Wednesday, June 30, 2021

Review: "Summer of 85"


"Summer of 85" is a rapturously joyful and sad movie that gets right at the heart of what it's like to fall in love for the first time and be vulnerable, with the added twist of being gay. There's been a spate of terrific queer romance films over the last few years, and here's another one.

Directed by François Ozon, who also adapted the novel by Aidan Chambers, the story is set in a French coastal town in the middle of the greatest decade ever to grow up, and no, this is not subject to debate. Things don't look terribly different from their American cinematic counterparts of that time: feathered hair, stone-washed jeans, wearing a jacket when you go out on the town even though it's July.

(I admit, my inner copyeditor glanced at the title  and screamed silently, "Where's the apostrophe???" I'm glad I didn't leave it there, though, or I would've missed one of the best coming-of-age romances I've seen in a good while.)

Félix Lefebvre plays Alexis, a shy, intellectually bent 16-year-old on the verge of exploring life. He has to decide if he's going to stay in school to study literature at the behest of his teacher, Lefèvre (Melvil Poupaud), who thinks he holds promise as a writer, or get a job and consign himself to a life of drudgery like his dock worker father, (Laurent Fernandez). 

His mother (Isabelle Nanty) is vaguely supportive and wants Alexis -- he prefers Alex -- to do whatever makes him happy. Though as a working class woman who's never known anything outside of kitchen toil, she's often mystified by her son's modern, peculiar ways.

While borrowing a friend's sailboat, Alex capsizes as a storm approaches and is rescued by David (Benjamin Voisin), a free-spirited 18-year-old who seems afraid of nothing in this life. He brings the sopping Alex to his home, where his mother (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi) undresses and bathes him. She lost her husband the year before, and she and David run a small marine shop in town, and instantly embraces Alexis as part of the family.

It's clear from the start that Alex and David are completely smitten with each other, though they take some time dancing through the steps of a typical straight friendship before taking to bed. They ride around on David's motorcycle, boat and swim, hit the carnival and get into a fight, go dancing and other stuff that wouldn't be out of place in an '80s teen comedy.

The film is sun-dappled and gorgeously shot (cinematography by Hichame Alaouié), especially our beautiful couple. The physical contrast between them is startling, and deliberately accentuated by Ozon. 

Alex is diminutive, lithe, with feathery blond waves and soft feminine features -- David and his mom take to calling him "little bunny." Whereas David is tall, strapping, with a slight snarl to his lip to go with his shark's tooth necklace and wavy dark locks. Together, they look like a rock star (I was reminded of Michael Paré in "Eddie and the Cruisers") dating the girl next door.

The story is told from Alex's perspective, so there's a feeling of being swept up and away by someone older and much more experienced than us. He's fumbling and awkward at emotional intimacy, protesting reticently at first but soon eager to leap into the fire.

David registers as a rebel but also an old soul, the sort of naturally gregarious person who can become friends with someone minutes after meeting them. He makes Alex promise that whoever dies first, the other will dance on their grave.

We know from the start that this tragedy will come to pass, as a framing story has Alex morose and barely able to rise from his bed after David's death. He is also being investigated by the authorities for unnamed crimes related to the death, and Alex is unable or incapable of defending himself. 

Eventually his teacher advises Alex to write out his and David's story as a sort of confession/catharsis, so the romance is colored by the act of remembrance. This is interesting in the context of Alex's later discussion with a mutual friend, a British au pair named Kate (Philippine Velge), that young love is often a deceptive illusion, in that we fall in love with the idea of being in love as much as the actual person. 

Was David really this way, or is it just how Alex saw him? It's a hypnotizing question to ponder, especially after their relationship starts to suffer inevitable bumps. Underlying all this is an undertone of fear of being exposed, at a time when being gay made you a target for ostracism, or worse.

"Summer of 85" is a wondrously beautiful movie, but also one that isn't afraid to stare at the ugly parts of what being in love is really like. The best onscreen portrait of two men in love I've seen since "Brokeback Mountain," this film feels both timeless and immediate.

Review: "The Boss Baby: Family Business"


I’ll give “The Boss Baby: Family Business” credit for not taking the most obvious route possible for a sequel to the 2017 animated hit.

That would have been to just bring back suit-wearing baby genius Ted Templeton (voice of Alec Baldwin) for another whacky adventure with his older brother Tim, the only one who knows he can talk and secretly is an agent for the shadowy BabyCorp company, which protects the interests of tykes. Last time they were taking on the onslaught of cute puppies, so this time it’d have been kittens or some other adorable.

Instead, they jump the story a few decades into the future in which Tim (James Marsden) is now a stay-at-home dad to two daughters while Ted is the ultra-rich CEO of a corporation who never stops working, sending “inappropriately generous” gifts in his stead, like a baby pony. Tim’s toddler, Tina (Amy Sedaris), is now a Boss Baby while his 7-year-old, Tabitha (Ariana Greenblatt), is attending a very fancy school for high-achieving kids.

True, Ted and Tim do get zapped back to their kiddie forms so they can infiltrate the school and investigate its oddball principal, Dr. Erwin Armstrong, voiced by the very odd (in a good way) Jeff Goldblum. But I liked that director Tom McGrath and screenwriter Michael McCullers keep the focus on Tim’s desire to be there for his girls, while the antagonism with his brother (mostly) takes a back seat.

There is a funny and somewhat pointed subtext about the way parents care too much about their offspring being overachievers instead of just… kids. Tabitha’s school, which is being replicated all over the country, looks like a cross between an Apple store and prep academy for 1-percenters.

Armstrong is a visionary, who looks like kooky curly-haired professor but thinks that competition between kids is always healthy. Tim is surprised to find that Tabitha, who had been pushing him away lately and eschewing “little kid” things like singing and hugs, is being bullied by some other students following Armstrong’s teachings a little too earnestly.

Of course, there’s a surprise in store with Armstrong’s ambitions extending much further than just making kids smarter, but using smartphone apps to ensorcel their parents into zombies so they don’t get in the way so much. He also isn’t all that he appears to be, or at least not most of him.

This a fast-moving, breakneck-paced movie filled with lots of action and color. There are baby ninjas and musical numbers and tunnel chases and double-crosses and so on. Ted’s gift pony turns out to be a hard-charging stallion that continually saves the day.

Frankly, it was a little too much for my middle-aged brain to take in all at once. It’s the perfect speed for kids, though, and my 7- and 10-year-olds were mightily entertained.

“Nine out of 10,” judgeth the eldest, though I’m sorry to tell DreamWorks that Rotten Tomatoes won’t let me add that in as a corollary rating.

