March to Disney: Secretariat and the Sports Films of Disney

This is a series of posts this month wherein I will focus on Disney films. For more on my background with Disney films and about the timing of this focus please read the introductory post here.

It’s almost as unoriginal to say all sports films are essentially the same as sports films are, at least on the surface. What tends to separate the better ones is that they are usually on a very specific incident or figure, and more commonly, what else the film has going for it.

For example, one of the more acclaimed documentaries in recent years is Undefeated. It’s about a high school football team. What made it critically acclaimed and an Oscar winner was not the football aspect, but rather, and high school sports can do this better than most, the off-the-field life lessons involved. So there, even in documentary form, it’s about “What else do you have going for you?”

Disney, in both shorts and feature films, has a long history of dealing with sports as the focus of a film. The earliest, most notable forays, were the Goofy shorts wherein he’d engage in a number of sports with his usual haphazard results. The shorts, aside from being funny, are fairly good caricatures of the sports in question. Meaning it’s more about impression than accuracy of rendition and also about placing a character in a context so whether skiing, basketball, boxing, football (American), ice hockey, aquatic sports, or any other they served as short hilarious sketches and/or introductions to the sport.

The short form animated sports film has its own template of exaggeration, while the feature film usually deals in underdog stories. Which is what usually brings me back to Secretariat. Now, what the real world themes that are being brought to the fore are rather obvious. Due to the the setting and plot the film is a feminist comment. Ms. Tweedy, played marvelously by Diane Lane, is smart, tough, a risk-taker and ultimately successful. She’s the underdog of the tale, whereas the horse, who even if you only know a slight bit about horse racing, you know is the overdog. He, like many a thoroughbred, shot out of the blue into national consciousness, but is unquestionably the most dominant horse the sport has ever known.

Secretariat (2010, Disney)

Aside from the feminism, which the film plays through both mother and activist daughter, there is also the gently folded in family element. You see her sacrifice and work on two fronts due to what she feels is her responsibility to her father, the farm and the horse, and as much as she can she travels back across country to be with her husband and four kids.

That’d be more than enough, but Secretariat, being a film about horse racing, also plants the seeds of doubt about health of the horse, and addresses the concern of those ambivalent to negative on the nature of the sport. Needless to say there’s likely poetic license taken all over the place, it’s a film after all, but the impressive thing is that the film works on many fronts and levels, which is why it was one of my top films of 2010, and didn’t diminish upon re-view.

Now, as much as I do like other Disney sports films of a more traditional nature, like The Mighty Ducks, which I saw at a sneak preview with a friend and it got us so pumped that we laced up our rollerblades and had a near midnight practice session, or Cool Runnings. They do fall into the more typical mold. Secretariat stretches it on a few fronts. Now there is a recent rash of other Disney sports films that I am behind on, however, based on what I know of them Secretariat still upped the ante a great deal. Usually, there’s a theme or two tackled and few possible end games.

In a purely sporting sense, Secretariat paints a portrait that even a blowout can be a thing of beauty due to the prowess of the athlete and the dramatic stakes placed upon the race. Whereas in other films there’s one “brass ring,” here our protagonist has staked her livelihood on the fact that the horse will win the Triple Crown, something that hadn’t happened in 25 years at the time, and has only happened once since.

Now, all this is not to say Disney’s record is flawless in the genre, there’s far too many Most Valuable Primate and Air Bud films for that to be the case, but in the past decade or so, even with as many as I’m missing, on the dramatic end of the spectrum; they have found stories in the subgenre that can push the envelope ever so slightly in this kind of film.

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Mini-Review Round-Up: November 2012

I had quite a review drought to end 2011 so I think the remedy for this kind of post would be to have the post be cumulative monthly. Therefore, after each qualifying film a short write-up will be added to the monthly post. The mini-reviews will be used to discuss Netflix and other home video screenings. Theatrical releases, regardless of how they are seen whether in an auditorium or on VOD, will get full reviews.

For a guide to what scores mean go here.

