Saturday, October 16, 2010

Movie with Abe: Secretariat

Directed by Randall Wallace
Released October 8, 2010

This year’s feel-good dark horse (no pun intended) Oscar contender is being compared to “The Blind Side,” the sappy drama that won Sandra Bullock an Oscar last year. The comparison, which to many might be favorable on both ends, isn’t quite fair. While both movies follow strong-willed women with a passion for sports, there are important differences in the storytelling and execution of the plot that separate the two films, placing the feel-good period piece “Secretariat” a whole number of lengths ahead of “The Blind Side” in terms of effectiveness, filmic competence, and overall quality as a film.

“Secretariat” is based on a true story, and therefore the film’s plot may already be known to many viewers before entering the theatre. Yet the film still starts out with a pessimistic outlook on the future of the Chenery farm, now in a state of flux after the death of its more ardent caretaker. But almost instantly, the drive and the fervor of Penny Tweedy, nee Penny Chenery, becomes clear. Her appreciation of the need to honor her parents’ wishes and not to give up on their prized horses is inspiring, and though it alienates her husband, it’s evident that she’s doing something important to her and that will have an impact felt by people all across the country.

At times, “Secretariat” feels over-sentimentalized and cheesy, but it’s appropriated properly and can be attributed to the time period in which the film takes place. Most importantly, the film improves considerably over the course of its run time, as Penny gains more confidence and the public begins to rally around the figure of Secretariat. By the time the famed horse is ready to compete in significant, widely-watched races, it’s hard not to be on Secretariat’s side, cheering for him to race on ahead and leave the competition in the dust.

This isn’t a film that should be about performances, considering it’s the horse’s performance on which its success is most dependent, but it’s worth pointing out a few key cast members anyway. Diane Lane has earned much praise for her portrayal of the trailblazing Penny, alternately known as Penny Chenery and Penny Tweedy. It’s a fine performance that works well as the conduit for the film, but, as should have been the case with Bullock’s turn last year, it isn’t deserving of Oscar recognition. It’s great to see John Malkovich on screen, and his role as a malcontent, sarcastic Canadian trainer provides much of the film’s more entertaining moments. The supporting roles are well cast, and the ensemble includes Scott Glenn, James Cromwell, Dylan Walsh, Amanda Michalka, Nestor Sorrano, and most memorably, Nelsan Ellis of “True Blood” as Secretariat’s caretaker and Margo Martindale as the Chenery family assistant. Pay no attention to Kevin Connolly, who tries to escape his “Entourage” past by growing a silly mustache and failing miserably to appear in a dramatic film. Overall, “Secretariat” isn’t a great movie, but at times, it’s a stirring and compelling experience.


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