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Secretariat Blu-ray + DVD Review

Secretariat (2010) movie poster Secretariat

Theatrical Release: October 8, 2010 / Running Time: 123 Minutes / Rating: PG / Songs List

Director: Randall Wallace / Writers: Mike Rich (screenplay); William Nack (suggested by Secretariat: The Making of a Champion)

Cast: Diane Lane (Penny Chenery/Tweedy), John Malkovich (Lucien Laurin), Dylan Walsh (Jack Tweedy), James Cromwell (Ogden Phipps), Kevin Connolly (Bill Nack), Nelsan Ellis (Eddie Sweat), Dylan Baker (Hollis Chenery), Margo Martindale (Miss Elizabeth Ham), Scott Glenn (Chris Chenery), AJ Michalka (Kate Tweedy), Drew Roy (Seth Hancock), Graham McTavish (Earl Jansen), Fred Dalton Thompson (Bull Hancock), Eric Lange (Andy Beyer), Nestor Serrano (Pancho Martin), Otto Thorwath (Ronnie Turcotte), Carissa Capobianco (Sarah Tweedy), Sean Cunningham (Chris Tweedy), Jacob Rhodes (John Tweedy), Mike Harding (E.V. Benjamin), Richard Fullerton (Robert Kleburg)

Buy Secretariat from Amazon.com: Blu-ray + DVD DVD


and Aaron Wallace

After a few years away, the inspirational true sports drama returned to Disney in 2010 with Secretariat. The film adds horse racing to three competitive sports already tackled -- baseball (The Rookie), hockey (Miracle), and football (Invincible) -- by producers Gordon Gray and Mark Ciardi.
Despite that modest legacy, it was a non-Disney film that Secretariat drew comparisons to in its timing, arriving a year after The Blind Side became an unexpected box office behemoth, a Best Picture Academy Award nominee, and an Oscar winner for Sandra Bullock. Disney apparently hoped it could win over Middle America and earn recognition for its own 45-year-old leading lady, Diane Lane. But, as if there was any question, football (even on a high school level) still seems to be a bigger draw than horse racing in America.

While Secretariat was once a household name, today it's become pretty obscure outside of sports retrospectives. Back in 1973, the 3-year-old Thoroughbred's achievement as the first U.S. Triple Crown winner in twenty-five years drew comparisons to the likes of Muhammad Ali. Secretariat tells the tale of the champion horse (whose Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes records stand nearly forty years later) and its owner Penny Chenery (Diane Lane).

"Secretariat" stars Diane Lane as Penny Chenery Tweedy, mother, housewife, and owner of the first U.S. Triple Crown-winning horse in 25 years. John Malkovich plays Secretariat's French-Canadian trainer Lucien Laurin, here given a loud, eccentric fashion style that's big on pink and plaid.

As written by Mike Rich (The Rookie, Radio, Finding Forrester, and The Nativity Story) and directed by Braveheart scribe Randall Wallace (We Were Soldiers, The Man in the Iron Mask), Secretariat seems fully aware that its tale is unfamiliar and potentially uninteresting to a substantial chunk of the population.

To compensate for this, the film takes great strides to remain widely engaging. It throws in a lot of elements, presumably either exaggerated or outright imagined, in hopes to render itself identifiable and memorable. There is the strong housewife juggling a financially burdened family of six and her against-the-odds dream. There is gentle comedy to lighten the mood and transition from one scene to another. There is the Baby Boomer daughter with her fashionable political activism, death in the family, the black stableman (Nelsan Ellis) who seems to connect with the chestnut colt on some spiritual level, and a period tune or two to invite recognition.

These and other angles are in place seemingly to illustrate that Secretariat is not just another real-life sports drama. But it absolutely is and only when it accepts that in the final act does it find and share comfort. Cognizant of the limits of equestrian spectatorship, the movie avoids race track footage for much of its two-hour runtime. Naturally, it has to depict all three races comprising the Triple Crown. It does so sparingly and with copious looks at Penny sitting among supporters and naysayers. It also does so creatively, taking us as close and cinematically to the action as I've ever seen. The generically reverent score by Nick Glennie-Smith flares. The gallops and audience noises engulf you. Everything is bathed in the golden light of what apparently was the endless sunset of the early '70s.

Joining the ranks of John Coffey and Bagger Vance, Secretariat's groom Edward Sweat (Nelsan Ellis) is one of cinema's latest Magical Negro characters. We get an up close and personal look at Secretariat's race track heroics.

Will you be moved, gripped, and inspired? Maybe. Many who paid to see the film in theaters were, lending a word-of-mouth factor that has pushed the movie's overall gross towards a strong five times its modest opening weekend take. While much smaller in number, I would guess that the audience was demographically comparable to The Blind Side's moviegoers, sweeping up in its feel-good facts those who typically avoid cinemas and condemn Hollywood.
I also think that a predilection for this kind of movie and especially the consistently competent Disney/Gray/Ciardi version of it will also sweeten your opinion. That said, there is the danger of having seen too many inspirational sports dramas to be affected by every one of them.