Ghosts of Ole Miss

If it were in anyway possible, it’d be interesting to examine this 30 for 30 entry in a vaccuum. The reason I say that is: as a film about the integration of Ole Miss with a unique subplot about the undefeated football team that played and was overshadowed by sociopolitical unrest on campus during that year, it’s intriguing. However, the film purports to examine the team and be a testament to the team, to memorialize the forgotten squad. While there are plenty of interviews with players about on campus events and quick chronicles of game events and results, the team becomes a subplot in a film supposedly mainly about them. The struggles of integrating the school ought not be overlooked, but when there’s little overlap between the tales aside from time and place structural balance becomes hard to find.

The film does very well to examine the cultural morass that many face, southerners in this case, that exists when you’re trying to balance pride, heritage and also acknowledging past failings and dark moments. Some of the voice over is very well-written and poetic in a way that seems unique to the south, as much as the music is lyrical and local. However, this personal connection also fights for time with the football team’s tale and the exposition of the events surrounding the integration. Ultimately, the film succeeds by giving you barely enough to get by on each angle, but it would’ve been better served by restructuring and/or delving further into each aspect.

6/10

Benji

It’s a method I generally try to avoid, but perhaps the best way to discuss Benji is via comparative analysis. After I had seen Benji what occurred to me is that there was some structural similarity to 9.79*, and that being that it is mainly a chronology of events (this one far more linear) but there is a late-in-the-game monkeywrench thrown into the mix. I will not expose details to preserve surprise, but the late revelation here only has one side telling the story period, not just on camera. Furthermore, the revelation, in my mind didn’t really shift the legal burden of blame.

Regardless, for the most part, this is an effectively rendered tale for the most part that reveals a mostly unknown personage now. The film does well to just present its case and not comment upon it. The only other issue it suffers from is that there is a slight lack of ebb and flow. There is a definitive rise-and-fall, but its crescendo and decrescendo. The rigidly linear nature of this tale hinders its efficacy some.

7/10

Off White Lies

I find myself commenting on a film’s subtlety quite often. Rather than sounding like a broken record I will expound on that. It’s one think to tell an intricate story without spoon-feeding an audience like say Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, and another to tell a simple story in a straightforward way. However, to tell a simple story, subtly; jumping in medias res and making revelations indirectly rather than with overt exposition is quite a feat. As is often the case, it’s not necessarily the end destination that matters with a film, it’s the journey. With necessary information being delivered when absolutely necessary and without drawing attention to itself we are allowed instead to focus on the characters and how they interact. This is especially helpful when dealing with a father-daughter dynamic. We see how they interact and the why becomes more and more apparent as we learn more about them.

The story, such as it is, moves rather smoothly ends at an appropriate time and features good performances all around.

8/10

The Dynamiter

As I tweeted immediately after seeing The Dynamiter, it seems to be par for the course that every year there will be a Film Movement selection that will slowly, subtly work on me and leave me bawling nearly uncontrollably, and almost unbeknownst to myself, by the end. Last year’s film was A Screaming Man. What both films share in common is a simple tale of people with simple desires, facing seemingly mammoth obstacles to overcome and struggling mightily against them.

Yet, even that congratulatory paragraph doesn’t really do this film justice. For the magic this film weaves, it creates in a mere 73 minutes. It’s a running time so brisk you’d never imagine it’d have the power in its finale to sneak up on you, but it does.

In writing up any sort of reaction piece to a film, I am somewhat loathe to quote other works, be they literary or musical, to echo my sentiments. However, that’s really more a writer’s pride than anything because sometimes, with the really good films, they are more accurate. One such work is a spoiler so I’ll avoid it, leaving just one: this film does indeed seem to have “The Invisible Touch,” it takes control and slowly tears you apart.

It’s a film that’s deserving of a re-screening and a bigger write-up, but something tells me I’ll be writing about it again at the end of the year.