Monday, June 28, 2021

Reeling Backward: "Big Bad Mama" (1974)


It isn't hard to glimpse the genealogy of "Big Bad Mama." Movies about rebels and outlaws were popular during the late 1960s and early '70s, especially if it was set in oldentimes to create some distance to comment on the ongoing political and social strife. "Bonnie and Clyde" was a critical and cultural hit, so we got a lot more similar films to follow in its wake.

It's the story of a tough, single-minded woman who goes on a cross-country crime spree with her two teenage daughters, along with a couple of hanger-on men in tow.

This was also a period where mainstream movies had very suddenly become much naughtier, with swearing, explicit violence and nudity virtually verboten just a few years earlier. "Mama" has a copious display of boobs and butts, including star Angie Dickinson. There was a brief era of "sexploitation" films before the advent of hardcore pornography into theaters, sort of a sweet appetizer before the less appetizing main course.

Excoriated at the time for lowering America's morals, these fleshy flicks seem almost quaint today.

I admit I was expecting a little more substance from the movie, even though I knew it came from the cheap oeuvre of schlock producer Roger Corman. It's basically just a repetitive string of various heists, which always end with Mama and her crew riding off in their car with a pile of cash, firing off a tommy gun to scare off pursuers as fast-paced banjo music plays, with sex scenes for the interludes between.

"Big Bad Mama" was essentially a remake of Corman's "Bloody Mama" from a few years earlier starring Shelley Winters. Whatever you want to say about him, Corman gave a lot of opportunities for youngsters like Ron Howard to make their first movies, or older waning stars to stay in the limelight. 

The movie also stars William Shatner during his wilderness years between the Star Trek TV show and movies, and a young Tom Skerritt. Sally Kirkland shows up in a brief bit role.

Dickinson, who'd seen her own luster fade after leading roles in the 1950s and '60s, rejuvenated her career with "Mama" turning her into a sex symbol in her 40s, going on to star in the hit TV show "Police Woman" and other projects. Little did I know, but Corman and Dickinson would reunite 13 years later for a prequel, which tells how Wilma McClatchie first lost her husband and farm, turning to a life of crime.

It's too bad "Mama" relies so much on skin and shootin', because there's the bones of a good story here. Wilma is a proto-feminist rebel, a woman who's lost everything and is determined to take it all back, and then some, on her own terms. She loves her two teenage daughters, and is happy to steal and kill to give them the finer things in life.

She's also unabashedly domineering, the boss of her criminal enterprise and her bedroom, too. She takes on a hot-tempered bank robber, Fred Diller (Skerritt), and makes him her plaything. But when a better prospect comes along in the form of a dashing gambler, (William J. Baxter), she switches sheets partners without even so much as a by-the-way conversation.

Later, after elder daughter Billy Jean (Susan Sennett) has taken on Diller as a lover and shared him with sister Polly (Robbie Lee), Wilma gives Baxter the boot and then promotes Diller back to the top spot. I imagine the idea of a mother and daughter bed-hopping with two different men seemed pretty scandalous when the movie came out.

The daughters are an interesting pair, and I wish the screenplay by William Norton (who also did "White Lightning") and Frances Doel had developed them a little more. Polly is childish and innocent, even carrying around a doll, though she's very curious about sex. As the movie open she's set to marry some country bumpkin, but Wilma blows up the ceremony because she doesn't want to see Polly consigned to a life of kitchen drudgery like she was.

Billy Jean is a little older and a little wiser, and definitely has some of her mother's steel in her spine. She has a penchant for teasing and playing jokes, and like Wilma she's definitely the alpha in her relationship with Diller. When Wilma claims him back, we can see the unspoken hurt in Billy Jean's eyes. 

They first get their start in crime by partnering with Uncle Barney (Willingham), a prospering moonshiner, though it's unclear if this is actually William's brother-in-law or the uncle appellation is just a familiar term for the girls. When he's killed by some lawmen, Wilma takes over his practice.

After being forced to pay off a fat, corrupt Southern sheriff -- is there any other kind in the movies? -- Wilma vows to always be the one taking cash, not handing it over, from now on.

They move on from one scheme to the next, Wilma careful never to repeat her M.O. They rip off a veterans reunion where Billy Jean and Polly had been recruited as strippers, using her false effrontery at a mother angry about having her (not so) innocent daughters despoiled to make off with a pile of cash. A shyster preacher preaching the good word so he can run away with the donation basket finds himself plucked and booted out of his own car.

One curious job has them robbing an oil drilling company -- I'm a little unclear why such an industrial operation would have large wads of money lying around. They pick up Baxter, a smooth Louisville operating currently experiencing "an embarrassment of funds," at a horse track they stick up. They also pass themselves off as high-society types so they can rob an entire party full of rich snobs.

This leads to Wilma's grandest scheme to kidnap a snooty heiress, Jane Kingston (Joan Prather), and ransom her for a cool million, which will set them up for life. It seems to be going well, until the ongoing enmity between Baxter and Diller boils over, and the girl seduces Diller and then gives him the slip, and Baxter lets her go. 

Eventually he brings the cops for ubiquitous final shoot-out where he, Diller and Wilma all wind up dead.

A pair of federal agents in black suits and a black car, with Dick Miller as the senior of the two, wind up as the comic relief, constantly being run off into ditches or dumped into a pile of horse manure. 

The three-way dynamic between Wilma and the two men is curious, mostly for the fact they defer to her in every way. Diller loathes the fancy-pants Baxter, hurling constant insults and insinuations about his sexuality, though the latter never responds beyond mortified shock at the rude manners. He finally challenges Diller to a fistfight, boasting that he was a college boxing champion, though Diller simply swings his long-barrelled pistol into review -- phallic taunts much? -- and Baxter backs down.

I think Wilma is congenitally more attuned to a simple, violent but authentic soul like Diller, though she sees Baxter as a more genteel sort better suited to her ambitions in life. Though she eventually sees through his conniving facade to the sniveling coward beneath.

Dickinson's sex scenes with Shatner are pretty loopy to watch, if only from a pop culture standpoint -- Captain Kirk in the buff! -- but also for their total lack of real lovemaking. Baxter caresses Wilma's body with itchy fingers and wide eyes, as if in awe of her beauty, more like Thorin fingering dragon's gold than a lusty beast sowing his seed. He is a man who covets, and once he has something, that want turns to something else. 

For her part, Wilma is the sort of woman who doesn't shy away from worship.

Once I got over the fact "Big Bad Mama" was meant to be a fun scamp rather than a gritty crime story, I settled back and enjoyed the ride. Director Steve Carver keeps things moving along at a brisk pace, though I quickly grew tired of David Grisman's cotton-picking music.

