the error of his unsupportive ways, and apologizes for all in a hamfisted monologue.

So the film offers a chance to discuss a little bit of history – chauvinism, Viet Nam – and some life lessons in general. Penny’s father’s deathbed scene is clichéd, but it’s honest. And Secretariat’s birth is not graphic, but it is handled in a way that would lend itself to a discussion of birds and bees. And why, you may want to ask your kids, does everyone in Penny’s inner circle get to sit with her in box seats at the races, but Secretariat’s beloved groomer (Nelsan Ellis), a black man, stands with the rabble?

Compared to the average, disposable family film, Secretariat is a thoughtful, intelligent piece of filmmaking, with carefully-crafted mise-en-scene and dialogue, entertaining performances from the always watch-able Lane and John Malkovich (as Secretariat’s trainer), and beautifully photographed races. But there is no suspense or traditional action for the kids, and the whole thing is a tad too heavy-handed to be fully satisfying for adults.

Still, worth a rent, especially if you’re desperate to find something to watch with the kids that isn’t 3-D, which usually stands for dumb, dumber, dumbest.

Although the picture and sound quality appeared to my eyes to be only marginally better on the Blu-ray than on the DVD, the Blu-ray is sufficiently loaded with some nice extras over the DVD for me to recommend the upgrade to the DVD/Blu-ray combo. Especially worth a look: director’s a decent commentary, an interview with the real-life Chenery and director Randall Wallace, a behind-the-scenes look at the filming of the race scenes, and four additional deleted scenes, for a total of seven. The latter don’t really add much to the viewing experience; when your film tops out at two hours, how much more of it do you need? There’s also a mini doc on both the DVD and the Blu-ray that offers a nice, concise look at who Secretariat was, but I can’t imagine anyone being too interested in the film if they didn’t already know that.

So to summarize: a decent film. If it looked at all good to you, I’d check it out. And if you already have and you’re looking to add it to your collection, the Blu-ray is worth the price bump over the DVD.

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About Jon Judy