Spirit: Untamed

Posted on June 3, 2021 at 5:04 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: 4th - 6th Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for some adventure action
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Action-style peril, sad offscreen death of parent
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: June 4, 2021

Copyright DreamWorks 2021
If there’s an aspiring grad student looking for a sociology paper topic, a compare and contrast approach to the original “Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron,” released in 2002, and 2021’s “Spirit Untamed,” with references to the “Spirit Riding Free” series on Netflix. The original film was hand-drawn and the new version, like the series, is computer-animated. But the gap between the two feature films allows for distinctive evidence of changes in culture as well as technology.

The original film centered on the title character a wild horse captured by cowboys but searching for freedom. He was voiced by Matt Damon. This film, like the Netflix series, is more of a spin-off than a sequel, with another wild horse named Spirit, but the only talking characters are the humans.

In the mid-1800s, a little girl named Lucky (Fortuna to her Spanish-speaking mother, Milagro Navarro, lovingly voiced by Eiza González) is sent to live in the big city with her stern grandfather, a politician who insists that family comes first. Her mother has been killed in an accident performing on horseback, and her grief-stricken father is not able to care for her.

Ten years later, the animal-loving Lucky (voiced by Isabela Merced) manages to disrupt her grandfather’s important political appearance, and so she and her Aunt Cora (Julianne Moore) are packed off to the west, where Lucky’s father Jim (Jake Gyllenhaal) is helping to get the railroad built. Lucky and her father have not seen each other in a decade, but they awkwardly begin to get to know one another until he discovers she has been riding, and forbids her to go anywhere near a horse. The memories of the loss of Lucky’s mother are still too painful.

But Lucky has found Spirit, like the one in the original film a wild horse captured by cowboys and scheduled to be “broken.” Lucky patiently allows Spirit to feel comfortable with her. And nothing Jim says can keep her away from Spirit. She feels they understand each other.

When Lucky learns that Spirit’s family (his herd) is about to be captured and sold by wicked outlaws, she decides to rescue them, with the help of her new friends Pru (Marsai Martin of “Black-ish”) and Abigail (McKenna Grace). To get there in time will require riding their horses over a treacherous trail. But “Prescotts never give up” and Lucky is brave.

This is the best part of the film, as the girls navigate all kinds of danger with courage, loyalty, and good humor. “I rode a horse!” Lucky crows. “Around here we call that holding on for dear life,” one of her friends responds dryly. Co-writer/co-director Elaine Bogan has a perceptive understanding of the vital importance of the P-A-L (the girls’ initials) friendship. While parents will want to remind their children that no one should leave home without letting family know where they’re going and “never give up” does not mean taking unreasonable risks, this is a heartwarming story of human and equine courage and loyalty and a tribute to the wild spirit in both species that seeks adventure and rights wrongs.

Parents should know that this movie includes peril, cruel treatment of animals, very risky behavior by young girls, and the off-screen said death of a parent.

Family discussion: When is it brave to be careful? What adventures do you have with your friends?

If you like this, try: The earlier Spirit film and the Netflix series, and live action films like “The Black Stallion” and “National Velvet”

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Animation movie review Movies -- format Movies -- Reviews Series/Sequel Stories About Kids

Cruella

Posted on May 26, 2021 at 5:13 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for thematic elements and some violence
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Social drinking, character gets drunk in response to stress
Violence/ Scariness: Extended fantasy-style peril and violence, murder and references to murder and attempted murders, child feels responsible for death of parent, characters are thieves and con artists
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: May 29, 2021

Copyright Disney 2021
“Cruella” has the same problem as “Maleficent.” Origin stories of iconic villains have to make the characters relatable enough to hold our interest but also damaged enough to lead them toward the most despicable cruelty. So it never decides whether Cruella is some sort of Jekyll and Hyde character or a “Bad Seed” struggle between nature and nurture.

“Cruella” has some pleasures, particularly the performances of the two Emmas, Stone and Thompson, as the title character and her own ultra-wicked nemesis. But it never resolves that problem, and it sits uneasily in the PG-13 space, too dark for children who are fans of the original animated film with Betty Lou Gerson as the husky-voiced Cruella or its live-action remake with Glenn Close. And it is too cartoony for most of the audience old enough to see it.

Our anti-heroine begins life as Estella, also the name of the Dickens character who is raised to be cruel by Miss Havisham in Great Expectations. But this Estella is raised by a loving, understanding single mother (Emily Beecham as Catherine), who recognizes that Estella is a bit different, and not just because of her striking hair: jet black on one half of her head and snow white on the other. The kids at school bully her, except for Anita, who becomes her friend. But Estella can’t stay out of trouble. She seems to like trouble. She gets kicked out of school, and her mother decides they should move to London. They stop on the way there so Catherine can ask an old acquaintance for some money. But she is killed in a fall, and Estella believes it is her fault. She is left with no one to care for her.