It's the rambling, rambunctious story of a powerful women who flexes her smarts and determination, uses men and tosses them aside as she pleases. Sure, she flaunts her body, because flaunting is just what she does.

Thursday, June 24, 2021

Review: "False Positive"


The filmmakers of "False Positive" would very much like you to know that "mommy brain," a state of confusion and mental frailty endemic to new mothers, is a real thing, as this phrase is repeated a number of times throughout the psychological thriller. It's about a woman who desperately wants to get pregnant who begins to suspect that her famous fertility doctor and seemingly perfect husband are conspiring to drive her mad.

Come to think of it, "Mommy Brain" would've been a better title for this middling picture.

Are they really lined up against her, or is she just cracking under the strain of hormones and seismic shifts in her life? I'll leave it to you to find out, though the recent cinematic fixation on women undergoing gaslighting ("The Invisible Man") by meanie men should lend a clue.

Ilana Glazer stars, produced and co-wrote the screenplay with director John Lee, so this is a fairly rare example of a horror film -- or at least horror-adjacent -- with a strong female sensibility to it. She plays Lucy, a thirtysomething marketing whiz who has spent the last few years trying to get pregnant with her husband, Adrian (Justin Theroux), a reconstructive surgeon who's supportive and dreamy to boot.

Dr. John Hindle is the best fertility innovator in the biz, and usually women have to wait 18 months or more to get an appointment. Luckily, Adrian studied under Hindle in med school and they're able to get in right away, where Lucy is assured that his cutting-edge techniques can get her preggers lickety-split. This is exactly what comes to pass.

Hindle is played by Pierce Brosnan, who is so good-looking he might as well belong to another species. Perfectly polite and attentive, with silver hair and beard, Dr. Hindle may have airs of being an egomaniac, but he's the kind who can back it up with results. 

His clinic has a Stepford Wives feel, all white and sterile, with nurses (Gretchen Mol is the lead) who seem like they stepped off a supermodel runway rather than nursing school. Everyone talks in calming, pleasant tones and you just feel like everything's going to be peachy.

Lucy is very joyful to become pregnant, and it even looks like she's in line for a big promotion at work. She makes friends through a pregnancy support group with other expecting 1-percenters (Sophia Bush plays one), and they do ladies' luncheons and cute baby showers and so on.

Things start to go awry when Lucy finds out she is pregnant with not one, but three babies -- twin boys and a girl. She really had her heart set on a girl, planning to name her Wendy in honor of her lifelong love of "Peter Pan." But Dr. Hindle and Adrian say she's likely to lose all three unless she agrees to "selective reduction" -- aka abortion -- and they are strongly pushing to keep the boys.

Soon Lucy begins to experience hallucinations, becomes paranoid, starts snooping around on Adrian and find out he's been snooping around on her, etc. She seeks out a feminist midwife (Zainab Jah) who teaches that the medical profession is a male-dominated conspiracy that wants to wrest the natural process of childbirth away from women and control their bodies.

Things go on from there, wandering into familiar horror-movie power dynamics and moist outcomes. Let's just say the doctor's insemination tool gets employed in a way that can't be recommended in the user manual.

Oddly, I found the movie pretty compelling during the first couple of acts, but the last half-hour feels stale and predictable. Lucy will emerge from her confusion cocoon and take up the righteous mantle of wronged mothers everywhere. It's stronger when she, and we, are kept more in the dark.

When it comes to scary movies, it's usually best to expect the expected.


Wednesday, June 23, 2021

Review: "All Light, Everywhere"


Descriptions for "All Light, Everywhere" call it a far-ranging exploration of human perception as seen through camera lenses. Personally I wished it had ranged less far. 

Director Theo Anthony's documentary has the nut of a really powerful idea at its center. That is, the increased prevalence of the surveillance of human activity, in particular the use of police body cameras and aerial photography in bigger cities, gives us the impression of an objective, graspable reality that does not truly exist. 

To wit: just because a camera has recorded moving images and sound of an event does not guarantee an accurate reflection of what happened. Cameras are bound by their frames, so we do not see what happens beyond the borders of the lens. Microphones are poor at recording audio more than a few feet away. By pointing the camera one way, you are by definition excluding most of the visual world.

As the public debate about police use of force rages in parallel with renewed awareness about racial injustice, police cameras have been embraced as a panacea that, the film convincingly argues, it can never be. Just because a video recording of an encounter with law enforcement exists does not mean that police killings of suspects will cease or even diminish, or that we will stop arguing about whether deadly force was justified.

But "All Light" is not a journalistic exploration of a vital issue, instead more of a moony rumination celebrating the unknowable. 

It takes a step back -- and then a bunch more -- to make some kind of grand, abstract argument about how all of visual perception (light) is unreliable and constructed in our minds. It then relies on gimmicks to remind us that even this film is a construction defined not by its creation but how it is perceived.

It opens with a person (possibly the filmmaker) setting up an arresting camera shot through their own eyeball to reveal the optic nerve, which the deliberately flat yet vaguely hostile narration reminds us sees nothing, only sending electrical signals to the mind for assembly into a facsimile of the visual realm.

"The brain invents a world to fill the hole at the center of it," the narrator intones. She does much of this sort of intoning, as the documentary jumps back and forth between a bunch of different pieces. 

There is a scientific experiment where subjects are wired up so we can see how they're looking at images. A long dissertation on the origins of moving image cameras developed in the 1800s by astronomers wanting to measure phenomenon such as the Black Drop Effect, devices that were technologically similar to weaponry. A tour of their offices and factory by the CEO of Axon International, the company that dominates the market of both police bodycams and the Taser, a (usually) non-lethal weapon. Airplane-based sky monitoring of Baltimore that was rolled out after the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody, canceled under protest but now under consideration again.

The filmmakers also include themselves, or parts of themselves, in the act of making this documentary. For instance, at Axon we'll see what the cameraman shot of a demonstration of the company's equipment, then see the same scene from the perspective of one of those cameras, showing the filmmaking making the film.

One of the precepts the movie has at its core is one central to both scientists and filmmakers: watching something or someone changes how it behaves. So there is not only the subjective effect of how people or cameras, both imperfect, perceive the world differently but also that the world is altered because it is seen.

"The act of observation obscures the observation," is how the narrator puts it. 

This takes me back to a lot of film theory I studied at NYU a million years ago, very esoteric stuff claiming there is no single reality, only how it is perceived, and these simulacra are laid over top of the original in endless layers of obscured existence.

Again, our narrator: "These machines do not reproduce the world, they produce new worlds."

