Film Reviews For The Cine-Literate

Current Reviews

Spirit Untamed

Ever since the Disney company began producing a series of animated films featuring strong female characters with “Beauty and the Beast” (1991), Hollywood animation companies have focused on films with such figures as protagonists “”Pocahontas.” “Mulan,” “The Princess and the Frog,” “Frozen,” “Moana” etc.). Its principal competitor is this line of storytelling has been the studio Dreamworks, whose most recent entry into this genre is “Spirit Untamed,” the story of a feisty girl and her feisty mount, Spirit, an unbridled mustang with a chocolate forelock.

Poster featuring the horse Spirit and his rider Lucky. From Dreamworks Animation

Lucky Prescott (voiced by Isabel Merced) has lost her mother, a famous horse-riding performer) and has been living with her Aunt Cora (Juliane Moore) out east, when her risk-taking become extreme and her aunt decides to reunite her with her father Jim (Jake Gyllenhaal) in the dusty Western town of Miradero.

Lucky is unimpressed with the sleepy little town but has a change of heart when she meets Spirit, a wild horse, Spirit, who leads a pack of mustangs. She also befriends two teenage riders, Abigail Stone and Pru Granger (Marsai Martin). Pru’s father, stalwart stable owner Al Granger (Andre Braugher), is Jim’s best friend.

A heartless horse wrangler (Walton Goggins) and his henchmen connive to capture Spirit and his herd and auction them off to a life of hard labor, Lucky enlists her friends to embark on a pursuit to rescue the horse who has given her a new sense of freedom and to help her discover a connection to her mother’s legacy. The outcome is pleasantly predictable.

Fully in the spirit of its predecessors, “Spirit Untamed” sports standard family film tropes: intrepid animal and kid triumph over bad guys, lead kid is inspired by a vivacious posse, cranky sidekick (Aunt Cora) guides kid, cherished parent is honored, occasional (but forgettable) songs are sprinkled onto the soundtrack, story is told against a handsome setting, etc.

The CGI animation is standard Dreamworks: characters with tight stylized bodies and large heads and even larger eyes, horses in massive, sturdy forms and driving, fluid movements, mixing both menace and compliance. The movie’s strongest feature is its treatment of a mythical American West, full of butterscotch hills, snow-crusted peaks, and weathered ochre plains.

These landscape elements are shown most effectively in a spectacular chase sequence right in the middle of the picture where Lucky bonds with her friends. Trying to tame the horse, she inadvertently spurs Spirit to race through the rugged, forbidding scenery. Still new to her mount, Lucky bravely hangs on to Spirit, as the burly mustang hurtles though rocky passes and dangerous turns, aided by Abigail and Pru, and proving she is as much of horsewoman as her mom. This is animation amped up and exciting, the young woman taking on a contemporary “Perils of Pauline” and passing with flying colors.

(The film runs 87 mins, is rated “PG” and is now in cinemas.)

(June 2021)

American Traitor: The Trial of Axis Sally

Loosely based on a true story of post-WWII, “American Traitor: The Trial of Axis Sally,” follows the wartime life of an American woman, Mildred Gillars (Meadow Williams), dubbed “Axis Sally” for broadcasting Nazi propaganda to American troops during World War II, her story exposes the grim nature of the Third Reich's propaganda machine, her eventual capture in Berlin at the war’s end, and her subsequent trial for treason--the core of the script--against the United States.

Meadow Williams as “Axis Sally” in the new film “American Traitor.” Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment.

On her radio shows, Axis Sally would typically alternate swing music and propaganda messages aimed at American troops. These messages would advocate surrender, stoke fears that soldiers' wives and girlfriends were cheating on them and note that the Axis powers knew their locations. US soldiers listened to Gillars' broadcasts for the entertaining music even as they were skeptical about her attempts at blatant propaganda.

