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Featured Blu-ray / DVD Review: Secretariat

January 20th, 2011

Secretariat - Buy from Amazon: DVD or Blu-ray / DVD / Digital Copy Combo Pack

When Secretariat came out, many people compared it to The Blind Side for a number of reasons. They are both sports movies, they are both based on real life events, and they both came out at the same time of year. However, while they both earned similar reviews, The Blind Side became a surprise hit earning more than $250 million, while Secretariat struggled to find an audience. So, did Secretariat deserve better?

The Movie

The film stars Diane Lane as Penny Chenery, who at the start of the film learns her mother just passed away. She travels back home to find out her father's dementia is soo bad that he can't run the family horse stables. She decides to stay to help with the day-to-day operations and return the stables to profitability. In order to do so, she has to hire a new trainer, Lucien Laurin, who is talented, but has a reputation for losing the big races. She also learns one of her father's mares is about to give birth to a potential champion horse, who will become known as Secretariat. But horse racing was, and still is, a predominantly male world and running a stable means she's away from her family for large stretches of time, which is hard on her home life.

Yeah, that's pretty much the extent of the plot. It's a very much by the numbers inspirational sports story. I didn't find it all that inspirational, however. I recently reviewed Loius C.K.'s latest stand-up DVD. In this set he talks about White People Problems, as opposed to real problems. I kept thinking about this while watching this movie. Except it's not White People Problems, but Rich People Problems. Very early on in the movie, they complain about having to pay the inheritance tax on the estate, which was $6 million. Someone offered to buy Secretariat for $7 million, while the rest of the stable was worth about $3 million. ... The whole ranch was worth $10 million in the early 1970s. Granted, they had a lot of taxes to pay, but they had a choice to sell it all and walk away multi-millionaires. By comparison, in Cinderella Man, Russel Crowe's choice was stage a comeback in a brutal sport, or not have enough money to feed his kids.

There was the whole sexism angle, but that was either underplayed or so over-the-top that it too was a wasted opportunity for real drama. Early on, Penny is told she can't go into a country club, because it's men only, but she goes in anyway. However, she isn't thrown out, because she there to meet a friend of her father, who insists she can stay. And for most of the movie, that's as close as we come to seeing how hard it was for her as a woman in this world. Latter on we meet the owner of Sham, the horse that is Secretariat's main rival, and he's so cartoon villain sexist that it was unintentionally funny rather than dramatic. The family drama had more impact, but that too was glossed over too much, as was any talk of politics at the time.

That said, I did enjoy many of the performances in the film, including Diane Lane, John Malkovich, and some of the supporting cast, while the cinematography during the racing scenes were especially impressive. I just wish the script lived up to those strengths instead of coasting on autopilot for much of the plot.

The Extras

This is another case where the studio is putting out the DVD for rentals and the Blu-ray for purchase. The only extras on the DVD are a featurette on the making of the movie and some deleted scenes, with an audio commentary track.

The Blu-ray has those, plus an audio commentary track with the director. Interview with the real Penny Chenery, a featurette on the filming of the horse races, and a music video by AJ Michalka (who was also in the movie as one of Penny Chenery's daughters). Finally, there's a Multi-Angle Simulation of the Preakness Stakes. You can watch the race five ways, from the point of view of a jockey, from the point of view of a spectator, etc., while listening to commentary from a real life jockey, a reporter, etc. I'm not sure why only one race is presented this way. It would have been better to have fewer angles and all three races.

Moving onto the technical presentation, I noticed a few problems here and there. Nothing too severe, but there were a few shots that were a little soft, the colors didn't pop as much, and the blacks were not as deep in some scenes as they should be. I'm not entirely sure if this is a problem with the transfer or an artistic decision to make the film look older. (The story is almost 40 years old, so having a look that is too modern might be something the filmmakers wanted to avoid.) As for the audio, it ranges from clear and uncomplicated in most of the dramatic scenes, to booming and dynamic during the racing scenes. Unfortunately, there are not that many racing scenes, so there are more of the former than the latter, but it is still a great track.

Finally we get to the price. On, the Blu-ray / DVD Combo Pack costs just $5 more than the DVD alone. $5 more and you get several exclusive extras, audio / video that's worth the upgrade, and the DVD. Unless you have no interest in High Definition, the combo pack is clearly the better choice.

The Verdict

Secretariat is a movie that tries really hard to be inspirational, but a by-the-numbers script hobbles an otherwise fine movie that does feature some strong performances. Fans of horse-racing should really enjoy the few racing sequences in the film, but I'm not sure there's enough of those to warrant purchasing over renting. The DVD is definitely only worth renting, while the Blu-ray / DVD / Digital Copy Combo Pack is absolutely the better deal if you are looking to purchase the movie.

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