Archive for August, 2011

“Secretariat” Movie Review

Posted in Movie Review with tags on August 15, 2011 by Alex

You’ll notice that the title of this entry does not read ‘”Rise of the Planet of the Apes” Movie Review’ and it’s because I review movies that are in front of me and not necessarily those that might be popular on any given weekend.  We can’t expect Martian Sunrise to be updated with the latest blockbuster because it doesn’t have to be.  Besides, the CG in the “Apes” trailer is laughably bad.  I’ll get to it eventually or I won’t.  Frankly, I’m not too concerned about it.

For the last two weeks I built up a rhythm of watching a movie on Friday and spending all day Saturday hammering out the best review possible.  This last weekend, I saw “Secretariat” on Friday evening and then, on Saturday, felt the urge to introduce the review by analyzing the idea of a movie’s “message” as this was essential in reviewing “Cowboys & Aliens.” This took far longer than I thought it would and if I ever finish it (should it even be necessary outside of a gradual discussion that would continue through each of my reviews) I will post it.  Yet in the midst of my foolishly mammoth task, I started feeling the symptoms of a nasty stomach bug.  This destroyed any desire for me to pump out a good review. So if you’re wondering why there wasn’t a review up last weekend, that’s what happened.

I don’t know if it’s physically possible for me to put one up every weekend but know that I’d like to.  It certainly doesn’t help that I’m so long-winded, so if there’s any scheduling conflict (even a mild one) it very will might push things back.  So know that if I have the chance, it will get done.  You got my word on that.

Now, onto the horsey flick.

I need to be quick to state that I have a negative bias against movies that seem to be set in the real world.  They have very little draw over me. I remember when I was convinced into watching “Driving Miss Daisy” and I thought it would be boring.  And I was wrong. Dead wrong.  The characters are perfectly developed (and flawlessly depicted by Freeman and Tandy).  The drama is real.  You feel like you have grown with them by the end.

I also have very little knowledge of horse racing.  My only real connection was a morbid fascination with the jockey Frank Hayes who, mid-race, died of a heart attack and still won the race as a corpse.  I don’t know if I’m so fascinated that he remained mounted even while lifeless, the fact that they still awarded him 1st, or the fact that it hasn’t been done before or since then.  Either way, a truly curious piece of our nation’s history.

In the first few frames of “Secretariat” we are treated to some interesting shots of the racing horses in their stalls as they are about to launch out.  As the camera shifts around different angles, we are treated to a reading from the Book of Job as God demonstrates His right to rule over Job because of His higher wisdom in creating so many wonderful things (in this case, the horse).  At this point, I was spellbound.

In the next scene after this brief prologue, we are introduced to the Chenery family.  We don’t know their whole story but we can tell they seem like a normal family in the late 60s.  One of the daughters is whining about her protest pageant, one of the children is playing with a wooden toy on the table, and the dad is neatly buttoned up for work and eating breakfast as he talks with a gentle but stern tone to his children and his wife Penny (played by Diane Lane).  Penny is willing to serve her husband and works tirelessly to hold the family together.  We can tell she has a good heart.  So at this point, it would seem that we are already starting to know the characters.

The phone rings and Penny answers it.  Apparently it’s terrible news, because she drops a dish.  Yet we have trouble really believing it was so awful as she reacts with an almost uninterested, calloused demeanor.  Perhaps she dropped the dish because she has bad grip.  As the movie shifts over to the funeral of Penny’s mother, we once again see her tremendously unmoved by the terrible news.  Her father is shattered but she seems almost normal.  A little somber, but not anything resembling distraught.  Which is freaky when you think about it.

There is a theory in robotics and computer animation called the uncanny valley effect. It states that robots (or CG performers) which are obviously fake typically produce a neutral or positive impression in people.  Inversely, those that are close to being lifelike are reviled.  This is said to be the reason that dolls can be so frightening (especially doing human things like sitting up in a chair having tea).  At the sight of something almost real, there is a rising up of disgust and paranoia.  The same could be said for my experience of “Secretariat.”

What began with inconsistent acting turned to almost believable acting.  Penny begins to emote in a human way, but not necessarily in a genuine way.  She is furious about the idea of someone taking advantage of their estate  but we can still see that she is an actor and not a person.  Initially I believed that this movie was going to be awesome because it had great doctrine and great cinematic execution, but the dramatic weight of the movie is entirely unsupported by the actors.