While the film uses sequences showing Gillars’ studio work, it intercuts these with her trial in 1948-49 outside Washington, DC, where she is represented by cynical lawyer James Laughlin (Al Pacino). The film does not show DC locations, however, because it was shot in Puerto Rico. Her trial, on eight counts of treason, results in one conviction, based on one specific broadcast.

Directed by Michael Polish and co-written by him and two others, this is an intriguing historical footnote which somehow never fully gels on screen. There is an unfortunate dankness to the cinematography, especially the gray-brown tones of the jail and the courtroom—although this may actually have been the intent of Polish.

Al Pacino, long in the tooth now (at 81), lacks coherence as the defense attorney and rings changes on his growling New York cadences. He becomes a senior version of his over-the-top defense attorney in “And Justice for All” (1979). Meadow Williams personifies—in wardrobe, makeup, and lipstick—a pin-up girl of the period, but her performance is tentative and stiff, and her face looks like a mask. Other players are adequate, such as Swen Temmel as Billy Owen, Laughlin’s naïve assistant (who appears to be falling for Mildred), and Thomas Kretschmann as a swinish Josef Goebbels, but a good many are stilted.

“American Traitor” seems like something of a vanity project for Williams, who also executive-produced. It might have turned out better if she had been able to distance herself more from it.

(This film is rated “R,” runs 107 minutes, and opened on streaming sites on May 28).

(May 2021)

The Perfect Candidate

The world is changing—specifically in Saudi Arabia—in the new film “The Perfect Candidate,” the illuminating story of a partially liberated young woman making her way in the world. A modest film, but one full of resonances in the time of the #MeToo movement

Mila Alzahrani (as Maryam) with a chastened patient in "The Perfect Candidate." Photo courtesy of Music Box Films.

In 2012, the director-writer Haifaa Al Mansour released the well-received “Wadjda,” about a feisty ten-year old Saudi girl who dreams of owning a bike, a desire seen as unladylike. It was the first feature film made by a woman in the Kingdom, but even then the filmmaker, who could not be seen mixing in public with a male crew, had to hide in her production van to direct the shooting! With her new effort, the “creeping liberalism” in Saudi Arabia has filtered into Saudi life.

For example, the new ability of Saudi women to drive appears right up front when we see the film’s protagonist, Maryam (played by the energetic Mila Al Zahrani), driving her own car through rutted roads to her job in a small clinic in a rural town. She’s a young but already mature ER doctor whom we see early confronting an aging curmudgeon, who steadfastly refuses to be treated—much less touched—by a female.

She receives an invitation to attend a medical conference in Dubai, but, in attempting to board her flight, she is refused at the gate because she lacks a document from her “guardian” (a responsible male) permitting her to leave the country. She scurries to acquire such a document, but, after an official mix-up, ends up signing a form making her a candidate to run for her municipal council, which had refused her entreaties to pave the muddy road leading to her clinic. Forced into this new role, Maryam tackles it with determination, eager to fight for her personal cause of the new road. Luckily, she has the fervent support of her two bright younger sisters, Sara (Nora Al Awadh) and Selma (Dhay Al Hilali), the latter of whom has semi-pro video skills. She uses those skills at one point to have Maryam appear in a live video feed to an audience of Saudi men.

Maryam’s father, Abdulaziz (played by Khalid Abduraheem) is a widower, a bandleader, and a skilled player of the oud (a lute-like stringed instrument), working against the odds to get prominent outlets for his musical group (his story underscores Al Mansour’s intention to highlight Saudi culture in her work). A decent and laconic man, he is sympathetic to his outspoken daughters, in part because they reflect the activism and spunk of his departed wife, also a musician. Al Mansour works out the rest of the film in shifting, parallel sequences: Maryam’s fluctuating campaign fortunes contrasted with Abdulaziz’s search for a major gig.

