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A view on Blu-ray and DVD video by Leonard Norwitz

Seabiscuit [Blu-ray]

 

(Gary Ross, 2003)

 

 

 

 

 

Review by Leonard Norwitz

 

Studio:

Theatrical: Universal / Larger-Than-Life & Kennedy/Marshall

Blu-ray: Universal Studios Home Entertainment

 

Disc:

Region: All

Runtime: 140 min

Chapters: 25

Size: 50 GB

Case: Standard Blu-ray case

Release date: May 26th, 2009

 

Video:

Aspect ratio: 2.35:1

Resolution: 1080p

Video codec: VC-1

 

Audio:

English DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1; Spanish & French DTS 5.1

 

Subtitles:

English SDH, Spanish & French

 

Extras:

• Feature Commentary by Director Gary Ross, with Steven Soderbergh

• Bringing the Legend to Life: The Making of Seabiscuit – in SD (15:06)

• Anatomy of a Movie Moment – in SD (4:45)

• Seabiscuit: Racing Through History – in SD (14:53)

• Photo Finish: Jeff Bridges' Photo Scrapbook – in SD (5:21)

• The Longshot – in SD (3:17)

• Seabiscuit vs. War Admiral: The 1938 Race – in SD (2:12)

• Winners' Circle: The Heroes Behind the Legend – in SD (20:15)

• HBO First Look – in SD (13:02)

• A&E: The True Story of Seabiscuit – in SD (45:12)

 

 

The Film: 8
When I was still in single digits I enjoyed playing a horseracing board game featuring the great thoroughbred champions of the recent past: Man O War, Whirlaway, Citation, Count Fleet, Gallant Fox, War Admiral and Seabiscuit. The names have always stuck in my consciousness and for the longest time I had thought that Seabiscuit had the same certification as the others. It was only through Laura Hillenbrand's 2001 book about the extraordinary quartet of lives that produced this unlikely champion that I came to find out that Seabiscuit never ran in a single Triple Crown race. (He did run at Pimlico in 1938, but not for the Preakness.) And though I knew about the great race with War Admiral I had not made the connection that the two horses were closely related.


The movie interweaves the stories of owner Charles Hunter (Jeff Bridges), trainer Tom Smith (Chris Cooper), jockey Red Pollard (Tobey Maguire) and the horse himself (more like eight different horses, depending on the mood and traits required in a given scene). It was an unlikely confluence of troubled lives - redeemed, as it were, by the horse himself. The horse became a national hero at a time when the country needed one, just as we were climbing out of the Great Depression. So, Gary Ross's movie is frankly ambitious, since it is not merely the story of the horse, or the men that brought him to glory, but a piece of our country's history and our love affair with Seabisuit and of heroes that he intends to tell.

And tell it he does, recreating the time and place with all manner of period detail. Bridges and Cooper, for my money, are absolutely dependable, but I worried about Maguire, never previously counting myself as one who thought he was an actor, but just lucky enough to be at the right age, in the right place at the right time for the movies he happened to star in. Seabiscuit was the first - and so far, only – movie that convinced me there was a talent lurking in there somewhere. His portrayal of Red Pollard, a driven, hard luck case if there was one, required some real energy to bring off. I had always thought of him as timid and a little bit lazy (or, maybe the one was a manifestation of the other), with Ross's Pleasantville almost cutting mustard. But not here. Maguire's Red Pollard takes his lumps. I feel his pain, his ambition and his hope.

 


 

Image: 8/9  NOTE: The below Blu-ray captures were taken directly from the Blu-ray disc.
The first number indicates a relative level of excellence compared to other Blu-ray video discs on a ten-point scale. The second number places this image along the full range of DVD and Blu-ray discs.

Taking its cue from the vintage photographs that the movie begins with, Seabiscuit eschews the razor sharp images of many contemporary movies. Instead, the movie has a painterly look to it, like the kind of artwork that hangs about in any race track Jockey Club. Not that the image is soft, but it would not do for Seabiscuit to look like a thriller. Incidentally, it helps that a less than perfectly sharp picture helps to create the illusion that Tobey Maguire isn't riding a horse most of the time.

Colors are intense and rich without becoming oversaturated, with reds and greens the primary beneficiaries. On my screen, Pollard's Howard Red racing jersey has a touch more blue in it than I thought it should, but all colors and flesh tones are convincing, given the light we see them in. I found no distracting artifacts, blemishes (the dirt comes naturally), enhancements, or brightening. Shadows are deep, without crushing the blacks.

 

CLICK EACH BLU-RAY CAPTURE TO SEE ALL IMAGES IN FULL 1920X1080 RESOLUTION

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Audio & Music: 8/8
The audio mix makes or breaks itself in its ability to reproduce the thunder of horses racing across the plains or on a track. A good audio mix will distinguish one track from another. When I closed my eyes I thought I could imagine the quality of the track. Movement of the horses from side to side was well sorted out, and the surrounds placed the grandstand audience nicely behind us during the races. Rain is well done, too, rendering the difference between open spaces and closed: track and stables, whether heard from indoors, under a pavilion or umbrella, in a downpour or a wet mist. The mix was also successful in the subtle bits: as in the bicycle shop where Charles Howard works tuning spokes in the beginning of the movie. Dialogue is always clear and crisp and audible in the noisy racing scenes.

 

Operations: 7
The menu is laid out like other Universal Blu-rays. Arrows tell you which way to direct your remote, and the bonus feature instructions are detailed and intuitive. There is no U-Control this time around.

 

 

 

Extras: 8
Excepting that none of the bonus features are HD, they certainly cover the field. All of the extras from the DVD are here (a routine Making of Seabiscuit, a casual documentary of Seabiscuit's Racing Through History, Gary Ross taking us step by step from screenplay to finished product, "The Longshot" segment through the lens of Buick, cast bios, and Jeff Bridges' skilled work as a candid photographer). A much more extended documentary from the A&E Channel is new as are a couple of vintage clips of the big race itself. The commentary is in something of an interview format, revealing Ross to be as good as his word. Ross wrote the screenplay – a talent he has manifest in the past (Pleasantville, Dave, Big) – from a book by Laura Hillenbrand (who turns up in the making-of featurette). Ms. Hillenbrand was an important advisor for the movie, and Ross never fails to give her her due.

 

 

Bottom line: 9
Beautiful to look at, well acted from all quarters, a big story in every sense. The Blu-ray is the best video version of this movie so far and, I imagine, for some time to come. Warmly and highly recommended.

Leonard Norwitz
May 16th, 2009

January 16th, 2010

 

 

 

 


 

About the Reviewer: I first noticed that some movies were actually "films" back around 1960 when I saw Seven Samurai (in the then popular truncated version), La Strada and The Third Man for the first time. American classics were a later and happy discovery.

My earliest teacher in Aesthetics was Alexander Sesonske, who encouraged the comparison of unlike objects. He opened my mind to the study of art in a broader sense, rather than of technique or the gratification of instantaneous events. My take on video, or audio for that matter – about which I feel more competent – is not particularly technical. Rather it is aesthetic, perceptual, psychological and strongly influenced by temporal considerations in much the same way as music. I hope you will find my musings entertaining and informative, fun, interactive and very much a work in progress.


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