What makes it so unnerving is that “Secretariat” doesn’t seem immediately fake.   Visually, it holds up nicely.  The scenery and the sets show us a world that looks real and that we can believe.  The characters, for the most part, say their lines using the intended dynamics. But dig into the characters just below the surface, and you’ll realize that everything is a masquerade.

John Malkovich is, as always, playing a deranged character.  Perhaps what he best contributes to the movie is a sense of flair.  It sparks up when he’s on screen but then quickly dies.  I was only slightly more convinced by his performance than that of Diane Lane’s.  But he, just like everyone else, felt fake.  As it’s said in The Body Snatchers: There’s no emotion. None. Just the pretense of it. The words, the gesture, the tone of voice, everything else is the same, but not the feeling.

The title character is, oddly, the most human of them all.  When he’s in the stall we’re excited about him bursting out into the track.  Secretariat would dig his hooves into the ground, the jockey would clutch his mane showing his respect for the horse, and the snorting made us know that he was a real character that could genuinely feel.

And the camera shot from the jockey’s helmet is breathtaking.  I got excited and even told myself, “This movie might still have a chance.” But when it flashed back to the cheering crowd I lost that connection.  I don’t feel a lick of sympathy (or even recognition) for the human characters.  Unfortunately, Secretariat has to share screen time with them.  And that’s just a shame.

I’m not sure I can say much else without going into spoiler territory.  So here it is: this movie looks real and almost is real, but it’s certainly not.  This slight disparity makes it an uncomfortable experience to sit through.  I wanted to like it, but I really couldn’t.  So I’m giving it a half star out of four (one star being average).  This will make it the current low record of all my reviews.  I hope it stays that way as long as possible.

Overall Score:   .5/4 ((.5*/****)remember 1 star is average))

WARNING WARNING WARNING WARNING WARNING WARNING WARNING WARNING WARNING

MAJOR SPOILERS FOR THE SECRETARIAT MOVIE

WARNING WARNING WARNING WARNING WARNING WARNING WARNING WARNING WARNING

MAJOR SPOILERS FOR THE SECRETARIAT MOVIE

WARNING WARNING WARNING WARNING WARNING WARNING WARNING WARNING WARNING

MAJOR SPOILERS FOR THE SECRETARIAT MOVIE

WARNING WARNING WARNING WARNING WARNING WARNING WARNING WARNING WARNING

MAJOR SPOILERS FOR THE SECRETARIAT MOVIE

WARNING WARNING WARNING WARNING WARNING WARNING WARNING WARNING WARNING

MAJOR SPOILERS FOR THE SECRETARIAT MOVIE

WARNING WARNING WARNING WARNING WARNING WARNING WARNING WARNING WARNING

MAJOR SPOILERS FOR THE SECRETARIAT MOVIE

WARNING WARNING WARNING WARNING WARNING WARNING WARNING WARNING WARNING

MAJOR SPOILERS FOR THE SECRETARIAT MOVIE

WARNING WARNING WARNING WARNING WARNING WARNING WARNING WARNING WARNING

MAJOR SPOILERS FOR THE SECRETARIAT MOVIE

WARNING WARNING WARNING WARNING WARNING WARNING WARNING WARNING WARNING

MAJOR SPOILERS FOR THE SECRETARIAT MOVIE

You’ve been warned.

I’ll once again say I was immediately sucked in by the reading of Job at the beginning.  I thought, “Wow!  This movie aims to give God glory for Secretariat’s victory!”  But when I started seeing it’s flaws I thought that even though it has good doctrine, that doesn’t necessarily make it a good movie.  Just, notably, it had a good beginning trajectory.

I liked how when Penny realized that Somethingroyal was the better, yet unorthodox choice.  In the same way, God chooses strange characters in unorthodox circumstances to give Himself the maximum amount of glory.  David wasn’t the traditional pick.  He was the runt.  So was Jacob.  So was Joseph.  I can praise the movie for bringing this bit in but ultimately it’s not credit to the writers because it’s history.  But I got a good feeling even knowing it wasn’t a fabrication.

The main thing that needs to be talked about is the character of Penny and her relationship with Secretariat.  Since this movie is firmly set within the second wave of feminism a headstrong, outspoken lead character would only seem appropriate.