Oh... c'mon. Human perception and memory are notoriously inaccurate, and the film's assertion is correct that cameras do not capture the totality of objective reality, only limited slices of it. We are falling into a trap as a society where video is so prevalent we think that it is the beginning and end of understanding an event.

But it's an equally dangerous trap to think that cameras are the liars and not the people who create or operate them. A misleading piece of video does not mean the truth doesn't exist. Just because people will have different interpretations or recollections of, say, a police shooting, does not mean they all have equal value.

We are already seeing that the presence of video from a police bodycam will not prevent people from falling into the same predictable camps, particularly when filtered through red-hot racial and political framings. 

The result is a rather strange documentary, one that is not hard-eyed and cynical -- something I could've embraced, even if I disagreed with its conclusions -- but an odd, dreamy experience in which we're repeatedly instructed not to believe what we see.

On a number of occasions we'll be watching some footage, and we'll suddenly switch to a computer screen with various windows, one of which was the scene we were just watching, and we realize we are witnessing the editing process of the movie as we watch it.

The experience is like seeing a magician performing tricks while showing you how he does them. It is simultaneously an intriguing and self-defeating exercise.

"All Light, Everywhere" continues its mix of insight and misdirection through the closing credits, where the filmmakers reveal they had partnered with a class of student filmmakers whose footage was supposed to form an integral part of this documentary -- but was cut out because they felt it fell too far outside the frame of what they were focusing on.

A little more focus, and a lot tighter frame, was exactly what this film needed. Or course, that's just my perception...

Monday, June 21, 2021

Review: "Punk the Capital"


"That's what punk rock really is, it's music that's not a product."

I don't now if I agree with this quote -- plenty of punk rock was a product, a rebellion that like most successful rebellions results in the movement getting amalgamated into the mainstream rather than the other way around. But as shown in the historical documentary "Rock the Capital," in the case of the punk movement in Washington D.C. in the late 1970s and early '80s, it was more of a community than a major musical watershed.

Even if you're not a punk aficionado -- I'm not, though I like plenty of it -- you'd be hard-pressed to name a lot of notable bands, songs or personalities that came out of the D.C. scene. It's doubtful many people have heard of The Slickee Boys, Untouchables, The Enzymes, Bad Brains, Teen Idles or even Minor Threat, probably the biggest name in the bunch.

Henry Rollins of Black Flag and the RollinsBand came out of this scene and appears in the documentary to express his appreciation, though he left pretty early on and didn't appear to look back.

It seems like rock 'n' roll documentaries seem to fall into one of two camps these days: nostalgic look-backs at big-name acts, or wistful remembrances of bands that didn't last long or never broke out into pop culture consciousness. "The Sparks Brothers" is a recent example of the latter, and "Punk the Capital" follows the same route, though it's about the scene rather than one group.

Directed by Paul Bishow and James June Schneider, it's a carefully curated look at a thriving night scene in a place known for rolling up the streets at 6 p.m. when all the federal government workers went home to the suburbs. In this take, D.C. punk was less about spit-flecked rejection of society than simply pushing the musical edge wherever they could find it.

So the scene consisted of preppie children of government workers, Black social activists, blue-collar teens, geeks in glasses, and everything in between. It boasted a few women, though it was certainly a testosterone-fueled crowd, bringing slamdancing from the coasts to D.C. along with a few of the nastier tinges of punk.

We get a nice spread of musical tastes in the 90-minute runtime, with all kinds of sounds and colors, though the one unifying element is speed -- these guys played lightning fast. Someone notes that the Beatles played 12 songs in just over an hour at their first U.S. concert at the Washington Coliseum. Minor Threat's set of a dozen songs might last 13 minutes.

These bands, someone says, "make The Ramones seem like they're asleep."

The D.C. punk scene was notable for waves of rising and falling, becoming very popular and then nearly dying out entirely. Tiny record shops like Yesterday and Today barely kept the sound afloat. Around 1979 it was rescued by more or less taking over a women's art collective called Madams Organ (after the Morgan Adams neighborhood in which the building sat), with some bands even living there for a time.

It was a performance venue, meeting place, residence and hangout all in one. Admission was rarely charged, and when a local record label was started to support them, Dischord, bands were shocked when they eventually started to receive checks in the mail.

I can't say as I dug all of the music in "Punk the Capital," but the energy of the crowds and bands is infectious. Performances often became participatory in which audiences members would crash the stage, or a singer might hand the microphone over to someone in the crowd to sing a few lines.

Newer bands came on the scene, doing something new or different that would shock even the bands started a couple years earlier. I was amused by the group Half Japanese, all bespectacled nerds, who seem barely acquainted with their instruments. But they're clearly having a helluva time.

By the middle of the 1980s the punk movement had become something of a joke in pop culture, like the mohawked jerk blasting his boombox who gets sleeper-pinched by Spock in "Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home." That's how a lot of people saw punk: angry young men spitting at society, and inviting disdain in return. Later, tinges of white supremacy would become associated with skinhead haircuts and loud, angry music.

This lively doc shows a multi-varied music scene that embraced anger but wasn't animated by it -- it simply was another emotion to tap for energy. One of the Big Brains members, Daryl Jenifer, talks of all things how they were motivated by the concept of PMA -- positive mental energy. They saw their music as a way to strive, accomplish anything they wanted and change the world.

One song by Minor Threat, "Straight Edge," even kicked off a mini-movement within the punk world that stressed abstinence (or at least moderation) of booze, drugs and promiscuous sex. How delightfully weird to have a genre where adherents are dismissed as "punks" embracing the power of the individual mind over societal muck.

I can't say that watching "Punk the D.C." made me want to rush out and buy this music. (In part because you often can't, since much of it was never professionally recorded.) But even if you don't appreciate the hyper, clashing sounds, you can't help but respect the bravura youth who found humanistic harmony in what others heard as cacophony. 


Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Review: "Luca"


I don’t know how it is for girls, but for boys the friendships you have around age 12 tend to be the most important of your life. Boys at that age are this weird mix of bravado, shame, curiosity and mortification. Your body is doing all sorts of weird stuff and that’s nothing compared to what’s going on inside your head.

Movies have done a decent, though sporadic job at examining this time, with “Stand By Me” immediately coming to mind. I can’t recall a whole lot of animated movies to tackle pubescent boys, though “Luca” comes along to try to rectify that.

It’s a bright, colorful, energetic picture that is closer to “Up” in the Disney/Pixar oeuvre than some of their more fantastical fare. I’d put it about in the middle of the pack quality-wise, along the lines of “Wreck It Ralph,” a solidly entertaining flick that may not linger all that long in the memory.

