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Despite knowing nothing about horse racing, stay-at-home mum Penny Chenery agrees to take over the Meadow Stables in Virginia after her father falls ill. With the help of veteran trainer Lucien Laurin, Chenery manages to overcome the odds by navigating her way through an aggressive, male-dominated business and ultimately producing the champion racehorse, Secretariat, who becomes the first Triple Crown winner for 25 years in 1973.
For more about Secretariat and the Secretariat Blu-ray release, see Secretariat Blu-ray Review published by Kenneth Brown on February 2, 2011 where this Blu-ray release scored 4.0 out of 5.
Starring: Diane Lane, John Malkovich, Margo Martindale, Nelsan Ellis, Dylan Walsh, Otto Thorwarth
Director: Randall Wallace
» See full cast & crew
Secretariat Blu-ray Review
Hit-or-miss dramatic fare for the less discriminating genre junkie...
Reviewed by Kenneth Brown, February 2, 2011
Disney is billing Secretariat as an underdog story, but don't be fooled. Secretariat isn't just an underdog story; it's an underdogged underdog story of triple-crown underdoggedness. The titular horse is an underdog, his owner is an underdog (in at least four different spheres), her father is an underdog (fighting first with dementia, then with a stroke), the veteran trainer she hires is an underdog, her feisty jockey is an underdog (who burst his previous horse's heart), her lead stable hand is three-shades of underdog, her chief investor is an underdog, her children are underdogs vying for her attention, her oldest daughter is an underdog protesting the war in Vietnam, her husband is an underdog in his own marriage... even her horse's rival, Sham, and his arrogant owner emerge as underdogs by the time they face Secretariat in the Belmont Stakes. Come to think of it, practically everyone in the film is an underdog, making it as predictable as it is formulaic.
But when a film is as earnest and spirited as Randall Wallace's racetrack drama, when the surge of a magnificent horse and the crescendo of a rousing score make the hair on your neck bristle, does it really matter?
Based on journalist William Nack's first-hand account and subsequent 1975 book, "Big Red of Meadow Stable: The Making of a Champion," Secretariat begins with the untimely death of housewife Penny Tweedy's mother. With her family's stables at risk, Penny (Diana Lane) takes on the day to day operations of her senile father's business, hires a new trainer, the eccentric Lucien Laurin (John Malkovich), befriends a kindly stable groom, Eddie Sweat (True Blood's Nelsan Ellis), and eventually acquires a promising chestnut foal, all to the dismay of her husband (Nip/Tuck's Dylan Walsh) and older brother (Dylan Baker). She also encounters tremendous odds. The death of her father (Scott Glenn) leaves her with a six-million dollar inheritance-tax debt she can't hope to pay, a fourth-string horse few believe can win any race of merit, and the mounting pressures of a woman struggling to juggle a family and career. But hers is no ordinary spirit, and her horse is no ordinary Thoroughbred.
Secretariat oozes quasi-tragic sentimentality, plucks heartstrings so sharply they snap, and bends and bows to the will of the almighty Hollywood machine. Wallace and screenwriter Mike Rich aren't all that interested in weaving a realistic horse-race drama, nor do they push the film past the boundaries of its sweet and sappy Virginia trappings. The result is an amber-tinted period piece that pays more tribute to the convention of a Big Studio underdog tale than the complexity and timelessness of an amazing true story. Strong emotions are elicited, but every potentially resonant theme is simplified to its Golden Age basics; grand performances are delivered and marvelous racetrack choreography is unveiled, but many quieter, character-centric scenes reek of Rich's screenplay ink. All well and good if you're looking to turn that frown upside down, but not if you're hoping for a film that stands up to critical and historical scrutiny. Like its miracle horse, it idles at the back of the pack at the outset, slowly finds an inner strength and suddenly lunges ahead, hurtling toward its inevitable genre conclusion with such ferocious force, such sterile sincerity, that it nearly topples at the finish line from emotional exhaustion.
But its heartbeat, powerful as any, remains steady and true to the end. For all its Penny Tweedy vs. the World feminist romanticism, for all its family-friendly How to Train Your Thoroughbred pathos, Secretariat never pretends to wear anything but its passions on its sleeve. Lane, Malkovich, Ellis and Margo Martindale tear the film from Rich's hands, infusing characters that could have easily been one-note caricatures with poise, soul and conviction. Tweedy is intensely likable (somehow even when neglecting her family), Laurin is a source of gruff glee and legitimate laughs ("He's slower than a fat man... encased in concrete... being drug backwards!"), Sweat proves to be a soft-spoken delight every time Ellis struts on screen, and Martindale's Miss Ham steals a number of scenes from Lane (including one in which she has the unfortunate task of telling Penny her father suffered a stroke, a reserved exchange that genuinely moved me). And the races? The races are staged with such skill and prowess that I challenge anyone to shrug their shoulders when Secretariat gallops around the last bend of the Belmont Stakes track. I'd even go so far as to say the races are Wallace's salvation. The first half of his film plods along, decent but melodramatic; the second half is a different beast entirely, pointed and piercing.