Secretariat boasts an impressive volume of acting talent, casting respected veterans in small roles that anyone might have handled. To me, the standout isn't Lane, who while adequate doesn't seem to add anything to what's on the page besides a head on which to place a blonde wig. It is John Malkovich, claiming generous pre-title billing and being the one reliable diversion as Lucien Laurin, the eccentric French-Canadian trainer partial to brightly-colored plaid. Other familiar faces include Dylan Walsh, playing Penny's husband as someone you suspect is headed for justified divorce; Dylan Baker as Penny's brother; Margo Martindale as Penny's faithful assistant; James Cromwell as an adversary-turned-bankroller; "Entourage" star Kevin Connolly as a loud muttonchopped reporter (whose real-life book "suggested" this movie); and former presidential candidate Fred Dalton Thompson as an expository associate.

Three and a half months after opening in theaters, Secretariat comes to home video, taking the final January Tuesday date that is always popular with Disney's home video department. Digital copy fans get no love as the movie is released to DVD and a Blu-ray + DVD combo pack whose DVD is identical to the standalone release. We look at the two-disc set here.

Buy Secretariat (2010) Blu-ray + DVD Combo from Amazon.com Blu-ray & DVD Details

2.35:1 Widescreen (DVD Anamorphic)
Blu-ray: DTS-HD 5.1 (English); DVD: Dolby Digital 5.1 (English)
Both: Dolby Digital 5.1 (French, Spanish), Dolby Surround (Descriptive Video Service)
Subtitles: English for Hearing Impaired, French, Spanish
Closed Captioned; Most Extras Subtitled and Captioned
Release Date: January 25, 2011
Two single-sided, dual-layered discs (1 BD-50 & 1 DVD-9)
Suggested Retail Price: $39.99
Blue Keepcase in Embossed Cardboard Slipcover
Also available in Standalone DVD ($29.99 SRP)

VIDEO and AUDIO

With its nostalgic yesteryear setting, increasingly marginalized subject, sun-kissed look, and classical stylings, you'd more than expect Secretariat to have been shot on film. So it's surprising when the digital video feel sinks in on some shots. The DVD's 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer cannot be faulted in any way. The movie is pleasing to both the eye and the ear. The sense of sound is especially tickled in the wealth of race track atmosphere and score.

By Blu-ray standards, the 1080p AVC-encoded HD transfer is less pleasing. Generally speaking, the movie looks fine, but often softer than we're used to seeing with brand-new movies on BD. The picture lacks the detail and contrast that the hi-def format is known for. There's frequently blurriness around the edges too, particularly in outdoor scenes. Shots filmed at the race tracks are the most problematic, but unfortunately, there are a lot of those. How much fault can be assigned to the production versus the HD transfer, I can't be sure. Ultimately, none of this amounts to much of a burden, but don't hold your breath in hopes that it will be taken away.

The Blu-ray's DTS-HD MA 5.1 surround sound track certainly gets the job done. Channel separation and bass levels are as strong as they could be. Dialogue and score are perfectly mixed and sound fantastic. While the soundtrack won't overwhelm you either, you'd be hard pressed to muster a single complaint.

At age 88, the real Penny Chenery, given an uncredited appearance in the film's closing moments, recalls her special horse in "Heart of a Champion." Penny bids goodbye to her family with a finger over her smile, as John Malkovich approaches in this deleted scene, the DVD's longest.

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS and PACKAGING

The home video industry's treatment of the unbeatably prosperous DVD format as second-class continues here, with standard definition customers getting just three extras and two promotional shorts persuading them to upgrade.

The featurette "Heart of a Champion" (14:56) centers on the horse, not the movie. In addition to a good amount of the thoroughbred's race footage, it collects remarks from people involved with the film and those who dealt with Secretariat, including Penny Chenery herself. Like the film, you might find it a challenge to care about this.

The DVD's deleted scenes section consists of three brief, disposable sequences (2:41). Director Randall Wallace comments on the cuts and narrates a 40-second introductory video.

Complementing her supporting role in the film, AJ Michalka, Aly's younger sister, gets to perform the Randall Wallace-penned end credits song "It's Who You Are" in this music video. Secretariat rushes to the finish line in ultra-slow motion on the DVD's sepia-toned main menu.

The 4-minute music video for the end credits song "It's Who You Are" has AJ Michalka performing on hay and in stables between clips of the movie. The less famous half of sister act 78violet (formerly Aly & AJ), Michalka plays Penny's hippie daughter in the movie, which is advertised more conventionally than usual here (with title, tagline and MPAA rating table).