Set in a gorgeous Italian coastal fishing town in what could be anywhere from the 1940s to 1980s, “Luca” stars Jacob Tremblay as a merman who lives under the water, tending to a flock of fish like sheep. It’s a very safe but rather dull existence, and his parents (voices of Maya Rudolph and Jim Gaffigan) barely pay attention to Luca -- other than warning him never to wander to the surface, where humans regard their kind as dangerous sea monsters to be harpooned.

So of course he does just that, and bumps into Alberto (Jack Dylan Grazer), who’s just as rebellious and cocky as Luca is fearful and shy. Alberto likes to collect (read: steal) cool items from the humanfolk and lives more or less on his own in an island tower, his dad being away on some vague job or mission.

This results in a shocking discovery for Luca: their kind are shapeshifters, morphing into human form once they emerge from the water. After shock training in how to walk and pass as a normal kid, he and Alberto soon form an instant but enduring bond. Tall and strapping, Alberto takes the lead and Luca follows.

They fall in love with the idea of buying a Vespa scooter a la “Roman Holiday” and traveling all around the world (where, to them, everything is adjacent to the sea). Circumstances arise that compel them to run off to the nearby human town and try to fit in.

They soon partner up with Giulia (Emma Berman), an independent-minded girl their own age, with the idea to join the big local triathlon -- swimming, biking and eating pasta -- as a team and win enough money for a shiny new Vespa. (Or, at least, a dilapidated old one.)

The heavy is Ercole (Saverio Raimondo), the local bully who has run the race five times in a row and is determined to go for another, age limits be damned.

Of course, Luca and Alberto must be constantly fearful of having any water splashed on them, lest they revert to their sea monster form. This can happen in little pieces, so an arm or leg that suddenly turns blue and scaly can be hidden, but not when the rain comes down and drenches all.

It’s a clever visual cue to shifting bodies and identities, and how youngsters going through the change can feel like an alien in their own flesh.

The story is based on the childhood experiences of director Enrico Casarosa, who made the similarly Italian-themed “La Luna” a decade ago, and makes his feature directorial debut here with a screenplay from Jesse Andrews and Mike Jones.

The animation is full of little details that catchy your eye, like the slight sun damage on everyone’s skin from the comforting but searing Mediterranean sea. I liked the contrast between the three kids’ hair, with Luca’s modest dark waves, Alberto’s proud blondish pompadour and Giulia’s fire-red mass of curls.

The movie is an exploration of childhood friendships, and shows more complexity and depth than you’d expect in an animated movie. Luca as the withdrawn kid who must find his inner strength is a pretty familiar theme, but we also get into Alberto’s head as the boy who long ago got tagged as “the bad kid,” and has let that define his identity.

I do wish the movie could have given a little more space to Giulia, who sort of just wanders between the boys doing standard-issue plucky-girl things.

But “Luca” still has some interesting things to say about the journey from child to adult, and has splashes of fun getting there.

Review: "12 Mighty Orphans"


"12 Mighty Orphans" is an old-school sports movie based on a true(y) story that plays its cards straight down the line -- too straight, if you ask me.

Back in 1938 a Texas orphanage formed a football team with just a dozen boys, giving hope to the Depression masses as they turned people's heads, fought their way to the state championship game and changed the way the sport was played forever. 

It's inspiring stuff with rousing action, technically well-made and sure to draw a tear or two from the audience. It shares a lot of the DNA of "Hoosiers," as castoff hicks are dismissed by the titans of the sport, a troubled coach is brought in from outside the community and, after butting heads with some of the local powers-that-be, forges the players into a tribe of warriors.

There's even a drunkard assistant coach a la Dennis Hopper, played here by Martin Sheen, who also serves as narrator.

Director Ty Roberts ("The Iron Orchard") co-wrote the screenplay with Lane Garrison and Kevin Meyer based on the book by sports author Jim Dent. Together they've built a movie that is completely impervious to irony and subtlety. All the Texans say what they mean and mean what they say, and each of the boys falls into a pretty predictable "type," as do the supporting adult characters.

The actors deliver the dialogue with all the heartfelt conviction they can muster, particularly Luke Wilson as head coach Rusty Russell. But it often registers as hammy and stilted, one cornpone bit of soothsaying merging into the next.

This movie plays earnest as all hell, but scores no points of originality.

It takes place at the Fort Worth Masonic Home, which in the 1930s housed about 150 boys and girls ranging from tykes to near-grownups. Some were orphans whose parents were dead, but many were simply abandoned by folks who couldn't afford to feed them in the wake of the Dust Bowl.

Russell, who was nearly blinded in the Great War and later had success with other sports teams, is recruited as a teacher and to build a football program from scratch. His wife, Juanita (Vinessa Shaw), is brought in as English teacher and to do supportive wifey things while staying firmly relegated to the background.

Things follow a pretty standard route. First they have to overcome the lack of a field or equipment, then get the students academically eligible to play, and finally convince the Texas football A-league to admit them as a team. After all that plays out, they're left with just the titular dozen players, none who have football experience or are big enough for traditional toughman play.

Sheen plays Doc, the over-the-hill doctor and good soul who's looked upon as a father figure by most of the orphans, who tends to split lips and strained knees, in between constantly nipping at his breast pocket whiskey.

It's tough to create 12 distinctive characters for each of the kids, so three or four get star billing and the rest sort of fade into a Greek chorus -- including the two Latino students, which seems a very un-woke choice these days. 

There's Snoggs (Jacob Lofland), the scrawny but scrappy kid who really has no business on a gridiron; dashing Fairbanks (Levi Dylan), nicknamed after the movie star, constantly chased by girls off the field and by opposing players on it; and Wheatie (Slade Monroe), the gritty natural leader who becomes quarterback by default.

The spotlight falls mostly on Hardy Brown, played by Jake Austin Walker, who's not that big but hits like a sledgehammer. Brought to the orphanage in the opening act after witnessing his father murdered -- Hardy's overalls still sticky with his blood -- he is the sullen troublemaker who gets into fights with the other orphans, joins the team under protest and, of course, will become the most fervent team-firster by the end.

(A note on historical accuracy: the real Hardy Brown did indeed go on to a 12-year NFL career as a feared tackler, though he was too young to play on the 1938 orphans team and his father's death occurred when he was little. By Hollywood norms, these are fairly standard deviations from recorded reality.) 

A couple of rival newspaper men, including one played by Treat Williams, help get the word out about the Mighty Mites aka orphan team, at one point even enlisting the help of FDR himself to help overcome some cattywampus sports bureaucracy. Robert Duvall turns up in a too-short cameo as a school booster.