I'm not ashamed to say I enjoyed Secretariat when all was said and done. Flawed as it is, telegraphed as its more maudlin first-act moments may be, I was lured to the edge of my seat again and again. From the second Penny inherits her family's stables, it's all too clear how the story will end -- it wouldn't be a very good film if Secretariat had keeled over before winning the Triple Crown, left Tweedy in financial ruin and left her family in shambles, now would it? -- but Wallace never pretends to present anything more than a feel-good biopic. Sometimes, just sometimes, it's alright to sit back, let go and allow a film to careen around the track on its own sentimental terms.
Secretariat Blu-ray, Video Quality
Several minor issues haunt Secretariat's 1080p/AVC-encoded video transfer, and it's probably best to mention them right up front. First, black levels are inconsistent -- ranging from ashy to muted to inky -- and moderate crush takes its toll. Dark suits, hair and shadows tend to merge (particularly in poorly lit interiors) and finer details are consumed in the process. Second, soft shots pop up from time to time. No, I'm not referring to anything that traces back to Dean Semler's luminous photography or his use of diffused lenses; there are simply a string of shots that are smeared or downright blurry (whether by selective noise reduction or terribly unfocused camerawork remains a mystery). It doesn't help that a small portion of the race footage was shot using lower quality horse-mounted cams.
All that being said, Secretariat's presentation is by no means a failure. Far from it. More often than not, Disney's encode is a faithful representation of Wallace and Semler's intentions; enough so to readily satisfy fans of the film. Colors are rich and vibrant, primaries are gorgeous, skintones are warm and relatively natural (despite the occasional oversaturated or flushed face), contrast is bright and bold, and delineation is decidedly decent. Overall detail is notable as well, and many a scene looks every bit as extraordinary as a new theatrical release should. Textures aren't always crisp per se, but they are refined, filmic and well-resolved; edge definition isn't razor sharp but, minor ringing aside, it's more than commendable; and the entire presentation rapidly outpaces its DVD counterpart. Moreover, artifacting, banding and other digital anomalies aren't at play (minus one jagged racetrack roof, a brief burst of macroblocking during the Kentucky Derby, and a fleeting shot of a noisy night sky, none of which amount to anything of significance). Like the film, Disney's video transfer is imperfect, sure, but all things considered, it's also perfectly pleasing.
Secretariat Blu-ray, Audio Quality
I don't have any major qualms with Disney's thunderous DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround track. Though light and leisurely during its quietest moments, Secretariat's lossless sonics prove their worth, imbuing the film's soundscape with deceptively unbridled power, commanding presence and remarkable precision. LFE output is brash and breathtaking, transforming every hoof-fall into a stampede and every pack of racehorses into a devastating earthquake. The resulting weight and heft of each resonant thoom lends the experience tremendous authority and helps intensify its most gripping scenes. Rear speaker activity is aggressive and charismatic, granting the rustle of hay in a stable the same attention as the roar of an enraptured crowd. Races take advantage of the entire soundfield to truly immersive effect, decisive directionality only heightens the illusion and Nick Glennie-Smith's score surges and relents beautifully beneath it all. Dialogue isn't entirely pitch-perfect -- a handful of lines are a bit muddled -- but a few negligible missteps shouldn't give anyone pause. Voices are warm, clear and intelligible, and hardly a word goes by that isn't neatly prioritized in the mix. All in all, Secretariat sounds fantastic; even more so as it nears its endgame.
Secretariat Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
Secretariat crosses the finish line with a solid selection of supplemental features that include a worthwhile audio commentary, several revealing featurettes, a lengthy conversation between director Randall Wallace and the real Penny Chenery/Tweedy, archive video of Secretariat's victory at Belmont Park, and other bonus materials.
Secretariat Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
Secretariat is the sort of feel-good underdog sports story some enjoy and some find derivative. I'm not sure which camp I belong in. I enjoyed Wallace's earnest period drama and its endearing characters, all the while wincing at its sticky sentiment, familiar narrative and predictable plotting. I never felt surprised or involved in Tweedy's trials, just swept up in the sincerity of the film's performances and the thrill of its races. Disney's Blu-ray release isn't flawless either, but it's more than capable. Its faithful video transfer only suffers from a few issues, its DTS-HD Master Audio track is a sonic treat, and its supplemental package, while rather traditional, is exactly what I've come to expect with similar releases. I'd still advise renting the film itself first, but if you know you're a sucker for genre pics of its ilk, then by all means add it to your cart and enjoy.
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Secretariat Blu-ray, News and Updates
• Disney Offering $8 Coupon for Secretariat Blu-ray - January 24, 2011
Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment has a printable $8 off coupon good for the purchase of the Blu-ray / DVD edition of Secretariat. This coupon is valid at participating retailers in the US and Canada, and expires on January 31. You will need dedicated coupon ...
• Secretariat Blu-ray Announced and Detailed - December 14, 2010
Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment has officially announced and detailed the Blu-ray release of Secretariat, which, as previously reported, will come out on January 25, 2011 as a Blu-ray/DVD combo pack. Bonus contents will offer never-before-shared in-depth ...
• Secretariat Blu-ray Coming Up - December 3, 2010
An early announcement to retailers indicates that Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment will release Secretariat on Blu-ray on January 25, 2011, in a BD/DVD combo pack. This family drama about the true story of the race horse who won the Triple Crown in 1973 stars ...
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