She makes it to London and meets up with a couple of Artful Dodger types, Horace and Jasper. They invite her to share their home in an abandoned building and soon they are picking pockets and, as they get older, coming up with more complicated ways to steal. But Estella dreams of being a fashion designer and when she turns 18 (now played by Stone) Jasper (Joel Fry) helps her get an entry-level job at the legendary Liberty of London, where the closest she gets to fashion is scrubbing the bathrooms. But some mishaps bring her to the attention of the country’s imperious fashion impresario, The Baroness (Emma Thompson). At first, Estella just wants to do a good job. But various developments and revelations bring out the fury and, it must be said, the megalomania and cruelty that does not necessarily make sense in the context of what we’ve seen so far but gets her where she needs to be for the original story. Cruella (as she now calls herself) goes from being somewhere between Little Orphan Annie and Oliver Twist to being, well, the meanest movie villain of all time.

And she has some pretty fabulous gowns along the way. The Disney design team never fails to bring their magic. And it was a very shrewd idea to set the film in the moment as the swinging London of the 60s is moving into the punk era of the 70s with a soundtrack that includes a bunch of bangers. The movie is not very good but much of it is fun to watch.

Thompson is clearly having a ball playing a character who could fit the description of the character she played in “Much Ado About Nothing,” “My Lady Disdain.” She is a kind of “Devil Wears Prada” boss known as The Baroness. (It’s not a coincidence that both films share writer Aline Brosh McKenna). The Baroness rules her fashion line with a ruthlessness that makes “Devil Wears Prada’s” Miranda Priestly look like Little Miss Muffet. (Gosh, I hope we don’t have to sit through any of their origin stories some day.) And Stone does her considerable best with a character who does not make much sense.

Many years ago, a poll of the most evil villains of all time put Cruella De Vil at the very top, ahead of Hannibal Lecter. It’s right there in her name! She wanted to murder 99 puppies to make a coat! (Dodie Smith, who wrote the charming book 101 Dalmatians, was inspired to create the character of Cruella by an actress friend who admired Smith’s Dalmatian puppies and jokingly suggested their fur would make an elegant coat.) Cruella was the most fun when that was all she was, a wealthy lady with a husky voice who wanted to make a coat out of puppy fur. What a shame that the original animated Cruella was a more vibrant character than anyone in this film.

Parents should know that this movie has some dark themes. A child sees the murder of her mother and blames herself. Orphans band together as thieves and never find homes. A character gets drunk to deal with stress. A character admits to murdering more than one person. The story includes toxic and cruel behavior.

Family discussion: If you were going to change your name, what name would you pick? Why do Jasper and Horace do what Estella tell them to? Why is Anita the only girl who is friendly to Estella?

If you like this, try: the original animated film and the book by Dodie Smith

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P!nk: All I Know So Far

Posted on May 20, 2021 at 5:00 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Not rated
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Wine
Violence/ Scariness: Brief scene of accident
Diversity Issues: Acceptance of diversity a theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: May 21, 2021

Copyright 2021 Amazon Studios
As I watched “P!nk: All I Know So Far,” I thought tof what W.H. Auden wrote in a poem called “Tonight at Seven-Thirty:” “The funniest mortals and the kindest are those who are most aware of the baffle of being, don’t kid themselves our care is consolable but believe a laugh is less heartless than tears.” P!nk, one of the world’s biggest rock stars, exemplifies that deep appreciation of humanity. Her tour, like her most recent album, is titled “Beautiful Trauma.” She embraces all of life’s struggles, losses, problems, and joys with laughter.

The film documents a portion of her pre-pandemic tour. Skillfully directed by Michael Gracey, who showed his appreciation for backstage stories with “The Greatest Showman” and “Rocketman,” the film follows P!ink and her family as they approach one of the highlights of the tour, her appearance at the legendary Wembley Stadium. There is the usual mix of rehearsal and concert footage, with perhaps more than usual of the star herself, who also produced, telling her story, which is about living at the intersection of art, commerce, and life, not trying to balance it all but trying to embrace it all at once, to integrate every part of it as seamlessly as she can. “I enjoy seeing the world with my kids as much as I enjoy nailing it on stage,” she says. “I want it to be perfect for everyone buying a ticket and in my kids’ minds.”