There are two main villains. Wayne Knight plays Frank Wynn, who runs the "day-to-day" at the school, meaning he has sign-making class that is basically a child-labor operation, and he carries a big wooden paddle that he swings freely with the boys in the name of discipline, but enjoys a tad too much. Screenwriter/actor Garrison plays Luther, head of the rival Polytechnic school team, a football snob who's constantly rubbing Russell's face in his lack of resources or talent, though the bait is amiably refused.

As screen heavies go, there's the top, there's over the top and then there's over the top of the top, which is where these guys fly. Luther wears a Hitler haircut and sports John Lennon sunglasses, a little twerp braggart sucking on phallic stogies, and seems like a time-traveling alien who picked up bad habits from every era.

Frank has the mustache to go with Luther's hair, though if his mustachios were a bit longer I think he might start twirling them. He's always sweaty and stooped, a foot shorter than the orphans he terrorizes, and we're just waiting around for his uppance to come. 

I don't want to pick on Knight, who's had a lovely career, but he's transparently doing a (more) evil version of his Newman character from "Seinfeld," and even whips out the tittering laugh. This is a situation where you look to director Roberts to step in to protect his actor and his movie against bad choices, and he didn't.

The football action, and there's quite a lot of it, is staged very well with plenty of kinetic mayhem. This is back in the day before face guards or body padding, and the players are basically hurling themselves into a brick wall on each down. I also liked the portrayal of Russell's innovation of what became known as the spread or motion offense, using the whole field and putting more emphasis on speed and skill than just sheer size.

"12 Mighty Orphans" is far from a bad movie. My guess is most sports film fans will cheer for it more than I did. To me, it's the storytelling equivalent of the anachronistic way of playing ball the orphans overcame: line it up, plow straight ahead and hope for glory.

Monday, June 14, 2021

Reeling Backward: "White Lightning" (1973)

"White Lightning" is the film that made Burt Reynolds a breakout star -- the biggest in the land, for a not-inconsiderable amount of time -- and also firmly established his niche of fast cars, bad cops, frisky women and smoldering machismo.

It's not a particularly great movie, landing more toward the trash end of the action/comedy spectrum with lots of poor car chases and ill-staged fistfights. Reynolds boasted it was made so cheaply that they didn't care if it played in any theaters north of the Mason-Dixon line. 

The movie was also a big break for Ned Beatty, who had played with Reynolds in the previous year's "Deliverance." Beatty helped set the stereotype of the fat, corrupt, red-faced Southern lawman that would become ubiquitous in subsequent popular film such as Reynolds' own "Smokey and the Bandit" series. 

Beatty was only in his mid-30s when these two films came out, one of those actors who seemed to be in perpetual middle age.

Diane Ladd also has a small part as a wife who gets harassed and threatened with sexual assault for protecting her man. (Alas, she gets her name misspelled as "Lad" in the credits.

Believe it or not, "White Lightning" was nearly the first feature film directed by Steven Spielberg. He had already scouted locations and cast much of the film when he decided he wanted to do something more personal, and so the somewhat similar "The Sugarland Express" became his debut instead.

The film did well enough that Reynolds was voted a top 10 box office star at the end of 1973, and would go on to star in a disastrous sequel, "Gator," which was also his directorial debut. It's currently sitting at 0 percent on the Tomatometer.

Screenwriter William W. Norton was known for doing cheapie exploitative flicks, and director Joseph Sargent worked mostly in TV with a few similar-strata features like "Jaws: The Revenge." It's a little unclear how funny they actually intended the movie to be. Reynolds' persona as moonshine hauler "Gator" McKlusky is thoroughly sardonic, though the mood is more tuned to tragedy and revenge themes than side-splitters.

The story is that Gator is serving hard time after his third bust for moonshining -- the first came at age 13 -- when his younger brother is murdered by J.C. Connors (Beatty), the powerful sheriff in nearby Bogan County, Ark. He vows revenge and earns an early release by promising the feds to bring down Connors by implicating him in the ubiquitous whiskey trade.

It's a pretty sweet and unlikely deal. He's given a year off his sentence, a few contacts and a car with a hot engine -- a 1971 Ford Custom 500, according to the indispensable Internet Movie Cars Database -- and very little oversight from the federal officers, who only show up once to check up on him during the course of the film. 

I can't imagine that even in 1973 federal authorities would release a prisoner on spec to go hunt up evidence against an elected lawman, rather than testifying to crimes that had already occurred. But hey, otherwise there's no movie.

He's assigned to coerce help from Dude Watson (Matt Clark), a local mechanic and stock car racer who also does a little moonshine running. Through him he's hooked up to Rebel Roy Boone (Bo Hopkins), a glad-hander and one of the top haulers. After a successful tryout as a blockade runner, getting in front of the cops while Roy makes his getaway, Gator is brought fully into the local trade, with Big Bear (R. G. Armstrong) running the big distillery.

Everybody pays Connors protection money to look the other way, and Gator tries fitfully to put together some evidence to prove this. Most of his spare time, though, seems to be spent canoodling on the sly with Lou (Jennifer Billingsley), Roy's girlfriend. 

At one point they skinny dip and get it on right under Roy's nose while he's eating breakfast. It's here we hear the first notes of Reynold's signature high-pitched trilling laugh that would become part of his iconography. Party hyena's caw, part rebel yell, it always seemed genuine no matter how many takes he might have to do.

There's also a theme about college kids invading Bogan County and bringing all their freethinking hippie ideas with them, such as racial equality and ending the war. Though there's hardly any black people in the movie, other than on one of Gator and Roy's whiskey dropoffs to the colored part of town.

I have to say the car stunts aren't particularly expert. Gator is supposed to be a first-class driver, but he slaloms and fishtails all over the road like a drunken teenager. Part of it's that big brown beast of a car he's driving -- actually the same make and model as most of the police cars -- but you'd see better wheel work in any episode of "The Dukes of Hazzard" TV show, which surely seems to have inherited much of its DNA from "White Lightning." 

Roy's car, a '71 Mercury Monterey, even has his name painted in script over the door and a Confederate flag just like the General Lee, though as a hood stripe than across the roof.

Beyond the quality of the driving, the chase scenes just aren't very exciting, quickly becoming repetitive as Gator skids around various dirt and gravel roads. The fistfights aren't much better, as Gator gets into it with Roy, Big Bear and a few others. There's also a few shootouts featuring that DayGlo orange fake blood that was common in 1970s movies.