10/10

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is a cautionary tale, in the best way possible, and part of why I love the year-end sprint to catch up on releases of the year. Towards the end of the year, I get a little less finicky about selections and just watch things, not just to be adventurous but admittedly to bolster the BAM qualifiers. This may all sound quite underwhelming but the impetus to see this film was really a personal recommendation.

I knew of the film but frankly the trailer and all other marketing elements didn’t sell the film. What looked at the outset a rather myopically comedic tale turns out to be, in reality, a wide-ranging inclusive, heart-warming, bittersweet, charming and funny film; in short, one of the more well-rounded experiences.

The character’s narrative threads which start out very disparate reminded me in some ways of Love, Actually but with more interweaving and less contrivance to get things linked up. There is a general emotional over-current that makes this true also, not just some similar cast members.

Through the natural functioning of the narrative there is ample room, which is taken full advantage of, for commentary on myriad topics that is never extraneous, which adds to the enjoyment of the film.

One thing I can applaud the marketing of the film for is that it did leave many of the surprises of this tale in tact, and if you take this journey you will definitely be rewarded.

10/10

Teddy Bear

Teddy Bear is a testament, not only to Film Movement’s Film of the Month Club and the bonuses they include on their DVDs but cinematic acclimatizing. What I mean by that is not necessarily that the packaging of a film, or the presentation thereof, can condition a viewer, but when you’re visiting a slightly different avenue of film a bit of an introduction can be beneficial.

My best and favorite professor in film school was Max Simkovitch. Not only was he an uncanny “bill builder” in terms of doubles and triples, but he also put you in the right frame of mind to absorb the film you were about to see. Is that to say I liked everything I screened in his classes? Not at all. However, it kept me in place where I would and continue to fight against making the film what I thought it ought to be, take it for what it was and judge it on its own merits.

How this relates back to Film Movement is that for the DVD of Teddy Bear they include two prior shorts by Mads Matthiesen an up-and-coming Danish filmmaker. In seeing these two shorts, one of which was the basis for the feature Teddy Bear, you definitely get a taste for his style and in the short Kim Kold shows flashes that, yes, he will convey the effective gentle giant needed for the narrative.

The feature is an effective tussle between mother-and-son, portrait of loner trying to break out of his shell and an underdog love story. The pace is imperfect later on, but the tale is always engaging, endearing and watchable, if not completely realized.

7/10

The Pact

This is the kind of movie that will be referred to as a slow burn. The slow burn in the horror genre, the gradual but consistent build-up, has become more popular as of late. However, like any technique or philosophy it is not inherently good or bad. What I believe is that if you’re going to take this approach you have to take the escalating events to a fairly wild and unpredictable place. The stakes and incidents continue to increase and just when you think you have the film pinned down it expands.

The films imperfections, barring a seemingly nonsensical title and a jolt-shock end shot, are mainly that early pace that makes it a tough tale to get into. The performances are inconsistent, but the story does just enough to buoy it. How much each individual enjoys the film will likely vary on his or her patience, and their embracing or rejecting of the twists.

6/10

A Chrismoose Carol

The review of this film can be found here.

ATM

I often discuss the merits of going into a film as a clean slate. I can’t say I went in 100% clean to this film, however, I don’t see that as a detriment here. I found this was streaming, saw it qualified as a 2012 release, and added it to my queue without further thought for a time. One tweet by a fellow Twitter compatriot who disliked it, didn’t give much away, but intrigued me enough to give it a play.

A few things struck me as odd as it pertained to ATM: the first of which is that it does hold interest and a fairly believable premise through a much larger portion of the film than I expected based on what I heard. While I will credit the film for its set-up and a certain degree of cleverness in it maniacal plan, the second oddity is that the most major twist I was way ahead of, and the resolution was one that doesn’t stand up to harsh scrutiny, and the length of the reveal allows you to scrutinize it. It reminds me a bit of Penumbra but with more annoyance and less impact.