Essentially, she is responsible for three different jobs, though, all unimaginably all-consuming. She is the mother of Willow (age 8) and Jameson (age 3) and the wife of Carey Hart, formerly a Motocross champion, now a full-time dad. She is a Grammy award-winning mega-rock star who fills stadiums like Wembley for her concerts and thrills audience with acrobatic stunts that would be a challenge for Cirque du Soleil performers, belting out the hit songs that she wrote as she swings above the crowd, sometimes upside-down. And she is essentially the CEO of P!ink, Inc. as we see after a concert performance when she sits across a table from the people who work her show with a list of changes. For example, this venue has a stage 85,000 square feet larger than the one they had blocked the choreography on, so they need to figure out a way to adapt so that she can be where she needs to be without having to race so fast to get there that she does not have enough breath to sing. Just as she has to manage simultaneously singing and dancing (and swinging from the ceiling) she has to manage simultaneously touring and mom-ing. She laughs (of course) at one point remembering her wild child days, when she thought being a rock star meant freedom from anyone else’s rules only to find that she not only had to obey rules like being on time, she had to enforce them.

That applies to parenting, too, of course. It is a pleasure to see the patience and love P!nk and Carey show Willow and Jameson. Willow shyly asks if she can take some time off from the tour to see her friends and in one of the film’s sweetest moments, P!nk says she is proud of Willow for being able to express her feelings.

Hart does not get much time on camera until about halfway through the film, and when he refers to Alecia, it took me a moment to remember who that was. For her family, she is Alecia. And Mommy. The musical performances are thrilling, but what is most memorable about this film is Alecia/P!ink herself. She says that when you’re struggling, you imagine that if you ever get a Grammy you will take the opportunity at the podium to call out the high school principal who didn’t believe in you. But after all of the work it takes to get there, you find you are just grateful for everything that got you to that point. Watching her helps us to reframe our own lives with gratitude as well.

Parents should know that this film has some strong language and explicit lyrics and some drinking of wine. There are references to past wild behavior.

Family discussion: What is P!nk’s biggest challenge, performing or being a mom? How are they different? What will her children remember about the tours?

If you like this, try: “The Other F Word” about punk and metal musicians and fatherhood.

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Documentary movie review Movies -- format Movies -- Reviews Musical

Dream Horse

Posted on May 20, 2021 at 12:00 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for language and thematic elements
Profanity: Some mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, scenes in pub, alcoholic portrayed as cute and funny
Violence/ Scariness: Sad death of a parent, off-screen serious injury of a horse
Diversity Issues: Class issues
Date Released to Theaters: May 21, 2021

Copyright 2020 Bleeker Street
“Dream Horse” is a fact-based underdog, or maybe under-horse story about an improbable equine champion. But the real thoroughbred in the movie is the endlessly talented Toni Collette, who plays Jan Vokes, a cashier at a big box store in Wales, who dreams of breeding a racehorse. This is a solidly constructed feel good movie, with performances and details that make it better than it needs to be.

Even those who do not know the story and have not seen the popular documentary, “Dark Horse,” about the real story, have a pretty good idea of where this is going. There will be an impossible dream, some early signs of success, setbacks, struggles, and a triumphant conclusion, with glimpses of the real people (and horse) in the final credits. Those credits, by the way, are one of the film’s highlights; don’t miss them, as the actors and the Welsh villagers they portray sing a classic song by Wales’ favorite son Tom Jones together.

It is Collette who helps to make the story feel fresh and authentic, along with the staging of the race scenes by Welsh director Euros Lyn, so exciting we lean forward in our seats, as though it will help our favorite be first over the finish line. She is called upon in the film to sit in various owners’ seats at various racetracks and make each expression of worry, excitement, fear, and ecstatic joy look different and real and she, well, crosses the finish line ahead of the pack every time.

Jan feels stuck as the film begins. Her husband, Brian (Owen Teale) snores at night and bores in the daytime, watching reality television shows about veterinary procedures and ignoring Jan except when absent-mindedly asking what’s for tea. She has two jobs, cashier at the store and barmaid at the pub. When she isn’t being ignored by Brian, she is caring for her elderly parents. There is nothing to make her feel a sense of hope or purpose.

And then she overhears a customer at the bar talk about his time as part owner of a racehorse. He is Howard (Damian Lewis), an accountant who nearly went broke when the syndicate failed. Jan realizes that if she can just get everyone to give ten pounds a week, she can breed a racehorse by buying a retired mare and paying the stud fee to get her pregnant. A lovably quirky group of people from the village and a couple of Howard’s friends agree to join. And they agree it isn’t for the money or for the craic (Celtic term for fun, but for the hwyl (pronounced hoyle, and a Welsh term meaning more than fun, fun plus enthusiasm, spirit, and purpose). The film’s wisest choice is making it clear that the miracle is not the horse. It is the chance to believe in something and to be part of a community.