At one point Roy gets shot up and beat up, and wakes up in a remote home for pregnant girls with a huge bandage covering his eye and most of his face. We think he's suffered some horrible wound that will impair his driving. But then he pulls off the bandage and there's just a mild scratch down his cheek.

Color me disappointed in "White Lightning." The movie doesn't give Burt Reynolds much to do other than glower, flirt and drive. This is one of those films that's more memorable for using actors and ideas that others would emulate in more interesting ways.

Wednesday, June 9, 2021

Review: "Queen Bees"

“Queen Bees” is sort of a “Mean Girls” for the golden years set -- nice older woman moves into a retirement home ruled by a group of imperious gals, clashes with and then joins them, helps them chill out a bit and also finds a nicely creased fellah to get all moony with.

It’s pretty predictable stuff, and you can practically map out the entire plot beforehand with sure-handed accuracy. But it’s also genuinely warmhearted, has some solid funny moments and features an admirable cast of older performers.

If movies were a meal, this is meatloaf with mashed potatoes and buttered corn: familiar comfort food. It won’t wow anyone with originality, but if you like that sort of thing you’re sure to come away satisfied.

This movie, directed by Michael Lembeck from a screenplay by Donald Martin, is notable if for no other reason that it isn’t often you see an 88-year-old actress as the lead in a mainstream film. That would be the inimitable Ellen Burstyn, who plays Helen, a fairly recent widow who clings to her independence.

Her daughter, Laura (Elizabeth Mitchell), is pushing her to sell her home and move into the nearby Pine Grove community. Her loving grandson, Peter (Matthew Barnes), acts as the supportive middleman and peacemaker between them.

But when Helen, who has a tendency to lock herself out of her house, accidentally burns down her kitchen, she agrees to move into Pine Grove for a month while repairs are done.

She soon runs afoul of the titular group that has all the other seniors running -- OK, ambling -- away in fear. They rule the central table in the dining room, decide who is or isn’t in the bridge club, and do early morning exercises in the courtyard with military precision, complete with whistles to wake everyone up.

Jane Curtin plays Janet, the iron-fisted leader of the group who takes a special dislike to Helen. But when one of their bridge foursome dies, Sally (Loretta Divine) recruits her to be her partner. It seems that she and the other queen bee, Margot (Ann-Margret), have been bucking under Janet’s stern yoke, and see Helen as a means to shake things up.

I enjoyed the portrayal of elderly folks in a rather closed community, and the comparisons to high school society are apt. Because the women outnumber the men, romance tends to be a by-committee type of thing. For example, Margot is currently sharing the amorous affections of one randy stud played by Christopher Lloyd (not me, the talented one) with a few other women. Lloyd is clearly having fun in a humorous role, complete with a squirrel’s nest toupee, though he gets one terrific, brief dramatic scene.

The other piece of the puzzle is James Caan as Dan, who moves in shortly after Helen and quickly commences with pitching woo at her, inviting her to every event going on at the retirement home. Helen resists, but soon finds those tender feelings welling up inside just when she thought they were long gone.

Caan’s a little worse for wear these days, walking gingerly with a noticeable stoop. But his scenes with Burstyn still have plenty of magic, and when they gaze into each other’s wet eyes with a feeling of longing and joy… well, I defy you not to get a little misty yourself.

“Queen Bees” is a story about fitting in, taking chances and the need to love and feel loved -- all of which are vital at any age. 

Tuesday, June 8, 2021

Review: "Awake"

I checked, and the idea for "Awake" originated in 2019, well before the coronavirus outbreak. I wanted to be sure, since it seems like a creepily accurate encapsulation of our anxiety-ridden, sleep-deprived times.

Gina Rodriguez stars in this science fiction story that registers closer to cautionary tale than technological fantasy. A mysterious global event results in the shutdown of all our fancy technology, which is a pain but fixable. But another, more serious side effect soon rears its head: nobody can sleep. 

The scientists are baffled. People still get tired, and their cognitive abilities rapidly decline. But no matter how exhausted and frustrated they get, they cannot sleep. And this is not just an annoyance: the human brain needs downtime, and without it will swell and cause erratic behavior and eventually... kill the person.

So this is actually an extinction event, with a few people racing against time to find a cure.

Rodriguez plays Jill, a former soldier who was drummed out of the service for drug addiction, though she still serves in the reserves and works security in a quasi-military laboratory. A single mom with two kids -- adorable moppet Matilda (Ariana Greenblatt) and reliably disengaged teen Noah (Lucius Hoyos) -- Jill snatches expired pills from the medical waste bins to sell to drug dealers and pad her meager income.

Director Mark Raso, who cowrote the screenplay with his brother, Joseph, based on a story by Gregory Poirier, puts us immediately into the action a few minutes into the movie, and uses the events to build characterization rather than dilly-dally with a lot of endless, needless exposition, unlike some other Netflix creatives.

(Yeah, I'm lookin' at you, "Shadow and Bone.")

Jill's car suddenly dies along with everyone else's, an accident pitching them into a lake from which they barely escape. Matilda actually drowns, but is luckily revived by a sheriff's deputy involved in the fracas.

People soon do all the thing panicked people do: buy out groceries, raid pharmacies for sleeping pills that do not work, get into arguments that turn into scraps that turn into deadly melees. Jill tries to keep it together, even going into work, but learns that the Army doctor with a dark past (Jennifer Jason Leigh) who helped her get her job is leaving with a special unit investigating something miraculous: a woman who can sleep.

Turns out Matilda can, too, which immediately makes her a unicorn in a world suddenly very suspicious of anything or anyone different. Jill tries to hide Matilda's status, but it is discovered when her religious mother-in-law (Frances Fisher) takes the girl to her church to be prayed over. 

This results in a truly harrowing and haunting sequence where the well-meaning preacher (Barry Pepper) tries to lead his flock to peace and faith rather than accusations and conflict. Look around at the real world right now -- how do you think that works out?

There are moments of hope, such as getting a bitchin' 1970s Dodge sedan running -- older cars, with their lack of digital add-ons, are less vulnerable -- and running into a prison convict (Shamier Anderson) who joins their crew, gifting himself the name of their ride. He should be an enemy to be fought, but turns out to be the most amiable, reliable person they'll meet. 

Things go on from there. At 96 minutes, "Awake" is fast-paced and energetic, but also finds moments to quietly ratchet up the suspense and sense of foreboding. Jill shows her mettle as a warrior mom determined to protect her children from all comers, even though everyone (and herself) find they can no longer think straight. 

It's basically a twist on the familiar zombie apocalypse, but instead of the dead eating the living, we let our failings and fears consume us from within. Again, sound familiar??