This is also a film that inflated its running time to its detriment. It cut out of the closing credits at least three, if not four times, to additional montages hinting at more villainous plots. Such were the cutaways that it bloated the credits crawl (which were slow to begin with) to nine minutes. The film clocks in at exactly 90 minutes with it included. It wouldn’t have saved the film, but it is OK to run less than 90 minutes. It really is. Add to that a very slow reveal, and you have an end that doesn’t end long after the point where the film becomes completely asinine.

4/10

Home Alone: The Holiday Heist

Home Alone: Holiday Heist (2012, 20th Century Fox)

For my review of this film please go here.

I didn’t quite catch up to the backlog of November titles viewed, seeing as how I managed to get into an end of year viewing groove early. The titles that would’ve been here will appear in the December running post. All these lists also qualify films for the BAM Awards, which have many exciting dates in the month to come.

Summer Olympic Movie Picks- Part Two

I did a post like this for the Vancouver games a little more than two years ago and I shall unearth it again at some point at least on Letterboxd because that was certainly a lot more fun and in many cases weirder. However, the variety that is provided by the over-stuffed nature of the summer games is nothing to sneeze at. I think that these films that feature the sports of the warmer Olympiad will likely introduce you to something you want to check out. I know I found a few. These picks will be posted in three parts. You can read part one here.


Football

Since the Olympics is global I will use the international name and translate for America, this is soccer. All kidding aside, as I looked through some lists of soccer movies I was struck by the realization that the disparity between the greatness of the game and the quality of films generated by it is greatest here. Most of the ones I saw listed were sad. There are some I heard good things about but have yet to see, like The Damned United, Once in a Lifetime: The Extraordinary Story of the New York Cosmos, and Pelada. Many of them in the US are usually about a ragtag bunch of kids on a team the best probably being The Ladybugs. As for the adult version of the game the best most recent one I saw was Rudo y Cursi which gave us this song too:

However, world cinema does provide a few more options which are suitable for all ages. If you like your soccer with genre-bending weirdness, I’d suggest the Die Wilden Kerle series from Germany. However, I’d stress you not watch any of them dubbed. I saw one dubbed the first time and it was some of the poorest collective work I’ve seen, aside from the fact that in the US we for some reason altered the chronology.

Then O Menino Maluquinho (The Nutty Boy) has a climatic game which features brilliant, practically superhuman goaltending by the protagonist, which is one of many great aspects of the film.


Gymnastics (Artistic & Rhytmic)

Unless I’m missing something major, gymnastics hasn’t had a lot of great representation on the big screen. Christopher Campbell’s list definitely makes me want to see Gymkata and it’s certainly more compelling in concept than anything I thought of or found; a rash of biopics, lame parodies and anorexia-themed MOWs and, of course, the most unfortunately executed death in Final Destination 5.

Now, Rhythmic Gymnastics seems to be absent from any real representation. Like synchronized swimming it has its notable parodies like that on Lizzie Maguire and by Will Ferrell in Old School, but I can’t seem to find anything straight. It could be great fodder for a doc in the vein of what I perceive Pina to be, as I still need to see it. There is a niche waiting to be had.

Handball

Yup, this is what thew world thinks of when you handball, just another example of our at times jingoistic naming practices, though to be fair Wall Ball is used to describe the one we know better too. Handball is another sport I’m glad to see roll around every four years and I agree wholeheartedly with this Awful Announcing post that it should be a featured on ESPN more often.

With regards to movies there wasn’t much to find. There’s Szansa a Polish film which seems to pit a nurturing, caring, intellectual, literary teacher against a hard-nosed, disciplinarian, gym teacher who crosses the line to win and winning said handball games is good for the school. Then there’s Forever the Moment a fictionalized account of the South Korean women’s handball team that competed in the 2004 games.

Hockey

Only during my occasional watching in the last games did I finally come to appreciate the version of the game which is played on grass and not ice. The only movie that seemed to jump out was Chak De! India, which is a kind of underdog story about a former player turned coach who takes over the long languishing national women’s team. This title is available to stream on Netflix (US).