Freed from her earlier restrictions of just years before, Al Mansour (now living in California) was thrilled to be working in a much more open environment. (“It was really good to be out of the van,” she said.) She has more money, a larger crew, and an ability to move about freely within her locations and set-ups. As she herself has noted in an interview:

“The changes are extraordinary for local filmmakers. It was incredibly difficult to make a film in 2011, and people were still very hesitant to embrace any public form of artistic expression. Film especially was seen as taboo, and the idea of opening theaters had become a red line that most of us thought would never be crossed. Of course, now everything has changed, and we have cinemas going up all across the Kingdom. But the larger issue of a lack of infrastructure in the film industry remains. We have a lot of work to do in building up the tools and resources necessary to make quality films... But things are happening fast, and I think we will see a lot more Saudi films in the coming years.”

Still, with “The Perfect Candidate”—as with “Wadjda”—Al Mansour has told a touching and heartening story of the newly-emerging Saudi woman.

(The film is unrated and runs 101 minutes.)

(May 2021)

Four Good Days

Addiction is a long-time Hollywood theme for built-in drama: an agonizing (sometimes excruciating) trial by the addicted character desperate for a high then going through withdrawal witnessed by family or friend as the audience, wrenched by the depiction, is in suspense whether the character will triumph or relapse. Such a set-up can be particularly touching when the action plays out between parent and child. One prominent recent example is the 2018 Julia Roberts-Lucas Hedges film, “Ben Is Back” which showed the extremes of parent paranoia and headstrong child. Now comes “Four Good Days,” a parallel story where a mother Deb (Glenn Close) must deal with her long-time junkie daughter Molly (Mila Kunis).

From left, Glenn Close (Deb) and Mila Kunis (Molly) star in "Four Good Days." Photo from Vertical Entertainment.

The struggle between the two, which is based on an article by Eli Saskow of The Washington Post, is fraught with mistrust and wariness and is hard to watch at times, but redeemed by the performances of the two leads who convincingly take you down the rabbit-hole of drug craving,

Deb is a masseuse in a casino hotel, married to her bemused second husband Chris (Stephen Root). She has spent 10 years trying to affect her 30-something daughter’s addiction to heroin. Nothing she has done has worked. The film opens with Molly, showing up unexpectedly back home, having run out of options where to go. Deb, who barely recognizes her, reluctantly lets her stay but urges her to get into a four-day program, after which, if she stays clean, she can qualify for a treatment which could totally inhibit her addiction. Those fraught days make up the core of the picture, with Deb having to watch and critique Molly’s every move.

Molly spends her time at home shivering for a fix, yet she also agrees to address the high-school class of an old friend and bares her addicted soul. She also insists on visiting a younger friend and ends up driven by Deb to a loathsome crack-house. She is clearly torn and aches to stay clean before attending a clinic for her anti-drug shot—and possible relief. Deb, hoping against hope, frets and yearns for “four good days.”

Mila Kunis, typically cast in sexy, slightly provocative roles, appropriately appears as a mess in this film, her big eyes enlarged by dark circles, her teeth gone, her frame wraith-like, her blond hair stringy (kudos to the makeup team). And her playing has a nice mix of languorous boredom and hair-trigger nervousness. Her scene before the high school class is an aching, raw confession of her addiction sins and a wrenching highpoint of the film.

Close’s Deb is meant to be sympathetic, yet she keeps you at a distance with her constant worry and sour memories, yet she achieves the portrait of a woman who has a spine and can love even through constant disappointment. You want her to succeed with her daughter but are concerned she will only witness yet another dead end.

“Four Good Days” was directed by Rodrigo Garcia, a Colombian-born filmmaker with a lengthy career in American television and movies. He is known for working with strong women actors, and he has long had an association with Glenn Close, with whom he first worked with in 2000. Their most prominent collaboration was “Albert Nobbs” (2011), for which Close received an Oscar nomination. This film may be their best collaboration since.

(The film runs 100 minutes and is rated “R” for subject matter and language; it opened at area theaters on April 30).

(April 2021)