"Awake" is a tidy little thriller that scares us with the immediate perils Jill and her family will face, and on a deeper level with the implications of their catastrophe, which seems like a descending staircase with no turning. 

Remember, it's always darkest just before it becomes pitch black.

Wednesday, June 2, 2021

Review: "Undine"


Is "Undine" a story of supernatural romance, or just the tale of a mentally unbalanced woman who seems to love and hate with equal devotion?

I'm not sure, and I'm not sure we're supposed to know. 

This German romance/tragedy follows Undine, played by Paula Beer, who is named after a mythical water nymph who falls in love with a mortal man but is doomed to die when he is unfaithful to her. In this telling from writer/director Christian Petzold, though, she is more of a vengeful spirit than haunted victim.

As we first meet her, Undine is being dumped by her boyfriend, Johannes (Jacob Matschenz). They are having coffee at the little restaurant next to the Berlin museum where she works as a historian (though I'd call her job more of a high-end tour guide, giving talks to foreign visitors).

Johannes has a very concerned look on this face that also seems very practiced. He has really good hair and the air of someone who doesn't have to worry about money and didn't labor to reach that state. He has found someone (Julia Franz Richter) that he would prefer to be with, so even though he has told Undine he will love her forever, to him it's a simple matter to make the switch, enduring no cost other than the price of a coffee.

Undine is having none of it, however. She coldly instructs Johannes that she will kill him if he leaves her. She orders him to wait at the shop while she gives her talk to tourists, and if he is not there when she returns, his death is assured. He lingers for a bit, but then off he trots.

Obviously at this point the audience is not sure how to feel about Undine. Is she suffering from mental illness? As played by Beer, this would not seem to be the case. She seems always in control of her emotions and calculating about getting what she wants. So is there a chilling darkness inside her, pushing to get out?

These concerns are laid aside for a time as she meets Christoph, a commercial diver who caught her tour and offers to buy her a coffee. He is the opposite of Johannes, seemingly introspective and even shy. Played by Franz Rogowski, Christoph speaks in a soft, apologetic tone touched by a slight speech impediment from a cleft lip, reminding us very much of a young Joaquin Phoenix.

They have a strange meeting accident involving an aquarium from which Undine hears a voice, part warning and part reassurance. So it seems the water spirits are blessing this new union. 

Later he takes her on one of his underwater trips where he has written her name under a bridge, and they encounter a legendary mammoth catfish in a way that's both traumatic and magical. And he gives her a miniature statue from the aquarium of an older-school version of his diving equipment with a big bell helmet. This will become their totem.

Things go on from there. Undine appears to truly fall in love with Christoph, as opposed to her feelings for Johannes (who we'll see again), which felt more like a greedy form of possession than ardor. Undine needs to feel needed, and when she is she is a paragon of compassion, and when she is not her malevolence can be frightening.

I liked a lot of things about this movie but not the sum total. Beer has terrific onscreen presence and commands our attention. Even at 89 minutes long, it's very languid in its pacing and wants to linger over things that detract from the romantic impulses that are at its center. For example, Petzold holds on Undine's speeches about the history of Berlin, which she herself says are boring, and she's right. 

I think he's trying to make some sort of point about the reunification of Germany, the transition from socialism to capitalism, and the often transitory nature of recalling that which has passed. If so, maybe you have to be German to get it -- to these American ears, it's dead screen time.

One interesting thing about European versus American films is you don't see a lot of domestic movies in which the woman is the romantic primary actor rather than the object of desire. Even our romcom female protagonists tend to be frazzled and flighty and waiting for some stud to come along and calm her down.

Undine may be an ancient water spirit and may or may not be murderously evil, but at least she's setting things into motion rather than waiting for love to happen to her.



Review: "Spirit Untamed"


“Spirit Untamed” is an adventurous movie about girls and horses -- though if you don’t tell boys that, they will probably enjoy it just fine.

This DreamWorks Animation movie is a sorta-spinoff of the 2002 movie “Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron” and the Netflix series “Spirit Riding Free.” The protagonist here is Lucky Prescott, a 10-year-old Latina girl whose mother died in a tragic horse stunt riding accident when she was a baby. She’s a typical plucky youngster with a sense of adventure and a taste for stubbornness.

Voiced by Isabela Merced, she’s been raised in the city by her loving but strict aunt Cora (Julianne Moore) and is now going to spend the summer with the father she barely knows. This brings her to Miradero, a frontier town somewhere near the Mexican border filled with apple orchards, beatific canyons and galloping pastures.

Horse country, in other words.

It’s a little unclear to me if Spirit, the horse, is the same one from the other movie and TV show, though he appears similar as a honey-colored Mustang stallion with a dark brown mane and big, penetrating (and very anthropomorphized) eyes. Maybe, as the name implies, he’s more a representation of the freedom and independence that animates horses like Spirit and girls like Lucky.

Directed by Elaine Bogan (with Ennio Torresan Jr. as co-director) from a script from Aury Wallington, Katherine Nolfi and Kristin Hahn, “Spirit Untamed” employs deceptively simplistic-looking animation in which humans and horses aren’t drawn with a lot of detail, but the background vistas are lush and vibrant. It’s a style Japanese anime first pioneered.

In Meradero Lucky meets a variety of figures who will factor into her story. Her dad (Jake Gyllenhaal), broken after the loss of his wife and unsure how to connect with the daughter he sent away. Pru (Marsai Martin), a fearless 13-year-old trick rider and daughter of the local stable owner, Al (Andre Braugher). Abigail (Mckenna Grace), a guitar-pickin’ girl who’s supportive but can be annoying, and whose brother (Lucian Perez) is a little operator hunting pennies; and Walton Goggins gives voice to Hendricks, leader of a gang of horse wranglers.

You can probably guess where this is all going to go, and it does: Lucky rebels against her father and aunt, running off with Spirit every chance she gets; she’ll bond with Pru and Abigail, who share in her adventures; the wranglers will capture Spirit and his herd and try to break them; Lucky et al will rescue the horses and much daredevil hi jinks will ensue.

The best part is where Lucky works to win Spirit’s trust, rolling out apples until he’ll take one by hand, wanting to jump onto his back right away but willing herself to patience until he’s ready. It’s a simple yet effective metaphor for life, especially her relationship with her father.

It’s not a bad movie, but not terribly ambitious. The action scenes are well-staged and lively, the talkie parts drag on longer than they need to. There isn’t a lot of nuance or complexity to the characters, each representing a type whose duty is to perform the aspects that define them.

Animated features have been on a downturn the last few years in my opinion, and “Spirit Untamed” is a competent if uninspiring example that does nothing to change that view.