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

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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