SPIRIT UNTAMED (2021, animated)

June 1, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. Any kids that watched Dreamworks’ original SPIRIT: STALLION OF THE CIMARRON (2002) are now at least in their mid-20s and many likely have kids of their own. That original film featured old school animation, and provides a nice comparison for today’s computerized “drawing”. However, from a story and character perspective this is less a sequel to that film, and more a spinoff of the original Netflix series, of which there have been more than 50 episodes.

Lucky Prescott (voiced by Isabela Merced, Dora in DORA AND THE LOST CITY OF GOLD, 2019) is a rambunctious youngster being attended to by her Aunt Cora (Oscar winner Julianne Moore) at the home of Lucky’s wealthy and now candidate-for-Governor grandfather. With no time for her shenanigans, grandpa ships off Lucky and Cora to be reunited with Lucky’s father, Jim Prescott (Jake Gyllenhaal). The two haven’t seen each other since Lucky’s mother died tragically ten years ago. On the train ride to Miradero, Lucky has a connection with a beautiful wild stallion she names Spirit. The two share a bond of wildness and independence, though soon enough Spirit is being held captive by mean-spirited horse wranglers.

Lucky and her father have an awkward reunion as he tries to keep her safe, unwilling to admit the free-spirited nature she shares with her mother, who once rode with the Los Caballeros, a local trick-riding team. Her mother’s clothes, boots, and posters open Lucky’s eyes to a world that feels like home. She befriends not just Spirit, but also a couple of local girls, Pru (Marsai Martin) and Abigail (Mckenna Grace), who are drawn to Lucky’s energy, but also recognize the danger she’s in going up against the evil wrangler (Walton Goggins).

What follows is an adventure with terrific visuals and enough action to keep the three and five year olds that I watched the film with glued to the screen. Heck Mountain and the Ridge of Regret seemed to be especially exciting for them, and I personally got a kick out of the importance of math (a word problem) in keeping Lucky on track. The film clocks in under 90 minutes, which is just right for most kids. The songs (Taylor Swift sings the trailer song) didn’t seem to make much impression, but the kid characters did. From a grown-up perspective, it’s hard to miss the fact that the adult males aren’t the best role models, and even Abigail’s young brother Snips (Lucian Perez) spends most of his time wreaking mischievous trouble. However, the lack of other political messages was a relief, and female empowerment in youngsters is always a welcome story line.

The film is co-directed by Elaine Bogan and Ennio Torreson. Writing credits go to John Fusco (the original Spirit film), Aury Wallington (the TV series) and Kristin Hahn and Katherine Nolfi. The all-star voice cast is a nice complement to the visuals (especially the mountains and clouds), and the message about independence and finding one’s own way in life. It should also be noted that the film is rated PG, not G.

Opens in theaters on Friday June 4, 2021

WATCH THE TRAILER


I, TONYA (2017)

December 21, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Your recollection of Tonya Harding is likely not that she was the 1991 U.S. Champion figure skater and a two-time Olympian. And rather than honoring her as the first female skater to land a triple axel in competition, you likely remember “the incident” in 1994 where she whacked her on-ice rival Nancy Kerrigan on the knee with a club. Only Ms. Harding wasn’t the one who attacked Ms. Kerrigan … and that’s only the beginning to what director Craig Gillespie (LARS AND THE REAL GIRL) and writer Steven Rogers (P.S. I LOVE YOU, and a bunch of other mushy stuff) detail in this madcap look at a reality infinitely stranger than most fiction.

Margot Robbie (THE WOLF OF WALL STREET) stars as Tonya Harding, and it’s a career-defining performance … funny, tragic, physical and emotionally charged. This isn’t the expected bleak biopic, but rather it’s a brilliant blend of parody, docudrama, and dark comedy focused on some real life folks that will surely make you grateful for your life. Harding’s abusive, profane and icy mother LaVona is played with aplomb by Allison Janney, who manages to bring some humor to the role of a woman whose approach went far beyond the realm of tough love and straight into cruelty. Sebastian Stan plays Tonya’s husband Jeff Gillooly and Paul Walter Hauser is Shawn Eckhardt, his friend and co-conspirator. In regards to these last two gents, we spend most of the film trying to decide if they are goofy, ignorant or downright dangerous (or all of the above).