The DVD's "Bonus Features" wrap up with "Discover Blu-ray 3D with Timon & Pumbaa" (4:24) and "Dylan & Cole Sprouse: Blu-ray is Suite" (4:45), two shorts (one animated, one live-action) designed to make you buy new equipment that if you're watching on DVD you probably feel you don't need.

The BD-exclusive bonuses begin with a feature-length audio commentary by director Randall Wallace. His voice is much lower and more monotone here than it normally is, rendering the track less engaging than it could be.
Still, he has lots and lots to say, most of it fairly interesting. More than anything, his sincere passion for this story shines through and makes you wish you could like the movie a little more.

That's followed by "Choreographing the Races" (6:27, HD), an average making-of featurette with a focus on the horse racing sequences. Cast and crew appear dutifully as talking heads in this brief behind-the-scenes look.

Next is the set's best supplement, "A Director's Inspiration: A Conversation with the Real Penny Chenery" (21:12, HD). Wallace sits down with Chenery for an intimate and honest conversation about the real story behind the film. Chenery is a spunky lady who tells it like she sees it, holding nothing back in her approval of and objections to the liberties Wallace took in the movie. It's a real shame that DVD viewers don't get to see this one.

"Secretariat Multi-Angle Simulation" (HD) is a curious feature that chats briefly with four people who each have a different perspective on Secretariat's famous 1973 Preakness Stakes Race: a jockey (3:43), a horse racing reporter (5:09), a historian (3:35), and a spectator who was there that day and now works in horse gaming design (4:14). Each of these subjects also comments during a CGI recreation of the race, which is shown from a different angle with each speaker. Like a 24-hour news network, a lot of other information clutters the screen during playback, including a reel of historical events that unfolded during the 1970s (disappointingly, Disney reports the wrong opening date for its own Walt Disney World Resort).

After the four speakers, the same window allows us to watch the original news footage of the actual 1973 race (2:12), presented in standard definition and windowboxed within the larger HD chronology frame. For all its flaws, the movie does leave you wanting to see some of the original race, so it's very cool that Disney's included it here. Again, it's just a shame that DVD folks can't see it.

Finally, the Blu-ray offers four additional deleted scenes (HD), including an alternate opening. None of them are really worth your time, but they don't take much of it. Altogether, the BD-exclusive scenes add up to just over six minutes and they too are all joined by Wallace's optional audio commentary.

The Blu-ray also includes every bonus feature found on the DVD, each presented in HD.

Both the DVD and Blu-ray open with ads for Disney Blu-ray 3D, Disneynature's African Cats, and Tangled. On each disc, the menu's "Sneak Peeks" listing repeats these disc-openers, then plays ads for Disney Movie Rewards, Cars 2, Sharpay's Fabulous Adventure, The Incredibles Blu-ray, Spooky Buddies: The Curse of the Howlloween Hound, The Lion King, and Phineas and Ferb: Across the 2nd Dimension.

The DVD's nostalgic DVD main menu runs a sepia-toned montage. The Blu-ray's main menu is very similar.

John Tweedy (Jacob Rhodes), Penny (Diane Lane), Lucien (John Malkovich), and Edward (Nelsan Ellis) witness the miracle of horse birth.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

Gordon Gray and Mark Ciardi's real-life sports dramas for Disney take a clear, easy path to acclaim. The stories are factual enough and the treatment is always technically sound and suitably serious. Who but cynics can do anything but applaud the underdogs who defy odds and gloriously triumph? Perhaps those who notice the simple calculation and have trouble being moved by it.
Secretariat seems less deserving than the group's three previous true sports dramas of the approval most viewers will give it. The more movies you see, the less impressed you will be by something like this, which aspires not to greatness or authenticity, but satisfying everyone with tidy, conventional heroics. At least there isn't as wide a gap between my personal estimation of the film and that of the general public as there was on The Blind Side. Though its values are similar, Secretariat is more subtle and less manipulative.

Though the DVD's feature presentation is excellent, the bonus features are lacking, with the audio commentary, making-of featurettes, and half the deleted scenes needlessly kept exclusive to the Blu-ray. The Blu-ray fares much better. Nevertheless, I see this becoming a movie that is bought by many and frequently revisited by few.

Buy Secretariat from Amazon.com: Blu-ray + DVD / DVD / The Book by William Nack

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Secretariat Songs List (in order of use): AJ Michalka - "Silent Night", The Staple Singers - "I'll Take You There", Edwin Hawkins Singers - "Oh Happy Day", Scott Nickoley and Jamie Dunlap - "The Longest Goodbye", Nick Glennie-Smith - "I Am Free", The University of Kentucky Marching Band - "My Old Kentucky Home", Andrew Wallace - "It's Not How Fast, It's Not How Far", AJ Michalka - "It's Who You Are"

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Reviewed January 23, 2011.

Screencaps from DVD.