Judo

Judo is a martial arts discipline I enjoy watching and pretty much always have since I’ve known of the games. The issue, as with many of these sports, has been finding a filmic representation of it.

Some quick searches brought some docs partial and short, but then as it turns out Kurosawa’s debut is a judo film, Sanshiro Sugata, wherein a young man struggles to learn the nuances and meaning of judo and life. This film is available from Criterion in one of their excellent Eclipse collections. This film is accompanied by a sequel and is referred to collectively as the Judo Saga.

Modern Pentathlon

Honestly, when I went to search out film ideas for each of these sports the one I pegged as being the hardest was the pentathlon. Truth be told, I only found one movie to pick from, but it’s called Pentathlon and Dolph Lundgren is in it. Essentially, Lundgren’s character and his sadistic trainer meet up eight years after their Olympic sojourn in an ever-escalating series of action nonsense, much of which you could have spoiled for you by the Wikipedia entry. It sounds like one of those movies that’s so brash it’s brilliant or painful – it does strike me as one of those movies I’ve seen on TV and all but forgotten.

Rowing

I mentioned in the canoe section that rowing could be found in The Social Network, however, there are a few more options to be had. You could pick either of two versions of the same tale, as comparing an original and a remake can be fun in A Yank at Oxford and Oxford Blues. For a more sports-oriented choice there’s True Blue (called Miracle at Oxford on US Home video) about a famous 1987 race. Lastly, if you want your sport as more of a setting for your drama than the premise, you have Summer Storm, which is about relationships and sexuality, and Queen of the Night, with a backdrop of politics, handicaps and romance.

Shooting

Now, I won’t be vague with shooting because the number of films that involve gunplay are countless. So I sought out films that at least feature competitive marksmen and there are two provided by Honk Kong cinema called Double Tap and Triple Tap, the former spins off from the first. Both involve rival shooters and getting involved inadvertently in crime and intrigue.

Swimming

Swimming is one of the most populated sports in terms of events, and one of the most popular at the games in general. Even on dedicated websites like Sports in Movies there isn’t a long list of swimming films. It’s hard to imagine that recreational swimming is something that needed to be created, much less that sport needed developing. However, there is a share of cinema in the pool.

Going back to 1931 you can watch Jean Vigo’s 2nd short film Taris, which is a rather artistic rendition and promotion of France’s swimming record-holder at the time. This film is available in the Complete Vigo through Criterion. If you prefer your star-power cinematic The Swimmer stars Burt Lancaster. If your inclinations are more stalker-crazy there’s the fairly recent Swimfan. In the more family-friendly realm there’s the fantastical DCOM The Thirteenth Year and swimming features somewhat in A Dolphin Tale.

Synchronized Swimming

With synchronized swimming there is actually rather a balanced choice. You can either enjoy it rendered comically in this classic bit:

On in a light, whimsical, biopic musical called Million Dollar Mermaid.

It is just by its very nature one of the easiest sports to poke fun at but it is really something when done well, and something else when it’s not which both those clips prove.

The list will conclude tomorrow!

Summer Olympic Movie Picks- Part One

I did a post like this for the Vancouver games a little more than two years ago and I shall unearth it again at some point at least on Letterboxd because that was certainly a lot more fun and in many cases weirder. However, the variety that is provided by the over-stuffed nature of the summer games is nothing to sneeze at. I think that these films that feature the sports of the warmer Olympiad will likely introduce you to something you want to check out. I know I found a few. These picks will be posted in three parts.

Archery

The very first sport alphabetically is one that will illustrate to you rather quickly that there are two ways you can see a sport portrayed in a film: direct (e.g. sports movies) or indirect (wherein the sport is a component of the film but not the focus). Archery is an ancient practical discipline, which is rather visually appealing. Thus, it makes cameos in myriad ways: whether the super-human precision of Hawkeye in The Avengers or the cold brutality of Kevin, as in the one who needs talking about.

Films about the sport itself are harder to come by but with all the Robin Hoods there should be something that tickles your fancy.