Director Gillespie expertly weaves together the domestic scenes, ice skating scenes, and “current” interviews with the main characters. The domestic scenes include Tonya and Jeff, Tonya and her mother, Eckhardt with Tonya and Jeff, and Eckhardt with his own parents. The ice skating scenes emphasize how hard Tonya worked and her relationship with Coach Diane Rawlinson (Julianne Nicholson), while the interviews (recreated from actual interviews) provide contradictory details from the memories of Tonya, Jeff, Eckhardt and LaVona. The film tries not to make fun of them, but they kind of do it to themselves.

Bobby Cannavale appears as a “Hard Copy” reporter who provides some story structure by walking us through the timeline as reported by the media at the time. McKenna Grace plays a young Tonya, while Caitlin Carver is Nancy Kerrigan. Tonya has long been labeled as the most “notorious” figure skater, and a failed boxing career was the closest she came to capitalizing on her notoriety after the scandal. Her life and the incident have been the basis for songs, books, news specials, documentaries, TV parodies, and even a Brooklyn-based museum. The film reminds us that truth and recollections are open to interpretation, and that there is much more to the story than what was reported. Respect is too much for Tonya to hope for, but this excellent and entertaining film might deliver a dose of compassion or empathy (along with incredulity and some laughs).

watch the trailer:


GIFTED (2017)

April 6, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. The “right” choice isn’t always obvious. Things get more complicated when even the “best” choice isn’t clear. Place a young child at the heart of that decision tree, and the result may yield emotional turmoil and an abundance of moral high ground and judgment. Such best intentions are at the core of this latest from director Marc Webb (his first feature since 500 Days of Summer) and writer Tom Flynn.

Frank (Chris Evans) is raising his 10 year old child prodigy niece Mary (Mckenna Grace) in low-key small town Florida. The circumstances that brought the two of them together aren’t initially known, but are explained in a poignant moment later in the film. Frank has been home-schooling Mary and now believes it’s time she transitions to public school for the socialization aspect … “try being a kid for once” he urges. Of course, Mary’s teacher Bonnie (Jenny Slate, Obvious Child) immediately realizes Mary is special, and just like that, the wheels of the educational system are in motion to explain to Frank why they know what’s best for Mary … a high-fallutin private school where she can be all she can be.

There is a really nice and enjoyable story here of Uncle Frank dedicated to doing what he thinks is best for bright and charming and spirited young Mary, but it all comes crashing down when the bureaucrats, and ultimately Frank’s mother (Lindsay Duncan), get involved. When the adults can’t agree on the best route for Mary, a courtroom battle ensues. Ms. Duncan gets a witness scene reminiscent of Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men, and her overall performance stands in effective stark contrast to the warm fuzzies of Mr. Evans.

The supporting cast contributes nicely, though Octavia Spencer’s role as kindly neighbor Roberta is more limited than it should be, and the love connection between Evans and Ms. Slate could have easily been omitted – but she is so pleasant on screen, that we don’t mind at all. Glenn Plummer and John Finn are the attorneys who go to war, and Fred the one-eyed cat also gets plenty of screen time. But there is little doubt that the movie really belongs to the effervescent Miss Grace. She nails the back and forth between kid and genius, and we never doubt her sincerity.

Child prodigies have been explored through other fine movies such as Little Man Tate, Searching for Bobby Fischer, and Shine, and while this one may run a bit heavier on melodrama, but it’s worthy of that group. The best discussions after this movie would revolve around what’s best for the child. Should she be deprived of “higher” education in order to live within a more “normal” social environment? Are any of the adults more interested in their own ego than in what’s in the child’s best interest? Home school vs public school vs private school is always good for some fireworks, and everyone has their own thoughts. So how do we decide who gets to decide? Does a parent get the final say on their child – even if their motivations may be in doubt? Should every kid be pushed to their academic – or artistic – or athletic – limits? The questions are many and the answers are complicated. There is a great line in the film that itself is worthy of conversation: “You got on the bad side of a small-minded person with authority”. Yikes. Even Cat Stevens’ great song “The Wind” can’t soften that.

watch the trailer: