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Cinema Signal: Not quite a green light but has elements of strong appeal for horserace fans of all ages.
. "Secretariat"

Of all the genres of film, the sports movie is the most formulaic and the most predictable. (I'd say "arguably" except I don't think it is arguable). 1. It's almost always based on a "true" story (except for the liberties the screenwriter takes for the sake of "drama." 2. Since it's based on a true story (supposed or actual), we always know the outcome (the close finish, come from behind miracle that everyone's rooting for). The final payoff is always satisfying, bringing you to tears, or awe, hearts and spirits soaring. The format demands it.

The way they manage to make drama out of a story people know (even if you didn't, they made a movie out of it, didn't they?). So, let's not carp about predictability. These things are as predictable as day and night.

3. The makers (director Randall Wallace, writers Mike Rich and William Nack) get carried away with their story and it almost always turns out too long ("Secretariat" is a horse's breath under two hours). A neat ninety minute sport movie is as rare as a 530 carat diamond. (It's in the Tower of London).

4. While the thing that makes one sport movie better than another is the depth and magnetism of the characters involved in the story, this is the first area in which compromises are made. Character depiction is limited to the game, race or competition at hand. Straying into areas that distract, detract. Do we really get a handle on the actual character of Penny Chenery Tweedy (Diane Lane, "Nights in Rodanthe") here beyond her amateur status in horse-racing and single-minded focus on the capabilities of her horse?

5. These stories are molded as from a common die.

In this story of a champion horse who made horseracing history in 1973, you don't get to know too much about the humans involved in it beyond Chenery's absolute trust in Big Red's speed (renamed Secretariat for the marquee value) and, as he matured into bigger and longer races, his endurance. But, is it trust... or the stubborness of of a woman in a man's world with something to prove, or the faith of an amateur who doesn't know better.

Trust also pervades her marriage to Jack Tweedy (Dylan Walsh, "Nip/Tuck" TV series), with intimations of gender competition at the edge of what's said or merely hinted at. She knows she's not making him happy by spending so much time at the stables, but she's sure of her husband's fidelity even as his participation wanes under playing second fiddle to his wife's racing life.

Her life is written with blinders that limit our view to a saintly straightforwardness as the threat of losing her father's (Scott Glenn, "W", "Nights in Rodanthe") Meadow Stables over money problems fails to convince her to sell the horse for a very tidy sum. Nothing will shake her off the saddle she rode in here on.

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The DVD
SPECIAL FEATURES:
  • Heart of a champion
  • 3 Deleted scenes
  • Music Video
    Two-Disc Blu-ray/DVD Combo
    SPECIAL FEATURES:
  • All the above
  • Choreographing the races
  • A conversation with the real Penny Chennery
  • Audio commentary by director Randall Wallace
  • Secretariat Multi-angle simulation
  • She enlists the aid of trainer Lucien Laurin (John Malkovich, "Burn After Reading"), a semi-retired trainer who'd rather play golf and wears the colorfully bizarre attire of the links. He's a man who needs a horse as much as the horse needs him.

    Pancho Martin (Nestor Serrano), a competing horse owner keeps the dynamics of competition alive with male bombast and bullying arrogance as he attempts to deflate Chenery's hopes by slamming a woman's place in horse racing and belittling the horse that sport reporters are so heated up about. He's pissed because he thinks his horse is the one that should be receiving all the focus as the likely winner. His attack on her serves the purpose of providing some drama (and a little humor) leading up to the races that comprise the Triple Crown, and an opportunity to show, with witty banter, that our lady won't be intimidated.

    Chenery's horse is fascinating and the camerawork does all it can to get into its qualities, both on and off the track (probably with more than one closely matching animal). Lingering close-ups on its eyes probe its understanding of what's at stake before each race. These moments do what they can to develop an intimacy with the animal we're rooting for. What the actual horse called Secretariat accomplished was astounding, stunning, worthy of Hollywood treatment, though something closer to a documentary would be of greater value.

    Lane is lovely. Malkovich is a caricature that would have been better channeled through the creative imagination of Johnny Depp. Other supporting roles are little more than standard and make no waves.

    But, you know what? Expecting nothing more than a typical sport movie, it reaches the finish line to fulfill its intentions, which is to celebrate greatness on four legs with a decent--if not record-breaking--amount of light and safe family entertainment that takes us to the races. What're the odds?

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                                          ~~  Jules Brenner  
    

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    Diane Lane as Penny Chennery
    A rare horse; a rare owner.

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