Although people define themselves by their trends and personal preferences, there are exceptions to the rules that we make for ourselves. A person who claims to be pro-life committing murder for example. We are all hypocrites, yet we still do not accept this, 'irrational' the most appropriate label for humanity's capacity for reason. I for example in my reading prefer to read something under 500 pages, short and sweet. However, things like Mick Foley's Have A Nice Day and Clive Barker's Weaveworld are among my favourite books. In music, I profess to hate most popular music, particularly in the repetitive song structure, yet am a big fan of Lady Gaga. As for films, I hate romantic comedies, yet really liked (500) Days Of Summer. As for this case...
I went into Secretariat without knowing too much about the film. I found out about it through Wikipedia, and upon finding out that John Malkovich was in another film this year, decided it was required viewing. Nevertheless, I could not help but refer to the film as 'the movie about a horse' with negative connotations in that general vicinity. The film has become known in critical circles for a review by Andrew O'Hehir of Saloon.com. While enjoying the film, he wrote that Secretariat 'is a work of creepy, half-hilarious master-race propaganda almost worthy of Leni Reifenstahl’ with regards to the context of the film's setting and its addressing of politics in the US at the time. In response, Roger Ebert, who gave the film a full four stars out of four, stated that O'Hehir's review resembles 'a fevered conspiracy theory.' Also with regard to the film's politics, Ebert wrote of several other films set in the 1970s that didn't mention Vietnam, and that 'I question if a single American, right-thinking or left-thinking, thought even once of Secretariat as a Nietzschean Uberhorse.' It is irritating that a film has been getting most attention due to a ridiculous review, rather than taking it for what it is.
Anyway, synopsis time! (Side note: Please listen to Klaus Schulze - currently listening to and loving Moondawn) Penny Chenery (Diane Lane), a housewife and mother in the early 1970s, decides to take over her ill father's ranch Meadow Stables. At first, Penny is given the cold shoulder, horse breeding being very much a man's world. However, with the help of trainer Lucien Lauren (John Malkovich), she manages to gain a strong position in this male-dominated business, fostering up and coming horse Secretariat. Of course, during the film, problems occur on the way, with Penny spending more time at the ranch than at her home, the horse gets sick, her daughter has issues with the banning of her political play and what have you.
To start about what is good, lets take the acting. Obviously, being me, nice words are going to be said about Malkovich, so I'll get them out of the way and try not to annoy the hell out of you. It is amazing how within a month or two, he has two different films out with completely different roles. Having played psychopathic paranoid assassin Marvin Boggs in Red, the crotchety and anal Lucien Lauren is the other end of the spectrum. Embodying the character he plays, Malkovich does a great job of sinking into the part of this man, with his pink sweaters and silly hats (which are often the butt of a joke). However, good as Malkovich is, this is Diane Lane's film. Starting off the film in a role of a maternal nature, Lane gives us glimpses of the powerful figure underneath the housewife exterior. Her Chenery emerges gradually, becoming more and more determined, going on a journey (such a cliché) in which she really discovers herself. Also, we have by this stage the doubts outside her proud exterior, in which she voices her anxieties. There is a wonderful scene in which Chenery is just lying on a hotel room bed, listening on the phone to her daughter's play she could not attend because of work involving the horse. Lane embeds the film with an anchor of great force, ensuring that no matter how we feel of the film, we are mesmerised by her performance. The character of the real Penny Chenery is given life before our eyes in one of this year's truly fantastic female performances.
From a technical standpoint of cinematography, editing and sound the film is solid. Dean Semler makes every shot in the film shine and does a good job of capturing all of the visual information we need to process. In the dialogue scenes, this is well enough so that we can read the faces of the actors. Also, seeing as how much of the film's lighting derives from natural sources, he does a good job in making sure that the sun does not overbear the image captured. However, it is the horse-riding scenes in which the cinematography is displayed best. Views from atop the horses themselves get us involved literally in the jockey position. Furthermore, credits to the expert use of the high-defintion cameras that allow us to see everything going on. Editing corresponds excellently in these sequences. The extreme slow-motion captures of Secretariat crossing the finishing line are a thing of beauty. Also, the horse-riding sequences are not editing frantically as though attacked by an editor wearing Freddy Krueger's bladed glove. Importantly, the dialogue scenes are cut well, somewhere in between the frantic cutting of mainstream films and the slow burn of an art-house film's cutting. Finally, the film sounds terrific in the horse-riding sequences. The hooves of the horses have an amazing power in their rhythmic consistency, and their breathing is a powerful sound. Also, the fact that you are able to hear the jockey (for dramatic purposes) is a job well done, especially considering the thundering bombardment of the horses running.
Now, I really like Secretariat, but there are a number of problems with the film. For starters, the script is flawed fundamentally. I know, it doesn't help whenever you know the outcome of 'The Impossible True Story' whenever you are going in. The filmmakers make no effort to cover it up for dramatic purposes. Despite this obvious outcome, the film's script is 'impossibly' predictable. Mike Rich does a good job of the sporting related background stuff, and it is obvious that he knows his stuff, but the film that he writes around it is so so base. The atypical three-act structure that most films have is taken, although rather than the three-act structure disappearing into the background, here it is completely see-through. If it were possible that we had anti-hallucinogenic drugs, we could probably see the stitching. In Film Studies, we were given a basic three-act structure (by the iconic Gary Rhodes) example as boy gets girl, boy loses girl, back gets girl back. Take this and apply it to a horse-racing movie and here is your product. In the first act, we have setup, in the second, the anxieties and turmoil, and in the third, triumph. This does not spoil the movie okay, because from the off you will be able to see it yourself. Dialogue too is cliche-riden. If you were to take this film and have it done in mime, with the actors not opening their mouths, you and me could fill in the blanks ourselves. On a final note regarding the film's predictability, there is a scene in which people dance in the film, and you can literally guess who everyone is going to be paired up with. I got a good, post-modern ironic laugh out of this scene.
Another of the film's main problems emerge from this base predictability. The film has a running length of 116 minutes. At nearly two hours, the film is at least half-an-hour too long. Most movies would benefit from being shorter, even amazing ones like Inception. In the case of Secretariat, in which you know everything that is going to happen, the feeling of wanting the film to end is accentuated tenfold. The individual scenes themselves are good thanks to terrific performances, but the film is like a bloated whale. Personally, I would love to have received the job of cutting this down to ninety minutes, because what it needs is a vigilant editor. As a work that is incredibly predictable, it would only make sense for it to be cut to about an hour-and-a-half. By default, if a movie is longer, there is more opportunity for the outstanding problems to become visible. Unfortunately, as good as much of it is the film is highly bloated and in parts very boring.
Despite problems of predictability beyond belief and being a film inflated half-an-hour beyond bursting point, I rather liked Secretariat. It is a film of supreme charm, something that has been lacking in most films (bar the obvious Toy Story 3) this year. Also, technically it is well made, with director Randall Wallace making the right choices in this regard. Finally, the acting is great, with John Malkovich doing a great job of Lucien Lauren, but this is Diane Lane's film, who gives a tremendous star turn as Penny Chenery. Not bad for a film that I jokingly refer to as 'a movie about a horse.' It will bring a smile to your face and is one of the year’s better kid’s films.
The Thin White Dude’s Prognosis – 7.2/10
The Thin White Dude’s Self-Diagnosis - Pleased