As far as I understand, the main motivation of women’s lib within the Civil Rights’ movement was not one out of a Christian origin (as opposed to the King combating racism from a Baptist mindset) but mostly built out of completely secular ideology (consider Madalyn Murray O’Hair).  So we should not be surprised if the values instilled in the culture since then do not entirely match with Scripture.  I’m all for women being legitimized as human beings, but I’m not okay with women being given special “rights” that are in fact liberties to sin.  I’m not surprised that non-Christians would come up with these ideas  (because I know unbelievers think that Scripture is foolishness 1 Cor 2:14), but I don’t necessarily think that exempts it from being discussed on Martian Sunrise.

My main beef with the character of Penny is how worldly she is.  Do non-believers act a certain way? Of course.  Can movies show characters making poor decisions?  Absolutely.  Do some movies tend to ignore the fact the characters are making poor decisions and instead champion their sin?  Sadly more often than not.

Disney is not an explicitly Christian company.  I want to make clear that I understand that.  I don’t expect it to have even accurate theology.  But I usually expect their movies to be at least safe.  Penny is not meant to be a complex character.  She is supposed to be a heroine that boldly challenges the status quo.  At no point are we even supposed to consider what she is doing might be wrong or even morally complicated.

She has two big flaws:

1. She does not submit to her husband as the leader in the family.  A good wife should submit to her husband (1 Pet 3:1, Eph 5:22-24, 1 Cor 11:3).  This is not to say that men have the right to treat women like dogs within marriage.  Far from it. (Eph 5:25-33).

2.  In defying his authority over the family, she puts them all in harm’s way.  Should Penny have submitted to her husband and sold everything there wouldn’t even be a chance of them falling into poverty.  Yes, Secretariat wouldn’t have won the Triple Crown and made history.  The livelihood of her family should be far more important than that.

Just the idea of putting your own family in harm’s way is frightening.  I can understand it, but it’s still despicable.  Why exactly did she think it was worth it?  I’m not sure it ultimately matters.  There is no good answer to Penny’s motivation other than pride.  She valued herself far more than that of her family.  When I realized how arrogant she was (and that the movie glorified her “finer” qualities) I felt grossed out.  And it surprised me how little this fact is getting treatment in other critics’ reviews.

The title character is, at the same time, given too much respect.  The whole point of what Penny is doing is that, in spite of what could happen, she believes Secretariat will win.  She says to Ogden Phipps, “It’s not foolish to have bad luck.”  You lose everything.  But at least you were brave enough to gamble it away.  I’m not sure that she realizes how terrible it would be if they lost everything.  And if she does, wouldn’t this be even more disquieting?

I’ll say this in the kindest way possible: she has made the horse into an idol.  Look at the scene when they almost give up hope.  The song  “Oh Happy Day” comes on the radio.  It goes like this:

When He washed, when Jesus washed…He washed my sins away! 

As they begin to wash down the horse, their hope is rekindled.  I would argue that the use of this song is about the horse (and not actually Jesus) because Secretariat is made out to be a more significant character in the story.  At no point do they ever pray to God for help, but plenty of times they don’t give up because they believe the horse can win.  As the song goes on, the camera focuses directly on the horse’s face.  The audience is supposed to realize at this point how powerful and central he is to the tale.  So we are meant to understand their amazement at this miracle horse in front of them. They believe deep down that he will save them from losing the farm and their reputation.  So, in being Lord and Savior, Secretariat becomes Jesus to them. Make no mistake that the song is brought back on the last leg of the track as the horse god enters into victory.

I find it odd that the movie would take this kind of direction.  It’s coming out of Disney (should that count for anything at all) and made by the Christian director Randall Wallace.  He claims to make movies for “people with middle-American values.”  How Wallace’s faith even factors into this movie I have no idea.  Did he realize how much glory was given to God in the first couple of seconds and then quickly taken away after that?

This is not supposed to be a story for a edgy subculture like “The Human Centipede.”  The very notion that this story could be called inspiring (or even normal) is frightening.  Penny is not a hero.  She is a villain.  But perhaps I should go back to the feminists: I can be shocked, but I don’t have to be surprised.  The idolizing of money and significance is a very American practice.  So is the pride which fuels it.

I don’t want Martian Sunrise to be a place where some angry Calvinist rants about the fallen state of the world and at the same time I need to tell the truth.   My task is to approach art as soberly as possible and analyze its best and worst qualities.   Unfortunately, “Secretariat” didn’t have enough good qualities to bring it up to the average of 1 star.  So we are going to run into movies like this that have bad doctrine and bad execution.  Better to quickly rip off the band-aid now rather than slowly peel it.  God willing, the next one should be better.