Monday, October 18, 2010

Secretariat

My father loved horse racing.  He had no specific reason to, as he didn’t grow up riding, nor was he raised by horse owners, but something about the sport connected with him.  “The horses know what’s going on,” he told me.  “They understand how racing works.”  We watched the Triple Crown races every year as a family, and every year we heard the story of Secretariat.  “A lot of people didn’t think he would have the endurance to run the Belmont,” my father said.  “When he crossed the finish line, there wasn’t another horse on the TV screen.  No other horse has ever run 1.5 miles on any dirt track as fast as Secretariat.”  That statement holds true to this day.

The story captivated me as a child, and it still does.  Secretariat carries the spirit of the story very well, though the film focuses more on the horse’s owner, Penny Chenery Tweedy, than on the horse himself.  It’s the story of how a woman of steel was stubborn and persistent enough to allow her horse to reach his potential.  When Penny Tweedy (Diane Lane) takes over her parents’ farm, disagreements arise over how best to manage it.  She takes financial risks that she really can’t afford in order to get the farm in decent shape.  After suspecting her horse trainer of being dishonest, she fires him on the spot and hires Lucian Laurin (John Malkovich) to replace him.  The film follows their journey to the 1973 Triple Crown, where Secretariat wins the Kentucky Derby, The Preakness, and the Belmont, becoming the first Triple Crown winner in 25 years.
  
There aren’t many surprises here, as it’s one of the most well-known of all sports stories.  What the film brings is an inside look at the people surrounding Secretariat: the team that believed in him when no one else did.  I don’t know how much was changed from the true story, but my guess would be not much.  Even in the midst of traditional feel-good elements, Secretariat seems authentic.  The movie clearly knows a lot about horse racing, and Mike Rich’s screenplay strikes me as smart and well-researched.

Sure, there are some formulaic bits that crop up in almost all of these inspirational sports pictures, but a few notable elements elevate Secretariat above most others in its genre.  The performances are solid all around, most notably Diane Lane as the uncompromising woman whose certainty of Secretariat’s success falls somewhere on the scale between admirable and reckless.  She conveys a lot with her face (as all good actors do), adding layers to the character that weren’t written into the screenplay.  The other memorable performance comes from John Malkovich as the kind and eccentric trainer.  Malkovich brings humor and magic to the character, taking good moments and turning them great.

The cinematography stands out, especially in the racing sequences.  Horse racing isn’t an easy sport to film, but Secretariat has cameras flying down the track in the midst of the horses, between the horses, and even from the jockey’s perspective.  The racing footage is compelling, and that’s important in a film like this.  Considering that Secretariat’s Triple Crown victories are among the most viewed and well-known of all horse races (all three of Secretariat’s Triple Crown races are on YouTube multiple times), the faithful recreation of those races is especially impressive.

The screenplay occasionally dips into familiar feel-good waters, but the film’s centerpiece never fails, which is Penny’s fierce devotion to her horse.  Secretariat doesn’t shy away from the fact that Penny poured her energy into Secretariat’s success even to the neglect of her own family.  Her husband says at one point, “When your horse people call the house, they don’t ask for Mrs. Tweedy, they ask for Ms. Chenery (her maiden name).  Is that who you’ve become?”  Her children are consistently proud of her, though she does become more of a stranger to them as the narrative progresses.  Penny doesn’t abandon her family, but even against her own wishes, she sometimes places them second to Secretariat.

It’s hard not to be inspired by this story.  As Secretariat wins the Belmont Stakes by 31 lengths, one of the characters mutters, “That’s impossible,” which pretty much sums it up.  Secretariat was an unbelievably gifted athlete, shattering records right and left and setting new records which have yet to be surpassed.  At every great race and during every great moment, one woman looked on from the stands who had the heart of a champion just as much as her horse.  When Secretariat died at the age of 19, his autopsy revealed that his heart was two and a half times larger than normal.  The same may well be true of Penny Chenery Tweedy.


Click here to view the trailer.


For the Parents:

MPAA Rating: Rated PG for brief mild language.

The “brief mild language” is barely there, but Secretariat is still aimed at adults.  Animal-loving kiddos will probably enjoy it, but some children might be bored by the dialogue and drama.  As far as content goes, I wouldn’t object to children seeing it, but the film may be slower and more dialogue-driven than some kids are used to.

Monday, October 4, 2010

The Social Network

Mark Zuckerberg belongs on a short list of individuals who have undeniably changed the world.  He is exactly one month older than I am.  While I was starting my freshman year of college in the Fall of 2003, settling in, making friends, etc., Mark was writing the code for what would become the most popular social network in the world: Facebook.  We were both 19 at the time.  Mark Zuckerberg is now the youngest billionaire in the world, holding a 24% share of Facebook worth over $4 billion.