My official pick will by Walt Disney’s Robin Hood, though of course Disney/Pixar’s Brave also features a prominent competition, and Katniss Everdeen of The Hunger Games is quite skilled too.

Athletics

Another permutation of the sports movie you get is that of the biopic. This seems to be a particular purview of Athletics, specifically track and field events. Clearly, Chariots of Fire is the first title that comes to mind. Then there are the lesser known but still worth looking out for like Prefontaine and Saint Ralph.

Badminton

Here is the first of the challenging sports on this list. In looking into it I was reminded that badminton, like so many other things, has been included on The Simpsons. In film terms, I learned of two features that involve it, one I’d be interested in seeing and one not so much. The first is National Lampoon’s Golddigger, a newer and prior to this unknown to me installment of the series, and then an Indonesian biopic about Liem Swei King simply called King, which is clearly more appealing for the purist.

Basketball

Basketball is one of the sports that has most frequently made for popular or entertaining films. Now, the two that jump immediately to mind are Hoosiers and Blue Chips. Having said that, since there are so many basketball titles, such that you can specifically cite the Olympics in some; I’d choose HBO’s documentary :03 from Gold about the ’72 Gold Medal Game between the US and USSR.

Beach Volleyball

It was incredibly difficult to parse beach volleyball films from traditional volleyball ones. Beach ones are clearly more popular, but rather than being crass and to respect the differences between the two disciplines, they will each get their own films. The beach volleyball choice is Side Out, which I do believe I’ve actually seen Side Out (so help me God).

Boxing

Boxing is the sport where I’m sure you’ll find the most movies to choose from. Of course, a movie about Olympic boxing is disqualified since the scoring system instantly introduces plot holes and confusion, but you can pick among the classics here Rocky, Raging Bull or whatever your preference may be you’re spoiled for choice with this sport.

Canoeing


Any of the paddle sports will be rarely found on screen and usually as a background element. In the Social Network the Winklevoss twins were part of a crew legacy, which could qualify that as a rowing movie.

With regards to the canoeing/kayaking end of the spectrum that’s where you get to fudging it a little. The first thing that came to mind was White Water Summer, that was immediately followed by more Kevin Bacon in The River Wild, which is a rafting film but less all around odd and not at all ’80s. You could also turn to A River Runs Through It.

With regards to paddle sports it all depends on how ensconced you want to be. If you want just a hint of it you can certainly fudge a movie in in easily.

Cycling

With many of these films I’m discovering them and wanting to find them at some point, with some they are oddities that I have seen and want to recommend. When it came to cycling I’ve seen two of the bigger cycling movies Breaking Away and American Flyers thanks to a family member who is obsessed with the sport.

They have their moments but have also bred some inside jokes based on the fact that it’s a “shown movie,” as in a “You should see this” kind of thing. However, in fairness, they seem to be the go to choices for enthusiasts.

One of those sports that pops up at the Olympics that grabs my interest are the track cycling events, which are more intriguing to me that the other disciplines. The Flying Scotsman seems to be a popular choice for that particular modality.

Diving

Diving, whether it be platform or springboard, is usually an affectation wherein we witness the externalization of a protagonist’s fear and his overcoming it, and rarely the focus of a film.

Perhaps the most notable examples are Greg Louganis: Breaking the Surface, and now with the games in London, Tom Daley four years on from a debut at the age of 14, wherein he finished 7th and 8th in his two events; has a BBC documentary about him to his credit along with being a serious medal threat.

Equestrian

I’m not going to say I’m a horse whisperer or even any kind of an expert, but what invariably ends up bugging me in some horse movies is the whole nature of them participating in a sport. A notable example being The Black Stallion. The beginning, say the first 40 minutes is a gem, a perfect replica of a silent film. Then the horse becomes a racehorse and it’s kind of trite from there. I think that’s one of the greatest things about the handling of Secretariat, it makes it seem like the horse is more willful than his jockey.

