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And ... 'Secretariat' is just a little off

A horse movie is a horse movie, of course, of course.

Unless it's "Seabiscuit," the seven-Oscar nominee of 2003, which, unfortunately, "Secretariat" is not.

The latest race around the track may be about a supremely gifted horse that defied the odds to win the much-coveted Triple Crown in 1973.  But "Secretariat," though heartfelt and well-acted in some quarters, is overly theatrical at times even for a Cinderella story.

Filmmakers have choices to make when they glorify real-life triumphs for movie audiences.  The creative challenge is to raise the audience's emotional pulse with larger-than-life moments that feel real, or are at least close enough that we can pretend they're sort of real.

In this third outing in the director's chair,  TV writer/producer Randall Wallace ("We Were Soldiers," "The Man in the Iron Mask") fails to corral the over-the-top fairy tale-like emotions at times.

Diane Lane, the fine actress nominated for an Academy Award as the title character in "Unfaithful" (2002), puts on a stern face to portray Denver housewife and mother Penny Chenery Tweedy.

Unwavering in her determination to make her ill father (Scott Glenn) proud as his health steadily fades, Penny abandons her own family in 1969 to shepherd a family horse farm  in Virginia in general and a glistening colt she calls Big Red in particular.

The world will see Red as Secretariat, which scribes at the time and history later dub "superhorse."

John Malkovich, one of the finest actors working, takes on the dubious task and outlandish wardrobe of fiery trainer Lucien Laurin.  Malkovich's hats are so garish in this historical horse opera that I wouldn't be surprised if the two-time Oscar nominee ("In the Line of Fire," "Places in the Heart") didn't request to keep his wardrobe solely for the purpose of burning it.

Even excellent actors can be saddled with lines that fall below their ability to recite them.  Sadly, that's the case here.  "Secretariat" screenwriter Mike Rich, using William Nack's book "Secretariat:  The Making of a Champion" as a "suggestion," had better luck scripting "The Rookie," another real-life sports drama in 2002.

"Secretariat" is not without merit.  It's beautiful to look at in spurts, for instance.  And the five horses that stomp the turf for Big Red all bring honor to a great slice of American history that, unfortunately, is too well known to thunder to the cinematic finish line with the desired lump-in-the-throat dramatic effect.

But what the hay, it's entertainment, right?


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