One of the best films of the year, The Social Network masterfully shows the drama and tension that surrounded and followed Facebook’s moment of creation, and it paints a deep, human portrait of a socially-awkward young man whose genius rapidly got him in way over his head.  Some understandably feel that it is too soon for a movie about the creation of Facebook, but I don’t think so.  The world we currently live in is ready for this story, and similar movies have worked before; more time has passed between the founding of Facebook and the release of The Social Network than had passed between Watergate and the release of All the President’s Men in 1976.
 
Jesse Eisenberg plays Mark Zuckerberg as an equally arrogant and insecure person.  Obsessed with joining one of Harvard’s most elite social clubs, he wants to invent something substantial that will gain the attention of the clubs, because “they’re exclusive and fun, and they lead to a better life.”  Nearly unable to maintain normal relationships, Mark launches Facebook with one of his few good friends, Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield), in the hopes of making a name for himself.  Once Facebook takes off and Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake), founder of Napster, gets involved, the multi-billion-dollar whirlwind that follows strains Mark and Eduardo’s relationship to the breaking point.  The narrative cuts between flashbacks of Mark and Eduardo struggling to handle the explosive growth of Facebook and scenes of the two of them in a small conference room with their lawyers.  Mark says, “Eduardo was my best friend,” to which a lawyer responds, “Your best friend is suing you for 600 million dollars.”
 
Written by Aaron Sorkin (TV’s The West Wing), The Social Network joins other great dialogue-driven thrillers, such as 12 Angry Men, All the President’s Men, and Frost/Nixon.  I don’t think The Social Network is as strong as those titles, but it belongs to the same genre of films where the thrills aren’t derived from action but come up out of the dialogue, the performances, the music, and the pacing.  Sorkin’s screenplay contains plenty of computer-speak, but you don’t have to be tech savvy to understand the story and the drama.  Director David Fincher (Se7en, The Game, Fight Club) casts visual style and flare onto every scene, but he does so in subtle, non-distracting ways, such as through lighting and purposeful framing.  The music constantly ratchets the tension, building suspense during what might otherwise be occasional lulls in the drama.  There’s also a masterful visual effect in the characters of Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss, twin brothers who sue Mark Zuckerberg for having stolen the idea for Facebook; I didn’t realize until the end credits that the brothers were portrayed by one actor, Armie Hammer.
 
Performances stand out across the board.  Jesse Eisenberg makes Mark strange, likable, mean-spirited, and brilliant.  It’s a remarkable mix and a fine performance.  Andrew Garfield plays Eduardo Saverin as an understandably hurt individual who had the misfortune of being the only nice guy in a sea of selfish colleagues.  The other deeply kind person in the story is Erica Albright (Rooney Mara), who appears in just a few brief but memorable scenes as the woman who sees straight through Mark Zuckerberg and doesn’t like what she sees.  “You’ll probably be a very successful computer person,” she tells Mark early on, looking at him tenderly, “and you’re going to go through life thinking that girls don’t like you because you’re a tech geek.  I want you to know, from the bottom of my heart, that that won’t be true.  It’ll be because you’re an asshole.”  After Mark blogs some very cruel comments about her, he tries to reconcile without even really apologizing, but Erica won’t have it.  “The Internet isn’t written in pencil, Mark; it’s written in ink.”
 
Despite her accurate condemnations, The Social Network’s portrait of Mark Zuckerberg is rounded.  He isn’t a bad guy, but you wouldn’t want to spend too much time with him either.  He was a brilliant college student who had an idea that he suspected could one day be worth millions of dollars; he never imagined that it might be worth billions.  He imagined that students would use it to connect with their friends, but he didn’t foresee students’ parents using it to connect with their friends.  The grand irony comes at the end of the film, billions of dollars later, when it isn’t any easier for Mark Zuckerberg to connect with others.  Once Mark hits the “Invite” button, he waits for that person to accept his friend request, just like the rest of us.


Click here to view the trailer.


For the Parents:

MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for sexual content, alcohol and drug use, and language.

The Social Network contains implied sex but no nudity.  Young women are seen dancing in their underwear, and the film has some strong language and drug use.  I wouldn’t recommend it for preteens, as the content and story are aimed at adults.  Teenagers will probably connect with the plot set in the world of social networking, but The Social Network is a drama built around success and betrayal.  The trailer gives a strong sense of the overall experience.