When it comes to equestrian disciplines that’s less of a concern because I believe that typically it’s the rider facing more danger and if the horse doesn’t want to jump, he won’t jump; or whatever maneuver is intended. That and watching these maneuvers is rather hypnotic at times.

A recent film I saw that dealt well with equestrian if nothing else was Harley’s Hill. In reading a similar list I was enlightened towards International Velvet. If you can’t drop your reservations about equine sports, and are a member of the Disney Movie Club, you can look up The Littlest Outlaw wherein a boy frees a showhorse.

Fencing

Fencing is another sport wherein you can shoehorn many a film into your viewing to suit your taste. Any Zorro, Three Musketeers, Peter Pan will feature fencing-like swashbuckling. You can take your pick from those oft told tales or you can be a little more literal with something like By the Sword, a 1991 film featuring Mia Sara, Eric Roberts and F. Murray Abraham. Or perhaps The Fencing Master, there was one in 1915 and 1992, I suspect the latter would be easier to find.

However, if you want to get creative I suggest Theatre of Blood. Not only does Vincent Price play a crazed, thought-to-be-dead Shakespearean actor seeking vengeance on a critics circle but he recites the Bard as he kills and once such scene is a fencing duel!

That’s all for now. Suggestions are more than welcome, and tomorrow’s films start with those about or involving football (aka soccer).

Review- Secretariat

Diane Lane in Secretariat (Disney)

Secretariat is now available to stream from Netflix

Perhaps what impresses most about Secretariat isn’t necessarily that it might be Disney’s strongest sports-themed effort since 1992 and The Mighty Ducks but the fact that it’s a overdog story in the guise of an underdog story. Meaning that if the film was really only dealing with the horse itself it would’ve been chronicling one of the most dominant performers and biggest champions in all of sports. That’s great when you’re watching horse racing on Saturday afternoon but it’s hardly the stuff of great drama.

The underdog element comes in the the form of the horse’s owner Penny Tweedy played by Diane Lane. She was new to the sport and not as knowledgeable as some but she knew her horse and trusted her gut. In the film we see her try to balance her family in Colorado and the farm and her horse in Virginia- in making it about her the dramatic element is added in skillfully.

When if you think about it makes this ludicrously good filmmaking at times because it makes a foregone conclusion riveting. A blowout no less. It’s quite something and furthermore last year (2009 as of this writing) in the Triple Crown races there were a rash of injuries which put the sport under some fire, being a less-than-casual fan found that reasonable, yet this film shows the beauty of the sport itself as few could. In essence it does something that The Black Stallion failed to do in that regard.

Much of the talk surrounding this film is centered around Diane Lane. She does do a wonderful job in this film and is convincing every step of the way and having heard the buzz as I was watching it I spotted what I think is her Oscar clip. While I think it might be superficially too similar a part for her to win, her nomination if it comes and is the only one may overshadow what is a much better film than The Blind Side.

A fact I was reminded of almost immediately as both films start with their protagonist speaking in voice over about the sport it is that obsesses them. I complained of the Bullock dialogue’s didacticism, there are no complaints about how Secretariat opens. It is a poetic opening which doesn’t teach the uninitiated about the Sport of Kings, that comes in due time when necessary.

It’s treatment of all the races is different in each case and appropriate. What is most crucial in sports films is the handling of in-game scenes because while there aren’t usually that many they are some of the most lasting ones there are. The Kentucky Derby gets it seems the longest and most complete uninterrupted start to finish coverage which eases the audience into it, and the stakes are very high as it is the first triple crown race that her investors need her to win. The Preakness meanwhile gets played all in one shot on a TV in the Colorado home while her family watches, it forms a wonderful completely visual bridge in the family. The kids are finally realizing what it is mom’s doing and its an unspoken apology between husband and wife.

The film’s supporting cast also buoys it tremendously. Most notably the horses team: John Malkovich as Lucien Loren the horses trainer, Nelsan Ellis as Eddie Sweat and Margo Martindale as Miss Ham and Penny’s family: Dylan Walsh, Amanda Michalka, Carissa Capobianco, Sean Michael Cunningham and Jacob Rhodes.