The foal is born, but the mare dies. In some other versions of the story we might spend time on how the syndicate members care for the motherless colt, named Dream Alliance, but in this one we skip ahead to bringing him to the training facility of the country’s top racehorse trainers, played by Nicholas Farrell (“Chariots of Fire”). No training montage here. We skip right from his initial no to, the “wait a minute, that horse is really fast” to, well, being off to the races.

That leaves perhaps too much time with the overly cutesy townsfolk. I think we are past the time when the town drunk is supposed to be funny or adorable. And the resolution of Howard’s conflict with his wife, who is understandably worried about a repeat of his past losses, is improbably easy. But then there is another chance to hold our breath at the races, and to cheer for Dream Alliance, for dreams, and the alliances that make them come true.

Parents should know that this film includes some potty humor, scenes in a bar, a town drunk whose alcoholism is played for humor, a sad death, and a serious injury of an animal.

Family discussion: What dream would make a difference in your community? Why was it so difficult for Jan’s father to tell her he was proud of her? How did money change the way the group made decisions? What would you do just for the “hwyl?”

If you like this, try: “Dreamer” (also inspired by a true story), “Phar Lap,” and “The Black Stallion”

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Based on a true story Drama movie review Movies -- format Movies -- Reviews Sports

The Water Man

Posted on May 6, 2021 at 5:38 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: 4th - 6th Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for thematic content, scary images, peril and some language
Profanity: Some schoolyard language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Some peril, references to child abuse and neglect, critical illness of a parent
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: May 8, 2021

Copyright Netflix 2021
“The Water Man” is a rare film that exquisitely captures the liminal moment at the end of childhood when we are old enough to begin to understand some of the complications and unsolvable problems of life but still young enough to believe in magic. Lonnie Chavis (“Magic Camp,” “This is Us”) plays 11-year-old Gunner, who is very close to his loving mother (Rosario Dawson) but not aware enough to realize that she is very sick. He is creating a graphic novel about a detective who must solve his own murder and he is fascinated with clues and deductions, but cannot recognize what is heartbreakingly clear to us as we see an IV stand in the bedroom and suspect that the colorful turbans hide a bald head.

Gunner is less close to his father Amos, played by director David Oyelowo, a military officer just returned from a long detail in Japan. His mother loves his art; his father wants him to toss a football.

When he realizes how sick his mother is, Gunner is determined to save her by tracking down a mythic creature known as The Water Man, said to have eternal life. A slightly older girl named Jo (Amiah Miller of “War for the Planet of the Apes”) tells stories of The Water Man, pointing to a scar on her neck as proof that she has not just seen him but been close enough for him to wound her. Gunner does not realize, as we do, that Jo, who lives in a tent by herself, is not as confident and independent as she seems. He agrees to pay her to take him to The Water Man, who is thought to live deep in the forest.

Like the Halloween scene in “Meet Me in St. Louis,” this film lives in the perspective of a young character, while allowing us to understand more than he does. Oyelowo and his Director of Cinematography, Matthew J. Lloyd, use color to tell what Oyelowo describes as an “elemental” story. Gunner’s mother is swathed in warm yellows and oranges, echoed in the backpack Gunner carries on his quest. The inside of Jo’s tent is a deep red. The forest is lush green, but the colors get less saturated and more muted as he gets further from home.

The young actors are both exceptional, very natural and believable, and their scenes together are some of the best in the film. But there is also strong support from an outstanding cast that includes Alfred Molina as an adult who has spent years looking for The Water Man and Maria Bello as the local sheriff who helps Amos try to find his son. Oyelowo is clearly inspired by “ET” (note Gunner’s ET lunchbox), and does a good job of creating a sense of wonder and showing us how all of us, at any age, can struggle to adapt to the unacceptable. Being present for those we love, the families we create, learning to love others for who they are instead of who we want them to be, all come together in a scene as warm as the sun-colors that surround Gunner’s mother.

Parents should know that this film concerns the critical illness of a parent. There is some peril and a creepy fantasy character along with some jump-out-at-you surprises, some schoolyard language, and shoplifting, and there are references to child abuse and neglect.

Family discussion: What are some of the myths or folklore of your community? Where do these stories come from?

If you like this, try: “Bridge to Terabithia,” “Time Bandits,” “Finding ‘Ohana,” and “The Odd Life of Timothy Green”

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Coming of age Family Issues movie review Movies -- format Movies -- Reviews Stories About Kids
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