Saturday, May 14, 2011

A Winning Horse and Two Marriages on the Edge

Making movies based on historical events is tricky enough, but filming a suspenseful history story is really difficult, especially when it's a well-known sports event. Last year's SECRETARIAT is no exception. We already know that Big Red was the wonder horse who won the Grand Slam of racing back in 1972 and holds incredible records. This film tackles these challenges by sharing the focus with believable characters played by fine actors. Chief among these are Diane Lane as Penney Chenery, who takes over her father's horse farm after her mother's death and his being incapacitated, naturally against incredible odds (her family is in Denver, not, Virginia; she's a woman in a man's world; the farm is in serious financial trouble). Lane brings a caring warmth to the part that eventually turns to grit as she proves she can deal with the best of the men in the racing business. As her eccentric trainer, John Malkovich adds humor and grace to the proceedings. All the stereotypes of the sports film are here: impossible goals and odds, swelling music, gorgeous dawn and dusk shots of Virginia and Kentucky blue grass, a boatload of typical sidekicks. Plus, a gospel version of "Oh, Happy Day" keys up when inspiration is called for. Somehow it all works beautifully. SECRETARIAT is even better than SEABISCUIT, which attempted to be a story of national unity and personal redemption, filmed with such "importance" that it was hard to relate to. This is one horse who goes the distance.

Another more recent dvd edition is the Oscar-nominated BLUE VALENTINE, a somber and achingly sad examination of a couple falling apart. Acted with unspairing and often painfully real power by Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling, the film freely moves in time to show the highs and lows of the couple's relationship. He is a high school drop-out who moves furniture and she a pre-med student when they meet. By the time they break up, they have a loving daughter, she has a career, and he is the same boy he was when they met. Gosling has a great ability to exhibit natural charm, incendiary fury, and heartfelt regret. And Phillips never makes a false emotional note. If you can take this one, it's worth it. A suitable companion piece is the emotional drama RABBIT HOLE starring Nicole Kidman, Aaron Eckhart, and Dianne Wiest. It is a stark portrayal of a marriage on the edge after the accidental death of their four year old son. All of the actors bring strong conviction to their roles, and an intelligent script and smart direction make this worth watching. CAUTION: Don't watch these two together!

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