Secretariat is a great sports film that the whole family can enjoy and is usually the case with the really good ones it is more about the people involved rather than the sport itself.

10/10

Review- Soul Surfer

AnnaSophia Robb in Soul Surfer (Tristar Pictures)

Soul Surfer is an interesting film that may not yet have found its audience yet for a number of reasons but if I were a betting man, and there were bets on such things, I might be inclined to back this film as one that would find an audience through video over the years to come. It’s kind of a weird property looking at it from afar: a surfing film, which is also a biopic with a religious element to it being released in April. It’s essentially a summer film that didn’t want get buried amidst blockbusters and is trying to make some waves (yes, I can be punny, sue me) in a rather tranquil time.

None of the above is meant to sound like an indictment of the film. The fact of the matter is I truly enjoyed how multi-faceted I found the film to be. When you try and tackle too much in a film it can turn into a mess but when you can connect on disparate elements and tie them together then you’ve got something really good on your hands.

Looking at it from each perspective let’s see how the film works: firstly, there’s the surfing element under the larger umbrella of sports film. As has been said frequently, the best sports films aren’t really about the game, thus, they can hit home with the largest possible audience. However, it must be said that this movie is a sneaky good sports film. Due to the different things the film is trying to accomplish there isn’t a tremendous amount of time dedicated to the varying facets of a sports film but they get it spot on with the most important one: this film communicates in spades the love of the game and it’s mostly through cinematography, sound editing and a really well-written opening voice over, which stands head-and-shoulders above the voice over opening from the Best Picture nominee The Blind Side.

There’s also a sports rivalry, which as a subplot can either add depth or become an encumbrance on the narrative, it does the former and never gets in the way too much. As does the very chaste and timid love interest, just a little more humanity without over-complicating things. The ultimate example of its excelling in its sport movie mold is that it emphasizes, in the end, the joy of competing over that of victory better than most.

The personal journey works as well to fit the biopic mold. The stasis is well-established and then shattered and a new reality must be dealt with. There is also a very brief and practically perfect amount of time spent in the woe-is-me phase of her story. You also get a refreshingly good self-improvement montage and wonderful, if foreseeable, epiphany.

With regards to the religious aspect of the film it’s there, it’s a motivating factor in her recovery, it’s something Bethany questions and leans on. The film handles this very well not only in keeping it and making it a more true biography but adding some depth to the character and avoiding getting overly preachy and pedantic. Some films it seems can’t deal with any type of spirituality in it without it becoming a spiritual film. It’s an element that folds in very well.

If there’s anything that can be said against the narrative it’s just that there is a certain amount of evenness to it. The three facets while working well together allow you to stay on a rather even keel until the final competition. Yet it’s still a fun film to watch regardless of your investment level.

There is also some very impressive CG work done with the missing limb, it’s the best kind of CG work because it’s functional and doesn’t become the film. The sequence of the accident is also rather stunning and one of a few very well-handled and dramatically-rendered sequences in the film.

Much of the cast in this film does very well and the performances run rather deep down the line. You get three very strong performances just out of the family. AnnaSophia Robb has been mostly unseen since Race to Witch Mountain and before that Bridge to Terabithia but she shows here a rather seamless and graceful transformation to an adult role, and a leading one at that. It’s also wonderful to see Helen Hunt and Dennis Quaid not just working but doing great and in a quality project. They each have their own moments to shine here. Ross Thomas and Chris Brochu play the usually jovial, supportive brothers but do have their dramatic moments. Kevin Sorbo also plays a refreshingly low-key and sympathetic character here and Jeremy Sumpter has a small part but plays one big scene wherein he shows flashes of greatness and how he is one of the most under-utilized young actors in films today.

Soul Surfer is a very enjoyable film that you should try to see on the big screen before it’s theatrical run ends.

8/10